Level preferences

Posted March 11th 2007

Just for the record, here's the order in which I prefer Halo's levels, judged on the enjoyment I get out of normal play, i.e. ignoring the potential of any special situations you can arrange such as megabattles. Comments follow.

  1. Assault on the Control Room
  2. Halo
  3. The Silent Cartographer
  4. The Truth and Reconciliation
  5. Two Betrayals
  6. The Library
  7. The Pillar of Autumn
  8. Keyes
  9. 343 Guilty Spark
  10. The Maw

1st place: Assault on the Control Room

Even as late as March 2006 I was still counting level 2 as my favourite, which I know because I said so in the Banshee battling article I posted then (since revised). Somewhere along the line though, my countless treks though the snow of AOTCR must have changed my mind because nowadays it's easily my number one, and the level I tackle most often by far. Outdoor fighting is my favourite and there's lots of it here. The outdoor areas are spacious and beautiful, you've got almost all the weapons and vehicles to play with, you've got plentiful Marines there too, and it's gloriously long. It's a real marathon and a great adventure. It's also great for how many different ways you can play it, bearing in mind all the kit and all the wide open spaces. Plus you're fighting the Covenant of course, not the far less engaging Flood.

Although the rooms have an admittedly repetitious style, I've never really minded that myself. They're large enough not to feel claustrophobic, and they each have their own character once you get to know them. I greatly enjoy battling through them, and probably get almost as much enjoyment from the indoor work as the outdoor work.

2nd place: Halo

Here's another level that panders to my preference for outdoor fighting. Not only that, it's gorgeous, with rolling green hills, cliffs and meandering streams - my favourite visual style of all the levels. Lots of Marines to fight alongside too of course, and there's some great sniping to be had. Remember when you got your hands on that rifle for the first time? Oooh, tasty! It's also perhaps the least linear of the levels. The wide open spaces give you so much freedom to approach the enemy as you wish, and in the second part of the level you can tackle the three survivor areas in whatever order you wish.

I put this level second after 'Assault on the Control Room' mainly because of its much shorter length, plus the absence of a rocket launcher to have fun with. I do also wish there had been greater randomization in where and when the dropships land in the first survivor area and in the rockslide survivor area. In both cases you soon get used to the arrival pattern, making things feel a lot more predictable than I'd like.

3rd place: The Silent Cartographer

More excellent outdoor fighting amid beautiful scenery, and you've got the superb beach landing for starters. The indoor fighting is good too, except for one thing. During your rise to the surface in the main facility, the music is so excessively loud that you can barely hear the sounds of enemy movement; a needless tactical disadvantage that makes it hard to retain a sense of realism, and which spoils things a little for me (though you can choose to wait several minutes for the music to end before ascending).

I think of this level as being quite short and a bit sparsely populated. Overall though, it's a great mission and the island setting adds a lot to the atmosphere.

4th place: The Truth and Reconciliation

For me the best part of this level is the outdoor section, an exhilarating night-time assault with lots of chance to use a sniper rifle if you wish. Despite the darkness however, there's enough light to see enemies quite well, unlike in certain other levels where gloom can be a strain on the eyes. As usual it's also fun to be fighting alongside Marines, though in this case they can occasionally be annoying in losing you the element of surprise, courtesy of some hasty shooting. Both on the ground and in the ship, you meet enemies thick and fast, making for an excellent intense mission.

The one thing I'm not so happy with is that Keyes doesn't have the sense to keep to the rear once you've freed him. He'll be only too happy to rush to the front and get himself killed for no good reason. That somewhat weakens the realism, because in real life you'd tell the pipe-smoking fool to stay the heck out of danger. It's annoying when a mission fails like that. Game developers please take note: it's no fun escorting idiots!

5th place: Two Betrayals

This is the same terrain as 'Assault on the Control Room' of course, so it's another marathon affair, something I'm all in favour of. But this time it's dark outside, sometimes making it hard to see enemies. Also, a lot of the fighting is against Flood rather than the more enjoyable Covenant. However, I find it a relatively challenging level (possibly the toughest of all), which is part of why I place it as highly as I have. There's a lot of opportunity for doing careful skillful work to minimize the dangers.

I do find the first few minutes of the level annoying though. For starters you're suddenly out in the open and under fire from Sentinels before you've even had chance to get your bearings, which is quite unfair. And it doesn't help that you've got an unguarded drop nearby, easy to stumble off while trying to evade those lasers. Also, if you stand too close to a glass panel, lasers get through to you, presumably because your armour is partly protruding through the glass, courtesy of a shortcoming in the game engine. Worse still, you've got possibly the worst weapon combo you could possibly have for tackling the first covies safely. It can be quite hard to get through them without losing health. Even Cortana is annoying in this early part of the game. She yaks on forever, apparently oblivious to the fact that you're engaged in a nasty firefight. All in all, this opening seems lacking in thought and polish, and I can't help wondering if it was a bit of a rush job.

6th place: The Library

This level justifiably gets a lot of stick about the repetitious and monotonous nature of its scenery and combat. As well as that, it's dimly lit and terribly low-contrast, which is a strain on the eyes and makes it all the harder to pick out enemies. There are also a few places where carrier forms impossibly materialize close behind you, an unfair element which breaks the realism when you notice it - and you certainly will notice it when they hunker down behind you and explode!

But despite all this I enjoy the level a great deal and rate it my second-favourite Flood level, behind Two Betrayals. I find it sort of mesmerising, probably due to the repetition and the quiet creepy music. The level has a significantly different feel to other levels, and I think it works nicely as a change of style.

For me this level is primarily a wonderful pistol-shoot, and I'll typically go through most of it using 'bait and retreat' tactics. Trigger an attack, then back off and take down the mob with pistol fire. Do it right and the Flood rarely get close enough to trouble you. Not that I don't appreciate a bit of close-up gung-ho stuff with a shotgun once in a while, but I like safety-conscious fighting for maximum realism.

You can actually get through a lot of this level just by running, but that's of no interest combat-wise. Me, I let the Flood spawn as much as they like, and I'll patiently kill every last one! The high enemy count adds to the level's appeal.

7th place: The Pillar of Autumn

This is an excellent close-range blast and I enjoy it a lot, but it's very short and it's all indoors, usually in quite cramped corridors - my least favourite type of environment. I've therefore bumped it quite a way down my list, even placing it behind two Flood levels. It's rather linear too of course, though it's nice that there are a few places where you can take alternate paths.

I think the cramped nature has a knock-on effect in regard to replayability, as follows. All levels have scripted events (e.g. enemies appearing in such-and-such a place), but in a spacious outdoor level you can approach in different ways. In this cramped interior however, you tend to be almost face to face with the scripted events when they occur, and this adds to the feel of having gone through the exact same pattern umpteen times on previous plays, which reduces the replay value.

8th place: Keyes

Having listed my favourite seven levels so far, that leaves three which contain aspects that bring things down a lot for me. I still enjoy most of the gameplay, but there's quite a gap between these and my top seven.

The biggest downer for me with the Keyes level is the extremely dark and low-contrast outdoor section at the start. In places I can barely see where I'm going. Indeed, I have to look very hard to find the start of the passage that leads out of the first area after you've jumped down into the gloop. Anytime I think about playing this level, I groan inwardly at the prospect of fumbling my way through the darkness yet again, and it often puts me off starting the level at all.

Things get brighter when you get back on board the ship, but a lot of it is Flood fighting. Special ops Covenant make for a more interesting challenge later however, and that's always the part I look forward to most.

9th place: 343 Guilty Spark

I imagine many players will be surprised to find this level so low down on my list, but it's all to do with the cramped maze-like facility you investigate, and the fact that it's largely populated by boring old Flood. Yes I know it's a dramatic moment when you first get attacked by Flood, but this list is about long-term play potential, not surprises you experienced on your first run.

I don't know if I'm especially useless at keeping my bearings, but I still regularly get lost inside that facility, which is part of why I don't really look forward to it. I go from room to room trying to get out of the place, and sometimes I can't take it any more and simply give up. The closeness of the walls in the claustrophobic corridors affects me too, sometimes taking me towards motion sickness and forcing me to give up, especially when I'm lost and just seem to be going around in circles. In modern parlance, this place does my head in!

Another bad aspect of the interior fighting is when you're up on platforms and Flood are jumping up at you from below. Their tendrils often come up through the floor, a glitch which reduces the realism. Tendrils also come through doors in places.

For me the real tragedy of this level is that the wonderfully atmospheric swamp area is so under-exploited. On your way to the facility there's just a weak smattering of covies and you're through them in seconds, to start your interminable indoor wanderings. If only there had been some extended battling against stiffer covie opposition outside! You fight some Flood in the swamp at the end of course, which is fun alongside the Marines; but it's still only Flood.

10th place: The Maw

There are at least a few covies to play with here, but for the most part you're up against Flood and Sentinels, as well as being in a sometimes cramped environment, something I'm never keen on. The section where you blow the exhaust manifolds feels a bit old-skool to me (go here, press this, go there, press that), and the Sentinels can be rather annoying when you're waiting to rocket or grenade a manifold.

But it's the bizarre stunt drive to safety that really brings down the level for me, and actually spoils the culmination of the game. I find the presence of such vast undulating corridors and tunnels and flyovers pretty unbelievable in a spaceship, and the drive itself feels rather fiddly and precarious, quite apart from being something you have to learn bit by bit. I hate die-and-retry gaming! The worst aspect of all is that surviving the huge jump near the end seems to be something of a lottery. Never mind how skillful you may be, you can die even if you land on your wheels! To me this mad stunt drive is in stark contrast to the intelligent design of the rest of the game. I can just about enjoy it now that I've learnt how best to flow through it, but I find it hard to take seriously. I think of Halo as being a brilliant and intelligent game, but when I remember this stunt drive ending I suddenly feel a bit embarrassed.

Postscript, 2020: Later I came to enjoy that final drive quite a lot, especially after latching on to the spinning method of doing the stunt jump, which takes the randomness out of it. So I wouldn't be so hard on The Maw any more.