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Assault on the Control Room

"Are you ready?" my brother asks. I switch out to my sniper rifle, hitting the reload button just in case. Not that I have to. Each time I slay an enemy I reflexively reload, as if it were some part of a ritual for the dead.

"Yeah," I respond, zooming in towards the door. "I'll take the one on the right, you take the left." The first time we tried this I made the mistake of saying I'd take the blue one. Turned out both Elites were blue that time.

My brother slowly steps forward, stopping immediately as the door begins to open. We have a couple of seconds to line up our shots before one of the Elites or Grunts spots us, so the first shot has to be quick. We each fire one off, wiping our targets' shields out. We fire a second time, but I am pulled out of zoom at the last minute as a clever little Grunt strikes me with a couple burning pitches of plasma. I panick, rushing to zoom in again, trying to shoot the now-running Elite in the back, but it's too late. He boards the Banshee and takes flight.

"Crap," I admit. He sighs. "Alright, reload."

We hit the final stretch of the fifth level of Assault on the Control Room, the halfway point of Halo: Combat Evolved. Typically there is maybe half an hour left of gameplay, but on Legendary you're more looking at an hour, possibly more. Everything takes longer on Legendary. You have to be more careful, more resourceful, and a lot more aware of your surroundings.

My brother and I concoct a plan, though. Before we hit that final stretch, making our way down the Forerunner structure so that we can step back out to the ground level and climb the pyramid embedded in the rock face, there is a bridge. It is a natural looking, rocky formation that arches from one cliff-face of the canyon to the other. It is here that two Banshees await two Elites.

There is no way to sneak through this section. There are too many Grunts and Jackals, and most of the time they are all looking at that door. Once spotted, the Elites are scripted to jump right for those Banshees and take flight.

We have realized that if we killed those Elites, we'd be able to just fly right down to the top of the pyramid, open it up, and rain unholy death upon the final wave of foes with ease.

It wouldn't be the first time we approached the game in an unconventional manner. It was clear most of the time that Bungie had a specific intent in mind for the player's experience. For example, before this plan we realized there's a thin part of the pyramid's formation that juts out front-and-center, following it upwards towards the top. A player can hop right on easily enough, and as a result we would have one player snipe from above while the other would take a Ghost to the top, making short work of all foes. Plus, even if the player on the Ghost died, he would respawn in the high, elevated safety of the sniper's nest. We took advantage of a piece of structure outside the obvious intent of the design, and we felt rewarded by making short work of our foes.

In the level before, The Silent Cartographer, the players are intended to enter the final facility alone. Any surviving human marines will not follow the player down. Players then have to fight the deadly Golden Elite, a swordsman capable of killing the player in a single blow, followed by several camouflaged Elites . My brother and I, however, managed to keep a human marine alive and had the A.I. hop into the back of our warthog to man the turret. It was difficult, but we squeezed the Warthog inside the facility, slowly forcing it down narrow hallways until we camped it right where the Golden Swordsman would spawn. Sure, it didn't make the facility any easier itself, but on the way out, we were able to easily kill a distracted Golden Swordsman who was desperate to kill the marine protected in the Warthog, and we got to keep the Warthog's turret handy for the camouflaged Elites that followed.

You can play the game on Normal or even Heroic with almost any two combinations of weapons without being forced to cycle out to something different. On Legendary, you have to become a master of all weapons in the game and learn the advantages and disadvantages of them.

My brother and I looked forward to subverting level design in future Halo games. We didn't view it as "breaking" the game, but taking advantage of certain situations and scenarios. We were being resourceful under pressure. Were it not for the sheer difficulty of Legendary mode, we likely would never have even discovered some of these tricks. Yet it capitalized on what we also loved about Legendary difficulty; that thrill of knowing we won because of our minds. We outsmarted the game.

Unfortunately, these moments diminished in the future Halo games. Or perhaps I simply didn't replay them enough. The only moment of subversion I experienced in Halo 2 was in the second level, when they drop the human tank at the bridge. Player two has no real choice but to sit on the tank and twiddle their thumbs, so I concocted a plan. As my brother piloted the tank, I hijacked an enemy Ghost and sped across the bridge for the enemy Wraith, the covenant equivalent of the tank. It took a couple of tries, but I managed to hijack the Wraith, allowing the two of us to participate in mass destruction together.

Other than that, the Halo games have become much more rigorously QA'ed and focus tested. The developers were fully aware of this sort of behavior, and as a result sprinkled a variety of Easter Eggs across the games in hard-to-reach places, some requiring the players to take advantage of grenade jumping, another unintended trick players discovered and turned into a mechanic.

It's nice for the developers to place some small rewards or secrets for players like that, but it's not the same. It no longer feels clever, it merely feels like you solved another one of the developer's puzzles, one that must have been tested to make sure it could be completed. It doesn't have that fist-pumping, high-fiving moment of exhilaration when you accomplish a difficult task that may have taken ten minutes, but allows you to skip on through sixty while taking out a troublesome foe with ease. It's much more rewarding to feel you've outsmarted the developer than it is to solve their clever little puzzle.

So while I still enjoy most of the remaining Halo games, none of them will ever live up to the memories I keep of Combat Evolved. My brother and I still discuss it and reminisce in diners and pubs with our friends. We don't brag about beating the game on Legendary, as the developers designed the game and difficulty with that purpose in mind. No, we talk about how we figured out you can grab those Banshees and fly right to the control room, but only if you were quick and precise enough.

The Halo games benefited in many ways from increased polish over the course of the series, but they may have lost something in the process. Oversights on the developer's part helped make Halo: Combat Evolved a more interesting, more rewarding game, and I wish the sequels, and other games, had more of that.

Comments

Talking about the OG Halo:CE always makes me think back to my sophomore year of college, when I stumbled upon the original Glass Warthog Jump video.

Such a classic. So amazing what he was able to accomplish WITHOUT a Forge mode or open sandbox.

Some of that was old even when it was new. Grenade-jumping was a thing in Marathon long before Halo. Had to use it to get to some of the easter eggs. And it HURT.

Marathon was a lot like this for me, without the co-op. More planning, more taking advantage of the AI. Ammo limited, controls clunky, enemies aggressive. Damn I loved those games. Halo has been becoming technically better, but the story in the old Marathon games was layered and all there in the game. In Halo I have no idea what was happening after the first one.

Great post. I feel exactly the same, which is kind of why I have been enjoying more roguelikes and other games like Dark Souls as of late. They aren't as polished as many AAA games, but it also means there is more room for player ingenuity. I think as time goes on more games will gravitate to a less doctored approach to game design, it is just taking a longer time because it is a much more subtle art to get it right.

Yeah. I've loved Dark Souls. And played almost a thousand hours of FTL. Part of it is simple lack of money, but another part is simply loving mastering something difficult-but-not-too-difficult.

jamos5 wrote:

Great post. I feel exactly the same, which is kind of why I have been enjoying more roguelikes and other games like Dark Souls as of late. They aren't as polished as many AAA games, but it also means there is more room for player ingenuity. I think as time goes on more games will gravitate to a less doctored approach to game design, it is just taking a longer time because it is a much more subtle art to get it right.

I feel you I think the core mechanics in roguelikes and such are far more balanced and fine-tuned, which allow other parts of the game which may not be quite as polished to be enjoyed regardless, because that which pertains to the meat of the game is so finely crafted that all else can be made good by its virtue.

I know there's some deliberate things that may be perceived as glitches in Dark Souls that were left there by the devs after testing because they thought it would allow for more flexibility, more avenues by which a player might overcome a challenge. Some things that were originally unintended, when discovered, were left there because of the inadvertent value they brought to the game.

In truth, I think part of the issue may actually be that I just don't "have the time" to replay games on higher difficulties anymore. I don't know what gave me so much more time while in high school working at GameStop, but I feel as if I can't keep up. Maybe releases I'm interested in has increased, or maybe I'm into more types of games, or maybe at some point I just fell behind. The number of times I replay games has had a tendency to decrease.

Even so, of all the games I have played on higher difficulty, it rarely feels like they're as carefully balanced as Halo: CE. While there are definitely hair-pulling moments of frustration, the game doesn't feel cheap in its boosted difficulty. The A.I. behaves differently, is more accurate, pulls off different strategies, and technically takes more effort to kill, but perhaps because a headshot is still a headshot, it doesn't feel cheap. It may take a whole clip of assault rifle ammo to take out an Elite's shields, but there are plenty of other tools that behave just the same on normal.

Maybe that's the trick. Even on Legendary you have quick methods to take out enemies that you didn't need on Normal. Hell, I remember my brother and I sticking pretty religiously to our human weapons on Normal and having some trouble, but now we pretty much ditch the assault rifle since there are so many better weapons.

I can see how the Dark Souls comparison works in that case. It's not that the game is brutally difficult to the point of being unfair, it's that if you don't learn how its inner mechanics and systems work, you'll have a rough time of it. As a result, the greatest change in Legendary has nothing to do with the amount of damage you deal, simply how much less punishment you yourself can take.

No wonder I never really enjoyed Halo 3 on Legendary.

On my Legendary co-op run through Halo: Reach, there were points where it was just in our best interest to rush Elites and melee them down.

Once you add LASO, that's when a 30 minute level on Normal/90 minute level on Legendary becomes a 3 hour slog-fest.

Yeah, there are some skulls that I simply have no interest in activating on Legendary difficulty.

I was really hoping Gears of War would recapture some of the Legendary magic, but while I have enjoyed the game's harder difficulties, enemies just become more resilient bullet sponges in the end.

McIrishJihad wrote:

On my Legendary co-op run through Halo: Reach, there were points where it was just in our best interest to rush Elites and melee them down.

Hooray for melee!

wordsmythe wrote:
McIrishJihad wrote:

On my Legendary co-op run through Halo: Reach, there were points where it was just in our best interest to rush Elites and melee them down.

Hooray for melee!

Verily.

Nothing is more satisfying than reloading for the 40th time from a checkpoint, and just rushing an Elite, having your partner "dance" with him, while you line up for an assassination.

For some reason that only reminds me of the sections in the first Halo game where you'll stumble into a room (most of them on the very same Assault on the Control Room map!) where all the Grunts are asleep with just an Elite or two and maybe a couple Jackals patrolling. We'd sneak in and melee everything in the back without getting spotted, and in the end it was as if Death stepped into the room, whispered, and walked back out again leaving nothing but bodies.

I really missed that in the later Halo games. I think Halo 2 had a moment like that when you first played the Arbiter, but it seemed to be an abandoned concept after that.