Saturday, December 28, 2013

Halo 4's Biggest Design Problems

This article will probably be of no interest to you if you are not an avid fan of the Halo series. I'd probably be willing to bet that unless you're on r/halo, you probably won't understand or care about this article. There will be spoilers of the previous Halo games and some severe 'nerding out' as some may call it. If you're not a Halo fan, or you are and haven't played some previous games, click away from this article.

***Alright, Let's Go***

I'm in the minority here, but I actually really liked Halo 4. It wasn't quite on par with the rest of the series, but it was an amazing game for a studio that had never made a game before. The gameplay was pretty nice, though a little clunky, the soundtrack was decent, and the multiplayer was a nice change of pace although I'll admit it could have been better. The story, I felt was Halo 4's strongest asset. It was awesomely constructed and surprisingly powerful. However, it was not without fault. 

I will address the biggest problems of Halo 4's campaign. By addressing these issues, we will know exactly what we want from the next Halo game.

Quicktime Events

To the credit of 343i, the use of quicktime events in Halo 4 was fairly limited, but I still don't think it was necessary. There's a belief in the game industry that quicktime events serve to immerse the player in the game because it allows the player to take part in cinematic events that couldn't be achieved through the basic skeleton of the main game design. When we see button prompts on screen during a dramatic scene, we're not focusing on what's happening. Instead we are focussing on the buttons. This works well for DDR or guitar Guitar Hero because music is sequential and it doesn't tell a narrative or pull you into action scenes. With FPS games, it just takes you out of the game. In the beginning of Halo 4 there's a section where you climb an elevator shaft and when you reach the top, an Elite grabs you. The game tells you "Press RB to kill Elite." The problem with this scene is that it's awkward and out of place. Climbing the elevator shaft is extremely clunky and awkward and the struggle isn't satisfying. 

In Halo: Reach, Bungie had a similar scene in which a Zealot Class Elite get's the jump on Noble Team. The difference here is that the scene isn't interrupted by button prompts. It's not a quicktime event, it's a cutscene that allows you to fully appreciate the sequence and it flows seamlessly back into gameplay.

The same goes for the end of Halo 4 in which Master Chief defeats the Didact solely in a quicktime event. It's not satisfying and it feels disconnected. Imagine the Warthog run at the end of Halo 3 being a quicktime event instead of an in game play space. It wouldn't be nearly as satisfying. Part of what makes games great is our ability to directly participate in these epic scenarios. Taking down Scarabs in Halo 2 and Halo 3 were fun and satisfying because we could do it ourselves using the tools the game's sandbox gives us or whatever tools we choose to use. 

We could use the Hornets to fly above the Scarab to board it or drive off a natural ridge onto the top. Maybe use a rocket launcher or a Gauss Hog to take out the limbs so we can get in on foot. We have all these choices that are eliminated in quicktime events. Just press RB and watch the same scene every time.

This sequence is so fun, I play it more than GTA V.

We need variety not only in gameplay, but in choices. When we play Halo 5 there needs to be a variety of different ways to achieve one goal, several different paths. Halo 4 did this okay throughout the game, but we need more and we need to get rid of quicktime events. They don't serve a purpose that benefits the game. If 343 finds a way to utilize quicktime events in a unique way, by all means try it, but at least give it to us in a beta where we can decide wether or not it's actually beneficial. 


Forerunner architecture in the Halo universe is usually symmetrical. I understand that, but there needs to be some variation. There were so many points in Halo 4 where I felt like they made half a level and mirrored it. The levels, particularly the Forerunner sections felt very ... designed. In the previous Halo games, Forerunner architecture was symmetrical in their base form, but often added asymmetrical elements to design. 

Construct, a multiplayer map from Halo 3.

Construct from Halo 3's Multiplayer mode was a Forerunner map and was largely symmetrical, but offered distinct discrepancies to give the illusion of symmetry while also offering the variety of asymmetric level design. 

The component of asymmetrical/symmetrical symbiosis was entirely missing from Halo 4 in both Campaign and Multiplayer. Maps were either entirely asymmetrical or completely mirrored and it lead to an unintentional feeling dread whenever players would enter a Forerunner space because they knew it was going to be another boring level. And ironically enough, even the asymmetrical levels were often used twice and to make them feel like separate places they added an air vehicle in one of them.

Leave the rampant level prefabrication out of Halo 5. We don't want to play in the same spaces over and over again. We want new spaces to explore and we certainly don't want to explore the same place twice in the same game unless there are differences that effect the game in a beneficial way. It can be done well. Take the Storm and Floodgate from Halo 3.

The Storm


These are two separate levels in Halo 3, but both levels take place in the same environment. You probably wouldn't even notice that they are the same place unless you're paying attention, but that's the point. We shouldn't be obviously aware of the corners you're cutting. 


There are more buttons in this game than in the entirety of the series before it. Buttons aren't necessarily a band thing, but when combined with RAMPANT LEVEL PREFABRICATION it becomes a nuisance. Having to press a button on two sides of a symmetrical room basically means we have to play through the same sequence twice when once would have made enough sense. There are many times where you'll need to press buttons multiple times, but what's weird about it is that it's not always consistent. In the older Halo games, pressing a button just meant you pressed a button and the door would open or the bridge would activate, but in Halo 4 there's an animation for Master Chief actually pushing the button ... but only sometimes. Some buttons I guess aren't important enough to warrant animations. It's a weird inconsistency. The buttons wouldn't even be so bad if they just didn't duplicate them and make us sit through an animation. It's the tediousness of it that makes it annoying. These decisions are obviously made to pad out the run time of the game, but consequently, it only prolongs the least interesting parts of the game.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Top 10 Best Games of 2013

As 2013 draws to a close, it's time we evaluate the gaming landscape as it's changed in the last 12 months. The next generation went from rumor and speculation to in our homes, Early Access became more popular than ever, and the games were fantastic. These are my personal choices for top 10 games of 2013.

10: The Stanley Parable - PC

The Stanley Parable plays with the idea of choice, acting as a critique of both closed and open ended game design and narrative structure. An interactive story that acts as an in depth analysis on game design with a fantastic sense of humor, an awesome narrator, and moments of genuine awe. This game is truly something that needs to be played to appreciate. It's not The Last of Us where you can marvel at the visuals. You need to experience this. There is a free demo available on Steam right now for you to play at no charge. It has little to do with the main game, but it gets the idea across flawlessly. It's not action packed, it's not fast paced, and it's not a graphical titan, but it's definitely one of the most unique games to come out this year, and I'd even say the last 10 years. 

9: State of Decay - Xbox 360, PC

Originally designed to be a multiplayer online zombie title, State of Decay was reduced in size and scope and released as an Xbox Live arcade title. Since it was originally planned to be much bigger than it turned out, the game was surprisingly ripe with detail and genuinely awesome moments. This game is a story about you. How will you survive the zombie apocalypse? How will you manage your resources, conserve your ammo, scavenge? How will you survive. It's fun, immersive, and simple and complex in all the right places. Though the story is lackluster and the gameplay can be clunky at times, the level of detail within it astounds and for the price of an arcade title, you can't go wrong. Don't expect a vibrant story. Expect a great survival game.

8: Battlefield 4 - Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PC

Let me preface this by laying out a few facts. Battlefield 4 has one of the most uninteresting single player campaigns to ever exist in the FPS genre. Battlefield 4 has several bugs and glitches. Battlefield 4 is very much 'just another shooter.' All that aside, when Battlefield 4 is fun, it's really fun. The maps are nice, the gameplay is ridiculously fluid, and the little nuances in combat are satisfying. There were many times when I was playing that I thought "This is awesome." Nothing says "FUN" like ejecting from a jet onto a rooftop and shoving a knife in the back of an unsuspecting player immediately upon landing, only to continue to dive off the building and parachute through a skylight with a grenade launcher to decimate the enemy team from above. It's a satisfying game, and that's really all it is, and all it needs to be. The single player sucks, and the multiplayer needs work, but when it works, it's the best MMS around.  

7: Metro: Last Light - Xbox 360, PS3, PC

It's a post apocalyptic FPS set in the universe of a series of Russian novels, blending horror, action, and stealth into a great game with the best graphics I've seen this generation (especially on PC.) If you appreciate solid gameplay, sweet art design, and some powerful and emotionally charged scenes, you should play this. It's an under-appreciated series and one that is deserving of your play time.

6: Tomb Raider - Xbox 360, PS3, PC

This was a surprise to everyone. Given just how far Lara (not Laura dammit) Croft has fallen from grace, it was a miracle that this reboot turned out pretty great. Tomb Raider turned out to be a fantastic take on the established franchise. Offering a great story, some satisfying gameplay, and some seriously gritty moments that I felt genuinely uncomfortable watching. It pushed the boundaries of what a great Tomb Raider game can be. Though the game isn't perfect, it sure is a promising start to the next generation of Tomb Raider.

5: Gone Home - PC

This is a wild card. It's not technically a game, but I rather enjoyed it from a narrative perspective. Traditionally, this is one none of you will like. I happened to enjoy it because it was different, but really that's why I enjoyed it.

4: Grand Theft Auto V - Xbox 360, PS3

This game is awesome. The world of Los Santos is fun to explore, the characters are all well written, the story is well constructed, the acting is fantastic, the gameplay is satisfying, the world has variety in characters, locations, vehicles, scenarios, and missions. You can engage in heists and you can take your blood thirst into multiplayer. This game has so much in it that it would have been my number one game. The only reason it isn't is because of the multiplayer mode: GTA Online. It's broken, unstable, unbalanced, poorly maintained, and it really is just a mess. When it's fun, it's really fun, but when it's not fun, it's really not fun. It's the opposite of Battlefield 4. The single player here is much better that the multiplayer, but the multiplayer has the most replay value. Aside from the online, it's a fantastic game that simply needs work. Still, a great game if I ever played one.

3: Gunpoint - PC

Combine a pleasing art style with deep gameplay, multiplied by a wonderful sense of humor and satisfying controls and you have Gunpoint. The game is short and it won't be winning any 'Best Graphics' awards, but I love it. It's one of those games you don't need to be in the mood to play to enjoy it. It's equal parts satisfying and fun. 

2: The Last of Us - PS3

I've written a few articles on why I loved The Last of Us already so let's break it down. The Last of Us takes a genre that has been done to death and breathes new life into it. A unique take on zombies, a stellar crafting system, gameplay that reflects the tone, and a fantastic locale and even more impressive voice talent and presentation. The game is an amazing experience and though the multiplayer is lackluster and very unnecessary, the game is a masterpiece. If you own a PS3, there's no reason for you not to play this. 

1: BioShock Infinite - Xbox 360, PS3, PC

What can I say about this game that I haven't already said? The story is remarkable, the acting is amazing, the music is outstanding, the world and the lore are immersive, the gameplay is fresh yet familiar, the combat is varied, the characters are great, everything is just 100% solid. This is my game of the year. BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us are the games I point to when I point to examples of video games as art and they are without a doubt the games that defined 2013. For a more in depth reason for BioShock Infinite being my personal game of the year click here and here.

Amazing to think that with the next gen already taking the spotlight it's the last gen games that remain more impressive. This proves that gameplay and story are more important than graphical fidelity. A good story, a compelling narrative, great gameplay, nuanced mechanics, and a great presentation. All of these games had one, a few, or all of these things and they are all worthy of your time.