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Vintage to Retro: An FPS Q & A series - FrostyXen

This interview for "Vintage to Retro" is with FrostyXen. Despite having his own YouTube channel, he's also a world record-holder for Doom Eternal. I've also interviewed him about Doom Eternal before. This time, we'll be talking about the Halo series.

This series, "FPS: From Vintage to Retro," interviews FPS players and developers. In terms of vintage FPS, the series covers includes single-player "Doom clones" and Build titles; to multiplayer frag-fests like Doom deathmatch, Quake arenas, and Unreal Tournament(s); to "pure," arcade-style shooters, "looter shooters" and FPS-RPG hybrids. In terms of retro FPS, it examines Dusk, Ion Fury and Prodeus, as well as Nightdive Studios' latter-day revival of classic FPS.

Click here to access the entire series and read about its research goals.

Nick: Before we dive into Halo, a brief refresher for our audience: Frosty, Halo 3 is your favorite game of all time, but you've also played Doom EternalCall of Duty and Team Fortress 2? Are there any other major FPS I'm leaving out that you'd highly recommend?

FrostyXen:  I don’t have any niche FPS titles that I could recommend wholeheartedly since I’m kinda picky with the games I play but I’ll throw out the original Doom games which still play amazingly despite their age. Also Bioshock 2, which is underrated since it couldn’t live up to the original in terms of story, but the gameplay is a lot more fun in my opinion; still, other aspects like level design and soundtrack can rival the original.

Single-player Campaigns

Nick: The campaign modes are single-player, but also allow for multiple human players inside a given squad.  How does this set-up fare against campaigns for predominantly online multiplayer FPS games like Call of DutyBattlefield and Medal of Honor

FrostyXen: In the games you’ve mentioned, they lack co-op in the main campaign which is present in other game modes like "Zombies" or "Spec Ops" in MW2. Due to this, Halo is still unique with a duo or group being able to play through the campaign, and it allows for some of the best gaming moments. Whether it be you and your brother fighting through a horde on "Flood" for the first time in Halo 1, or a group of friends falling off constantly while trying to complete the "Annual Vidmaster" challenge, it makes for unique experiences which people cherish for years.

Nick: What about regarding difficulty modes?

FrostyXen: For difficulty, it’s simple. You now have a buddy to help you along, and deaths won’t mean an instant revert to the last checkpoint. Along with the extra firepower that comes from another player as opposed to relying on the AI, it makes the game a lot easier to overcome, especially on harder difficulties where peeking out of cover for a second could mean death.

Nick: Do any of those franchises have single-player campaigns that come close to those seen in Halo—in terms of gameplay, but also lore? 

FrostyXen: Definitely not, at least not initially. The original CoD games and those similar to it were meant to be boots-on-the-ground, depicted in wars where your player character had to rely on your squad as opposed to being a one-man-army like Halo and older games. CoD eventually leaned towards becoming a power fantasy for several entries until CoD WWII came out which was similar to its origins.

As for lore, the answer is "no" as well. Battlefield and Medal of Honor are mostly based on the real world, with Call of Duty having similar origins before moving towards the future; but none of them could match the unique setting of Halo, which has more similarities to Star Wars and Star Trek than any video game setting at the time.


Nick: How does the overall plot fare—against your speedrunner raison d'etre, Doom Eternal, but also against Halo

FrostyXen: The modern Doom storyline has nothing on the classic Halo trilogy. After recently replaying Doom 2016 and being very familiar with the story of Doom Eternal and "The Ancient God Part 1 & 2" from the countless hours I’ve played, everything just feels so disjointed. Most, if not all, the plot points established in Doom 2016—like Samuel Hayden betraying the Doom Slayer—were almost entirely dropped in Doom Eternal, and "The Ancient Gods" just seemed like it rushed through everything to have a completely new start at whatever new Doom game comes out which is severely disappointing. The Dark Lord—the ultimate baddie of the modern Doom games who is hinted at constantly in the codex entries—gets revived and dies in a three mission expansion pack. Spoilers, but with the constant retcons—like Hell actually being the original world and the Dark Lord being God, along with characters becoming nothing more than exposition dumpsters during cutscenes and missions—I’m just completely over the "modern" Doom story, which is a shame because it had a lot of potential.

At least for the Bungie era of Halo games, everything felt very connected and flowed beautifully. I’ve replayed Halo 1 to Halo 3 many times over the years and while there are some issues in the story like several deaths in Halo 3 which I have issues with, I was always immersed in the story and lore and would watch cutscenes even though I’ve seen them dozens of times. Sure, they weren’t deep stories but I would always be immersed by the presentation of the story being told.

Nick: Which Halo game has the best story in your eyes?

FrostyXen: Story-wise, it’d either have to be Halo 2 or Halo 3: ODST. Halo 2’s expansion of the Halo universe—from new characters like the Arbiter, knowledge of how both the Covenant and the Flood operate and the leaders of both factions—is staggering compared to the limited lore that was present in Halo 1. The story 2 told had lots of potential and I really enjoyed the Arbiter’s part and the Schism between the Elites and the rest of the Covenant, but development issues held the story back and I would love to see what it could have been like if there wasn’t so many problems at Bungie during Halo 2’s development.

I am a massive fan of small-scale stories, which is why I really like Halo 3: ODST. The focus on the characters trying to escape New Mombasa—especially after the other games solely focused on Master Chief’s fight to save humanity—was a very nice change of pace, and the Rookie’s characterization through his action like fiddling with the clues you find throughout the game was also really well-done. ...And I would be lying if I said I didn’t want an Engineer plush.


Nick: Bungie's franchise is famous for its music, though especially the main theme. How does the music affect the campaign for you? Is there a lot of nostalgia tied up in those tunes?

FrostyXen: The music is half the experience of the campaign for me

  • the ominous-but-curious tune which plays during the opening scene of Halo Combat Evolved, where the Pillar of Autumn approach the Halo ring;
  • the guitar blaring as you’re hunting down the Heretic leader in Halo 2
  • the iconic Warthog Run playing as you escape the self-destructing Halo ring
  • the sad piano accompanying you as you roamed New Mombasa looking for your squad
Even Halo 4 had amazing tracks, with the last mission with a personal highlight: "Arrival" during the final mission as you travel between platforms to stop the Didact. 

Music is what makes Halo campaigns so iconic and it just wouldn’t be the same without the masterful work of Martin O'Donnell during the Bungie-era games; and Neil Davidge and Kazumi Jinnouchi, who both worked together to develop Halo 4’s soundtrack. There is a ton of nostalgia for these tunes—from the bombastic to the emotional, they’re iconic for a reason and I’ll always remember them.

Nick: Some games, like Overwatch and Counterstrike Go, don't have single-player campaigns at all. Is having a good single-player campaign something you think an FPS should have, or should it be skipped if it isn't a priority and is only going to be half-assed by the devs?

FrostyXen: It should be skipped if it isn’t a priority by the devs. For example, Overwatch lacked a campaign, but had PVE events like the Junkenstein wave defense and Archives; these were fun at first, but are just slogs to replay for achievements. The reusing of multiplayer maps for a purpose they were not designed for made for dull encounters after the first time, with very little player creativity with how they can tackle the enemies. Speaking of the enemy, they are just bad; the grunts might as well just be waiting to die, while the higher tier enemies are bullet sponges which can kill you in a blink of an eye. Very not fun.

Campaigns should be the sole focus for a team to design around. Ideally the sandbox and design levels should be able to be replayed multiple times and still remain fun. 


Nick: How do single-player campaigns in Halo 2 and 3 hold up against purely single-player FPS—games like Doom, Half-life or Quake, where the player is predominantly a one-man-army?

FrostyXen: While I still consider Halo a one-man-army type of game like old shooters (considering you are a super soldier among regular marines), the presence of friendly AI does change the experience. From running alongside you in large scale battles, insulting you for giving them a Magnum for their Rocket Launcher, or cheering as you make a sick jump while driving a Warthog, AI make a player no longer feel alone in levels full of enemies (which was the standard since Wolfenstein 3D).

The friendly AI also helps with the immersion of the game. Seeing marines struggle to take down an Elite makes the player feel powerful, since they can take out scores of Covenant without breaking a sweat!

Nick: What's your favorite map or level in Halo 2 and 3, and what makes each so memorable?

FrostyXen: My favorite level of Halo 2 is split between "Delta Halo" and "Gravemind." I played Halo 2 first so "Delta Halo" was the first time I landed on a Halo ring. The intro cutscene with Master Chief and a group of ODSTs dropping onto the ring, as well as him pulling out a Rocket Launcher at the end, was a favorite of mine. I also really enjoy vehicle combat in Halo just because of how much of a god you feel in the more powerful vehicles (re: tanks).

As for "Gravemind," it was just so memorable. Being in the Covenant home world for the first time just as the Schism is happening—meaning you run into Elites and Brutes battling throughout the level—was amazing to play through. Even so, I might have to give "Delta Halo" the win solely due to my experience of playing "Gravemind" on LASO for the achievement in The Master Chief Collection—that was just painful!

For Halo 3, it's "The Covenant" hands down. No competition. Best level of the whole franchise. The vehicle combat, the music, the set pieces. Pure perfection. The only gripe I have nowadays is Miranda dying for no reason, but the same cutscene gave us “Then you must be silenced” which makes up for it in my mind. I could replay that mission over and over (and I did speedrun it for a few days to reach the top ten ranking for Legendary on The Master Chief Collection).

Nick: Does Halo 4 still have a solid single-player campaign, despite you comparing the game to Call of Duty?

FrostyXen: Halo 4 has the most emotional story of the franchise—with the death of Cortana and the awakening of Master Chief’s humanity. For once, the whole “saving the world” plot felt barely important to “saving someone you knew for years” and watching her deteriorating over the course of the game before dying at the end was the biggest gut punch the series ever pulled. No other death in the series could compare to the emotional response Cortana’s got from me.

...And then they brought her back as the bad guy in Halo 5, so there's that!


Multiplayer

Nick: Halo 2 was console-based, but enabled online multiplayer through Xbox live. As did Halo 3. How did the experience of each game fare online, and how long did you play them before moving to new FPS titles online? 

FrostyXen: For the record, I was WAY too young to be playing Halo multiplayer! Like, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t even reached 10 years old by the time I was getting destroyed in public lobbies in Halo 2, so my experience probably means nothing. As far as I remember, it was fine for all the Halo games. Laggy games were rare and matchmaking was fine, but again, I was way too young to properly remember any of it!


Nick: Was there anything else that 3 improved over 2 for you in terms of a multiplayer experience?

FrostyXen: The lack of button combos like "BXR" made it so that I would actually stand a chance in matchmaking, and the new playlists like Action Sack, Infection, and Grifball made it so that I wouldn’t have to play Team Slayer 24/7 because I hated objective game types.

I’m aware of the latency issues that Halo 3 has but as a kid, I never noticed it and enjoyed finally being able to get a positive KDR in a Halo game for the first time.


Nick: You mention that Halo 4 copied Call of Duty. How so, and how was Halo 2 and 3 different than Halo 4 in terms of the multiplayer experience each game offered? 

FrostyXen: It basically copied the loadout and killstreak system from Call of Duty (which every game was doing at the time, to be fair). It basically gimped the weapon balance due to many weapons like the Battle Rifle, Assault Rifle, and Carbine all having to perform similarly due to the loadout system; so their defining features were stripped away. Power weapon and map control was less important due to the Ordinance system, which allowed for players to spawn power weapons wherever they were. 

While I still enjoy Halo 4 multiplayer, the change from the classic Halo arena towards an amalgamation of Halo and Call of Duty makes me understand why many fans dropped the franchise after this game.



Nick: Were Halo 2 and 3 "better" for making their multiplayer experiences different than Call of Duty? How did they achieve this?

FrostyXen: Since Halo’s multiplayer was the more popular format until Call of Duty 4, I guess the question should be reversed. 

This being said, Halo definitely benefited from the multiplayer design! Before Halo, most games copied arena shooters like Quake—with fast-moving characters with precise weapons that made it a pain to play on console. So Bungie lowered the speed of players, made hitboxes wider, and the additions of aim assist and bullet magnetism, while also carrying over some mechanics from arena shooters such as power weapon control and game modes like Capture the Flag. All of these combined made for an addictive multiplayer experience, which got way more popular with Halo 2 once system link with Xbox Live was established.

Nick: How does the skill ranking system compare to more modern FPS like Call of Duty?

FrostyXen: Modern skill ratings usually have groups like Bronze, Silver, Gold, etc, which are further categorized into rankings inside those placements such as Overwatch’s SR or League of Legends’ numbered ranks such as Gold V or Silver II.

Halo’s skill rank system was far more simple, but also more complex. It went from 1-50, and you would either gain or lose a level depending on your matches; but sometimes, you could win several matches and not rank up and vice versa, you could not lose your rank after several losses due to a hidden ranking system that determined how quickly you would change ranks. This just made it confusing for most players, which is why I’m glad ranking systems nowadays are far more clear.


Nick: How about multiplayer combat in Halo 5?

FrostyXen: Halo 5’s multiplayer is good because it went in the complete opposite direction of Halo 4’s casual-based multiplayer. It do so by pandering to the competitive side of Halo, and I enjoyed the brief time I had with it. 

However, after grinding the Arena and Warzone with no Custom Game Browser (at the time), I just stopped playing after a few weeks and never returned to it (despite updates constantly adding new things). I also just stopped enjoying multiplayer games at that point. Recently, I’ve only been able to enjoy a multiplayer game for a month at most before it just becomes boring and I need to take a break from it—perhaps for weeks to months before coming back to and have fun again. This is the reason why I mostly play single-player games nowadays.

Nick: I came across this study while watching a reddit video on r/Niceguys. In a nutshell, the actual study cites that male losers in Halo 3 are mean to female players. 

How aggressive to you remember players being on Halo multiplayer, especially towards female players?

FrostyXen: I was a squeaker. I was the annoying kid that blasted people’s headphones and tried acting funny. I also had a Harry Potter related gamertag because I was playing on my brother’s account so yeah, I got a lot of people yelling at me! Deservedly, and I was far too much of a coward to yell back so I just stopped playing with my mic which remained the case until I started playing TF2 (where I was still a slightly less annoying squeaker).

As for female players, yeah of course [they experience more aggression from male players]. But I think gamers, especially during this time, would use literally anything to insult you. For example, my brother eventually changed his gamertag to reflect our Korean heritage. You can probably imagine what colorful comments I received. Whether it's your race, age, gender, people would use ANYTHING to insult you, and if you didn’t have something obvious to make fun of, they’d just call you "fat" or "gay" or something stupid like that.

Nick: In my own case, my username on BattleNet is "Chozogirl86" (a Metroid reference) and I got hit on a lot, or insulted for "being a girl playing games," even though I'm actually a 34-year old guy. Do you think that's something that happens across online games, but especially competitive FPS games—female gamers getting hit-on by their male teammates, or insulted?

FrostyXen: It’s just internet anonymity that gives toxic people like that the ability to insult anyone that makes them upset. No one on the internet would have the guts to say in real life half the stuff they type online, but due to no consequences being present, they’re allowed to go HAM on whatever comes to mind. 

As for girls, there’s just a good amount of misogynistic/lonely people that use the rare chance of meeting a girl on the internet to say whatever's on their mind.

Weapons, Vehicles, Controls

Nick: The Halo titles were slated for launch exclusively on Xbox, with delayed releases on PC. This meant the game was intended and designed played on controllers first. Did you play the game on controllers, and do you still; or does it ultimately play better on a mouse and keyboard?

FrostyXen: I initially played the games on a controller but after years of playing with keyboard and mouse, it’s how I play Halo as well. I prefer KB+M, but the heavy aim assist on the PC version of MCC leads to most players playing on controller just for the advantage. Still, I find myself still keeping up with controller players.


Nick: How does the Halo experience handle on a controller compared to other games like Doom or Overwatch?

FrostyXen: Halo was designed for controllers as opposed to games like Doom and Overwatch where you can play with controllers. The fastest enemies were the Elite and Flood Combat Form, but they make up with this for the Elite having a big hitbox with limited fast movement, usually a leap or a dive; meanwhile Flood Combat Form have low HP and typically run at you in a straight line. Even with the addition of faster enemies like Drones and Skirmishers, those enemies had low HP and moments where they stopped moving for players to shoot them. 

Furthermore, controls in Halo were simplified by limiting players to two weapons. So a simple button press was needed as opposed to sifting through a menu or cycling through a half dozen weapons to get to the one you wanted to use. Shooting, melee, and grenades were all given their own button so they were all easily accessible at any time, forming the golden triangle which many FPS emulate to this day. Conversely Overwatch and Doom feature faster and smaller enemies. This makes it a struggle to hit them. Controls are also not as simplified, especially with Doom where the use of the weapon wheel on console is mandatory.

Halo knew the limitations of aiming on a controller and they worked very hard to develop a system which made aiming actually feel good on console—a feat very few games at the time could boast. This system went on to become the benchmark of the genre.

Nick: The weapons for each faction have pros and cons. Some don't overheat, while others need to reload and damage shields less effectively. How does this approach to weapon balance compare to games like those in the Doom franchise, where each weapon has a singular function and ammo type (re: they're not in competition with each other)?

FrostyXen: Due to the limitation of two weapons, this encouraged players to mix and match different weapon combos to see what worked well in different arenas. While there are combos which are busted like the "noob combo" (re: BR/DMR + Plasma Pistol), it’s fun to pick which weapons you’ll be carrying into each encounter—especially if you've memorized the levels and know exactly which weapons will be the best. Even so, the system is not perfect; you’ll be mostly sticking with precision weapons, regardless of faction. 

Doom weapons—at least in the classic games—are probably more balanced than Halo weapons; precision weapons just dominate automatic weapons, and "power" weapons are meant to be stronger than those. Also, most Doom weapons, excepting the pistol, have their uses in different scenarios.


Nick: How much does jumping factor into Halo's gameplay? How does it compare to titles like Quake, Doom 2016 or Eternal, or other FPS franchises you've played?

FrostyXen: Besides "Gandhi jumping," it’s not recommended to jump in PvP since you’ll be forced into the direction you’re jumping towards, leading to the enemy easily predicting where you’ll end up.

In the campaign, I like to think that jumping makes it harder for enemies to hit me, but I rarely jump during combat (which is probably why I never jump in Doom Eternal. Instead, I'm mostly dashing around as opposed to double jumping constantly).

Nick: How important were vehicles in multiplayer, and did they ever feel cheap to use or frustrating to play against?

FrostyXen: Absolutely. Vehicles allowed most players to feel powerful even if they weren’t that good at the gunplay, allowing the casual audience to enjoy the game. Big team battles just wouldn’t be the same without Warthogs and Wraiths roaming the battlefield!

I never thought they ever felt "cheap" due to vehicles being a lot more fragile than expected. Many vehicles had the driver exposed, which allowed targeted fire to take down the driver. Power weapons like the Rocket Launcher and Spartan Laser allowed for easy counterplay against these threats. So it was up to the person/people using the vehicles to kill as many people as possible while avoiding dangers like rockets or plasma pistol charged shots.


Nick: Provided the player was skillful enough, could they make any weapon set up work in Halo 2 or 3 multiplayer? Does the game really let the player style on their opponents if they're good enough?

FrostyXen: Not really. In most exchanges, precision weapons will beat out automatics if the person wielding the precision weapon could land their headshots; likewise, power weapons will beat out any normal weapon (no amount of "Gandhi hopping" will protect you against a rocket launcher).

As for styling, there are techniques like "ninja assassinations" where you jump over an enemy’s head and hit them at the back for a one shot, but other than "no-scopes" and long-range sticky throws, there aren’t many stylish things you could pull off since engagements are so quick.

Nick: Health in Halo: Combat Evolved did not regenerate; health does regenerate in Halo 2 and 3. Is this generally a straight improvement in terms of the combat, in your eyes?

FrostyXen: Yes, 100% yes. If you’re stuck at low health on Halo CE Legendary, you could be stuck at that checkpoint for dozens of resets. Honestly the health system is one of the reasons I rarely replay Halo CE vs the other Halo games. Even Halo: Reach’s system improves on the system by adding a lot more health kits throughout fights and having health regenerate to certain points.

Legacy

Nick: Are there any retro, modern FPS that successfully emulate the squad-based combat, weapons, and vehicles from the classic Halo games?

FrostyXen: None really come to mind. Maybe the original Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (re: its wide range of weaponry and different classes, as well as the seamless transition of entering a vehicle) but that’s about it. 

Nick: What about Halo 2 (2005) and encourages you to play them years later, if you still do? In other words, what keeps you coming back?

FrostyXen: Before the MCC released on PC, I would come back to the MCC on the Xbox One every year or two to replay through all the games on Heroic. It’s mostly for nostalgia at this point—I know every arena and cutscene like the back of my hand—but they’re still really enjoyable to play through!

Ever since the MCC was released on Steam, I haven’t gone back to replay through the entire line-up; I've been playing through the games on a more consistent basis so they've lost their special charm of going back to them every year. Despite this, I still enjoy going through the games from time to time—especially levels, which I truly love (re: "The Covenant" from Halo 3).



Nick: Is there anything you'd change about the old Halo games, having played more recent FPS?

FrostyXen: Despite their flaws, I would not change a thing. Each game has its positives and negatives but honestly, that’s what makes each game unique; I still love playing all of the games in the MCC.

Nick: Before being purchased by Microsoft, Halo was originally a 3rd person real-time strategy game, comparable to Bungie's older RTS, the Myth series. Would you be curious to see it evolve more towards that direction?

FrostyXen: I would not. One, I prefer Halo sticking to what it did best as opposed to trying to replicate success from the past; two, it wouldn’t even be the original Bungie developers who would make this change. It would be the people of 343 Industries, picked from other studios like Bioware.


Nick: Why does Halo rank so much higher for you than other FPS you've played, like Call of Duty and Team Fortress 2?

FrostyXen: Mostly for nostalgia points. I don’t feel the same way if I went back to play the MW2 campaign or TF2 lobbies as I did back then; hearing the Halo music as I boot up the MCC never fails to send shivers down my spine. 

Nick: For you, what's the biggest legacy of the Halo series on modern FPS? Is it Microsoft creating a team-based FPS series played largely on controllers, or was there something else equally as ambitious and impressive about it in your eyes?

FrostyXen: A lot of people are ignorant to how influential Halo was to the current landscape of gaming. It literally defined a subgenre of gaming, making the console FPS a massive success (with only Goldeneye on the N64 coming close).

Halo CE redefined what a console FPS—was with their stellar weapon, enemy, and movement design which are still being used to this day. The same goes for Halo 2’s multiplayer component, which laid the groundwork for the future of multiplayer games going forward. Halo 3—while not completely revolutionizing the game industry—has community features which are still absent from most games: theatre, custom games, and mapmaking. These helped extended the game’s life for years.

After this, Halo was unable to capture the same innovation and started copying popular traits from other games. Horde Mode from Gears of War was the inspiration for Firefight, and Halo 4’s multiplayer closely resembled Call of Duty’s. Nevertheless, the fact—that the folks at Bungie were able to revolutionize how modern games are played—should absolutely be commended, and just as much as Id was for developing the first FPS and all the technological achievements they produced in the 90s.

***

About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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