narcogen's picture

Dear Bungie,

Some months ago, we started hearing about your "next project," and with good reason, most of the fan community believed it would be the highly anticipated Halo 3, and the jaw-dropping announce trailer at E3 2006 confirmed our expectations. This will undoubtedly be one of the biggest games of 2007, and will likely be the most popular and successful Xbox 360 game to ever come out. As a fan of the Halo series, I'd like to not only offer my thoughts on the first two games, but also recommendations on how to make Halo 3 the epic it can and should be. Hopefully my suggestions are not too little, too late, but since it is not supposed to be released until sometime next year, I hope you take some of what I say into consideration, as a lot of my thoughts and opinions are shared by many others in the fan community.

Halo: Combat Evolved was a masterpiece of video gaming, redefining the first-person shooter genre for the 21st century. I've been a gamer for over 20 years, and I have to say that it is one of the best action games I've ever played. Among the many things that made this game great are a long single-player campaign with huge stages and an engaging story. What started off as a sci-fi staple -- humanity embroiled in a war with aliens bent on their destruction -- evolved into something much bigger. As we unlocked Halo's secrets, we learned that it was not simply a massive fortress world, but rather it was "the gun pointed at the head of the universe," a superweapon of unimaginable power designed to study and contain the parasitic Flood and, on the event of their release, destroy them in a rather indirect fashion that we're all familiar with. The unleashing of the Flood was one of the most unexpected and suspenseful plot turns in all the games I've played outside of an RPG. I also like how the game referenced several other sci-fi titles, including Larry Niven's Known Space and the Alien movies.

Not only was the story great, but the game also looked, sounded, and played well. It had superb graphics and sound and an excellent physics engine. There was a tremendous amount of detail in the game, graphical and otherwise. Everything from the character designs to the level architecture and everything in between was a sight to behold. Marty O'Donnell's music was some of the best I had ever heard in a video game, with one of the most recognizable themes ever. The sound effects were great too. There was even a decent amount of chatter among your fellow soldiers. The controls were very intuitive and simple, and could be customized in several ways. There were some great gameplay features that were rare in FPSs such as being limited to carrying only two weapons at once (as compared to most other games in the genre where you can hold an entire arsenal of weapons at once), an innovative melee system, and the first truly effective and enjoyable usage of vehicle combat in an FPS. And of course there was the outstanding multiplayer mode that, thanks to the system link abilities of the Xbox, gave us many enjoyable LAN parties. Then November 9, 2004 rolled around, giving us one of the most anticipated sequels in the history of gaming.

Halo 2, while not revolutionary (sequels rarely are, usually being quite similar to their predecessors), improved on many things that were lacking in Halo 1. A common complaint about the Campaign in Halo was that the stages were repetitive, with some using pretty much the same map (Assault on the Control Room and Two Betrayals being the most obvious). The Library in particular was derided as being monotonously repetitious. The Campaign stages were not as repetitive in Halo 2 and had plenty of variation in design. Thanks to Halo 2's new graphics engine, they were also on average a lot more atmospheric and better looking with more impressive backgrounds than what was seen in Halo 1. Like that one Marine said near the beginning of Delta Halo "Wow. It's just like a postcard, man." Awesome landscapes, giant functioning MAC guns, space stations in the background being destroyed, sprawling cityscapes, Covenant fleets dropping out of slipspace, battles between spaceships, and even a floating structure of some kind (a Sentinel factory, from what I understand) getting shot down in the background of the chapter "100,000 Years War" in the stage Sacred Icon (you later have to fight through the wreckage, which was neat). By comparison, the backgrounds in Halo 1 were rather bland, boring, and otherwise nondescript; the only notable features were the arch of Halo, and Threshold, Basis, and their parent sun in the sky. The stages of Halo 2 looked great as well in terms of design. In particular, the Covenant architecture seen in the High Charity stages was truly awe-inspiring. Many of the stages are also far more dynamic than those in Halo 1. For example, there are the moving parts of Cairo Station's MAC gun that can interfere with the player's movement, various pieces of machinery operating in Forerunner installations (e.g. the elevator sequence in the stage Oracle, among others), and there are various goings-on in the backgrounds, such as the In Amber Clad dropping out of slipspace on High Charity, the humans' gondola seen in the distance near the end of Quarantine Zone, and various other things. Even little details like wildlife (e.g. flying creatures on Delta Halo and High Charity, little insect-like critters in the brig on High Charity, fireflies on Backwash) were nice little nuances. Besides the appearance of the stages, the graphics were pretty good elsewhere too, with some of the best lighting effects I've seen in a console FPS. Certain character designs, most notably the Master Chief's and Cortana's, were greatly improved over how they looked in Halo 1. Overall, Halo 2 is one of the best console games of its generation in terms of graphics, and in many ways looks better than the first Halo.

There were many fun and exciting events in Campaign, such as attacking the Scarab in Metropolis and severing the cable holding the Threshold installation on the stage Oracle. I also liked the newly expanded roster of enemies. There are more Elite ranks, including the extremely tough white-armored Ultras, the impressive-looking Honour Guards, and the flying Elite Rangers. The Drones were a great new enemy and the Hunters were harder to defeat. Sniper Jackals were tough new opponents, and I like the way Jackals run now (much more bird-like). Sentinel Enforcers were a nice addition as well, as were the little "Constructor" machines seen repairing the Sentinel wall. The Flood seem even more intimidating than they used to (their shrieks were very creepy), and they now can control vehicles. It was neat seeing an Infection Form resurrect a fallen Attack Form, and it was awesome being able to completely explode the attack forms to put them down for good (Flood gibs=win). The new "ragdoll" death animations were pretty sweet and looked a lot better than the fully scripted and very limited death animations from Halo 1 (There were only about two or three standard death animations each for Master Chief and the various Covenant species in Halo 1, plus one each from getting thrown through the air by an explosion).
The voice acting was great, and I must applaud your casting director; Michael Wincott, Keith David, Ron Perlman, Kevin Michael Richardson, Robert Davi, Dee Baker, David Cross, and the returning actors from Halo 1 all had stellar performances. I really hope that the voice actors for all the surviving characters reprise their roles in Halo 3. The dialogue was well-written and there was more chatter among your allies and enemies, and there were a lot of great one-liners. There was even some neat background chatter, such as Regret's sermons on Delta Halo and Truth, Tartarus, and Gravemind's dialogue over the loudspeaker in High Charity. The music was superb, with Marty O'Donnell's original score topping his already great work from Halo 1. There was some pretty good rock music in a couple of parts as well (the instrumental version of Breaking Benjamins' "Blow Me Away" heard when Master Chief enters the Mausoleum of the Arbiters was killer). I own all of the soundtracks and listen to them all the time.

The story was awesome as well. The game had a very good plot and writing just as the first one did. While I was at first disappointed that Halo 2 didn't involve Earth as much as we initially thought it would, the quality of the story more than made up for this. Unlike some people, I actually enjoyed playing the Arbiter and liked seeing things from the Covenant's side, and the apparent "humanizing" of the Covenant didn't at all disappoint me (though I do miss the Elites' backwards English; Halo 3 needs more "Wort, wort, wort!"). The Covenant, after all, is an intelligent group of species despite their genocidal actions towards humanity. They have emotions, they form bonds of friendship and camaraderie, they have personal and social ambitions, they have religious beliefs, they have art, they (presumably) have families that they care for, and they obviously express a host of other all-to-human behaviors, both evil and good. As for other story elements, the introduction of the Gravemind was perhaps the biggest plot twist in the game outside of the Covenant civil war, and said character will obviously have a tremendous impact on future plot developments. The cliffhanger ending was for the most part pretty decent in my opinion, even though it did leave me wanting more. Many good trilogies have a second installment ending in a cliffhanger, after all. Overall, the Halo series has some of the best storytelling in video gaming, especially considering that it's part of the action genre. Writing of such quality is normally only seen in high-profile role-playing games.

There were also some interesting gameplay additions as well. Vehicle jacking, rockets that could home in on vehicles, being able to swap weapons with your allies in Campaign, and more interactive environments such as boxes and whatnot could actually be moved around now were welcome additions. Another thing I liked was being able to let your Marines (or fellow Elites, when you're the Arbiter) drive certain vehicles while you serve as a gunner, and I liked how it now takes more than a slight nudge for a vehicle to make roadkill of someone. Vehicles also have better handling than before. The ability to destroy vehicles has also been uniformly applied to all vehicles in both Campaign and Multiplayer, whereas in Halo 1 only Covenant vehicles in Campaign could be destroyed. Multiplayer had some great additions also. Matches are no longer limited to two teams; up to eight teams can now be supported in Multiplayer. There is a larger degree of options for customizing games, such as turning off active camouflage and overshields, determining what types of vehicles there are, determining exactly what starting weapons you want, and so on. The ability to play online not only allowed people to play more frequently with their friends (LAN parties are not an everyday thing for most people; I and my friends only got together once every several weeks or so), but it also allows them to play with people who don't live in their community. Many of the multiplayer stage designs are more intricate and impressive-looking this time around as well. Moving stage parts that can obstruct or distract (e.g., the piston on Waterworks, the fan on Zanzibar, the radar dish on Ascension), gates and teleporters that could be opened, hazards such as fusion cores, mines, the stalactites on Waterworks, and the train on Terminal, all made for more dynamic stages. There are also a wider variety of larger, more open maps. The spawning system seems somewhat improved as well, most notably the better variety of spawn points in Coagulation (as compared to Blood Gulch where there were only four spawn points out in the open at each base). The player is also no longer penalized for being betrayed by a teammate, which was one of the few problems I had with Halo 1. I also liked the more detailed post-game stats, including accuracy, shots fired, headshots, best spree, and other stats not included in Halo 1. Another neat addition was being given awards for certain achievements such as sniper kills, vehicle jacking, assassinations, running people over, and so forth. Longer killing sprees and multi-kills were given a wider variety of names (Berserker, Overkill, Killtrocity, etc.), which was a nice touch. Finally, I liked the fact that you had teammate status icons which let you know their location and what shape they are in. Same for the icons that let you know certain things in objectives games such as if the enemy has your flag.

However, I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to say that I believe that Halo 2 was lacking in many ways, and that Halo 1 was an overall better game. There were many things in Halo 2 that many people, myself included, feel were detracting from the game to such a degree that, despite the improvements, it failed to be as good a game as the first Halo. For example, the Campaign is more linear than ever despite the more varied terrain. The stages in Halo 1 were far less linear and provided for a much more entertaining experience despite reuse of stage geometry. Even if it was rather repetitive, The Library had a lot of wrong turns and dead ends, and the level itself was truly intimidating. Furthermore, the repetitive nature of Halo 1's Campaign can be seen as having a certain narrative purpose, as has been outlined in several fan sites.

More importantly, there are also various changes to the basic gameplay and physics. In retrospect, some of the new gameplay additions (esp. dual wielding), despite seeming innovative at first, come across as poorly executed and could have been done without entirely. Also, some of the gameplay features that made Halo 1 such a fun and challenging game have been drastically altered or amputated altogether. Many of these changes turned out to be IMO unnecessary and really detract from otherwise decent gameplay. Some of the changes and new gameplay additions make the game rather oversimplified, removing a lot of the skill needed to be successful at the first game. It seems like Halo 2 was made to be more accessible to beginners and casual gamers. To put it bluntly, it feels in many ways "dumbed down" and like it caters to the lowest common denominator or, as Mothergoat, webmaster of, put it, "to casual gamers who can't aim." There are fewer variables in gameplay, and fewer things that one must pay attention to in order to survive, much less perform well. This reduces the amount of forethought, strategy, attentiveness, and overall skill a player must employ, and there are fewer consequences for certain actions. The learning curve has been decreased as a result. It also seems as though a "spray-and-pray/spamfire" style of combat and a "run for the best weapons and then camp" gameplay are encouraged in Multiplayer (some have even mockingly referred to Halo 2 as "Spraylo"). This is not to say that it takes no skill to play -- skill obviously still plays an extremely important role in a player's performance --, but rather it takes less skill to play than the first Halo.

Not only are these various gameplay changes considered unwelcome by many, but they also illustrate an obvious lack of consistency and continuity between the two games. For example, there's the replacement of relatively strong and accurate weapons with newer, weaker, less accurate armaments, the disappearance of fall damage, and the addition of a physics-defying melee lunge that can, among other things, change one's direction in midair. There are also inconsistencies in various details of the game, graphical and otherwise, both within the game and between it and Halo 1. For example, there are inconsistencies on the detail of certain small items (it's still an incredibly detailed game, however).

All in all, Halo 2 is a totally different experience than Halo 1. While being different isn't a bad thing in and of itself -- and like I said, some of the differences were for the better --, it still stands that the bad changes have a tendency to completely overshadow the good changes. The first game had an excellent gameplay formula, but that formula was unnecessarily and in some ways drastically changed for Halo 2. If we learned something from the New Coke debacle (bad reference?), it is that you should never mess with a tried and true formula loved by millions. Daniel Barbour of said that many players "...while entranced by the groundbreaking aspects of H1, were not looking for more broken ground in the second; new features and dynamics are great, but not when they compromise the core aspects of a title, or distract the player from taking in the story itself. Seconds, not a new restaurant. Call us old fashioned, but we just wanted more of the same."

That's why the Mega Man series of games, a favorite of mine, had such a tremendous appeal: A well though out formula of gameplay, physics, and style -- most notably, picking stages in the order you wanted and being able acquire a boss's special attack, not to mention the solid gameplay -- whose basics were not tampered with in any major way for some 15 games despite a few extras added or changed here and there: various abilities and gadgets such as Rush, a slide ability, a chargeable Mega Buster, energy tanks, upgradeable armor in the X series, etc., none of which significantly altered the basics established in the first game. The series has gone downhill since they changed that formula, especially when Capcom decided to take the leap from 2-D to 3-D for it. There are other series that have suffered the same fate, though there are exceptions to this rule. Final Fantasy continues to be great even though large portions of the gameplay change from game to game, but other game series managed to stay fresh without drastic change. Mario, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Sonic are other franchises that, in their 2-D heyday, kept the same core gameplay despite whatever changes were made. They have also managed to survive the transition to 3-D while still remaining fun and sticking with a similar formula adapted to 3-D gameplay. Other series that have endured to this day, such as Gradius, have changed little since their inception, and continue to remain as entertaining as they did way back when. Sometimes, more of the same is a good thing.

Fortunately, the Halo franchise is so far one of those series that has yet to be ruined by drastic change, though there are some things that worry me about its future. Halo 2 could have been as good or better than Halo 1, but I feel that it fell short of that goal. The changes introduced in Halo 2 did not make the game better than its prequel, but rather resulted in a game that does not stand up to the original, and if that trend continues into Halo 3, it may completely alienate a large base of Halo fans. Halo 2 is still a great game, stellar and spectacular even, especially compared to most other games these days, which lack the fun factor that older games have (I'm an old-school gamer myself), but it is not the absolute masterpiece Halo 1 was. In my opinion, it would have turned out to be a much better game if it had simply used the same engine as Halo 1 with only a few minor changes, including improved graphics and correcting whatever glitches and inconsistencies were found in the first game.

There have already been quite a few critiques of Halo 2, -- some brief comments, others full-blown articles; some well worded, others not. I personally agree with most of what the following articles had to say (some of the better critiques on the web, IMHO):

However, I still feel that you can never have too much constructive criticism, and so I will now go over the various problems with Halo 2 (at least what I and other like-minded individuals consider problems) and some suggestions on how to improve them for Halo 3. I'll also add some suggestions, some unrelated to the two previous Halo games, on what could be some great additions to Halo 3. I may reiterate myself on a couple of occasions, as some parts of this letter have overlapping subject matter, and of course some of these comments have been heard before from other individuals, but they bear repeating.

The remainder of this letter is quite long, mainly because there are so many details and aspects to the game, and because I intend to be as detailed as humanly possible and explain my reasonings behind my various comments. It is divided into several sections regarding specific areas of the game: General Gameplay and Physics, Multiplayer (including Xbox Live), Campaign, Weapons, Vehicles, and Miscellaneous. Afterwards, I will finish with my thoughts on the past, present, and future of the Halo franchise as a whole.