Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why I support AR/Pistol Starts over BR Starts as the Competitive Option in Halo 5

Over on the TeamBeyond forums, there's been a debate raging for weeks now over what we believe the starting weapons should be for competitive settings in the upcoming game, Halo 5 Guardians. If you've been following the thread, you can skip to the section with bullets, because I'm starting off be reiterating some of my points made in the thread.

For a decade now, it has been whatever the game's best-suited headshot rifle was labeled (usually the BR). This has caused a schism in playlists, where “casual” gametypes (and some ranked, in TS playlists) would start with the game's standard automatic weapon and “hardcore” gametypes would start with a headshot rifle. We've heard counter-arguments during Halo 4 that in order to return to Halo's past glory we need to “keep it vanilla” – and while moving toward a more standardized weapon set across the whole of the game would help, it ignores the reasons we moved away in past games.

In Halo 2, there were three starting weapon options for UNSC weapons: SMG, Magnum, and Battle Rifle. Let's take Lockout for example. Say everyone starts with SMG/Magnum. One team gets control of Sniper tower and BR tower. The SMG can't really fight at a range from building to building capably in Halo 2. Nor can the Magnum (a shame it wasn't the HCE Pistol). And a BR spawns on TOP of the BR tower. In the high ground.

Let's move to Warlock. 4 BRs on the map. All on high ground, that can only be reached from two methods: Lifting up a slow lift and then jumping out into the open onto the platform, or walking up a ramp from one direction onto the platform. Very predictable methods where, if you don't ALREADY have a BR, but your opponents do, it's damned near impossible to grab one.

In Halo 2, the range discrepancy between the BR and the not-BRs was high. To exacerbate that problem, the BRs were often in places of optimal use case already, so once you grabbed them, you had little reason to move. Design-wise, this makes starting with not-BRs incredibly snowbally. But it's illogical to say “We did BR starts because the SMG can't fight the BR.” – the placement of BRs on map were equally at fault. (Let's skip the irony that Bungie intentionally stripped the Magnum of power from CE to 2 in an effort to gut skill gaps to force closer games and then set up maps in an absurdly snowbally manner.)

In Halo 3 we returned to BR starts again, although the range discrepancy of the weapons and their placement were much more sensible. (Granted, that range discrepancy was fixed by nerfing the everliving fuck out of the BR to the point that it was essentially useless on large maps, making BTB a nightmare.) The pistol was still useless. A desire to stay away from Spray and Pray anything fueled the decision to keep the BR as the starting weapon, and rightfully so.

In Reach, the Beta pistol showed promise, but at launch it was clear we had no option but the DMRNG. In Halo 4, an enormous debate arose over whether the BR or DMR should be the starting weapon (disregarding #TeamOrange who all believed the Light Rifle to be the superior skill gap weapon to use). Ultimately, the BR was chosen despite having random spread and being burstfire, when the mostly-cosmetic bloom and single shot of the DMR made more sense for a competitive rifle. Why? The DMR shot too far. It was too oppressive in the game, and would assist players in aiming over literally entire arena-sized maps. Despite very correct and well-articulated articles opposing the BR, the BR was healthier for the game and simply felt better. The Pistol was a lot better in this game, but it was still ultimately a lottery cannon.

With Halo 5, however, things have changed. Automatics now have headshot multipliers (they're more skill-oriented, and less spray-and-pray). They have the definitely-not-ADS-nope-not-one-bit Smart Scope to encourage using them at range. The Pistol is the fastest killing headshot weapon in the game, and had what we were told were bugs (flinch, recoil) that made it unwieldy. Additionally, the Pistol could fight at a range beyond two feet in front of you, already making it superior to the H2/H3 incarnations that we had to avoid like the plague.

So let me repeat that. THE PISTOL IS USEFUL AGAIN. And less importantly, the AR isn't a “let me camp around a corner and just shoot+melee you” weapon. It is also useful at range.

The reasons we avoided ARs and Pistols in previous titles are gone/heavily mitigated in Halo 5. We have good reason to try them out as the starting weapons from the get-go, and avoid separating the entire community into our we-don't-like-your-gametypes-we're-going-to-make-our-own...with-blackjack...and-hookers “hardcore” settings.

But before you rattle off all your reasons why you think the BR is more skillful or use reasons like “we've used the BR for a decade, why should we change now?” or “hodor hodor hodor” to try to dissuade me from continuing my support of the AR/Pistol... let me return to a rubric I've used in past Audley Enough blogs.

Riot Games' six core gameplay tenets they use for League of Legends. You know, literally the most popular PC game in the world, and the esport with the greatest success world wide in terms of viewership. I wrote about this six gameplay tenets as they relate to twelve of my favorite vehicles from Halo history in some blogs last summer, but now it's time to relate them to guns!

As a refresher, those six gameplay tenets are:
  • Mastery – Mastery is essentially a constant ability to improve. In Halo, that can range anywhere from improving your shot, to route-taking, to map positioning; basically, any way you can get better at the game, there's always room to get better. In short: Mastery is your Skill Ceiling.
  • Meaningful Choices – Meaningful Choices are where there are tradeoffs to your decisions made in game. Whether that means you have to mitigate weaknesses or simply take less risky plays, it means you're constantly making a choice that isn't already made for you.
  • Counterplay – Counterplay means there is room for your opponent to outplay you with what they are provided. In League of Legends, this commonly gets confused with building certain items to counter things, when in reality it is focused on moment to moment gameplay and the ability to fight back regardless of build.
  • Teamplay – Teamplay is where a team comes together to bolster their strengths, cover weaknesses, or simply work together toward winning the game. In League of Legends, this is focused around having team compositions need to provide certain roles to the game. Despite denial from pro players, this also exists in competitive Halo, where players' playstyles provide roles similar to a MOBA's “tank” “carry” or “support” roles.
  • Clarity – Clarity is simply the presentation of information in a clear and precise way. Any important/relevant information should be communicated to the player. This won't actually be relevant for this discussion.
  • Evolution – In Riot's definition, evolution more refers to their constant addition of new mechanics or rebalancing of old ones. For the sake of this argument, it will focus on how the weapons affect an evolution of a metagame.
So first, let's start with Mastery. It will be quick to go over. Regardless of the starting weapon, there's a clear skill set related to accuracy with a gun. I'm not going to argue either choice has an outright greater skill ceiling, but I will point out that, assuming the Pistol has a shorter red reticule range than the BR – then pistol fights at medium range (for example, health pack/BR to Carbine on Shrine) or longer become more about the player's dexterity rather than the game's assistance. Based off the H5 beta, the Pistol was capable at Medium range. Less so at longer. The BR, on the other hand, had aim assist across the entirety of Truth, leading to much easier time killing players who exposed themselves. While battles directly between the weapons in their intended range don't have much discrepancy, encouraging more skill rather than surefire kills in ranged battles is a good thing (see: Halo 3.)

Now, the tenet where I feel AR/Pistol greatly supercedes the BR: Meaningful Choices. If you spawn with a BR, you almost never have a reason to drop the BR. Your BR is love. Your BR is life. You almost never have a reason to swap to the Pistol, even if it kills faster. (Because why should I go into the range where Pistol is better?) The situations where a Pistol is better than a BR are outshined by situations where other weapons in the sandbox are better than the Pistol (why get a Pistol secondary for my BR when I could get an SMG?).

On the other hand, if you start with a Pistol, you have a much larger array of choices. Do I want to be more effective at range and sit back with long range support fire? Let me drop my AR or Pistol for a BR or DMR. Do I want to push harder? Let me drop my AR for an SMG. I can't push now, should I drop my SMG for something else? Because of the more limited range of engagement with your Pistol start (but again, still more than capable in most regards, especially once the recoil/flinch are removed), you have more room to shape your ability in combat. You have clear tradeoffs of effectiveness at long range versus effectiveness at close range based off which weapon you choose to pursue. The pistol is strong, and a very capable Utility weapon. But maybe you just like to play passive. You can bet players like Roy or APG are going to be in your face with their Pistol, though. Fuck your slow-killing BR!

Counterplay. Now, this is where all the pro-BR supporters will chime in “HEY IF YOU SPAWN WITH BRS YOU CAN FIGHT ANY RANGE OFF SPAWN BUT IF YOU SPAWN WITH PISTOL YOU CAN'T HAHA, BR IS BETTER RIGHT?” But again, this is where you're overlooking the fact that... oh, hey, the pistol's actually decent at medium range. You CAN fight back off spawn. Even on big, open maps like Truth. I do have issue with the BR spawning P2 and DMRs in the bubbles, rather than being closer to the safe spawning areas to readily equip a player to fight back off spawn, but in general, the weapons are in positions where players can reach them without dying, and use the amount of maneuverability tools available in H5 to fight back. Granted, yes, BR starts are marginally better with regards to counterplay than AR/Pistol starts would be, assuming a situation like H2/H3 where one team has secured BR/DMRs and the other are all dead. This discrepancy is more mitigated by map design and weapon placement, however. Keep rifles out of power positions and the players in them have reason to move – whether it be that they ran out of ammo, or that they didn't already have a rifle. Imagine back to my Halo 2 example of Lockout's BRs spawned BR1, Elbow, and Top Blue instead, or Warlocks spawned at the bottoms of the ramps, rather than on the Plats. You've instantly better equipped the “losing” side to fight back. Combine that with the fact the non-BR weapons are already comparatively stronger than they were in H2, and you've brought the gap to a manageable ratio.

As I said in the bullets, Clarity doesn't really relate to this argument. The only relation to clarity would be for casual viewers who tune into a competitive stream and wonder “why are they spawning with different weapons than I spawn with in matchmaking?” but given Halo's tiny viewership currently, I don't believe this to be a relevant issue worth worrying about at the current time.

Now regarding the Evolution of the game. I've written in the past about how I believe movement to be the most important aspect of a competitive game. (That even applies to competive card games, where the only things moving are resources.) Longer range weapons promote more stale gameplay. We'll probably never see DMR starts ever again, but DMR starts on large maps in Halo Reach provided absurdly stale games, because players simply couldn't push anywhere without being melted. (Note, competitive people, I'm referring to BTB here, not MLG). Hemorrhage was a joke that relied entirely on Wraith and Sniper usage to get anything done, because they were the only things that could fight from outside the range of a DMR or without dying instantly.

How does that relate to the BR / AR+Pistol argument? Tangentially. Maps with more open sightlines (see: Truth) lead to slower gameplay when the player is more equipped to fight at range. If you can't poke out without being chunked, you don't want to move. If you don't want to move, the game becomes a stalemate. Stalemate games, while they highlight a different skillset than the faster paced variety, also give an advantage to the underdog. Take Pit TS for example in Halo 3. More upsets happened on that gametype than any other. Not because “oh, this team was actually better all along” but because stalemates make it easier to keep an advantage. If no one's able to manage a pick-off, the stalemate keeps going until a viable power weapon or power-up breaks it (Prophet's Bane not really good vs BRs, btw.) If you got a lead in Pit TS, you kept that lead until Rockets respawned unless you just fed kills to the enemy Sniper. If you got the next set of Rockets, you probably kept the lead and won. No one was going to push you while they didn't have rockets unless their Sniper got a pick-off.

With AR+Pistol, although the Pistol's kill time is faster, it requires more care and precision to get those all-the-way-across-map kills. (But in terms of base-to-tower, it's much more reasonable.) If you have the Prophet's Bane you can sprint and thrust and actually move from cover to cover without being melted from multiple angles. You're encouraged to move and push! With more movement, there's more room for in-the-moment decision making (more meaningful choices?!) and much more excitement factor spread through the course of the game.

Additionally, with regards to Evolution (off the topic of movement now), there's more room for player identity, tying back into the choices a player makes. Aggressive slayers like APG, Roy, or Ninja who like to rush constantly will likely prefer the fast kill times of a Pistol over the sit-and-wait approach of a BR. On the other hand, zone control-focused players like Ogre 2 will likely prefer weapons more equipped to fight at range. They find their comfortable corner of the map and position in a place where they can put shots on anyone anywhere they feel like. They'll go hunting for BRs or DMRs. Sniper players on maps without the Sniper may hunt for a DMR for the “next best thing” in marksmanship, disregarding their pistol entirely. This ties into the tenet I realize I skipped in my ranting... Teamplay. Individual playstyles have more room for “role” identification, and teammates may cover gaps created by a player's choice in equipment. The more open the sandbox is, the more the kids will get to play in it.

That pretty much covers all I wanted to say. AR/Pistol offers more meaningful choices and room for evolution as a whole and as an individual, with a comparatively small sacrifice to available counterplay (the main area that forced BR starts in past titles in the first place).

AR/Pistol Starts for Competitive Halo 5, Audley for Color Commentator 2015. Jet fuel can't melt dank memes.

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