The Warthog Problem, Part 1: Killing the Fun in Firefight

I’m trying to work out whether there’s a gameplay issue to resolve in my current roleplaying games. And it’s all to do with vehicles.

I’ve known about this problem for a while – in fact, it was video games that brought it to my attention. it’s the problem of not having enough to do.

I’ve long been of the opinion that vehicle combat is overrated in games that don’t feature it as the primary gameplay mode.

I think the experience that gave my opinion shape was, of all things, the first-person shooter Halo 3; ODST, one of my favourite video games – more specifically, my favourite mode in gaming in general: Firefight.

I love Firefight. I love it so much, I wrote an article about it in the local paper. It’s pure co-operative action: you get together with up to three mates and face down wave after computer-controlled wave of Halo’s alien enemies. The challenge is to hold out as long as you can before you’re overwhelmed.

There’s a particular combat arena in Firefight called Lost Platoon. It’s a big space; a central building surrounded by steppes.

How big? See that black speck just to the left of the near-left corner of the main building? Yeah, just at the edge of the shadow. That’s my human-size avatar.

It’s big to enable the players to take control of several of the Halo Franchise’s vehicles, especially the most well known: the Warthog combat 4×4. In it, up to three players can tool across the landscape, laying waste to Grunts, Brutes and Hunters alike with its rear-mounted gatling cannon (and bullbar).

One of my clearest memories of that map is friends saying, “Come on, everyone! Get in the Warthog!” followed by my thought, “Oh, God, do I have to?”

Look, the Warthog was fun to go tearing across the landscape of the Halo campaigns in; it made a welcome break between on-foot combats.

The problem came from folks wanting to play with it all the time.

See, the Warthog has space for three players: a driver, a passenger and a gunner. Once you’re in one of those places, your meaningful options to act narrow down to:

  • Driver: Steer, accelerate, decelerate, handbrake, honk horn.
  • Gunner: Swivel through 360 degrees, shoot the gatling cannon while not overheating it.
  • Passenger: Adjust viewpoint through around 100-120 degrees, shoot whichever weapon you had ready.
I might avoid pre-orders nowadays, but I’m still glad I got the Sgt. Johnson unlock for Firefight.

When everyone else was getting high off the Warthog, I found that limited set of options (especially in the passenger seat) quickly became dull. As the gunner, managing the gatling cannon’s tendency to overheat didn’t bring enough variety to save the experience. As for driving well, chauffeuring someone else’s gatling cannon experience made things even more dull.

I quickly came to dread Lost Platoon coming up in the Firefight arena rotation, because I knew folks would want to take a Warthog out, and I’d be the jerk for not wanting to take one of the two main positions and wreck someone else’s fun.

I remember when a meaningful vehicle experience was a major selling point for first person shooter video games. From the Spitfires and Mustangs in the early Battlefield games to the airborne troop carriers in Tribes and, yes, the Warthog in Halo, reviewers and players would go gaga over solidly-implemented vehicles.

Yet, it seems to me that a vehicle is kind of missing the point. In foot based combat, the average shooter game gives the player a ton of options in terms of terrain and, especially nowadays, weapons (even if you can only carry two or three at a time, plus a selection of grenades). Moving is easier: you can side-step; you can turn your whole self around quickly; you don’t have to worry about turning circles or having to reverse awkwardly away from walls. Even the potential to run out of ammunition keeps things interesting.

A Warthog on the Valhalla multiplayer map.
Only looks cool because of the camera angle. Sourced from halo.bungie.org

(Halo’s Scorpion tank was somewhat more interesting. it gave a single player two guns, a main cannon and a gatling support weapon, and control of the whole vehicle. The anti-grav mode of the Ghost skimmer even gave back some of the freedom of foot-based movement. Still, neither was quite as entertaining – they were nice for breaks in the pace, but the real game swung back in when I climbed out of the driver’s seat and started on foot again.)

Now I’m facing that Warthog situation again, except this time, it’s in a roleplaying game – and I’m trying to make and keep life interesting when the shooting starts for not two, not three, but potentially five people on one vehicle.

More on that in the next post…

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