Halo 2 fever is in the news again with the release of the new multiplayer maps. As a direct result, Halo 2 has become the hot Flavia Machine topic around the office and our other usual haunts. More than just Halo 2, the central focus has been Halo in general and more specifically, Halo philosophical discussions. Lately the discussion/debate has centered around the question, "Which weapon is better - the pistol or the battle rifle?"
The People Speak
At the heart of the issue is far more than just "pistol = good," "battle rifle = bad" or vice versa, depending on your stance. There's also the question, "What's the real difference between the two?" The look? The sound? The scope? Those are all obvious, but deep down what are each one's strengths? What are each one's weaknesses?
On June 27th there was a great discussion on the Bungie Forums in which people were taking sides on the Pistol vs. Battle Rifle issue and hashing out the real factors in this debate. Not since the "Tastes great! - Less filling!" days of a bygone era have we seen such division on an issue.
Even Stuffo has become a flash point in this fiery debate. When we released our Halo 3 Wish List we had no idea what we were getting into. In addition to providing millions of dollars of unsolicited market research (we're still waiting for Bungie to return our calls), our Halo 3 Wish List has become a place for people to vent their gripes about Halo 2 in e-mail . Chief among those gripes are, you guessed it, people wanting the old pistol back from Halo.
Here's a sample of some of our reader responses:
I believe some of the weapon balance issues have been addressed, but a good point nonetheless.
Thank you for your comment, Mr. Schwartz.
I appreciate your time, kind reader. For those of you out there who are a little lost, allow me to translate Mr. Wood's comment.
Translation from Smacktalkian to English:
"I know that many people have similar feelings about this particular subject and you can count me among them. I think that adding the original pistol from Halo 1 to Halo 2 would be an excellent idea. The new Magnum pistol featured in Halo 2 is best applied when used to inflict gunshot wounds to an opponent's head. This is especially true when their shields have been depleted. It is also a powerful weapon when used in conjunction with another firearm in the player's left hand. However, overall it is not a powerful enough weapon for all types of combat.
Now I realize of course that using the original pistol in both hands may afford more skilled Halo players an advantage that newer players would find hard to overcome. I suggest leveling the playing field by temporarily disabling the scope magnification feature on the pistol when said pistol is being used in tandem with another firearm. I believe this addition will make the Halo multiplayer game a fair contest so that players of all skill levels can enjoy themselves when participating in friendly competition with other Halo fans on Xbox Live."
I could talk about fuel rods with a man named Dill all day long.
Apples and Oranges
The logical place to start is by looking at the two guns side by side. We went to the Stuffo weapons lab/firing range and put both firearms on the bench for a good hard look.
The M6D is a magazine-fed handgun that features a smart-linked 2.5X scope connected wirelessly to a soldier's HUD. A powerful and reliable sidearm, the M6D can be used in virtually all situations. It fires 12.7mm semi-armor piercing high-explosive rounds and has a 12 round magazine.
Let's face it; the pistol is bad with a capital "B." As I'm writing this paragraph my girlfriend is playing Halo:CE and I'm still mesmerized by the power and precision of that robust little hand cannon. No matter what, when playing Halo, I always have the pistol with me. In fact, I have been known to hold onto an empty pistol for quite a while. Even when it's dry you can still use it as a telescope.
The BR55 battle rifle is a medium range, light infantry rifle with an integrated 2X scope. It fires 9.5mm, armor piercing bullets in three shot bursts out of a 36 round magazine. It is ideally suited for assault roles. The battle rifle also serves as an effective long range weapon. What it lacks in power, it makes up for in accuracy.
In Halo 2 the battle rifle is hands down my favorite gun. It's not always appropriate in every situation but if all you have is the battle rifle -- you're still doing OK. Like many other people who have sent us their wish lists, I wish there was a way to switch between single shot and burst fire. That being said, it's still a heck of a rifle.
Blind Taste Test
What Master Chief doesn't know is that we've switched his normal battle rifle with Folgers.
Back at Stuffo HQ, I rounded up our lab techs and we did a little experiment. We took a test group that represented an accurate cross-section of all the Halo players that we could find in 11 minutes.
One at a time, each subject was blind folded and seated on our purple, 1998, dotcom boom-style, three-cushion break room couch.
The couch was set in front of a 13 inch Magnasonic-2413 "Viewtastic" color television that this girl Liz who used to work here left at the office after she went to go work some place else. She hasn't called for it, so we're not saying anything. I mean she'd call if she wanted it...right?
Each subject was given one of our office Xbox Controller-S, the one that has the X button that sticks a little.
We then put a copy of Halo and a copy of Halo 2 into our "special" Xbox and had each subject spend 58 minutes playing. We called this process "the test."
We had a control subject. Our control subject was Timmy. Timmy sat in the corner and drew crayon pictures of Orko.
As each subject played, we randomly switched back and forth between Halo and Halo 2. The subjects were instructed to conduct gameplay in a normal fashion. Randomly and several times throughout "the test" we would ask questions about how they felt about the gun they were firing at that moment.
98.7 percent of the subjects completed "the test."
After "the test," each subject answered 437 multiple choice questions in a written examination. The questions in this exam attempted to narrow down whether or not test subjects could tell the difference between the two weapons.
After several days of precision experimentation the results were sadly inconclusive. We were no closer to the truth about which gun was the better. Shuffling through the parking lot to my car I was heavy with the weight of failure and filled with a terrible fear that I would never get to the bottom of this.
The Bottom of This
It occurred to me suddenly, I know the answer to this question. I remembered having a conversation with someone at Bungie Studios about this. It was during my visit, before Halo 2 came out. I dug through my old notes and found the transcript of an interview I had done that day. And there, right on one of the dog-eared, yellowing pages, was the answer.
Allow me to paint a picture:
Set the way, way back machine for November 3, 2004. It was a special time. There was a certain electricity in the air. Phil Vassar's "In a Real Love" moved up the Billboard Country Charts from No. 3 to its rightful spot at numero uno. Animal print was all the rage among the high fashion set and one day after National Voting Day (which only four years earlier was known to America as Election Day), the U.S. anxiously waited to hear the ballot results from Ohio, New Mexico and Iowa.
Much like Dorothy in Oz, I saw many mind-boggling things the day that I went to visit Bungie Studios. I also met many fascinating people. One such encounter was with one of the very pillars of Bungie Studios --- Lead Game Designer Jaime Griesemer.
Jamie and I talked about many things that day. At a certain point we discussed how decisions were made regarding what changes and what stays the same when you are trying to create the sequel to one of the most successful games of all time. Jamie explained the decision-making process, detailed how they decided whether or not something worked and gave examples of some changes that were made in Halo 2. Later, he mentioned a change that Bungie had made to the Chief's standard arsenal.
At the time, what he said seemed exciting but I didn't realize that what he was saying would be the central issue of such a hot topic for Halo fans worldwide. Here Jamie talks about the decision to make changes to the pistol and the assault rifle in Halo for Halo 2:
"...in Halo 1 we had the assault rifle which was just a bullet hose and the pistol which was very accurate and did lots of damage in head shots. Around the office everybody uses the pistol because, especially in single player, it's really easy to kill the little grunt guys, and it's much more accurate in multiplayer.
"Then we, you know, unleashed [Halo:CE] on the world and everybody wanted to use the assault rifle because everybody wanted to use the big, powerful looking, you know, powerful sounding gun. So while we intended most people to use the pistol a lot and use the assault rifle sometimes, it ended up people played all the way through with the assault rifle.
"When we looked at what we wanted to do with the weapons in Halo 2, the first thing that we wanted to do was we wanted to make it so that the pistol was a lot more appealing to people. So we made it (the pistol) into the powerful looking battle rifle. Then we wanted to make the assault rifle more into a support weapon that people would use sometimes in the right situations when they need a bullet hose. We made that (the assault rifle) into the SMG. So really, the Halo 1 assault rifle and the Halo 1 pistol, we just used the exact same tags and data. We just changed the models and the sound, so people would want to use the one that we wanted them to use more... we literally just changed the models on the old tags."