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Aesthetic Balance in Past Halo Versus Halo 5

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Calvar The Blade's picture
Calvar The Blade
Joined: 11/21/2010

I recently came across this 2012 review of Halo 4 by Joseph Bernstein:

I was struck by something he proposed in the introduction: “[The] Law of Halo: a transcendent playing experience outweighs every other bad thing a game can do.” Before continuing to read this, you should go read Joseph’s review to get a more specific sense of what he’s talking about.

Despite having a slightly different opinion about exactly how much bad Halo's central mechanics are outweighing, his “Law of Halo” rings fairly true to me. I like Halo, but it feels lopsided, perhaps most noticeably in its environments. It is not that it looks bad; it is just that it feels like it is designed to be interpreted at a glance, not ever really looked at. There is a hardness to everything that feels withdrawn. Something beautiful squashed into a form that represses it.

There is a lot of value in making sure that art design does not overtake level design, but at times in Halo it feels like the art designer and the level designer are not on speaking terms and simply try to stay out of each other’s way. The art exists in spite of the level, and vice versa. Rarely do they work together to accomplish their objectives. People often talk about getting lost in Halo levels, and I think it is because of this tension between abstract arenas and themed spaces, which combines to create something worse than the sum of its parts.

Walk around a Halo level without an enemy to shoot or some event happening, and you will feel a creeping sense of dissatisfaction. The weapons in your hands do not seem as interesting as they did when their mechanical intricacies were being enacted; they seem flat and repressed as they bob along with your Master Chief’s hands. Again: designed to be interpreted at a glance.

What made me most consciously aware of Halo’s holistic failings was the Halo 5 Multiplayer Beta. More specifically, it made me aware of those failings by its conspicuous lack of them. Each map felt like a real place that just so happened to also be a razor sharp design for an arena-based death match. There was life and personality everywhere: a tiny talking hologram at a console in one environment, curiously large scurrying beetles in another, a giant rotating turbine that cast evocative moving shadows over a choke-point in the center of an industrially-styled map. Each match began with a flythrough that effectively establishes the larger context of the map, showing which ones are set in space, in a jungle, a city, a vast weathered plain.

It is designed to be looked at, to be interrogated and give up countless secrets. It is also designed to have memorable landmarks, exacting dimensions, and a clear visual language. Those two things combine in an almost intoxicating way, where being drawn to either admire the craft of a central pillar and being drawn to calculate the trajectory a grenade will bounce off it at seem like equally intended results. No longer does the art feel repressed or withdrawn, instead it feels like it has stretched its legs precisely as far as it wanted to all along.

Halo 5 owes this decompressed feeling to its new mechanics, most of which are centered around mobility, and all of which contain some new element of player expression. Everyone has a thruster pack (the loadout concept for special abilities has been thrown out) and the ability to sprint infinitely, so levels are quite a bit bigger in scale. Thrusting does not send you upwards, it extends your jump in a horizontal downward trend, meaning that using it effectively requires you to combine your old jumping skills with a new “clamber” ability similar to the quick-climb you can find in most modern shooters. Your ability to vertically traverse is augmented in a way that feeds your ability to horizontally traverse, which is given extra precision by the ability to hover in the air, steadying yourself for a shot or charging up to perform a ground pound that kills any enemy in one hit. Not only are these abilities conducive to a less vertically restrictive playing field, they also give you more opportunities to survey said field. They are all about coexisting more joyously with the environment: reaching out and touching it to pull you up, seeing it from an unusual angle.

What I’ve seen of Halo 5 so far is environments I would not mind exploring rather than shooting stuff in. Everything about it feels more Three Dimensional: the weapons feel more authentic and physically connected to the world you inhabit. Unlike in previous Halos, when you zoom in with them you actually look through their scope, or hold them more steadily out in front of you as your suit's targeting system projects a holographic crosshair. When you thrust, your brace the weapon in the opposite direction from whence you came. When you fall, you angle the weapon more freely, as if the laws of gravity have appropriate effect on the object you are holding. You do not feel like a gun with hands attached, you feel like an individual holding a gun while navigating a fantastic and grounded space in expressive ways.

It feels so much more complete than any Halo game ever has felt to me, despite how much I have loved them. And it really speaks to how beautiful Halo is at its core: despite how much more expressive and fresh and exciting everything feels due to the presentation and experiential improvements, its moment to moment gameplay feels closer to the purity of Halo 1 than any Halo game has felt since. All Halo’s sequels have been solid games in their own right, but Halo 5 feels like the sequel that the first game truly deserved. If the story can fulfill the kind of promise the world of the game makes, it might be something really special, but even if not, i'd consider it a massive step forward.

Of the entire series, only Halo 1 and 5 have had the reticule in the center of the screen, not offset to the bottom. The reason you offset a reticule in an FPS is because you want the player to feel comfortable with moving along mostly flat surfaces and not needing to look up very often. The reason you center it is because you want the player to feel comfortable with looking and moving in many directions, from many angles, and across a wide variety of elevations.

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