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Five Minutes Of... Halo: Reach's Firefight Menus
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Five Minutes Of... Halo: Reach's Firefight Menus


December 7, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

There is artistry in putting together a truly harmonious set-up, something where your choices act in concert with each other, rather than fighting amongst themselves. That's the reward you chase while playing with the menu: the creator's pride that will result from finding a uniquely well-judged combination.

But finding it isn't trial and error, can't be trial and error. There are millions of combinations, each of which would need be tested for several rounds, each of which takes half an hour or more. Most of the rest of the lifespan of humanity could be spent balance-testing Firefight configurations. Instead, you find it through fantasy. The Firefight menu is a place of imaginary games, of rapid conceptual prototyping, where you can play dozens of a rounds a second in the privacy of your own brain. And that results in a kind of pleasure that games offer all too rarely.

Firefight's menus ask me to use my imagination. In a game which otherwise does such a good job of rendering your imagination redundant, filling your eyes and ears and hands with extraordinarily accomplished facsimiles of battle, the menu forces you do it for yourself, to find out what your own processors are capable of.

Mainstream games, chasing ever-escalating hardware capabilities, have neglected imagination of late. We've gone beyond a devotion to "show, don't tell" to be a point where we're only focused on what we can display, not what the player can see.

It's the latter, of course, that in the end matters. It's not the square of photons at one end that counts, but the pattern of neurons at the other. Firefight's menus are testament to how much players can hold in their head, about how much knowledge and extrapolation they can juggle on their own.

That in itself is a pleasure - getting to feel your brain work well can be immensely rewarding. More narcotic is that Firefight closes the loop that its menus open. The results of all this imagination, of this brain-space prototyping, is a theory: choosing those settings should result in this kind of experience.

Playing the game lets you find out whether or not you were right. It's the meta-version of something which forms a big part of the pleasure cycle in games generally: when an "aha" -- the moment when you think you've figured something out -- converts into a "yay!" of discovery that your prediction was right.

However simple the theory -- these enemies might be vulnerable to these bullets, this key might work in that door -- finding out if it's right or wrong gives you a buzz. Either the buzz of being right, or the buzz of learning something new, better to refine your theory and come back with something smarter. The Firefight menus are a banquet of these moments, not least because, these days, Halo is anything but simple.

At this stage in the series' evolution, that's fair enough, of course. Reach is not primarily designed, nor should it be, for people who've never played a Halo game before. A few of my friends, Halo-newbies but FPS veterans, have been lured to the game by some of our Firefight war stories. They're struggling a little, which isn't surprising. But there is hope. The best way to get better at Reach, of course, is to play it. But the second best way to get better, I humbly suggest, is to play its menus.

Playing Campaign puts you under continuous pressure, forcing you to make strategic decisions along side continuous skill judgements, milli-second by milli-second. It teaches you things you couldn't learn any other way. But it also denies you time to think.

It doesn't give you the opportunities to ruminate and consider, to reflect and revise your opinion of tactics or weapons or equipment use. Sitting for five minutes -- and, if I'm honest, for many five minuteses -- flicking through tabulated lists of options gives a different bit of your brain a chance to get to grips with the possibilities on offer, gives your rational brain as well as your reptile brain a chance to get up to speed.


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