Guarding the outskirts of the anti-air gun early in Halo 3’s campaign is a quadrupedal Covenant tank called a Scarab. Stepping its spidery legs around a circular complex lined with missile pods, a large crane, and enough foot space to let half a dozen vehicles unload their artillery, the scarab is the largest working unit in the series. A far cry from Master Chief’s scripted encounter with it in Halo 2, this AI controlled enemy has a giant laser cannon and its own hit points, and is transporting a squad of Covenant sentries laying heavy fire. As you stare at it in awe, a question forms: how am I supposed to take that thing down? A couple ways. Focus all your fire on the hull and blow it away, or shoot its legs until they lower, fight your way to the power core, and set off a chain reaction. Both answers are possible in the arena littered with tools of mass destruction.
Look at its design and you’ll find that Halo’s combat is a dynamically shifting puzzle between the competing forces of the player and enemy. It’ll probably never be said enough how important to all shooters Halo’s dual stick controller was, as it allowed a console to emulate a mouse and keyboard’s character movement and aiming. What’s less recognized is how similar the configuration is to a classic arcade shooter: in a sense, Halo is a first-person version of the classic shoot ’em up Robotron: 2084, both games moving their characters with one stick while aiming their shots with the other. By mapping melee and grenades to its available control scheme, Halo puts a complete suite of moves, creating a rounded set of mechanics and tactics, within the reach of your trigger fingers and thumbs. But developer Bungie didn’t stop there. With Halo, they created a combat model of ever changing opportunities that can be theoretically scaled up infinitely.
Halo’s puzzle is formed on top of a foundation comprised of Grunts, Jackals, and Elites. While the Grunt is the smaller unit, a trait reflected in their low health and low damage, they make up for it with quantity, usually coming in packs of three to five. Jackals have a different value set, their hand-held energy shield covering for their low health, firepower, and speed. Stronger are the Elites, whose mid-tier plasma rifles, sturdy shields, and agility mean there is rarely more than a pair per squad. To further their coverage, these enemies were given a hierarchy of classes that come with their own weapon set and statistical values. Placed together, this Covenant trifecta facilitates a wide range of challenges to throw at the player. Any situation is about how to break the puzzle down to nothing and move on.
The key is firepower. The core principle in the design, the weapons were crafted with a host of different statistics in mind, including damage, reload speed, ammo capacity, range, and stopping power. Additional weapons were given a host of additional properties, from the knockback of the shotgun to the multiplying damage of the Needler, to the zoom on the Sniper Rifle and stronger melee of the Brute Shot. Halo 3 adds items to the mix for the first time, jump pads, bubble barriers, and limited invincibility. In Halo, You are constantly changing, your new doors of opportunity opening enough to allow alternative pressures to rush in.
Thanks to the solid foundation set by the Grunt/Jackal/Elite squad, half the work of effectively simulating a reactive enemy AI had been completed. Since the enemies already had their own characteristics, they inherently deal with different situations differently. Universal are the desire to seek cover while under fire, to dive away from a grenade that lands at their feet, to shoot weapons at certain intervals. Then there’s the layer the player assigns them because of memorable moments; it may seem like a Grunt just decided to chuck a grenade to flush you from behind a barrier, but the truth is they regularly toss ’em, you notice it here because your camping had left you particularly vulnerable to it. The squad was also given a tactical cohesion by writing a behavior that forms up around the Elites. The benefit to removing them early is that it causes the others to lose their composure and flee, making them easy pickins. This concept is found on the UNSC’s side as well, seen in the way Marines huddle close during firefights and fill extra seats in your vehicles.
The combat trinity works so well because its three mechanics exist on a spectrum of distinct, but complementary, attributes. Consider the time makeup of the melee and grenades for a second. Hit the B button and MC will immediately punch his weapon out, a move that does solid damage in its small range but takes a second to recover from, leaving you vulnerable and exposed. Then there’s the left trigger’s grenade, an option whose large damage is balanced by the several seconds-long fuse. One has an immediate payoff, one delayed, with the ranged weapon anchoring the center. Consider too the tactical advantages both come with that, where the melee’s blunt impact can interrupt an attack, and the grenade causes any in its blast radius to dive away.
As Bungie had redefined the nature of a player’s offense, so too did they reimagine their defense, with regenerating shields an almost necessary counter to the overall design. Thanks to the shields, death is thwarted by buying a few precious seconds for your suit to recharge. That time is bought in several different ways, from playing it safe behind cover, or by using the melee to stun an enemy or a grenade to scatter a group. The shield is a means of creating constant reversals of fortune within a combat scenario and regulating a constant flow over the course of the larger map. Eliminating health pickups means you keep your mind in the action. As shields go down, emotions go up.
With the intuitive control scheme and logical, easily recognizable enemy behavior, Halo lets the mind pull back and see the whole battle picture at once. With your attention open, you’re able to keep track of enemies outside your vision, map physical blocks or ledges that you just ran past, and remember locations of the weapon you just dropped. That awareness is further expanded with the excellent audio design, introducing enemies by their cries, and identifying that heavy plunk sound of a frag grenade landing nearby. Halo seamlessly brings you into its complex world.
The growing roster of enemies further pulled Halo’s puzzle in different ways, with the twin hunters forcing a close game of evasion and the swarming drones mobile and quick, but it wasn’t refined until 3 replaced the Elites with the gorilla-like Brutes. By Halo 2, the recharging shields had made the higher difficulties a slog, where you could shoot an Elite until your guns ran dry and be no closer to killing them. The Brutes offer the same base concepts as their counterpart, but their physical armor could be chipped off until bare, a status change that flips their AI scripting to engage with a physical, animalistic offense. Precise evasion and accurate shots put the beasts down. There’s little difference between a Brute Chieftain with a Hammer or turret and a lower class unit with a plasma rifle if you get them angry enough. With their two fleshed out behavioral modes, defined health points, and large selection of weapon types, the Brutes are the single most fun enemy to fight in the Halo franchise. And some come with jetpacks.
Given all the individual factors that went into Halo’s design, its many puzzles are the combination of enemy composition, available pool of weapons, and the environmental terrain. When the in-game economy, and its options, change with every bullet you fire, every slug you take, the game becomes about finding the least expensive solution available to the moment. A rocket may be the ideal answer to a group of grunts or a shielded Elite, but it’s a waste on one jackal when they can be opened by a single accurate shot through the gap in its shield and followed up by a headshot. In that way, player ability is its own means of breaking the code.
Of course, things get even more interesting when Halo’s third faction enters the fray. On top of the Brutes, Halo 3 had solidified the Flood’s pillar in the design. For the combat model itself, making them flinch at blunt damage makes melee a fully viable tactic for the first time. The Flood’s upgrade also finally grafted their characterization completely to their gameplay. Where the small spores once just ate away at your shield, they now reanimate downed corpses and transform into a stronger one. The system creates a simple trial of merit, punishing inaction with stronger enemies.
The consistent set of rules all these choices build inherently creates fairness. You can observe elements in real time and learn to improve against anyone of them. It’s inspired then that Bungie took the opportunity to create a score system and player-activated modifiers. The Skulls exponentially increase the game’s already impressive variety, giving players reason to come back and rerun levels over and over. Halo 3 on Legendary is a beautiful thing (long live Grunt Birthday Party.)
If offering this perfect shooter scheme wasn’t enough, Halo’s design was also implicitly scalable, letting Master Chief slot into any vehicle and adopt its characteristics while keeping the basic movement consistent. When you sit and think about it, you don’t just control an avatar that uses a shotgun or Needler, you are playing as a him and as a warthog and as a banshee and a scorpion and more, all with their own distinct speeds, turning radius, damage, health bar, and a dozen other system-level stats. To deal with the changes of size, the camera pulls back and behind the player, the distance greater the larger the vehicle. It’s crazy how much of Halo is played in the third person despite revolutionizing the first. When Halo 2 introduced vehicle boarding, they gave the soldier a close-quarters counter to a charging ghost. That was such an important addition.
One of the many advantages to the enemy archetypes is not just that they make great scenarios, it’s that they easily make a lot of them, and then puts them in a sequence. With them you can have a small jungle path lined with snipers, an uphill push to claim the high ground, and a desert valley tank skirmish. These scenes link throughout the level, your ammo running out the whole way. Then a dropship enters with fresh reinforcements and full clips and lays suppressing fire. At their top layer, the scaling gameplay can be scripted into place to literally drop new challenges on your head in a logical way.
This same shifting happens on the player side as well, offering up to four people the chance to run through missions together, the campaign scoring bragging rights to the best. The multiplayer puts more weapon combos onto the map simultaneously, diverts AI attention, and boosts the damage per second hitting that dropship, making it easier to blow it and its passengers from the sky.
Let’s look at what Halo offers by way of its structure: by implementing systems that shape both the player and enemy along with a gameplay that increases their sizes in real time, Bungie has created a constantly flexing affordance field, a fluctuating set of solutions to solve the evolving survival puzzle contained on every map. With weapons that have their own properties, an opportunity bubble wraps around the player, while the vehicle selection expands or contracts it onto larger and larger scales, perfect for fighting greater threats and changing the questions in the combat.
At Halo 3’s penultimate climax, after the war had escalated until it dropped two Scarabs on your crew, it’s remarkable how its final battle shrinks the gunplay to the smallest size the series has seen. As you take a Spartan Laser off a fallen friend, you aim it at the duplicitous floating ball Guilty Spark and pull the trigger. And it begins to charge, building up strength as you sidestep laser blasts on a metal platform. At the end of Halo 3, the puzzle is solved by mastering its three most fundamental mechanics: maneuver, aim, and fire. And then put the pedal to the metal to escape an ancient alien superstructure collapsing out from under you.
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.