In the interests of picking up the pace a little, I thought that when I didn’t have a proper feature to give you, I might start posting brief thoughts on games I’d been playing that week instead. Not a proper review, you understand, just a quick sketch. First up to the plate is the fourth iteration in the Halo series, appropriately known as Halo 4.
There’s an old adage that runs “if it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it”, which I presume is emblazoned in thirty-foot high fiery letters on the wall of the Halo development office. Because my initial impression of Halo 4 is how very much like the original Halo it is.
You’re still limited to two weapons and some grenades, from a roster that’s barely changed, dropped by enemies that have barely changed, and occasionally you’ll come across some vehicle sections that have barely changed. As the saying goes, it ‘aint broke, so it’s still fun to charge around on Warthogs gunning down the Covenant and new Promethean enemies, but after three previous entries it’s a lot less fun that it used to be.
Of course as a late-cycle Xbox 360 game it looks amazing compared to its predecessors, and many of the scenes were clearly designed to wow the player. And there are a few new additions – a welcome raft of abilities for your armour and a less welcome portrayal of Cortana as some sort of super-curvy cyber-babe. I’ll be playing it a while yet. But if Microsoft are still seeing Halo exclusives as a prime selling point for the Xbone, they really ought to do something about shaking up the rapidly ossifying gameplay.
Over a year ago there was a small explosion of outrage in the twittersphere regarding a piece in Edge magazine claiming that games can’t tell stories. It’s old, you’ve probably seen it before but then again the same is true of most of my inspiration for these articles. I was exercised enough about it at the time to want to write about it but I had no suitable mouthpiece. Now that I have, it would seem remiss if I failed to get my thoughts down while still vaguely relevant.
At the time most of the commentary regarding the article focused on the fact that it was clearly nonsense. Philosopher and designer Chris Bateman made a point of collecting gaming anecdotes from people in order to refute it. I mean, seriously, who hasn’t been awed, shocked or enthused at one time or another by the plot of a game? Whether it’s the huge twist in Knights of the Old Republic or the big reveal in Halo we’ve all encountered points in a game with enough intensity to wedge themselves permanently into our memories. So what’s an experienced and respected games journalist doing posting such twaddle?
Well personally I’m not so sure it is twaddle. I think the article contains an important point, albeit one that was perhaps not made very well. And that point is only tangentially related to story, and has everything to do with expectation.
When you put someone into a realistic, interactive environment, as most modern games do, their first assumptions are going to be that they’re in a realistic, interactive environment. They’ll explore, push boundaries, find out where the inevitable rules and limits are. But they’ll also expect that environment to push back at them, likely fairly aggressively. After all it would hardly be much of an interactive environment otherwise.
But at the same time gamers have become used to consuming games like they do cinema. They expect a plot, and characters, to engage them. Not just that but they also expect their avatar in the virtual world to be a key player in that plot. They want to feel important and powerful. Wouldn’t be much fun playing the cashier cowering behind the till when the petrol station gets robbed, would it?
This creates an instant contradiction. The gamer expects both to be able to ride a plot without foreknowledge of its twists and turns for the excitement and thrills it provides, while simultaneously being in charge of the game environment. You can’t have both. At its essence this can be expressed by the simple issue of the player killing NPCs who have pivotal roles to play in the plot. Games employ a variety of tricks to stop you ever doing this because doing so would expose the fundamental impossibility of having both a genuine story and a completely open world.
It’s this disconnect that’s at the root of the perception that games can’t have a proper story. Not so long ago games were not particularly realistic, and they were not particularly open. Back then we were happy to consume the plot in a relatively passive way by riding the rails that the game placed us on. Technology has moved on, and so has game design. And we’ve arrived at a situation where the clash between plot and play is being exposed more frequently and more cruelly.
Currently, and quite correctly, when this conflict arises the game play is generally allowed to win over the plot. What’s less obvious is that there are other elements to what people think of as “story” besides the pre-scripted twists and turns along which the game will run. Atmosphere is one example. A game that makes good use of graphics, sound and setting to make the player feel squarely part of the virtual world that it creates can get away with a certain amount of plot railroading because it compensates for that break in realism in other ways.
Another is the emergent narrative that arises from the actions the player takes inside the mechanics and plot that the game provides. Everyone playing Gears of War will get the same plot, but the places and manner in which you kill your foes or triumph over the set-piece battles in the game will be different.
It’s a key element to consider because this is where the clashes between action and plot arise, and where a game becomes personal to the player. Designers have little foreknowledge of how people will interpret their games. Each long, languorous slow dance between a game and its player will be different, unique. And the best games only rarely manage to reach the audience that they deserve.
This emergent narrative points to one possible solution to the conflict, showcased best by the Mount and Blade games. In these titles there is no predefined plot but every effort is made to ensure the player can easily create their own instead. There is a flavourful world to explore, peopled with realistic and well-differentiated characters, and a slew of quests to complete alongside a meta-game which can lead toward various conclusions that most gamers would recognise as “success” of one kind or another.
But the problem with Mount and Blade is that it can take a long play time before even the most imaginative player appreciates and understands the game and its world sufficiently well to start building their own railroad. It’s simply nowhere near as engaging as a title that gives you a character, a motivation and a story and drops you into exciting action from the get go.
Adding plot to an open world setting, the solution explored by the Elder Scrolls games amongst others, tends to result in the worst of all worlds, as I’ve explored previously. That way the player tends to get sidetracked from the plot, while finding that it still has to conflict with their freedom of action. Long term this is probably the solution we should be seeking to explore. But the technology isn’t there yet. Frontier Developments tried with current generation consoles with a title called The Outsider, which attempted to defy linear storytelling in just the manner we’ve been exploring. But six years later the game is sidelined in development hell, because the hardware isn’t there yet.
That’s unfortunate. Not only because of the wonderful new directions that non-linear storytelling could take games in, but because I’ve started to suspect that its absence has become a real stumbling block over the progress of the medium. Lately we’ve discussed the issue of the clumsy manner in which violence is handled in most games. Could that be partly because the sort of subtle, nuanced plotting required to portray such serious issues sensitively requires exactly the kind of linear plots modern gaming eschews in favour of open-world design? Seems possible. It may well we need the means to overcome the fundamental contradiction between plot and play before gaming can truly grow into the mature form it deserves to be.
When I think of what makes Halo great, I think of things like simple, accessible shooter gameplay built on a rock-solid foundation of impeccably balanced and specialized weapons leveraged in sandbox-y encounters that invite me to develop strategies and overcome impossible odds. I think of raucous multiplayer battles that feel more like schoolyard games than uber-macho paramilitary kill-fests. I’m put in mind of epic vistas and setpieces where I’m taking down a massive enemy vehicle single-handedly or riding out across an alien terrain in a cool tank. Then there’s the sweeping, portentous music and the particular sound of it all- from the announcer that says “Sssslayer” to the report of one of the game’s ubiquitous assault rifles. These things are all part of what Halo is to me.
It was when I was firing one of those assault rifles early on in the single player game that I realized that I wasn’t playing a Bungie Halo game, but a 343 Industries one. It sounded bigger, meatier, and richer. Everything did. Come to find out, they reworked all of the sound and if it’s not an entirely new graphics engine, then I’m shocked because the game looks sometimes astonishingly good. Who’s really impressed with graphics anymore? Play Halo 4, and you will be. During the opening cutscene, I actually had to kind of squint to see if the characters were real actors or CGI models.
343’s effort is an immaculate piece of AAA game-making, reportedly the most expensive game Microsoft has ever made. It shows. This is the product of folks working at the peak of their technical and artistic craft, every single element of the production from texturing and character animation to interface design and dynamic lighting is almost staggeringly polished and refined to near-perfection. But most importantly, Halo 4 is a smash success following up on 46 million copies and $3 billion dollars worth of successes , regardless of who’s steering the ship. In other words, they got it right and it’s money in the bank. More than that, I think it is likely the best Halo game to date if only because it is so carefully studied, constructed on the established foundations of this massive franchise.
But following on from and building on Halo’s past also means that some of the other things I think about when I think of Halo are there. The not-so-good things, mostly connected to the single-player campaign. The first part of the “Reclaimer Trilogy” story is another somewhat vague framework for outstanding gameplay and a number of bravura action sequences- almost all of which are player-controlled, not cutscenes. Master Chief is back, as adverstised, as is Cortana. Complete with all of her horribly written, horribly executed comedic relief lines. Some of the emotional beats playing to the silly relationship between Spartan and AI actually had me groaning, which is a huge disappointment in a game that is otherwise best-in-class. Believe me, the scene where you’re practically a one-man escort for the world’s biggest Tonka truck will make all of the feeble writing worth sitting through.
So yet again, the writing and story isn’t what it could be. Since I’ve never really been invested in the Halo story or the transmedia surrounding it, I found myself wondering why in the hell I was fighting my way up to a button and who the hell the Forerunners are, anyway. It didn’t really matter, I had a great time anyway and I just sort of shrugged off the nonsense. Hell, if nothing else the soft-headed story dragged me through some really awesome-looking places across several different kinds of environments.
And I do mean dragged, because Halo 4 can be brutally, refreshingly difficult when played on the Heroic or Legendary settings, which is really what you should do. The difficulty makes every firefight, sniper alley, or desperate rush tense and exciting, with a great sense of reward when you work out that guerilla tactics will get you through an area or simply playing the stealth game and avoiding a fight altogether is the best option. And there’s always the issue of bringing the right tools to the bench, so to speak. I love that in Halo 4, as in past Halo games, the two weapons you’re carrying are a major strategic concern.
So Halo 4 is Halo, and all that entails- which is both exactly what I wanted it to be, but it is also a minor disappointment. I went into Halo 4 hoping that 343 would really rock the boat, upending the series and revitalizing it with new concepts and forward-thinking ideas. It seemed like the mandate was there with the changeover in stewardship. But they really didn’t change that much in the formula other than bringing in some challenging new enemies that fight nothing at all like the Covenant or the Flood and an entire armory to go with them. Sure, they put you behind the stick of a Pelican and there’s a new mech you can rampage in, but most of the game is, as stated, a continuation of ideas from past games including Reach and ODST.
A reality check is in order. Halo simply can not be innovative and groundbreaking anymore because it is such a successful franchise. The old saying goes, “don’t mess with success”. You don’t gamble on a release like this. You make a game that will please most of the people most of the time. The developers can fidget with some elements of it, but ultimately this game has to be Halo first and foremost, and it has to touch all of those Halo things. You can’t possibly say they failed in doing so. No, it’s not the latest heart-filled, scrappy indie game made with ten grand of Kickstarter funds and the pipe dream of remaking an esoteric 1990s PC game. But anyone who thinks that 343 didn’t knock this out of the park- while also setting the stage for the next generation of FPS games- needs to get their head checked. So what if they stayed the course. It worked.
However, this stay the course approach is mostly apparent in the single-player offering, which is extremely generous for a linear playthrough but virtually unlimited in replay thanks to co-op and modifying skulls. The multiplayer game, where many would say that Halo comes alive, has seen some pretty extensive renovation and I’m not quite sure yet what to make of it all both because I’m kind of overwhelmed by the changes and also because I need some more time beyond the review period to sort of let it all settle in. there’s a new leveling system with unlocks, killstreak-like weapon drops, and a much wider range of customization and ability options. it’s a fairly controlled set of variables, but it is still moving Halo away from the more egalitarian multiplayer game of Reach and all before and more toward a Call of Duty-like system where some players have, and some do not. I don’t mind ending a game feeling outperformed, but I don’t like feeling like I’ve just been outgunned because I don’t have the top unlocks.
The maps are awesome, as good as anything in past Halo games, and the game types are the usual mix of fun Slayer and objective types and there are tons of customization options for each. Many, I predict, will bemoan the loss of Firefight but rest assured that the new Spartan Ops game, which is sort of cross between Call of Duty’s SpecOps and Firefight, is likely to emerge as something far better. it’s a series of weekly missions, complete with cutscenes and narrative context, that can be tackled solo or with three other players. I really like that it’s practically a serial, ongoing campaign.
I’ve not even touched Forge or any of the theater options but they’re available for the interested. One of my favorite things about Halo has always been that it lets players play the game they want to play, and 343i has maintained this design principle. If you don’t like the new leveling system and abilities, you can set up games without them and go purely old school. If you hate multiplayer, there’s tons of single-player game to be had or you could never touch the campaign and solely play this online with friends or strangers across any number of game types. Halo is extremely accommodating, a true mainstream game that welcomes the hardest of the hardcore and the casual-est of the casual. At this level of the business, that’s a necessary goal.
Halo 4 is Halo, that’s what I keep coming back to when I collect my thoughts on the game. It is exactly what it is, and if you are already dead set against Halo or if you resent it for being a simple, accessible shooter or for any other reason, it won’t change your mind. But it also won’t give you anything new to hate, because the game is what you make out of it. The product itself is an amazing, enormous, and sometimes ravishing piece of software. The game is almost preternaturally refined, precise, and peerless in its technical execution. But no matter what it all is to you when you put it together in your mind, Halo 4 is Halo- definitively.
When I got my 360, with all the enormous catalogue of quality games I could have chosen from to catch up on, the one I picked first was Bioshock. It came top of the list because I was intrigued by the premise behind the game, the lure of a traditional shooter with horror elements in such an esoteric setting. Plus, it was cheap on the used market.
Three chapters in, I have been somewhat disappointed. Bioshock is fun. In fact Bioshock is pretty much everything I was hoping it would be. But the respawn model has really spoiled it for me. Once I realised that there was pretty much zero penalty to dying, other than a short walk back to where you were before, and that you could effectively kill most things in the game by repeatedly hitting them with the wrench, the very first weapon you got, all the challenge and some of the interest drained out of the game. I have a full wallet because buying stuff is pointless: just use the wrench. I’m perplexed how such an awful design choice made it into what should have been an excellent game. Yes, you *could* refuse to use them, and rely on saves but why bother? Plus some of the nasties in the game – Big Daddies in particular – look pretty much unbeatable in a one-off fight with the early game weapons and ammo alone, so re-spawning looks kind of built into the play. The location of re-spawn booths close to difficult fights would tend to confirm that hypothesis.
But I’m going to keep playing anyway, because the story behind the game in indeed interesting, and the setting is indeed esoteric. It also seems to make some explicitly political points, a rarity in games design nowadays. And it helps that so much love has been lavished on the visual design of the game. It didn’t give me the wow factor that I’d been craving, but it was fantastic to see how well unified the visual elements are, everything at once suggestive both of setting in time and place. The horror elements work well too, shadows looming on the walls, lights flickering on and off at appropriate junctures.
But what really got me was the sound design.
Other than soundtracks, I don’t think I’ve ever been specifically impressed by sound design in a game before, but the way it’s used in Bioshock is astonishing. For starters, there’s the ambient background noise of clanking pipes and hissing steam that hovers of the edge of your hearing like an irritating mosquito, simultaneously setting the scene and keeping you jumpy. Then there’s the use of music: no consistent soundtrack, just bursts of sudden discordant piano or saxophone music when you least expect it, often for no particular reason than to make you nervous.
The crowning glory though is the voices. The way Little Sisters chat away to their hulking guardians, just like over-keen toddlers blathering on at a doting parent is unsettlingly bizarre, although you do wonder why the Daddies are always called Mister Bubbles. The sudden voices over the PA system, reminding you that this was once a functioning society with laws and customs all its own. And the set pieces with the Splicers gibbering away to one another or to themselves, featuring clever scripting and excellent voice acting to sound convincingly, disturbingly, insane.
But what really gets me is the triggered vocalisations in real time play. I can’t remember another game in which the enemies actually talk to one another. In most games, of course, you’re hunting aliens or monsters or some such, and they can’t speak in a manner you understand. Some do talk, like the various adversaries in Halo for instance, but they utter repetitive phrases keyed in to your actions. In Bioshock the Splicers talk to you, and they talk to each other, and they talk apparently for the sake of hearing their own voices. The resulting conversations manage to avoid excessive repetition and actually make some sort of coherent sense, giving you a peculiar sense that these were once real live people in a real live place who’ve been driven over the edge, simultaneously creating unease and sympathy in the player.
That sense adds enormously to the already powerful feeling of immersion you get while playing. So it’s doubly tragic then that the designers chose to destroy the sensation of disbelief by creating a ludicrous re-spawn model.
The Witcher 2 seems to be everywhere at the moment. It sounds like a hell of a game, and I wish I had the hardware to play it. But alongside how great everyone is saying the game is to play, I keep hearing also how good it looks. And that makes me at once strangely wistful and nostalgic, and yet filled with excitement and anticipation. Because I remember that feeling, way back down in the dim, distant, murky parts of my gaming history, that feeling of being blown away by the visual impact of a game. And I really thought it had gone forever.
I was never a console boy. My first encounters with video games was on the 8-bit computing platforms of the ’80s, from the awful graphics of the ZX Spectrum with its eight shade palette and colour bleed to the much more advanced Commodore 64, the graphical powerhouse of its day. The games were new, thrilling, breathlessly exciting things to my virgin generation, unused to technological toys, and for the most part they looked like shit. But we didn’t care: this was the birth of the home gaming movement, and we were too busy being joyously carried along on the crest of a new wave to think about the future.
But the future came, nevertheless. It came in the form of 16-bit computing. I can remember still, with extraordinary vividness for a day more than 20 years ago, coming home from school and having my parents ask me to quickly run an important errand in a forced manner that seemed odd and noticing behind them on the kitchen table a large box swathed with towels in a futile attempt at disguise and knowing, knowing for certain that my Amiga had arrived. I ran my errand as quickly as I could and spent the rest of the day totally absorbed in video games, barely pausing even to eat, as they knew I would. It was on the Amiga that I first discovered the extraordinary potential shock value of updated graphics and sound, the day I shoved Shadow of the Beast into the hungry maw of my machine’s disc drive.
By most objective standards Shadow of the Beast was an awful game. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up/platformer hybrid it was tediously derivative, stupidly difficult, repetitive and driven by an incomprehensible, meaningless plot. But in spite of this, and an eye-wateringly high price tag for the time of £35, the game received critical acclaim and sold by the bucket load. It managed this feat purely because of its graphics and sound. With an enormous colour palette, crisp, fluid sprites and an unheard of 12levels of parallax scrolling powering a stunning piece of visual and audio design Shadow of the Beast looked better than anything else in home computing, like something that should be running on a Cray supercomputer and not the little gray box in your living room. Like almost every other gamer I broke my teeth on its difficulty level and resorted to cheat codes, enduring the dull gameplay for hour after hour just to feast my eyes and ears on the smorgasbord of delights that the game offered. It was wonderful, the attainment of a nirvana that my fifteen-year old self had never dreamed existed.
I can also vividly remember, for entirely different reasons, a conversation I had with some friends around this time about the quality of graphics in video games. We discussed, and agreed, that further advancement in graphical technology would be nice, but was hardly necessary, because 16-bit games looked so good and that it wouldn’t be much longer before we had video quality graphics beyond which any improvement was impossible. I remember that because of the way that later years demonstrated it was a grandiose, naive, ignorant and stupidly arrogant and statement to make. But if you can’t make statements like that when you’re 15, when else can you do it?
And over the coming years, as hardware was upgraded and replaced, it was proved hollow time and time again. On my first PC the game that floored me with its visual was Ultima Underworld. On the next rig, a 486, it was Doom. On my first Pentium machine it was Quake. But each time there was something of a law of diminishing returns. Each time the impact was a little bit less, my reaction a little bit more jaded with experience and weighted with the cynicism of the passing years.
All that changed with the next upgrade though. When Quake II came out I bought myself a brand new PC with a hot graphics card just so I could play that particular game. The guy that built it for me slung a copy of a game I’d never heard of, Unreal, into the box for me to boot up when I’d got the machine installed. And this I duly did, and such was my astonishment that I called my non-gaming wife in from the living room to share the moment with me and she, normally totally disinterested in my hobby, sat in open-mouthed wonder, desultorily poking at the mouse from time to time just to make the viewpoint change. I was so overawed by this, my first ever experience of a game properly rendered in 3D polygons with full lighting effects, that I spent that whole first evening just wandering in circles round the lake in the opening scene of the game, looking at the crystals on the ground, the water in the pool, the stars in the sky, discharging my weapon into the distance just to watch the bolts fade into obscurity.
Of course, I eventually got round to doing the proper thing and venturing deeper into the environs of the game to kick some scaly alien buttock, but there were repeated occasions when I’d be absorbed so totally by the visual design that some enemy or other would walk right up and blow me away without my noticing until it was too late. It was wonderful to have that feeling again, dragging me right back to those first moments in front of Shadow of the Beast, the ultimate digital nostalgia trip.
But that was the last time.
Bigger PCs with beefier graphics cards didn’t reproduce it, nor did the first console I ever owned, the Xbox. Halo and Half-Life 2 are probably the most graphically advanced games I’ve played extensively and even though I took the time to sit back and note the resolution and the detail in those games and nod in satisfaction, appreciating the effort that went into the design and development, that wow factor seemed to have gone forever. Why? Partly, and in danger of replicating my teenage hubris, I feel that while photorealistic graphics are still a ways away in video games, once you’ve got to the point of realistic physics and lighting effects, all there is to do is to increase the resolution and add detail. And while that helps things look pretty, it’s not the sort of earth-shattering advance in visuals that we’ve seen in older iterations of hardware development.
I suspect this may also be part of the reason why Sony got trumped in the current generation by the Xbox 360. The previous console generation may well have been the last one where there was a genuine quantum leap in terms of graphical processing power, and because of that gamers were still drawn towards the superior hardware of the original Xbox and some people bought one over the PS2 on that, and that alone. Sony must have known this, so for the next generation they pulled out all the stops to deliver the beast of a machine that is the PS3, not realising that in this generation, graphical power was no longer going to be the hot selling point it had been in the past, because we’re in a place now where all designers and developers can do is tweak the resolution and the details that’s on offer.
Another culprit in decreasing appreciation for video game graphics might have been the advent of genuine photorealistic computer graphics in films. We’re still a step away from genuine lifelike movement and expressions, but it’s hard to admire the visuals of a computer game when computer effects in Hollywood products you can see every day on your TV have become so common and so detailed that you barely notice them anymore.
It made me sad to think that those moments, those few precious moments of wonder that I’d shared with my computer games as we’d grown up together, were something that nascent gamers, born into a world where visualising dreams had become commonplace, might never experience with their own PCs and consoles. And now we have The Witcher 2, and that’s the first time in a long, long time that I’ve really noticed games journalists writing about the graphics in a game with anything like that childish tinge of astonishment and appreciation. It’ll be awhile before I get the chance to play Witcher 2, and then there’s a new hardware generation to think about, but it seems as though there’s a little spark of hope that I, and millions of others, might not have seen our last “wow” moments after all.