Friday, September 9, 2016

Was Halo 4 really that bad? (shortened version)

So, a bit of background first. I actually never owned the original Xbox and didn’t play Halo CE or 2 until many years past their relevance. Back then I was too sheltered to be allowed to play most M rated games anyway, but starting with 3, I was an avid player of the Halo series. To this day I still consider 3 my favorite in the series and played it semi-regularly for over two years after it released. When Wars and ODST came out, I played the shit out of those games too and loved them.

Overall I’ve always felt saddened that after H3’s relevance faded, Halo as a whole fell out of the mainstream scene and is now somewhat niche in the gaming world. When you think about it, Halo is to CoD what MySpace was to Facebook. However, one game that’s always been a point of contention with me was Reach. I’ll expand on this in a bit, but the point I wanted to bring up here was my confusion with the fanbase’s opinion on Reach and Halo 4.

Why does everyone and their mother worship Reach as the second coming of Jesus and call Halo 4 the worst thing they’ve ever played? I am genuinely curious about this and so far my attempts to get a straight, detailed answer have been fruitless. I get the same responses every time. Generic stuff like “It sucks”, “it was horrible”, or something about it being made by 343i instead of Bungie. 

Now, don’t get it twisted – I by no means consider Reach a bad game, but I do consider it the worst main series Halo game (I have never played Halo 5, as I cannot afford an X1). Although it was the only game in the series I never played “seriously” (as in, I used to screw around and troll in matchmaking back in the day), I still had hours of fun in it. Big Team battle was a blast when I had a full party and I was addicted to the online co-op firefight modes like you wouldn’t believe. It’s just that out of all the main Halo games, this is the one I have the largest list of complaints for.

Let’s begin with the campaign mode, something I think Halo delivers better on than most multiplayer shooters. By the time this game came out, I was no stranger to the Reach conflict. All the way back in 2007, I actually met someone on Halo 3 who had read most of the Halo novels and basically gave me a huge exposition dump on all the stuff that happened to the Chief outside of the games. For me, the picture painted from the Reach conflict was massive, large-scale battles, desperate struggles, and fighting the inevitable.
What the actual Reach game felt like for me was instead a collection of laughably small-scale battles, glorified recon missions, and generally unengaging combat. I didn’t feel much for the new characters either, they died too soon after being introduced for me to form much of an attachment, and I felt like most of their deaths were too convenient and only happened to shock the player and move the plot forward. I know console limitations are a thing, but most of the battles just felt too tiny even compared to missions like The Covenant from Halo 3.

One thing I will agree with is that Halo 4’s actual story is very questionable. The Cortana romance subplot gets close to cringe territory and there are a lot of other unfitting elements thrown in for no real reason. The only thing I liked better about it was that they had the MC talk more than usual – silent protags got old for me after Pokémon. That being said, I did find the gameplay more fun and varied. The space mission, while being a complete ripoff of the death star run, was infinitely more fun than the Saber segment in Reach where I had to repeatedly take on the imposing task of shooting down 8 ships. The general scale of the campaign felt like it dwarfed Reach.

As for the firefight mode, like I said, I thought it was awesome. I especially liked the new Score Attack mode where you could compete with your friends for the high score on each map; it gave it that authentic old school arcade feel. Don’t even get me started on the custom firefight, a paradise for masochists like me to make every wave consist of the most powerful units on Legendary. As someone who adored this mode in ODST, I was happy to see it built upon further. If I had to make one very small complaint, I didn’t like how there were infinite ammo crates in the maps. Part of what made it so challenging in ODST was having to either conserve ammo or relegate yourself to the half-empty covenant weapons until the new ones spawned. In Reach, unless I was on Legendary, I’d just use the pistol the entire time and keep refilling it. If there’s anything I could heavily dislike about 4, it was the removal of this mode in favor of the Spartan Ops that never even got finished.
When it comes to multiplayer, I liked it for the most part. Up until Gears of War 3 came out, Reach was my favorite game to play online. Some of my most fond memories of Xbox live were the many summer nights in 2011 I spent playing Big Team Battle or Firefight with my regular group of friends. At the same time though, Reach’s multiplayer felt the most gimmicky of the bunch. Being this game’s “big new thing”, armor abilities felt a little too prevalent. Combat felt like it was too centered around them. Of course, the one everyone brings up is Armor Lock, and I’m no exception. Choosing it prompted more collective groans than picking Meta Knight in SSBB, and it was little more than a crutch for unskilled players. I love that Arby n the Chief made fun of it in later episodes.

I feel like Reach also had the highest volume of “cheap tactics” that could be employed, especially compared to 3. In addition to the obvious Armor Lock, the DMR felt like a BR on training wheels and I couldn’t help but laugh at the 12 year olds who thought they were some kind of pro every time they got a kill with it (seriously, it got to the point where I’d get shit on for using the AR). It was also laughably easy to spawn trap; this was also the case in the early days of Halo 4, but at least they patched it out in that game.
All that being said, there was one aspect of Reach’s MP that made my blood boil just thinking about it. Something that to this day I refuse to forgive the game for: The fact that every map is a direct copy/paste from the campaign. It absolutely baffles me that no one else is bothered by this. I’ll admit I’m somewhat of an aesthetics whore which is part of why I hated seeing the same things I just finished playing on after clearing the campaign, but most of these maps also aren’t particularly fun to play on. For me, they ranged from boring as sin (Sword Base, Zealot) to painfully mediocre (Boardwalk, and Powerhouse which felt like a watered-down High Ground). Other than Spire, the only good maps are either Forge World variants (to an extent, looking at that same environment gets old) and the original designs locked away in the overpriced DLC. Even without all the other shortcomings, this alone would make me consider Reach the worst main series Halo.

If there’s one thing I do think Reach did better than any other Halo, it was the ranking system. Disagree with me all you want, I still say Halo 3’s ranking system was busted. I understand how it was supposed to work, but for me, I could win five or six matches in a row and not gain a rank, but lose a single round and lose a rank. To make matters worse, matching up with bad teammates could easily cost you a rank or two
So what, by comparison, was so bad about Halo 4’s MP? Killcams and hitmarkers? Oh, cry me a river. Most of the maps were original concepts (and infinitely more fun to play on except Complex, screw everyone who voted for that awful map in matchmaking), and hell, two of them were remakes of beloved Halo 3 maps. Not all of them were great; I definitely had preferences here and there. Spending 90% of my time in BTB made me partial to Vortex and Exile, but my favorite was Vertigo. In general, the DLCs felt way more worth the money than Reach’s, although I bear some resentment toward the first pack, which randomly deleted itself from my hard drive and now acts like it needs to be re-bought. Anyways, armor abilities are still there, but aren’t nearly as prevalent and strategy no longer revolves around their use. 

The new loadout system also feels more intuitive, I love being able to start with any of the non-power weapons within reason and it catered to a larger variety of playstyles. Of particular note is the ability to start with Plasma Grenades. H4 nerfed frag grenades to joke weapon status, so it was nice to have an alternative, but most importantly vehicles no longer dominated the larger maps. Coming from someone who spent a good amount of time behind the wheel in the Halo series, I welcomed this balance. 

H4’s multiplayer was by no means perfect, but after the watered-down taste Reach left in my mouth, this felt like the closest thing to a return to form. This could partially be attributed to each game’s presentation, but before I get to that, I wanted to talk about Forge mode. This was something that made Halo stand out even further than it usually does against most modern shooters. I spent countless hours in this mode back in Halo 3, and Reach’s new forge was something that was heavily promoted in the game’s prerelease days. It built upon Halo 3’s DLC maps with blocks of many shapes and sizes that could be phased together to create maps entirely from scratch. 

This was all shown off on Reach’s premier forging map, aptly named Forge World. A map tailor-made for forging was no doubt an innovative idea, but I couldn’t help but be very disappointed upon learning that this was the only map you could forge on. When I saw the new forge system, I saw it as an opportunity to make the copy-pasted campaign multiplayer maps less boring, but the “structure” menu isn’t available on these maps, meaning the best you could do is tiny changes to weapon placement, spawns, and the like, so you could barely make them different.

Again, Forge World was fun, but the novelty wore out after a while. The same generic Green Hill Zone terrain. The same gray metal blocks and buildings. You see where I’m going with this. Sure, there was a ton of diversity in what you could make, but it all had the same aesthetic and looking at the same thing every time got old quick. The size of Forge World was also very exaggerated in the prerelease material, unsurprisingly. The default maps made from it were somewhat interesting, although Hemorrhage has to be the most hollow, uninspired “remake” of Blood Gulch I’ve ever seen.

To me, this felt like a step back from Halo 3. Even most of the game’s default maps could be dynamically changed, and when the DLC maps came out, almost all of them included the new blocks to use. Even though you couldn’t phase them together (without a glitch anyways), at least you had different canvases to work with. I think a few of Reach’s DLC packs had forge-able maps to be fair and I probably would’ve purchased them if they weren’t released so close together.

4 on the other hand came packaged with a grand total of three Forge World-esque maps each with their own aesthetic and layout, plus a fourth one offered as free DLC. Even though by the time of Halo 4, people had more or less ditched custom games entirely in favor of their obsession with ranking and K/D, I spent way more time in this game’s iteration of Forge. If they still let you zoom in with the monitor, this mode would’ve been perfect thanks to the magnet system and lighting improvements.

When it comes to presentation, I definitely think both games have something to bring to the table. Reach’s customization was undeniably awesome. I could’ve lived without the shorter, stockier look for the Spartans (although from my understanding of canon this is how Spartan IIIs were), but the new selection of armor was great. As if the new designs themselves weren’t already very creative (Pilot was my favorite by far), there were also different sub-variants that added accessories and such, and even things like a med kit you could add on for extra realism. Combinations were endless, and I still think it was incredibly stupid how 90% of players exclusively wore the bulkiest armor possible.

On the other hand, the game overall looked a bit too realistic for my tastes. One thing Halo has always done to set itself apart from other popular shooters is keeping a colorful, vibrant aesthetic. Reach felt like it tried to completely avert this with its gritty, washed-out look. Donut’s remark about the armor in Red Vs Blue couldn’t be truer. Although you could still customize your colors, the color itself got swallowed by blacks and grays on most armor sets, and most of them hid your emblem too. This felt all too similar to what Super Smash Bros tried to do in the transition from Melee to Brawl. Even the maps looked a bit too desaturated at times.

When I first played Halo 4, one of the first things to give me a sigh of relief was the return to the vibrant look that Halo was known for. I won’t argue that some of the new armor perms are weird or ugly, but when I did find one I liked, I liked it a lot. Rogue is probably my favorite armor perm in the whole franchise. Overall, the game just felt much easier on the eyes. I do miss playable elites, however, even if most of the variants in Reach looked kinda stupid. The new weapon skins were also rather pretty. Pre-order bonuses are definitely something I have a disdain for, but I’d rather have them be for looks than something you almost need to be able to play the game properly (looking at you, No Man’s Sky).

Like all the other Halos, Reach and 4 both had nice soundtracks, but I don’t think either of them trump anything from the original trilogy. The menu theme in Reach’s beta was awesome (it’s still on YouTube somewhere, I think) and I couldn’t be more salty that it got removed in the final game. The one they ended up using felt kind of generic and phoned-in, and honestly grated on me after a while if I had to spend a long time waiting in the menus. 4’s menu theme was infinitely better, but I didn’t find a lot of the music from the campaign very memorable.

I guess that’s all I have to talk about here. Like I said, Reach wasn’t a bad game, I just don’t get why everyone but me thinks it’s the best one in the series and thinks 4 is the worst. I am by no means saying that Halo 4 even comes close to trumping Halo 3, but it felt like an improvement over Reach in almost every feasible way. Coming to 4 as a die-hard fan of 3 was nothing short of a breath of fresh air. No one I’ve asked has been able to elaborate on what was so bad about it, which says something about the fans. I think the community favoring Reach so heavily is more than a little biased – I’m willing to bet that a lot of said bias comes from the fact that Reach has “Bungie” slapped on the case instead of “343i” and if the situation was reversed, people would be singing a different tune.

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