Mindless Iconoclasm is a series of entries where I present an unpopular pop cultural opinion of mine and then attempt to defend it. This time, I take on those who erroneously claim that Halo ruined the modern first-person shooter.
Just last week, I finally completed the original Halo. No, I haven’t been playing the game on and off since its PC release in 2003. I picked it up last year, played about a third of it, got busy with other things, then found some time to complete the rest of it last weekend. Yeah, I know I’m 9 years late to the party (11 if you count the 2001 XBox release). Well, at least I joined the party.
So, what did I think of the game? Aside from the excruciatingly bland, repetitive, and uninspired level design, I can see why the game was such a hot seller when it came out: great gunplay; smart enemy AI; an engaging story; competent voice acting; and beautiful graphics (for the time). It’s not my favourite first-person shooter by any stretch of the imagination – that title belongs to The Operative: No One Lives Forever – but I thought it was pretty enjoyable, if somewhat mindless. Apparently, millions of other people thought the same, and this (at the time) one-of-a-kind sci-fi shooter became a massive hit when it was released, almost singlehandedly boosting the fortunes of the XBox console.
Eleven years later, the gaming landscape has changed considerably. The FPS has been the dominant gaming genre of the past decade. Now, sci-fi shooters set in space are a dime a dozen, and to be frank, a lot of them are terrible. Halo has gone from being gaming’s golden boy, credited with saving the console FPS, to being a scapegoat for everything that’s wrong with modern shooters. Now, let’s set aside the fact that it’s ludicrous to blame a game for the way it supposedly inspired those that came after it. (I mean, were the makers of Halo supposed to predict just how influential their game would become? It started out as a freakin’ RTS, for God’s sake!) Instead, let’s concentrate on the fact that those who blame Halo for introducing gameplay mechanics that ruined modern FPSs have a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Halo work.
Why people hate it: Gamers claim that it takes the challenge out of the game. If you’re hurt, you can just hide behind cover for a few seconds, recharge your vitals, and then proceed to blast the baddies who don’t seem to possess the same health-regenerating capabilities as you. There’s no need to plan out a firefight or use tactics. Just shoot, hide, and repeat, over and over again.
How Halo got it right: Let’s get one thing straight – Halo doesn’t have regenerating health; it has regenerating shields. This is more than a matter of mere semantics; your health bar still works like a good ol’-fashioned health bar, and you need to find medpaks to replenish it. This encourages players to play more carefully, as it’s hard to make it through the firefights near the end of the game or on higher difficulty levels with just shields. But, it never forces the player to stop, backtrack, and scrounge for medpaks, which would kill the flow of the game. It’s still possible to make it through with full shields and a low health bar; you just have to play smart. Far from screwing up regenerating health systems,Halo got the balance just right: you’re encouraged to play intelligently, but your forward progress is never impeded.
Checkpoint save systems
Why people hate them: Checkpoints are the bane of a console gamer’s existence. They’re often placed too far apart, making it impossible to stop playing whenever a player wants. Sometimes, they’re placed illogically, like in the middle of a firefight. Plus, checkpoints save your progress even when your character is at low health, which can make it impossible to progress further.
How Halo got them right:Simply put, by using a lot of well-spaced checkpoints. (Some would argue too many, but I’d rather a game err on the side of having too many checkpoints than too few.) You never have to play for more than a couple of minutes to get to the next one, so you never lose too much progress in case you have to wrest your fingers from your mouse and keyboard to actually do something productive. Furthermore, receiving a checkpoint at low health doesn’t matter, because you’ll always reload with full shields.
Why people hate it: Everybody hates having kills stolen from them. It’s bad enough when it happens in multiplayer, but it’s even worse when NPCs do it in single player. (I wanted to blast that alien’s head off, damn it!) Moreover, squad AI tends to be on par with that of a Roomba; how many times have you seen a squad mate run headfirst into a firefight like a kamikaze warrior, only to be gunned down by a couple of well-placed rifle shots?
How Halo got it right: By keeping squad play to a minimum. For most of the game, you’re on your own, aside from the occasional communication with Cortana, your digital companion. On the rare occasions that you do have to lead a squad, its members largely stay out of your way. In fact, they tend to help by breaking large firefights into several smaller ones. They generally don’t concentrate on killing the same enemies as you, so you rarely feel as if your kills were stolen from you.
A maximum loadout of x weapons
Why people hate it: How many times have you heard this one: if I wanted to manage an inventory, I’d play an RPG! Only being able to carry a certain number of weapons at a time is severely limiting, especially to those who like to use a jack-of-all-trades play style. Plus, you might not have the right kind of weapon when you come up against a specific type of enemy.
How Halo got it right: The great thing about Halo is that you can use pretty much any weapon to kill any enemy. True, shotguns are generally the best way to take down the Flood, and the Covenant seem to be especially sensitive to their own weaponry, but enough fire from an assault rifle will kill them both. Generally, the choice of weapon to use depends on the player’s preferences: do you prefer to fire a couple of well-placed pistol shots, or would you rather go in guns blazing with a plasma rifle? So the point of Halo’s two-gun max isn’t to restrict your freedom, but rather, to simplify your life. Instead of carrying around a bunch of weapons that you’ll never use, you only have to worry about two guns at a time. There’s no need to keep a mental inventory of how much ammo you have for each gun. Run out of energy or ammo for a weapon? No problem. Just pick up another one; dead enemies drop their guns like perverts drop their trousers, which is to say that there’s no shortage of weaponry to pick up from the foes that you’ve vanquished. In fact, the alien weaponry, which features a plasma charge that can’t be reloaded, was designed to be discarded and replaced. Plus, let’s not forget that the game gives you the option to use two different types of grenades, and throwing one is as simple as clicking a button. So really, you have four weapon choices. Not as limiting as you thought, eh?
To sum up, just because other shooters tried to imitate Halo’s gameplay mechanics and failed doesn’t mean that Halo itself implemented them poorly. The game isn’t responsible for the myriad copycats that followed in its wake. Just like Halo’s detractors, the folks who created those games fundamentally misunderstood what made Halo work. If modern FPSs are bad (which I don’t think they are), it’s not because Halo willed them to be so; it’s because developers are trying to implement a bastardization of a working gameplay model, rather than showing a spark of originality and coming up with new, exciting gameplay mechanics that work just as well as the ones that the developers are trying to ape.