Combat Evolved

Hello! It was just my birthday! Which means I’ve passed the threshold necessary to be +1 years old. I marked it on my character sheet this morning. (Make one for yourself; it’s nerd-cool >.>) So, in honor of my newly gained age, this week, I’ll be up-dating The Gift Box with a new game every 26 hours. (If I can’t get to it in time, I’ll double-post the next one!) Also, I’m going to teach Valve a thing or two by releasing some third instalments: Final Fantasy 14: ARRDark Souls and Titanfall

I was going to do another post on Titanfall, but I figured that you might want me to punctuate the giant robots with a little something else before this site becomes free advertising for Respawn. So, let’s do some free advertising for Microsoft, instead. Playing Titanfall got me thinking about next-gen game design, which, of course, brought me back to the first time I noticed a shift in design principles in my games: Halo: Combat Evolved. Now, I know a lot of people deride Halo as the beginning of the boring, cover-based, two-weapon shooter, but I protest. I don’t think you’re quite remembering it right.

That sort of thing started with people misunderstanding the thrill of the adrenaline-fuelled five-minute tactical fire-fight. A limited number of guns makes sense in that situation, because you’re never going to need more than one, really. You can switch between spawns and try new strategies with very little down-time. Stretching that hot-zone of bullet-riddled chaos into corridors of pop-up targets is what not to do. So, what do I think Halo did right? What problem do I think they were trying to solve? Let’s get to it.

Halo-combat-evolved

As with every post of this nature, I’m purely speculating. These are things that make sense to me, but life is rarely so orderly. But, let’s step back in time, nonetheless. You’re playing Doom. You’re low on ammo and high from blood-loss. The sounds of explosions and feral death-dealers aren’t far behind. You’ve got no health. You fucked up. Now, what if I were to auto-save the game for you, right there? Crap. Well, I guess you’ll either have to master the game very quickly or restart. That sucks.

It does, indeed. For gamer and developer alike. Because, gamers have to play around it, but if situations like that are too plentiful, then it could break your game. Worse than that, your franchise, and the work you put into it, might suffer. So, developers have to plan their levels around situations like that. Health-packs, ammo dumps and obvious save-points/quick-save features are a few solutions. However, the necessity of each of those features is going to limit what you can do with your levels, and, therefore, your game.

There are games that just don’t handle the injection of quick-save features very well. Choice or story-based games come to mind, especially if you want to increase re-playability by weaving a complex, swerving narrative into one story. But, challenge-based games can also have their flavour changed quite significantly by the ability to restart from any point within the challenge. Sprinting an entire kilometre is an impressive feat of human perseverance, but not if you stopped to nap every fifty meters. It loses something in the process.

So, if you don’t want a quick-save, and you don’t want to be limited by weapon/health availability, what do you do? You ensure that your player can easily return to their full-health/ammo resting state at any point in the game. And, we facilitate that with the use of energy shields and limited weapon capacity. No, seriously, a limited number of weapons, and the similarities between the human and Covenant weapons, can encourage players to switch tactics mid-combat. You can’t really run out of ammo, because everything you kill drops a weapon. You’re not hoarding ammo, because you’re not carrying an armory on your back. But, your weapon might run dry, encouraging a quick swap. Done correctly, this can add variety to the combat.

If you remember, the first Halo game wasn’t quite ready to dump health bars altogether. Which I was alright with it, because it encouraged me to play intelligently to be pressured by a waning life-total. But, the shield bar did allow the devs to know approximately how much health you were walking into a given situation with. This allowed them to plan accordingly. Now, they could fine-tune the levels to any challenge level they wanted. Do you remember that structure from when you first crash-land on the planet? It was basically a mini-fort guarded by aliens.

I remember it as being challenging, but not impossible. As I ramped up the difficulty, the number of enemies increased, sure, but their placement became more thoughtful, as well. Phalanxes of Jackals protected Elites, as the Grunts swarmed forth unto death. It was neat. Each time I played it, the challenge remained robust, until I got to the point where I’d played it into the ground. And I think a lot of that has to do with a well-tuned challenge curve that benefited from a design that suited its deployment.

Am I saying that shield bars are better than health meters? Not even a little bit. But, there are benefits to shield bars that health bars don’t possess, unless they regenerate (very small practical difference, at that point), and vice versa. All I’m saying is that the mechanics craft the game-play, which is used to craft the experience. And the experience, here, is being Master Chief.

As a character, Master Chief was designed as a mobile weapons platform. His visual design echoes a tank for a reason. But, he’s not just the fire-power, he’s the intel, too. Cortana, his tactical A.I, gives him the tech-presence to also be a mobile command post. His whole deal is being a walking army. An unstoppable force wielding an immovable object as a shield. And what game-play style reflects that? Fast-paced, wit-fuelled, weapon-swapping, on-the-fly tactical combat. And when you were deep in the on-line melee or had it cranked up to Legendary, it could start to feel like that. Yup, that sounds like the right amount of bad-ass to me.

That’s not even mentioning what the increased processing power of the next-gen might have brought in terms of level-design freedom. But, honestly, I don’t know if it played much of a role, so we’ll say no more about it.

Every mechanic is another piece in a developer’s tool-kit, but not every tool is right for every job. Thinking about how those tools can be used to best effect has brought us some pretty excellent games. It’s given freedom to devs and allowed them to craft more thoughtful experiences. Sure, some people use mechanics thoughtlessly because they seem well understood, but when someone brings it all together to make something new, I call that next-gen. Graphics and processing power are fantastic, but next-gen is just an idea. So, ideas are its heart and soul.

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