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Halo 1's original 2003 PC port hid the secret to fixing Halo: Reach's crouch

(Image credit: Microsoft)

When Halo: Reach launched on the PC for the first time back in December it was a mostly great port, improved by mouse aim and high-res textures and reliable dedicated servers. But there were two flaws that a lot of players immediately noticed: the sound was muffled, noticeably poor compared to the original game, and crouching with WASD just… didn't work. In converting sounds engineered for the Xbox 360, which has a very different architecture than a PC, the audio mix didn't come out true to the original. Ironically, the problem with crouching was the opposite—it was too authentic.

Halo was designed for a controller, and its crouch controls take full advantage of analog movement. You hold the left thumbstick in to crouch, and you can only crouch when you're standing still or walking slowly. This means it's possible to crouch while moving in a firefight or transition from a run into a walk into a crouch to try to avoid an enemy's radar. But when you're moving with WASD there's no analog walk, and thus crouching demands you come to a complete stop first.

"On mouse and keyboard, it's kind of all or nothing, you're either moving or you're not moving. So the result for players was I have to move, stop, crouch, move, crouch. It was very, very jarring," Halo community director Brian Jarrard told me. "We got tons of backlash around that, even though it was 100% true to the original mechanic."

I visited 343 Industries for an early look at Halo: Combat Evolved on PC, which is out today, and to talk to the developers about porting Master Chief Collection to PC. We spent some time talking about controls in particular, and how the way we interface with games can clash with design and even create new problems. Reach's crouch was a perfect example with a solution that I got a kick out of. While beta testing the release of Combat Evolved in February, 343 also tested an alternate movement model for crouching that's actually older than Reach itself.

The patched crouching in Reach implements the same movement style that Gearbox designed for Halo: Combat Evolved the first time it came to PC in 2003. It lets you crouch while moving at full WASD speed, but decelerates you into the crouched position when you press a key. 

"You do get more of the freedom to crouch as you're moving regularly," said associate producer (and former pro player) Sean Swidersky. "What we've seen in our early feedback was some users feel this is natural for sure. But what I'm more curious about is the competitive side of things, which is not as big as your casual audience, right? But we do want to have the competitive side have that integrity, that the games feel balanced and they feel fair. I'm curious to see what pro players [think]."

It seems like a simple solution—just take the clearly working code from 15 years ago! But 343's developers had to make sure it wasn't too big a change. Porting Halo: Master Chief Collection regularly brings up the challenge of authenticity. The goal is to preserve these games as fans remember them, but sometimes that means undoing old design to fit the new platform. Halo: Combat Evolved's PC port did a fine job of solving the crouching problem, but it definitely looks and feels a bit different than Reach on the Xbox 360, or even the original Halo on Xbox. 343 considered other alternatives, like adding a "walk" button that would then allow you to crouch at the old speed.

"You kind of look like you're a little ice skate-y, I guess is the best way to put it. It's not too outrageous," said Swidersky. "But just seeing somebody crouch super fast, in those older games, it just looks different."

Other control changes will be coming as the Master Chief Collection expands on PC. "We're looking at zoom improvements across all the titles, making it more in line with Halo Vista," said senior producer Mike Fahrny. "It gives you multi-options to do the zoom right. It's not just tap and hold or hold and zoom. There's a bunch of different mappings that you can do for it. It goes back to giving PC players more choices."

As for Reach's sound fix: it's coming, too, but it's a lot more work. "It's caused us to go back and say, 'Hey, we should just take a look at the audio for all titles," Fahrny said in February. "Reach's [digital signal processors] for whatever reason were not great, so let's go back to a partner that has the sources for these, rebuild them for modern platforms, while we have an actual audio engineer go back through and make sure everything is balanced and leveled properly. That takes a long time."

Playing Halo: Combat Evolved, on the other hand, does not take a long time—it's available on Steam now.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.