Retrospectives – Halo Single-Player Campaigns part 2

In this continuation of the Halo single player retrospective I will look at…

Level Design

Halo has never been one to “wow” a player with its level design. One of the core examples of why Metroid Prime was cited as being better than Halo was its superior level design, which, in retrospect, is not a huge accomplishment. Levels like The Library seem to be a test for the level designers to see how many times they could use the Copy-Paste function in their level editors.

To be truthful though, Bungie makes really good outdoor environments. This seems to be because it is usually devoid of any Forerunner architecture. When Master Chief travels through a Forerunner structure, there is very little in the way of detail. It’s an artistic choice, but it doesn’t lend itself to variety. Buildings usually just consist of metal rooms. For gameplay it’s not really an issue, as a table would just be something to move around while fighting enemies. But when all you encounter is metal room after metal room, for hours on end, you’re going to start linking Halo with Doom, even when it isn’t justified.

But I will give credit for what Halo: Combat Evolved did with The Library. Although it’s the same few rooms repeated ad nauseum, Bungie balanced and refined the enemy encounters really well. Fighting wave after wave of the Flood creates a survival horror scenario that is usually left to games like Resident Evil. You are continually rationing out your ammo, and it becomes a harrowing experience when there are 10-12 Flood enemies jumping all over the place and all you have left is six bullets in your Shotgun.

Sadly, they could never reproduce this feeling in the sequels. Most people complained about The Library level in reviews and forums, and Bungie reacted by basically removing that scenario from both Halo 2 and Halo 3. Specifically, they took away the survival horror aspect, but kept in the Forerunner drudgery. They even made it worse in Halo 2, by making the levels drag on for way too long. The run up to “Delta” Halo’s Library was one of the longest parts in the game, and it was not a fun experience.

Again, the second half of Halo 2 is pure work. It takes forever to finish most levels, and half of the time there is no big pay-off.

There are multiple examples in Halo 2 where after completing a level there was no big ending to give the player a feeling of accomplishment and make him interested in what happens next. Halo: Combat Evolved did a really good job with this aspect. Finding the Cartographer, accessing Halo’s main terminal, and blowing up the Pillar of Autumn were some great level-ending scenarios. Halo 2 had nothing really note-worthy in terms of scripted events. It did have the first Scarab battle, but after experiencing them in Halo 3, you have no reason to replay Halo 2 again.

Halo 3 is the most refined in terms of actual level design. It keeps the Forerunner level design to a minimum, and rarely has you fighting the Flood. It gives you one full level with the Flood, but it’s a brief period of the game. It’s a pretty tough level too, only because those spiny bastards love to shoot you from seven miles away and hit you right in the face. Halo 3 also shows a lot more outdoor environments, and they all play out great. The 2-Scarab battle near the end is also one of the greatest battles in all of gaming.

One thing I did find a little troubling with Halo 2, and to a lesser extent Halo 3, was that Bungie gave you vehicles a little too quickly. In Halo: Combat Evolved, you get a Warthog maybe two hours in. It was a good spot to give the player a break from combat, and it made the experience more enjoyable, since it is something fresh for the player to try. In Halo 2, you get a vehicle less than an hour in. Driving around is great, don’t get me wrong, but it gives the player more satisfaction when they limit that style of gameplay. When you saw a Scorpion or Warthog in Halo 1, you felt relieved and excited. In Halo 2 and 3, I felt less enticed to hop in, because more than half the game had you driving against Wraiths, Ghosts, and Banshees. It loses some potency. Halo 3 kept the variety within those driving missions high to mask this problem, but I still think they balanced it best in Halo 1.

Next entry – Story, presentation and the conclusion.

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