Monday, October 5, 2009

Flamebait: 9 Reasons You Should Hate Halo

This will also kick off a series I will do that I've dubbed "Flamebait". Yes, I'm writing these specifically to incite a reaction from fanboys. You need to hear it from someone. This series will be for games that are highly successful, lauded by critics, and viciously defended by fans. Flamebait or not, these are my genuine opinions on the games or series. Hopefully we can at least have a meaningful dialogue about some these games. I doubt it, but some things just need to be said.

First of all, Spoilers will be in this whole article. So stop here if you haven't played through all the Halo games and you care about the story.

Now then, let's dive right in to a game franchise that has polarized the FPS playing audience for the better part of the last decade, Halo. Professional critics and fans of the series seem to think that the Halo franchise is some kind of video game messiah. Detractors of the series hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand Vegetas.

I am unable to express my feelings!!!

I'm here to explain where all that hate comes from. "Why now?" I hear you ask. Partially because ODST was just released to, once again, critical acclaim and market rapture - but also because I haven't been on the boards. I haven't discussed Halo ad naseum. So it's about time I put another good beating to this festering horse carcass. Besides, it's hard to find a reasonable criticism of the series that's more eloquent than the typical "lol halo sux if u liek it ur gay".

Don't worry Halo fanboys, I'll follow up every Flamebait post with a post explaining some things that were good about the game I just tore to pieces. Because honestly, mainstream games like Halo would have to do some things right or people wouldn't play them. Look for an extinguisher to this flamebait soon to come.

But for now, let's turn up the heat.

9. M Rated Games, But No Violence

So you're making a shooter. You know that you are going to be stacking up a body count so high that an M rating is guaranteed. You know this from day one. Why in the name of all that is brutal do you decide not to include any blood or gore in your game? Not even a little bit? Guess what, When you shoot someone in the head with a Sniper Rifle, they tend to bleed a little. When you hit someone with a rocket launcher, they do not bounce playfully into the air like they just fell onto a trampoline. They explode into many colorful pieces.

Pictured: my beloved gibs

This is my most petty complaint (hence its position on the list), but this has started a trend in the FPS genre that I hate. It's a complete cop-out to use rag-doll physics in the place of violence or dismemberment. I mean I'm fine with the occasional hilariously bouncing body, but when that is the only effect present to show that you've killed someone, it's a problem.

Not every game has to be buckets of blood and viscera, but an M rated FPS game should give us something to gawk at when we pull off a successful headshot or grenade bounce. Why is it the most violence we get nowadays is a small spurt of red dust when we shoot someone? And don't even try to tell me it's a technical limitation. When I kill someone in Fallout 3 and there's a spurting hole where their head used to be, I'm at least a little proud of it. Hell even in Unreal Tournament when you shoot someone with a rocket launcher you get the treat of watching chunks of unidentifiable meat fly past your head. But when I kill someone in Halo and they roll down the hill like Porrasturvat, it's just underwhelming.

8. Childish Enemies, Weapons, and Vehicles

I hate the grunts. How can you have an enemy that sounds like it would be too 'zany' and 'silly' for a Muppet Show and expect to be taken seriously? Comic relief is fine, but these guys are going way too far. It's as if Bungie decided they liked the idea of Jar Jar Binks, but he needed to be tiny and there needed to be lots of him.

"Oh great Prophet, in what color should we design our new gun that sends needles into our enemies' brain?"
"A nice, soft lavender."
"Really? Purple?"
"Yes, and make sure you coat it in that colorful plastic I love so much."

The Covenant guns are all some kind of iteration of shiny plastic in various shades of blue or purple that spew neon junk around like we were all suckling neon pacifiers in a warehouse lit purely by strobe lights and imaginary unicorns. Their vehicles don't fare any better, it's like they were all designed to be profitable and easy to manufacture toys (sorry, "collectibles"). What is it with the Covenant, was the entire culture designed by Fisher-Price? None of them ever seemed threatening to me due to how 'silly' they're portrayed. I want interesting and varied enemies that pose a significant and possibly terrifying threat in my FPS games. "The Flood!" I hear you cry. Okay, fine 1/3 of each game consists of a portion of hackneyed 'infected' enemies that are lifted from every other science fiction zombie every to have existed.

Both these issues (numbers 8 and 9) give me the impression that Bungie/Microsoft are trying to appeal to a younger crowd. For an M rated Game about snuffing out as much life as you can, I just don't get it.

7. Master Chief Is Not A Good Character

Okay I'm cheating a little bit here. Having an interesting main character is not a requirement for a good shooter. You didn't need a back story for your character to make Doom a great game. Gordon Freeman is nothing more than a nerd with a gun. And this certainly wasn't an invention of Halo. But it's different for Halo because of the magnitude of reverence people have for Master Chief. I have to ask, why? He's a non-character. I've seen lists of the best characters in gaming with Master Chief near the top. Seriously? He's a super soldier that does whatever he's told by the other characters in the games. Master Chief is little more than a paper doll for you to occupy as you kill baddies. Why is he getting so much attention as a character?

Why do you say things you know will hurt me?

The nearest I can tell it's specifically because he has no personality, no back story, and says little more than "alright I'll kill whatever you tell me to, Cortana/Johnson/Miranda/" People manufacture this huge mystery to the character and refuse to accept that he's just a super soldier that was programmed to kill enemies of humanity. We've seen the grizzled space marine bit a thousand times before, Master Chief is not unique. I think it's also partially due to Microsoft shoving his 'iconic' imagery down our throats every chance they get.

And seriously, the big reveal at the end of Halo 3 is that his name is John? John?!? It's like we're being mocked with how boring he is. Bungie is daring us to try to be impressed with him.

6. Mandatory Vehicle Sections

Now, to be fair Halo does their vehicle sections pretty well. It's a lot of fun to drive around in a Warthog or fly around in a Banshee mowing people down. But God have mercy on your soul if you're playing Single Player and are forced into using a vehicle that requires a second man to operate properly. The Ally AI can't shoot and they can't drive, and it will be an operation in frustration to get through these parts alone.

This is mostly on the list for the crap its inspired. Now every single shooter feels like it has to have a vehicle section, and these designers often have no idea what they're doing. This is at its worst in the most recent Halo inspired bucket of tripe, Haze. The developers clearly had no idea how to design and program a vehicle section, but they were added in nonetheless to ride the Halo train to succesfulville. It did not work. They controlled awfully, were always on a strictly linear path, and felt like you were steering a greased up monkey through a mud pit. And the monkey liked to explode a lot. Actually, that would have made for a much better game.

5. Health that automatically regenerates

Now to be fair here, Tribes had this mechanic long before Halo. But Halo's success propagated the use of a regenerating 'shield' or health bar over the use of healing items or stations. If you're not playing a Halo game on the legendary setting, it's offensively easy. Even on legendary the only way they manage to increase the difficulty is by giving the enemies divine cheat-aim and increased health in order to compensate for how easy the regenerating shield makes things. It baffles me how people cite this as one of the things that is good about the Halo series.

When people talk about Halo dumbing down FPS games, this is primarily what they're talking about.
In games that don't include this, every single encounter has to be planned out and executed well. You have to think before you attack, because if you don't you'll end up with a red blinking health indicator that sounds out your doom with each desperate beep. Not so in Halo! Just run and hide behind a crate or wall for a few quick seconds and presto-chango you're back at 100%! Most games would have this kind of thing as a power up that lasts a few brief seconds, but in Halo its the whole basis for your longevity.

4. Insta-Kill One Button Attacks

Here's another thing that people cite as being something that turned the FPS genre into a care bear stroll down easy street. Previously in FPS games if you wanted to whip out your insta-kill grenades or fuck you up hardcore melee weapon you would have to leave yourself vulnerable for several seconds before getting an opening to use it. Many games had melee attacks attached to their weapons, but it wasn't until Halo that it became a one-button one-hit kill. And don't even get me started on the energy sword or gravity hammer. "Hey kids, are you so ham-handed that you can't aim any kind of projectile weapon properly? Well worry not, because now all you have to do is sneak up behind someone and whack them comically in the back of the head and you win! Hurray!" This was the worst when the energy sword debuted in Halo 2. Ugh. I still have rage relapses to that dark time. Yeah, it's fun to super-leap onto someone's backside and slap them with a glowing tuning fork, but did you really accomplish anything worthwhile? According to the 11 year old guffawing into my headset and calling me a 'noobscrub', yes he did.

How do you spell, 'You suck at noscope'?

One button grenades are just as bad. Again, in previous FPS games if you wanted to fire the much more powerful grenades at someone, you had to be wielding them and therefore had no accurate weapon available. Or, in many cases, you had to be wielding a grenade launcher. You hit someone just right with a grenade and they're toast in any game, but Halo made it so that you could shoot grenades on the fly. You didn't need to have the situational grenade launcher equipped or quickly switch to a grenade when you saw a good shot, just tap that button and BLAM, you win. Not to mention that grenades are fucking everywhere in Halo, they are not rare and you do not need to conserve them as much as in other games. Add sticky grenades to the mix and you don't even need to be careful with timing and aim, just hit them anywhere on their body and you win. You did not accomplish anything phenomenal just because you hit someone with a sticky. They're easy to aim and arc and kill any opponent in one shit. Congratulations, you won the equivalent of a point and click adventure game.

3. Bad Endings or Cliffhanger Endings

Every. Single. Game. They all end the exact same way. Master Chief is on a ship, floating or flying to his next destination with little or no closure explaining what happened after the events of the game. This is of course because every single game ends with a sequel in mind. It's an obvious cash-in to keep players interested in the franchise until the next game releases, which will end in the same way as every Halo game before it. People have told me they enjoyed Halo's story, and it's even been called this generation's Star Wars. I weep for a generation who's ultimate sci-fi epic ends with a marketing ploy.

Halo 2 was the absolute worst for this, ending with nothing resolved.The plot barely moved forward at all in the entirety the game, and if you never played it the only thing you missed is that some of the Covenant aliens are now on your side (and that there is this Gravemind thing that you don't have to worry about because you never have to fight it). For a game with so many pretensions towards a sweeping sci-fi epic and grandiose storytelling, they ignore everything about telling a proper story. Where the hell is the climax? Halo 1 and Halo 3's end level is the same - you drive away on a warthog while whatever you're on explodes around you. This goes back to the problem of no boss battles. In a typical game your last encounter is the climax of the story, the final confrontation that the game was building up to. But in a Halo game, you escape from something that explodes and someone gives some exposition about how "it's only just started", how they are "going to finish this fight", or to "wake me when you need me" with a foreboding planet on the horizon.

2. Laughable or Complete Lack of Bosses

Name some bosses or boss battles in the Halo series, go ahead. I'll give you all the time you need. But here, let me save you a few seconds - there aren't any. First, let me define a 'boss'. A 'Boss' is an enemy character that has only one iteration that you fight in either a single battle more difficult and longer than any normal enemies or in several stages throughout the game. Shooters have always had boss battles. Wolfenstein 3D had chaingun toting Hitler, Doom had the Cyberdemon, Unreal had a boss battle practically every other level, Turok had bosses at the end of some levels, etc. The biggest problem with this in the Halo series is that the games are littered with missed opportunities to include epic boss fights.

You see, Halo 2 ends with a giant creature who leads The Flood known as the "Gravemind" presenting a looming threat over the entire Halo universe. The entire game heavily features the Gravemind, painting him as the ultimate villain of the series. He's big, evil, and the purpose of most of the plot is to get rid of him and the Flood he controls.

So when you finally face him in Halo 3, you...oh that's right, you never fucking fight him. The whole series was building up to a confrontation with this giant tentacled beast, but you never actually fight him. Halo 3 was peppered with threats and foreboding from The Gravemind. At the moment of truth, when the danger of the Gravemind is at its zenith, you're presented with a final encounter to save the universe -- by having a brief fight with what amounts to a protocol droid armed with a GI Joe laser. I'll admit I had been waiting the entire series for an excuse to throw that yappy C-3P0 knockoff in the scrap bin, but it wasn't what I expected to be the final battle of the trilogy. By the end you 'destroy' the Gravemind twice in Halo 3, both times via a remote explosion that 'kills' him off-screen during a cutscene.

The Prophet of Truth is another example of a chance for a boss fight squandered. Again, he was built up as an enemy the entire game - only to be killed in a cutscene. When he started showing signs of Flood infection, I thought "finally, this guy is going to turn into some giant creature that we can battl -- oh, never mind Arbiter stabbed him in the back." Both the Covenant and the Flood are alien species that come in seemingly any shape and size, yet the designers never included a unique enemy that was bigger than a taller than average Norwegian? What a wasted opportunity. Scarabs don't count, they're just a piece of scenery you climb onto and shoot in the giant "please don't shoot me here" light. And there are lots of them.

1. Insultingly Short Single Player Campaigns

This is my biggest problem with Halo by far. It's not necessarily the biggest fault of the gameplay or story, but it's had the biggest negative impact on the industry. Each game features a campaign that you can generally complete in less than 10 hours, and yet you're expected to pay full price because the mutliplayer is potentially going to be good. After all, why design a full game when all you have to do is design half a game and then a few extra maps and rely on the community to propogate content in the form of competitive multiplayer? What does it matter, the suckers will pay full price for it anyway! Some offenders are worse than others, and Modern Warfare really got to me the most. The worst part is, this awful trend will probably never change. Critics keep giving these games perfect 10s and players keep calling them the best games ever made, rather than clarifying that they're only talking about multiplaer. Single Player levels are hard to design, and as long as people keep buying these half games FPS developers will keep making them.

Now it's also important to remember that a game can be effectively made as a multiplayer only game. As I've said before, Unreal Tournament is one of my favorite games of all time. But that game was epic in scope, the amount you could do in UT in single player was absolutely amazing. The AI was fantastic for the time, you could customize everything about the bots, and the levels were varied and interesting enough that playing alone was often just as fun as playing with friends. Oh and you didn't have to pay a monthly fee.

Another thing to keep in mind is that when you buy a game that is advertised as multiplayer only, you know exactly what you're getting. You don't expect to have fun playing alone. People don't praise the great story, characters, single player level design, or enemy AI on a multiplayer only game. A game developed as exclusively multiplayer has no delusions of grandeur, it is exactly what it says it is. And often, multiplayer only games come at a greatly discounted price. Team Fortress 2 was included in the Orange Box with 4 other great games, I bought Left 4 Dead a month after release from Steam for something like $10, and I don't think I spent more than $20 on the original Unreal Tournament. But most console FPS games can still get away with criminally short single player campaigns because people keep buying them and excusing them due to their good online play. I don't blame the developers out to make money. I blame the consumers who made Halo 3 the best selling Xbox 360 game ever and continue to call it the best game of all time.

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Who The Hell Do I Think I Am?

Austin, Texas, United States
I've played games since my brother got an NES in the late 80s, and I'll play them until I'm a crusty old man. My opinions are based on those 20 years of experiences, and my own ambitions as a game artist and writer.