Loving/Hating Halo: Reach’s New Controls

This post has been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.

Thanks, Bungie, for betraying nine years of dedicated muscle memory with your revamped control map for Halo: Reach. Appreciate it. Truly.

You can't say I didn't get a fair warning. Bungie announced a departure from typical Halo controls early on, going into their final bite at the franchise that solidified them as a major presence in the industry. Most accepted the news as a curiosity, but I took a keen interest. Like it or not, PC gamers, GoldenEye 007 and Halo: Combat Evolved effectively ended the PC's undisputed reign as the dominant shooter platform a decade ago by making shooter controls make sense on a console for the first time. Now Bungie was mucking with the formula.

And I'm a control map Nazi. If it doesn't make perfect sense, if it's not responsive and natural and instantly intuitive, I'm right there with my chainsaw, ready to rip every flaw with my typical restraint. For the good of the land.

There's something on your face…. Got it!

So when I say my limited time fragging around in last summer's Halo: Reach multiplayer beta added up to one big bag of frustration, you can imagine my apprehension. I didn't want to hate Halo, but there I was, hating Halo. At the risk of giving my super-unique tactics away, I often like to shoot a target until his shields drop, then pop them with a melee finisher. Halo's melee attack has lived on a face button, the B-button, since day one. Not anymore. The new map put it on the right bumper. Different button, different finger, totally different mindset.


Unfortunately, I stuck hard to the old mindset. Over and over, I'd zero on some fresh troublemaker, score on him with a generous helping of bullets, move in and…nothing. No melee. It took an hour before I realized the B-button cycled my grenades, previously the left bumper's job.

I've got the timing on this move down pat. When the timing suddenly didn't work anymore, it came as such a surprise — every time — that my "victim" cheerfully dusted me before I knew what went wrong. And I kept doing this. Couldn't stop myself, even after I found out what was happening. Worse, as Reach's release date approached, I spent time rumbling around in Halo 3's multiplayer pits to get in the mood, knowing full well how big a disservice I did to myself. With every killing spree, I reinforced the old, bad habits instead of cleansing my palette like a smarter man would.

Let's put the real blame where it belongs. When Bungie ditched Halo 3's special equipment in favor of reusable Super-Spartan powers (speed, invulnerability, flight), it changed everything else. Yep: This is all the new armor abilities' fault.

Halo Reach jetpack
With great power comes great firepower.

To be fair, Bungie has tweaked Halo's controls for every release. Halo 2 added dual wielding to the Y-button's gun-swapping tricks. Halos 1 and 2 missed out on the bumper fun entirely, because the original Xbox controllers didn't have bumpers. Halo 3 used them for reloads, and gave reloading's old button to equipment. Halo 3: ODST didn't offer equipment or duel-wielding, but did give you VISR-vision.

You might pick a favorite, but you can't honestly tout one version as more authentic than the others. Of course, until now, nobody touched the basics. The controls that let you cause harm to your fellow man were sacrosanct. Or so we thought

Oh, I'm aware how easily I can zap things back to the classic controller map, but that's not how I roll. I don't bumper-jumper, or boxer, or recon, or green thumb, or any faux-core gamer configuration crap. I play on default, baby, period. I want to experience the game exactly as the developers intended, right from the baseline settings.

Good thing, too. Otherwise I'd never have seen Bungie crack shooter controls all over again, nine years after they did it the first time.

Halo Reach Assassination
Always bring a knife to a gunfight.

Think of it this way. Put a controller in any gamer's hands, anywhere in the world, and they automatically know left stick move, right stick camera, right trigger attack, left trigger special attack. It practically qualifies as a universal language. From there, the syntax breaks down fast. Face buttons can mean anything. Melee attacks in particular jump all over the place. Seriously, it often feels like developers are still guessing where to place functions when they should have it down to a science by now.

Putting one attack button on the face and the rest forward, at the triggers, is a pretty strange answer to an important question, yet nearly everyone does it that way. You even lose control of your camera (and targeting ability) when your thumb sneaks over to the B-button for a split second. Stick-click melees solve that problem and raise another: poor responsiveness.

Lazy design doesn't help. Plenty of developers are content to paste over old functions without honestly considering where new actions should go and why. For Reach, Bungie actually sat down and thought things through. Halo 3's one-time-only equipment didn't need an instant solution (i.e. a control your finger normally rests on), because you might not ever find those gadgets, much less deploy them. The lower-priority X-button served nicely there. Armor abilities, on the other hand, are ever-present and constantly used. They required something more immediate.

That prompted a rethink of the entire control map. The results put all priority attack/defense moves right at your trigger fingers, while backup utility actions live on the face buttons. Now you can bash someone without sacrificing camera control. You can jetpack high into the sky, spin around in mid-air while angling left and ripping through a rifle clip, then drop a grenade or two just to be sure. I can't think of another default map that allows for such craziness.

A great control scheme keeps you in control, providing elegant solutions to practical problems, and that's exactly what Halo: Reach's map does.

Halo Reach Invasion Ownage
Uncle Igor has leetle present for you, babushka!

After a week hammering through the retail multiplayer, I'm willing to say Reach's model is the one future shooters must turn to. Sure, I'm still sucking, and my thumb can't remember where the reload is half the time, but I'm committed to these new controls. I appreciate them even before I've mastered them. They make sense to me. This is the layout Halo deserved from the very beginning.

You can't really say Bungie took a risk, doing what they did — Halo games are guaranteed moneymakers, whatever the circumstances — but you can say they didn't have to do anything at all. I can't picture any reviewers griefing them for recycling the old controls for a fifth time. Certainly, nobody made them re-evaluate a long-established scheme. They did it anyway, to deliver the game properly and say goodbye in style. If only more people took a similar "question everything" approach to sequel development.

So again, at the risk of repeating myself…thanks, Bungie, for betraying nine years of dedicated muscle memory with your revamped control map for Halo: Reach. Appreciate it. Truly.

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