Creative Stagnation – Halo 4

Three days ago, I posed this question to my friends on Twitter:

The general consensus was that an existing series should not (necessarily) feel the need to overly push the boundaries.  Simple evolution of existing mechanics and gimmicks is perfectly acceptable.  This in no way means, however, that we should not continue to push the boundaries of our artistic medium as a whole, looking for new forms of expression and new ways of touching the human experience, thereby making better sub-creations.

Furthermore, the consensus was also that there is no reason evolution can’t be revolution (or vice versa), or that it isn’t already.  Therefore, an agreement was reached that the dev’s statement was an oversimplification–true, but not really getting to the point.  I would say that it was a bit more than oversimplification; it was looking at only one piece of a whole picture.

Now, that last bit being said about evolution ≈ revolution does not mean to exclude innovation from the picture.  And I would also argue that there are times when it is called for even in an existing game franchise.  Let’s go back to Halo 4 as an example. For roughly a decade we’ve had the same fundamental mechanics with little variation.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but Halo has had a particular kind of tunnel vision with it’s mechanics that is to it’s detriment.  Allow me to elucidate:

The Meat of the Matter–Whereupon I Drop the Fancy Words

Back when Halo 4’s first gameplay trailer was released at E3 2012, one of the comments I made was the hope that other Forerunner weapons, as oppose to the two shown (a DMR and Shotgun clone), would be more interesting and set apart from their human/Covenant counterparts.


Now compare the Forerunner weapons with the human ones (or the Covenant for that matter)…

So let’s do a quick recap: the Light Rifle is the DMR/Carbine, the Scattershot is the Shotgun, the Suppressor is the Assault Rifle/Storm Rifle, the Boltshot is the Plasma Pistol (and can also be charged up and serve as… a mini-shotgun), the Binary Rifle is a Sniper Rifle, and the Incineration Cannon is… the Calamity Cannon from Bastion?  Except if it fired the Mancer Missiles all the time?  Okay, that last one can stay!  The rest of the weapons are devoid of any inspiration.

For further info, including enemy types, this trailer was also released…

If you’d rather not sit through another ten minutes of video.  Here’s another recap:

The new enemy types are Forerunner defense AI known as Promethean Knights.  They look like these guys and these guys, and this was ripped from this.  Generic video game monster silhouettes and Bill Cosby.  That’s extremely bare bones, but whatever.

For those who may have read my previous post on the subject, some of this will be familiar to you.  For those who haven’t, I’ll spare you the reading (unless you REALLY want to), and pilfer from my own post the relevant bits.

This is more than a bit frustrating.  We’ve seen this with Halo’s enemy types, and we’ve seen this with its sandbox, like weapons here.  Bungie, and now 343 Industries, has had this sense of “game balance” that hasn’t changed since Halo 2, and they’re clearly afraid of mucking with it and/or pissing off the hardcore multiplayer fans.  As a result, we’ve been stuck with the same enemies, the same weapons, and the same, bloody game engine for close to a decade now.  And our first look of new Forerunner weapons are carbon copies of human ones.  These are the Forerunners we’re talking about!  With technology so advanced it may as well be magic.  They can build entire planets, ring worlds, multidimensional rooms, and micro-Dyson spheres in slipspace!  They can teleport; they can force stars to collapse, and destroy galaxies.  They can preserve people by saving copies of their personality or consciousness onto computers and AIs; they can build armor that sustains the body so that it doesn’t age (or significantly prolong aging at least), need sleep, or food or water–plus other stuff.  These are the guys who build technological wonders (and have light bulbs for crying out loud) that last for hundreds of thousands of years… and ammo is somehow still an issue?  The Sentinel Beam was limited, but that made sense: it was the broken piece of a combat drone you blew up, I can believe it giving out.  There was a wonderful opportunity to do fun, whacky, and interesting things with these weapons.

There is a wonderful opportunity to be had.  And 343i is blowing it.

There’s nothing to the Forerunner weapons whatsoever.  They don’t have their own set of unique or interesting mechanics.  Take the Needler for example: a weapon that uses exploding needles that seek a target.  It’s different from all the other guns, it’s creative, fun to use, and it works.  Pretty much every. single. Forerunner weapon we’ve seen is a clone of an existing weapon with spectacle being the only difference.

And I shouldn’t have to say this, but gimmicks do not count!  The Light Rifle has an alternate firing mode to switch between a single and a three round burst?  So I get my choice of DMR or BR rolled into one??  INNOVATION!!!  The choices!  The technological wonder of the Forerunners!  The sarcasm!  And as much as I hate saying things like this (no, really, I do) alternate firing modes have been in PC shooters long before; our actual guns have done it for longer.  The Scattershot’s bolts bounce all over the place?  So the devs just applied physics to the projectiles of one of their weapons?  The Boltshot can be charged up for a mini-shotgun blast?  So it’s a Plasma Pistol combined with a Mauler?  See, none of these weapons have interesting mechanics they can call their own–not like the human or Covenant weapons.  And again, there’s nothing that remotely seems advanced or, well, Forerunner, about these weapons.  So you mean to tell me the most advanced race in the galaxy constructed a weapon as crude as a shotgun, that has to be cocked like a breach-loader and you have to insert individual SHELLS???  That’s stupid!
You mean to tell me you concepted two hundred weapons and these were the best you could come up with?

One of my Twitter friends said weapon design should literally be one of the easiest things for you to do.  343 Industries isn’t even trying.  They’re copy/pasting and writing it off as their warped sense of “balance”.  This is Call of Duty Syndrome.

So Enough with the Rants–How Do We Fix This?

Here’s some ideas I and another (okay, same Twitter guy) had–just off the top of our heads:

  1. In place of the assault rifle clone, a Multi-beam Rifle: beams are precise weapons, so to widen the spread you have multiple, rotating barrels (like the multi-beam frigate from the original Homeworld).
  2. Black Hole Gun: a heavy weapon that fires a singularity, drawing targets to its center before exploding (like in Mass Effect 2).  What better way to show the Forerunners’ mastery over space and mass?
  3. Gunblade: an elegant weapon from a more civilized age.  Replacing the Scattorshot.  A blade of light that can also be charged to fire a powerful bolt (like from Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask) or maybe a beam (the beam version might have short duration like the Spartan Laser, though not as powerful, and need to cool down before being used again).
  4. How about a laser pistol that may not be all that powerful on its own, but when fired in unison with others the beams can combine to create something much more deadly.  Like a literal baby Deathstar.  I’m thinking of the Forerunner weapon shown from Halo Legends.
  5. This went through several iterations–the current idea is a gun that fires dozens of mirco-sentinels that swam, wear away at, and can potentially incinerate a target if the opponent is not careful.  Don’t get surrounded, and if you have the right weapon, you might be able to take some of the buggers out!
  6. So y’know the new Promethean Vision that allows you to see through walls right?  What if we had a Promethean rifle that could SHOOT and cut through walls?
  7. Pulse-gun: Maybe a gun that fires a miniature version of the Halo-Array pulse?

Most of these weapons would recharge, making ammo a relatively non-issue.  Powercells could be introduced to potentially bypass cooldowns and provide some resource management.  Heck, just having a battery and a cooldown like the Covenant weapons or Sentinel Beam would be a hundred times better than friggin’ ammo.

This is all just off the top of our heads.  Ideas.  Just ideas.  But they’re a million times better than what we’re getting.  Too bad we’re getting another DMR to go with the human one we already have.  Combat Evolved indeed.

In terms of enemies, why on earth would the Forerunners build clunky, bipedal automatons that look like generic monsters and dogs, when they have various Sentinel classes of all shapes, sizes, and functions which are much more efficient in design?  What’s with the Crawlers?  Sentinels freaking fly.  There’s nothing wrong with using the standard ones like your average grunts and giving them different kinds of weaponry.  Here’s another idea for a simple fix.  I do kind of like the upper body of the Promethean Knights.  Remove the legs and arms and you got a whole new class of Promethean Sentinel or something.  Maybe change the art a little too to make it look more Forerunner.

Look, I know the game isn’t even out the door and I’m already ragging on it, but here’s the thing: I’m okay with the human and Covenant stuff.  Spartan Ops?  I don’t have a problem with; I think it could open a whole new door in the field of digital distribution service.  The basic story outline?  I like it.  The Promethean Knights all by themselves have very interesting implications for the story.  Halo lore nerds are wetting themselves.  Considering that my biggest gripe with the game so far is the portrayal of Forerunners (and their weapons specifically), I’d say I’m doing pretty good, and the game is on okay footing.  It’s one facet of the game.  BUT! … but these are the Forerunners we’re talking about.  The hyper-advanced space magic race that have been in the background and have wowed us with their mystery and their technology in nearly every game since Halo: Combat Evolved.  They are arguably one of the most important–if not THE most important–of aspects in all the Halo franchise.  And they’re being reduced to Call of Duty, generic monster designs, and chocolate cake!  The fact that in the Forerunner trailer posted above one of the devs said they were trying to “tell a Forerunner story without interfering with the shooting aspects” is also quite troubling.  That almost speaks to me of what I like to call the “Halo 3 Formula” where you run around doing nothing but combat while all the important exposition (and a crucial character) get shoved into cryptic text files on scattered, hidden terminals.

Look, I love the aesthetic of the weapons and how they fold out.  I do.  I dig that.  But it takes more than a coat of paint to make a new weapon.  And you know what?  Going back to that trailer again when the devs were talking about the automaton Knights being like sarcophagi for actual Prometheans?  I like that idea; that in some form or capacity there is a person, a warrior, encased in a shell or maybe a combat equivalent of a Forerunner Cryptum.  And I can tell that, unlike the weapons, at least some thought and effort were put into these new Promethean enemies.  It just doesn’t work, not as a Forerunner opponent anyway.  Why the monster look?

Why can’t these be our Prometheans instead?  I love this concept!  It goes wonderfully with the sarcophagus combat suit idea; an ancient warrior encased–almost imprisoned–just look at how the arms are held back.  Maybe they’re weak and vulnerable, almost machine, and one with a suit that’s keeping them alive.  This design conveys all that.  We see a warrior titan, the design is unique, and it actually looks like it could be Forerunner!

Forerunner art

When introducing something like the Forerunners, at least some degree of revolutionary mechanics are called for.  We’re not even getting simple evolution.  Halo 4 is creatively stagnant.  343 Industries is taking Halo in a new direction with this next trilogy.  Halo 4 is a taste of what is too come.  And right now, that taste isn’t all that promising.  But it’s still not too late!  There are two more games after this one!  343, you still have a chance to rethink this and change things!  There’s hope!  Cut through noise and find the right signals!  Please!  I ask–beg–this as a fan still holding on in hope because how Halo’s universe enriched me in days past.  Be it the wonder I felt as I walked Halo’s surface the first time, looking at the massive structures in awe and thinking “Who BUILT this?”, or the equally epic and tragic tale of lovers, desperate measures, and betrayal in the Forerunners’ last days, or even how Halo itself is a sci-fi retelling of a European legend.  You, 343, can be the giver of that experience, and bring the Forerunners to life.  Just listen.

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4 Responses to Creative Stagnation – Halo 4

  1. newdarkcloud says:

    I really can’t stress enough how many different things you can do with guns. Take a look at what Insomniac can do with weapons in their games.

    There are some VERY unique weapons in those lists, though Resistance has more “serious” weapons.


  2. Phantos says:

    RE: Forerunner concept art:

    This happens way too often. A game will have hundreds of pieces of really interesting, cool-looking concepts for enemies or locations…

    …and then they pick the designs that look like every other video game. I’m tired of games that look better in pre-production than release.


  3. J K Willingston says:

    They ruined the Forerunners. Completely. Ruined.


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