From Visegrad With Love
Do Not Fear Thy Enemy
One of Bungie’s design goals with the revamped Covenant was to make them frightening and alien again, and they have succeeded in the latter. This was the motivation for having all enemy types speak their native tongues rather than English, and it informs much of the visual design. But they are not frightening opponents. Not in the way gold sword Elites were in Halo 1 and 2, or Brute Chieftains in Halo 3 and ODST. Despite Noble Six’s reduced agility, we are a more capable soldier than in previous Halo titles in nearly all situations.
Despite (or perhaps, because of) our reduced base traits, Bungie equipped Noble Team with the most effective weaponry in the series and then added Armor Abilities to the mix, making us the most potent soldier the series has seen to date. Thanks to the 3x zoom and pinpoint accuracy of the DMR, we can dismantle entire encounters without taking anything but sniper fire in return. And when powerful enemies do come close, we can sprint or fly away to safety.
This is where the impact of the sprint and jetpack abilities are really felt. In previous Halo games, we often faced opponents who could move as fast or faster than ourselves, which forced us to find ways to counter or escape them. In Halo 3 and ODST, a Brute Chieftain wielding a Gravity Hammer was terrifying, in large part because for the first time we had to deal with a powerful foe that was much faster than we were. Once they began their loping gait toward us, we had to quickly decide whether to try and take them down in time, or to flee and hope to get obstacles between us.
Many an encounter ended with a game of Spartan baseball, where we were the ball. The past two Halo games were littered with interesting encounters, in which the Chieftains were the key threat and took considerable improvisation and effort to thwart. They were intense, strategic battles against a superior foe.
In ODST, thanks to the slower movement speed of the Rookie, not only were Chieftains faster than us, but so were Hunters. The opening flashback mission, Tayari Plaza, climaxed with a truly intense Hunter encounter, where a pair of Hunters would lock step in hot pursuit, chasing us in, through and around buildings as we scrambled for shelter and flung everything we could find at them.
These kind of frenzied flights do not take place in Reach, because we can either dismantle the Chieftains, Elites and Hunters before they get near us, or simply outrun them to safety. The Covenant cannot counter our enhanced horizontal or vertical mobility gained from Sprint and Jetpack; they are often trump cards. Without a superior enemy, much of the tension drains away from the combat. For all the strengths of the combat feedback loop, there are no encounters where the enemy is capable of overrunning and flushing us out of our positions, a cornerstone of many Halo encounter designs in previous entries.
There is a stark contrast in the approaches to combat capabilities in the last two Halo titles. ODST scaled back our abilities in doing away with the Battle Rifle, dual wielding and equipment, while slowing player movement and reducing jump height. On balance, we got a precise but weak Magnum and a scoped SMG for slightly longer-range automatic fire. The result was a game focused on a more intimate and dangerous style of combat against often superior enemies, and the resulting battles urged thoughtfulness in the way we worked through them.
Reach moves in the opposite direction, giving us a powerful, long-range rifle and the ability to flee to safety at will. A superior foe is scary, which forces us to employ to a wide array of tactics to dismantle or avoid. An inferior one can only be made fun to shoot, which is what Reach accomplishes.
Notably Artificial Intelligence
While the Covenant is not frightening, our Marine and Noble Team companions often are due to surprisingly poor NPC AI in Reach. A big step back from the previous entries in the series, the friendly AI exhibits erratic behavior throughout the campaign, where a Marine in a vehicle can be as dangerous and unpredictable as any enemy.
Much more problematic are the members of Noble Team, who are invulnerable and cannot be disposed of easily. They are instructed to stay close to Noble Six, often teleporting up to our location if we leave them behind. ONI, an otherwise strong mission, has a metagame running through much of it. That metagame is to keep Kat out of the driver’s seat of the Warthogs at all costs.
As a gunner, Kat (and the friendly AI in general) is quite short-sighted, only engaging enemies at close range. Since the Covenant will fire from a greater distance, the disparity can lead to death or near-death as we try to coax our gunners to shoot at an enemy in plain sight.
When not on the Gauss Hog, she and the Marines fire the regular Warthog chain gun in short, controlled bursts, as if they’re using an Assault Rifle in Halo 1 rather than a large mounted turret. This can also lead to our demise as enemy Ghosts and Revenants show no such restraint. Because of this, the Warthogs on ONI (and Tip of the Spear) are often best used as portable stationary turrets, moving them from encounter to encounter on our lonesome before hopping in the gunner seat. The problem is, Kat is enthusiastic about driving, and she’ll hop into the driver seat even if it means flinging us into a withering barrage of death.
A viable strategy for dealing with Kat and the Marines on ONI has multiple tiers: 1) Abandon Kat whenever a Warthog is deposited; 2) Destroy all spare Warthogs so she and the other Marines can’t use them to exact revenge; 3) If she catches up on foot, pick her up, transport her to a far region of the map and leave her there; 4) If she catches up, repeat step 3. It’s unfortunate that schemes to work around, rather than with, the AI often yield the most effective results.
The Marines in Reach also have the odd tendency to become disconnected from the action at times. Stranger still, the enemy AI largely ignores them when they are in that state, as if the Marines were not fully incorporated into the encounter. Below is an illustration of one such encounter near the end of Exodus. After arriving as reinforcements, they sort of float through the battle as disinterested observers.
This can be hard to spot during actual gameplay because our attention is focused on combat, but in a large portion of the encounters in Reach, the friendly and enemy AI are not actually fighting each other, but performing independent pantomimes. This is a stark contrast with the rest of the series, where, to varying degrees, all sorts of interesting emergent battles came from the interactions of friendly and hostile AI characters.
The problems with NPC AI are more pronounced in Reach because we spend a large proportion of the Campaign fighting alongside them. The opportunity to be in a squad of Spartans is something that eluded the rest of the Halo series, and it’s one of Reach’s most unique elements; it’s a great opportunity to see just how deadly Spartans can be in concert. Unfortunately, as with Kat’s problems with vehicles on ONI, AI issues plague Noble Team, and while it’s one thing when anonymous Marines are being problematic, it’s something else entirely when it afflicts the main characters in the game.
From a balance standpoint, if the rest of the team is too effective in combat, then encounters would just play themselves out with minimal input from us. A delicate illusion must be struck, one where we have an effective team that is nonetheless leaving much of the combat in our hands; they need to support but not dominate. There are times in battle when the illusion holds, the concert of return fire, combat dialog and our focus on the enemy creating the feeling of fighting alongside an elite combat unit. Even more often, the illusion is broken as we watch Noble Team soak up massive damage without any effort to avoid it, while spouting nonsensical one-liners, token and ineffective return fire and exhibiting questionable combat tactics (such as Emile’s use of his Shotgun, which has a much shorter effective range than he seems to think it does). As such, the rest of Noble Team is often best used as distractions, enabling flanking tactics rather than serving as a force to be reckoned with. The Noble Team we see in cinematics bears little resemblance to the team we fight alongside.
This schism affects not just the gameplay, but the story. Kat is an interesting character, her intellect as sharp as her wit, as tough as she is sardonic. But in-game, she is a different character entirely, and the frustrations she causes on ONI and other missions pile up. After playing a mission, the character we remember is the one we fought alongside, not the one during the opening cinematic. And Kat is very hard to like when in battle.
In this way, the shortcomings in the combat AI have undercut the effectiveness with which Reach’s story is told. No amount of cinematics, however well-produced (and Reach’s are largely excellent), can cause us to mourn the demise of characters whom the rest of the game has caused us to despise. Beyond the impact on gameplay, the AI creates a major shortcoming in Reach’s storytelling.
Unlike the aftermath of the Covenant invasions in ODST, Halo 2 and Halo 3, Bungie has put considerable effort into incorporating the civilian cost of the war on display in Reach. From a narrative standpoint, this is critical as the fall of Reach needs to carry an emotional cost we can relate to; the desolate, abandoned urban settings of the previous entries in the series left the war feeling isolated and without impact. An entire mission, Exodus, is focused on this side of Reach’s fall, and it is home to a mix of effective and frustrating incorporation of civilians.
Our first encounter with civilians shows what the Covenant leaves in its wake: death. We find the corpses of the unarmed along the wayside, a delicate balance between horror and taste on display (no slain children, though hints of them via a teddy bear). The rail ride in the Falcon is one of the best cinematic moments in the game, as we get our first full view of how overwhelming the Covenant invasion is, the crushing odds the UNSC faces and the overall sense of hopelessness that is settling over the conflict. Where Bungie takes a misstep is in how the living citizens of Reach are incorporated.
The primary way the rules of engagement have been enforced in the series has been to turn our allies against us should we kill too many of them. This kept the enforcement of the rules within the context of the game world. Reach’s unarmed civilians are a new addition to Halo, and they’re handled differently: Kill one, even accidentally, and Noble Six is instantly killed in return, as if by the Guardians. This is the worst possible way to handle the integration of civilians into the game. Killing one of Reach’s citizens results in Bungie shouting, “Don’t do that,” and punishing us, rather than producing a logical and expected outcome. Other options, such as preventing us from firing on them at all (common among other shooters) or setting the ample Marines upon us should we slay too many are less intrusive methods, and in the case of the latter, makes allowance for accidents. When combined with the poor NPC AI, Reach’s approach is an especially unfortunate decision. Many an attempted Flawless Cowboy run on Exodus has prematurely ended thanks to a civilian running toward thrown grenades.
It’s disheartening that in this fifth Halo game from Bungie, the issue of how to handle NPCs has been dealt with so poorly.