Good Grief: Bad Things in Good Games – Halo 3 Skulls

Good Grief: Because sometimes even good games make you want to drop kick them out the window. They’re too good to despise forever but these are the things that made us hate them, even if just for just a little while.

*Halo 3 Skulls*

Pop quiz. What is the FPS genre best suited for? A: Fast paced tactics and frenetic, run and gun action. B: Tedious, slow, nose to the ground, level scouring, scavenger hunts. If you answered “A” you’re correct. If you answered “B” you actually enjoyed spending hours painstakingly combing the vast levels of Halo 3 for some tiny, infinitesimal, freakin’ minuscule skulls that could be anywhere, and often were. This is my single greatest gripe against one of the biggest, best, and most beloved games of 2007: Why in the name of all things fun and wholesome would you include in an action game a tedious side quest that requires players to literally spend hours searching every nook and cranny of the massive levels for an item smaller than a grunts IQ?

Warning! This article may contain minor spoilers. I use the word spoiler loosely. Because the only thing I’d be spoiling for you is hours of frustration and annoyance. Schucks. Otherwise if you enjoy torturing yourself divert your eyes.

To be fair, the skulls sound like a good idea as a concept; little easter egg items that can unlock achievements and different options for the campaign and contribute yet another dimension of prestige and camaraderie amongst Halo brethren. My problem is that the reality is far less quaint. Let’s think about this.

First: As I said, they are tiny. The levels in Halo 3 are not. The skulls can look like any other rock or debris and would be well hidden in the vast terrain even if they were placed practically anywhere. Second: They’re not just anywhere. Bungie bent over backwards to ensure they would be difficult to find, and they are, very. Often times finding them isn’t enough. The skull will be visible but out of reach unless you perform a special maneuver, stand on a co-op buddies shoulders, or mangle a pile of vehicles against the wall like a moron so that by standing on the heap you can jump up to reach it. Sheesh. And third: IT’S A SHOOTER! Leave the scavenger hunts to Banjo and Kazooie!

My biggest complaint, however, is a combination of these factors: the size of the skulls, the size of the levels, the nature of the shooter genre, and Bungie’s devious sense of placement. Fetch quests, excessive backtracking, and search and find item hunts are fine in a platformer, RPG or an Easter picnic but tend to grate against the very nature of first person shooters. Shoot, kill, repeat. Good, fast, fun. Search quests contradict the fluency of this most satisfying of formulas, bringing it’s kinetic energy to a grinding halt. The levels, gameplay, and controls aren’t designed for it and become cumbersome or awkward when used in that context. It’s like trying to play hopscotch with an SUV.

For a completionist like myself or anyone who appreciates a fair challenge and doesn’t want to have to resort to online walkthroughs or cheats, the skulls are a menace, a terrible blight on an otherwise great game.

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It might not be so bad if they where slightly easier to find, but I can guarantee you, you’re not going to innocently stumble upon them in the natural course of the game. You end up having to clear the immediate area of enemies, because it’s hard to search for the proverbial needle in a haystack when the farmer’s jabbing you in the rear with a pitchfork. After you wipe everything out, which is the fun part, imagine that (sarcasm), you have to stop, backtrack, then slowly wander the empty region with your head to the ground like an idiot scanning every square inch of land. Now that’s what I call fun! (more sarcasm).

What really makes me mad is that if the whole effort just to cover every area isn’t obnoxious enough, Bungie actually made it so that a few skulls are only accessible for a certain period of time, sometimes just a few seconds, or in some cases only if you perform a certain action or fulfill specific criteria. It’s old news now so I’m sure I wouldn’t be spoiling anything, but just in case you don’t want the skull locations revealed I’ll be vague in my descriptions. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on the fun of finding them on your own (definite sarcasm).

There’s one skull: it’s placement alone, perched atop a plateau, can make it tricky enough to reach, but located nearby is a wraith that can make snagging it even more complicated. The logical thing is to take out the wraith before your go for the skull except, no, you can’t. As soon as the wraith is destroyed the skull disappears! *Insert facepalm* Why make the skull disappear unless you’re trying to make it annoying?!

Another one (and get this, this is a personal favorite) is dropped by an enemy when you shoot them, but not just any enemy, no. That would be way to easy. The enemy in question leaps overhead and can only be hit for a few seconds before he’s gone. He’s not even all that visible. You can see him easy enough, but it’s not like it’s obvious. I’m sure out of the millions of people playing the game, someone was bound to discover this, but my question to Bungie is, “How in the world am I supposed to guess that on my own?” What are the chances I would? Since the enemy is no apparent threat why would bother with him. I spent hours carefully sleuthing that level only to give up in exasperation and look up the skulls location online. I couldn’t believe it! Not only is it in a ridicules location, but even once you know where it is, it’s a challenge unto itself nailing the guy and getting the skull to fall correctly. Could they make it any more complicated?

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My all time favorite, though, is a skull so incomprehensible it defies me to even begin to describe it’s absurdity. It’s not even visible until you leap through a series of rings in a specific order like a circus poodle. This of course is after you have cleared the area of an outright infestation of baddies, but don’t you dare accidentally go through one of the rings while doing so. If you jump through one in the wrong order the sequence won’t work at all. Sorry, you’ll have to play the entire level all over again. Did I mention it’s located at the very end?

This entire sequence…is…asinine. The room is long and the order of rings is complicated which means you’re running back and forth to hit all the rings. Good…Grief. This isn’t like Super Mario either, where the next ring lights up. There’s no good chime, bad chime or anything to indicate if you’re doing it right or that that’s what you’re even supposed to be doing at all. It’s so ridiculous that, if you don’t already know what I’m talking about, I could tell you exactly where it’s at, but unless you know the combination of the rings it will still take you hours to figure out. I ask again, “How am I supposed to figure this out on my own?” How is this fun?

After a while I got smart and started using the video replay feature to search the levels out, but a lot of the skulls are so well stashed away that even that didn’t always work. That’s when I gave up and invoked the gamer’s secret weapon: Google. Seriously, why would I waste hour upon boring, frustrating hour when I can just cheat. Some of the skulls that are just hidden I can understand, but the rings are absurd and you know that 99.9% of the people who got that one looked it up online. You know it. I know it. Bungie knows it, and, I’m sure, would even encourage this kind of friendly corroboration within the Halo community, but why bother hiding them so well?

You know, all this effort might be worth it if the skulls did something really cool. You know, like when games used to have awesome cheat codes like “All Weapons” and “Invincibility” but the cherry on top of this dirt Sundae, the beautiful, magnificent, twisted irony is that after hours of agonizing tedium, activating the skulls you’ve busted your hump to find, only makes the game harder. Now that’s funny.

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