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The Man With The Iron Skull: Part One

After the discussions about death prompted by my last blog entry, specifically those mentioning the Iron skull, and whether a gamer who dies even once in a level can be said to have accomplished anything, I thought I'd give the skull a serious try in Halo 3 for the first time.

There are some skulls I like playing with, to the extent that I nearly always enable them now when playing campaign, solo or coop: Catch, because more grenades equals more fun, Cowbell, because bigger explosions means bigger fun, Mythic and Thunderstorm, because Heroic with a few tweaks is more tolerable than Legendary, and Fog because it encourages battlefield awareness. Sometimes I also throw in Tough Luck, because it makes sticks tougher and therefore more satisfying.

I hardly ever touch Tilt. In combination with Mythic and Thunderstorm it simply makes killing certain enemies take too much time and ammunition (the return of bullet sponge brutes) and Iron, because I figure I'm going to die once in awhile.

I thought, though, that if I dropped from Heroic to Normal, I might add Iron for some extra bonus points, try to be careful, and see if it actually felt more like an accomplishment.

I can't really say it had any effect in the first level. I made it through Sierra 117 on Normal on the first attempt, with all my usual skulls, plus Iron. It didn't really feel any different.

Then Crow's Nest came along and I had to change my tactics, and I realized why things weren't much different in Sierra 117.

Caution: Explosives

First, because of Crow's Nest's tight corridors and abundant fusion cores, I turned off Catch and then Cowbell. It was simply too easy to be killed by marine grenades, or by grenades exploding on the ground where they'd fallen, or debris propelled at high speed by exploding fusion cores from far away.

Even that proved insufficient, however, and I think it is because Crow's Nest offers significant benefits for some risky behaviors that aren't really present in Sierra 117.

By that I mean turrets. A turret can be a big help in many encounters, but the holy grail is a mounted turret with infinite ammunition. By saving precious ammunition (especially carbine and battle rifle ammunition) during the hangar sequence, you make later encounters far more manageable. The problem is, on a mounted turret you're a sitting duck; it's certainly possibly for a grenade to tag you on a turret before you can dismount, since the dismount isn't instantaneous, and sometimes you get stuck, not the turret, so dismounting doesn't even help.

It goes without saying that you have to clear all the initial enemies-- two waves, one on the stairs when you arrive, one that clambers up from below as you finish the first off-- before mounting the turret. However, the turret positions are not static; out of a total of four you'll get two positions at random. The lower positions offer better firing lanes at the Phantoms (especially their plasma turrets) and the infantry they drop off, but are more susceptible to grenade strikes. In addition, the Phantoms are scripted so that from two of the turret positions, where at least one Phantom stops to drop off troops will have a beam obscuring your firing lane to the plasma turret. That means it can't fire at you while offloading, but neither can you fire at it. So it means that when all the infantry are offloaded, the plasma turret is still active to fire on you as it leaves, while you're trying to focus your fire on the ground troops.

Sure, the safe thing to do is either ignore the turrets and just scrounge for ammo later. Stay in cover. Let the marines distract the enemy, and mop up as needed. It takes only a few moments longer, and is much safer. It's the way to play that sequence with the Iron skull on.

I simply can't do it. I can't ignore the turret. Because Iron doesn't only make the level reset when you die, it also multiplies your score, like the other skulls. And since playing with Iron on means playing at a lower difficulty, it means fewer enemies and the potential to get through the level faster, and get a higher time bonus, further amplifying the skull's benefit.

With scoring on I can't resist those fixed turrets. Which means risking death.

Manning The Gauze Hog

It reminds me a lot of the clamshell area in Metropolis in Halo 2. On Legendary, that sniper-infested area made things rough not only for the Master Chief, but for the marines in the area, especially the Gauss hog. Unlike the LAAG hog, the primary benefit of the Gauss hog is the visceral treat of firing that gun. Which means you want a marine driver in that sequence. The snipers made that near impossible on Legendary. Plus, if the hog was entirely destroyed, you wouldn't have it for the next two vehicle sections, which were clearly designed around the player having a vehicle.

Of course there are many ways to play the encounters, but just like you're meant to get on the Gauss hog gun, as the driver suggests, I'd say you're meant to use one of the mounted turrets in the hangar. With Iron on, it's just too risky, and the more times you have to repeat the first few encounters before that, the less you feel like taking things easy and being careful.

The Invisible Cyborg

Beyond that, there's another place where the design tempts you into doing risky things. The control room above the landing pad has cloaking equipment, and the final control room sequence starts with an interactive script as an FRG-wielding brute talks to Truth on the videophone.

Very tempting to go invisible, sneak up behind him, and then escape, right?

Right. Except while in mid-air, just before connecting a melee blow to the back of the brute's head, a grunt in the room inexplicably blurts out "he's invisible"-- whereupon all the enemies in the room fire at me, killing me just as I pick up the FRG.

If I was invisible, how did they see me? Oops, looks like I bumped that grunt, on the next playthrough that tactic worked like a dream.

So far, the Iron skull is a catch-22, given the way Halo's levels are designed (or indeed the way most shooters are designed). Most encounters are made for trial and error; your best chance of making it through without dying is after you know in advance everything that can happen. This means after many, many playthroughs.

But the point in the game's lifetime where you have the most patience with it-- when you don't have favorite encounters or favorite levels yet, when you don't want the game to be over too quickly, when you'd appreciate, or even enjoy, a few genuinely quiet moments between battles, is the very first time you play. That's when most players natural approaches would be most conducive to the conservative style needed for the Iron skull, but the design that emphasizes the need for trial and error to learn encounters prohibits this.

Next up: Tsavo Highway and The Storm, ferricized.



Once again, great article narc. It makes me really want to try out the iron skull (which I have always avoided using for obvious reasons).