On Firefight

It's not hard to see the appeal of the idea of the Firefight mode in Halo 3: ODST. If you follow Bungie's shooter roots back to Marathon, and to the PC shooter that really kicked off the modern era, Doom, you can see the start of it.

Doom didn't have discrete multiplayer 'levels' the way Marathon and Halo did. It had a series of Episodes, each broken down into Missions that comprised one map. Each map had a series of keys necessary to open a series of doors. The last door was the Exit and led to the next Mission. Between you and each key and each door were a number of demons to kill. You could tackle this challenge solo, or bring in some friends on a local network.

Of course, you could just as easily shoot your friends as the demons. You could also set up a game on any Mission map without any demons and just play deathmatch, or you could play a deathmatch game with continually respawning demons on it.

Marathon had a similar setting, an "Aliens" checkbox that put enemies from the campaign mode onto the multiplayer maps. So while it wasn't always referred to the same way, Marathon had all the current play modes: campaign solo, campaign co-op, multiplayer (deathmatch and objective) and deathmatch-with-aliens. That's essentially what Firefight is, except it's supposed to be more towards cooperative.

So we can now safely say that with the release of Halo 3: ODST, in combination with Halo 3's multiplayer mode, has finally brought all the features of a 1994 Mac shooter to Xbox Live.

I'm only half kidding.

16 Year Single Malt

Firefight is an essential distillation of Halo combat. I can see the need for it. I'm a story junkie, but not everybody is. Some people I know who enjoy the campaign still prefer to skip them. The encounters in campaign levels serve the story, not the other way around. Some take a while to get going. Playing coop in ODST can be particularly trying, as it seems to want to make you go through a bunch of the tutorials every time you start from Ready to Drop, even if all players have already completed them.

So when you already know the story, can't think of a particular campaign map you want to play, and want to just jump into hell feet first, Firefight ought to be the way to go; the sandbox is all set up, ready for you to play in.

It seems, however, that there have been a few cats around.

Aimless Wandering

I've mentioned more than once how all the thousands, if not millions, of Covenant units in the Halo series don't seem to have anything better to do than try to stop you from doing whatever it is you're trying to do at the moment. In the context of the Master Chief's story, you might be able to make sense of that. The Covenant have had superiority in space for nearly the entire war. They only risk defeat on the ground when Spartans are involved. So it makes sense that they might very well devote a substantial portion of their ground forces in any particular theater to trying to neutralize the Demon, if not eliminate him, on the assumption that whatever he's up to, it's not good for the Covenant. I can buy that. It's personal. As the source of his shame, the Arbiter's got it out for him, and he's a thorn in Tartarus' side as he attempts to complete his task and activate Delta Halo.

I'm not sure what most Covenant ground units are doing in ODST. I'm not sure they know what they're doing. In Firefight, this is only exacerbated. I've seen countless units walk right by me in full view like an actor trying to hit his mark, only to turn once hitting it and zero in on me like a laser. In the campaign, the usual pejoratives of 'demon' and 'heretic' are tossed at me-- even when I'm nobody special, a faceless ODST in a group of ODSTs. The worst example of this is the finale to Kikowani Station, where the Scarab focuses all its attention on a solo ODST, even when there's a Phantom around to shoot at. It doesn't make sense.

Some other players thought the climax of ODST was a bit, well... anticlimactic; another Firefight-style base defense in an arena setting in a game that already had several of them. In fact, many of the Firefight maps are taken directly from comparable scenarios within the campaign: ONI Alpha, Security Zone, Rally Point, Lost Platoon, etc. Some, oddly enough, take their geometry from the campaign, but from areas where no fights take place: Crater, for instance.

It makes you wonder why this group of ODSTs is so important. More on that in another post, I think. Firefight, one can argues, doesn't fit into the campaign context any more than multiplayer battles between Spartans do, but in a way, that's a shame, because structuring Firefight battles around some objective could have done so quite elegantly I think.

Stop The Firefight I Want to Get Off

That links directly into another flaw. Campaign games, solo or coop, have built-in, organic points to take breaks or to stop play and pick it up again at a later time. The ends of levels make convenient stopping points, as do checkpoints. In a pinch, you can even safely leave a controller idle after a campaign encounter, knowing that you're in a safe area, because most enemies in Halo don't respawn infinitely.

Playing Firefight solo, you can pause the game. You can't stop and quit to pick it up later, as you can in campaign, but that's logical. However, the ODST engine seems to treat XBL Firefight like an online multiplayer match. You can't pause it. I'm not entirely sure why. I suppose, if FFA scoring were in effect, and the players were vying with each other, it would make sense not to give any one player, even the host, the ability to pause the game. However, Firefight scoring options are always team scoring and there's no way to change it. So why can't you pause?

This Is The Game That Never Ends

Being unable to pause would not be an issue if it weren't for the other problem: because Firefight enemies have no objective other than to kill you, and you have no objective other than to kill them, and the enemies never stop coming, since Firefight has no predetermined conclusion, the game can go on for hours until all lives are used up, or someone decides to just stop the game arbitrarily.

So you can't pause, and the game doesn't end unless you decide to stop or die. There's no way to "finish" it, the way you finish a multiplayer game by hitting a kill limit or a score limit or a time limit, or by reaching the end of a campaign level.

Scoreboard

Even those issues might not be so egregious if it weren't for the way scoring works. You can control the base difficulty when you start the game, and then difficulty ramps up from that point by adding more skulls, until all skulls except Iron are on. The skulls also influence the scoring, as does the base difficulty. So the first wave of the first round of the first set, on the lowest difficulty, is the lowest number of points you can get for any particular unit in any particular game of Firefight (of course, medals also act as modifiers, but still, this is the lowest base score possible). Likewise, when you reach the point when all skulls are on and the base difficulty is Legendary, that's the highest score per unit you can get, multipliers excluded.

However, since the game doesn't end after the set where all skulls are eventually activated, there's no theoretical limit to how high a game's score can get as long as the player or players can stay alive. There's probably a practical limit to how long most people will play, but it means that on Normal or even Easy, putting in extra hours can get you a score that would take a lot less time to achieve on Legendary, and be less difficult, besides.

Bungie does recognize this, of course, and put into the ODST online stats a series of separate badges for achieving various arbitrary point levels on different Firefight difficulties. However, it doesn't affect the Achievements and it doesn't affect the Leaderboards.

Know Your Limits

Firefight needs some limits imposed on it for the leaderboards to make any sense. Right now, there are simply too many factors to make comparing scores straightforward: base difficulty, number of players, how long the game lasted. It should end after the last set, or else have an upper time limit. This would provide an incentive for people who have solved, or mastered, a given Firefight scenario at a certain base difficulty level, but have maximized the possible score they can practically get within that given number of sets, to move up to a higher base difficulty in order to increase their score. Counter-intuitively, most likely this move will mean initial games will be both shorter and lower-scoring-- probably a function of the fact that the differences between the base difficulties are balanced for campaign and not firefight, and are geared more towards the difficulty curve than a scoring curve.

Another Way

Of course, there's another way, besides just those arbitrary limits, and besides the limitation on lives. You could give the Covenant in Firefight scenarios an objective, as they have in the final encounter in Coastal Highway, where they are trying to eliminate the Engineer.

The objective could be territorial in nature, like a game of Assault in Unreal Tournament-- Covenant units want to reach a particular area in a base, perhaps to throw a switch or activate a bomb, and it is the job of the ODSTs in the area to stop them. They must balance, then, self-preservation with the protection of a certain point or points. Right now, that's not much of an issue. On the smaller maps, there is often no place to hide or escape, and on the larger map, Lost Platoon, there are many. The only incentive to risk more in scenarios where you can keep distance between yourself and the enemy is to score more points in less time-- in other words, to shorten the game. However, many of those strategies would fall apart if some other objective tied the ODSTs to a point on the map where combat was unavoidable.

There might be several such defensible points that ODSTs could fall back to progressively, not unlike the final encounter of Half-Life 2 Episode 2. Perhaps some other system of interlocking objectives could be created, such that losing one ramps up the difficulty even higher, either by letting more Covenant into the area, or by taking away resources from the ODSTs, such as access to weapons, health, or vehicles. Right now, some of the levels seem to function that way-- some seem to have enemies that "camp" outside spawn rooms, where one death inevitably leads to two or three or more; once a hammer brute gets into a spawn room with all the skulls on, it's pretty easy to get spawnkilled a few times in a row before managing to escape. It's a bit like getting put into the loser's bracket of a round robin tournament, but somehow it feels more unfair. Unless you pre-stock your spawn area with weapons (or even vehicles) there are some situations where you just won't be able to kill a unit with the weapons you spawn with without dying at least one more time.

In fact, the scenario on Lost Platoon makes me wonder: that map is blissfully free of the shield-door monster closets that sort of make sense in the campaign in certain places, like the siege of the ONI building. All the Covenant units come in by dropship, unlike other levels where it's a mix of dropships and monster closets. Why aren't ODSTs dropped in by Pelicans with covering fire the way the Covenant are? Sure, put those spawn points in a high-traffic area, and put them far from other vehicles or weapons-- death should have some consequences beyond just the loss of one available life. However, it's not hard not to get trapped in a spawn room with multiple Brute chieftains wielding hammers or fuelrod guns and not feel that the situation is a bit unfair.

A Good Idea

I like the idea of Firefight a lot and I hope Bungie doesn't abandon it as a one-off feature just for ODST. In fact, I hope a lot of features introduced (or reintroduced, as the case may be) in ODST are kept for Reach later this year-- VISR mode and the interactive map, for instance. With limits and/or objectives in place, Firefight could become a popular middle way between campaign coop and competitive multiplayer.

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Comments

I agree with... pretty much everything.

It was a long time coming, long clamoured for, and rather underwhelming when it got here. Lack of any end, lack of saving progress, lack of continually increasing difficulty, lack of leaderboards prefering, or at least vastly more rewarding, play on higher difficulties, etc. kills a lot of the replayability for me.

Oh, and those monster closets are absolutely the most horrendously backwards-looking design element I have seen in the game. Monster closets have never been good design. Get rid of them. At the very least, have them spawn in airlock style closets, (where a door simply opens to reveal a section of corridor filled with enemies with a door at the other end). Think, the top of the grav lift on Truth and Reconcilliation.

One thing you didn't mention was that most of the maps are incredibly difficult for a single player to play on above normal for any length of time. The lack of cover to move from one place to another (to retreive not only dead enemies weapons but also those placed on the map) and the number and concentration of enemies (as well as annoying, pinning elements such as wraiths and buggers appearing on many of the maps) drastically reduces the amount of freedom a lone player has on a map. You're often practicaly stuck in just one room or small area, waiting for the enemies to come to you. Which can get boring very quickly.

That brings up two points: I think the maps are poorly designed, and I think lone (or small groups of) players could do with some AI backup.

Firefight needs more ways for it to end other than the player getting bored or running out of lives, as you said, there needs to be objectives. At least as the standard option, then just a 'kill everything' option if people like. An important stategic location to defend (better than the ONI building which you end up blowing up yourself anyway!), important computers or information / item that the covenant want to capture or destroy etc. Or there be some time limit to it. Events such as 'hold out for 30 minutes until extraction arrives' or 'defend the data centre until all charges can be placed and armed' etc.

Different objectives on the same map would also open it up to the mode having 'gametypes' a la multiplayer. The covenant may grab some forerunner artefact, but you kill the carrier and drag it back to where it was to extend the game etc.

I'd also had a thought that to get over the static nature that is current firefight, there could be moving stages, or rather, stages that require you to move through them. I'm thinking along the lines of the gondola on Containment Zone (which some people originally did think was a survival mode stage, go figure), where if you don't clear the first lot in time, more come making your survival harder, or an infinite section of highway (a la, coastal highway) that requires to be cleared before you can move on, or endlessly repeating sections of mombasa streets with increasingly difficult and larger selection of baddies in each one.

I don't really know but, I think I'm thinking of firefight, in the above suggestions, as a distillation of the campaign gameplay (progressing through areas filled with enemies to reach an end point), repeated ad infinitum for as long as you can still overcome its challenge.

The reason is, going back to the original point, standing in one place with your only objective as 'survive, get higher score' doesn't make much sense. For the enemies, their only objective is to find and kill you until you run out of lives. They don't even have particularly developed search routines.

Right now, unfortunately, theres no reward for continued play other than higher scores which, as said, can often be bested more easily on lower difficulties, and offers no comparison outside of your own friendslist. Number of sets reached statistic isn't rewarding or particularly noted, and since difficulty doesn't increase after set 4, its a moot point.

Anyway, I'm going to stop there since I think I've repeated both you and myself already. Great post Narc, all with valid points. Hope Bungie realises these failings for a Reach redux of the mode. Since, it has to be said, the mode has potential. Horde was very fun, and I heard people play Nazi Zombies on some game quite a lot too :P

Oh, VISR filter is also far too useful at night and yet practically useless in daytime IMO. There needs to be a reason to turn it off during the dark for their to be a point in having it as a toggle thing. I kinda thought Mombasa Streets was more fun when you DIDN'T use the VISR. Got you to look around more.

[quote=RC Master]I agree with... pretty much everything.

It was a long time coming, long clamoured for, and rather underwhelming when it got here. Lack of any end, lack of saving progress, lack of continually increasing difficulty, lack of leaderboards prefering, or at least vastly more rewarding, play on higher difficulties, etc. kills a lot of the replayability for me.[/quote]

It hasn't quite killed it yet for me, but I think that there are going to be some levels I just won't bother with and some I'll play quite a bit. I've already spent a lot of time on Lost Platoon and I can see that being fun for a bit longer yet. On the other hand, Crater... ugh.

The odd thing about it is that I think as a campaign, end to end, ODST is probably more even than all the other games. Whereas in Halo 1 I'm just as likely to want to give a pass to the Library or to Keyes, about the only one I'm likely to want to skip or delay in ODST is Kikowani Station. On the other hand, there are more Firefight maps I'll skip on than ones I'd like to play.

[quote=RC Master]Oh, and those monster closets are absolutely the most horrendously backwards-looking design element I have seen in the game. Monster closets have never been good design. Get rid of them. At the very least, have them spawn in airlock style closets, (where a door simply opens to reveal a section of corridor filled with enemies with a door at the other end). Think, the top of the grav lift on Truth and Reconcilliation.[/quote]

That, or something like the boarding craft in the hangars of Cairo Station in Halo 2. Of course, those only make sense in certain contexts. They went to the effort to at least make these one-way shield door things look like the ones used in the ONI Alpha level, when the Covenant are burning through the locked doors, but in outdoor areas with Phantom drops, like Rally Point, these doors make no sense whatsoever.

[quote=RC Master]One thing you didn't mention was that most of the maps are incredibly difficult for a single player to play on above normal for any length of time. The lack of cover to move from one place to another (to retreive not only dead enemies weapons but also those placed on the map) and the number and concentration of enemies (as well as annoying, pinning elements such as wraiths and buggers appearing on many of the maps) drastically reduces the amount of freedom a lone player has on a map. You're often practicaly stuck in just one room or small area, waiting for the enemies to come to you. Which can get boring very quickly. [/quote]

Well, that's partially because when I play these levels and have a tough time I presume that's just because I suck. Plus, I've also got birdies whispering in my ears that Firefight in particular and ODST in general is just too easy, that it's solveable, and therefore dull and uninteresting.

The experience does seem built on coop, and that's not a bad thing in and of itself. I think what's really different here is that we expect there to be a direct translation of the difficulty setting from campaign, and depending on your play style, there might not be.

I tend to like to hang back, engage at medium to long range, and use vehicles whenever possible. Campaign mode lets the player control the pace of the game. If you start a level and just stand still, nothing happens to you until you take the initiative. Firefight isn't like that. I tend to play Halo at Legendary when I want things to be difficult, and Heroic when I just want to have fun, and then at Heroic or Normal with some skulls on if I'm trying something experimental. I found that solo, I had to play Firefight at Normal if I wanted to make it past a set or two. For me, the difficult parts are when Black Eye is turned on, since getting within melee range in these scenarios is a strategy of last resort, especially on Lost Platoon where I'm relying on vehicles and large distances.

The bottom line, I think, is that Firefight wants you to have at least one other player, and if you don't have one, you probably have to dial difficulty down at least one notch from where you usually play if you don't want a quick game.

[quote=RC Master]That brings up two points: I think the maps are poorly designed, and I think lone (or small groups of) players could do with some AI backup.[/quote]

I can only assume Bungie tried that; after all, you do get such AI support during the firefight-like scenarios in the campaign. Why they don't just add in some AI-- say, one AI player if you're solo, so there's at least someone to help you out, and maybe a fourth if you've got three, to even things out-- I don't really know. Or maybe just keep the player count at 4 all the time, and fill out the ranks with AI players when there isn't a full count.

[quote=RC Master]Firefight needs more ways for it to end other than the player getting bored or running out of lives, as you said, there needs to be objectives. At least as the standard option, then just a 'kill everything' option if people like. An important stategic location to defend (better than the ONI building which you end up blowing up yourself anyway!), important computers or information / item that the covenant want to capture or destroy etc. Or there be some time limit to it. Events such as 'hold out for 30 minutes until extraction arrives' or 'defend the data centre until all charges can be placed and armed' etc.

Different objectives on the same map would also open it up to the mode having 'gametypes' a la multiplayer. The covenant may grab some forerunner artefact, but you kill the carrier and drag it back to where it was to extend the game etc.

I'd also had a thought that to get over the static nature that is current firefight, there could be moving stages, or rather, stages that require you to move through them. I'm thinking along the lines of the gondola on Containment Zone (which some people originally did think was a survival mode stage, go figure), where if you don't clear the first lot in time, more come making your survival harder, or an infinite section of highway (a la, coastal highway) that requires to be cleared before you can move on, or endlessly repeating sections of mombasa streets with increasingly difficult and larger selection of baddies in each one.[/quote]

I'd also wondered about that-- a ring road scenario where each round is a circuit around the track. That's what Epic would have done, I'm sure :)

[quote=RC Master]I don't really know but, I think I'm thinking of firefight, in the above suggestions, as a distillation of the campaign gameplay (progressing through areas filled with enemies to reach an end point), repeated ad infinitum for as long as you can still overcome its challenge.

The reason is, going back to the original point, standing in one place with your only objective as 'survive, get higher score' doesn't make much sense. For the enemies, their only objective is to find and kill you until you run out of lives. They don't even have particularly developed search routines.[/quote]

Covenant luck seems to vary. I will give Bungie credit; they haven't given the Covenant an unfair advantage here. They don't know where you are if they haven't seen you, at least as far as I can tell. Too many times I've seen units with their backs to me wander happily away, following some predetermined search pattern that's designed to counter what Bungie thinks a player is likely to do, rather than what I actually do. For instance, many waves in Lost Platoon seem to clear out the structure first before going further afield-- which makes sense, since if players are seeking out health or ammo that's where they have to go.

On the other hand, some of these routines are startlingly successful-- I can't tell you how many times I poked my head out of the spawn room on that same level, looked one way-- all clear-- and turned to look the other way and gotten a faceful of boosting Brute Chopper.

[quote=RC Master]Right now, unfortunately, theres no reward for continued play other than higher scores which, as said, can often be bested more easily on lower difficulties, and offers no comparison outside of your own friendslist. Number of sets reached statistic isn't rewarding or particularly noted, and since difficulty doesn't increase after set 4, its a moot point. [/quote]

Yes, I thought that was odd-- the absence of an all-time high score list. From the range on the graphs it seems as if people have scored 5 million or more-- possibly a lot more, I don't know-- but I can't see how much or who they are.

Which is a shame, since I found at least some of the players on my friends list because they were near me on the leaderboards for other games I was playing, specifically, Marathon XBLA.

[quote=RC Master]Anyway, I'm going to stop there since I think I've repeated both you and myself already. Great post Narc, all with valid points. Hope Bungie realises these failings for a Reach redux of the mode. Since, it has to be said, the mode has potential. Horde was very fun, and I heard people play Nazi Zombies on some game quite a lot too :P[/quote]

Thanks, much appreciated :)

[quote=RC Master]Oh, VISR filter is also far too useful at night and yet practically useless in daytime IMO. There needs to be a reason to turn it off during the dark for their to be a point in having it as a toggle thing. I kinda thought Mombasa Streets was more fun when you DIDN'T use the VISR. Got you to look around more.[/quote]

I agree; just as things can be more fun with the motion detector off in H3. On the other hand, in contrast to the motion detector on/off setting, the VISR's advantage is also affected by your brightness setting, which makes it even more challenging to modulate as a difficulty setting. I tend to find it annoying when I can't make out the scenery, let alone the enemies, and that's why I tend to keep VISR on all the time.


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