Every once in a while, we run into moments in games that are just incredibly well-designed all around. We might not realize it exactly or why it’s well-designed, but we know these moments are really, really fun. Those of us interested in game-design can look at moments like these as examples; not to copy, but as inspiration. They have elements that make them so great, and we can pick apart these elements to see what makes these moments so fun.
The first I can think of is my all-time favourite part of Halo: Combat Evolved (the first one). At the end of the map Two Betrayals, in order to get to a platform high off the ground, we need to grab a Covenant Banshee (the flying vehicle, for those who have never played the game). We continue through this frozen canyon to find one and run into a battle between a decent-sized Flood force and the largest Covenant defensive position we’ve seen so far. We can clearly see a pair of Banshees at the back, but have to somehow get through this massive enemy force to get it. It’s incredibly tricky to pull off, and I’ll be talking about this as though playing on the highest difficulty setting, Legendary (mostly because I just recently beat this on Legendary myself and haven’t touched it on any other setting in years). To describe the Covenant position, you have a firing line of Jackals and Grunts with a single Shade turret up front, some Elite Majors behind them, and a Wraith mortar tank on each side flanking the main body of the force. At some point, some Elite Ossoona (Stealth Elites. Yes, that’s what they’re called) move out to harass you as you begin your attack. When you’ve either destroyed enough or gotten close enough (it seemed to vary, when I played), a pair of Hunters, some more Grunts and a pair of Elite Zealots run from the back to reinforce.
From the start of the encounter, we are given a great introduction as to what we’re up against. We have a wave of Flood attacking this position we have to assault, and it gets wiped out in about a minute under a rain of needler and plasma mortar fire. At several points in this map before this, we see waves of Flood wiping out Covenant defensive positions without much contest, so we immediately see the potential challenge of this. We can also clearly see fire from a fixed turret and two Wraith mortar tanks among other small(er) arms fire, so we have useful test-dummies to show what we’re actually up against. One of the big problems with giving the player a challenge like this is that he often has to run in and die at least once before he knows exactly what it is, but here they found a nice way around that issue.
Related to the Flood attacking the position, we are also given necessary tools for the attack, mostly dropped by Flood Combat Forms but there’s a weapons cache not too far away. We have a sniper rifle with four full clips, about twenty rockets for a rocket launcher, a Ghost light strike vehicle (yes, it’s possible to get it up that short ledge), and as many frag grenades, plasma grenades, assault rifle, pistol and shotgun rounds as we can carry. Before this, Flood Combat Forms carrying rocket launchers are the most annoying things in the game (it was a very luck-based instant-loss, before this. See why I don’t like glass-cannons?), but now we can appreciate them as a source of ammo. Without them, we wouldn’t have nearly enough rockets to destroy the Wraith tanks. It’s a good way of repurposing an extremely-annoying enemy into something useful.
My favourite part of this encounter is that the game doesn’t actually care what we do anyway. The game makes sure we can’t bring a Banshee from a previous area (which is good, because I don’t think anyone would want to skip this) but otherwise it leaves us free to attack this section however we want. We could try to make a stealthy beeline for one of the Banshees to get in and out without a fight (it has worked for me once, years ago, I swear to God). We could actually try wiping out the entire position before trying to get the Banshee. We could destroy the Wraiths first, or ignore them and kill the Elites. We could use the rocket launcher for that, or the sniper rifle or anything else we wanted, as long as it worked. This section is what Crysis really tried to be; it gives you an objective, a challenge and the tools to work and lets you loose to complete it how you want.
As I’ve said before, it’s very difficult to actually beat this section. Even having a great plan for what to do, it still took me four tries to complete. For example, while I was trying to snipe the Wraith tanks with rockets, the Ossoona surprised and killed me before I could get back to cover. It’s very honest and up-front about why it’s difficult; you always know exactly why you died, and how you might get past it the next time. The only possible exception to this is when the reinforcements appear, they simply weren’t there before and could easily take you by surprise, but it’s balanced by the fact that the Hunters and Zealots are very easily spotted anyway.
More than anything else, though, it’s satisfying! You went up against a massive enemy force and got out with what you needed! More than that, you completed it yourself! While I would hate to get on a soapbox and talk about the crippling issues with the games of kids today, a lot of games today don’t have this sense of accomplishment because of a lack of some of these factors. Either it gives you a very obvious way to beat the encounter, or it’s not challenging enough or something else. This section of the game lets you, the player deal with it yourself. Even better, you can easily tell what your objective is, without any hand-holding objective displays or non-player characters telling you what to do.
While I wouldn’t like if anything outright copied this part of the game, I really hope to see more sections like this used. Too often, these days, games give you a moment that is supposed to be really fun and epic, but they expect you to do this or that specific thing to get through it. In games like this that give you the freedom to do something yourself, it’s always far more satisfying from the player’s perspective to give them the tools to accomplish what they need to and let them do it themselves.