I’ve been playing through Halo: CEA lately. The effort that it took to bring that game forward into the current generation is impressive – the visual layer, while maybe not always tonally appropriate, is certainly gorgeous.
But that’s not the point. The game has some serious, basic shortcomings that got me thinking about how the Halo series has portrayed damage information to the player via visual feedback. We’ll get into what makes the feedback of CEA so lacking in a bit, but first I think it’s important to do a stupidly, totally unnecessarily exhaustive runthrough of how Bungie evolved their feedback mechanisms as the series progressed. Each Halo has conveyed the information on damage states in the same fundamental ways, but there were small but important improvements made with each subsequent “main” release. Why is this information necessary? Players need to know that their actions are having an effect. They need to know when to change tactics. They need to know the current damage state of their target. Proper feedback gives the players the tools they need to be effective and predict the outcome of the battle while it is being played out, but it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, spell out every little detail. Things like Gears of War’s shots causing a fountain of blood or the staggering of Halo’s Grunts all tell the player that their shots are landing and doing damage. More importantly, though, Halo is able to portray current damage states in a way that other series haven’t quite figured out yet, and it’s all because of the shield system. So how has the series used the shield system to give players feedback?
Halo CE offered a very simple but effective system, most of which has carried through to modern releases. Undamaged players or shielded enemies had no visual indicator, the unaltered model offered a baseline to draw immediate comparisons to. Upon being damaged, the shield immediately flared to maximum, and you knew that damage was being inflicted. You had a very obvious visual indication. There could be no confusion, your attack was effective. That continued until the shield popped, which had a sort of gaseous burst effect. The player was then immediately aware that a headshot would finish the job. Additionally, the magnum, the primary precision weapon, was given large, almost explosive shot decals when the bullets landed so the player was always aware of where their shots were going. Halo 2 took those elements and added two important visual effects: characters with depleted shields had small “spark” effects dancing around their character model, and when a character’s shield was being restored to full, a series of glowing rings moved upwards around the character model, giving a clear indication that the enemy was no longer vulnerable.
Bungie continued adding small touches to subtly give the player information on damage states with Halo 3. In a multiplayer context, when a player’s shields were low, but had not yet begun the recharge process, various small, white lights on the player model would glow brightly so that players knew before engaging them that the targetwas not at full strength. The shield recharge graphic changed, but served the same function as before.
Finally, Reach continued the tradition with some of the most masterful additions to the feedback system. As the shields lowered further and further in a firefight, the shield flare grew brighter and brighter, and the ‘bubbling’ effect of the shield flare grew larger and larger. For the first time in the series, counting shots is unnecessary. I intuitively know that at a particular brightness, this player has three shots on him. This time, the depletion of the shield was accompanied by a bright, flashy “popping” effect and a loud, distinctive clanging sound effect. The sound effect, which had not been present in any game previously, immediately alerted the player that he was vulnerable to a headshot or a single melee. The shield recharge effect was yet again changed, this time rapidly flaring to maximum brightness and slowly settling to nothing. It may seem simple, but that recharge effect is a stroke of subtle genius – it’s subconsciously obvious as being the inverse of the shield depletion effect. If you interrupt the process early, the shield flare is brighter once again because the settling effect, which occurs in time with various stages of shield recharge, hasn’t completed, showcasing the visual consistency the Reach feedback system has.
So what makes CEA different, how did it regress? Saber Interactive’s new, aesthetically appealing graphical layer does away with all the improvements that Bungie made over the years. That would be at least acceptable on its own, but they removed fundamental elements that existed even in Combat Evolved. Those explosive decals from the magnum? Gone, your shots are much, much harder to track now as the unexaggerated markers often get lost in the foliage.
That bright shield flare that is so incredibly vital for knowing whether or not shots are landing, whether or not an enemy is taking damage? Gone. Replaced, though. But with a paper thin, pixel-width blue line. Can you tell the elite above is shielded? At a glance, I sure couldn’t. Essential information, removed for no apparent reason. The only thing they kept, of the half dozen elements that Reach has, is CE’s original shield pop effect. And it’s helpful, for sure, but it is nowhere near enough to make up for the loss of the most basic feedback element the series has. This isn’t limited to Elites, either — the shielded Sentinels from Two Betrayals have a tiny, almost unnoticeable blue oval surrounding them. And it is maddening. I want to play that game with the new graphical layer and enjoy it, but it is so annoying that I end up, almost without fail, switching back to the classic mode because it is flat out, inarguably better from a gameplay perspective. It isn’t horribly obvious what the game is doing wrong during gameplay, but things just feel…off. In bringing a beloved game forward in time, a bit of the magic was lost when it could have been preserved.
Of course, player feedback certainly isn’t limited to damage indication. Halo has often used a variety of methods to convey information to players. Two of these methods, HUD waypoints and the multiplayer announcer, have been used very sparingly up to this point. Next time, we’ll get into what 343 is doing with Halo 4 and how giving the player too much feedback can be harmful to the experience. The two halves of that sentence are more related than I’d care to admit.