Friday, September 24, 2010

Reach For The Halo Newbie

Halo Reach' Campaign Rocked But Was Too Short

Halo Reach Campaign Was Too Easy For Most Gamers

The Sniper Rifle Brings Head-Shot Haven In Halo Reach

Halo's online community is a phenomenon, breaking gameplay records with every new release.

With the enjoyable but problematic Halo: Reach single player campaign behind me, I decided I was ready for Halo’s main event: online multiplayer.

The entire Halo franchise has been responsible for selling millions of Xbox Live gold memberships, as legions of wannabe Spartans swarm online to blow each other away in a variety of game modes. Reach has been no exception, with Halo developer Bungie’s playing statistics for the title including some staggering numbers.

In a news update last Friday, Bungie unveiled such figures as 31 million games played, tallying up to 953 years of automatic matchmaking games if they were played end-to-end. The peak on launch day was 700,000 players logged in and playing Reach simultaneously. Even more incredible is that these figures were released before the game’s first weekend, only three days after its Tuesday release.

Halo: Reach was played by a huge number of fans in its first days of release.

Clearly, this is one seriously popular game online, so I had to get into it.

My first step was to play through part of the story co-operatively with some friends, in this case my GameTaco co-conspirators Smoolander, Wall, and Mr Ak. Despite my lack of confidence, we kicked off in the second-highest difficulty mode, “Heroic”.

Immediately, the game was vastly improved. On higher difficulty and with four human players, the game throws far more enemies at your team, making the battlefield feel far more dynamic and chaotic. We blasted through the first few levels, taking turns driving the Warthog jeeps and operating turrets (except for Smoolander, who walked the whole way in order to get an Xbox achievement).

The cooperative campaign provides some of the chaotic intensity missing from the single-player experience.

We crashed through those levels so quickly that some in the group suggested we crank the difficulty to maximum, the dreaded “Legendary”. Sadly, this was where some very simplistic game design became glaringly obvious. On this difficulty level, rather than becoming smarter or more accurate with their weapons, the alien enemies simply became nearly impervious to damage. While the added challenge was enjoyable, there is something very unsatisfying about sniping a Elite warrior with eight headshots, only to have him shrug off every one of them and kill you with a single returned shot.

This was nothing, though, compared to the experience we had trying to fly helicopters through a city skyline, dogfighting with enemy craft and landing on rooftops to launch raids against hostile infantry. This section was, in a word, broken. Despite the game assuring us that certain checkpoints had been recorded, after our frequent deaths we found ourselves respawning in apparently random positions on the very large map. Far too often one or two players would be stranded at the start of the level with no helicopter to carry them to the action, and at least once a player respawned without having died first. It was extremely frustrating, and cast a momentary dark cloud over our otherwise fun gaming session.

Of course, the Halo experience cannot be considered complete without engaging in some random matchmaking battles with strangers on Xbox Live, so that was to be the final stage in my Halo baptism. Online Halo players have something of a reputation in the wider gaming community, being notorious for obscene trash-talking and poor sportsmanship. I braced myself for sharp questions about my sexual orientation and baseless claims about my mother’s sexual proclivities and logged in.

Sadly, Halo: Reach's customisable matchmaking doesn't always provide the desired results.

As it happened, my worry was groundless. Despite my preconceived notions, I never received a single word of abuse. I was never even called a “noob” (even though that is what I undoubtedly was). In those initial deathmatch rounds, the worst thing that was done to me was to kill me, over and over again. It was humiliating.

To me, this highlighted one of the issues with an entrenched gaming community like the one that has formed around Halo. Many of these players have been Halo fans for years, some of them going right back to the inaugural Halo: Combat Evolved, released on the original Xbox in 2001. When a large core of the playing community is extremely good at the online game, newcomers can feel locked out, because they keep dying before they can learn anything. How can you develop skills and learn the map layouts when you’re always being killed within seconds of spawning?

Thankfully, Bungie took that into account, building a “similar skill level” filter into Reach’s matchmaking. I switched it on and set the game looking for someone for me to play against. It timed out, returning no matches. Oh well, I thought, the game has only been out for a bit over a week, so there must be some other newbies online. I told the game to search again, and a minute or so later I got the same result: no matches.

As a beginning player wanting to learn the ropes of the competitive online game modes, this frustrated the hell out of me. I know there must be other new players out there, but for some reason the game could not find any of them for me, at least on that occasion.

Disillusioned by deathmatch, I decided to try some random matchmaking on a cooperative game mode. Reach’s Firefight mode is similar to Gears of War’s Horde mode, with wave after wave of increasingly tough enemies mobbing the players’ defensive position. The difference in Firefight is that you can win: only a particular number of enemies will attack, and killing all of them within the time limit will win the game for the human team and award a score bonus.

It was in Firefight that I found my online Halo home. I was lucky enough to be matched with some pleasant and cooperative fellow players who were happy to chat with me as we fought, giving me pointers and sympathising with my many deaths. Perhaps I am just not psychological made up for deathmatch, as I found playing the campaign with my friends or engaging in co-op firefights with random strangers on Xbox Live far more enjoyable.

That was my epic Halo: Reach experience. I still prefer my keyboard and mouse, with the twin analogue sticks being most irritating to me when trying to use a zoomed-in sniper rifle, but I got reasonably good with the controls eventually and had quite a lot of fun.

Even so, my overall goal was to try to find out what all the fuss is about. Halo: Reach had one of the biggest launches in entertainment history, earning $us200 million in its first day of sales, three times the first day box office of cinematic record-holder The Dark Knight. Bungie must be doing something right to capture and retain such a massive audience.

Halo: Reach, online and off, struck me as a good shooter with some clever design features, but never outstanding in any way. Perhaps I am just too much of an outsider to understand its enduing appeal; maybe I am just a noob after all.

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