Posted April 22nd 2004

In this thinly disguised excuse for blowing my own trumpet and voicing a few opinions about the world of computer games, attractive young reporter Suzie Hoffenblatt pops over to my place to interview me for an article in the Daily Gamer. Well, no she doesn't actually, but I like the imagery and I'm going with it.

Interview recorded April 2004

In Halo what difficulty level do you play at?

Usually Heroic, though it's now too easy unless I handicap myself with an assault rifle. I can survive on Legendary, but I generally don't enjoy it as much. With the murderous rate of alien fire, you have to spend half your time cowering in the shadows waiting for your shields to recharge so you can pop your head out for another three seconds. I'd rather have a bit more fun.

But I do wish there was a level midway between Heroic and Legendary. That would be ideal. Actually, nowadays I mostly just play the rockslide megabattle over and over on Heroic, deliberately making things hard enough to be a challenge.

What's your favourite Halo weapon?

If you mean the one I most like to have around as I go through a level, it's the pistol. I love its precision and power. Nice sound effect too. But if you mean the one that's the most all-out fun to use, it's got to be the needler. It's a work of art. It's almost addictive to cause those pink explosions, and the sound effect for the explosion is my favourite in the whole game.

How about your favourite vehicle?

Much as I like swerving about in the marvellously suspensioned Warthog, I'm going for the Banshee. So easy to fly, and it's so much fun to swoop down and blast the enemy with the fuel rod. I wish they'd included more opportunity to use it though, without having to cheat and steal one in 'Assault on the Control Room'. Why be so mean with such an obvious highlight?

Do you have a favourite level?

I'd say level 2, 'Halo'. I much prefer outdoors fighting to indoors, and I especially like the scenery in this level, along with the peaceful ambience. Running water, birds chirping, the distant sound of Marines screaming whilst I take a pleasant lunchbreak down by the stream; that sort of thing. As well as that, it includes the rockslide megabattle which is quite unique. It's also less linear than the other levels, and the rolling hills make Warthog driving all the more fun.

A further bonus is that for much of this level I'm allowed to play without music in the background. Halo's music may be superb, but for me it also detracts from the realism. I prefer austere real-world ambience, and don't want an orchestra broadcasting over the intercom.

What's the dumbest thing you ever did in Halo?

I tried to tag a Grunt with a plasma grenade up close, not realizing that I was actually set for frag grenades. The grenade bounced off him and blew me sky high. Pesky little fin-backed critter!

What about any odd or funny things that happened in Halo?

The flukiest event happened in the rockslide megabattle when I was busy ferrying reinforcements over to the far area. Just as I left the plateau, I ran into a swarm of enemy. One of the short grunty fellows must have left a plasma grenade stuck to the front undercarriage or something, because Boom! Up we went. We were blown maybe ten feet into the air, doing a perfect back somersault as we travelled forwards, then landed on our wheels and continued on. Honest, it was worth a clear ten out of ten from the judges. The passenger died in the blast (easy come, easy go), but myself and the gunner made it.

Another freaky event was again something in the rockslide megabattle. The empty Warthog got blown sky high out in the far area, and when it came to rest it was balanced almost vertically on half of the rear bumper. What are the chances of that? I would've taken a photo as a souvenir, but the UNSC boffins forgot to build a camera into my helmet.

There was also one time in the indoor bridge area in 'Assault on the Control Room'. A shot from the sniper rifle killed not only two enemies on the bridge, but continued on and got a Grunt way over by the gun turret on the far side. The extra Grunt was just luck, but it was pretty amusing to see three go down.

One of the funniest things happened in 'The Truth and Reconciliation' when enemy reinforcements were coming around the cliffside after I entered the second area. I'd thrown a few grenades over, and one of them must have gone off right underneath a Grunt, because he shot straight up, way up high then back down to practically the same place, cartoon style. I almost got killed after that because I was so busy laughing. Grenade explosions have been good for lots of other funny moments too, especially when it comes to the huge chain reaction explosions you can get in the rockslide megabattle. Every once in a while a Grunt or Jackal will go flying past you, screaming as they go.

Something I've seen just once or twice when things have got hectic, is an Elite trying to give myself or a Marine a good whack, but missing and accidentally getting a friendly. Highly amusing.

How did you come across the 'rockslide megabattle'?

One day I entered the rockslide area, killed the initial group of aliens, then, just to do something different for a change, decided not to hang around for any dropships. I drove off to save the other groups of survivors instead. I ignored Cortana telling me I had to stay, and wondered if leaving would make anything weird happen.

By the time I returned, all the dropships had landed, though at the time I didn't really recognize this. As I recall, I drove in and parked up at the plateau base. And then all hell broke loose as a horde of enemy descended on us. After being quite severely killed and thinking something along the lines of "What the hell was that?", I did a 'REVERT TO SAVED' and had another go. And another. I was pretty gobsmacked because this was easily the best fighting I'd ever had. And it had been hiding all this time!

Months later (as I write), I thought I'd better make sure other players get to know about it in case it wasn't well known. I hadn't seen anything about it on any 'tips' pages, and yet it was clearly the singlemost useful 'tip' to know about, because you could play just this for months! And I should know because that's exactly what I've been doing.

And how many times have you played it by now?

Must be upwards of a few thousand. I wasn't counting.

Can you pick out any highlights of Halo?

My number one highlight has to be those wonderful Grunts. They're so funny and I just never tire of them. But all the alien characters are superbly crafted; I really find it quite amazing how such a good job could be done.

Another highlight has to be the explosions. It was great to see such realistic dynamics, the way things sail through the air, and the way that massive objects like gun turrets really look heavy in the way they bounce around slowly on landing.

I'd also pick out the voice programming and acting for the Marines. It's makes things seem so real, the way they shout and comment on things; nowhere more so than when battling alongside them in the rockslide megabattle. Brilliant work.

Those gorgeous Covenant dropships are worth a mention too. Ok it's a pity you can't shoot them down or damage them, but they're majestic to watch.

When it comes to environments, I think that the swamp area in '343 Guilty Spark' is a stupendous achievement; easily the most atmospheric environment I've experienced. The pitter-patter of the rain; the flitting moths and fireflies; the weird vegetation; the colours; so many things working together to evoke a terrific feeling of humid oppression. It's just a pity that this masterpiece is so underexploited, because you hardly get to do any fighting in it. Within a few short minutes the token handful of enemy is dispatched and Bungie have got us indoors wandering around a maze of interlinked rooms for the next half hour. Bah! I could've happily battled Covenant in that swamp for hours!

The beach landing was one of the most exciting scenes of the game, and got a big "Wow" from me. I played that over and over. It was a great feeling, sweeping over the enemy and wiping them out.

There are also lots of subtle things that impress me, and which show the care and thought that must have gone into the game. Things like the sound of the falling dirt cloud after a grenade explosion outdoors; the way leaves get shot off a tree; the way enemies fire off involuntary shots as they fall dying to the ground; the way the needler's needles bounce off some surfaces if the angle is shallow enough; and the way a needle causes an ultra-realistic faint puff of swirling dust when hitting a rock or suchlike.

What about things in Halo you don't like?

Picking out faults in Halo is a much tougher job than with other games, but yes, there are a few annoyances. When it comes to the actual combat, a couple of issues are that you can get suddenly yanked into the Warthog when you merely wanted to reload, and that when you jump into a vehicle or Shade, you're switched to a less engaging third-person perspective, which sort of breaks the illusion of actually being Master Chief.

I wonder if grenade throwing could have been made more flexible by using pressure sensitivity to vary the strength of throw. It seems an obvious idea. But perhaps Bungie tried it out and decided it was too awkward to use, or detracted too much from the (generally welcome) simplicity ethic. Nevertheless, things are a bit limited because all you can vary is the angle of throw. You're obliged to always throw hard. That felt clumsy to begin with, though I've got used to it now after lots of practice in the rockslide megabattle.

What features are you looking forward to most in Halo 2?

The new 'battle rifle', with its increased accuracy and sniper scope. Of course I'm looking forward to the other new weapons too; but as a fan of precision weapons, I really like the look of this rifle. Judging by the superb E3 video trailer which I've watched dozens of times, the rifle also has the ability to bring down Jackal shields in a few shots. Should be handy!

I'm also looking forward to using combination melee attacks. In Halo I'm a keen user of the melee attack, but when it takes more than one whack to put an enemy down, it can feel clumsy and slow to keep bashing them the same way. The combo attack should make things feel a lot more natural and satisfying. Especially for those of us who have secret Ninja death skills in real life, like myself.

Uh huh… Moving right along, what other shooters do you play?

Almost none, which is basically because Halo seems so much more advanced than anything else, both in terms of the graphics quality (e.g. non-jerky character animation, an important feature) and the intelligence of design.

I have rather low tolerance for dumb stuff in games, which means there isn't much out there I'm prepared to spend time or money on. For example, I'm likely to be put off by an FPS where you can apparently carry around a dozen weapons at once. I mean, are you trailing a wheelbarrow behind you or what? It just doesn't map to any sort of reality I can identify with. I'm so glad Halo broke with that tradition. In fact, you just couldn't have had the same intelligent tactical game if you could walk around with an entire arsenal.

I did get Brute Force, but it was mostly a disappointment that only reinforces what I just said about Halo. Enemies mindlessly repeat the same few phrases, and do silly things like walking about casually when under fire. Also, the 'ragdoll physics' was ridiculous. It's as if the developer thought that when people die, skeletal structure no longer applies. Enemies collapse into a vague mishmash of limbs, instantly breaking the illusion of being a person. Did no one realize how badly that affects the experience? It's so obvious.

Things that break the illusion like that are the worst. An example you'll see in loads of games (and probably every kid's game ever, judging from what I've seen) is where dead enemies blink out of existence in front of your eyes, or where things get blown up and magically disappear. Bungie had the intelligence to only let bodies disappear when you're looking somewhere else; and when you blow stuff up, you're left with realistically charred remains or whatever. I just hope the other developers are paying attention. That said, even Halo annoyingly 'breaks the illusion' in places, most notably in the way you're pulled out-of-body into a third-person perspective when driving or piloting.

Another bit of Brute Force silliness lies with what I believe are known as 'boss characters'; an artificial gaming device that Halo thankfully does without. And what is a boss character? Seemingly, it's an enemy absurdly more powerful and resilient than anything else, purely for the sake of what passes for 'gameplay'. Laws of physics need no longer apply. Normal gameplay is suspended whilst we enter the world of the pointlessly frustrating. A dozen sniper rounds to the unprotected head? Small graze above left eyebrow. Multiple slicing from Hawk's instant-death powerblade doodah? Mild flesh wound. Running over half a dozen carefully planted landmines? Slight tingling in the toes. See what I mean? One moment whilst I go away and scream.

Feeling better now?

Much. But as I was saying, I find this sort of thing irritating, and consider it laziness on the part of the developers.

I think my biggest pet hate (whether in shooters or other genres) would be 'slippy-feet', where feet slip along the ground as a character moves, rather than being stationary whilst in contact with the ground. Like they're ice-skating or something. It's another of those illusion breakers. I see this all the time in demos and clips. Sometimes its so bad that I wonder why they bother including leg animation at all, because most of the motion is accounted for by gliding. When I see that, I'm likely to dismiss the game there and then.

But the developers mostly seem blind to it; or maybe they just can't be bothered to arrange proper locomotion. Or maybe they think "Hey, we're aiming at kids here, they'll put up with anything". Or maybe they've simply never heard of 'friction'. I wish they'd break free of stuff like that. The animation for Bungie's Covenant is a great example of how to get things right; they look like they're actually in contact with the ground, and it makes the beasties so much more believably physical.

Another thing that annoys me is when airborne objects don't follow the laws of gravity. Where are the parabolas? As far as possible, I want realistic dynamics and behaviours; and again, Halo is a great example. This also helps you use your natural instinct about how things will behave. I'm not interested in having to acclimatize to bizarre game physics.

Nice rant. Can you give us more?

Surely. Going back to Brute Force (not that it was all bad!), it also confirmed to me that when it comes to shooters, I'm only really interested in a first-person perspective. Third-person is nowhere near as engaging. You're more like an observer, rather than actually being there in the battle. Besides which, your enemy occupies much less of the screen because the camera is further away, way back over your shoulder. That makes it harder to see them in the detail you'd like, and makes it correspondingly harder to aim. So give me first-person every time. And preferably with Grunts in.

Ok that's a wrap. It's been fun.

Hasn't it just, Suzie.

Postscript, 2010: I must've upped my game since that interview. Weird to read that I used to favour Heroic. In standard play nowadays, I'd be enjoying Legendary unless perhaps handicapping myself with weapon restrictions or something. I still use Heroic for most of my megabattling though. Another change is that my favourite level is the marathon affair of Assault on the Control Room, by far. I probably play through that level more often than all the others combined!