Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Vehicular Manslaughter: An Analytical Look at the Vehicles of the Halo Series (Part 2 of 2)

Time for Part 2 of my Vehicular Manslaughter set...analyzing Halo vehicles against the 6 core design tenets Riot Games applies to their design decisions for League of Legends. As a quick refresher, those six tenets are:
  • Mastery (ability to improve constantly),
  • Meaningful Choices (tradeoffs exist regardless of which choice you take, choose the one that mitigates the risk for best reward),
  • Counterplay (the player on the receiving end has opportunity to outplay you in most any situation),
  • Teamplay (the team covering weaknesses or enhancing the strengths of something),
  • Clarity (the game should make information clear to the player, letting them focus on playing the game, rather than tracking obscured variables), and
  • Evolution (room for the vehicle's usage in the game should be subject to change dependent upon the metagame of completitive play as players learn each others' tendencies and the vehicle's true capabilities).

Part 1 covered strictly UNSC (Human) vehicles of Halo's history, so for Part 2...it's time to visit the enemy's arsenal and hold the Covenant vehicles under the microscope. So without further ado...

Ghost (Halo 3)

It was a tough choice for me to pick which title to analyze for the Ghost. The Ghost underwent significant changes regarding its mechanics each time it migrated to a new title. And, although the Ghost is strong in a 4v4 environment, it wasn't often that useful in a Big Team environment, so it was seldom seen as a true terror of a vehicle.

Regardless of the title you approach, the Ghost's areas of Mastery were still the same – using the slow(ish) projectile plasma cannons to kill, or using the boosting ability to run over scrambling infantry. Dealing with enemy vehicles was rarely a job for a Ghost, as the Ghost's inferior armor often led to dire situations, unless you were able to get on the exposed tail of a Warthog and pick off the gunner. The only BTB map where the Ghost was truly seen to be used effectively in Halo 3 was Rat's Nest, where some teams had a player who would run interference on spawners or lurkers in the Mauler tunnels in order to draw attention away from the hot zones of the Kitchens. Only those who were confident in their Ghost abilities really bothered, but a well-used Ghost could mean big results.

As far as Meaningful Choices go, the main one encountered by Ghost drivers is usually the same: Do I try to gun this player down, or do I try to time a splatter for him? Sitting still gunning can give rocketeers time to land the coup-de-grace on your Ghost, but botching an attempted Splatter often means loss of ownership of your vehicle (or getting yourself stuck by a Plasma Grenade from the baiting victim). Bubble Shields made bait even juicier at times, and were a great magnet for Ghosts (and sometimes Warthogs) to set up a plasma grenade, where you must have tons of confidence in your abilities before driving headlong into the safety of the bubble.

The driver's seat of a Ghost is possibly the most exposed vehicle seat (rivaled only by the Chopper) in the game – leaving it open to all sorts of Counterplay from the opposition. You can shoot the driver, snipe the driver, stick the driver – so long as you aren't looking dead at him (or more specifically, he's not looking at you). The hoverbike's agility may mitigate some ability to land shots on the driver, but it's unlikely the driver will escape unscathed from a situation where he presents anything but the hulking bulb of an engine at his enemies. The ability to highjack the Ghost coupled with its usual reliance on splatters for kills rather than utilizing the effective-but-not-efficient plasma cannons increases room for Counterplay with the Ghost by playing a sort of matador mini-game between the players. One player jumps “Toro, toro!” to bait in the hoverbike, and prays he can time the next jump or side-step in a way to ensure he can take away the enemy's precious mobility. Regardless of whether you've just spawned or have been in combat for a while, the Ghost's low time to kill with its guns leaves you with options on how to handle a situation of being run down by the Covenant bike. Unlike Halo 2 and Reach, however, the Ghost lacks its signature “weak spot” of the gas tank on the side – where previously a few shots of the default gun or one shot from the Sniper to the tank could completely eliminate the Ghost from play, Halo 3 leaves it to taking down the exposed pilot and leaving the vacant Ghost ripe for the plucking should you wish to attack its weakness. If worse comes to worse, the final bit of Counterplay for the Ghost is to simply seek shelter elsewhere – on Rat's Nest, stick to the bases, the bridge, and the Kitchens. On Last Resort, stick to higher ground. The Ghost can't fly, so you're safe up high, right?

As far as Teamplay goes, the Ghost is the icon of the lone wolf – it's a vehicle that can draw some attention, but most people will ignore it unless it poses a direct threat to them, so its value as a distraction is not huge. It doesn't take a team full of players to take down a Ghost, either. One of the Ghost's best uses from a Teamplay perspective is the ability to use it in Assault variants to force potential disarmers off the Bomb area in order to secure a score. Apart from that, the Ghost neither requires nor encourages much teamplay from either side.

The only Clarity-related issue there is to the Ghost in Halo 3 is the continued existence of its gas tanks on the model while taking away their status as a weak point from Halo 2. Players coming into the game from the previous title may expect the weakness to carry over, but alas, that is not the case. The Ghost's appearance barely changed, but the function of the gas tank was completely removed, leaving an out-of-place bit of appearance that doesn't actually do anything.

In terms of Evolution of the Ghost's usage over the course of Halo 3, or any Halo really, the pattern is fairly consistent: players attempt to use it early in the game's lifespan, learn it's not really useful in 8v8 scenarios, and then abandon it except when they need a faster transport to a power weapon in certain Big Team maps. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't champions of the vehicle, but as far as being a staple of the metagame, the Ghost is more of a tactical-use only sort of vehicle, and its presence in Halo 3's BTB reflected that quite clearly.

Overall, the Ghost was really a vehicle more tooled toward skirmish/objective-related 4v4 maps, as facing off against smaller forces highlighted the Ghost's strengths without its weakness being exploitable from almost any position. When elevated to an 8v8 format, however, the Ghost and its driver were often too fragile to be formidable, leaving it mostly only used for transportation except on a map (Rat's Nest) where the majority of combat took place isolated from vehicles. However, its design in the 4v4 sense highlights what a Light Vehicle should be like – strong, but with plenty of avenues for it to be countered.

Wraith (Halo Reach)

How fitting, I took the “light vehicle” from UNSC in Halo 3 and the “tank” from UNSC in Halo Reach...and now I'm doing the same for the Covenant.

When it comes to Mastery, the Wraith is a vehicle that is at the top of the food chain. The nuance to the vehicle is something that cannot be taught, only learned. The angles to fire, when to boost for a splatter, or how to choose which to choose when that monkey-fucker crests the hill jumping to attempt to board you. All of these are amassed as a part of that underwater mental iceberg I like to talk about when referencing how good a player is. No sane player would be able to tell you precisely why he aimed there to land that shot with the Wraith; he did it because it felt right. And he just so happened to get a triple kill on that flag-loaded Warthog as a result. The Reach Wraith was strong – especially given its ability to shoot off boarders with its primary cannon given a proper aim. A Wraith driver's ability was the difference between tying a game of anything-on-Hemorrhage and losing a game of anything-on-Hemorrhage. If you weren't good enough, you'd die, and your team would suffer. But focusing strictly on the Wraith again, everything about it encourages kinetic learning of the vehicle's limitations. A slow-moving, gravity-affected projectile main cannon and a limited-burst booster for splattering nearby infantry. The vehicle's mobility was greater than that of a Scorpion, leaving room for outplaying incoming rockets or Plasma Launcher rounds, but not enough to prevent a good Warthog run from ending a Wraith's life. In terms of Mastery, the Wraith is near perfection.

The Meaningful Choices are mostly tied into Mastery – do you fire at the incoming boarder, or boost at him – if you're near a hill or a place where boosting could lead you into yet another member of his team, do you just let him board you, then fire at the ground and sacrifice a stage of damage to get rid of the gnat that nipped at your ankles? Knowing whether to boost or fire, or fire then boost, or whether to focus downfield with long-range artillery or watch for incoming vehicles are all a part of the decisions the Wraith pilot must weigh over the course of his defensive duties. When the enemy Wraith is down, do you move up to try to bait enemy Sniper fire (to discover his location and have your Sniper take him out) – or do you stay a little more patient and wait for a larger advantage before moving up for a potential flag run? Aggressive positioning of a Wraith prematurely could lose your Wraith and give your opponents a window to rebound when their Wraith comes back up before yours, so sometimes simply keeping yours alive may be the better choice.

As for Counterplay, the Wraith is a tough nut to crack – its slow turning speed enables light vehicles to get behind it to its weak spot in its back vent, and its limited boost potential allows infantry opportunities to board it, though as mentioned before, the Wraith can sacrifice some damage to itself to shoot you off if the pilot knows how. Given the Wraith is often played as a stalwart defensive unit, its options for counterplay are limited even further. However, weighed against the Scorpion, the Wraith has more room for error given its less-ensured kill potential, and a single mistake from the Wraith driver can mean potential death. As the vehicle also contains Reach's vehicle health system, sustained DMR fire from a team can also eventually take down a Wraith, though it requires several clips in order to do so. Also, there's ALWAYS the Plasma Pistol. (Or Armor Lock, fuck Armor Lock.)

In terms of Teamplay, taking down a Wraith or protecting a Wraith as it moves up onto the map requires team coordination. While a Wraith CAN be taken down by a one-man covert operation deep behind enemy lines, chances are Sylvester Stallone will be too busy raking in his Planet Hollywood money to star in John Rambo: Combat Evolved to take on the arduous task. Whether you use a bait-and-switch tactic to take down the Wraith with mobile vehicles like the Ghost and Revenant, or simply harass from long range with the Warthog turret, the Wraith encourages a team effort to take it down, especially any time it moves forward on the map. Its hulking frame being weak to Snipers also encourages direct teamwork between your Wraith pilot and Sniper to assist one another in neutralizing the biggest enemy threat. In the case of the Breakpoint map, teams could elect to sacrifice the Wraith (blow it up) if they thought their player rushing it would not be the first to grab it.

As far as Clarity goes, the Wraith has some good points about it – the back vent, for example – it's a strange looking area that seems it may be susceptible to enemy fire...Hot damn, it is! Of course, it suffers from the same issue the other Reach vehicles suffer from – a vehicle health system that NEVER TELLS YOU WHAT YOUR VEHICLE'S HEALTH IS, except in terms of stages. I beat this horse to death last blog, though, so let's move on. The reticule for firing the Wraith isn't perfect – it could offer more information such as your current turret angle, or something along the lines of a distance the mortar would travel assuming the land ahead is flat – while information like this would reduce the nuance/mastery level of the best Wraith pilots, it could help less-experienced drivers better guess where they need to aim – or help them find the angle they need a second time should they return to a situation they've been in before. The previous point is mostly neutral, but communicating information to the player that can help them make better decisions improves the potential level of play. After all, the information suggested wouldn't guarantee a hit – the player still has to play the situation right, they're just better equipped to read the situation should it return in the future.

The Wraith's usage in its two primary maps didn't evolve much over the course of Reach. Its usage was tied almost entirely into the Mastery of its user or the standing of the other 7 members of the team controlling it. Controlling Spine on Breakpoint defense meant the Wraith could move up to spawn kill, but lacking Spine control meant the Wraith's duties were usually focused on the main vehicle tunnel at the top of the map. As mentioned earlier, Hemorrhage Wraith aggression was usually dependent upon the status of the enemy Wraith, although one of the unique usages of the Wraith in Hemorrhage Territories was as a complete meat shield for Territory 3 (near Grassy Knoll) – blocking bullets for the players capturing the territory.

Overall, the Wraith is possibly the best-designed vehicle in Halo. It requires the user to be GOOD to really be effective – and only allows the user to be GOOD by actually using it and garnering a feel for its controls and firing mechanism over time. Its mobility is enough to give it room to outplay others, while also being sluggish enough to allow it to be outplayed as well. The vehicle health mechanism added to Halo Reach also allows the Wraith to be susceptible to long-range sustained fire, preventing it from regenerating its health while slowly being chunked through stages of damage. Situations of infantry rushing in close quarters feel engaging for both parties involved (although the Wraith has a substantial advantage regardless) and although the Wraith fills the role of the Covenant “Tank” it feels much more fair to play against than its UNSC counterpart.

(Adding this bit after I've finished the Wraith section as I forgot it and it'd be easier to just mention it here: the secondary turret on the Wraith... this thing is about as useful as a mall cop. Yeah, go ahead and hop in, Paul Blart, I'm sure you'll be enormously effective in keeping me from getting boarded! Oh, wait, I can do that on my own. Well, you can sit there in the enormous hovering baby walker and entertain yourself by shooting at the wall, because God knows that turret's about as accurate as a platoon of Storm Troopers at any sort of range. Seriously, please stop putting secondary turrets on the fucking tanks unless they're going to DO something. Tanks aren't mobile enough to justify wasting a second body to use in a piss-ant turret. Stop it.)

Chopper (Halo 3)

“Master Chief, that Ghost is operating without core containment!”
“That can only mean one thing... Gorram Reavers!”

No, but seriously, if the Reavers from the Firefly/Serenity universe were to move into the Halo universe and modify a Ghost, you would have the Brute Chopper. The thing is a fucking monster that, while it looks like a Ghost, operates in an entirely different capacity.

There's a vast gap between a Champion of the Chopper and even a veteran of the vehicle. Mastery of the Brute bike was not easy – the thing's momentum and handling made controlling the beast a task in and of itself. On the open maps like Sandtrap (or Standoff Heavy or 1SO on Avalanche), the Chopper was a threat to any vehicle – even those in the sky – hell, a Chopper can SPLATTER Banshees and Hornets if it hits a jump the right way. On the Sandbox variants, the Chopper's power was an entirely different entity – sitting back like an unassailable artilleryman, feathering the trigger to fire long range harassment shots to keep people off the tops of bases and from pushing in the open. No aggression was ever required from the Chopper on Sandbox – just sit back, stay alive, and you will always have to be a consideration of the opposition. The Chopper wasn't really able to be killed on the map unless a lucky Rocket landed or it let the Missile Pod stay locked on a moment or two too long. But even with the simple task of “stay back, stay alive” there was a marked difference between good Chopper drivers and GREAT Chopper drivers. I harp on Gamesager's Banshee prowess a lot – but Fall of Reach was just as good when it came to the Chopper. There were countless games where his Chopper simply could not be taken down and his team came out victorious on the map as a result.

Unlike the Ghost, Meaningful Choices for the Chopper rarely related to splattering infantry – the Chopper's guns were much more powerful versus isolated infantry, so simply staying back and gunning them down was more efficient. Engaging an enemy Chopper often had the choice available of going for a Splatter, if you got behind in damage and simply wanted to go for a trade of kills (double-suicide splatter). The Chopper was stronger playing defensively and focused on interception on larger maps, able to plug Keyhole from any vehicle aggression on Avalanche, or able to control the Rocket-side Dip and keep the map clean of rogue Warthogs. If an enemy light vehicle got onto your tail, you had the option to try to escape into cover and engage when they followed, or to whiptail and head straight into them, using your thresher-like wheels to crush their vehicle and their dreams. Sorry kids, there's no Santa Claus...or Easter Bunny.

On the open maps, Counterplay for the Chopper centered around the same weakness of the Ghost – the pilot is heavily exposed on the rear, while the vehicle itself has a hulking front that protects him from whatever he's looking directly toward. Frag grenades were also much stronger against the Chopper than other vehicles, since throwing the Chopper's momentum off meant forcing a spin out that would leave him disabled almost like an EMP for a moment. On Sandbox, however, there was almost no Counterplay for the Chopper, as I mentioned in the Mastery section, save for lucky Rockets or Missile Pod usage. The bastard would move out to the dunes, position his wheels toward the enemy base, and be protected from any attempts at long range BR fire. Had the game been like Halo Reach and vehicle damage could kill it, the Chopper could've been whittled down until it was disabled, but since Halo 3 had no such mechanic, the Chopper on Sandbox was a stifling, overpowered mess of a harassment vehicle. It could stop any Warthog in its tracks with the physics-heavy weapons that sent a Warthog flying, so the only other vehicle on the map couldn't counter it, and it could stay back out of range for any other weapon to truly be effective against it. It was a nightmare playing against a team with a good Chopper on their roster.

The Chopper itself on Sandbox though was a great assistant for Teamplay – weaken the people in an area, tell your team to push. Clear enemies off the top of the base so your team can push. It was great for racking up assists and a few kills but ensuring your team had the advantage. On Sandtrap, the vehicle was more a lone-wolf style of play, but putting your Chopper on defense in Flag meant the rest of your team could generally play a bit more freely, since the Chopper's ability to stop Warthogs and Mongooses was strong enough to rely on for defense, should anything slip past your Spartan Laser user. The Chopper was great at locking down areas of the map to free up your team to focus elsewhere, knowing they wouldn't be giving up much where the Chopper was patrolling.

There's one issue of Clarity for the Chopper, which also applies to the Halo 3 Hornet, and it's something that all the best users of those vehicles knew: holding the trigger isn't the fastest rate of fire for the vehicle. Feathering the trigger allowed you to fire faster. How's a player supposed to know this outside of experimentation or being told by a source outside the game? They aren't. Bad Clarity. Apart from that, everything about the Chopper is communicated pretty clearly by its visual design – the spiked wheels suggest you may not want to drive straight into it, lest ye become spare parts and the wheels turning sideways as you turn suggest the handling may not be the best. The Chopper's role is made pretty clear the first time you see its weapons in action against a vehicle, as the poor helpless bastard gets sent into a death roll from which there is no recovery prior to being blown to smithereens.

The Evolution of the Chopper depended on the map and the player/team using it. On open maps, some preferred to use it aggressively to stop vehicle runs before they started, some saw it as a stalwart defense. On Sandbox, there was a sort of arms race between the safest defensive positions and ways to get the missile pod-wielder in position to take down the Chopper. The best Chopper pilots stayed ahead of the curve, and as a result, stayed alive. The other unique evolution of the Chopper was strictly on Sandtrap – where, originally in high level games, teams would simply Laser the Banshee rather than rushing for it (meaning, the 1-3 people on the enemy team rushing for it were suddenly put without a task, and thus their manpower was wasted), it was eventually realized the Chopper could fit the same role, flipping and eventually destroying the Banshee faster than a Mongoose or Warthog could reach it. Either way, top teams avoided the initial Banshee on Sandtrap and elected to blow it up instead.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of anti-vehicles, it was the age of suppression, it was the epoch of patrolling, it was the epoch of artillery – in short, the Chopper was such a massively different vehicle depending upon the map, that I insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (That's right, I just gave you a Dickens reference in my blog.) The Chopper is truly a marvelous design in that its usage was so versatile depending on the map's geometry, though it is unfortunate the vehicle was so overpowering and oppressive on Sandbox. If the vehicle existed in a more recent Halo, the power would not have been as great, since it could've been whittled down. Regardless, the Chopper is a monument to beautiful vehicle design.

Revenant (Halo Reach)

The Revenant was the bastard child of the Wraith and the Ghost. An agile artillery vehicle that packed a punch. It was Reach's replacement for the Chopper as there were no Brute vehicles in Reach. It ended up being used in a substantially different niche, however.

Mastery of the Revenant wasn't as pronounced as mastery of the Wraith or Chopper. The Revenant's faster movement speed, projectile speed, and rate of fire made it much easier to use the main weapon than the Wraith. Missing isn't as punished, and should you get in over your head, you can usually flee without much consequence. The prevalence of Armor Lock in matchmaking made attempting to splatter with the Revenant the equivalent of rolling dice – one wrong decision meant one dead Revenant. But patience circumvented the issue and baiting out a player's Armor Lock gauge made the roads a bit safer for more reckless driving. The Revenant wasn't so much a vehicle for dominating your opponents (passenger bug aside, I'll address later) as it was a tool for intercepting advancing enemies without putting yourself at much risk of death.

The Revenant's superb handling and mobility mitigated several of the Meaningful Choices the Chopper had to make regarding when to boost – the Revenant was fast enough to rarely have to worry about a situation that didn't involve a power weapon. The only risky choice a Revenant ever really had to make was whether or not to pick up a passenger while a Wraith was looming nearby. If you got a passenger into the Revenant, you had a good chance to escape with the flag (though, the DMR's accuracy made it quite strong for taking down a passenger and stop the flag run). Really the only choice a Revenant worried about was whether or not to splatter the guy who hasn't used his armor ability in front of you yet. Because it was always a gamble to find out the hard way whether or not he had Armor Lock.

Counterplay for the Revenant is difficult to measure. Without the existence of Armor Lock (read: in BTBnet settings), the Revenant is given free reign as a splatter-mobile and can be a bit more careless in its decision-making. The DMR is able to inflict damage into the Revenant, however, and Reach's permanent vehicle health damage ensured that attempting to do so enough would eventually whittle the bastard down. Even if your Warthog got taken down by the Revy, as you drove it to the levee, you wouldn't come up dry. The chain gun's damage would stick with the Revenant until your next run, increasing your chance of coming out ahead the next time. Still, the Revenant was a powerful vehicle and essentially a mini-tank with ridiculous agility, and could be a major thorn in the side if not dealt with quickly. Reach's nerfed Spartan Laser and preference to include the Plasma Launcher on maps gave the Revenant a little more wiggle room compared to Halo 3 vehicles, even for a side that was behind.

The major points of Teamplay for the Revenant focused around using its agility as an objective carrier or abusing a bug present in all passenger seats in Halo Reach. Although it applied to the Warthog/Mongoose as well, the bug was given the nickname “The Revenant Bug” because it was in the Revenant it was first discovered that the aim assist for headshot weapons was given enormous weighting to grant almost a guaranteed headshot...and this included the Sniper. Putting your Sniper into the Revenant and driving around meant easy sniper kills (although, it also usually meant you were picking on weaklings.) This bug wasn't practical to abuse in high level play, but several clips circled the BTB community showing off the enormous Sniper sprees players could rack up against teams of randoms. Apart from those aspects, the Revenant's teamplay usually revolved around keeping threats away from the Wraith and patrolling the map to stop flanks. Teamshot could take the bastard down, but it took enough bullets to discourage trying unless you were safe from other infantry fire.

Clarity, Reach, Dead Horse, vehicle health. SHOW US HOW MUCH DAMAGE OUR VEHICLE CAN TAKE BEFORE THE NEXT STAGE OF DAMAGE. SHOW US WHEN/IF THAT DAMAGE REGENERATES. Everything else about it was pretty clear cut. Your remaining boost amount was tied to the Armor Ability gauge, and the reticule even has an indicator to let you know how long until you can fire again (it blinks three times). So apart from the dead horse complaint, the Revenant does a fine job of letting the player know what's what.

Unlike the Chopper, the Revenant's usage didn't vary much depending upon the map. In fact, because of its mobility and mortaresque firing mechanism, it wasn't really as useful on the smaller or medium-sized maps as the Chopper. As far as its usage on the maps where it was utilized, it was fairly predictable, but there was always room for individual decision-making regarding how to utilize the fuchsia bullet. Individual playstyles mattered more for its deployment than a strict metagame of players, so the Revenant was a vehicle of freedom of choice. And given its mobility, it had plenty of choice.

The Revenant was a fun vehicle to use, but overall it felt like it lacked a clear identity. It wasn't as strong as the Chopper in anti-vehicular duties (though, given Reach's implementation of vehicle health, it isn't as though that niche was a necessity), and its mobility and inclusion of a passenger seat made it outshine the niche of the Warthog as an objective delivery driver, while also carrying superior firepower. The vehicle was less like a light vehicle and more like a light tank, with all the mobility of a Ghost. It was almost as though the Reach designers realized how powerful the Chopper had actually been and tried to find a way to match that while attempting to design something intended for more aggressive use. I'd almost compare the Revenant to new champion designs in League of Legends – it had an overloaded kit designed to rival other champions' mobility while having higher damage potential and extra utility, to make sure it got used as much as possible. It was a case of having too much, though it was balanced by the power of the DMR in 8v8 settings. And Armor Lock. Fuck Armor Lock.

Banshee (Halo Reach)

I know I'm pretty centered around Halo Reach for this. Kinda funny, as much as we voice disdain for Halo Reach, when my former team and I reminisce about the different Halos, we realize a lot of the good things Halo Reach gave us. That's right, I said Halo Reach had some good things. (A shame it got buried under bloom and armor abilities and a 3x zoom heavy aim assist weapon.) Anyway, to the point... The Halo Reach Banshee seemed weak to most players. It seemed to fly like a brick. Attempting to use the primary guns got you shot out of the sky and melted by DMR fire. The Halo 3 flight method of sitting at the ceiling of the map and reigning down plasma like napalm was no longer a viable strategy. Then came Gamesager (the most prominent of good Banshee pilots – don't get me wrong, there were other good Banshee pilots...but if you ask a Reach BTB player to name a Banshee pilot, you will ALWAYS get the response of Gamesager.) And then the Reach Banshee's secrets were unlocked.

Mastery. Oh lord, the difference between someone who hopped in the Banshee because there was a Banshee and someone who actually knew how to use the Banshee. Mastery is the selling point of the Halo Reach Banshee. Top pilots controlled games. If you let an Ace pilot get in a Banshee, you fucked over your team. If you didn't immediately have your Sniper dump his entire clip into the Banshee, you fucked over your team. When a top pilot got in the Banshee, there was no more DMRing it. Aerial acrobatics were a must – if you stopped flipping, your armor started melting. Of course, timing your flips was also important, flipping as you fired a Banshee bomb accelerated the missile as well as increased the aim assist. If you flipped randomly, you couldn't ensure you were picking off stragglers with ease in the process. Even on a map like Tears of Joy with its neutral Banshee and hugely open sightlines, an ace pilot could stay alive long enough to reach Rampage sprees or beyond. Paradiso was controlled by the better Banshee, where although the Scorpion could take it down in one shot, a pilot with balls and skill could neutralize the enemy Scorpion and set up for full control of the mountain.

The Mastery spilled over into Meaningful Choices. Enemy has Laser, you don't have to be afraid. Hell, you're so goddamned acrobatic you can dodge it, right? No need to fear the lock-on mechanisms of the Plasma Launcher and Rocket Launcher. Those are just for Falcons. Just flip, you're free of locks! The Banshee was so feared on Spire, some offensive-side teams made the ultimate choice: They would lift 3-4 players to top Spire and unload their DMRs into the Banshee to ensure that no one got it off the start. As your health whittled down to dangerous levels, it became a question of whether you continue to make bomb runs and lose the Banshee or keep lurking in the shadows for an opportunity to make a safer assault. If the enemy's Sniper was active, do you wait for him to burn his shots on infantry, or do you fly free from fear, hoping he doesn't choose to target you (note: 5 shots from a Sniper would kill a Banshee.)

In terms of Counterplay, the options for a regular soldier against a -good- Banshee were highly limited. Your DMR could put in damage, (and, unlike Halo 3, where the SMG and AR were more effective against the flying menace, actually using your DMR was better, since it dealt more damage to the vehicle.) but mostly it was the equivalent of buzzing mosquitoes and simply made the Banshee retreat to regenerate the invisible health before a stage of damage was taken before retaking the skies and smiting the nuisances with the green bolts of doom. If you didn't have a Laser, a Sniper, a Banshee of your own, or a Tank...your chances against a Banshee were nearly zero. Your best bet in matchmaking occurrences was to Armor Lock to survive the Banshee Bomb and then resume shooting it until it fled or bled.

Teamplay: EVERYONE SHOOT THE BANSHEE. SERIOUSLY, JUST LOOK UP AND SHOOT IT. IGNORE THE OTHER 7 MEMBERS OF THE TEAM, SHOOT THE BANSHEE. This may sound ridiculous, but that's basically what the communications of a team left on the wrong side of an asymmetrical Banshee situation sounded like. If you left the Banshee alone, you lost. If you ignored the other 7 members and focused the Banshee, you may stop the bleeding before you gave up an objective or fell into insurmountable leads in Slayer, but oftentimes, unequal Banshee usage meant game over. As far as using the Banshee, its teamplay encouragement revolved around communicating the status of enemy threats – Tank, Laser, Sniper. Find out where those are, fly elsewhere, or fly straight at them and kill them, depending on whether you thought the Banshee's boosters could support the weight of your enormous medicine balls for testicles or not.

Clarity. Reach. Dead Horse. Vehicle Health. Yadda yadda yadda. Once again, the Reach UI makes it visible when you'll be able to fire again (there's a small bar that fills up on the Banshee Bomb's reticule). The Boost mechanism is communicated through the Armor Ability slot. It's a little unclear upon first entering the Banshee that there are two weapons – there's no indicator apart from the reticule to show which of the two weapons you have active. If you are coming straight in from Halo 3, you may wonder how to use your Banshee Bombs, which were tied to the melee button in the previous title (though, to highlight the step up in Clarity, Halo 3 didn't show how long it took for a Banshee Bomb to recharge). Some sort of UI inclusion to explain there are two weapons would be a nice help to ease newer players into the vehicle. Furthermore, the aforementioned “accelerated Banshee Bomb” from flipping is also not something made clear to the player – though I suspect it is a bug with a similar source as the Halo 4 “super grenade” that was patched out, and therefore not something the developers were aware existed.

The Banshee's Evolution in Reach was simple: Get good, kid. If you learned how to fly as well as the best pilots, you were a major force on the battlefield. If you couldn't fly, you were a deadweight in the sky. You were fired years ago, but somehow through a glitch in payroll you still drew a check. Better hope an enemy doesn't fix the glitch. It's hard to overstate it, but a good Banshee pilot dominated games. Period. The forward flips while boosting, the flipbombs, the daring bomb runs with seemingly-narrow-but-not-really-all-that-close escapes were all made possible entirely by the user's aptitude with the Banshee. And being able to pull those off meant you could rack up easy Running Riots or Inconceivables or whatever spree you really wanted depending on how cautious you decided to be.

Seriously though, if you want a vehicle with a near-limitless skill ceiling that highlights even a marginal difference in skill between two pilots, the Banshee is the pinnacle of design in that regard. Was it overpowered? Absolutely. Was that a good thing, given Reach's vehicle health mechanics? Maybe. It may have been a little on the too-tough-to-handle end of the spectrum, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, given it required a huge time/skill investment to get that good with the Banshee. It was seriously an artform that, even at the end of Reach's lifespan, I could count on one hand the number of pilots who had reached the level of Ace pilot. As a competitive player, the frustration of being destroyed by the Banshee was outweighed by the admiration for the level of skill required to utilize the vehicle in such a dominant manner. Granted, weighing it against unorganized play and unskilled players would DEFINITELY push it into the zone of “too stronk pls nerf.”

Spectre/Prowler (Halo 2/Halo 3)

I'm doing a two-piece for the last vehicle, because both attempted to fill a similar niche. They were a 4-seat vehicle in an 8v8 game mode that rarely got used in the manner they were intended. The turrets were ineffective against competent opponents, and the side seats were rarely a place you'd want to be unless you were in an objective gametype and some idiot decided to drive the Spectre or Prowler. I will offer the caveat that I haven't played Halo 2 in 8 years, so I'm a bit rusty on the Spectre, but for the most part, the only thing I recall it being used for was climbing the wall on Coagulation to get into the Sniper nest spot on one side of the map.

Mastery of the Spectre/Prowler... It's like driving a Warthog that can't actually deal damage at range. So you've got a greater chance of being stuck, a greater chance of getting in too deep, and a greater chance of just being absolutely fucked over. The Spectre had some decent mobility, and wasn't as affected by terrain as the Warthog, but its primary cannon was shit. It was a rapid-fire plasma cannon, with standard plasma projectiles. It's good for dropping shields, but actually finishing the kills meant having ridiculous accuracy, and with the slower projectile speed plasma weapons have, it's hard to actually get a kill beyond being in close. The Prowler mitigated that SLIGHTLY in two ways – it put the turret up front (means, you're a little closer to the target your driver is trying to deliver you to), and it replaced the frame of the vehicle with a doom sled. Most often, when you saw a player on HaloCharts with a high amount of Prowler kills, they weren't from the turret – Bungie paid so little attention to the vehicle in its design that it counted both splatters and turret kills as the same weapon...and the enormous block of a front the Prowler had made it great for splattering. In fact, although the Chopper was known for its ability to Splatter anything, the Prowler, used properly, could splatter a Chopper. It was that scary.

The only Meaningful Choice for a Spectre is “Don't.” Don't get in. Don't attempt. Don't drive. Don't waste your time. The Prowler's adjustments to the design gave it a little bit more leeway. Again, the hulking front made passengers a bit safer from damage, and the vehicle's penchant for splattering made it a fantastic tool for the variant One Bomb on Sand TARP. Deliver the Bomb, use Doom Sled to splatter anyone off of it. Win round. But mostly, either vehicle was dead weight. The Prowler just gave you better potential to run over foes who underestimate the Prowler's size and speed.

Countering the Spectre and Prowler is as simple as ignoring them. Okay, not completely ignoring them, they CAN kill you. They just probably won't. I mean, they've got those useless plasma turrets. Just stay away from the roads where they can splatter you and you're pretty much safe from them. They can't turn on a dime, so stick to lateral movements when attempting to escape. Their frames are huge, throw a Plasma Grenade. It's not difficult to deal with a Spectre or Prowler. And, if they were dumb enough to load up to the T, then congratulations on your Killtacular / Overkill (depending on the game) that was just gift-wrapped for you and delivered by the Sleigh of Sangheili Claus. Hey, I only said SANTA doesn't exist.

Teamwork makes the Dreamwork. But while you may think you're on the Road to El Dorado, you're really on your way to being Shrekt if you attempt to seriously utilize the Spectre or Prowler. They're too weak to be effective. Seriously, you'd have better luck trying to learn How to Train Your Dragon than trying to drive a gunner for either of these vehicles to get kills. Unless your opponents are straight out of the jungles of Madagascar and just learning how to play video games for the first time, you're better off ignoring these vehicles and sticking to playing the game on foot. Or, if you remember the “Halo True Men of Genius” series, being “Mr. Take Off In the Warthog with No Gunner Man” – except in the case of the Spectre or Prowler, you may actually be a true man of genius by doing so. Hell, you may even call yourself MegaMind as you roam the dunes of Sand Tarp in a lone Prowler, splattering the Nomadic Spartans attempting to walk the earth a bit. But seriously, these vehicles suck (in terms of effectiveness.)

To be honest, I couldn't actually remember if the Spectre had a booster or not and looked up some YouTube videos to refresh my memory (it appears to). Not that it matters much, you don't need to know if the Spectre can boost or not to know it's as effective and likely to enact change and reform the status quo as a third-party Presidential candidate. Regardless, the Clarity of the vehicles is somewhat cut and dry. The Spectre's side seats are a bit easier to recognize than the Prowler's (which, in Sand Tarp bomb, were sometimes problematic attempting to find and get your bomb carrier on in a timely manner. The Prowler's front design does suggest it's not a wise idea to run into – the teeth/mouth appearance make it seem it eats smaller vehicles for breakfast. The turret's reticule is static, although it has a very apparent Bloom mechanism behind it if you hold down the trigger as opposed to pulsing it. I'm honestly not sure why a plasma turret has bloom given the (relative to bullets) slow travel time of the projectiles – it's hard enough to get the bead on your opponents to START hitting them, why make it even harder by introducing randomness?

The Evolution of these vehicles...well, let's just say they were taught Evolution by Red State schools deep in the Bible Belt, and leave it at that. It's just nonsense, that's all.

Overall, these are less effective Warthogs with a less clear purpose (why are there TWO passenger seats?) and more exposure to danger (gunner in Spectre is highly exposed, driver on Prowler is). The one advantage the Prowler has over the Warthog is how protected its gunner is, but given the Plasma's comparatively weaker damage versus vehicles, a Warthog still has the advantage. Still, most players who insisted on using either vehicle used them alone, relying on the mobility and potential for splattering over actually attempting to utilize the guns. I'm going to say it one more time: Plasma Turrets in Halo suck. They don't do anything effectively. If they had an effect of stunning vehicles like Halo: CE's Plasma Rifle stunned players, maybe it'd be better, but... since they do not, it's a moot point.


That's the end of my two-part series analyzing Halo's vehicles versus Riot's 6 core gameplay design tenets. I know it was a lot of words; I tried to weave in some humor and pop culture references to add brevity and make it worth the read. If you read it and disagree with anything or think I've missed something, PLEASE, comment below or message me some feedback – I'd love to hear it. It's how I can grow as a game designer and competitive gamer.

I hope those of you who made it through this 21 page, 14,000 word thesis of a rant enjoyed the ride. Because unfortunately, the game didn't tell us how much vehicle health we had left and now we're about to blow u

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Vehicular Manslaughter: An Analytical Look at the Vehicles of the Halo Series (Part 1 of 2)


So, I know I have a series to continue on the subject of shotcalling in competitive games, but...for reasons that totally don't have an ulterior motive at all, I'm going to be doing a two-parter with a much different subject – An analysis of Halo Vehicles, weighed against the 6 core design tenets Riot Games uses in League of Legends.

Those six tenets are: Mastery, Meaningful Choices, Counterplay, Teamplay, Clarity, and Evolution.
  • Mastery essentially means there is always something new to learn, and experience will continue to make you better.
  • Meaningful Choices means the choices you may make have tradeoffs, and so making the right decision means selecting the one whose tradeoff is easiest to mitigate.
  • Counterplay means the person on the receiving end still has room to outplay you – and in the case of Halo and specifically vehicles, this doesn't just mean having a Spartan Laser to put a stop to your vehicle. It means ensuring even the standard infantryman has a way to play against your vehicle advantage.
  • Teamplay means the vehicle has areas that require the rest of the team to cover its weaknesses, or the team needs to work together to best utilize the vehicle.
  • Clarity – I'll just use Riot's words directly – “Players should fight their opponents, not the game. We strive to present information in a clear and precise way so that League can be about dominating opponents with skill and teamwork – not through bookkeeping hidden information.”
  • Evolution applies more to a game being patched with new mechanics being added, but for the sake of this blog, it will refer to how the vehicle evolved in the metagame of competitive BTB over the course of the title I am pulling the vehicle from.

This first blog will focus entirely on Human/UNSC vehicles. I did say it's gonna be a two-parter, yeah? Guess what part 2 is? COVENANT VEHICLES YAY! But you must stifle your excitement, because for now, we're only talking about human vehicles.

The Chain Gun Warthog – (Halo 3)

Now, for the sake of these analyses, I'm going to focus primarily on one game in which the vehicle showed up, mostly so I can keep the assessment focused. For the default Warthog, we're going with Halo 3, primarily because Halo 3 featured the best maps for utilizing the Warthog, and Halo Reach/Halo 4 introducing vehicle health made it much more difficult for a Warthog to be kept alive.

In terms of Mastery, the Halo 3 Warthog was a fair success, specifically in terms of driving. Gunning wasn't hard once you learned to favor the bottom half of the reticule for aiming and to pulse the trigger at longer ranges. But for a driver, you'd have to learn risk/threat assessment, routes to avoid power weapons, routes to avoid ambushes from people with Plasma Pistols, Power Drains, Trip Mines, and Plasma Grenades. You had to learn how to control the Warthog in case of being flipped from coordinated BR fire (goddamn Frenchies), frag grenades, brute shots, or other nearby explosions of physics. There was always room to improve as a driver, and seeing players with tens of thousands of Wheelmen medals accrued over the years reflected their experience.

The Warthog did not shine as much in terms of Meaningful Choices. Despite the existence of the passenger seat, it was rarely a prudent decision to stop and pick up a person carrying a flag. A stopped Warthog is a DEAD Warthog. Utilizing the passenger seat for a Bomb carrier was less of a risk, since you could pick them up from the safety of your side of the map and drop them off at whatever entrance to the enemy base you wished. If your team didn't have the Spartan Laser, it was usually a bad idea to take the Warthog out, unless you just wanted ammo burned on you to force the laser dry and give your team a chance to contest the new one. Driving path decision-making usually boiled down to “Is there a chance I'll die if I go there? Then I probably shouldn't go there.”

As for Counterplay, as long as you had a BR, you had some defense against a Warthog. The gunner of the vehicle is highly exposed (even able to be headshotted from dead on, though his body is shielded from that angle), and taking down the gunner drastically reduces the vehicle's effectiveness. Well-aimed Frag Grenades could also shut down a Hog run, if you managed to up-end the wheels. This counterplay wasn't heavily pronounced on Standoff, where the only spawn locations were way away from any semblance of cover, so a Warthog already running was much more free to net easy kills off fresh spawners, and led to a lot of grief for unorganized parties against those who had been playing together for a long time. Rat's Nest also put the spawns out into the open, but the narrow paths ensured the Warthog was much easier to take down with your default tools.

Teamplay was a big part of keeping a Warthog alive, or taking down a fresh Warthog. If you ever played against one of the French parties that would roam Big Team, you likely got to see just how strong team BRing a Warthog could actually be. With just 4 people shooting it, your Warthog could be put into a roll from which you could not recover before being either pinned into a wall or launched off the map. The French BTB teams had coordination and didn't let a Warthog stop them from doing so. “See Hog, Kill Hog.” On the flip side, the art of running a Warthog was made a lot easier with the 6 people not in the Warthog playing aggressively to keep it alive – after all, if your team didn't secure control of the Laser, you likely wouldn't get to keep the Warthog alive. If your team didn't push up with the Warthog, the Warthog's left to be the focus of much enemy fire.

For most of my Clarity assessments, I'll have to favor Halo 3 vehicles over the newer Halos. I'll explain this more clearly when I talk about a Halo Reach vehicle, but for now... The only issues with clarity for the Warthog is that there was a marked inconsistency in whether or not a direct Rocket Hit would actually kill both passengers, or whether or not a sticky grenade would end your run. Making it more clear to the player what constitutes lethal damage is a big part of knowing how well they can keep a Warthog alive.

As far as evolution goes, there wasn't much change to the meta of Warthogs once the Warthog was “figured out” – don't drive behind the bases on Standoff, shoot the gunner, not the body of the Warthog, when engaging in a Warthog duel. Put your Warthog's body between your gunner and the enemy gunner in a Warthog duel. Simple stuff. There was very little done to shake up how Warthogs were used.

Overall, the Warthog in Halo 3 served a clear purpose and was a core part of high level Big Team Battle. Standoff required a good hog duo to be truly successful, but the other maps saw less play, due to the larger importance on securing the laser weakening the Warthog's early game presence, and whether or not you had the laser was a binary switch to determine whether or not a Warthog would truly be effective. Rat's Nest left the Warthog as a more preferential bit, though losing control of the kitchens meant losing control of the map.

The Scorpion – (Halo Reach)

Let's be real here, there's not much to say about the Scorpion in terms of design. It's about as straightforward as you can get. It's a tank that does tank things.

In Mastery, there's very little room for improvement. You either hit the shot, or you don't. You don't have much room to avoid incoming lasers or Rockets (unless the rockets are fired from very far away). So maneuvering and positioning are more a question of “How much can I see without being seen by big threats” – not a lot of room for getting better once you've answered those two questions. So in terms of mastery, the Scorpion is somewhat of a failure.

Meaningful Choices? Not really. Paradiso had a few opportunities for a Scorpion to get behind the opposing team's base for a vicious spawn trap, but apart from that, the Scorpion's main choices boil down to the same question in the Mastery section above. The only other question that you may ask is “Do I need someone to gun the turret in case I get boarded?” And the answer is always “No.” unless you were playing random, lesser skilled players in matchmaking, the secondary turret on the Scorpion was an inefficient use of manpower and a superfluous addition to the tank. Sure, it can shoot off highjackers, but if you're in position to be highjacked, chances are you fucked up when you answered the Question.

Counterplay...Ha! That's a good one. If you're on foot with a DMR, you're likely not going to be very effective against it. If you don't have a power weapon or a power vehicle of your own, the Scorpion is going to win. The turret's turn speed is fast enough to deal with most rapidly-approaching threats from the side, and even with a Jetpack, you're still not likely to get in range to board the bastard. The projectile speed of the main cannon is too fast to give a person an honest chance to dodge once the fucker's fired. You just have to pray he missed. Personally, I think this is a terrible design, even if your argument is “It's the fucking tank. It should be strong.” – Strong, sure. But an undodgeable instant kill weapon is batshit. Slow down the shell's travel speed and reduce the SPLASH damage (keep a direct hit an instant kill, even with a little leeway), but outside that the splash damage should be much, much lower. Shoehorn the tank's primary turret into being focused on anti-armor. And for god's sake get rid of that useless secondary turret and give the pilot control back over his anti-infantry weapon. Because let's face it, no one uses that turret unless they know their opponents can't fight back.

Teamplay? Well, MAYBE if you're the most organized team of all time, you can all shoot the Scorpion with your DMR and abuse Reach's vehicle health system in order to take it down! It's not really like though, if I recall my tests correctly, it took 8 clips of the DMR to take down a Scorpion, so it would've taken an entire team all shooting an entire clip of a DMR at once into the tank to take it down. As far as keeping the Scorpion alive, even controlling the Laser or the Plasma Launcher on the Scorpion's primary maps didn't mean much as far as keeping it from being killed. There wasn't much needed to keep your team's Scorpion alive, and only Paradiso saw truly coordinated assaults where the Scorpion would push up with its team in order to be more effective. In terms of taking the Scorpion down, the only time teamwork came into play was if you had someone draw the Scorpion's attention while your Banshee flew overhead and bombed him dead on a few times before getting the fuck out of dodge.

Clarity...okay, we're on a Halo Reach vehicle so it's time for me to rant. Halo Reach introduced Vehicle Health as a separate entity from the living players inside it (in Halo 3, vehicles had health, but they would not blow up unless the players inside were dead). In Reach, if a Vehicle's Health reached 0, it blew up. Period. The problem here is that the amount of health your vehicle had was never clearly communicated to the player. Sure, you had visible stages of damage, and an audio cue every time a stage changed... But there was an amount of health between each stage of damage, and if you stopped taking damage before the next stage, that amount would regenerate. This was NEVER ONCE COMMUNICATED TO THE PLAYER that this was happening. In fact, most people didn't even know it was happening (I found out through talking to the Reach Banshee pilot, Gamesager, who utilized the fact to keep his Banshee alive by retreating before a stage of damage was reached, then waiting a bit before going back in). This is an awful display of clarity. It applies to every single Reach vehicle, Scorpion notwithstanding. Additionally, the Scorpion suffered from the same issue Halo 3's Warthog did, where certain areas taking damage would kill the driver (or the vehicle itself) while shooting others would not. In Halo 3, you needed to Laser over the hatch of the Scorpion to one-shot kill the driver. Reach? Nah, this time it's the treads (what? Really? The treads? Why?) – no visual cues communicated this to the players, it was just something they had to learn. And it wasn't clear visually, nor did it make sense logically. But it was a fact. All in all, the Halo Reach Scorpion's clarity is a steaming shitpile, where the steam obscures all the important information of the fact that you're about to step in a pile of shit.

Evolution? “Use tank, kill people. Be happy.” – Fortunately, it was realized that on open maps, the Scorpion was far too powerful so it was replaced by the Wraith on Hemorrhage. The tank's straightforward, non-skill reliant power caused it to stifle any unique strategies to deal with the bastard.

Overall, the Scorpion is a vehicle that, in the state it's been presented, is usually too strong to logically exist in a competitive shooter. If there's asymmetrical access to a Scorpion, the tides turn too heavily against the team without, as the options for counterplay, even with power weapons, are extremely limited. Combined with the range, damage, and accuracy of the Scorpion's turret, the Scorpion player has more counterplay to his threats than they do to him. Simply shoot first. Go on, you can take 'em! Reducing the Scorpion's projectile speed, as well as adding some degree of gravity to his shots would add a level of mastery for the user, while also giving the targets a chance to get out of the way once they hear or see a shot is coming for them. This simple change would go a long way in balancing the vehicle, though by no means sacrificing its identity as a tank.

Mantis (Halo 4)

Oh lord, the Mantis. This thing is an abomination for game design. For the brief time I was working with the BTBnet team on Halo 4, we all had one expectation as to how the Mantis would be used competitively and it turned out to be absolutely correct. I'll divulge over the course of this analysis.

Mastery: The Mantis was about as cut and dry as you can make a vehicle with 3 different methods of attack. I mean, you've got a set of 5 rockets, a chaingun, and an anti-boarding STOMP. Seems pretty easy to avoid dying. The only area in which there's any significant growth in how to use the Mantis was in terms of aiming the rockets. If you can aim the rocket launcher, you can pilot a Mantis. It's that simple.

But when it comes to Meaningful Choices...this is where the Mantis was an absolute failure of epic proportions. As I said, the BTBnet group all had one expectation: “The Mantis will just sit on its side of the map and play defensively. I mean, you can poke up with the shield, and then back off and get the shield back. There's literally no reason to play aggressively with it. You have a permanent defensive rocket launcher.” We were right. As far as positioning went, competitively, the only “decision” a Mantis pilot made was which choke point to watch. You never pushed up unless your team had full control, in which case you rounded out the back line anyway. I mean, you have a literally infinite supply of Rockets to fire, why would you want to risk that by pushing up and dying? You don't. You hold the line. God damn it, Toto, you hold the line. The only other choice a pilot ever has to make is whether or not to go for the kill with the Rockets or the Chain Gun. And you know how you make that decision? “Do I have rockets left in the chamber?” If yes, use rockets. If no, use the chain gun to keep them away while you reload, then fire a rocket.

Counterplay? Good fucking luck. The thing has a replenishable shield. It's the only vehicle that has ever had a replenishable shield. And in a game where every vehicle has a finite amount of health before it blows up... well, shit. Better hope you kill him before he kills you, or he'll continue to terrorize! Even if you dish out some damage, he gets to come back in fighting form after just a brief respite! So, it was pretty susceptible to boarding, even despite the stomp maneuver, so they added the Survivor perk that made the vehicle auto-eject upon taking lethal damage. Guess what that meant for Mantises... you get dropped out the back directly behind the person who'd boarded you! HURRAH! Win/Win! If you didn't have a Plasma Pistol or a power weapon with good team focus, you weren't taking down a Mantis. Plasma Pistols were the entire core of effectively countering a Mantis.

Teamplay? The only teamplay involved in a Mantis is telling your team “I've got the Mantis watching this area, you 7 go somewhere else because I'm literally not going to die this game.” Boom, you're set. That fucker didn't encourage any form of teamplay apart from encouraging anyone that died to its defensive duties all forming a support group for those abused by the immovable enemy Mantis to share stories about how new orifices were borne into their body by the rockets and bullets of the immortal mech. If Halo 4 hadn't failed in terms of retention for its multiplayer base, Mantis Victims Anonymous would be the nation's fastest-growing sexual assault support group today. I guess it's a good thing Halo 4 wasn't too successful.

In terms of Clarity, Halo 4 vehicles were a step-up from Reach vehicles in communicating the vehicle's health to the player, through various beeping or flashing lights to let you know “Hey, shit's about to blow up.” – but it's still not directly communicated through any form of UI attachment. So again, you never know exactly how much health your vehicle has left. The Mantis clearly communicates how many rockets you have in the chamber, its reload animation shows how much longer it will take, and the chaingun overheat mechanic is shown quite clearly. The only problem is that vehicle health is never directly communicated to the player, when it is an extension of their own health. Good luck knowing exactly how much more damage you can take!

If the Mantis tried to Evolve, I would've held B. The thing was far too strong at the role it assumed, and making it able to do more would've just been insane. Attempting to play around it in the maps it was utilized was a chore and a half, and nothing new really arose from doing so.

But honestly, regardless of the Mantis' intent when it was placed into multiplayer, the vehicle was a colossal failure in terms of presenting a fair and balanced vehicle that offered reasonable opportunities to take it down and push wherever it had decided to play Gandalf. Seriously, I think the designer put a time machine in it that channels the Steelers defense from the 1970s, because that thing was a fucking Steel Curtain.

Elephant (Halo 3)

Whoa whoa whoa, Audley, slow up a second. Are you really fucking counting the Elephant as a vehicle of the Halo series?

You're goddamn right I am. I fucking love the concept behind the Elephant, and that love may lend some bias to everything in this subsection, but despite the fact that it was only on one map (and eventually taken off the map due to rampant bug abuse that would cause massive frame rate issues for anyone in the game), the Elephant is one of my favorite mechanics added to the Halo game.

Now, there isn't much Mastering the Elephant. The thing was a snail. There was a human turret and a highly exposed Warthog turret on it, neither of which were truly potent in terms of the vehicle's combat ability (except on Sandtrap Covies, in which case playing Pirate Ships was actually a highly effective method of combat.) But if you were to weigh the GREATEST ELEPHANT DRIVER against Average Joe #12 in terms of their Elephant usage, there would be almost no way to separate the two, once they realized you drive backwards in order to see if anyone is sneaking up on you.

Meaningful Choices, though, now that's where the Elephant was a glorious beacon of hope. First, the defensive choices – in Capture the Flag, if you wanted to guard your flag, you had to stay on the Elephant. But that means you're weighing in on a spawn zone, and forcing your teammates to also spawn on the Elephant! Uh oh! They can't spawn in more efficient locations because of your selfish need to watch the delicate cloth billow in the blinding desert wind. On the offensive side of things, once you've made it to the enemy Elephant, you're given a much greater amount of equally valid, weighable choices. Do I take the driver's seat of the Elephant and try to take it home? Do I sit here and wait for a teammate to potentially drive me home, risking being found prior to taking the flag or anything? Do I just take the flag and run? Do I set up to slay anyone who comes to the Elephant, praying I don't get taken down before help arrives? The threat of an Elephant being stolen and becoming a near-guaranteed end of a game is a constant threat that forces you to keep an eye on a vehicle that is the very essence of map control – if you control your opponent's Elephant, you win the game (in objective). And given that driving the Elephant takes you out of the game temporarily, unable to fight back unless you stop driving, it's a huge measure of what you can get away with versus the reward of just focusing on the objective itself rather than the vehicle carrying the objective.

Counterplay? The thing handles like a brick with cement shoes. It's not going to be a direct threat. You can pre-emptively counter the threat of your Elephant being stolen by parking it at an incline along terrain to make it not only harder to get to your flag but also force the driver to straighten out the Elephant prior to attempting to drive off with it, giving you precious extra seconds to detect that it is in fact, attempting to one-man stampede its way out of your base area. If someone DOES make off with your Elephant, your default movement speed is faster than the Elephant, you run that motherfucker down and you cap his ass. And then re-cap(ture) your Elephant.

Teamplay? Eh, it's a little weaker here, but if you do want to play the steal game, you better have some back-up because you're not gonna pull it off alone unless the enemy team fell asleep. If you want to play Sand Pirates in a Slayer game, it requires a few people to man the Elephant, and having a Sniper or Laser user keep an eye out for enemy Lasers or Snipers is a great way to ensure your two gunners aren't picked off.

As far as Clarity goes, the Elephant's only weaknesses are that the side turret is facing outward (meaning, it's most effective to actually turn the Elephant around prior to driving it, which is a slight usability issue) – and it's actually more effective camera-wise to drive the Elephant with the open backside facing the direction you're moving, because hopping out of the Driver's seat has you immediately facing that direction, ready for combat. These are things picked up quickly with experience, but not made clear to the new user. Additionally, newer players tend not to understand it's a bad idea to drive your Elephant to the enemy base in objective gametypes, thinking, “Hey if we drive ours closer to theirs, we can score quickly!” – but not realizing the long travel distance you'll have should you die in the gamble, that can often just gift a victory to the enemy team. Finally, the roads/pathways for the Elephant were a little obscured, and sometimes attempting to turn around the Elephant in the wrong spot could cause control issues – again, not a huge deal, but a minor annoyance if you don't know the outer road ring like the back of your Battle Rifle.

In terms of Evolution, (disregarding the usage as a griefing tool with the frame lag issue), the Elephant's best parking spots were mostly figured out pretty quickly. And although Sandtrap Flag was usually avoided for tournament selections, and often vetoed in Matchmaking between two parties, the general strategy focused around keeping your sideways, inclined Elephant sideways and inclined and relying on your team to score through Warthog and Mongoose runs rather than actually attempting the difficult vehicular steal.

Regardless of the grief problems, the Elephant was a unique concept, that worked at a moderate level of play, but fell apart in higher levels (and could be tragic in lower levels, due to aforementioned “Let's drive ours to them!” issue). Even still, the Elephant stands up fairly strong when weighed against the 6 design philosophies, and could potentially be tweaked to be a truly fun and engaging gameplay mechanic if ever revisited.

Falcon (Halo Reach)

I was pretty torn between covering the Hornet or the Falcon for the UNSC Air Vehicle of choice, especially since I had substantially more experience in the Halo 3 Hornet that was given to the player on Avalanche. However, that incarnation didn't have much spectacular about it, and was generally used as a missile-less, flying version of the Mantis – fire into keyhole or fire around the horseshoe but never go aggressive until you know it's completely safe. So instead, I'm covering the Falcon.

The Falcon's display of Mastery had potential – controlling your flight angles to give your gunners great angles was no easy task, especially on a map with the verticality of Spire. Of course, gunning was more about telling your pilot “Hey, yo, I can't see shit, fly better fucking scrub.” than about actually working the gun, which if you'd spent any time in any chaingun in any Halo title, you could probably operate at a sufficient level. But the control scheme of flying the Falcon required moderate amounts of management to become the lord of the skies. The true mastery of the Falcon came in praying you could keep it alive long enough from the threat of teamfire. As with all Reach vehicles, it had the implementation of Vehicle Health that ensured only a god could keep the vehicle alive for the entirety of a high level match. The Falcon's paper-thin defense meant using it very precisely could yield some great temporary results, but your time in the sky was limited.

The biggest Meaningful Choice a Falcon pilot would ever make was deciding whether or not to commit to having a second gunner for the extra firepower or focusing on one-side of fire and keeping the lower level of management required from only communicating with a lone gunner. Apart from that, the choices are more focused on where to fly or whether engaging the enemy Warthog/Banshee is really prudent. The Falcon had a sort of False Choice in the determination of your altitude, where neither choice was truly good for the vehicle – the “tradeoffs” for either end were high and made utilizing the vehicle a bit wonky at best. Do you fly high to avoid vehicle fire from Warthogs/Ghosts and subject yourself to every available DMR while putting yourself at an ineffective range to fight back, or do you fly low so your guns can fight, but put yourself in a position for a set of Rockets to lock onto you. Either way, you were opening yourself up to more risks than you were saving yourself from or creating new opportunities to open up the map for your team.

Counterplay was definitely present for the Falcon. Again, as with most light vehicles in Reach and Halo 4, combined with the Vehicle Health system, the armor felt like it was constructed as part of a child's Gingerbread House for Christmas. And no one eats fucking Gingerbread houses. You fucking smash them. With bullets. Anyone with a gun and cover could deal permanent damage to the vehicle and move it closer toward being taken down. The more guns, the merrier your time...and since we're pretty much talking Big Team Battle here, there's never a merry Christmas for a Falcon pilot.

As for Teamplay, the fact that the Falcon utilized two gunners while the pilot had no weapon of his own made the Falcon a vehicle of forced teamplay. It was essentially a flying Warthog (remember those Halo 2 mods?) with an extra gun. I'll actually tie in a bit of the next category here – because one area where the Falcon suffered was its Clarity of what your gunners could see. You RELIED on them to communicate where to tilt, which way to fly, et cetera in order to keep a bearing on their targets. If they didn't communicate, you're flying blind. There's no way to rotate the camera to see your gunners' view without also rotating the Falcon itself and therefore shifting the view. Unless you are an experienced Falcon Gunner, then as a Falcon Pilot, you're really lost as to what your gunner can truly see...thankfully, the turn radius on those turrets was QUITE forgiving.

I'll actually move on into the actual Clarity section for my talk on how this could've been alleviated – as there were two main paths that could've been taken. The former is more invasive – add a button press that brings up an alternate camera in the corner of your screen that shows what your gunner can see currently (you're in the cockpit of a futuristic plane, it's not unlikely that you have something like that on your dashboard!) – the button pressed again can toggle to the other gunner, or you could just tie it to the Dpad and push the direction (Left/Right) which you wish to see at any given moment. The less invasive manner is to add a button press that enables free look for the pilot – much like PC Shooters do for some aircraft – basically, you are given the ability to look around with the camera as normal, but your nose remains facing the direction it was when you started holding the button. This would enable the pilot to get a glimpse around the side to see what their gunners were looking for, and adjust accordingly. Of course, those aren't the only complaints for clarity, since again, Halo Reach vehicles NEVER TOLD YOU SPECIFICALLY HOW MUCH HEALTH THEY HAD LEFT. And for a Falcon-specific point of odd clarity, the first time you get into the Falcon is a bit disorienting, since you're given a much larger radius for your radar. There's no indicator to show you this is what's happening, though it is easy to figure it out after a few seconds. However, including a smaller ring in the radar to show the player's standard radar range while also keeping the Falcon's increased radar would help make it easy to see just how much farther you are detecting from the skies. Tying back into Teamplay, this enhanced Radar actually made the Falcon a great scouting tool, as there's no hiding from something with a radar that powerful.

As for Evolution, the Falcon was able to remain a choice of style for players as to whether or not they regularly attempted to run it. It was a great spawn killing tool for one-sided objectives on Spire if you could get behind the defensive base, but it was also a great way to rush the Banshee and get a stage or two of damage into it before it even gets going, making it much easier to prevent the One True God of the Skies from taking over the game.

Overall, the Falcon was a better (read: riskier) take on the aerial vehicle of choice for the UNSC than either iteration of the Hornet from Halo 3 (the default Hornet with the Missiles was ridiculously too strong... glad they decided to make that a walking mech for Halo 4 instead of just gutting the idea.) It was by no means a passive vehicle which focused on keeping an area of the map locked down, as attempting to stall out anywhere in a Reach vehicle basically was like casting Vanish and Doom on yourself.

Gauss Warthog (Halo 3)

And that brings us to the final vehicle I'm going to cover in Part 1 of this two-parter on Halo vehicles... And my favorite (to use) in the series: The Gauss Warthog. The “pfew” sound effect of this thing firing can cause nightmares if you've ever been caught in a spawn trap by a Gauss before. Hell, I'm lucky it doesn't trigger my PTSD from the Team America Quadpod set-up on Standoff Heavies.

Mastering the Gauss was not about aiming – the aiming mechanics were fairly forgiving (hell, -I- was good with it, you know it was noob-friendly.). It was all about target prioritization. You have 2 people spawning in front of you and you see the speck of a helmet coming out the back tunnel of the base on Standoff Heavy. If you shoot those two spawners, you're dead. Why? The guy in the back had Laser. You should've known. He ALWAYS has Laser there when there's a Gauss up. There's a Banshee flying overhead and a Chopper coming straight for you. Which do you take out first? Well, your laser guy says he's gonna kill the Banshee, you kill that fucking Chopper before he ends your spree in a glorious double-suicide head-on Splatter collision. Driving was mostly about knowing to go Clockwise rather than Counter-Clockwise around the bases (again, so you can see the back door of the base on Standoff, rather than forcing your gunner to whiptail in order to see as you fly past).

The Meaningful Choices are tied directly back into the paragraph above. There's never a question of whether or not to take the Gauss out. Even if the enemy has a Laser, a skilled Gauss gunner can out-shoot a laser the moment that red tracer shows its ugly tail. Every choice is about which target to shoot first, or whether to let someone live while you keep your eyes fixed on a bigger threat in cover. Seeing that one peon scurry into cover just so you don't die to the laser hiding behind the boxes behind the base is the difference between a 40-kill Gauss run and your run ending at the 13 kill spree you were on.

Unfortunately, unless you have a power weapon, there's no Counterplay to a Gauss. The Gauss Gunner decides whether you live or die. Period. You may get a LUCKY frag flip, or a gunner overcommit to a kill and give you an opportunity to get some shots into his side, but if the driver isn't out of position or doing something stupid, you're pretty much left to the Gauss Warthog's mercy in most situations. Even on Sandtrap Heavies, with its tanks, a Gauss flank could easily destroy a Scorpion before the Scorpion had a chance to fight back. Good thing this thing wasn't on any non-Heavy variants, yeah? Now imagine back to Halo 2, where the thing actually shot faster...hahahahaha.

Teamplay? Nah, like the Mantis, the Halo 3 Gauss was pretty much a “We're going to go win the game now.” in terms of its power level. If you took down the parallel threats from the enemy team, your Gauss run became a fixed point in time, not even a Nameless Doctor (nor a Namelss Hero) can salvage the other team's hopes then.

Clarity for the Gauss user was pretty straightforward. It's a Warthog that kills in one hit. On the receiving end, it could be a little less clear what was happening, especially if there was lag – sometimes you would just fall over dead with no explanation of what killed you...though, if you got the animation of your body flying 30 feet, you'd get an idea pretty quickly. As far as using the Gauss, what it's used for, et cetera, there wasn't really anything obscured from the player, other than the same complaints given for the Halo 3 Chaingun Warthog before.

As for Evolution, there were two schools of thought for the Gauss: “Run the thing and spawn kill the fuck out of people” – or if you got lucky enough to get the enemy Gauss, “Park them both near spawn areas and laugh as the enemy literally can't move off spawn anymore.” (half of the aforementioned Team America Quadpod). Apart from that, there wasn't much to “evolve” in its usage...it's a one-hit kill weapon, you can pretty much do what you want with it as long as you don't die in the process.


That concludes my analysis of select UNSC Vehicles from the Halo series – but bear in mind, even despite the fact that you just read through 6300 words of mixed ranting, rambling, and reasoning, this is only part 1 of a two-parter. I have yet to touch the Covenant Vehicles (spoiler alert: I like them better, in terms of design.) I still have another Audley Enough to come featuring the Ghost (Game TBD, probably 3), the Wraith (Reach), the Chopper (3), the Banshee (Reach), the Revenant (Reach), and both the Spectre and Prowler (2, 3) as a single unit. But don't worry, I won't make a girl a promise I can't keep. I will have that one done soon to follow-up!