Note: armor abilities will not be addressed here — they’re a whole different ballgame.
Multiplayer maps in a traditional arena-style shooter can’t always just rely on using weapon spawns to direct flow. Often, there are more viable ‘power’ spots on a map than there are weapons that make sense for the type of map, and bloating your map with power weapons doesn’t make a better experience — something that Forgers in the Halo series learned fairly quickly. Luckily, shooters came up with a variety of powerup systems that can occupy these spaces without contributing to the aforementioned weapon bloat. Quake had Quad Damage, Unreal Tournament had armor and shield belts, and Halo had the Overshield and Active Camouflage powerups. Halo 3 attempted to fill more of the empty power spots on the map with its Equipment system, but unfortunately, it was a system that never felt like it was executed properly, and I feel that’s because it did not adhere to the tried and true constraints of the traditional powerup system. The way powerups worked was a fairly brilliant piece of design. What made the powerups work?
- They were on very long spawn timers — 1-3 minutes for OS wasn’t uncommon, depending on the game.
- They were activated on pickup, you couldn’t choose when to use them.
- There were scarce — more than a couple powerups on a map was a rarity.
- They were time-limited.
Contrast this with equipment: Sandtrap’s Regenerators (as an example) are on 30 second spawn timers, Bubble Shields are almost all on 60 second timers (the latter of which would be fine, if there were just one on the map). To give some perspective on those timers, Regens last 15 seconds once deployed and Bubbles last 20. What this means is that the downtime on these items is far closer to zero than it should be. With powerups, people called out spawn timers because it was a rarity. People bothered to learn them because the timers that they were on dictated the pace of the match. This is not the case with equipment. There was no rarity.
That lack of rarity was in large part because equipment items were scattered everywhere. Using Sandtrap as an example again, there are two Regenerators on that map, one per base. Which is fine, that’s awesome. But on top of that, there are three Bubble Shields that are placed within ten seconds walking distance from each other. You could walk a relatively short distance and drop three shields, and that is insane. Equipment was seemingly placed willy-nilly, without regard to what the items actually did. If someone was getting pinged while walking the rocket elbows between the lifts and the main spine, they had the potential to be practically invincible, bouncing from one bubble shield to the next, rather than outsmarting or outmaneuvering the aggressor by dropping down. Part of me thinks that this particular instance was object placement apologizing for map design, since spawns near the lifts were common and the entire area around that zone is a dead man’s land, an open killing field. That doesn’t excuse the placement, at least not for me. Longshore, an 8-12 player map, features two Regenerators, a Bubble Shield, a Power Drainer, and a Gravity Lift in combination with both an Active Camo and Overshield. You cannot sneeze on that map without running into a powerup, a pause-button item or a supergrenade item. When you consider that these items are used not to replace powerups, but to complement them, you can start to see how it looks like a pinata just burst open above the map and littered the ground with equipment-shaped candy. There’s always an argument had that “equipment required map control, so it was fine.” And I guess depending on your definition of what map control is, you might have a point. But when the items are scattered everywhere and are coming back with such frequency, I honestly don’t think map control played much of a role at all. Picking up a piece of equipment wasn’t an event, it was commonplace.
That isn’t to say that all Halo 3 maps overdid it, of course. Guardian and Epitaph (yes, Epitaph), just as two examples, had smart equipment placement. Guardian featured a single Bubble Shield, and Epitaph had two pieces of equipment, one at each end of the map. Note that the spawn timers for these items was still relatively short, but the placement was well-considered.
I mentioned before that powerups were time-limited, and I think that element in combination with their activation-on-pickup use model is incredibly important to understanding why they functioned as well as they did. Powerups did more than encourage movement to different areas of the map, they dictated the pace and flow of a match. When you picked up the OS on Beaver Creek in a CTF match, you knew that the OS was immediately going to start depleting, wasting valuable durability, and that it wasn’t going to be back for a long time. You knew that you were never going to have a better opportunity to make a push into the enemy base. This caused an ebb-and-flow style match pace to appear, where aggression peaked as powerups spawned and gradually waned to a more base level. When you grabbed Active Camo, you had 30 or 45 seconds of cloak to either sneak as quickly as you could, or just be aggressive in general. It introduced a time pressure that is simply not present with equipment, or armor abilities, for that matter. When you can just drop down a Bubble Shield at any time, which is honestly more effective than an Overshield to begin with, being an area effect that blocks 100% of damage inflicted on it (something that the Drop Shield improved on, not that it’s any better overall), there’s no pressure to use it. You save it until the last second when you need a get-out-of-jail-free card. And honestly, that’s the biggest difference between the two systems. Most of the focused-on equipment items promoted defensive behavior, not offensive pushes. The ones that could have really given the player tools to go on offense, like the Flare, Radar Jammer, and Grav Lift were either removed from matchmaking entirely or just not given the attention that they deserved. Those items didn’t let you kill anyone any more easily unless you used them exceptionally well, unlike the Power Drainer (which had a mile-wide radius), and they didn’t inherently make you an immovable tank like the Bubble or Regen did. Items that could have changed the playing field without being overpowered were left to rot, and that’s one of the biggest bummers of the series. Nobody would have cared if a Grav Lift was on a 60 second timer, it was just a movement enhancer, not a combat enhancer.
Both of these systems have gone the way of the dodo. Which, even with all of my trepidation over how equipment was handled last time, is a huge shame. The focus on reusable abilities means that unless the game totally changes, the abilities have to be inherently less of an event, which is just giving up on the opportunities that were lost by equipment and used to great effect with powerups. Bungie has a bit of a history with making these ideas that are wonderful and full of potential on paper and not quite hitting the execution, but I sure would like to see them take a second shot at it.