Wrote a lot of this during my classes, cause they are all lectures and I hate it. It has no real intro, so bear with the first few paragraphs while I bother to explain stuff you probably already know.
Discussion material inbound.
Gears of War 2’s Horde mode consists of 50 waves of enemies working to overwhelm and defeat a team of players. The session is divided into 5 sets of 10 waves, which each set getting progressively more difficult as more enemies are added at a greater variety to challenge the player with. However, each set of 10 waves are repeated 5 times over, with the difference between each set being either a health, damage, or accuracy multiplier applied to the enemies which stack, eventually culminating in one last fight for survival in wave 50 with a 2.5x multiplier applied to each variable. Even with a difficulty multiplier added after a completed set, each successive set plays similarly to the one before it with no real change to the actual gameplay itself. Enemies become tougher and stronger, and player strategy must adapt to these new challenges, but the core gameplay mechanics remain unchanged.
Halo 3: ODST’s Firefight mode is structured in a similar way, with 3 rounds made up of 5 waves of enemies for a total of 15 waves in a single set. However, unlike Horde, Firefight has an unlimited number of sets which allows the game to continue indefinitely. Each round in a set is given its own difficulty multiplier in the form of “skulls;” after successfully completing the 5 waves that make up a round, a skull is activated until the set is complete. Rather than acting as direct difficulty modifiers, skulls provide a more abstract and unique way of altering gameplay mechanics, sometimes drastically. During the first round of the first set, Tough Luck is activated (and remains activated for the entire duration of the Firefight session, as it is the Round 1 skull) which causes enemies to dodge sticky grenades, needles, plasma pistol overcharges, and other slower-moving projectiles with greater efficiency. After these first 5 waves, Round 2 begins which activates the Catch skull. This causes enemies to throw grenades at a significantly increased rate. During the third and final round of a set, Black Eye is switched on as well for a total of three skulls activated. Black Eye prohibits player stamina from regenerating normally. Instead, the player must melee an enemy to regenerate stamina and prevent enemy fire from draining health. These three skulls always activate in the same order for every set, but in addition to these three skulls, each individual set gets its own skull until Set 4 for a total of 6 possible skulls. After Set 1 is completed and Set 2 begins, Tilt is activated which causes bullets to do considerably less damage to enemy shields. Tilt remains activated for all 15 waves in Set 2, in addition with Tough Luck, Catch, and Black Eye still activating at the beginning of Rounds 1, 2, and 3 respectively. During Set 3, the Famine skull is added along with Tilt, which halves the available ammunition in dropped enemy weapons. These two skulls are applied along with each round’s skull until Set 4, in which Mythic is activated, which doubles enemy health. By Set 4, Round 3, Wave 5, all 6 skulls are activated. When this wave is finished, Set 5 begins just as Set 4 has; with all 3 set skulls and the Tough Luck skull for Round 1.
Implementing gameplay modifiers in Firefight is a great idea with a lot of potential, as it offers to change up gameplay and keep each wave’s encounters and different situations fresh and unique. Instead of having basic difficulty multipliers such as Horde, skulls can cause significant alterations in the way players approach a given situation. For example, when Catch is enabled, Grunts present a bigger threat to players than they normally would, as they can easily destroy an entire team with a barrage of grenades if caught unaware. They suddenly become more of a prioritized target than, say, a pack of Jackals, and are approached at a greater distance and with greater caution. Ammo scavenging becomes a little more dangerous, as a sudden grenade throw from a hidden Grunt can easily detonate a chain reaction under the feet of unsuspecting players.
Firefight’s system is unique and very different from Horde, and at first glance Firefight seems to trump Horde in almost every way. The intention of this piece isn’t to determine which mode is better. Firefight and Horde are two different modes for two entirely different games. However, Horde is the only other model with which to compare Firefight accurately, and so I will use it when necessary to help illustrate some of my points.
I have three main issues with Firefight as a whole. My first issue is with the skulls themselves.
I find the choice of skulls implemented in Firefight completely underutilizes the possible potential for such an awesome concept. Having gameplay modifiers activated at certain times could increase the overall challenge of Firefight, but the most of the skulls Bungie chose to use and how they are implemented fails to enhance Firefight in any significant way, and in some cases, is actually a detriment to the overall experience.
The first (and perhaps the most obvious) example of a skull that takes away from Firefight’s gameplay is Black Eye. Having to melee to recharge stamina is nothing more than a hassle, especially considering ODSTs are generally weaker than Spartans. Getting up close to an enemy for a melee kill is not only an ineffective combat method, it can easily become a quick way to die – especially on higher difficulties and with Catch activated. The best way to dispatch enemies with minimal hazard to yourself is working as a team to attack from afar (preferably with headshot-capable weapons). Even though the player may take damage while doing so, it isn’t usually too much that their stamina alone can’t handle it. When your stamina is low, your screen is filled with a red hue to let you know you are taking damage. This in itself isn’t annoying, as it only serves as a warning to get out of harm’s way and has been seen in many other games (such as the Call of Duty franchise). However, with Black Eye, no stamina is regenerated automatically; players can’t sustain extended periods of combat without significant risk to themselves, and players suffer an extended period in which their whole screen is viewed through an eye-blistering red filter. By the time a player’s stamina is so slow that a melee becomes necessary, it usually is too dangerous to approach the enemy in close quarters. Their stamina is gone, and any direct confrontation will be met with a decrease in health. Even if players are wise enough to save a few shielded Jackals to melee by the end of the round, the relentless red filter on the screen coupled with a constant beeping noise is almost guaranteed to come back to grind the player’s nerves during the next wave. This is especially true if drone are deployed; as soon as anyone notices a dropship carrying a dozen or more drones, they know they’ll soon be greeted with a red screen and lots of frustration. After Round 3 is over and health is replenished, I find the absence of constant beeping and the blinding redness enough to marvel all over again at the game’s visuals. Some third rounds are spent so long with the bright red seared into my eyes that when it finally returns to normal, it looks like a whole new game to me.
Luckily, the other skulls aren’t nearly as frustrating as Black Eye, but most of them would have been much better off being completely replaced, as they have minimal affect on gameplay.
The Tilt skull is activated for the remainder of the game after Set 1 is completed, and is supposed to drastically decrease the effectiveness of bullets against shields, giving players a little more challenge in taking down Brutes. However, which human weapons would you consistently use against Brutes as a reliable way to take them down? The Automag does very minimal damage to anything, as it is a solely headshot-oriented weapon created for that very purpose. The SMG is mainly useful against Jackals and Drones when in a tight spot and headshots would be difficult to perform. Even so, the SMG becomes useless after the first few rounds as other weapons that perform the same role are plentiful, such as the Brute Plasma Rifle. The Assault Rifle is almost completely absent from Firefight as far as I’ve noticed, but its role in Halo 3: ODST has been given to the SMG anyway. The Shotgun has experienced a reduction in range and power and has a hard time killing anything with the same efficiency that its Halo 3 counterpart has compared to the same enemies on the same difficulty between both games. In fact, the Mauler seems to have been unchanged from Halo 3, and as a result is a better close quarters weapon than the Shotgun. The Rocket Launcher has very limited ammo, and its central role as Hunter/Chieftain/Tank killer is easily interchangeable with the plentiful Fuel Rod Gun or the reliable Spartan Laser. The Sniper Rifle is practically useless in a Firefight game. Ammo is scarce, only to be replaced after each round, and since Firefight can quickly become an intense close quarters struggle to survive, there are more efficient options to take out dangerous enemies. When Catch is enabled, Grunts need to be taken out from afar, which is easily done with the Automag or Carbine. By the time you finish with them, the Brutes are already on top of you. The only weapon that is noticeably affected by Tilt is the Human Turret, but even then, the Turret deals a massive amount of damage and has infinite ammo when mounted (when unmounted, it usually means Catch is enabled, or Fuel Rods are nearby). No other weapon on the battlefield is affected by Tilt, which effectively negates any challenge Tilt is supposed to present to the player.
The other two set skulls, Famine and Mythic, do little to enhance Firefight. By the end of any given wave, there are plenty of weapons and ammo lying on the battlefield to make ammo conservation almost a non-issue. Mythic is simply a standard difficulty multiplier, only serving to double the amount of damage any enemy can take, the likes of which is seen in Horde mode.
There is one last thing I’d like to point out. The first skull to be activated is Tough Luck, which is supposed to help increase the effectiveness of an enemy’s evasive maneuvers when a player tries to stick them or use a homing projectile. Catch is activated during every second round, and as such, is on for an average of 2/3rds of the game. When Brutes throw grenades, their throwing animation is predictable and drawn out, making it easy to line up a sticky grenade and kill them. Since they throw so many grenades, this animation is repeated over and over, which makes them easier to take out than they would be if they were actually firing their weapon and dodging your return fire. After you kill one, Catch usually has a typical Brute dropping two more grenades, so eliminating a pack of Brutes becomes more like clockwork as they repeat the same predictable animation trying to stick you. This is, to me, a little baffling in that Catch actually cancels out Tough Luck for Rounds 2 and 3 for every set. I understand Tough Luck will make enemies harder to stick during the first round, but it seems to only apply to Jackals in later rounds, which aren’t worth trying to stick anyway. If Tough Luck is made redundant for 2/3rds of the game session, it would be preferrable for another skull to takes its place entirely.
I’ve covered every skull used in Firefight (Iron is only used during bonus rounds) in a negative tone except for Catch. This is mostly because Catch is the only skull in Firefight that actually modifies the gameplay mechanics in an interesting and unique way (Black Eye is also a unique game modification, but it isn’t fun). It adds challenge to the game without becoming too frustrating, and it can be an absolute joy to play with. Do not misunderstand the point I am trying to make here; it is not that I dislike the skulls in Firefight (except Black Eye). Rather, I’m disappointed to see that instead of using this game modification concept to its full potential and developing new and unique skulls that would benefit Firefight in creative ways, Bungie decided to re-use a few of the old Halo 3 skulls. That said, the way the skulls are actually activated tie in directly with how Firefight plays, and the skulls can’t be changed unless Firefight’s structure is changed as well. This brings me to my next issue with Firefight: How Firefight is structured using waves, rounds, sets.
In Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, there are 5 sets of 10 waves. As each set progresses, the game throws more and more enemies at the player while also introducing new ones along the way, but it isn’t always set in stone when a certain enemy will appear or how often. Sometimes Kantus and Therons don’t appear until Wave 8 or 9, or Maulers and Flame Boomers appear at different times, etc. Firefight operates in a similar manner, except instead of a steadily progressive upward slope in difficulty, there are only 5 waves in each round, and each round typically lasts shorter than a full Horde set. While a good bit has to do with the differences in pacing between the two games, it has to do a lot with the buildup and pacing of each mode. As a result of having shorter waves in a round, you’ll experience the full, complete spectrum of Firefight’s enemies in a round that lasts about a third of the time it would take for you to finish a full 10 waves of Horde. So when playing a full set in Horde, the game will gradually increase the amount of enemies you’ll have to defeat while introducing new ones along the way, eventually culminating in the last wave where you have to withstand everything the game has to throw at you. After that, you can say you’ve experienced Horde and can predict with some degree of certainty what to expect at a certain point in each successive set.
With Firefight, waves are much faster paced, and occur much more frequently. As a result, you really can’t encounter the wide variety of enemies at a smooth incline such as with Horde. However, the randomness of enemy encounters seems to vary only within certain waves. For example, for Wave 3 players might encounter a massive amount of Drones combined with a few Jackals, or Brutes and two Hunters. For Wave 4 you can either encounter a ton of Brutes, or Brutes combined with Drone support and Grunts. Wave 5 always is the only wave to have Brute Chieftains and Fuel Rod Brutes, but the number of Chieftains can vary anywhere from 1-5. Wave 1 might have Phantoms dropping off 1, 2, or no Wraiths. Regardless, the difficulty progression in each wave regarding the enemies themselves becomes somewhat predictable. You can say to some degree of certainty that you know you’ll have a tougher time with Wave 3 than with Wave 2, and that Wave 4 is probably going to be even harder. Players can begin to predict to some degree of certainty which waves can spawn which enemies, and can prepare accordingly.
Since there are only so many variations a given wave can have, it becomes clear Firefight relies way too heavily on the skull system to keep things fresh for the player. You’ll go through the first three rounds with a different skull stacked on top of another, only to find that the next set is almost an exact replica of the first one, save for a relatively ineffective Set skull (Tilt, followed by Famine). The game simply puts too much weight on the skulls to offer fresh and new gameplay, but it doesn’t quite work. Firefight is essentially the same 5 waves repeated with 3 different skulls (Tough Luck, Catch, and Black Eye).
Because Waves are built to move quickly and occur in rapid succession, they fail to provide any significant form of build up or accumulation towards a finale with which you can walk away with a sense of accomplishment and victory. Sure, Wave 5 could be pretty exciting, when the music starts playing, the Fuel Rods start flying, and the Brute Chieftains start charging… but you could’ve gotten a full Fuel Rod gun during the last wave and saved that Gravity Hammer from the last Chieftain you killed. You could finish the wave without breaking a sweat. Then what? The exact same 30-minute long build up is going to repeat itself, only this time Black Eye is enabled. For all you know Wave 4 is going to have 50 drones leaving you helpless against 5 Chieftains and a bunch of Fuel Rod Brutes.
I mention the importance of a tangible difficulty curve; of introducing players to a steadily increasing amount of enemies at a steady incline. This leads me to my third and biggest issue with Firefight. Firefight seems to be constructed to never end. The same 5 waves repeat because it doesn’t matter if the game has a difficulty curve or not. It never ends, and there is no tangible finish to the game – there is no finish line. The sets continue indefinitely until the players get bored or lives are run out.
While this may not be a problem with most people, and some people might actually prefer to play it like this, having no end to Firefight significantly harms its longevity. For me, after I finish the first set, I have no desire to continue with Set 2. I just played the same set I’m going to play now, and it feels like Firefight was trying to strive towards some kind of finale, but it never happened. You do get a Grunt Bonus Round after completing each set, and it is an absolute blast to play, but these bonus rounds are too brief and occur too infrequently to consider them as rewards or finales. It feels like trying to complete a campaign game but instead of ever actually reaching the ending, you’re stuck replaying the same levels over and over. It never builds to any kind of epic showdown on a grand scale. Contrast this with Horde; each set of waves gets progressively harder as the sets progress until you reach Wave 50, during which the game throws everything it has at you with maximum difficulty multipliers in a massive grand finale. Successfully completing a game of Horde is a satisfying experience, whereas playing through Firefight feels empty and meaningless.
I realize that Firefight was probably conceived from the beginning as more of a endless survival mode, intending to challenge players to survive as long as possible, which is why these specific skulls are here in Firefight and the game is built the way it is. However, a survival mode absolutely needs an ending or an end game. If you go into an endless game with the set goal of surviving on Legendary as long as you can, and you actually succeed in surviving past Set 5, how will you know you’ve finished and “beat” the game? The only thing left to do is keep on surviving, which takes out most feelings of accomplishment. You’ll watch as your points continue to accumulate, but it only takes continually surviving the mode to rack up a lot of points. Having a highscore in Firefight becomes less a test of skill and more a test of patience to see how long anyone can play the game for in one continuous playthrough. Comparing highscores becomes meaningless.
Bungie has said that if Firefight is popular enough, they’ll include it in Halo: Reach. I absolutely hope this is not the case. I know Bungie can do much better than this and create a fantastic survival mode that would blow Firefight out of the water. There could be options to choose which skulls to activate before a game starts, options to have skulls turn at at random times and for set intervals, new skulls that twist the gameplay in unique and interesting ways, setting a proper pace for the game to proceed at towards a single epic finale, and, of course, matchmaking. There could even be a sandbox option which would allow friends to get together and blow up Covenant with no pressure regarding a limit of any kind.
P.S. Reading back over this I realize I’m probably being overly-critical on little issues and nitpicking on small points. However, it’s for the best to critically analyze every little detail, as constructive criticism is a necessary part of any product. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy Firefight, and I reckon I'll be playing it over the coming months.
Edited by Self Induced, 28 September 2009 - 07:15 PM.