Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Top 5 Multiplayer Maps in Halo: Combat Evolved

The number of hours I have put into online multiplayer in the Halo series has grown far beyond my estimation. There have been some great games I’ve played over the years, as well as the occasional round where I got my butt handed to me (the latter being more frequent during my early days with the franchise). There have also been a number of multiplayer maps that have stood out to me over the years, be it due to their layout, their aesthetic appeal, their practicality for a myriad of different game types, or simply fond memories I have from playing with friends. This collection of ‘top five’ lists will highlight my five favorite maps from across the four Bungie-developed Halo games (Halo 3: ODST will not be included, as it did not have competitive multiplayer of its own, instead offering extra maps to those who owned Halo 3 while simultaneously kicking off the cooperative Firefight mode). While remakes of older Halo maps are eligible for these lists, I will not be double-dipping and placing both the original version of a map and its remake, lest things become lopsided in favor of one map or another (example: if Midship were to make the cut for my Halo 2 map list, its remake of Heretic would not be eligible for the Halo 3 list, but if Longest did not make the cut for my Halo: CE list, then Elongation would still be eligible for the Halo 2 list). I will be tackling these titles in chronological order of their release, which naturally places Halo: Combat Evolved at the start of this series.

#5 – Sidewinder: Halo: Combat Evolved is the Bungie Halo title I have sunk the least amount of time into, especially with regards to multiplayer. Part of this is due to the fact that Halo: CE did not include any sort of Xbox Live functionality, though the fact that Halo 2 had already been released by the time I got into the franchise played a greater factor in my having less direct exposure to the first game in the series. For being something of an afterthought, the multiplayer in Halo: Combat Evolved is surprisingly solid. True, some of the stages feel a little more inclined toward one gimmick or another than their successors did, as is the case with Sidewinder, a wintery map that places heavy emphasis on vehicular combat. There’s a certain charm to Sidewinder that lends its cold, desolate landscape to stand out among the other maps packaged with Combat Evolved. Sure, the bases might be small and a tad impractical, but there’s something genuinely impressive about the large scale of this arena, about taking the Scorpion tank for a drive up to the opposing team’s front door, and about how much of an important step this map would be in shaping the design of future maps centered around large team-oriented game types.

#4 – Derelict: Similar in size and format to Wizard, Derelict design was a shining example of smart design choices in small space in the company of Wizard’s shortcomings. Whereas Wizard consisted of a series of platforms and ramps circling the outside of the arena, Derelict’s platforms spread from the center out, offering better small covered spaces for those low on health quickly duck behind and plan their next course of action. While the high ground may have provided a better vantage of the arena, it did not guarantee safety, as the open format of the platforms meant that players could aim their sights up or lob grenades at foes on that raised section with relative ease. Derelict offered up small-scale matches that demanded player be able to think quickly in the midst of frenetic firefights, and was a great setting for both fast-paced team matches and more chaotic free-for-all bouts.

#3 – Damnation: Designing maps that are more long than they are wide is always a tricky process, but Halo: Combat Evolved offered up a couple with these schools of thought in mind. Whereas Longest was a more literal set of adjacent hallways, Damnation mixed things up a bit with varying height to its walkways and a distinctly alien design aesthetic. A more open area consisting of gaps between platforms and the general non-linear design seen in Damnation placed special emphasis on carefully plotting your next move, as well as making the most out of the stage’s power weapons. Though it took an decade for the map to return to Halo multiplayer in any form, the Halo: Reach remake known as Penance did little to alter the map’s design, embracing even the faint purple coloration of the original and pushing for a full-blown Covenant aesthetic.

#2 – Battle Creek: Set in relatively close quarters, Battle Creek generally pits two teams of four against one another, granting each a home base that is just as effective for housing a flag as it is for defending against enemy team members. The geography of the map is simple, yet effective, with a small creek running through the middle and a rocky arch that runs diagonal through the center space, situated between the opposing bases. While the original Halo: Combat Evolved’s graphical prowess may not hold a candle to that of its Xbox successor Halo 2, Battle Creek is one of those rare maps that is still holds a particular visual charm all these many years later. While the crew at Bungie may not have expected the multiplayer aspect of the Halo games to really take off at the launch of this Xbox-exclusive property, it’s thanks to maps like Battle Creek that the original Halo: Combat Evolved’s system link matches gained such popularity and pushed for the sequel to have such a heavy emphasis on the Xbox Live functionality.

#1 – Blood Gulch: Arguably the most iconic of all multiplayer maps across the Halo franchise, Blood Gulch has seen multiple remakes in sequel games since its initial debut. A wide expanse sets the stage for vehicular combat, while the two bases on opposite ends of the valley make for great objective-based skirmishes with larger teams. Meanwhile, snipers can use the snaking ridges to their advantage, furthering the importance of team strategy, while still offering plenty of space to engage in fun matches with plenty of carnage. There’s a reason that Blood Gulch has returned time and time again, whether as a slight reimagining in the form of Halo 2’s Coagulation or a Forge World variant in Halo: Reach – its design is just too darn perfect to ignore.

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