Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Reach: The Control Wars

IHeartReach
There is a war raging in my household right now. It is not one fought with virtual bullets and soldiers, though they are entangled in the conflict. It is one fought in the physical sphere; in the living room, to be precise. The two sides? Those those who lay praise at the feet of the 'Recon' control-scheme and those who venerate the mighty 'Default'.

It is a series of battles, all fought over the same two-inch strip of white plastic battlefield, the weird hybrid known only as RB - the 'Right Bumper' - placed, between the buttons and triggers from whom it draws its mongrel DNA, on the top right of the Xbox 360 controller.

Every battle begins the same way. In the middle of a particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach, an index finger strays to RB. It is squeezed, the player expecting a triumphant raising of gun-butt to the back of an enemy's head. Instead, their avatar snaps a magazine into the rifle. Meanwhile, their opponent turns round, and places a messy no-scoped sniper round into their visor. The 'seconds until respawn' counter ticks down. "WHAT?!?" comes the inevitable cry. "WHY THE HELL IS RELOAD ON THE BUMPER?!?" This person is a follower of the 'Default' faction.
Just when you thought it was safe to remap the controls...
A particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach. An index finger squeezes RB. They wait for the assault rifle they have been recklessly emptying - into the American 13-year-old who has been aggressively questioning their sexuality all game - to reload. Instead an impotent melee animation plays, gun-butt meeting disinterested air. They crumple to the ground, plasma rounds still hot The 'seconds until respawn' counter ticks meaningfully down. "Fag", quips the 13-year-old. "WHO DID THIS?!?" screams the player. Meet the 'Recon' axis.

Immediately, there is shouting, and cursing of names. Accusations are flung like daggers: did you do this? Did you change my set-up? Any further than this, I am afraid, conversation becomes unrepeatable on this family-friendly blog. The offended player presses 'Start', attempting to pause an ongoing game, while they fiddle with the settings, which only makes things worse for the person they are sharing a screen with.

Treaties have been suggested: Why don't we all agree to use the same control scheme? The response is a unequivocably clear 'No', often accompanied by language more colourful than one imagines hearing in the hallways of the UN building.
WHOOSH!
Here's the thing: controls are personal, as individual as the angle of a computer keyboard or the tuning of guitar. They represent your only way of interacting with this fictional world which exists inside the television screen. With that hindered, the link between you and the world of the game is severed. Personally, I always liked the switch the Halo games made between their second and third installments, taking advantage of the then-new 360 controller. 'Reload' was pushed onto the aforementioned bumper. For Halo 3, this also meant that the weapons wielded in the left or right hand could be reloaded individually with the two bumpers. It was a decision borne out of functional necessity, no doubt, but it felt more magical than that.

You see, by placing all interactions with the guns on the bumpers and triggers, the game created a sort of distinction between the mechanical and the physical. The melee, jump, and change weapon functions were all assigned to the face buttons, colourful and inaccurate, the human inside the armour. The analogue-precision of the triggers and bumpers were saved for the Spartan's primary interaction with the world: blowing things up with military efficiency. It fit in neatly with the Halo universe, which revolves around this dichotomy of precision and gleeful abandon. Dropping people silently from afar with a sniper rifle vs. manically squealing as you pound them in the face and hope for the best.

It helped define the contrast between it and the (clearly inferior but equally fitting) controls of the Call of Duty games, then in the ascendant. That was a messy world of sudden headshots and dirt and blood flecked onto your screen. Halo is a clean-edged world of genetically perfected robo-men doing battle. Reach switched to a more CoDesque control set for its default, but that was nothing less than a flagrant betrayal of the series' roots.
I think I'll take ...this guy's head off.
Those controls were as much part of the series' differences in the admittedly inbred world of first-person-shooters as having a recharging shield, rather than the traditional percentage health of med-packs. Call of Duty 3 had incorporated the more organic approach of red splats obscuring your vision rather than a health-bar. But Halo took that piece of artifice and moulded it into part of the game, a game where you played a man in a suit of armour which granted you extraordinary abilities. Now, with Reach's 'armour ability' toys (jetpack, shield, hologram, etc) assigned to the left bumper, that feeling is augmented.

...Until someone comes and messes with your controls and puts them back to stupid 'Default' mode, that is. And so, the conflict rages on, at home and online. There are websites where 'Default' aficionados scoff at the 'claw grip' necessary to jump and aim at the same time. Which is practical enough, from a utilitarian standpoint and everything, but can't you see how it ruins my fantasy? Can't you just give in?

This post is dedicated to the brave, stubborn men
of St Stephens Road - the Benjamin Edwards, and Geoffrey
Maillards of this world. May their names and uninformed
preferences be forever etched into the face of history.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.