A while back I wanted to write an article where I redesigned Halo 2. Basically, created a Halo 2 that would have actually done Halo 1 some justice. It was going to be two parts, a critique of the real Halo 2, and then then a design article about a better, hypothetical Halo 2. I never finished either, and I probably never will. So here’s the unfinished first part, where I critiqued Halo 2.
If anyone wants more of this, let me know.
There are no images in this post, deal with it, if you dare.
For some reason I’ve been thinking about Halo2 recently. Thinking about what it did wrong, what I expected it to be, and what it should have been.
One of my major disappointments was how the Halo sequels didn’t actually continue the story.
A good place to start at is this statement:
[[“Humans and the Covenant are fighting a war. Two armies end up fighting on an ancient alien artifact and then a dangerous alien parasite called the Flood is released.”
“Humans are fighting an alien empire bent on genocide. Their war brings them in contact with ancient weapons left behind by a long extinct alien civilization.”]]
This is not the plot of Halo. It is the setting.
Unfortunately, Bungie’s writers failed to realize this and, after Halo1, made the mistake of treating the setting as though it were the story itself.
[[The actual story, the one that takes place WITHIN the setting, is the one about the characters, specifically the Master Chief, as they try to make the best choices they can within the setting they’ve been placed in. Halo1 treated the story correctly, where we followed the Master Chief through Halo’s setting and saw glimpses of other stories taking place off in the distance (Captain Keyes searching for the key to Halo, the Covenant releasing the Flood, etc.). But, the focus was on Master Chief’s personal saga. A lot of important events take place outside the scope of the Master Chief’s personal story and we become aware of them when their after effects overlap with the Master Chief.]]
Then the writers of Halo2 decided, “Let’s treat the setting as though it were the story itself and thus make our characters the center of the universe.” All important events are pretty much witnessed or caused by our main characters. They do not have personal lives, they are simply the avatars of a third person narrator.
Not only that, but the setting of Halo1 is rehashed, TWICE, in Halo2: The Flood get release, again, in some gas giant, but then they’re destroyed. Then it turns out that the Flood have already been released, again, on another Halo. And everything is just stupid.
Halo2 should have been done differently. I’d like us to walk through a redesign of Halo2, the way it should have been done, but before we do that, let’s use the gift of hindsight and look at what the real Halo2 did wrong. Which is everything.
[[I have no doubt that what I’m about to say has been said many times in the past, but I want to have some fun so I’m going with it.]]
Halo1 closed on Masterchief and Cortana escaping the destruction of the Halo, with all the Flood and the entire Covenant fleet being destroyed. Cortana mentions that she can detect no life forms anywhere in the vicinity, and they both fly alone in the longsword fighter waiting to get rescued. After the credits it is revealed that 343 Guilty Spark, a conspiratorial Forerunner robot left in charge of the Halo, also survived and is humming along through outer space.
Taking that into consideration, it would make sense for Halo2 to open directly after, or shortly after, Halo1 closed. It would make sense for Halo2 to open on the MC and Cortana being rescued or being captured, or even opening on Guilty Spark doing something ominous.
Instead, the real Halo2 opens on… the Covenant having a trial on their homeworld, speaking English, and punishing an Elite commander for surviving the explosion of Halo because they hate retroactive continuity as much as I do.
The opening ten minutes to Halo2 is pretty much a series of the worst creative and directorial decisions you could possibly make for this game, starting with opening on the Covenant.
[[What the hell is going on? Why are we suddenly seeing things from the perspective of the antagonists? Why are they suddenly speaking English? Also, didn’t all the Covenant get destroyed with the destruction of the Halo at the end of the first game?]]
The entire scene is set up as though we’re supposed to feel sympathy for the Elite commander as he is being unjustly punished. Why should we care about this character that we know nothing about, have never met, and whose species we’ve up to now viewed only as a monstrous, incomprehensible enemy? It makes absolutely no sense for us to care about this guy.
During the opening scene the Covenant talk about their religious beliefs and anachronistically refer to the Masterchief as “the demon”; it’s like Bungie just asked some twelve year olds to write some fan fic and then used it as the actual script.
Part of what made the Covenant seem like frightening adversaries in Halo1 was our inability to understand them. They clearly had speech, social structure, and cultural beliefs, but we were just given hints of these things, usually through Cortana’s dialogues. Their incomprehensibility made them seem more monstrous and our lack of understanding gave them a sense of malice. The only exception to this being the Grunts who are clearly there for light hearted, comic relief, because the goal of Halo1 was to be fun, and not to be serious nor “deep”. Once you show the Covenant’s infantile, poorly thought out, poorly written beliefs, language skills, and political structure, you turn them all into Grunts; everyone in the Covenant becomes comic relief. Which wouldn’t have been terrible if Washington Bungie decided to make the Covenant a humorous satire. They don’t though. They turn the Covenant into a joke while trying to give them a sincere narrative treatment. Those two things negate each other to leave you with a steaming pile of nothing.
What about this idea. What if they had the game open on… the Masterchief! You know, the main character of the series and the character the players control. I know it’s sounds crazy, but maybe that would have worked better than opening the game on a Covenant soap opera. Yeah, sure, the players do end up controlling the Elite commander, so the game kind of opens on a player character, but suddenly playing as an Elite, our enemy, is stupid, it doesn’t work, and Halo2 can go to hell. Playing as the aliens could be really cool if it was in, like, a secret bonus level, or an unlockable, three level mini-campaign, but it just doesn’t work when it’s 50% of the actual game.
Instead, we are introduced to a bunch of alien characters that we’ve never met, but for whom we are expected to care about.
This whole Covenant opening is so terrible and makes so little sense from a storytelling perspective that I can’t understand why no one stopped it from happening. Maybe they couldn’t get to the script amid all the piles of money from Halo1.
Anyway, after the Covenant cutscene finishes, things get worse during a human cutscene.
We cut to a space station in Earth orbit. An engineer chastises Masterchief about the Chief’s armor being damaged, because the engineer doesn’t understand that the whole point of armor is to get damaged so the human body doesn’t. Masterchief doesn’t point this out though, and when the engineer complains about the damage MC just says, “Tell that to the covenant.” Awesome. We learn nothing about the Masterchief, and his character isn’t expanded on in any way. He doesn’t even make us smile with a one-liner like, “You think that’s bad? You should’ve seen the other guy.” Cheesy, I know, but it fits with the tone of Halo’s action story.
After this we have a little tutorial section that is boring and lacks any of the action or immersion of Halo1’s opening tutorial. You just walk, then stand still, in an essentially inactive environment and do nothing.
Halo1’s tutorial, when we run, weaponless, from the med bay to Captain Keyes, was filled with action, emotion, and storytelling. It was actually a brilliant moment in storytelling and game design (and I should probably write an article focusing on it, but I probably won’t). By having you be weaponless, the game forces you to be an observer since you can’t affect the world around you. Unlike cinematic moments in games like Half-life, you actually are in danger and can get hurt, so you are forced to actively engage in the world around you. By immersing you like this, and having you run through battle scenes, the game tells you everything you need to know about Halo1’s story so far: aliens are attacking humans; the humans are losing; the aliens are interested in killing, not in enslaving; humanity is desperately trying to escape and survive. Done: we have all the information we need to understand Halo1’s setting. All of this is told nonverbally in an interactive environment that engages the player.
But in Halo2 the first few minutes of “gameplay” involve sitting quietly on a tram ride, going slowly, while a black man that died in the first game exposits facts at the player. Apparently, no one realized what a boring waste of time this was when Half-life did basically the same thing, but without the black man expositing facts because they were saving that for Half-life 2.
Then, after this incredibly boring opening, we go into another cutscene which explains nothing and introduces more human characters which, like the Elite commander at the very beginning of the game, we know nothing about, have never met, and have no emotional connection to whatsoever. But, we are expected to care about them anyway.
Wait, hold on a second, back it up.
How did the Masterchief get to Earth???
The last we saw of him he was floating in outer space very far away. What happened in the intervening time? What did he do? Did he and Cortana get into adventures? Why don’t we get to see or play those adventures? It’s kind of important for us as an audience to know what happened in the intervening time. And if I have to explain why these questions need to be answered in the game and not some Halo novel/comic then you shouldn’t be reading this article and you should just go away. In fact you shouldn’t be reading at all. People should only communicate to you through a strict system of punishments and rewards.
To make Masterchief’s opening even worse (I’m not even going to address the immaturity of turning Sergeant Johnson into a canonical character) we are forced to endure terrible dialogue including the following lines between Master Chief and Sergeant Johnson. This happens as they make their way to an awards ceremony bizzarely held inside a military command center floating in outer space.
Masterchief: You told me there wouldn’t be any cameras.
Sergeant Johnson: And you told me you were going to wear something nice… People need heroes, Chief, to give them hope… So smile would you, while we still have something to smile about.
THIS CONVERSATION MAKES NO SENSE
Right after Johnson complains about the Chief not wearing anything nice he then makes a point about people needing heroes. Is Sergeant Johnson suggesting that by not wearing something nice that the Masterchief won’t be seen as a hero? Wouldn’t wearing battle armor seem more heroic than wearing, like, a tuxedo or whatever it is that cyborg supersoldiers wear to formal occasions? But then Sergeant Johnson asks Masterchief to smile. So is Sergeant Johnson actually saying that you need to smile to be a hero? People won’t know you’re a hero and you can’t give them hope unless you’re smiling? But wait! How can anyone see Masterchief smile if he’s wearing a helmet? Shouldn’t Sergeant Johnson have said something like, “why not take off that helmet and THEN smile.” Wouldn’t that make more sense than the chaotic ramblings of a shell shocked, black sci-fi stereotype? Also, why did Sergeant Johnson tell Master Chief that there wouldn’t be any cameras? Was he worried that the Master Chief is a shy, eight year old girl who will run away if someone tries to take her picture? Seriously, was Johnson actually worried that the Master Chief just wouldn’t show up if he said, “Yes, Chief, there will be cameras.”? Why did Master Chief even care if there were cameras there in the first place? Why, again, is it important for Master Chief to be wearing something nice?
How about a bit of dialogue that goes more like this:
Masterchief: This is taking too much time. I should be out in the field right now.
Sergeant Johnson: And whose going to cover your flank out in the field? People need to be reminded that there’s more than corpses coming back from the war. They need to be reminded that we can still win, that there’s a reason to join up and fight. So, why not take off that helmet and smile. Let the folks know there’s still something to smile about.
This rough draft of dialogue works a lot better than what actually appears in the game. It reveals something about Master Chief’s character: he’s very focused on his duty, and is not very concerned about the more complicated, logistical, and political aspects of waging an interstellar war. Or another way of saying it: he’s a soldier, the perfect soldier, and not a commander. The dialogue also hints at the struggle humanity has in finding new recruits to fight in the war and maintaining morale. It also reminds the players that the Master Chief, while formidable, is not invincible and still needs the help and support of other human beings to be successful out on the battlefield. It accomplishes several narrative objectives, and it isn’t just several unrelated sentences spoken in quick succession.
Anyway, after MC and Sergeant Johnson have a non-conversation that makes no sense, then we finally get to the ceremony. Master Chief wins the award for Best Masterchief, and we meet those characters we know nothing about but are expected to care about anyway. It’s just like the scene with the Elite commander’s trial. Hey wait a second…
The Elite commander is on trial and is derided by his people and then cast down from his place of status. Then the Masterchief is being praised and rewarded by his people for his efforts. Do you get it? It’s like their experiences are inversions of each other. GET IT??? The Covenant are mean and the UNSC is nice! GET IT?¿?¿? I bet whoever designed these adjacent scenes thought they were soooo clever. Too bad this juxtaposition is the one intelligent thing about Halo2’s opening and everything else is complete shit.
At the end of the cutscenes we still have no idea why we’re playing the game or what’s at stake. Earth, I guess. Or “people needing hope” maybe? In Halo1 the point is made clear right away: we’re helping ensure the survival of humans in unknown territory. Later the narrative goals are changed or added (protecting a valuable AI from being captured, rescuing survivors, finding the controls to Halo before the Covenant do, to helping Guilty Spark activate the Halo and stop the Flood, to stopping Guilty Spark from activating Halo, to stopping the Flood by destroying the Halo) but right at the beginning we’re given a clear understanding of what’s important and what’s at stake, and those stakes remain more or less consistent throughout the rest of the game: we are always trying to protect humanity in a war against an alien adversary.
The beginning of Halo2 is just a bunch of nothing; there is no purpose or motivation given for any of the characters aside from “duty” and we are given no indication of where any of this might be going. Now you don’t always need to be clear on what’s going on in a story, you can be ambiguous and obscure if you want. But, you probably should use clarity when telling a story for an action oriented FPS, as opposed to let’s say a slow paced, surreal, puzzle game.
It’s possible that the opening ten minutes of Halo2 could be worse, but I’m not exactly sure how. Have a scene where we see Masterchief pooping?
And after all that criticism WE STILL HAVEN’T PLAYED THE GAME YET! The game hasn’t even properly started! The tutorial and tram ride don’t count!
But, once the game proper starts, the quality of gameplay proves to be just as bad as the quality of storytelling.
Within twenty minutes we have a section in the first level that takes place outside the spacestation in a low gravity environment, as we fight Elites with jetpacks, and with hard to see gaps in the floor that lead to the empty void of space. So, players are forced to deal with a new game mechanic that, not only is introduced to them in a lethal setting with the possibility of insta-death, but also a mechanic which never appears in the rest of the game. We never have a low gravity portion of the game ever again. This is basically what it looks like when the developers jerk off their physics engine into the players’ faces.
Then there’s the introduction of a new flying enemy: the Drones. Flying enemies are not bad if they maintain a stable hover height when we’re fighting with them; an enemy that uses flight to avoid obstacles can be an interesting opponent (like the Sentinels in Halo1) since they have access to a different topography than the player does. But, if this flying enemy is zipping around, up and down, left and right, while firing at us, then it becomes one of the most frustrating parts of an FPS.
And there’s no real way to balance that kind of enemy. If it has strong attacks and is hard to hit, then it just forces the player to constantly hide and pop out to spray and pray. If it has weak attacks and it is hard to hit, then it’s not really a threat so it’s just kind of wasting time and space. If it’s not hard to hit, then it’s not flying and that’s okay.
start with unfamiliar weapons and dual wielding mechanic (some pros mostly cons)
tries to duplicate halo1’s first level, fighting along with humans, with alien boarding parties, but fails
–boarding sections are long and drawn out, rather than quick and efficient like they were in halo1
—boarding parties come in waves? feels unnatural
–can’t get into alien boarding crafts like in halo1; drains immersion, makes the world feel fake
architecture in rooms where aliens boards is more similar to docking bays in truth and reconciliation in halo1 more so than architecture in pillar of autumn (large open area, split by rectangular high ground)
-end of first level chief dives down to alien ship, but we don’t get to play aboard the alien ship=bullshit
-earth’s cities don’t feel right, could have used more scifi, like e3 new mombosa super city
-tank portion feels more like busy work than like bonus fun; halo1 could get through levels without vehicles if you wanted, in halo2 they are practically a requirement, essentially mandatory vehicle levels
-snipers, and sniper guns, bad game design, need more visual communication (charge up glow for alien snipers?)
-scarab is cool for some other game that isn’t halo; jump aboard a moving ship instead?
-throughout game, too many sections where we defend an area rather than being the aggressor; shift in usual style of halo’s gameplay?
[[Not only that, but the first level which takes place on the space station, doesn’t even reflect the rest of the game. Consider, again, the opening level of Halo1. The Covenant have got humans on the run, and our humans are struggling to stay one step ahead in order to stay alive, hoping to find some edge in order to fight back. That sets up the tone for the rest of the game pretty well, and even sets up future plot points like why the humans were so eager to find the super weapon that turns out to be the Flood: they were desperate and people don’t think clearly when they’re desperate.
Halo2’s opening is kind of similar in tone to Halo1’s: the Covenant have reached Earth and are now invading humanity’s home and humanity is throwing everything they have against the Covenant. But that tone, and that theme, gets thrown out the window after a couple levels as the narrative goes from defending one’s homeland with your back up against the wall, to a narrative about a race to gain control of all the Halos, or something, also the Flood!]]
[[ending same spot as beginning
What’s even more ridiculous is that Halo2 ends in the exact same spot, in terms of story, tone, and astronomy, as where it began, so there was no point to the entire game. The Earth is still being attacked by the Covenant and neither side seems to have made any headway. Nothing has changed by the end of the game. It’s like the universe paused while the Master Chief and Arbiter had goofy adventures with texture popping and infinite bloom. Even the humorously titled Lord Hood is in the same exact spot as he was before, still wearing his white uniform, and his uniform has no stains or smudges on it at all. Nothing has changed. This is really, really bad story telling. There are plenty of successful stories in which the narrative doesn’t go through a clear arc. Or, stories where the characters basically wind up in the exact same spot as when they started and nothing has changed (episodes of sitcoms are usually like this), but that only works in certain situations and with a talented storyteller behind the reigns. It doesn’t work in Halo2.]]
[[one of the worst lines in the game
The Elite has been tortured by electrocution(?) and we heard his voice actor provide a very unconvincing scream. After this, some Brutes drag him to some Prophets who blah blah blah at the Elite for a while and then he puts on some of the worst designed armor I’ve ever seen. However, while the Brutes are dragging this Elite commander through some prisons, and they’re talking about eating the Elite when one Brute says, “My belly aches, and his flesh is seared just the way I like it.” And that’s when I stop and think. What do you mean by that Brute? Do you mean raw? You like your meat seared raw and not, in fact, seared at all? Because that Elite isn’t dead. He is still alive and has suffered no serious burns because a few minutes later he gets up and puts on some idiotic looking armor. It’s a small bit of dialogue, but it is one of the most frustrating because it exemplifies the stupidity and lack of thought put into Halo2 in terms of gameplay, level design, story, dialogue, weapon design, and everything. I guess the writer(s) wanted to make the Brutes seem like really savage bastards, but what the Brutes are saying literally has nothing to do with the reality taking place around them. It’s like the writer(s) didn’t understand what was going on in the scene they were writing. Unless the Brute knew the Elite was not seared and was just being ironic, like, maybe the Brute actually does like raw meat and so it’s like a joke to say it’s seared the way he likes it, because it’s not seared. Good one, Washington Bungie, good one. I almost thought you wrote bad dialogue, when really you just wrote a bad joke, even though it doesn’t sound like a joke the way it’s written and the way it’s delivered. What it actually sounds like is that the writer(s) wanted to make the Brutes seem like a really… brutal… enemy so we would side against them in the rivalry they have with the Elites. If we look at it deeper it implies that the Covenant are starving, maybe? Like why does this Brute want to eat an entire Elite? Does he have no other source of food aboard this floating space megalopolis? If he wants to eat the Elite because he’s just that much of a bastard, then that reflects badly on the writers, because this is a really shallow and superficial way to try to get your audience to hate a character. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the writers weren’t being serious, but they are. They’re trying to be serious and sincere. Look, I wrote an entire, god damn, paragraph about this one line of dialogue, that’s how much it pisses me off.]]