Genres in games are going to be like genres in just about everything else. There are going to be installments that create it, installments that define it, and installments that redefine it. And in between you can go a whole decade or more where nothing revolutionary happens, and we just have to bide our time with until the next big thing happens. The first Halo was of the later category, and has single-handedly changed the way FPS’ are made, possibly forever. But now that we have ten years to look back and see how much the industry has changed, and with the remastered Anniversary Edition coming out under Microsoft’s cash cow policy, I think I can safely say that we learned the wrong things from Halo.
Let’s get away with the obvious. Halo introduced us to the unending blight that is regenerative health. Actually that’s not true, Halo 2 introduced regenerative health, and the first Halo had standard health packs with a regenerative shield. That last one there. That was what we should have learned from Halo. Bungie did a really smart thing when they designed Halo, because they recognized that there is a serious flaw with all FPS’ up to that point. That the difficulty of a particular fight could vary wildly depending on how much health the player had. If they had full health and access to healing packs, then the fight could be a breeze. If they had low health and no packs, the fight would be impossible. So what they did was add a level of insurance. Yes you still had to monitor your health and search for packs if it was low, but you always had the insurance of the shield there. It meant that no matter what part of the game you where at, Bungie could always know that you would always have that shield, and so they take a better stab at were the difficulty for each fight was going to be. And they kept a normal health system, because they still understood that having health packs meant that you had that exploration element, and that it allowed for a sense of continuity between firefights.
But we didn’t learn that apparently. What we learned is that Halo 2 is one of the best selling games of all time, and it had regenerative health, so every game should have regenerative health too so we can make money. The problem is that regenerative health is just a really lazy way to program games, and it takes away more then it adds. Namely it adds nothing to the game, and takes away all the exploration, the continuity, and the wonderful feeling of accomplishment and dread that you managed to survive that last fight with only one bar left so you better be super careful until you find that next pack. And it seems that Bungie have apologized for this, because Halo: Reach had the best compromise between the old way of doing health, and the new Wolverine way of it. In Reach, you have the shield, and your health regenerates, but not all the way. So if you take more then 50% health then you regen; up to 50% health. This is a really good way of doing it, it means that Bungie now better control over the difficulty curve, but they still have that sense of continuity and control you just don’t get with regenerating health. In fact there was a part in the story were your character falls down to the planet from sub-orbital heights (that’s not a hyperbole) and when you start the next mission, some of your health is missing. As always, I love it when games are able to convey their story through the game’s mechanics like that.
But there’s another thing that makes the Halo games so much fun to play that it seems that just about every other type of modern FPS has completely failed to learn. Halo had really good enemies to fight. Call of Duty has shit enemies to fight, because they’re all the same. Terrorists or soldiers in brown uniforms who die in one head shot, and maybe one of them will occasionally have a rocket launcher. But Halo had several different types of enemies, and each one not only looked different and instantly recognizable from the others, but required different strategies to defeat. Grunts were weak and died in one shot, Jackals were just as weak but had shields so you needed to grenade or flank them. Then there were the Elites who were just as tough as you, and had shields. By mixing fights with these different enemy types, not only could Bungie control the difficulty curve, but it prevented the game from getting boring. Instead of just hiding behind cover and getting head shots, you had to change your tactics almost constantly and make actual choices. Do I go for the Elite first since he’s the toughest, or take the Grunts and prevent them from overwhelming me? These are choices. In most other games, it’s “Do I shoot that guy in the head, or the identical guy right next to him in the head?” Developers like to talk about choices in their games. But this isn’t some moral alignment choice, or deciding what hat your character is going to wear. This is actual, honest in game decision making, and brilliantly designed games are brilliant, because they are always giving the players difficult, meaningful decisions.
So I guess that’s what we need to learn from Halo. It was a game that found a compromise between developer control, and player choice. You could get that health pack now or push on and save it for later? This needs to come back to shooter games.