This Year's Biggest Shooters Remind Me Why Multiplayer Unlocks Suck

The other day, a colleague mentioned that she felt like there was something off about Halo 4's multiplayer. She was getting destroyed by others players, eventually feeling like she didn't have much of a chance when up against people with advanced abilities or gear gained from level unlocks.

This seemed like a marked difference from earlier Halo titles, where it was possible to drop in with your starting gear and have a reasonable shot at being competitive — even against people who totally out-levelled you.

I told her what most people might: that the game starts out that way, but then it peters off. After spending a few hours grinding enough XP to unlock what you want, you'll be able to perform better. After spending a bit of time with the game, you'll be able to tailor your loadout to make yourself a formidable Spartan.

Others, I imagine, might have been less courteous about their suggestions — a common response to this type of complaint is that you're being ridiculous if you complain about starting weapons and abilities because of course the starting loadouts are great! If you're good enough, right? I mean, look at how easily I own everyone with the starting weapons. You on the other hand must suck if you're not doing OK at the start, clearly.

But then I thought about it, and it hit me: why in the world do I act as if this is okay? Simply because unlocks are so common now, and just because you eventually reach a point where you have everything you need to be competitive, doesn't erase the fact that the game starts out unbalanced.

Not ridiculously so of course; developers wouldn't be able to get away with that. But I still can't recall the last game with non-cosmetic unlocks that didn't have me feeling a tad frustrated at the start of my stint with the multiplayer.

Kotaku's own Tina Amini puts it well when she says this about Halo 4:

Getting the fanciest weapons requires real dedication, so it feels like it could be representative of how adept a player you are.

This situation is a constant; the latest game that evoked this annoyance was Black Ops II. To quote myself on that:

Point blank, I hated starting out in the Core playlists because it was immediately obvious that the game was not balanced. It can't be. Whoever has the better gear will invariably win in a duel, and the starting guns suck. Every bit and bob you can customise — attachments, abilities (i.e. perks) and extra gear makes a huge difference in how effective you can be on the battlefield.

There's no sign that this will let up — not with RPG elements becoming so pervasive in our shooters, not with how popular multiplayer is. Sure, both Halo and Call of Duty have special playlists where unlocks aren't allowed, but you're not playing with the general populace and that doesn't change that unlocks suck.

The irritation is especially present if I hop onto a game a few months after release, when the community has dwindled to the more hardcore players. Then, the disadvantage of not having the same gear becomes pronounced: I'm being outplayed and outgunned.

In that case, people know the ins and outs of the maps, the tricks necessary to optimise play, and they've had time to figure out the popular strategies used in a game. You, meanwhile, might still be trying to figure out how to use your sub-par gun. I've had to resort to buying games at release if I'm thinking of playing the multiplayer, and that's not something I'm happy about.

Eventually, after I play enough, I'll forget about all of this. It's because the amount of time I play with the appropriate gear will vastly outnumber the hours I spent trying to become properly outfitted.

Beyond forgetting about it, I feel as if there's this weird community thing where it's like "Well, if we have to bear it, so can you." Isn't that a bad sign? When you have to tolerate something? Or like it's a right of passage, a tradition. You need to grit your teeth because everyone else does it, and if everyone has to do it, what's the big deal?

It's one thing to play on single player and have a sense of progression, feel like you've earned the right to be powerful. It works there. It lends itself to games that feature progression not only narratively, but mechanically: and that's important.

But I shouldn't have to earn the right to play at what would normally be my most competitive in a mode where the entire point is to be competitive. Non-cosmetic unlocks work against the very point of multiplayer, they get in the way of embracing why you're there in the first place.

Always having something new to work toward works wonderfully as a motivational tool to keep playing, and that's why unlocks shine. You're always looking forward to what you might get next — which then sort of becomes what you "deserve". You worked for that ability/armour/gun. That other guy with the inferior gun? Welp, they haven't put their time in. Sorry, thems the breaks. Pile that on with "earning" the right to get killstreaks or ordnance drops for doing well, and things get a little messier still.

That other guy with the inferior gun? Welp, they haven't put their time in. Sorry, thems the breaks.

For the hardcore, this will make no difference: they're going to play the game long enough that any imbalances at the start are but a short, passing memory.

For everyone else, here's a question: after you unlock everything — then what? You'll have to play the game on, gasp, its own intrinsic merits? I've noticed that many games that rely on this progression model don't hold up so well, despite how unfair the system might be.

Worryingly, it doesn't look like multiplayer games are going to let up with these types of unlocks. Halo didn't used to be like this, after all.

Personally, the game I've poured the most hours into is a game that didn't have unlocks that affected the game itself. That game would be Gears of War 2. The thing about Gears of War is that you know exactly what you're getting from the get-go. And if what a game lays out in front of you is engaging, if that hooks you? You'll keep playing. You'll keep playing for a long, long time. Out of embarrassment, I won't tell you how many hours I've logged onto Gears 2.

The problem is that developers are invested in keeping you playing no matter what, and unlocks are an easy way to do that — even though it means we'll play for (arguably) the wrong reasons.

Normally I wouldn't say there's anything wrong with giving players reasons to keep playing. We want value from what we buy, we want to get as much out of our purchases as we can. But unless we continue to play because of the game itself — without these added layers of bullshit — what's the point?

Maybe the truth is that most games don't work so well in the long term without pulling tricks like these to keep someone playing. And maybe we're so fervent about getting the most 'value' out of our games, we're willing to overlook what a game does to keep you playing. For a developer that might be interested in keeping you engrossed because it means you're more likely to invest in new maps, modes and so on, that reality is perfect.

That's not nearly as gross as realising that developers are aware of what's happening. Game academic Dylan Holmes noted that Battlefield 3 tells its users that they'd be able to "level the playing field" no problem... if they're willing to pay.

"Tired of fighting an uphill battle against Battlefield veterans?" it continued. "The Ultimate Shortcut Bundle unlocks 119 weapons, gear and vehicle upgrades." At which point it directed me to a link where I could pay Electronic Arts a mere $US40 for said "shortcut."

It's worse when you consider what Dylan says next.

The point of unlocks in Battlefield 3 isn't to increase the fun I'm having; it's to encourage me to play more than I would otherwise. Take away the unlocks and the typical play experience remains unchanged.

Ultimately, in a world where we believe that time = money, the transaction that DICE proposes isn't a surprising one. We readily equate the two so, sure, we'll be willing to shell out the money for it. Some people even believe that paying for every piece of a game a la carte should be what games do next. But still, it's ridiculous to think that a developer wants to sell you fairness. What in the world?

Two things jump out about this to me though. First, that the people who this poses the most value to are either those who want to get to the meat of the game, or those who lack the necessary time to invest in the game. But both of these situations don't have to exist in the first place. The person who wants to get to the "point" of the game could just be given everything they need from the start. The person without time could also just be given what they need right away so that they can enjoy the game.

But immediately giving people what they need would inconvenience that whole ‘monetization' thing now wouldn't it?


    I believe the previous Halos did it right with purely cosmetic unlocks, its the way competitive multiplayer should be.

    Unlocks doesn't effect me. I found Halo 4 campaign to be underwhelming, Spartan Ops to be pointless, and multiplayer lacks good connection.

    Once I get all achievements i doubt I'll touch the game again. Which is one of the last things I thought I'd ever say about a Halo game.

      Sadly, I feel the same way, and I considered myself a pretty massive Halo fan.

      It doesn't take long to unlock a battle rifle or DMR in Halo 4, but then there's the tiered abilities and tactical packages. At level 1-5 you're getting screwed by level 25 guys in ways you haven't even dreamed of yet!

      I just wish that was the only problem Halo 4 multiplayer had.

        Well, you can get xp from challenges or playing Spartan Ops. I got to level 30 mostly playing Spartan Ops and Campaign.

      I absolutely agree with this. I am a massive halo fan but underwhelmed by the halo 4 changes.

      I'm a Perthian with an average connection and dont have many problems online. I have had a couple of laggy games but no more than any other online shooters. Also, I really dont think Halo is unbalanced especially from the start. Maybe putting a lvl 1 against a 50+ but even those bonuses you get after 50 are minimal and not game changing.

      Why bother with the achievements if you don't like it?

      Back in my day everyone started equal every game and you played them because they were fun, not because you had to unlock something. People camped a lot less too since stats weren't being recorded. Those were the halcyon days.

    This RPG type levelling system has been embraced and encouraged by the majority of the FPS community in my understanding. I love it as it provides a much needed sense of achievement and targets to work towards.
    tl;dr waaaaa

    I can't speak for Blops2 (only coz I haven't played it) but I need to disagree with the Halo 4 argument. I'd say that all of the weapons are different, but none are particularly better than the other, it just comes down to what the individual uses. The deafult guns give you a ranged option, a close range option, and grenades which are all definitely enough to win rounds with while the guns, armor mods, and specializations you get later in the game will not give you any clear advantage over other players on the field at all. All they do is give you the option to tweak and customize your own Spartan according to your own preferences and play style, but they do not offer more power, more health, or anything that will make your character more advanced than any others. Basically, no matter what unlocks you have, if you come up against a better player, they will most likely beat you,

    I can't argue with the Unlock System for these games because they offer an extra incentive for the player to keep going. You may say that the fun of the game should be enough to keep you playing round after round, but having that extra little goal (getting that new gun type or helmet variation) can be enough to keep a player motivated for another 10 rounds or another 50 rounds. It's the same mentality as achievements, so if their unlock system is going to keep playing and enjoying a game I may have put down weeks ago otherwise, then good on them for implementing it.

    I've always preferred old school modes where the weapons are scattered around the map and everyone starts with a the same weapon.

    The last Halo I played online was the original one (or maybe number 2?) and that was the case, you had to find the weapons on the map. I guess that's not the case anymore then.

      Reach allowed you to choose from a list of armor abilities specific to each playlist/gametype, whereas with Halo 4 you customise your loadouts and can start with a DMR, BR, Carbine, Assault Rifle... maybe Promethean weapons too, I don't remember.

      Power weapons still appear on the map, but they have indicators over them so you know where they are and when they've spawned. You can also earn ordinance drops after racking up points from kills/assists/other medals which can drop power weapons or speed/power boosts, or overshields.

      It's all so... clinical and serious now.

      I want Halo 3 back. :(

      Last edited 05/12/12 3:28 pm

        Actually, Reach allowed you to choose from pre-set options, not just AAs. The problem with this is that they didn't bother to experiment with loadouts and just made them AA selection only.

        How bad would AL be if the loadout was Plasma Repeater, no secondary and no grenades? Or Camo was Magnum only, single grenade? Sprint was AR and 2 grenades, etc.

    In Halo 4, all I use is the Carbine and the unlimited sprinting mod, and the needler if I come across it via ordinance drop. Didn't take too long to unlock the Carbine. Think I got it after 30 mins of play? I'm not sure. I haven't at any time felt frustrated with the MP with people being waaaay better/more powerful than me though. (I'm at SPR 19 now) That's something I felt kinda often with Reach. Probably because all the 'hardcore' players knew where to get the powerful weapons from, whereas the random ordinance drops kinda even things out.
    Also, I thought most games try to pair you off with people at similar levels to you, thus somewhat negating this issue.

      The main difference is that in previous Halo games, the experience system actually demoted you if you lost too many games in a row to try and match you with similar skilled players. Halo 4 is simply points based on time played. You can be a really bad player and play a lot, and still progress through the rankings. I would only consider myself an average player (current rank 25) and yet some opponents with a rank over 70 are very easy to kill.

      I understand that they have included changes to attract more of the CoD type of player to increase the overall player numbers but I don't like a lot of the CoD style changes. That was exactly the reason why I played Halo and not CoD in the first place. Having to earn an unlock just to pick up dropped grenades and then chose this at the expense of something else is ridiculous. Although, being able to unlock the ability to carry extra grenades is a good feature so it is not a total loss. I just think they went overboard on the unlock options.

    Check out blacks ops 2 league play. It has all the weapons and attachments unlocked

    What in the world? Are we playing the same game? Absolute rubbish, there's no higher-tier 'super weapons' like the article is implying. It takes all of a few games to unlock the Battle Rifle/DMR (you don't even have to play multiplayer to do it, play Spartan Ops instead), then you're set. It's far less unbalanced than some other MP games. A team of competent low level players can easily wipe the floor with idiots with the best bells and whistles. Hell, you already get given some of the 'locked' weapons if you play certain modes (eg DMR/BR are available by default for SWAT).

    Shaking my head at this article, I really am.

      Shaking your head at a Kotaku article? Specifically designed to get people annoyed, to click on the article and get them money from advertisment.

      Kotaku's "Journalists" are rubbish, i honestly don't know why i come here.

    @Patricia Hernandez To put it bluntly, i think you need to harden up, because it is possible to acquire the locked weapons, perks etc. wirhout match making. Also, I still use both the Pistol and AR, which are available from the start.

    While i haven't played halo 4 so I cant speak of its problems but this article is right in every other sense. Mutiplayer has gone to the dogs, the best times online were had at the start of this console generation.

    You had gears 1, which was awesome and call of duty 2. No unlocks no constant explosions (completely negating the skill elements of suprise like in cod2 where it was dead silent) and there was no spray and pray twitched based circle jerk that is every single modern warfare since the first.

    Then you had gears of war 2 come along and rape every Aussie with its forced matchmaking bs and by the time they fixed the actual game play balance issues with weapons you'd be lucky to find a single aussie still playing. Then they made gears 3 which imo ruined what gears was all about, sure it could still be fun but it wasn't gears 1 by any stretch (I'ms sure if they just made gears 1 with all the graphics and control fixes in 3 most people would prefer it, because it wasn't just another shooter)

    For the Modern warefare series they just made it worse with every single iteration, the starting weapons sucked more and more, you had more annoying game breaking perks. IT became harder and harder to "outplay" your opponents with the best weapons being automatics and everyone just sprinting around like headless chickens spraying and praying.

    Multiplayer isn't what it used to be and this bs unlock crap is just the surface of the problem.

    Last edited 05/12/12 4:24 pm

    Right now if I don't buy a game in the first week I don't bother with Multiplayer because of this. I don't like it but I think that it's simply the developers/publishers way of telling me they don't want new players 1 month, 3 months or 1 year after release - they only want those hard core day 1 players to continue to play their games. The monetisation of DLC only reinforces this view.

    I'm sure there are marketing execs out there screaming about this but are being over ruled by the 'bigger explosions, more guns' brigade.

    I was late to the party on Battlefield 3, but I didn't find it a disadvantage to have fewer weapons. The starting weapons are all pretty solid. The unlocks just allow you to find weapons that are more suited to individual player's styles and tastes. They did an excellent job that even after a year, a "best gun" or even collection of "best guns" hasn't been found. I see even very highly ranked players using starter firearms with great effectiveness.

    Other than providing a tangible sense of progression to players, unlocking also helps to prevent players suffering from choice shock. So many guns, and they have no idea where to start. By pacing them out, players really get a chance to try all (or at least most) of the weapons of the classes they put the effort into. If they had totally free choice from the start, most players would simply copy the load-outs of the most successful players they saw, and would never take the time to find the best load-out for themselves. This would also kill the weapon diversity.

    Also in favor of the progression system is the fact that it gives casual and less skilled players a reason to stick around and continue trying to play the game, at least until they got their money's worth, or became better players. Yeah, at your current skill level you're never going to top the scoreboard, or even enjoy a monster kill streak, but if you keep at it, you'll get to try out that machine gun you saw your teammate wrecking shop with for yourself. People say it punishes the casual gamer, but if anything it rewards them with a way to justify the $90 they spent on the game, knowing that with their limited casual hours, they're not going to run out of goals to reach in multiplayer for a long time.

    I've never been a fan of unlocks because of... Super Smash Brother Brawl. I think Yahtzee nailed it when he said that if you buy the game, and want to play as Sonic straight away, your in for a huge disappointment...

    Getting shot in the back isn't someone's unlock ability, it's part of the CoD game design.

    Funnily enough, i remember playing ratchet and clank 2/3, which were the first games i played that used an rpg level up system in anything other than an rpg, and it provided me with months of content trying to level up and find everything, and then cod4 the multiplayer game that wasnt as shallow as just kill everyone on this map and then on that map again, i mean, i was working towards a goal, sure, the guns werent much better, just slightly different fire rates and acuresy, but it just gave me a reason to keep playing long after the "need" to play them had worn off... Its alot of the reason i like far cry 3, i can spend a day doing nothing in the game other than hunting and gathering, yet im constantly being rewarded. I love it, but at the same time i dont think its a good idea that games like Halo have systems like this, I can understand Killzone 3 and battlefield with there classes and stuff, but honestly... Halo is a game where having the right gun for a map is a game changer. Its just not as balanced as other games.


    i mainly use the pistol in multiplayer. the unlocks are just more stuff, not necessarily 'better' stuff

    For Halo 4 I haven't had this experience at all. I remember using the DMR from the start, I didn't use any support upgrades or tactical upgrades at all for a long time and came top 3 in most matches. Now that I have everything unlocked (bar specializations), all the load out things you unlock are just different, nothing is really better, they all have their different uses. It can appear unbalanced if you decided to use the wrong weapon for the wrong task, but that was your fault. I tend to only ever feel I lose a 'duel' because I wasn't good enough, not because the other player had a better gun

    I really found weapon unlocks and the purchasing system of Halo 4 annoying.

    Now I admit despite my custom sets I still find the default DMR setup to be the best in a team game. But why not give me all the abilities of those first free sets out of the box.

    Locking away all 5 of the loadouts, all the weapons and all the abilites makes buying the game tomorrow like climbing a mountain. Yes you can play Spartan Ops, but there more than multiplayer I find I want a custom loadout. It would be nice if playing through the campaign gave you the first unlocks. Heck they even locked away a ton of the emblems and the backgrounds so I still SR 28 haven't unlocked the emblems I've used for all the previous Halo games.

    And another thing on locking the loadouts, if you only give me one weapon at the start why do I need to earn the extra loadouts?

    I really don't like the non cosmetic unlocks in Halo 4, not only do I need to be level X but I than have to pay for it. Yes once you start getting somewhere you'll have the points for what you want. I do like the Ordinance Drops but, that I feel is a great system because one guy who has memorised the map won't have an unlimited supply of rockets while your still trying to work it out. I think this current unlock model makes the game far harder for people who don't buy day one. Which surely hurts the sales.

    I hate unlocks too.

      Agreed. Going to the effort of unlocking something AND having to pay for it is ridiculous. Players should be free to grind on a small, slower scale and buy the mightier 'item' (or whatever it may be) after the effort they put in. This is another thing on the list that ruined Gran Turismo (5), if I build up a ton of cash from small stakes races, I should be free to buy and drive whatever car I want.

    YO Motherfucking LO

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