[26 January 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The single-player of Halo 3 is fairly easy to grasp. It’s an effective game design for providing a relatively light combat experience. You play the ultimate cyborg badass and you run around curb stomping aliens in a static sci-fi narrative. The game design supports this by giving you regenerating shields, having cutscenes of people fawning over how awesome you are, and generally providing a solid FPS except for the blue A.I. interrupting you randomly. There isn’t much that anyone can’t grasp on their own, which is an accomplishment in of itself. The multiplayer, on the other hand, is still played today in the thousands and merits a closer look. Now that some time has gone by and the game has been dethroned by the extremely different Call of Duty 4 in terms of popularity, there’s now a chance to contrast the two and learn more about how they work. While the latter game that allows players to compete purely on skill, Halo 3 offers a larger amount of variety by having the weapons break the game into separate modes of play. Each mode has a distinct advantage over the other, so that the game allows both skilled players and unskilled ones to compete in the same space.
The chief virtue of the game in terms of appeal is the variety of play styles it supports. I have a decent middle-range game but prefer getting into close quarters with the spiker. Others prefer sniper rifles while there are always the power sword types who like close quarters. Iroquois Pliskin did a write-up of the multiplayer where he discusses this virtue in-depth. He explains, “The driving idea behind Halo’s combat is to create engagements at three distinct registers: long, medium, and short-range. Succeeding at each of these three distances requires the mastery of a different set of weapons and tactics; lobbing your grenades well is one of the essential skills in the game, and using them effectively is a different proposition at each of these three distances.” Indeed, the huge range of skills involved with the game and the wide range of players involved are what constitutes the typical Halo 3 multiplayer experience. A player using a sniper rifle typically jumps around and will immediately lose if you get into close quarters while its equipped. A player using a sword is easy prey for a sniper if they catch them in the open. The consequence of this constantly dueling range of skills is that in Halo 3 you can genuinely “dominate” someone. You can negate the combat range they are using by using the counter and get an advantage that is usually an instant kill. Although some levels do specialize or limit the ranges possible, Halo 3 maps usually feature a wide variety of terrain so that you can successfully engage with any of three approaches.
This idea of randomized dominance can be seen in the weapons as well. Guns that stay strong over multiple ranges tend to have a handicap like the Spartan Laser’s recharge time while guns that only work at one range tend to fire quickly and reload fast. Other guns can work at two different ranges, such as the Spiker’s extra damage in close quarters while still being a decent medium range weapon. Specialization is then the quickest way to rise in skill with Halo 3 so the player typically finds the weapon that supports their preferred combat and then they try to engage players in it. You grab a battle rifle and then try to engage people at medium to long range, for example. In terms of dealing with a gun being fired at you, realizing what’s being shot at you is only half the battle. Picking up on what kind of weapons the player you’re facing is always going for and then disarming that advantage by using the opposite kind is the quickest way to get ahead. This also illustrates why working as a team is so important, one person works at one range while another is going at a different distance. Contrast that to Call of Duty 4 where the players are all typically spread even and using the same set of weapons. Everyone has a basic assault rifle, everyone is shooting from the shoulder, and everyone is blindly lobbing grenades and ducking behind cover. A great deal of this can be attributed to the levels and class system in Call of Duty 4. As soon as you’re on the level where long range is best, everyone switches to those weapons. The game levels the variety of Halo 3 by allowing all players to pick their starting weapons and thus everyone is purely competing in terms of skill. There’s no random chance that the person is just using the superior gun for that range since they’ll have picked it. Halo 3, due to its ‘Find the gun’ setup for most types of play, cuts the skill barrier down and allows less competent players to still play. Contrast it to other games where you race to the guns: whoever gets the best weapon quickly dominates. Because Halo 3 balances out each weapon to always have a weakness, it doesn’t succumb to someone just finding the best gun on the map either.
For many players, it’s easy to think of this game design as flawed instead of brilliant. The idea that you cannot win purely on your skill is offensive to many players simply because what else is a game for except a contest of skill? With Halo 3 the emphasis on inclusion means that you can always pop into a match and make a kill. Even if you’re having a weak day or playing by yourself, you can engage with the game. Unlike Call of Duty 4, which is a bit tricky if you’ve had a few beers or are trying to relax, you can turn on Halo 3 and just unwind. The design also allows for very intense competitive play should you choose to engage on a different level. Mastering all the tricks with grenades, knowing when to retreat, and knowing each map perfectly allows players to gain a decisive edge. Team play is also a world in and of itself, since this essay is based mostly on rounds of playing Social Slayer solo. These options are still just ways around what is essentially engaging in an elaborate round of rock, paper, scissors. If you both choose the same range, it boils down to skill. If you choose rock and they choose scissor, then that dominance factor comes into play again. What makes this so impressive is that Halo 3 is an FPS you can engage with in a variety of ways. You can play it over a couple of beers, you can play it in a tournament, or you can play it to cool off from work. A little bit of chaos in the game is what makes that variety possible.