Archives for category: Halo


As you may know, last Tuesday saw the release of the Xbox One X, Microsoft’s second bite at the current generation cherry which aims to redress the power balance seen between the base PlayStation 4 and Xbox One since they released back in November 2013. As the Xbox One has been my primary platform this gen, I decided to pick one up, and you can check out our unboxing of the ‘Project Scorpio’ edition console over on A Game with Chums.

Having bought a 4K television in the middle of last year, I’ve been waiting for this console to push some ultra high definition content to it; I have previously borrowed an Xbox One S for a few days, and found myself wowed by Warcraft: The Beginning in 4K/HDR, but I was really looking forward to seeing how games fared on the new system, especially favourites like Halo 5: Guardians, which uses dynamic scaling on original hardware, sometimes reaching as low as 1152×810. Even unpatched, the game should run at a full 1920×1080 at all times, plus receive forced 16x anisotropic filtering, cleaning up textures at oblique angles and making the game just look better all around.

Fortunately though, Halo 5 was one of the (many!) games slated to be updated for the One X, with many patches dropping before the new console even went on sale. In the week running up to release, I had a good handful of my games updated and ready to go on my external hard drive; I just needed to plug it into my new console and get going.

Obviously, being a massive Halo fan, Halo 5 was the first game I wanted to try when my system arrived, and the results were immediately obvious. The game just looks so clean now. It still uses dynamic scaling, but now both the upper and lower bounds are far, far higher. Texture filtering has also been improved, and though the core assets are untouched, the fact that resolution and filtering are so much better just means you can see far more detail than you ever could before – even down to tiny incidental text on weapon models. Halo 5: Guardians was always a pretty game, if a bit blurry. On Xbox One X, it looks spectacular, and I can’t wait to see what 343 can do with Halo 6 on the new machine.

The next game I wanted to check out was Gears of War 4. Honestly, I thought this game looked absolutely ridiculous on the base Xbox One, so I was intrigued to see how The Coalition would update it for the new machine. The answer, apart from a much higher rendering resolution of course, is higher resolution textures. The game already offered HDR if you had an Xbox One S (and I did try it out on that console when I borrowed it – it looked great), but the higher fidelity textures are the real standout here. With the game looking so crisp and clean at 4K, the upgraded texture work really shines, and the game looks absolutely phenomenal. Every time I load the game up, it drops my jaw.

Gears 4 already looked fantastic though, and the game that has impressed me the most so far, offering the biggest leap from base hardware to One X, has to be Dishonoured 2. Just look at the image at the top of this piece, a screenshot I took of the Dreadful Wale’s engine room – it could pass for a bullshot! The textures and materials look spectacular, and there’s not even a hint of aliasing.

Dishonoured 2 is another title that has received upgraded textures, and the difference is immediately apparent. Everything seems to have been improved, from geometry to textures to skin shaders; just take a look at our video below, where you can immediately see the upgrade in texture work on the door behind Captain Mayhew. Then pay attention to the Captain herself, who looks far more detailed than she ever did before. Where her face seemed a little flat on the Xbox One, you can now make out creases, scars and freckles in her skin.

It’s a massive upgrade. When Arkane announced Dishonoured 2, I was extremely excited for it, and watched all the footage the Lyon-based studio put out. I thought it looked wonderful. But when my Xbox One copy turned up, I was a little underwhelmed by it, visually. The excellent art design shone through of course, but it didn’t look great on the console. One Xbox One X it looks like the same game on a different generation of hardware, the leap is that big. In fact, it looks so good that, after recording the above video, I decided to shelve my One X-enhanced Gears of War 4 playthrough to play this instead, finally getting around to my high chaos Corvo run (I previously did a zero kill Emily playthrough).

It’s safe to say that I’m incredibly happy with my purchase, especially as I already had the TV for it. Now I can play console games in the highest fidelity and watch some more UHD blu rays. And that’s without even mentioning how small and quiet the machine is, or what it can do for backwards compatible Xbox 360 games. This thing is an absolute monster, and I can’t wait to see what developers can do with it going forward.

Advertisements


Back before Destiny launched – about three years ago now – I wrote an excitable, detailed piece about the PS4 alpha test. Clearly I was onboard. But if you were to search my blog for more on Bungie’s shared world shooter, you’d turn up a single extra article since launch – an unboxing of the game’s limited edition.

So what happened? Did I hate the game? Did I abandon it altogether? No. I played Destiny for a while, and for a while I loved it. Then I reached the end of the story, and I fell out of love.

My issues with vanilla Destiny are manifold, and I’ll get into them later (indeed, some of them still persist, to varying degrees). But as the release of Destiny 2 looms ever nearer, I find myself getting drawn back to the game I so desperately wanted to love. And so, over the last few weeks, I’ve been revisiting it, now as different an experience as it is similar, to see if I really want to buy in to the sequel.

I’m probably going to get Destiny 2.

To be clear, this isn’t the first time I’ve returned. After walking away from the original game shortly after reaching level 20, and having killed a weird, pulsating cosmic heart that no one cared to even begin to explain, the excitement around the following year’s The Taken King piqued my interest. “It’s got a story now!” people would tell me, adding “there’s a lot more for solo players to do,” and “levelling is much better explained this time!”

They weren’t wrong, to be fair. I swallowed a mouthful of bile at having to re-buy Destiny and its first two expansions to play The Taken King and again, I had a lot of fun with it. And what do you know, it did have a story! A fairly decent one too, even if it still could have done with a touch more explanation (pipe down, Stranger).

Eventually though, I stopped playing again, and it’s at this point I should probably detail what my issues with Destiny were (are?). To begin with, it’s probably worth pointing out why I was so excited for the game; as a huge Halo campaign fan, I’m used to being a bit of a lore nerd, scrounging around for clues about the mysteries of the universe, be they from snippets of obscure dialogue, hidden terminals or even extended universe novels, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into Bungie’s next big mythic sci-fi setting. What I got was… well, a mess, quite frankly, with a campaign that almost gloried in paper thin characters sending you on inexplicable missions packed with vague objectives against inscrutable enemies. True, the Grimoire card system hinted at a deep, interesting pool of lore beyond the surface, and it’s worth pointing out that some stories are told in those cards that probably wouldn’t work in-game, but the campaign itself exposed virtually none of that storytelling to players, instead choosing to offer up a disjointed, unsatisfying attempt at a narrative that had quite clearly been chopped up and sewn back together wrong sometime prior to release – something that Kotaku’s Jason Schreier later confirmed. I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but it genuinely saddened me that Destiny‘s story was such a shambles, and I don’t think it’d be unfair to call it a disaster.

Oryx: not a looker.

As mentioned, 2015’s big expansion The Taken King did much to fix that state of affairs, offering a simpler yet more engaging tale told by actual characters, rather than cardboard cut-outs. It also introduced the Books of Sorrow, which remains the best storytelling in the entire saga (even if, again, we see very little of its intriguing detail in the game itself).

Another big reason for my interest in Destiny was my love of roleplaying games as a genre. A Halo RPG, you say? Sounds like my dream game, sign me up! Unfortunately, another of Destiny‘s missteps was the arcane levelling system after you hit the soft level cap of 20, whereupon any further XP earned would be converted into Motes of Light which you then… You know what, I can’t even remember. I barely engaged with it. I briefly tried to wrap my head around it, and then walked away, rather than grind my face against the backside of RNGesus. Thankfully, The Taken King changed things so that every piece of armour you wear and weapon you wield adds to your overall Light level. Equip a better piece of gear and your Light will go up. Simple! Quite why it had to be so mind-bending in the base game, I don’t know. Still, even with these changes in place, I once more walked away from the game partway through The Taken King, just as I had with vanilla, because my main issue with the game still persisted. And honestly, it’s a complaint that isn’t even fair to level at the game.

Each time, what made me walk away from Destiny is the fact that you can only get so far as a solo player. After a while, you need to group up with others if you want to actually progress further and see everything the game has to offer.

Well d’uh, you’re probably saying, and yes, I know – like I said, it’s not really a fair criticism of the game, given that’s its fundamental nature. It’s just that it doesn’t really work for me, as a typically solitary player that happens to jump into a game whenever I have the time; it’s difficult to schedule a raid when you don’t know if you’re going to be free (or if you can even be arsed when the time slot rolls around). I also don’t really want my gaming time to feel like a commitment, like I have to do something, rather than want to, because that way resentment lies.

Yet even with all that said, Destiny has always been in the back of my mind, and I’ve long thought that I’d like to go back to it and see what the end-game is all about. It’d take a bit of effort on my part (and I had once made the effort to get in on a run through the Vault of Glass, the raid that shipped with the base game), but with Destiny 2 on the horizon, and the thought that I’d quite like to get in on the ground level with the new instalment, I managed to ingratiate myself with a group of friendly players and go raiding. And it’s been great! Having recently run through both Crota’s End and King’s Fall, I can finally see what all the fuss is about. Destiny‘s raids really are the game at its very best, and that’s even more evident when you have a good, patient, friendly group to talk you through the often opaque, dense mechanics. I’ve never had a group to play the game with before, which has always made it very easy to walk away from, and it’s really thanks to the guys over at Town Called Malice that I was even able to experience them. It’s also pretty much down to them that I’m almost certain to buy Destiny 2 now, whereas before I was just sort of interested. ONE OF US. Or, them, I guess.

Destiny has always offered some incredible vistas. Sorry this one’s a bit rubbish.

I’m not sure how well I’ll adapt to scheduling playtimes and such, as it’s probably going to take some kind of rewiring of my brain to get properly into Destiny full-time, but I definitely want to get deeper into it this time out. And as much as I’m fully on-board the hype train now (or, well, I at least have a ticket), there are some things that have given me pause lately. Last month, it emerged that Destiny 2 was doing away with the Grimoire system, with Bungie’s Steve Cotton telling Forbes, “we want to put the lore in the game. We want people to be able to find the lore.” On the face of it, this is a really good change; the Grimoire has long been a complaint for a couple of reasons, mainly that it keeps the lore outside of the game, and having more story exposed to players while they’re in-universe is very obviously a good thing. But as I noted above, the Grimoire also plays host to some excellent story content that simply couldn’t be done in the game – unless it was loaded with lengthy cutscenes and flashbacks, which people would also complain about. As a counterpoint to this, how fucking cool would it have been to discover bits of the Books of Sorrow in a mission on the Dreadnaught, where you slowly pieced together the history of the Hive and discovered the means to defeat Oryx? If this kind of storytelling is what Bungie is going for, then consider me all in. But if all the stuff that doesn’t play an active role in the current story, yet manages to provide flavour and context to the universe is gone? Well, that’s probably not great.

More worrying are the recent pieces of news taken from a couple of interviews with Design Director Luke Smith, where he suggests that seemingly important pieces of the Destiny puzzle may not make a return. First, responding to a question from PC Gamer about whether we’d see the mystery of the Exo Stranger cleared up in Destiny 2, Smith explained that “we have a bunch of characters who are interesting, but the Exo Stranger is one that always makes me chuckle a little bit. Because I feel that’s one character where we actually wrapped up the arc. She gave you a sweet gun and then dissolved, presumably off to do something else. So I feel like, of all of our characters we’ve introduced and exited, we actually exited her effectively.”

For those not familiar with the character, the Stranger was a female Exo that effectively led you by the nose through the original game’s campaign, directing you as much as, if not more than, any other character in the story. She never explained herself, her goal, or her reasons for aiding you, and was often heard talking to some unknown ally before abruptly disappearing. At the end of the game, she offered you her rifle, which is seemingly made of parts that shouldn’t yet exist, before telling the player, “all ends are beginnings. Our fight is far from over.” So to consider her story over is odd at best, and to think her arc was ended “effectively” is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine if Cortana just didn’t turn up in Halo 2! I suspect (hope?) that, given the character’s popularity and potential for future storytelling, that she will eventually wind her way back into a future game or expansion, but given Smith’s statement that her arc is done, I won’t hold my breath until I see it for myself.

I don’t even have time to explain why her story wasn’t “effectively” wrapped up.

A couple of days after the PC Gamer interview, Smith appeared on Kotaku’s podcast, where it was confirmed that The Darkness, the formless, ancient evil of the Destiny universe, would not be appearing in Destiny 2. This makes sense, as the Cabal are the main focal antagonist of the new game, and they aren’t really allied with the Darkness, certainly not in the way other races such as the Hive or Vex are. What was a bit worrying about this was Smith’s reaction to Jason Schreier’s question of whether the omission was because nobody actually knew what the Darkness was: “So, I think that at a point, just totally candidly? We had no idea what it was. Straight up. We had no clue.”

Hmm. Let’s go back to the earlier Kotaku story, which revealed that Destiny underwent massive rewrites a year out from release. We know that Joe Staten and his team of writers spent years building the narrative foundation of Destiny, and we know that the studio leadership didn’t like how it all hung together. Even if the Darkness wasn’t formally laid out, I find it difficult to believe that there weren’t at least deep hooks written into everything else that strongly suggested where the overarching tale was headed; 343 industries’ Frank O’Connor, himself a Bungie alum, has previously stated that much of the current direction of the Halo series arose from discussions at Bungie around what a potential continuation would be, as an example.

With Staten now back at Microsoft, I wonder how much of the comments surrounding the Stranger and the Darkness are about the current writing team wanting to throw out the last vestiges of the original outline, in an effort to more thoroughly put their stamp on Destiny. Smith’s elaboration perhaps supports this: “We didn’t know what it was, and we, for a period, we chose [that] we’re going to lump all the races [in together], and you see this in the tooltips in the game — ‘minions of the darkness.’ And we had taken all the races and said, ‘Ah, they’ll just be The Darkness.’ But that’s not what the IP deserves.”

That’s not what the IP deserves. That, to me, says the Darkness will return, but only when they’ve decided what the current team want their Darkness to be. I won’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing – it may even free them up to tell better stories – but I have to admit to some level of disappointment that we’ll likely never know how the universe of Destiny was originally meant to unfold. After the good work done on The Taken King, however, in both storytelling and gameplay terms, I’m certainly willing to give Smith and his team the benefit of the doubt, even if he does have a bit of a habit of inserting his foot firmly into his mouth and somehow managing to leave a bad taste for everyone.

Oh, not that guy again
Since its release last October, Halo 5: Guardians has seen excellent post-launch support from developer 343 industries. New modes, maps and customisation items have been coming at a decent clip, and all for free, subsidised by the entirely optional REQ system. Later this summer, we’ll be getting a meaty new update in the form of Warzone Firefight, though players can get a quick look at the new mode in this weekend’s beta.

Warzone Firefight isn’t quite the same wave-based survival mode we knew and loved from ODST and Reach. Gone is the ability to simply sit and play for hours with a group of friends; Warzone Firefight is built on the foundation of Warzone, the new-for-Halo 5 PvPvE mode that sees the battle escalating as the REQ level climbs, and so it goes with this new co-operative PvE experience. Eight players take on five waves of increasingly-difficult objectives, with each having a time limit of five minutes – fail to complete your objective in time, and it’s game over. These goals are pulled from a pool of differently-weighted objectives that the game selects for your team of Spartans as the match unfolds – you might be tasked with eliminating a large number of jackals in one round, and then with defending a base against a hundred invaders in the next. In the final round, you’ll have to face off against the new Mythic-tier bosses, with upgraded health and abilities.

For the beta, Warzone Firefight is only playable on Escape from ARC, and it feels like a good map for it, funnelling players through the large map’s various structures to get to their objectives. At first, it can seem a bit chaotic, with your goals appearing in different places all over the vast map, but after a few games you’ll learn where to head when you see that objective marker pop up in the lower-right corner of the screen. And speaking of those objectives, it soon becomes clear that there is quite a diverse set of them on offer; even the final round isn’t set, with a fight against three Warden Eternals sometimes being replaced with a pitched battle against four Serpent Hunters in one of the game’s Home bases. Not all objectives are created equal however, and you’ll find you’ll have an easier time of it in round three if you’re facing off against a pair of Knight Marshalls, rather than defending the Garage against dozens upon dozens of tooled-up Prometheans.

Warzone Firefight

You might want to do things the hard way though. The main complaint I have with Warzone Firefight right now is that matches feel a touch too short. The maximum time you can spend in one match is, theoretically, 25 minutes, and that’s if you’re just managing to complete your objectives. Often, you’ll fly through the early rounds in a couple of minutes and finish the five rounds well under the twenty-minute mark. It’s a far cry from the endlessly-tweakable Firefight in Reach, which you could play for hours on end if you so wished. Of course, with this being more score-attack focused, it makes sense that the matches don’t last all day, but quite often it feels like it’s over before it’s really begun – certainly in your early games, as you get to grips with the mode.

That’s not to say the challenge isn’t there, however. Enemies in Warzone Firefight hit hard and fast, and there are a lot of them. Perhaps it’s simply an effect of the pressure to score high in a short amount of time making me play more recklessly, but they feel slightly north of Heroic difficulty. Handily, REQ energy seems to build quite fast, so by the time you’re a few rounds in you should be able to bring out some powerful SAWs or Railguns to help you deal with the masses of tough enemies. By the time you’ve used all the ammo, you’re a decent way back to earning another one.

One thing that does irk me somewhat is the spawns. Should you die, you’ll generally be quite some way from the fight when you get back into the game. I understand that you need to be able to spawn in a safe place, but it often means you have to hoof it across the map, potentially missing out on a chunk of the round, which will obviously affect your score. This can be especially tough if you’re defending the Garage in round three, as you’ll spawn in the tunnel opposite, and with tough enemies between you and the base and phaetons patrolling the skies, it’s possible to get pinned down in the tunnel for too long.

Warzone Firefight is also the best way to show off your custom Spartan armour and colours

Warzone Firefight is also the best way to show off your custom Spartan armour and colours

But this is a beta, and 343 are running it months in advance of launch so that player feedback can be taken into account, much like the game’s original Arena multiplayer beta that hit almost a year before the full game landed – things can and will be tweaked between now and release. For my part, I’d quite like to see Warzone Firefight given its own playlist, with a bunch of different varieties to choose from. Or at least one more, maybe with ten rounds rather than five, and with multiple objectives per round, as is already the case with the current offering’s final round, which tasks you with two waves of boss battles. Even better would be to open it up to customs and allow players to tweak to their hearts content. I’d love a co-op mode where I can just sit with a bunch of chums and shoot grunts in the face for an hour or two. And honestly? I want more objectives like ‘defend the garage’. It shows Warzone Firefight at its manic, nailbiting best, the screen alive with dozens of enemies and explosions, the air thick with lead and laser.

As things stand though, it’s still fantastic fun, and it gives players a better chance at seeing what all those REQs actually do, without the fear of being immediately ganked after spawning with a legendary rocket launcher, as so often happens in Warzone. For someone like me, who only plays Warzone once or twice a week, it’s exciting to know I’ll soon have a new mode that allows me to get some use out of all those high-powered cards that I rarely get the chance to bring out. And the fact that it includes matchmaking means you can play it even when your friends are busy.

The beta runs until Monday, so make sure to jump in-game and try out Firefight while you can. There’s no specific date as yet for when the mode will launch in full, but it’s expected some time in the summer. Until then, get some games in, and be sure to get yourself over to Waypoint to let the developers hear your feedback.

The pressure was surely on. After some missteps with Halo 4, and in the wake of the disastrous launch of last year’s series celebration The Master Chief Collection, 343 industries had quite a bit too prove. Seemingly against all odds, that’s exactly what they’ve done with Halo 5: Guardians.

The rebuilding is thorough. Here we have a campaign comprising eight playable characters across two four-person squads, that takes place across multiple planets playing host to expansive environments populated by dozens of enemies. Multiplayer showcases what was always great about Halo – tight arena gameplay, equal starts, on-map pick-ups, and balance, balance, balance! To that end, gone are Halo: Reach and 4‘s equippable Spartan Abilities, replaced by a suite of standard abilities that every player always has at their disposal, meaning you always know what your opponents are capable of.

sanghelios

The most visible of these is a directional dodge that you can use to quickly boost a few meters, even changing direction in mid-air, and coupled with a Titanfall-style clamber you can use to quickly climb over everything in the environment to get the drop on your foes. There’s also an incredibly powerful melee charge, a quick slide, and, most interestingly, stabiliser jets that will keep you in the air for a few seconds when you zoom your weapon, and with a bit of momentum behind you, can even be used to extend your jumps. If you’re feeling particularly gutsy, you can also aim a jet-powered ground pound at enemies below you, at the cost of hanging in the air for a few seconds while it charges up. Halo has always been a relatively mobile, vertical shooter, and these new abilities continue that tradition while adding a number of new wrinkles to the much-loved golden triangle of guns, grenades and melee.

All of this added mobility also informs the level design. Campaign spaces are the densest, most intricate environments the series has ever seen, with multiple paths through, over and under, with tons of hidden areas for you to wall-charge through to find an advantageous overlook to perch on. Wider levels also make use of your squad members, who can be ordered about with a single, contextual button press. Want them to pick up a specific weapon? Aim at it and press up on the d-pad. Want them to take up position on a gun emplacement, jump in a vehicle or focus fire on a certain enemy? Same deal. It’s simple, clean and elegant. Best of all, the AI won’t get in your way; while they’re competent enough, they aren’t going to complete the game for you, and if you’d rather not have to worry about them, those slots can always be filled by real human friends in four-player drop-in, drop-out co-op.

Then there’s Warzone, 343’s new 12v12 PvP plus PvE-ish mode. Taking place on huge maps with multiple objectives to capture, AI enemies and super-bosses to clear out, a typical Warzone match quickly descends into utter chaos as players get access to better weapons, vehicles and power-ups. This is where the Req system comes in, selectable cards that work much like Titanfall’s burn cards – use them once and they’re gone, die immediately after spawning with a shiny new power weapon, and yep, it’s gone too. This mode is certainly not balanced in any sense of the word, but then it’s not supposed to be. It’s gloriously insane Halo sandbox mayhem.

Blue Team's Kelly

There are some chinks in the Mjolnir armour, of course. The narrative could certainly use some work, and while I’m planning on writing a more in-depth piece specifically about that, character motivations are the first casualty of the expanded cast. While there’s plenty of in-mission banter, there are no real character moments in the cutscenes, which exist solely to push the story on at the expense of giving players someone to latch on to, empathise with, and thus contextualise the story through. Enormous, galaxy-changing events happen in Halo 5, but the delivery sometimes falls flat.

In gameplay terms though, Halo 5 is utterly sublime. The new additions to character movement, the adherence to a strict 60 frames update, and the fantastic, intricate level design all come together to offer perhaps the tightest Halo gameplay we’ve seen in years – it just feels so damn good in the hands. When you’re jumping, boosting and clambering through huge environments scoring headshots left and right as you soar through the air, before dropping a ground pound on an unsuspecting foe, Halo 5: Guardians is a triumph.

Halo 5 victory bros
The Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta begins in earnest next Monday, but this past weekend members of the Xbox One dashboard preview were allowed a short peek past the curtain. We got to take a look at the content that will make up the first week of the three-week test: 4v4 arena multiplayer on two maps, Empire and Truth. Empire is a small, asymmetric map set either on Earth or a human-controlled colony, while Truth, a remake of Halo 2 classic Midship, offers a little more room to manoeuver.

What everyone really wants to know about however is how the game plays. Well, it plays like Halo. To anyone not particularly interested in Microsoft’s premier FPS series, that might seem like an obvious descriptor, but Halo fans will be sceptical after 343’s first turn at bat, 2012’s Halo 4, experimented with a few things – like loadouts and killstreak perks – from other shooters, in the process tarnishing that Halo feel that fans expect. Here, there’s no need to worry. Everyone starts with the same guns – the classic MA5 assault rifle and another take on the series’ iconic magnum – and other weapons are back on the maps as pickups, where they belong. Ordnance drops? They’re gone too. It’s pure arena slayer – fair starts for all, and map knowledge and control is paramount.

There are also no armour abilities – selectable, rechargeable power-ups introduced by Bungie in Reach and inherited by 343 in Halo 4 – which means you’ll no longer be facing off against an entire team of Armour Lock spammers. What replaces them in Halo 5: Guardians are Spartan Abilties, base skills that every player has access to right from the start. These are mainly abilities that enable you to get around the environment more fluidly, and I’ll talk about each in turn, starting with my favourite, the thruster pack.

Halo 5 thruster evade

This should be immediately recognisable to anyone who played Halo 4, as it’s essentially that game’s thruster pack armour ability, except made actually useful. It’s no longer a canned animation that takes you out into third person, and you can use it in mid-air without losing momentum. For the uninitiated, it does exactly what it says on the tin and gives you a short, sharp boost in whichever direction you’re moving. You can use it to back up or close distance quickly, or speed-strafe out of the way of an incoming sniper round perhaps. That may sound overpowered, but it’s balanced quite nicely.

First, remember that everyone can do it, which means they can match you move for move if so inclined, and if you’re trying to use it to get out of danger, you’d best have somewhere to go – boosting in a direction in the middle of an open room is likely just going to prolong the inevitable. Secondly, it requires a short cooldown, so don’t think you’ll be boosting all over the maps; if you’re going to use your thrusters to burst into an area, you need to have a plan, because you can’t just immediately fly back out if things get hairy.

I mentioned that you can use the thruster pack in mid-air, and this will ideally be combined with a bit of sprint momentum to move across the maps more quickly. Add to this another new skill, the ability to mantle up to higher ledges by holding the jump button – so long as you can physically reach them – and the result is a pleasing degree of extra mobility in what has always been a relatively mobile series. These two things in particular – thruster and clamber – feel like a very natural fit for the Halo formula; we’ve long been used to clambering all over the furniture in this series via skill jumps and the like, and these added extras slot in perfectly, allowing players to maximise the verticality that has always been a part of Halo multiplayer.

There are also a few other things your increased mobility allows you to do, such as a thruster-enabled shoulder charge melee attack that can quickly close distance and catch you unaware, and you can now slide by crouching during a sprint. Holding crouch when in the air also stabilises you, slowing your descent and maybe allowing you to fire off a killing blow if you’re chasing a weakened opponent. There’s also the Ground Pound ability, which allows you to get the drop on an unsuspecting enemy at the expense of hanging in the air for several seconds to charge it up. In a small arena game, it seems borderline suicidal, but I imagine it’ll come into its own on larger maps – it seems custom made for BTB, where you’ll have much more space to move around and catch opponents unaware.

Sprint has also seen some balancing. A lot of players hated the unlimited sprint in Halo 4, feeling that it served to stretch maps out and give people an easy way out of fights they probably shouldn’t have engaged in in the first place, and 343 have made a decent attempt to answer that criticism, too. You can sprint indefinitely if you wish, but your shields won’t recharge while you do, meaning that using it to get out of trouble carries a risk as you greatly lengthen the amount of time you remain vulnerable. Stop sprinting, and your shields will begin to refill. It’s a small yet smart way to allow faster movement while keeping it in check.

Focusing on Halo 2: Anniversary‘s more arena-based maps seems to have sharpened 343’s vision for Halo 5: Guardian‘s multiplayer, and it’s obvious that the team are aiming for the competitive circuit, at least where arena is concerned. Team mates automatically call out enemy positions, thrown grenades and power weapon respawns, which means it’s not absolutely necessary to be communicating with your team – a useful addition for a player like me that tends to play Halo multiplayer alone. Prior to playing, I imagined I’d find this off-putting, but in practice it gives me a greater awareness of the battlefield and allows me to be a more productive member of the team, even while playing solo.

Power weapon placements are also marked on your HUD, so everyone always knows where they are and when they’ll be back. This may seem somewhat antithetical to the accepted way of playing Halo – that is, to learn the maps through play – but it helps to keep everyone on an even keel, meaning your skill with weapons, grenades, melee and movement is what counts most.

Halo 5 Battle Rifle Scope

I do have a couple of complaints, however, and the main one is that automatic weapons seem quite overpowered in this build. It feels like they’ve had a substantial boost to both accuracy and range and my immediate gut feeling is that they need a bit of nerfing. If 343 wanted to make automatics viable (which seems to be the case, given that every game in the early access period was AR starts), they’ve certainly done that. But when an SMG beats out a battle rifle at mid-range – which happened to me on Truth – then they might have gone a touch too far. I wouldn’t like to see them completely neutered however, as it it’s quite nice to actually be effective with the trusty old MA5. A bit more fall-off in effective range will surely help.

My other complaint concerns something that had me very worried when the first glimpses of Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer appeared online, yet as it turns out, it’s a very small objection. It’s to do with the game’s new scope animation, which looks for all the world to be Call of Duty-style ‘aim down sights’. ‘ADS’ is something I am resolutely against seeing in Halo, and it’s probably the one thing the player-base can agree on. Thankfully, it’s pretty much just a cosmetic change, and serves the same mechanical purpose as scope zoom did in the previous games; movement remains unrestricted, meaning we can still strafe and jump unhindered as before, and de-scoping also makes a return, dropping you out of zoom should you take a hit. Just as important as freedom of movement is the fact that there’s no penalty to hip fire to force you into scope in order to be effective – precision weapons are as accurate as they always were, and scoping just gives you a bit of zoom. Many, including myself, had worried that the new mechanic would make the game feel too much like other shooters on the market, but in practice that just isn’t the case. It’s really just a new animation for a signature Halo mechanic, and the combat loop is still unmistakably Halo.

The only real difference with scoped weapons is the addition of extra screen furniture in the form of a physical scope, rather than the full-screen zoom we had before, and it’s this I take issue with. It’s not too bad with the Battle Rifle, as there isn’t much to get in the way, but when you zoom the DMR, the scope takes up quite a chunk of your field of vision, obscuring a decent amount of the scenery around what you’re scoping on. It clouds your peripheral vision more than ever before, even if it doesn’t particularly affect the way the game plays.

In the grand scheme of things though, and taking into account that this is a beta of a game a year out from release, these are both relatively minor issues considering how much the game feels like Halo to me. It feels like what Halo 4‘s multiplayer should have been, and I get the feeling that working on the more arena-focused Halo 2 for the recent Anniversary remaster has allowed 343 to remember Halo‘s core strengths – that is movement, teamwork and map control, along with the holy trinity of guns, grenades and melee. It’s maybe a touch faster, a bit more mobile, but, so far at least, Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer is Halo through and through. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the beta brings when it goes live on December 29th. Until then, you can enjoy 18 minutes of gameplay captured on my Xbox One.

nightfall
Everyone remembers that Xbox One reveal. It was so memorable for its focus on things other than gaming that it spawned its own “TVTVTV” meme. Everyone remembers the subsequent u-turns, many made after the appointment in March of this year of Phil Spencer to the Xbox Department’s top job – decisions made in an effort to right the ship after months of negativity toward the Xbox brand.

And so, it came as little surprise when, a few months after Spencer assumed control, Xbox Entertainment Studios was shut down. Formed in 2012 to create interactive television content for Xbox Live, the studio never got a chance to show us what it could bring to the table. While a couple of the studios projects, like the subject of this piece, survived that closure, it would have been interesting to see where such a venture might have lead in the fullness of time, especially if they were to focus primarily on gaming-related content; as a big fan of extended universe stuff, I like that the worlds we explore in games can exist in more places than just the consoles and PCs we play them on.

As with any project that ties into a franchise’s extended universe, the result is of course that these things often end up being very obviously ‘for the fans’, and that’s no bad thing: it’s the most hardcore fans that are going to care about the wider universe these things sit within.

Which is why it’s a little odd, on first starting up episode 1 of Halo: Nightfall, the Xbox Live-exclusive miniseries from Scott Free Productions that requires ownership of the Master Chief Collection to even access, that there’s a short text intro to set the scene. Fans don’t need the Human-Covenant War explained to them, nor the resultant unsteady peace, yet newcomers are unlikely to even see the series (at least for the time being).

locke

Thankfully, pretty much everything from here on in is pure fanservice. Right from the moment we’re introduced to Jameson Locke as he and his team track an alien smuggler on a human colony world, we see that the soldiers are equipped with Halo: Combat Evolved‘s iconic pistol. Following the smuggler, the team witnesses a Covenant Spirit flying low overhead, looking and sounding exactly as you’d expect. Later, when we meet Aiken, a colonel in the local Colonial Guard, the mistrust between the colonists and their UNSC ‘guests’ is palpable, yet the show wastes absolutely no time explaining why this is; hardcore Halo fans will likely understand, and so it’s left at that.

The story follows a small intelligence team as they track an alien smuggler on the human colony of Sedra (population: 92% human, we are reliably informed). Witnessing the smuggler hand over a package, thought to be a bomb, to an Elite in the forests outside of Sedra’s capital, Locke’s team give chase, losing the alien as it escapes into the city. Before it can be stopped, the Elite detonates the device in a crowded shopping centre. Rather than explode however, it emits a strange pulse that quickly infects humans – and only humans – leaving them to slowly perish from an unknown malady.

Realising that the Covenant could now possess a biological weapon that only targets humans, Locke’s team, assisted by a colonial guardsman named Macer, manage to track the substance to a fragment of Alpha Halo (“the one destroyed by the Master Chief!” – again, no explanation deemed necessary), and set in motion a plan to travel to the fragment, apprehend the smugglers that are collecting the substance, and destroy it if possible.

As you’d expect from a Scott Free production, it’s very nicely composed and shot, and holds up well against other recent sci-fi like Battlestar Galactica, at least in the audiovisual department – unsurprising perhaps, given the choice of Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Prison Break, alongside the aforementioned Battlestar reboot) on directorial duties. The overall tone isn’t too far removed from something like The Sarah Connor Chronicles either, going for a reasonably grounded feel, despite the fact it’s set in the 2550s. CGI shots of the Covenant Elite seen in this first episode could probably be better, though it’s no worse than, say, a computer-generated Cylon Centurion.

macer

Though we’re only half an hour in at this point, I can’t imagine I’ll be quite as complimentary about the script and performances. Prison Break‘s Paul Scheuring is on writing duties, and though Mike Colter seems likeable enough as Locke, so far everyone else is simply adequate, if a bit flat. Dialogue is generally fine, but the occasional dramatic line falls flat, too (sample line: “He says it’s sourced from a place no one will go. He says it’s sourced from Hell.”). While Aiken obviously hides some secrets in his past, Locke’s team remain mostly anonymous, and I can already imagine the cast shrinking somewhat to focus around the core of Locke, Macer and Aiken as we go forward.

But then, standing up to genre stalwarts most likely isn’t the point of Halo: Nightfall. It’s an excessively expensive piece of fanservice meant to introduce players to the character of Jameson Locke, someone who will become increasingly important in the Halo universe the closer we get to next year’s release of Halo 5: Guardians. It fills a similar role as 2012’s Forward Unto Dawn, then, serving to bridge the gap between sequels while introducing a new character or two along the way. It feels like an expansion of that idea, yet at thirty minutes per episode it isn’t quite television length – Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming live-action adaptation (another survivor of the closure of XES) will likely cover that role, and it’s easy to see Nightfall as something of a practice run for the larger project

It’s difficult to recommend Halo: Nightfall to newcomers to the franchise, given how much knowledge is assumed, but for fans it’s as shiny and lavish a piece of extended universe fiction as we’re likely to see – at least until Spielberg’s offering materialises. And as a look at what might have been had Xbox Entertainment Studios continued, well, it’s a shame that it never really got a chance to get started.

Delta Halo
The Master Chief Collection hits next week, offering players the chance to catch up with the Halo series before its first bespoke Xbox One outing next year. But what of the rest of the Halo universe? The webseries, the comics, the novels – where would one even begin to penetrate the huge transmedia phenomenon that Halo has now become?

Personally, I think the collection of novels set in the Halo universe is the best place to start digging. There’s a wealth of information, great action and even a handful of endearing characters to be found, and if you’ve ever been curious to know whether there are other Spartan IIs out there or what the Forerunner civilization was like, if you’ve ever wondered who the hell the Didact is or why the Master Chief is back fighting the Covenant in Halo 4, these novels will both inform and entertain you. So let’s take a look at the books and how they fit in and around the Halo games.

The core of the Halo extended universe is built around three trilogies of novels, two of which are connected directly, and each written by a different author, which lends each trio of books a distinct tone and writing style. I feel like tie-in novels often get a bit of a bad rap, as if they’re not worth reading because they’re associated with video games, but these three trilogies are definitely worth your time if you’re invested enough in the lore to want to dig further. There’s also a small collection of other books that don’t really tie in to the three main trilogies that I’ll touch on next time. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the first two trilogies in the series.

ERIC NYLUND
First Strike Cover
The first set of books, written by Eric Nylund (now of Amazon Game Studios), form a loose trilogy of enjoyable pulp-y sci-fi action-adventures that lay the foundations for much that follows in the series, while also serving to expose some of the backstory to readers. They’re also the only books to prominently feature the Master Chief and Cortana, with all their other exploits taking place exclusively in the games.

Nylund’s three books take place in and around the first two games in the series, beginning with The Fall of Reach. The first book exposes a darker side to the UNSC that we hadn’t previously known existed, taking us back forty years to the genesis of the Spartan II program – a top secret initiative that involves the Office of Naval Intelligence’s top scientist, Doctor Halsey, kidnapping young children and subjecting them to a decade’s training and physical augmentation. Originally intended as a means to end insurrection in humanity’s colonies, they are quickly repurposed when a collection of alien races known as the Covenant begins their genocidal holy war against them.

The Fall of Reach leads directly into Halo: Combat Evolved, where the UNSC ship Pillar of Autumn has just escaped the destruction of Reach, the most important human planet next to Earth. The planet is lost to the invading aliens at the end of the book (as the title would imply), but survivors remain, deep underground in mysterious, ancient ruins. After the events of Combat Evolved (retold in the book The Flood, which we’ll look at next time), the Master Chief and Cortana venture back to see what became of their comrades in the next book, First Strike. Making their way back, they manage to extract the final remaining Spartans, as well as Doctor Halsey, before making their escape.

Unfortunately, their relief is short-lived. Heading back toward Earth, Cortana learns of an enormous fleet of Covenant vessels planning to attack the human homeworld. They are massed at a battle station called Unyielding Hierophant, and the Master Chief hatches a daring plan to attack the station, crippling the fleet before it can ever reach Earth. Taking advantage of the chaos, Doctor Halsey drugs an injured Spartan, hijacks a transport and heads for a location she discovered in her final days on Reach – a place she believes could be a sanctuary to ride out the war. Meanwhile, the remaining Spartans enact their plan and destroy much, though not all, of the Covenant fleet. The remainder begins its journey toward Earth, leading into the events of Halo 2.

While the first two novels in Nylund’s trilogy revolve around the core of the Master Chief and Cortana, his third novel, Ghosts of Onyx, branches out a bit more, introducing new characters and setting the precedent for later novels to tell different, but inter-related, tales in the wider Halo universe. Ghosts introduces the reader to the Spartan III supersoldiers for the first time, trained on a top-secret UNSC-controlled world called Onyx. A world that is not what it seems to be, and a world that Doctor Halsey speeds toward in a stolen ship carrying a sedated Spartan II.

Onyx, it turns out, is actually an entirely artificial planet, created by the long-dead Forerunners, the race that the Covenant revere as gods, and so it’s no surprise that the aliens eventually make their presence felt, attempting to remove the blaspheming humans from what they view as a holy relic. Escaping into the heart of the planet, the survivors quickly realise that Onyx is in fact a Forerunner shield world existing in a slipspace bubble that isolates it from the rest of the galaxy – a bunker intended to sit out the Flood menace that caused the Halo rings to be fired 100,000 years in the past. Unaware if they will ever make it back into real space, the remaining humans set out to explore this unfamiliar world.

In 2009, when Halo: Reach was announced, I was hopeful that the game would take its cues from the Reach sections of these novels, maybe even alowing fans to play through the events they’d read about. Bungie decided to go a different way, however, and while Reach is an excellent game (arguably the best in the series, in my humble opinion), they also managed to step on the expanded universe lore somewhat. Some things, like the presence of the Autumn on the surface of Reach or Cortana’s fragment entrusted to Noble 6, are a bit clumsy, but can be (and later were) smoothed out, but the biggest issue is Halsey’s complete indifference to seeing Spartan IIIs. In the books, she didn’t know about their existence until she left Reach, which was something of a shock to her, given the Spartan II program was entirely her initiative. This creates something of a black hole in the lore which still manages to irk me somewhat even now.

[In 2010, both The Fall of Reach and First Strike were re-released with additional content and some minor revisions. I haven’t read these new versions myself, but have looked into the changes, and I don’t believe they do anything to address the plot holes introduced by Halo: Reach.]

GREG BEAR
Halo Cryptum Cover
In 2011, Nebula Award-winning hard science fiction writer Greg Bear released his first book in the Forerunner Saga, perhaps the most interesting set of novels in the expanded universe. The Forerunner culture has always been a source of mystery and speculation in the Halo series; who were these people that built these breathtaking megastructures in deep space? What was their civilization like, and what are the ties they seem to share with humanity? Halo 3 did much to continue this speculation, introducing the characters of the Didact and the Librarian (if only through hidden terminals), characters that return both in Bear’s trilogy of novels and later, Halo 4 itself. We also learn more about the Precursors, a civilization that preceded even the Forerunners, first teased in the terminals of Halo 3 and quite possibly the major antagonistic force for the next game in the series, Halo 5: Guardians.

The Forerunner Saga aims to shine some light on the civilization, culture and great (and maybe even terrible) works of the mysterious race. Set over 100,000 years before the rest of the series, at the height of Forerunner power and before the war with the Flood and the firing of the Halo array, the first book, Cryptum, follows a rebellious young Forerunner called Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting as he embarks on an adventure to uncover relics of the past. He journeys to Earth, home to a primitive human culture, and there finds the cryptum of a once-powerful warrior that went into hiding in centuries past. Waking the warrior, Bornstellar realises that he is the Didact, the former general of the Forerunner armies and political opponent to the ruling caste of Builders; there had been a disagreement over how best to deal with the Flood, with the Builers favouring the destructive might of the Halo array, while the Didact and his Warrior-Servants wished to construct more shield worlds like Onyx to ride out the oncoming storm.

Bornstellar travels with the Didact and his human guides, learning much about both human and Forerunner history, and is later imprinted with the Didact’s psyche, gaining his memories and tactical prowess into the bargain. Making a trip to a world called Charum Hakkor, the Didact discovers that an ancient creature known as the Primordial that was once imprisoned there has somehow been released. When the Didact is captured by the Master Builder and presumed executed, Bornstellar returns to the Forerunner capital as a rampant Forerunner AI corrupted by the escaped Primordial unleashes an attack at the heart of Forerunner power. Bornstellar is able to escape to the safety of the Ark, where he meets the Librarian and assumes the mantle of her husband, the Didact.

I said before that the Forerunner Saga is likely the most interesting story in the entire Halo canon, but this doesn’t mean it’s particularly easy to digest. Owing to Bear’s hard sci-fi style, these books can be a little ponderous and it’s often difficult to picture the more fantastic elements of the Forerunner empire in your mind’s eye. Many things are stated without the need for explanation – fitting, for characters that already understand what they’re looking at, but not particularly helpful to the reader.

This approach becomes a particular problem in the second book, Primordium, told from the perspective of an ancient human travelling across a Forerunner installation with little or no understanding of the things he’s seeing. This works well to put the reader into the shoes of the character, but can be frustrating for the avid Halo fan looking to comb the story for detail. Primordium itself can be quite a slog to get through, as the main character Chakas – one of Bornstellar’s guides from Cryptum – journeys across a Halo commandeered by the Primordial, meeting up with the Bornstellar Didact near the tale’s conclusion. The Didact confronts and destroys the Primordial, but not before it reveals the true nature of the Precursors and their relationship with the Flood. Chakas, mortally wounded from his ordeal on the ring, is transformed into a monitor through the use of a composer, a Forerunner device that plays a large part in the plot of Halo 4. Before the book ends, we are treated to one final revelation: the monitor that Chakas becomes is 343 Guilty Spark.

The final book, Silentium, is an easier read. It’s less interested in building up the Forerunners, given its focus on the final days of the empire and the build-up to the firing of the Halo array. As the war with the Flood intensifies and their civilization crumbles around them, we view the end of the Forerunners from the perspective of both Didacts and the Librarian. The latter recounts a tale of her journey to another galaxy in an attempt to discover the mystery behind the Precursors’ disappearance, finding a primitive Forerunner civilization and the answers she seeks. We learn that the original Didact still lives, as he awakens on a wreck in a Flood-occupied system, having been sent there to die by the Master Builder. He is captured and interrogated by a Gravemind and later released to return to his people, his mind twisted by the experience.

Bornstellar, meanwhile, now acting as the Didact, falls back to the Ark, but not before witnessing his original harvest a population of rescued humans living on one of the Halos, which he uses to create his Promethean Knights. Outraged at his depravity, the Librarian follows her husband to his shield world Requiem, imprisoning him there before leaving for Earth to draw the Flood away from the Ark. Her sacrifice buying him time, Bornstellar fires the Halo array, destroying the Flood and all other sentient life in the galaxy not safely hidden on the Ark.

The Forerunners have long been the biggest mystery in the Halo universe: right from the moment you first step foot on Combat Evolved‘s iconic ringworld, you’re wondering who built it and why, and Bear’s trilogy is easily the deepest look we’ve ever had at this previously mysterious foundation for the saga. There is of course the argument that exposing the mystery can go some way to dismantling its appeal, but Bear’s style oddly helps in this regard, as it often feels like we get little more than a glimpse at many aspects of the series’ distant past. There is still much we don’t know, and while it’s great to have many questions answered, the books raise a few of their own, while laying some groundwork for the future of the series. If you’ve always wanted to know more about the Forerunners, as well as reach a better understanding of the events at play in Halo 4, these books are well worth the effort.

That’s it for part one. Next time I’ll be taking a look at what I believe is the absolute cream of the crop of Halo novels – Karen Traviss’ Kilo-Five Trilogy – as well as covering the remaining standalone books in the series.