Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Before There Was Halo

Shamus Young | 3 Sep 2010 17:00
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But what's interesting to me is what Bungie didn't do. They didn't just charge forward and make a standard shooter. They adapted the game to suit the new hardware and - most importantly - the new controller.

Those old PC shooters were all about aiming. Being "good" at the game meant being able to snap your wrist and headshot a guy the moment he came into view. It meant circle-strafing: orbiting a foe while keeping their vulnerable bits in the center of the screen. Mice, being pointing devices, are really handy for this. There was never any reason to take cover in those games because hiding would just delay the inevitable. Gameplay was about diving head first into the sea of bullets and dogfighting your way out.

But if you watch someone play a console shooter you'll see the game is less about precision aiming and more about precision timing. Instead of trying to line someone up with the stick, a player will get close with the stick and then run sideways, pulling the trigger during that split-second when the enemy's head passes through the reticule. Instead of trying to mitigate this, Bungie embraced it and made the gameplay revolve around timing. You've got a shield that recharges at regular intervals. Foes that take cover and fire at intervals. Weapons with cooldowns. If you charge out into the open like the Doom Marine you're going to get blasted back to the Game Over screen faster than you can say Larry Niven. Moving in and out of cover is an exercise in timing your shield, weapon, and enemy movement patterns. This is what Halo fans are talking about when they say the game is "more tactical."

Halo was by no means perfect and it deserves a bit of the scorn the haters give it. The library section of the single-player mode was mercilessly tedious. And there a few dull sections where the game seemed to lose its way and became a 1996-style tunnel shooter. But I have to give the game credit for inventing a genre and fathering a dozen or more imitators. And those beach areas were pretty sweet by 2002 standards.

It would have been very, very easy for Bungie to simply stick with what they knew and what gamers thought they wanted and turn out a PC shooter that required you to use a thumbstick the way you use a mouse. But instead they made crucial alterations to game mechanics and ended up with a game that perfectly suited the intended controller. In doing so they made a new genre that has more or less eclipsed its predecessor. This was not an obvious move and was probably pretty daring to do so on top of all the other ambitious ideas they were reaching for.

This led to a lot of shooter fans rejecting it, simply because the game wasn't what they expected or enjoyed. (I'm one of them.) And this break from expectations gave rise to the Halo hate flamewars that are still burning eight years later. But regardless of the hate: I still think Bungie made the right game for the right hardware at the right time.

Even after playing some of the newer console shooters I have to say I still don't dig them. Although, I enjoyed Mass Effect 2, which is about 50% console shooter. Make of that what you will.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. Beat that, fanboy.

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