343i's Halo - A Love/Hate Relationship in the Making
Halo: Reach had never been patched until a few days ago. That may not seem important until you realize that nearly every game you buy has a title update of some sort either the day it comes out or soon after. Reach has been out for nearly a year and no such update was ever released. Is it a perfect game? No. But this final Bungie Halo game was their most polished and balanced game to date.
That's why it seems weird that almost as soon as the franchise was passed off to 343 Industries, the new faces behind Halo went and announced a title update for Reach. While the update does address one serious issue with the game (a technical issue in co-op), and pave the way for integration with Halo: Anniversary, the update also makes some changes to Reach's core gameplay. At this news, all I could think is 343i was getting a bit ahead of themselves.
The changes include modifications to tone down the Armor Lock ability, decrease the duration of Cloak, remove bare-hand melee counters against the Energy Sword, and decrease the loss of accuracy when firing precision weapons too quickly. They're all changes that will live within their own playlists, and if you want to continue playing Reach the way Bungie intended, 343i says you'll be able to (for now, at least). But I wondered what informed these changes—what have I missed in the last few months of Halo: Reach multiplayer?
As someone who writes about games, I have to keep up on what's new. Unfortunately, that meant a break from Reach and the multiplayer love affair that lasted for months. For all I knew, Halo matchmaking had gone sour, justifying these changes and shutting down my concerns. But in returning to the game, I didn't wade through exploit-infested waters, I didn't battle swarms of armor-locking and cloaking miscreants, and I was having as much fun as ever. This was the Reach I remembered, not the wasteland of cheatery I had expected (and I survived the Javelin-glitch days of Modern Warfare 2, I know how bad things can get).
343i has been quite detailed in their reasoning behind each change, and there are some (like Armor Lock no longer nullifying a sticky grenade) that I'm all for. But a few changes strip some of the fun out of the game, or make the rules unnecessarily confusing. Melee-countering a sword strike, for example, isn't easy to do—it happens very rarely, and when it does you feel like a complete bad ass. Meanwhile, their new take on Armor Lock (where damage during a lock decreases its duration) turns the ability into a less reliable option, even in the circumstances its meant for.
Why do I think I know better than the ones actually play-testing these changes? Where do I get off questioning a developer that's gone out of their way to assuage the concerns of fans like myself? Asking these questions, I realized the truth—I don't trust 343 Industries with the Halo series.
343i and I got off on the wrong foot, and first impressions can go along way. My first exposure to their efforts was the Animatrix-inspired Halo Legends, an awkward tapestry of anime shorts that ran the gamut of quality. A few were so painful to watch, so unfaithful to the series, that it seemed like 343 were going out of their way to either offend most fans, or please a very small niche of them. A part of my unconditional love for Halo died the day Halo Legends was released, and I haven't quite gotten over it.
Halo Waypoint, their other major contribution to the series, is much more faithful, but so far, not very useful. Compared to Bungie.net's legendary suite of stat-tracking and file-sharing tools, Waypoint leaves something to be desired. Its features are currently on par with Bungie.net when Halo 2 was released in 2004. That's not quite good enough for the future hub of a community that's been as spoiled as Halo's fans have been for the last 10 years.
By this point I'd more or less written 343i off, as well as the extended fiction I'd previously followed even at its worst (yes, I've read most of the novels). I'd accepted that 343i would appeal to a fanbase I no longer felt like I was a part of, probably making novels and movies and even entire Halo games I'd have no interest in. I'd accepted that, but then they had to go and start messing with Halo: Reach.
It's not all gloom and doom, though. 343i is collaborating with Saber Interactive and Certain Affinity for Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, a remake of the original Halo set to release this November. They're doing some genuinely exciting things with Halo: Anniversary, bringing back classic multiplayer maps that appeal to me. Their remake of Headlong is not only one of the best maps Bungie never remade, but they've adapted it with loving care, adding appropriate bits of Halo lore, like the Superintendent from ODST.
In a moment of brilliance, they've taken a chunk of one of the best levels from the original Halo and turned it into a new Firefight map. It's not the section I would have chosen (I spent untold hours in the first outpost where you meet Sarge), but it's still a great choice.
To be honest, even the Defiant map pack, a collaboration of 343i and Certain Affinity for three Halo: Reach maps, is pretty great. They've shown they can do good work within the Halo games, and that gives me a bit more hope that they'll do the right thing when it comes to modifying Reach gameplay.
343i is in a tough position. They have a lot of loud voices yelling at them from many directions, and it's going to take an expert's touch to appeal to the right ones. I worry that all the yelling could water down their decisions going forward. We've seen it with Call of Duty—the few changes that have been made since Infinity Ward fell apart have gone under a microscope by fans, causing the studios to pull back on modifications to the formula. What we're left with is Modern Warfare 3, which by most accounts so far is shaping up to be a glorified map pack.
I don't want that direction for 343i's Halo. I want Halo 4 to be vastly different and creative. I don't want them to buckle to fans' demands and go where the money is. At the same time, I don't think they should tinker with Halo: Reach. 343i says their updates will live in a special playlist, and that's fine. Keep it that way, 343i, and we'll have a wonderful relationship together, full of growth and dreams for the future. Make those changes across the board, though, and expect some divorce papers in the mail.