The Fight for the Shooter Crown: Halo vs Call of Duty

February 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Halo: Reach is a game in which you, an anonymous soldier, make your way through linear levels from a generally first person perspective. Your primary interaction with the world around you is through the barrel of a gun, which is handy because everything wants to kill you. Sometimes you come across men that want to kill things that want to kill you. This makes them your friends. You reach the end, credits roll, and then you head online to do much the same thing without the linearity.

Call of Duty is a game in which you, a largely anonymous soldier, make your way through linear levels from a first person perspective. Your primary interaction with the world around you is through the barrel of a gun, which is handy because everything wants to kill you. Sometimes you come across men that want to kill men that want to kill you. This makes them your friends. You reach the end, people rap, and then you head online to do much the same thing without the linearity.
Quantitively then, the two games seem identical, divided only by setting and a sales margin of $160 million at their last releases, but as anyone who’s played the two games will tell you, they’re both very different experiences. Is it possible to work out exactly how? Could doing so give us a new insight into which is the better game?

Call of Duty is in many respects a much faster game then Halo. Part of this is the nature of the engine: the former runs at 60 frames per second and the latter just 30, but it’s mostly to do with just how quickly the two protagonists get around the world. Call of Duty makes the sprint button an essential part of any player’s arsenal. When you’re not killing, the game teaches you very early on, you need to be sprinting. In contrast, Reach was the first Halo game to include a sprint button at all. 
Halo is a much slower game by design, a choice that allowed it to succeed when console shooters were in their infancy. Without the precision of a mouse, a console game needed to be much slower, and have much more auto-aim to allow players to feel on top of the situation.
Call of Duty manages to be much faster because it is at once much more generous and much more subtle with its auto-aim. Whenever you look down your iron-sights the game is searching for a target nearby to lock your curser to, and when it does so you’ll likely not notice because of the guns animation as it fills the screen. Without a similar solution, Halo cannot hope to be as fast without being impossible, or frustrating to play. 
It’s not just this that makes its pace quicker though, enemies will also take far fewer shots before eating it. It’s instantly gratifying, you line up a soldier in your sights, and within a second of pulling the trigger he’s down on the floor. Halo refuses to let you off that easily, putting enemies in your way which will take several rounds to down. It forces you to think about where you’re going to hide yourself in the meantime, since the act of murder will leave you exposed to their comrades for a far greater length of time.
It seems like a snobbish remark sure, but Halo does force you to think more whilst you play. It’s not a matter of just getting the enemy into your sights, but about positioning yourself whilst you do so in such a way so as to not get yourself serious dead in the process. It’s not a shooting gallery, it’s a warzone.
For the most part you’re not thinking about ammunition in Call of Duty. You start a level with a weapon, and its unlikely you’ll ever really need to put it down. This leads to a lack of variety, since you can pretty much play the whole game the same way if you want to. There’s no incentive to suddenly start hanging back, or get up really close mid mission, because with the same weapon there’s no real need to. 
Halo always starts you out with the same two weapons, but it pretty much refuses to ever lay out enough ammo for you to complete a mission with just them. At some point your going to run dry, and its up to you to frantically loot an enemy’s body for salvation. Once this happens you might have to completely alter the way you play, you might have to keep very close with a shotgun, or hold back to compensate for a rifle’s slow firing speed. You don’t customize the game to best suit your play style, you’re the one that’s forced to change.
Call of Duty is a repetitive game that hides this with very well produced set pieces. Halo on the other hand has more variety in its moment to moment gameplay, but has less stand out moments. Both are great games, but one wow’s audiences with its budget, whilst the other does so with rock solid design. 
So really it comes down to what you want to praise, a game made great from budget born out of the success of its predecessors, or a title made by some of the most genuinely talented designers in the industry (admittedly yes, with a quite large budget). A game designed to empower you every step of the way as you put in minimal thought, or a game which hides its enjoyment until you put in the effort.
Professional reviewers are tied to a requirement to state objectively which is more fun, and I’m thankful I’m not them because frankly; Halo: Reach is the better made game.

Keeping Your Game: The Threat of the Trade In

February 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I returned to Bayonetta, a game which I consider to be one of the best ever made, and certainly the best to come out last year. I did not return to it because I’ve not finished it, nor did I do so out of sheer boredom. No, I returned to it because even though my total playtime stands at 30 hours and I’ve finished it three times, there are still new features of the game to explore, new weapons to unlock, and new scenarios to complete.

The war between publishers and retailers is a well-documented, and yet strangely ironic one. Publishers love the fact that retailers sell their games, but they’re not so keen on retailers annoying habit of reselling games. The publisher gets paid once, the retailer twice or more. What we’re left with is a conflict that’s still being fought today.

There are, as I see it, two solutions to the issue currently circulating in the industry. The first is ‘online passes’, a strategy mainly employed by EA. Games using this feature require a code to be entered in order to access their online portion. This code is free but, and here’s the catch – only if you buy the game new. In effect, the requirement of an online pass will increase the cost of a pre-owned game by a considerable margin. Retailers are thus forced to cut their profit margins if they want to keep the price of a second hand game below that of a new one.

The second trend is that of online components, the idea being that these will keep people playing for twelve months until the next game in the series rolls around. The thinking here is sound, but the execution is more than often lacking. After all, a tacked-on multiplayer component is in most cases worse than none at all. The games that people will play for months on end are invariably the ones designed with a multiplayer focus in mind, and as such this approach is ill-advised in games designed for solo play.
These approaches are worth mentioning because their existence shows how much publishers are worrying about the problem, a problem which Bayonetta seems to have solved in a way which is neither morally dubious nor costly, but simply involves some clever game design.
For Bayonetta may be tough as nails on its two higher difficulty levels, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I’m not saying it’s rewarding  in a rather circular ‘rewarding because it’s so difficult’ sort of way, but that quite literally the rewards it doles out are pretty sweet, new characters and weapons that actually have uses in the game, lightabers as unlocks, that sort of thing.  
These rewards are certainly neat, but would be worthless if you’d already beaten everything the game had to offer. This is simply not the case here, with side events a plenty that actually let you use those rings you’ve spent hours working towards. It’s strange to think that this is a design choice that seems to have eluded other developers in the past. Completing everything GTA Vice City had to offer left you with a troupe of bodyguards to wreck havoc with, but with nothing more to challenge you, they felt a little redundant. 
It’s also very helpful that Platinum Games chose to put more effort into difficulty than the usual ‘more hit points for enemies and less for yourself’ fare. Higher difficulty levels do mean these things in Bayonetta of course, but they also mean different enemies altogether, and even the removal of slow motion – a significant part of your arsenal – on extreme.
One thing the game doesn’t do is telegraph these highly desirable items – at all. It would have been criminally easy for me to miss then entirely, and retire Bayonetta to the shelf permanently. Some may like keeping these sorts of rewards as a surprise, but I’d argue that 90% of the people who end up unlocking them will have seen them on the internet before they bother doing so. Show me the item, tell me what it does, and then tell me how to get it. Get your marketing department involved if you have to, but make me want it.
As much as I’m picking up on these design choices, the simple truth might unfortunately be that I want to return to this one game over and over primarily because it’s good. Sure, it’s nice to know I’m working towards a great payoff, but I care about it because I’m already invested in the game.
So although I’d love to see unlocks dropped into every game this side of Tetris, it might be the case that in order to prevent people from trading in, you might just have to make better games. All the unlocks in the world wouldn’t stop you from trading in Superman 64, but then again, neither would online multiplayer. If you find a way of telling that to quick-fix obsessed executives though, then please get in contact.
Still, imagine Superman with a lightsaber and tell me that wouldn’t be sweet.

How Gaming Got me into Cambridge University

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

I lied in my title. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done it, but I did. Games didn’t get me into Cambridge. I didn’t turn up as an applicant, yell “Do a barrel roll!” and proceed to wait patiently for my letter of acceptance. Although I may not have gone as far as yelling memes in my interview, I certainly mentioned video games. Looking back, I can’t help but think how invaluable this was at setting me apart from everyone else. After all it’s hard to believe the two professors interviewing people for Political Science turned to one another at the day’s end and said; “Hey, remember that one guy who talked about Politics? He was swell.”

Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself though. Let me explain.

At the beginning of December every year hundreds if not thousand of 18- and 19-year-olds flock to Cambridge to interview for a place at its prestigious university. This task is hardly the start of their ordeal — the past four months have been fraught with anxiety as the preparation for these interviews takes over, and students spend hours of personal statements designed to convince the university of their worthiness of a place.

Somehow I’d managed to secure myself an interview. Normally, interviewees will have a half dozen top grades at GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education, or the compulsory exams every British child takes at the age of 16). I had just two.

I was surrounded by students from some of the best schools in the country. The first girl I spoke to had come from a school formally attended by the now deputy prime-minister Nick Clegg. At lunch, I sat with someone who’d attended a school where every single lesson was taught in French. Despite how friendly literally everyone there was, it was hard to not feel like something of an outsider.

The main event of any prospective candidate’s day at Cambridge is the interview itself. This involves speaking to two or more professors of your subject. Doing a little background reading around your interviewers beforehand is advised, but absolutely terrifying. Mine were both incredibly well regarded academics in their fields, and I was fast becoming very intimidated at the prospect of having to prove my worth to them.

In addition to your academic background, Cambridge also likes to find out about your personality, and it was this that most terrified me. I had an image in my mind of what most people would be interest in: theatre perhaps, or maybe classical music. I, on the other hand, would rather spend an evening working my way through one of Mario’s more fiendish levels. The only hobby of mine I’m truly proud of is writing, and so, even though I hoped I wouldn’t get asked about it, I included it in my personal statement.

Two options crossed my mind when the inevitable question arose in the interview, “So what exactly do you write about?”

I could lie, pretend that I blog about something much more culturally accepted, perhaps films, or maybe politics. This would be risky. The next few questions would almost certainly revolve around my answer to this one, and unless I could do some quick lying (hint: I couldn’t) I was going to trip up quickly and painfully. I decided to tell the truth, “To be honest, I do a lot of writing about video games.”

I shouldn’t have been ashamed about admitting this. I know I shouldn’t. Video game journalism has never been as good as it is now, with the likes of Randy Smith, Matthew Burns, Clint Hocking, and hundreds of talented Bitmob posters critiquing games in ways which would have been impossible just five years ago. They didn’t know that though. As far as they were likely concerned, video games are, and have always been, nothing more than shallow entertainment, designed and enjoyed solely by children, the socially inept, and the sun-averse. Despite the widespread media attention given to pop games of late, classical games are still relegated to half page ‘review’ sections, and the occasional scare story in our national papers.

Their disappointment was obvious when they heard my response, but the line of questioning continued, if not out of their own curiosity the due to merely the requirement of the situation. At first, they seemed utterly perplexed by the idea. What could, they wondered aloud, anyone have to write about video games? I almost struggled to answer the question, its potential answers being as numerous as they are. There’re the discussions on game design philosophy that go on for one, or the personal stories of peoples lives entwined with gaming. Would it be worth mentioning the ‘games as art’ debate (one which may have grown stale to anyone within the industry but might still interest an outsider)?

As is always the case though, all of these tropics flew right out of my mind the moment the question was asked, leaving me to stutter out a brief reply about how games can be critiqued in much the same way as books or film.

Amazingly, and against all my expectations, their interest remained. They asked for specific example, so I told them about Ico. They pressed further and I waxed lyrical about the wonders of blogs for bringing about so much aggressive debate.

The interview was soon over. We rose, shook hands and parted, but not before exchanging words of thanks.

“Thank you for the education,” one of them said.

“Well thank you for not dismissing it as a juvenile hobby.”

I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story. Maybe I’m still utterly floored after getting a place and wanted to perform the Internet version of the celebratory jump, or maybe it’s simply because over these past few months I’ve been able to play less, and thus have less to write about. Maybe though, the fact that two academics were willing to sit and have a serious discussion about video games has filled me with a sort of confidence that I hope others can share. Maybe the next time a strange asks what I like to do in my spare time I’ll proudly reply, “I like to write about video games.”

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