Two steps forward…

With each consecutive hardware generation it takes time to achieve what was possible at the end of the previous generation. New hardware requires new software techniques and often a return to first principles. The initial move from sprite based to polygon based games saw a marked increase in the spatial complexity of environments but was accompanied by a dramatic decrease in the size and number of objects that could exist within those environments. This clearest example of this can be seen when comparing Doom and Quake, two games separated by three years and an entire dimension. It wouldn’t be until five years later that the release of Serious Sam saw a return to the sprawling environments and hundreds of enemies that Doom boasted.

Twenty years ago I was playing a game that allowed me to explore thousands of square miles of virtual terrain. I was driving snowmobiles down mountains in order to meet one of over thirty non-player characters each with their own personality and skills which I would hopefully convince them to use in the fight against the invading forces of General Masters. This was Midwinter, prequel to the game I still  consider my favourite game of all time, Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom.

Since then, with each hardware generation, the scale of the environments in which I’ve been able to play has decreased. Only recently has the  trend started to reverse and I have been able to have a similar experience to that I had twenty years ago. Far Cry 2 is the nearest I’ve come to recapturing that experience of first playing Midwinter, yet even though Far Cry 2 shows a significant increase in graphical fidelity over Midwinter the range of options available to me, the possibility space of the game, feels reduced.

It would be extremely narrow minded of me to ignore the impact the increase in technology has had on my reaction to the game, or to underestimate how the subtle changes in available mechanics have altered the dynamics. Despite these advancements in both technology and design it’s still difficult to ignore the feeling that somehow I’m playing a version of the same game I played twenty years ago and that the core experience has changed little in that time.

Twenty years of technological advancement, several hardware generations all so I can have essentially the same experience available on my Atari ST. I can’t help but wonder if that time has really been put to the best use.

This is not the only example I can think of where a recent titles has felt like it could have been created years previously. Last year saw the release of Left 4 Dead, a major factor in its appeal is the ability to face off against hordes of zombies alongside three companions.  Four players together fighting off dozens of mindless enemies, it’s a fantasy that holds a lot of appeal. Yet that sense of four players against overwhelming odds, is an experience I can distinctly remember having eight years ago. Alongside three friends I faced down hundreds of enemies in the twisted ancient Egyptian setting of Serious Sam. The sheer number of enemies that game is able to thrown at the player is absurd, the final level is subtitled “Infinite Bodycount” and I honestly wonder how much of that is hyperbole.

The mechanics of Left 4 Dead could have been implemented seven years earlier in Serious Sam or even fifteen years earlier in Doom. The graphical fidelity of such an implementation would be much lower, but would the experience itself be that much different?

Of course it’s not only technology that has changed in that time. Those seven years have allowed artists, sound designers and level designers to hone their craft to the extent that even if Left 4 Dead or something similar had appeared earlier it would not possess the same level of craft. It takes time to learn and apply the techniques of filmic art direction and indirect training that make Left 4 Dead the holistic experience that it is.

This still doesn’t completely lessen the sensation that twenty years of technological advancement have done little for the actual design of games, and that is  a wasted opportunity. Commercial video games are approaching their fortieth anniversary and with the first few years of each hardware generation spent trying to recreate the experiences that were possible before it’s little wonder that it can feel like video games have had trouble growing up in that period.

Combat Evolved.

“Don’t get any funny ideas.”

I like Halo: Combat Evolved.

In any list of my personal favourite titles it would be up there with Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom and Thief II: The Metal Age. Each of the Halo sequels have been entertaining but none had the same impact, nor felt as pure in their execution as the original.

I have completed Halo at least five times. Usually I don’t replay games on harder difficult settings as often the more challenging settings in action games are simply exercises in frustration, the core experience unchanged except with enemies becoming bullet sponges. This is not the case with Halo, I completed the game on Normal, and after hearing how the difficult significantly changed the experience I opted to make a second attempt on Heroic. When I did that, everything changed.

On Normal I’d found all the weapons to be useful, but on Heroic the differentiation between each weapon and weapon combination became dramatically more apparent. The Needler went from simply interesting to the ultimate weapon for defeating shielded Elites; the Plasma Pistol from a mild irritant to the first part of a One-Two combo with the Assault Rifle to defeat Jackals. My attitude to the enemies changed too, Grunts went from amusing cannon-fodder to dangerous distractions; easy to kill, but armed with Needlers and Plasma Pistols they could inflict a lot of damage in groups.

Finally moving to Legendary the differences between the weapons and enemies became even more pronounced to the extent that Halo all but stopped being about action and became instead a tactical shooter; very specific weapon and target selection required to succeed. Still it never once felt like it was cheating, there were no precognitive ambushes, nor one-hit kill snipers; something that the sequels would later resorted to.

The changes that occur to the balance of the core gameplay when moving from Normal to Heroic are such that I maintain Bungie made a mistake in selecting Normal as the default difficulty setting. A suspect few people will change the difficult when th y first play the game and therefore never experience the tactical depth Halo has to offer. On Normal your starting weapons are effective in most circumstances so there is rarely a motivation to do anything more than hold down the trigger.

There are other problems with the game, the one most commonly mentioned is that of its repetitive environments. Even though some areas are explicitly duplicated during the course of the game, the enemy type, number and placement is different each time, as are the weapons you are likely to be wielding; the tactical space of the game is always different.

There are no boss battles, no dramatic spikes in difficult, or sections where an entirely new skill set is required. There are vehicle sections but the controls remain essentially the same, the right stick always controls the camera, the left always handles movement, and the right trigger is always fire.

The game introduces you carefully to each enemy, subsequent encounters requiring you to gradually develop your abilities and tactics. You start the game fighting Grunts and Elites in confined areas, then you move to fighting Grunts, Elites and Jackels in open areas, and then fighting with vehicles. It eventually introduces the Flood, and once you know how to deal with them (Involving sadly the worse level in the game, The Library, which combines both aesthetic and functional repetition), it asks you to fight the Flood and the Covenant, and then the Flood, the Covenant and the Sentinels. Each encounter requires that you take the skills developed previously and build on them.

There are only seven main enemy types, and ten weapon types (Including the two different types of grenades), enough to provide variety but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track of specific strengths and weaknesses of each. Again this is somewhere the sequels failed, the introduction of several new weapons, enemies and eventually usable items, meant that it became difficult to keep track of the interactions between each, and often led to some weapons being under utilised.

Halo has a limited number of objects each with very specific interactions through which it’s able to promote meaningful choices and tactical play; while still managing to provide surprises and challenges even on my sixth return visit.

“An entire Covenant armada, obliterated, and the Flood… we had no choice…”