Posted April 22nd 2004

Not even Halo is perfect, though it takes a pretty good stab. Listed in approximate order of annoyance, here are the main things I find annoying. Yep, it's finally time for some good old-fashioned complaining. There are a few 'spoilers' here, if you've not played to the end yet.

Lack of widescreen support

Like so many games, Halo doesn't support 16:9 properly, despite the fact that widescreen TVs are becoming the norm. A circle such as the pistol scope comes out squashed, suggesting that the 16:9 picture is merely being obtained by squashing the Y axis from a standard 4:3 output. That's utterly unwatchable to me. This is nothing to do with my TV, because for example, DOA3 and Sega GT2002 fill 16:9 with no such image distortion.

This major flaw has meant that if I want an image going right across my widescreen, the best I can do is use a special zooming mode my TV happens to have, which effectively zooms in on just part of the output image. Unfortunately this causes the top and bottom of the image to be cut off, including part of the motion tracker! It also still involves a degree of squashing in the Y axis, albeit low enough for me to tolerate. But the zooming mode isn't available when using the RGB scart, hence I have to use S-VHS or something, giving a lower image quality. All in all then, my standard Halo viewing experience is some way below what it could so easily have been. I say 'easily' because I cannot believe that widescreen support is so very hard to provide.

Am I the only one who cares about having an unsquashed widescreen experience? Or do developers think "Oh we needn't bother with that, just squash the 4:3 output and they'll be happy enough". Judging from the demos I regularly stick into my Xbox, it seems to me that the majority of games fail to support widescreen properly. Well, I hereby give developers due warning: no widescreen support, no sale!

Getting switched to third-person

A big reason I like the first-person nature of an FPS game is that I can really feel like I'm there. I'm not distantly controlling a puppet from above, like in a third-person game; I am the character involved, and the game is all the more immersive for it. So in Halo, it's annoying that when you jump into a vehicle or Shade, the illusion gets broken as you're rudely jerked into a third-person perspective. Imagine how much more fun a first-person view would be.

Lack of option to turn music off

Although I think Halo's music is superb and not at all the irritant I usually fear from a game, I'd still like the option of silence during normal play, which for me adds to the realism and feeling of isolation in another world. It also lets you hear the sounds of the enemy more clearly of course; and I don't know about you but I find my cyborg ears rather useful!

There are sections of the game where the music is so loud that you can barely hear a thing, such as when rising to the surface near the end of 'The Silent Cartographer'. If I'm soldiering out on alien worlds and my life hangs in the balance, do I really want the equivalent of a Walkman blaring into my ears, obscuring the sounds of the enemy and thus effectively removing one of my senses? No, I do not.

I'm not against music in games, I'm just against having it forced on me, especially when it's so easy to include an adjustable music volume setting that goes down to zero. I think every game should include that feature.

Getting yanked into a vehicle or Shade when reloading

A major annoyance is that if you happen to be standing near a vehicle or Shade when you hit the reload button, you can instead get rudely yanked in, at which point any nearby enemies merrily shoot you to ribbons as you sit there helplessly, waiting for what seems like an eternity before you can get out again. The correct reaction at this point is: "Arrrggh!". Thus far I've managed to refrain from kicking my TV screen in, but it can only be a matter of time. This reload flaw also makes it hazardous to use a vehicle or Shade for cover.

By now I've managed to train my behaviour to guard against this trouble, but it still ruins a battle once in a while, completely breaking my immersion in the game. It's usually a Warthog or Shade that gets me. But why wasn't it spotted during testing? It wouldn't have been hard to fix. Bungie could have simply arranged that to get into a vehicle or Shade, you'd have to keep the button down for longer than normal, or something.

Gap between Heroic and Legendary is too big

There's such a huge gap between Heroic and Legendary. With the latter, the alien rate of fire jumps to 'murderous' and although I can still cope with it, I have to spend half my time hiding and waiting for my shield to recover, unless I adopt a really cautious style of play (which increasingly I have). Meanwhile, Heroic is too easy unless I handicap myself with an AR or something. Roughly speaking then, it's almost a case of choosing between "too easy" or "too aggravating". I wish there had been a level in between, so I could more easily optimize my enjoyment.

Postscript, 2010: By now I've long since got used to handling Legendary, to the point where I'd actually like an option to have things even tougher (I sometimes get that effect by restricting myself to non-optimal weaponry), so this old annoyance isn't a bother to me any more. However, it would still have been very useful to have an intermediate level between Heroic and Legendary. That could be especially useful for playing megabattles, in which Legendary can be more severe than I'd like.

Residual auto-aiming can interfere

Even with auto-aiming turned off, there's still a tendency for the gun to be auto-aimed to some degree, which can be really annoying. You'll probably know the sort of thing I mean; your aim gets diverted to a target you really weren't interested in, and you have to fight to keep control of the gun, which breaks the realism of course.

The main time this annoys me is when trying to snipe a particular enemy within a distant group, either with a pistol or the sniper rifle. When another enemy moves across the line of fire or moves nearby, their motion tends to take your aim with it. I get this quite a bit when there's an Elite with a squad of Grunts running around. I might have to kill the Grunts before I can get a steady aim on the Elite. Another time it badly annoys is when moving through groups of enemy close up; particularly a mass of Flood spores. This sometimes makes it hard to move in a straight line. Help! I've lost control of my legs!

In fairness, I can see that resolving this flaw could be problematic. I realized that if auto-aiming is completely absent then it would usually be too difficult to aim, even for an experienced player. You can test this by trying to shoot friendly Marines that are a reasonable way away. There's no auto-aiming help at all, and getting an accurate aim (especially on a moving target) is much harder than doing so with enemies at the same distance. This suggests that we do need some degree of auto-aiming, to compensate for the inherent shortcomings of trying to mimic real-life gun aiming with something as limited as the motions of a single joystick. The trouble comes in trying to prevent such 'help' going against your true intentions. After all, the game has no way of knowing your intentions. The best it can do is take an educated guess based on your actions; and that's basically down to the intelligence of the programming.

Conceivably the programming could have been tweaked to at least reduce unwanted aim-diverting when sniping, but perhaps even this was problematic. Maybe there's a Bungie programmer out there who knows the full story. Not that it would make the auto-jiggling any less annoying, but it would sure satisfy my curiosity.

Postscript, 2010: When I said "Even with auto-aiming turned off", I must have been talking of the auto-center option, the effect of which was unclear to me at the time (I seem to recall trying it out just to see, and not noticing any difference). I guess I'd even forgotten that it was called auto-centre. That strange option does have some relevance to aiming - it seems to move your gun elevation towards horizontal when you move forward or backward - but it's not really auto-aim.

Enemy placements and types are predictable

Although Bungie excellently dispensed with many 'standard' FPS traits, thereby making for a much more intelligent experience, there's at least one bad old aspect that's still with us. Namely, you soon get to know enemy placements and types, as well as other things like when reinforcements will arrive. It's what I call 'advance knowledge'; which you wouldn't have in reality of course. As such, you can prepare in advance; weapon choice, avenue of approach and so on. This works against realism and suspense. Personally I don't want to be able to learn a 'pattern'. I'd like to see things made less predictable, and hence more replayable. I'd like advance knowledge minimized.

For example, when the alien dropships land in the first section of level 2 where you meet up with Marines, you know exactly where they're going to land, and in what order, and on what side of each dropship the Elites will be. This makes it relatively easy to wipe out the arriving enemy by running around to the landing spots ready to blast the Elites before they've even had time to hit the ground. Now think how much more interesting and replayable things would be if those ships came down in randomized locations and with more randomized timing, and with less predictable enemy types. Each play would be much more like that first time, when you didn't know what was coming next. That's what I want.

The game does have some randomization, but this is mostly limited to a couple of different enemy patterns in various locations. I'm grateful for that at least, but it's nowhere near the degree of randomization I'm talking about. And the thing is, I really can't see that it would be terribly hard to arrange. In fact, I wonder if game developers deliberately keep things fairly predictable in this way, so that we get bored of games quicker and want more. It helps keep up demand.

Unwelcome twist

In the second half of the game we're pretty much robbed of the initial promise of getting to whup the Covenant. Instead it becomes primarily a fight against the far less interesting Flood, with the Covenant only appearing intermittently from then on. This was quite a let-down for me. Admittedly the storyline was imaginative and everything, but in terms of combat the Flood are basically just a bunch of humourless gurgling zombies and it was hard to take much joy in whupping them. They were just getting in the way of the original fight. It was a twist I could've done without.

As a result, Halo is very much a game of two halves for me. There's the Covenant half, and then there's the zombie shoot-em-up that dominates the rest of the game. It may be a very good zombie shoot-em-up, but I can't help thinking about what might have been. I still long for an alternate universe in which Halo stuck with the Covenant from start to finish. If anyone knows of a wormhole in the spacetime continuum that leads to such a universe, please drop me a line!

Silly stunt drive at the end

For me, the culmination of the game was spoilt by the inclusion of a silly stunt-course Warthog drive at the end. It's as if all the intelligence of design was thrown out of the window at the last moment. Let's face it, you'd have a pretty hard time explaining away what amounts to a Warthog stunt course on board the ship. It's just too unrealistic.

As well as that, towards the end you have to take a huge leap across a chasm, and it's a fickle business whether you happen to land right side up, or flip and die. Sometimes you die even if you do land the right way up. But random chance is no test of skill; it's just an annoyance.

Postscript, 2020: Later I came to quite enjoy the drive, especially after latching on to the spinning method of doing the stunt jump. So I no longer feel it spoils the culmination of the game.

Marines aren't that bright

Don't get me wrong, I think the Marines add tremendously to the game. Their speech programming is superb and they seem so alive. But they're also pretty hopeless in various ways, making talk of 'Marine AI' seem wildly over the top. So let's take a playful look at the flipside.

For one thing, and perhaps the most annoying, they let themselves get run over at the drop of a hat. When you're pulling up to them in the Warthog, sometimes they'll rediculously dive for cover when you're not even heading for them, and other times they'll actually dive into the Warthog's path. It's often hard to pull away in the Warthog, because Marines don't stand clear. Brush them and they crumple. And then some bozo will say "What were you thinking?" or something. Arrrgh! What I was thinking was "Get out of the way, dummy!".

As for combat skills, on any level above Normal a Marine is barely a match even for a Grunt. They rarely fire in any sort of aggressive manner, or get around to actually putting down an enemy (which is agonizing when you're waiting to reload and you can quite plainly see that an Elite only needs one more bullet). Nor do they grasp the concept of cover. In fact, it seems to me that they spend half of their time rolling around like Chinese acrobats, rather than doing anything useful, like firing. As the Elites close in, you want to shout to your Marines "Use the trigger, dammit!". But no, they just fire the occasional burst and proceed to get annihilated.

And when they do get around to firing, they're just as likely to shoot fellow Marines in the back. You can see this at first hand, up on the plateau in the rockslide megabattle. Just stand at the back and watch your Marines cut each other to pieces. And it's no wonder, the way they keep moving in and out of each other's lines of fire. But it's not just single shots in the back; it can be whole bursts, one after another, as if the shooter is clinically blind. It would be quite amusing, if you weren't putting your life on the line to save these bozos.

And then there's the grenade reaction business. If they react at all to an incoming glowing blue ball, they'll probably still hang around inside the blast radius, even the guy who raised the alert! And why do they dive to the ground when it's just Master Chief lobbing a grenade at the enemy? Heck, I'm not that bad a throw, surely.

Marines also sometimes run around making a racket or shooting, when you're trying to be stealthy. Now that's really annoying.

And don't even get me started on the business of Marines jumping into Ghosts and running me over! Nowadays I'm liable to just send a rocket their way before they can get any speed up. "Oops! Sorry!". Actually, a less drastic measure is to grenade unused Ghosts beforehand, so they're turned over and Marines can't get in; but that always feels rather artificial.

It's also annoying (and unrealistic) that you can't brush past them. They're immovable objects, sometimes blocking your path or preventing you from taking cover quickly enough.

Marines are also as dumb as Grunts when it comes to deductive reasoning. I've seen things like the following. A Marine takes a few shots at a closing Grunt, the Grunt runs three feet away to the other side of a tree, and the Marine now starts looking around and says "They must be around here somewhere!". Er… sure buddy, sure.

Although I greatly admire the voice programming for the Marines (nowhere better experienced than in rockslide megabattles up on the plateau), you do also hear some nonsense. In particular, calls of "I'm going after them" are always followed by a complete lack of going after anything. "OK I'm waiting…" I say; but do they move? No. All talk and no action. And sometimes when you single-handedly see off a whole cohort of enemy, some bozo at the back will boast something like "Who's the man?". Well, that would be me actually. Another good one is when I'm battling out front up on the plateau in the rockslide megabattle. After three or four minutes of intense fighting, if I move back to the Marines one of them will say something like "The cavalry has arrived!". Well, the cavalry has been here getting plastered on your behalf for quite some while now, knucklehead; are you deaf or what?

Still, I just can't bring myself to end on a bad note. Like I said at the beginning, gotta love 'em!

Lack of bots

It would've been nice to be able to play on the multiplayer maps as a single player against bots (with the TV showing just my own view, not a split screen view). But alas, there aren't any bots. That said, I can sympathise with Bungie about this because programming them would doubtless have needed an awful lot of work, at the expense of other more essential areas. Can't have it all I suppose!