[Five minutes with... is a series of investigations by former Edge magazine editor-in-chief -- and current development director of social game developer Hide&Seek -- Margaret Robertson into what five minutes of play reveals about a larger game, stepping back from all-encompassing reviews and doing some hardcore design drilling into interesting moments from interesting games.]
When I started this column, I got a lot of feedback from people who assumed it would only ever be about the first five minutes of a game. Others assumed it would be about the best five minutes, although lord knows who could ever be in charge of deciding what the best five minutes of any game are.
It was really only meant to be about five interesting minutes, and those five minutes aren't necessarily where you'd expect them to be. In Halo: Reach, those five interesting minutes aren't in the main campaign.
They aren't even in classic multiplayer, where my experience usually consists of being serially executed by contemptuous children. They aren't, to my astonishment, even in Firefight, where most of my hours are spent. No, they're in the Firefight options menu.
Firefight, as many veterans of ODST will know, is the backs-to-the-wall co-op survival mode, against pre-selected waves of Covenant troops
Reach lets you tweak almost every aspect of the experience, turning a fixed endurance test into infinite strategic pick 'n mix. On the face of it, that probably doesn't sound like much fun. Or, perhaps, even that interesting.
But that would be to seriously underestimate the fun that unfolds in these menus. Maps and spawn points are fixed, and the vanilla goal is to survive three sets of five waves of several squads of enemies, but within that everything is up for grabs. There are five two-slot gun configurations to customize, further modified by grenade and equipment settings.
The make-up of each wave and set can be fixed; skulls that modify enemy AI, physics modeling and saving rolls toggled on and off; drop-ships and hazards can be turned on and off. Literally hundreds of options, effecting every aspect of play. The result is a menu where you can spend a lot of time -- not out of necessity, but out of greedy indulgence.
Stop and think for a moment about how vast the possibility space is that this menu asks me to juggle. In Campaign, I'm making a million loadout decisions second to second, but with very limited parameters. I already have weapon A, and am facing enemies X at distance Y with cover Z. Do I want to swap weapon B with ammo K for weapon C? Finite, specific choices made under fire with no chance for reflection.
Eyeing up the different weapon loadouts, I feel like I'm contemplating a spice rack more than a gun menu. I go dead in my eyes for a moment, the way chefs do when you suggest a new flavor combination, and they briefly slip dimensions to a universe where they've already cooked and eaten your idea, before coming back with a judgement which isn't a guess, but somehow a report of a dish they've actually tasted.
In the menu, every option I look at sends a ripple through everything else. Fuel Rod Cannon plus Plasma Rifle? A quick dimension slip and my brain reports back that as a combination it's fun but silly. Useless as close range, a bit too splashy, unwise to hit the ground with two Covenant weapons I can easily harvest later if I want.
But as I think that, the massive train departure board in my head starts to clack as other options slot in to place around the idea. Silly but splashy? OK, so let's switch on Cowbell and Catch to triple the physics and double the grenades, let's have lots of grunts and lots of hunters. Let's make some mess.
And, of course, in Firefight, I'm not just choosing a static starting set-up. I'm composing a 30 minute symphony, building a score which accelerates and crescendos with lulls and climaxes -- hell, with an A theme and a B theme if I want, and reprises and reversals.