Monday, 14 February 2011

Scared of Boys: Halo Reach's Singleplayer Campaign

It's Valentine's Day and I'm in love. It's not an entirely healthy relationship, I know, but goddamn it, Halo: Reach makes me feel so good. I present this, the first of a planned series of articles this week on why.

IHeartReach

"30 seconds of fun, over and over again".

And in one fell swoop, Bungie pinned down everything about why their game Halo: Combat Evolved was so deeply addictive and satisfying an experience, leaving games journalists all kicking around with nowt to do. Self-aware as Bungie might have been about Halo's successes, however, they've struggled to fully recapture it. While the multiplayer has retained its initial vitality, growing over the years with the addition of online play, new maps, weapons, and ideas, that's not been so true of the singleplayer campaign mode.

The new mantra for Halo 2 was "Halo 1 on fire going 120 miles per hour through a hospital zone chased by helicopters and ninjas. And the ninjas are all on fire too." Which, incidentally, is not a bad illustration of how over-encumbered the campaign segment of each following iteration has been. It's telling that the last two Halo campaigns have done away with Halo 2's key innovation, dual-wielding two independently-triggered guns, altogether. From the very first, there was a sense of trying to recapture Combat Evolved's singleplayer magic; of faking it under the looming shadow of the Law of Diminishing Returns.

But Halo Reach's singleplayer has stolen that spark back, and breathed new life into playing Halo on yer lonesome.

'Splorin'

A lot of that's in the little things. The Covenant Focus Rifle, for example, neatly solves the problem of tension-creating but hugely frustating enemy snipers by forcing them to keep a consistent, visible beam on that headshot for a few seconds before it drops you. In the multiplayer, that means a more interesting, quirky variant on the standard sniper rifle. In the campaign, it reduces frustration of sudden random deaths without losing any tension.

Mostly, though, it's how streamlined the experience is. Bungie have dispensed with the vast majority of mythology that plagued Halo 3's nonsensical attempt at storytelling, or efforts at experimentalism that proved beyond the ability of ODST. It also ditches the Flood, a brilliantly fresh enemy for one or two levels, but the first thing to come along and undermine Halo's classic balanced formula. What does that leave?

It leaves simplicity. There are plenty of other things I love about Halo campaigns - the satisfying weight of the vehicles, the feeling of genuine responsibility for your marine sidekicks - but ultimately they all weigh down the purity of the core "3o seconds of fun". Looking back fondly on the first Halo, as I often do, it's those wide-open green and blue vistas. The claustrophobia of Flood-infested corridors and Warthog races through linear tunnel systems, even the feeling of getting your hands on the all-powerful Scorpion tank for the first time, just melt away. It was always about those open environments.

Nooks, Crannies.

They're iconically pretty, and provide these peaceful moments where you're presented with a small base of enemies, three or four well-placed Elites and whatever two half-empty weapons you've happened to end up with. And you look at it all and try to work out how to best solve this puzzle you've been handed. These peaceful moment before you run in and watch it all fall apart, are something Bungie have managed to finally restore.

For Reach's greatest asset is one that sounds monumentally lazy: the campaign levels are largely recycled. The arenas where this kind of battle takes place are shared with the multiplayer, or the co-operative Firefight mode. This means they are designed the same way Halo's finest multiplayer maps are: full of explorable nooks and crannies, offering tucked-away weapons, or alternate approaches to the action. Reach's big addition, 'armour abilities' - toys which grant special abilities from jetpacks, shields, and holographic decoys of yourself - manage to genuinely increase your options, as well as streamlining Halo 3's smart but rarely-used similar range of pick-ups.

The whole world is my plaaayground

All of this means there's a unique feeling of being in control of your experience, making battles feel spontaneous, which just isn't available in any sociably multiplayer mode of the game. Playing on your own means that: a) you're not responsible for anyone else, and b) you can set the pace yourself. Trying to find a moment of quiet in Slayer deathmatch, or even playing the campaign alongside a co-op partner who wants to push relentlessly ahead, never offers the same experience.

So you sit on your own in the dark, and eye up the Spire, having already died on your last six attempts at taking it. The Elites have all got powerful-but-short-range plasma cannons, one sniper has tucked himself up at the top, and there are a couple of Hunters there ... and there. You swear softly under your breath. But right before Death #6, you happened upon the spot where the mighty rocket-launcher is hidden. So you look down the scope, empty your last three shells into those Elites over there, hold LB and sprint for your life in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you'll have the rocket-launcher in your grubby metal-clad paws before they catch up with you...

Simple.

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London, United Kingdom
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.