The Curious Case of Halo's Co-op Campaigning

So my wife and I have been playing co-op through the campaign. We play a lot of co-op (thankfully, her skill more than makes up for my own incompetence), and so have experience with many various systems of co-op implementation. Last night, it struck me, as we had to load from a "Rally Point Bravo" instead of resuming progress from where we left off on Tuesday, that Halo's co-op system is absolutely archaic and that it is incomprehensible that 343i did not think it important to improve the old Bungie system.

If you play a single player Halo campaign, you progress as you do in any checkpoint based save system. You can quit at any time, even mid-chapter, and resume pretty much where you left off, only being relegated to the last passed checkpoint. These checkpoints are fairly generous given the length of each level, so if you have to leave the game during an unfinished level, you generally don't find that you have to redo much of your progress.

These checkpoints appear in a co-op campaign, but they are not tied to saved co-op progress for the purposes of stopping and restarting. The only purpose they serve is to provide a starting point if all co-op players die at the same time. But, if those same players exit back to the main menu, unlike the single player campaign (or countless other co-op campaign games), they are not given the option of resuming progress.

Anyway, last night, when we tried to resume progress (having forgotten in the interim of Gears 3, Borderlands 2, and even games liked Hunted: The Demon's Forge and LOTR:War in the North, how Halo's co-op campaign "un"progress worked) we had to start at the generically named "Rally Point Bravo" (telling us nothing of what part of the level that was). Not only did we find we had lost approximately 30-40 minutes of progress (yes, both of us are shameless scavangers and level explorers), but when we did get to the end, neither of us has the "shield award" showing that we ever finished the level.

The absence of a resume co-op progress function is inexplicable. In Halo 3 and Reach, Bungie did include an arcade scoring type mode. The mechanics regarding co-op progress can kind of make sense in an arcade scoring mode, although not using a resume progress model for non-arcade scoring campaign sessions is still baffling, except that through 2007's Halo 3, online co-op campaigning was still a fairly new feature, especially for consoles. 343i, however, has removed the arcade scoring mode (another strange co-op unfriendly choice, as is the removal of firefight, the ultimate co-op gaming mode), making its decision to not revisit the lobby and save mechanics of the co-op campaign all the more odd. Simply put, it just isn't co-op friendly.

The lack of a resume progress feature is the worst offender, but other legacy design choices, made by Bungie when Halo was still evolving along with the Xbox console, exist that 343i should really consider when desinging Halo 5's co-op campaign experience. There are more than a few areas where the forward progress of one character will pull a character forward in a very shockingly abrupt manner. Often, these areas are not well identified, so very often the co-op player advancing has no idea that they will be dragging the other player forward. This can be a real issue, for example, when, after an extended firefight, the player hanging back is doing so because they are scavanging for weapons and ammo and they are teleported in front of a door that immediately closes behind them barring a return to the scavanging area.

Even stranger, this immersion ripping transition will often happen even when the co-op player is a step or two behind. The lead player will pass an invisible (to the players) geography marker that will quite jarringly teleport the second player forward a few steps in front of the player they were just trailing. I cannot fathom why resolving this issue has not been explored given that many of today's open world games allow more individualized exploration and autonomy than Halo's corridor crawl.

Getting back to the checkpoint save progress system, because of the way it works, it treats single player campaign deaths in exactly the same manner as if the player exited to the main menu and resumed progress. The practical effect of this is that when a player dies in a single player campaign session, the player resumes exactly in the situation they were in when they passed the last checkpoint. That moment is frozen in time until over-written by the next checkpoint snapshot. Therefore, the player has exactly the same loadout that they had when thy passed the checkpoint, not necessarily that they had when they died, because they may have picked up some weapon or armor ability in the interim, but they will still have the weapons they were with at the time the checkpoint snapshot was taken.

In co-op campaigning, this system works the same way only if the co-op players die at the same time, reverting the party to that last passed checkpoint. If only one player dies, however, that player will respawn. When the player respawns, rather than having the loadout they had when they died, or even the same loadout that they had when they last passed a checkpoint, the player respawns with a generic (and often underpowered) loadout containing weapons they may not have touched since they dropped them at the beginning of the level. This issue, at least, is mitigated by the fact that you can usually find your lost weapons on the ground where you died.

Finally, what strikes me as the most odd design decision was the change that 343i actually did make, the redesign minimilaized Halo main menu screen. Halo 3 had a great lobby system that applied to all its game modes. It is an extrordinarily user friendly lobby that I have been astounded other multiplayer games have not copied (CoD, Battlefield, etc), and was grateful when other games did borrow it outright or at least elements of it (Gears 2 and 3, Borderlands 2). Although some pieces of it exist in H4, it is not as user friendly a system, nor as immediately informative, as Halo 3 and Reach's lobbies. It looks great, but form without function is meaningless. Granted, we have only used it twice, so we are not used to it, but it was strange to have to adapt to that as a step-back, when so many other co-op unfriendly legacy design decisions were retained.

That being said, I am really enjoying the game (even if it plays as the greatest hits of Halo 1, 2 and 3 campaign). It is fun. A whole lot of fun. It's just that the fun still comes with a side-helping of frustration attributable only to out-dated, unrevised mechanics.

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