It's been quite some time since I've posted anything on Gamasutra, but here goes:
I've been playing a lot of Halo: Reach lately, and I'm starting to think the Covenant is pretty tapped out as a source of gaming fun for the future of the Halo franchise. A new developer might bring fresh life into the mix for a hypothetical 'Halo 4' but I'm skeptical of moving that direction. To justify my point, though, I think it's worth taking some time to look at how Bungie has evolved our favorite alien menace over the last decade.
Halo: Combat Evolved took some getting used to the first time through, but each enemy has a basic set of tactics that will work. Grunts demand a headshot. Shield-wearing Jackals require grenades, a bit of assault rifle fire followed by a melee, or plasma rifle fire. Hunters are hard--but the right rhythm gets it done. Elites are special, and when present in groups of enemies can be a real day-ender. The special 'Gold' Elites cause a ton of trouble in "Truth and Reconciliation" but are nothing more than a nuisance afterwards as long as you have a plasma grenade for the easy 'stick'.
And then comes the Flood--throwing everything you just learned into the garbage. I tend to be relatively tactical in my approach to combat in CE, so the Flood took me a long time to appreciate. Like any good zombie-like menace, your comfort zone is removed. Not only do enemies spawn at a frantic pace, for the first time in the game they can come from all directions--including behind you. The switch-up in rhthym is a nice feature that I can appreciate to this day, and something the first Uncharted also does to great effect.
Halo 2's opening levels introduce the Brutes. It's a stirring sequence and almost comical to see these hulking creatures in Elite armor, but that's about as interesting as they get. Kill them quickly, because if they start to charge you, it's probably game over. Also heavily revised were the Hunters--and since CE I've still not gotten the hang of how to defeat them easily or even in a consistent manner. So, in other words, many of the changes were to the negative as far as gameplay was concerned.
And then comes the Flood. Besides the painful repetition in some of those levels, here the gameplay does get some new life. Multi-factional battles are always interesting, and I also appreciated that many areas gave at least one path though them that bypassed the fight almost altogether.
Of course, another way Halo 2 gave gamers new life is as the playable character of The Arbiter. I really liked the slightly revised tactics necessary to succeed as the arm of the Prophets, but this was unfortunately abandoned in Halo 3. Given that I'm in the minority of gamers who liked this part of 2, it's probably not coming back in any form. The future of the Halo franchise will be playing as humans of some form.
Halo 3 gave the Brutes new life--and the Chieftains were a semi-regular boss far harder than the Gold Elites. The 'pack' mentality of the Brutes made them worthy adversaries, but beyond "Crow's Nest" encounter it was implemented poorly. The enemies would react to what I was doing, yes, but I never felt forced to continually re-think my strategies because the enemy kept flanking me.
Should we talk about the drones? They're annoying and totally uninteresting to fight. That's about all I have to say about them. With the exception of the basically mindless drones and Flood, Bungie seemed concerned to not throw too many enemies at the player at once. While it would have required making the Brutes weaker overall (for balancing), it would have been interesting to see a thorough implementation of pack mentality, complete with aggressive flanking maneuvers that force gamers to use territory to their advantage.
Other classes in Halo 3 were revised somewhat. Grunts added the suicide grenade attack. Sniper Jackals without shields were much more prevalent. Hunters continued to be challenging in an annoying/frustrating way--but were at least bypassable in several levels.
And then comes the Flood. In the missions where you have the Arbiter's help, these are pretty easy--a beam sword with unlimited charge is the ideal weapon for dispatching zombies. In "Cortana" it becomes perhaps the most aggravating level in the entire franchise.
ODST takes an interesting approach. Elites don't appear at all and class behavior is pretty much unchanged. Hierarchy among the Brutes is still evident but true 'pack' mentality doesn't really come into play. In nice touch for those (like me) who've hated Hunters post CE, when these enemies appear they are either: a.) bypassable; b.) appear right after you were given a power weapon like the Spartan Laser, Rocket Laucher, or a turret. All of which kill from any angle of attack.
Enemies are perhaps not aggressive enough, but there are several encounters where you have to keep very good watch of your flanks--most notably the ONI lobby. Given how weak the ODST soldiers are, I felt it was an appropriate amount of challenge and nicely mixed up stealth/long-distance combat with CQB.
The Flood never appear. Thank the Forerunners!
After a complete playthrough on Heroic and partway on Legendary, I have to say that Reach's enemy design is a really mixed bag. Every enemy from previous Halo games makes an appearance (but, like ODST, it's minus the Flood). Grunts continue to demand headshots, though they are occasionally overshielded by an adjacent Engineer. The only time they become tricky is when power-weapon (usually Fuel Rod Cannons) wielding members are mixed in. Still, if you ignore them they can easily kill you.
Jackals are heavily revised. Not only are the shield-bearing versions given a stronger variant (if you see a red shield, don't even bother trying to whittle it down), but the Skirmisher sub-class poses a much more interesting threat than Drones ever did (Drones themselves are thankfully limited to an occasional appearance). My favorite sequence involves fighting a bunch of Skirmishers in a rock formation while being able to jet-pack around on the way to the Spire. Very fun, especially in co-op.
Brutes make an appearance here but I felt like their presence is never explained--and any hierarchy they possessed is totally stripped away. No longer to the Captains and Chieftains appear to give orders and hang back. In fact, the Chieftains will simply rush right in--though they are thankfully much weaker in Reach. Bungie appears to have totally dismantled the 'pack' idea, which is unfortunate. The pack--when it was actually used--is about the only thing that separates fighting the Brutes from Elites.
Speaking of Elites, I'm really mixed here. They feel alien and quite challenging, but have way too many variants. Unlike the bright Blue/Red/Gold of CE, it's difficult to ascertain at a glance what type of Elite I'm fighting--though their use of armor abilities is a nice touch. They also absorb a ton of damage. Despite being more wily than the Brutes of Halo 2 vintage, the amount of damage they take reminds me of those "bullet sponges".
Which isn't even getting to the Zealot class. These Elites have a ton of health, are super-aggressive, and feel completely over-powered. Because of just how aggressive they are, each time you encounter one you will die at least once--simply due to the fact that you weren't expecting a high-powered enemy to rush at you out of nowhere. I appreciate the challenge they pose, but they're not a fun challenge. Much like the Brute Chieftains in Halo 3, the combination of strength and aggression makes them incredibly frustrating to fight. That said, my second playthrough I've remembered where most of the Zealots are and have planned accordingly--usually killing them on the first try.
Hunters, yet again, have become even more annoying. Your AI teammates can be (sort of) helpful, but these are also the most immersion-breaking moments: seeing Emile getting beat down repeatedly without dying enforces the idea that this is just a game. That said, there are a few levels where the Hunters can be bypassed with creative use of armor abilities, and at least one satisfying moment (towards the end of 'Tip of the Spear') where Hunters are brought down quickly by having about fifteen Marines at your disposal.
Most of Reach's enemy design feels haphazard. It's an enjoyable game, but there are simply way too many enemy types and sub-classes to ever have a true adversary. The numerous sub-classes create some interesting situations--and some crazy particle effects--but a more focused experience could have brought home the sheer terror the Covenant should instill in the player.
What do we take away from all this? As an enemy force, the Covenant are pretty tapped out without serious revision and/or reconsolidation. The most promising angle would be to re-think the Brutes again, but give them even better co-operative AI. A pack that feints, flanks, counter-attacks. . . that would make for an engaging experience. This would also entail a game designed around a series of more open/sandbox levels--something that the Halo games have traditionally done quite well.
Despite the "Finish the Fight" ad campaign for Halo 3, Bungie left a plot vehicle for such an experience open. The Elites are going to war against the Brutes--but who knows who will win? Especially with all of the Forerunner artifacts still around. . . .
A more interesting vehicle would be to start off as a special forces operator (a Spartan IV?) operating deep in space. Initial missions could involve anything from simple recon to putting down pirates,etc, but somehow you are involved in a mission that re-touches a war with the Covenant, or a part of it. Humanity really would be that stupid--and shows like Battlestar Galactica have flirted with this type of idea, if I remember correctly.
Even more potentially interesting would be to scrap the whole alien idea altogether. After all, the Spartan-II program was originally about giving the UNSC an elite 'scalpel' unit to take down Insurrection elements more efficiently than the 'sledgehammer' of a conventional military apparatus. Such a game could be yet another prequel (and one that actually agrees with the events of Fall of Reach rather than heavily revising it) but would be more interesting as a sequel.
Humanity survives the Covenant, but the UNSC is heavily crippled. The Outer Colonies will be rebuilt, and a new independence movement would be logical. At the same time, the UNSC would hardly let all of the worlds they died trying to protect simply splinter off as they become resettled.
If a hypothetical Halo 4 would take this direction, a really edgy way to do it would make it all about 'crushing' a rebellion--quite literally. Put gamers in the boots of an anti-hero.
Master Chief could even somehow be found deep in space.
I personally like this idea, even though it might make for a somewhat more generic sci-fi shooter, simply because it would give a lot of freedom to do anything from tactical insertions to space battles without having the overdramatic "save the world" tones.
Still another option would be to create a whole new alien menace, with its own mythos, weapon design, etc. This could be done quite well, but it could also be horribly implemented. In a certain way, when the Halo franchise is considered apart from any other games, it would almost be more revolutionary to have a game about killing other humans. Here the emphasis would be less on a class structure for enemies and more on advanced AI that behaves like a realistic counterpart to a UNSC military unit.