Halo 4 is a Bad Game

I love the Halo games. The first lacked polish and was greatly improved when it’s remastered edition was released. The second succeeded in doing something different in the face of endless WW2 shooters. The third was an elegant, if mildly absurd thrill ride. ODST was a practise run for something better, while Reach was that something better, blending slick gunplay, over the mechanics and solid and emotive plot. I remember plot points from all of them, and can trace the layout of some of the Halo 3 multiplayer maps in my memory.

h4_005-4f9cdb0532ac44beb85976cd4369531eHalo 4 though – the first game following the breakaway of original series developer Bungie from Microsoft – leaves me cold. I had to look up my Xbox achievements to see if I’d actually finished it, its that forgettable.

The Halo series has never been one to avoid tropes, which can be a sign of bad in itself. Since Halo 3, the games have also been pretty reliant on collectable items, some of which can be missed, to both tell the story and give background and insight into the Forerunners, the race that built the eponymous ring structures. Well used, this can be an effective story-telling tool, rewarding that that are interested in collecting digital trinkets or want to learn more about the setting, but done badly and you end up with games like Assassin’s Creed Unity, where the player is overwhelmed with pointless map icons that are only there for the sake of ticking off a rewardless checklist.

h4_002-f3df874bc11f452d91133674a13f033cHalo 4 does have these tipbits, and they are used to tell a story. Unfortunately in this case, the main enemy, the Diadact, is first named in a missable movie. When he later appears, the AI character Cortana, who provides instructions to the player character, immediately starts using its name with no name and little way of any explanation or exploration of what the enemy is. Halo often had Go There, Do That instructions, and at their best, they using saving entire planets or making a heroic last stand against overwhelming odds. But without any explanation of why the enemy is the enemy, who they are, what they are, its hard to care about why you are fighting onwards. Just being told something wants to destroy you doesn’t make for compelling storytelling and hiding information that provides crucial understanding of the plot and provides motivation is not just poor writing, but poor game design.

Maybe I’m reading too much into Halo 4. In terms of design, there are a number of design elements which have become as token as a beach assault in a WW2 game or breach and clearing an office building in Call of Duty : the a level with wide open spaces and plenty of Warthogs and Ghosts, a level with a pitched battle fought across a bridge, a level set in badlands and lots of soaring spires and light-bridges. The real meat of the other games, excluding the story focused ODST, is the multiplayer. I haven’t tried Halo 4’s multiplayer, after letting my Xbox Live Gold subscription expire, but I put more hours than I care to remember into Halo 3 and Reach with friends from Glasgow. The fast, arcade style shooting, jet packs and squabbles as a complete stranger repeatedly drives a tank into a cliff-face and brilliant hilarious fun, and presumably remain so. But if that’s the main selling point, then why bother with a story-based campaign at all when greater resources can be deployed to increase the number of maps, or improve other aspects of the game. The success of Bungie with the multiplayer only Destiny certainly suggests that this is a viable business model.

Images courtesy of Microsoft and 343 Industries.


Clearing the Gaming Backlog

Steam Screen Shot 1I own far too many games. They are a major vice for me. The beginning of the end for the Xbox 360 as a platform hasn’t helped, with many games from the past few years reduced to £10 or less, making them an easy impulse purchase, further compounded by the regular PC game deals on Steam, Humble Bundle and Good Old Games which see recent titles reduced to pennies.

This year, I want to actually play as many of these games as possible.

I also want to blog and write more. So I’m going to play these games and write stuff about them.

I have more games than I can realistically play to completion and good few games on Steam that I got as part of bundles but which I’m not desperate to play, so this isn’t some kind of completionist effort or an attempt to play every single game. I just want to make sure I justify my collection and my hoarding. Continue reading “Clearing the Gaming Backlog”

Video Games & Mental Illness

Every two to three months, someone manages to come up with evidence which links video games with negative health effects, be they mental or physical. It’s so predictable that you could set your calendar by it. The resultant outcry is equally predictable, with sensationalist tabloids (usually The Sun and the The Daily Mail) making ill-informed arguments about the evils of gaming while many gamers respond with equally ill-informed comments about how journalists don’t understand them and how they’ve never seen any negative effects personally.

I have to confess that the rubbish printed by the tabloids doesn’t bother me that much. After all, an occasional story in which a tabloid news paper is wrong about the cause of  medical conditions is a drop in the ocean compared to the list of things which they’ll happily claim will cause cancer. The fact that gamers (and games industry lobbying groups) are so quick to deny that games have any negative effect at all disturbs me more. After all, very few activities if taken to extremes, even if only by a few individuals, cause absolutely no negative effects.

Take for example a recent study by Douglas Gentile. Professor Gentile has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and heads up Iowa State University’s Media Research Lab. He has spent more than 30 years studying media and psychology and has a list of peer-reviewed articles as long as my arm. One of his latest studies is a paper based on a survey of nearly 1,200 American youths which shows that a small, but significant number of the surveyed youths (specifically 8% of those surveyed) have pathological symptoms which may be characterised as addiction. The paper can be found on Gentile’s personal website, here and in the Journal of American Academy of Paediatrics.

A quick glance at it reveals some interesting tipbits. For example, depending on the way that the results are interpreted, up to 20% of the respondents may be characterised as having pathological symptoms of addiction, although since some of these symptoms are comparatively minor (missing chores, planning to play games in advance) and that this larger figure includes individuals who answered “sometimes” as well as “yes” to the questions.

More interesting is the percentage who answered yes to what I’d view as as the more serious symptoms. 2% of respondents said they had stolen video games or money to pay for video games. Questions on whether or not respondents became bored and restless when attempting to cut down on the amount they played and whether or not respondents had unsuccessfully attempted to cut down on the time they played for also received a positive response from 2% of those surveyed. These statistics are largely meaningless individually however, as one or two potential symptoms on their own is not indicative of addiction.

What is important, rather then merely interesting are the conclusions which Professor Gentile comes to in the closing paragraphs of the paper. Firstly, he notes that there are limits on the survey and study due to the methodology. Secondly, he notes that considerable further study is needed in the area of the long-term effects of video games on individuals and that his study only serves as a basis for further research. Finally, he notes that this study does suggest that there is a high possibility of there being mental health issues related to high levels of video game use in a small number of individuals.

For video games journalists, industry bodies such as the Entertainment Software Association and the moronic commentators on CVG to contend that this report is “flawed” or indeed, completely wrong, demonstrates an astonishing ignorance of academic process and genuine, albeit small, risk posed by video games to a minority of people. It is important to recognise that such risks do exist, so that those at risk can receive support they need. It doesn’t mean that the game-playing experience of the majority needs to be affected though.