Although gaming in the near future appears to be making evolutionary, tiptoe progress (with the exception of presentation and graphical prowess), the idea of a gaming revolution permeates all discussion of next generation hardware. The upcoming Xbox 360 and Nintendo Revolution explicitly imply this. Gamers have to ask, however, what kind of revolution will this be?
Although Nintendo’s revolution, whilst shrouded in mystery and typical Nintendo stubbornness, will probably revolve around the way in which we actually play games (through their controversially designed controller), Microsoft and Sony’s gaming revolution will more likely come in the form of increased consumer choice regarding how we purchase and consume media itself. Bungie’s Multiplayer Map Pack for Halo 2, in this context, is an important and challenging release for Microsoft. It is an experiment and a precursor to how Microsoft will operate in the next generation of consoles, making us question just how the Xbox 360 is going to work from both a gaming and business standpoint.
The pack itself consists of nine new maps for online or split screen play, and is available for both retail purchase and as downloadable content via Xbox Live. It also contains a short Halo movie and a mini documentary on the making of the new maps. However, the patch that is contained on the disc is much more interesting, seeing as how it balances out some of the gross differences between certain weapon types. This too was available for download prior to the release of the expansion pack.
The adjustments actually improve gameplay, making certain weapons more powerful, adjusting splash effects of grenades, and other game balance issues. But what I find most fascinating is the way in which this product has been presented for consumption. The Xbox Live service is without a doubt the single major contribution Microsoft has made to the evolution of gaming. And the success of this map pack simultaneously validates and expands upon the use of this service, resulting in what is clearly an indicator for the direction Microsoft is heading with its next console. While some gamers will pluck this one from store shelves, many others have already downloaded it. And recent news indicates that next-gen consoles will distribute games and other media in the same manner. At the very least patches and further game content will be available on all systems.
Players were able to download an entire updated level for the original Splinter Cell, but imagine if you could download games episodically, consuming parts on a weekly basis like a television show. The Xbox Live service, and the way in which it is brining the Internet to console gaming, will ultimately be Microsoft’s trump card in the next-gen wars. The success of the map pack proves that Microsoft has the infrastructure and the know-how to sell online updates to a mass audience.
The actual maps are, as you would expect, impeccably designed. Almost every location has at least two routes that irritating campers can be attacked from (so don’t even think about crouching there with the sword, mister). There’s nothing quite as multidimensional as the masterpiece that is Lockout, but the new maps have there own charm and, more importantly, their own gameplay focus—that is to say these maps have each been designed with a specific game type in mind.
This is simultaneously the map pack’s major success and its greatest failing. Relic, for example, is a great map if you want to play Capture the Flag, but useless for almost anything else. Utilizing an interactive teleport system, the map is amazingly dynamic. The teleporter transports players from the attacking teams base to the defending teams base (and vice versa), but can only be used once opened, via a switch. When attempting to steal the flag, the attacking team will want to open the teleporter in order to more easily transfer the flag to home base, however they will wish they had left it closed when the flag is almost home and players come streaming through the teleporter in a last gasp attempt to defend the flag. This makes for very interesting flag battles, but in Team Slayer this device is ineffective and pointless, and the map’s open structure makes it far too easily dominated by snipers.
Backwash suffers a similar fate. Surrounded by a beautifully executed fog, the map is perfect for close quarter battles. Players can’t see each other until they are well within range of even the most close quarter weapons, and this makes for a more reaction based frag-fest, as opposed to the more strategic, planned attacks that you can make in open environments. It is, however, hard to see this map being useful for any other game type besides Slayer. Game types such as Assault or Capture the Flag are pretty much defunct here, and the inclusion of the controversial Covenant Plasma Sword, which is deadly at close ranges, can often make this map a little unbalanced.
Some maps do retain the exquisite balance and versatility of original maps like Ivory Tower or Midship, and the map Turf is a perfect example of this. As a basic Team Slayer map this works perfectly. There are open areas, vulnerable to sniper fire, but also many sneaky ways to attack the sniper from behind; and although there are many areas where dual-wielding point-and-hope beginners could possibly catch a more experienced player unawares, there are also plenty of hiding spots that make it easy to take cover and plan a sneaky counter attack. This map this is a dream to play, and is possibly the first map where the territories play perfectly—it really is one of the best maps ever created for Halo.
On all levels, as a map expansion and as a media distribution experiment, the map pack is a resounding success. As we look back at gaming history, Halo will ultimately be remembered as the game that single-handedly made Microsoft a major player in the console market. Halo was the system seller, whilst Halo 2 was the game that ultimately sold people on Xbox Live and Internet gaming in general. The map pack, however, really shows and proves that media can be distributed to a console audience in a new and innovative way—hat will be its legacy.