Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Halo Reach

Like many a millennial, my memories of Halo revolve around several TVs linked together in a neighbor's garage or basement.

(Nowadays, the idea of physically linking several consoles together with a cable, finding multiple TVs, and coordinating schedules with 4-8 friends feels like an impossibility. The days of youth.)

Outside of that context, the Halo series has never resonated with me. Trying to play a first person shooter with a controller makes me feel like I'm working with two left-hands. I know what I want to do, years of PC gaming inform me on what I should do, I just don't have the motor skills to pull it off.

But I always felt like I missed out a little bit. Both my high school and college friends played Halo religiously in those times, and I didn't even know what the story line was. I eventually played through the Halo 1 remaster, but it was very much a product of its time.

(SPOILER ALERT FOR HALO 1: It's a campaign of maybe 2-3 hours that gets artificially padded by making you go through it again in reverse.)

Multiplayer was probably fine, but my rusty controller skills meant I needed to invest far more time into learning the basics than I wanted. I didn't own an original Xbox at the time to play my copy of Halo 2 anymore, so I just gave up.

But, Microsoft is now wooing the PC crowd again. Microsoft has always struggled to turn its computer gaming dominance into an actual tangible income stream. It's previous attempts mostly seem to center around starting their own Steam competitors: originally with the horrid Games for Windows and then again with the 'Microsoft Store'. Having realized they need to add actual value for people to give them money, they've introduced the Xbox Game Pass service. And part of pushing the Pass (as well as general holiday sales), they've begun releasing the previously console-only Master Chief collection.

Instead of releasing the whole thing of course, they've decided to drip feed the content to us computer plebs, straight away eroding some of my enthusiasm for the Game Pass idea. Either way, Microsoft made the savvy choice to start us off with Halo Reach and not Halo 1. Reach seemed to do well enough critically and it's not the relic that Halo 1 is. Reach is also a prequel to the Halo series so they kinda get away with it from a story perspective.

So how does it play? Fairly well. It certainly isn't a hack job where console controls were swapped out for mouse and keyboard and then called a day. The game is maybe a bit on the easy side, and maybe that's a result of a console game being ported over to a more accurate control scheme, but it seems perfectly playable. I should note that Legendary difficulty feels a bit odd here. The AI is robust enough to make things interesting. But the level of 'bullet sponge' here really leaves the design out to dry.

I think this is where the transfer from console to computer shooter really shows its roots. Being a cover-based shooter is inherently more interesting on a controller than a keyboard. With a keyboard skill can be differentiated by ducking and weaving through your opponent's bullets while you try to hit them with yours. You certainly use bits of the environment, but few games reward overly defensive turtling behavior. The higher level of control favors fast, accurate shooting, aggressive and creative approaches, and just overall higher-speed and dynamic gameplay. You're constantly making decisions and adjustments every second. On an inherently less accurate controller, you can't do this as well. Instead, cover-based shooting makes more sense. The gameplay is more methodical and is more reliant on positioning and defense. Setting up a kill takes more effort, and relies more on the environment, to compensate for the lack of control.

Halo Reach is clearly designed for a slower, more methodical game play style. Against harder enemies you have to slowly navigate the terrain to close the gap and get in your burst of offense. Then, most enemies have some way of punishing you for staying out of cover too long. Then you retreat and begin the process again. But with mouse and keyboard the pacing is just a bit off. Cover is only important on a handful of enemies, but mostly I can just constantly barrage their weakpoints with accurate fire, simply move out of the way of their own offense like a matador with a cape, and then continue firing. That cycle of approach-attack-defend-retreat is no longer as strong and the game is weaker because of it. The gameplay loops instead becomes about keeping as much 'uptime' on your shooting as possible. Eliminating a threat quickly and simplifying an encounter is more valuable than avoiding a threat's offense. Much of what makes the different encounters in the game unique and interesting lose their charm when you can shortcut the cycle with superior aiming and movement. 

It's still quite a fun game. And since I haven't quite finished it yet. Perhaps I'm in for some surprises in the end. But I do think proper pacing is something many games struggle with, and even more games have difficulty matching their difficulty curve to that pace. Games like Dark Souls use their challenge to ask the player to dig deeper into the game's mechanics. It contextualizes and elevates the various systems that make a game what it is. I suspect Halo Reach did a fine job of that back in 2010 on the 360, but it's lost just enough of that in it's conversion to the PC to feel a bit off. Not enough to make the game unfun, mind you, but just enough enough to keep the experience firmly planted as 'good' and not 'great'.

Note, I've not even touched the multiplayer yet. Perhaps I'll leave that for another post after the holidays.

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