Archives for category: Halo

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Since the somewhat mixed reception to Halo 4, developer 343 industries have been quietly working away to improve on everything fans disliked about their 2012 debut. From Halo 5: Guardians‘ showing at E3 this month though, you’d be hard-pressed to have noticed.

It’s safe to say Halo 5: Guardians had something of an underwhelming gameplay debut at Microsoft’s press conference. Our first glimpse at the game’s single-player campaign – a tightly-scripted, explosion-filled six-minute jaunt through the narrow environs of the Covenant-held world Sunaion – wasn’t quite the gameplay reveal fans were hoping for coming off the back of Halo 4. That game saw the franchise’s trademark wide-open level design and huge set-piece battles scaled back noticeably in favour of a much shinier presentation – a move which became one of the major points of contention with 343’s handling of the Halo IP, and a trend you could be forgiven for thinking they were continuing after Halo 5‘s E3 reveal.

Yet, as negative as some fans are towards 343’s stewardship of the series, this kind of focused, scripted demo was actually somewhat unexpected for fans. In the run up to E3, there had been plenty to get excited about, as the Microsoft studio began ramping up their marketing campaign with early live action trailers, ARGs and magazine blowouts setting the stage for what to expect from the next instalment in Microsoft’s premier exclusive franchise.

Whereas Halo 4 saw 343 extending Bungie’s pre-existing fiction to support their own, creating a ton of new extended universe material to lead up to – and out of – their first Halo game, Halo 5 sees them drawing from the entire canon to create what they hope will be the biggest, most ambitious title in the franchise yet. Reaching right back to the birth of the extended universe in the run-up to Halo 5‘s reveal at E3, a thirteen-part audio drama called Hunt the Truth explored the origins of the Master Chief and his fellow Spartan IIs while also laying down some foreshadowing with vague mentions of deep space anomalies and mysterious events happening in the fiercely independent, neglected outer colonies. The series also dealt with the idea that the Master Chief had gone rogue, a plot element introduced just before the start of Hunt the Truth with two excellent, opposing live-action trailers.

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With Hunt the Truth underway, fans were also treated to a small-scale ARG that teased the cover art for the game, and revealed something of a megaton for followers of the extended universe: the cover art featured Blue Team. It was later confirmed in a Game Informer cover feature that Chief would not only be accompanied by Blue Team during the events of the game, but they’d be playable in drop-in/drop-out four-player co-op. Fans have wanted to see fellow Spartan IIs Fred, Linda and Kelly appear in a Halo game since reading the first extended universe novel, The Fall of Reach, back in 2001; indeed, when Halo Reach first debuted at E3 in 2009 with the silhouettes of an entire squad of Spartans, many of us thought we’d finally see the in-game introduction of the Chief’s closest comrades. We’ve had to wait a long time, but we’re finally getting our wish. It’s surely a surprise to some fans that it’s actually 343 that’s making it happen.

This four-person squad mechanic also feeds into the expanded sense of scale we can expect to see in Halo 5: Guardians. Those Game Informer features, echoed in previews from other media outlets, made mention of environments that offer multiple different routes, enabling players to tackle objectives in a number of ways – combine this with the ability to order your teammates to attack specific targets, take up positions and activate objectives, and you can start to get some idea of the wider possibilities at play. If this all sounds just a little bit like Star Wars: Republic Commando, well, there’s a reason for that; Tim Longo, creative director on that game. now fulfils that same role on Halo 5, with his predecessor Josh Holmes stepping into the role of Studio Head. Halo has long been ripe with opportunity to take the base formula, which has at this point been polished to a perfect shine, and try to expand that in interesting ways – who remembers thinking Halo 4 might take some cues from Metroid Prime after 343 took on some ex-Retro staff? – and these squad mechanics, coupled with more intricate level design and some new movement abilities, feel like they should be a perfect fit for the series.

This also extends to Warzone, 343’s new large-scale multiplayer mode that hopes to encompass all aspects of the Halo sandbox. Warzone stands in stark contrast to last December’s Arena beta – if that four-map test suggested that 343 were focused on recapturing Halo‘s tight, competitive arena combat, Warzone is the developer pushing at the very boundaries of Halo‘s beautifully elastic sandbox. Played on environments four times larger than any previous Halo map, Warzone takes some cues from the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre and sees two teams of 12 Spartans battle it out to control strategic points on the map in an effort to weaken the opponent’s base, while also fighting off hostile AI, including spawning bosses that can either hold a spot on the map for themselves, forcing players to root them out to claim it for their team, or roam about the map – even in vehicles like a banshee.

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Players will also level up as the match progresses, gaining access to better weapons and vehicles as they go, escalating the mayhem, until, by the end of the round, the enormous maps are crawling with players, AI, power weapons and fleets of vehicles. It sounds like it’s throwing everything Halo, including the Infinity’s kitchen sink, into one insane, over the top, carnage-filled mode, and it looks like it’ll be an absolute blast.

All of which makes their decision to show that tightly controlled, linear story segment as our first (and, so far, only!) glimpse at Halo 5‘s single-player mode a little odd. Surely it’s the hardest of the hardcore that are going to watch E3 – the ones that have been following every little hint, every little breadcrumb, every cryptic tweet – the ones that are going to want to dive deep into the mechanics and systems at play? The reveal had the effect of feeling a little deflating after all the hype and build-up. To the casual observer, Halo 5 simply looked to be continuing 4‘s path towards a more linear experience.

So it was a surprisingly lightweight showing for what will be Microsoft’s biggest game of the year. However, that’s not to say there was nothing to glean from the six-minute segment. Right from the start, we’re introduced to Jameson Locke, long since confirmed as a second playable protagonist, and his team of Spartan IVs, which includes everyone’s favourite former ODST Eddie Buck. We know they’re tracking the Chief on a Covenant-held world with the help of the Arbiter, who, embroiled in a civil war with his fellow Elites, is attempting to crush the remnants of that crumbling civilization. We learn that there are two new enemies – the Forerunner aerial Unit called the Phaeton and the agile new Promethean Soldier. We also see a new Covenant weapon in the Plasma Caster, and, perhaps most importantly of all, we learn that the grunts speak English again!

More difficult to pick out is the ability to order your squad around. In the demo we see Locke instruct comms specialist Vale to analyse a discarded MA5 rifle, and later tell Buck to fire on an attacking Phaeton, but if you didn’t know you were able to manually issue orders in-game, it would be easy to assume these were simply scripted sequences. This is compounded by how narrow and scripted the demo is as a whole, and why it would have been so much more illustrative to have a developer on-stage to walk viewers through the various additions in Halo 5. Instead of giving the impression that we’re in for Halo 4 Part 2, they could have amplified that pre-reveal excitement and ridden it all the way to release.

Of course, there’s still a few months to go before launch, and those things that so excited fans prior to E3 are still there to look forward to. 343 industries have been saying all the right things in the lead up to the reveal, and we expected them to walk the walk at the biggest gaming event on the calendar. Gamescom is just around the corner, so here’s hoping we get an extended look at the game then. How about it, Microsoft?

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.

Master Chief Remastered Cutscene Halo 2
Before it was formally announced at this year’s E3, I didn’t really believe that Halo: The Master Chief Collection was actually a thing. Being a massive fan(boy) of the franchise, I wanted to believe, but it just seemed like too big of an ask – four games remade for Xbox One over the course of two years? Madness.

Of course, we know now that only one of those games is getting such lavish treatment, but fans will still be getting plenty of content for their money. And while the Master Chief Collection will be very handy for anyone looking to jump into the series for the first time before Halo 5: Guardians drops next year, what this really represents is a glorious celebration of the Master Chief saga. It’s pure fanservice.

The package collects all of the main games in the series (meaning that ODST, Wars and Reach are all left out in the cold) and unites them under what 343 is calling the ‘Master Menu’. From here, you can launch any of the four games, or just jump straight into a specific mission; because 343 understand that fans will have played, and thus know, these games inside and out, everything is unlocked from the get go. Fancy a trip through Halo 3‘s ‘Covenant’ level? Go for it – you can jump straight in. But even better than that, the developer will be curating campaign playlists, selections that will group together similar levels from across all four campaigns, such as levels featuring warthogs or scorpion tanks. There will also be one mega-playlist for the committed Halo fan which will take in all four games, from the start of Combat Evolved to the end of Halo 4.

Halo Master Chief Collection Master Menu

Of course, while this is a collection, there are two big draws for fans to look forward to this November, the first of which is a remastered Halo 2. 2014 is the ten-year anniversary of the original Xbox game, and so, like Combat Evolved three years back, it’s getting the full-on remake treatment. Just like Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2 Anniversary will be running two game engines; the original 2004 iteration underneath, and a new rendering layer on top to offer more modern character modelling, environmental lighting and more. This means that players will again be able to switch between both the old and the new looks at the press of a button, and while this incurred a short fade-out before, it’s now instantaneous.

Audio has also been completely re-recorded at Skywalker Sound, and switching between modes will also switch between the original and remastered soundtrack. Lastly, Blur (the studio responsible for Halo Wars‘ fantastic cutscenes) have remade all of the game’s cinematics, replacing the original in-engine cutscenes for incredible new pre-rendered versions, even reframing them where necessary. They’re mind-blowingly good, verging on photorealism here and there – just look at character faces.

But enough of what’s new. That other big draw I mentioned? That’ll be the multiplayer suite, which preserves the PvP modes from across all four games and brings them together just like the campaigns. The collection contains every map ever released for Halo (including some which were previously PC-exclusive), meaning there are over a hundred to battle through, all accessible through one interface. Select a playlist, and the game will throw up relevant maps from across the entire saga for players to vote on. Once a map is selected, it’ll be loaded up – in that game’s original multiplayer engine, meaning that every game played, every shot fired, every grenade thrown will play out just as we remember it, just as we expect it to.

Back in May, when the collection was still just a rumour, I started thinking about what shape the multiplayer component might take. What we’re actually getting is pretty close to my dream mode:

If I could have my dream Halo multiplayer mode included in this collection, it would be one experience rather than four disparate, game-specific modes. This single Halo multiplayer universe would be a relatively ‘pure’ Halo experience, perhaps modelled after Halo 3‘s multiplayer, and would include all the maps from all four games. If people wanted to play a more Halo 4-style game, have that as its own playlist – its own mode, like Griffball or Infection, but again, playable across all the series maps

In fact, what we’re getting is even better – the actual multiplayer from all four games, as it was, but all accessible in one mode. It’s like a museum for Halo multiplayer, encompassing everything it has ever been (minus Reach, of course), but all in one place. Microsoft closed down the original Xbox Live a few years back, rendering Halo 2‘s genre-defining online modes unplayable, but now we’re getting it back, as it existed back then. And Combat Evolved? That never even had online multiplayer over Xbox Live, but we’re getting it here. And best of all, it means no splitting of the playerbase; at least until Halo 5: Guardians is out, the entire Halo community on Xbox One will be concentrated around one title – one title with the potential, not to mention the variety, to keep people hooked in for literally the rest of the generation.

As an extra sweetener to the deal, 343 are also remastering six of Halo 2‘s most iconic arenas for a new multiplayer experience built on an upgraded Halo 4 engine, so fans get the best of both worlds – an unadulterated Halo 2 multiplayer experience, and the chance to see those maps that are burned into their retinas in glorious 2014-o-vision.

Zanzibar Halo 2 Anniversary

What makes this more than just a simple remake project is 343’s dedication to making sure everything is as we remember it, from how the game plays to the glitches (such as Halo 2‘s notorious BXR button combo) that fans exploited in multiplayer. To this end, they even went as far as keeping two separate bug lists during development – one for already-existing bugs that they wanted to leave in, and one for anything they might introduce during the porting process that they do want to squash.

It’s this attention to detail that really elevates the collection into fanservice territory – newcomers wouldn’t know about the skill jumps, the glitches, the button combo exploits. But fans do, and they want them to be there, they want the games to feel right. Of course, this runs the risk of alienating newcomers – no one is going to have fun if they’re being constantly steamrollered by veteran, ninja players – and so Frank O’Connor, Franchise Development Director at 343, has a plan. “[B]ack in the Halo 2 days, for example, we tried to not expose… things like BXR and stuff because they gave people an unfair advantage,” he told the audience at SDCC. “I think our approach this time will be a little bit different and pretty opposite, and where there are things like fun glitches we’re gonna try and explain how those work to people so that they’re not in the dark, and, you know, there’s like five jerks on the other team not telling them why they have infinite ammo.”

As well as acting as a compilation of the series’ history, the Master Chief Collection also looks to the future of the franchise: included in the package is the digital series Halo: Nightfall, which introduces us to Agent Locke – a character that will be starring alongside the Master Chief in Halo 5: Guardians – as well as including access to a multiplayer beta for the upcoming game. It adds to that feel of the collection as a museum for the Halo franchise; by looking to the series’ past and gaining understand from it, perhaps we can chart the course for its future. 343 is further reinforcing this by adding new ‘bookend’ cutscenes in-between the existing games that somehow tie into Halo 5: Guardians – perhaps framed as Locke poring over the details of the Master Chief’s exploits as he sets out to find the legendary Spartan?

Halo Anniversary 2 Master Chief Grunt

Of course, more cynical gamers will always look upon remakes and remasters as nothing but a cash-grab designed to fill the gaps in a release schedule, but in this instance that kind of attitude just isn’t warranted; 343 seem intent on respecting both the source material and their audience. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into the Master Chief Collection, and at the price of a single game, it represents fantastic value for money. And, for me at least, it’s great to see publishers willing to celebrate the great series that give us so much joy. Games are often deeply personal things to the people that play them, so it’s always nice to see their creators respecting that connection.

And this approach seems to be gaining some traction in the market right now. Square-Enix’s Theatrhythm titles are basically playable compendia of Final Fantasy music, with tracks set to famous landmarks and cutscenes from across the series, starring dozens of characters from throughout the franchise’s history. Likewise, Nintendo’s upcoming Hyrule Warriors packs in so many references to multiple games from across the Zelda series that it can only be seen as a great big slice of fanservice, even if it is approaching it from the angle of a Dynasty Warriors mash-up. But with the amount of content, thought and effort 343 is packing into their very own fanservice project, it manages to effortlessly outdo either.

Before Halo 4 launched, fans rightly had doubts as to whether the series could thrive with Bungie out of the picture. That game proved that 343 has what it takes to make a Halo game, and the Master Chief Collection proves that they really understand where the series came from. With Bungie now hard at work on the excellent Destiny and 343 continuing to expand the Halo franchise, it’s a good time to be a fan of this particular breed of sci-fi shooter.

Cross-posted on 16bitkings

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As a long-time Halo fanboy, Destiny has been on my radar ever since the first details leaked out. Bungie’s previous universe has kept me enthralled for over a decade now, and I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve ploughed through those campaigns, fighting mysterious alien forces across ancient-yet-advanced landscapes in an effort to uncover the history of these awe-inspiring constructs and the stories hidden within. Now, with Destiny, I’m ready to do it all over again.

The recent beta wasn’t my first tilt at Destiny’s world however, as I managed to get a download code for the PS4-exclusive alpha back in June, so the bulk of my initial impressions will be from that. The beta itself was essentially an expanded version of that first playable slice, so those impressions still stand having played through all the extra content, which I will touch on a little further down the page.

Before jumping into the game proper, you’ll be prompted to create a character from three base classes: Warlock, Titan and Hunter. The latter of these is a nimble scout, able to double-jump in and out of danger quickly, and possessed of a super attack called ‘Golden Gun’ that grants you three incredibly powerful shots from a glowing hand cannon. The Titan is more tank-y, and gets a powerful ground-pound super that will likely have you shouting “HULK SMASH!” every time you use it, and finally the Warlock is basically a space mage, blessed with an awesome area-of-effect, damage-over-time Nova Bomb that can clear an entire room if used effectively. In both the alpha and the beta, I went with the Warlock class, because if you offer me the use of magic, I’m going to use magic.

warlock

Diving into the game itself, the first thing that struck me was how much the game felt, sounded and even looked like Halo: Reach (certainly in that game’s more muted, earthy colour palette) – unsurprising, given that that was Bungie’s last release before work began on Destiny. It was gratifying to find that, while Destiny is a new start for the Washington-based developer, they haven’t discarded what makes them who they are – that tight handling, the holy trinity of guns, grenades and melee, those glorious skyboxes, and of course, that leisurely, floaty jump.

There’s more Halo DNA present than just looks, movement and control, too. Enemy weapons can be traced back to guns in Halo’s arsenal; certain Fallen wield weapons that shoot glowing rounds that track you like Needler bolts, while others are armed with mid-range rifles that act almost exactly like a Covenant Carbine. Hive Knights, meanwhile, fire large, arcing bolts of energy at you that can knock you back just like Halo; Reach‘s concussion rifle. The difference here is that you can’t liberate these firearms from your vanquished enemies – at least, not in the beta anyway.

But this isn’t Halo, this is Bungie’s bet for the next ten years of their existence and they’re looking to mix things up a bit. So what’s different? Well, the most immediately obvious change is in the RPG mechanics that govern how your character evolves. Bungie want you to play Destiny for a long time, and besides breadth of content, the method to keep you tied in is character personalisation. Your avatar is the in-game representation of your self, more so here than in the average shooter, and as such you can customise your appearance (picking either gender across three ‘races’), and every class has its own skill tree to work through as you complete quests and earn XP towards that next upgrade. As you work your way along the tree, you’ll boost your base stats, add modifiers to your super to keep it evolving, unlock new grenade types and more.

And then there’s equipment, many pieces of which also come with their own upgrade trees. Guns can be levelled up to do more damage, apply different types of elemental effects or add new scopes, while armour can add passive boosts to your strength or discipline stats, which lower your cooldown on your class-specific melee ability and supers respectively. Speaking of the classes, as of the beta, which had a level 8 cap in place to stop us from progressing too far, the three don’t feel too dissimilar – the Titan needs to get in closer than the other two to use their super, but other than that they’re all very capable of taking down enemies. There’s no hard separation between the likes of DPS, mage or tank to really pick out, and while I don’t think Bungie will be going too far down that route, I would expect to see the classes diverge a bit more noticeably towards the endgame.

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The next thing you’ll probably notice is the game’s sense of scale. The area we’re given to roam around in, while not on the scale of your average open-world game, is vast for an FPS. Granted, Halo has always had large levels, but Destiny‘s play spaces push the boundaries out even further, giving you plenty of real estate to explore and populating it with hordes of enemies to shoot. It’s not just the sheer size that marks a change though; these aren’t wide-but-linear levels to work through from one end to the other, Old Russia – the chunk of world entrusted to us in both the alpha and beta – is a wide-open space that allows you the freedom to reach almost any point you can see, whenever you feel like it, and fills it with mission objectives that take you all over the map.

Halo has always had co-op, and it’s always been a blast to burn through the massed ranks of the Covenant with a friend or three, but Destiny‘s doing something a bit different with co-operative multiplayer too, something that also plays into that sense of scale. Since the early reveals, Bungie have been very cagey about the term MMO, though it’s a little hard to understand their reticence. While Destiny isn’t a full-blown PC-style MMORPG, it sits somewhere between those experiences and the smaller-scale co-operative play of something like Borderlands. On your travels, you’ll often come across other players that you are free to completely ignore if you wish, but, besides paying a visit to the player hub Tower (to buy new gear or maybe just dance on top of huge industrial fans) there are a number of co-operative things you can do.

Firstly, you can join with other players manually to create a three-person fireteam to take on missions and strikes (the latter of which is basically your MMO dungeon run analogue, with mobs to defeat on your way to sub- and end-bosses), while public events are random occurrences in the game’s ‘explore’ spaces that task whoever is around with defending an area or defeating increasingly-difficult waves of enemies. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, these are very much like that game’s FATEs, though their spawn rate feels much, much lower, making them a fairly rare occurrence in the beta.

Lastly, Bungie has promised end-game raids for teams of six, though it has recently been confirmed that these will be friends-only – perhaps a necessity, given how much preparation and focussed teamwork will be needed for these lengthy, high-level affairs, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see matchmaking added for raid content post-launch.

While there was a decent amount of content to enjoy in the alpha, the scope that Bungie are aiming for really became apparent in the beta, which added a handful of extra story missions that pad out our understanding of what’s happening in the early hours of the game, as well as hint at where the narrative might lead in the full release. Story is one of my favourite elements of the Halo series (yes, I’ve read all the books and everything), so it was great to get some indication of the threads that will be pulling us through Bungie’s new ‘mythic science-fiction’ universe.

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After being revived in the wastes of Old Russia by Ghost, our Peter Dinklage-voiced AI companion (who cryptically informs us that we’ve been dead for a very long time), we fight through the Fallen infested perimeter wall in an effort to find a jumpship to escape back to the safety of the Last City, the only place on Earth still protected by the enormous Traveller that hovers overhead. After spending some time kitting out our Guardian and acquiring a personal transport, Ghost informs us that the Fallen seem to be searching for something in the ruins of the area’s decrepit machines.

Battling through Fallen and Hive forces, we discover what they were searching for: the Warmind Rasputin, a vast machine intelligence that once marshalled humankind’s Golden Age military against the forces of Darkness. Our final story mission in Old Russia – an attempt to activate an ancient array station that could connect us to humanity’s long lost colonies – leaves us on something of a cliffhanger: we find that Rasputin not only survived the collapse, but is still active. Though we can’t reach him, he teases us with images of places that will be important in the battles to come, one of which is Earth’s moon.

And if you were lucky enough to log in during a two-hour period last Saturday, you’d have had the opportunity to explore our dusty satellite, as well as taking in a short mission. Views on the moon are utterly gorgeous, with a twinkling starfield stretching into infinity and the blue marble of the Earth hanging high in your view. Abandoned human bases dot the landscape, while chunks of rock and enormous pits hide sinister Hive installations that hint at some of the more exotic architecture we’ll see in the full release, like the Temple of Crota at the mission’s end – who knew that there was a gothic biomechanical church built by HR Giger on our moon?

So far, so positive – though I do have some concerns. So far, enemy AI doesn’t seem as challenging as a Halo encounter: I’ve lost count of the amount of times that, for instance, an Elite has managed to flank me while I’m reloading or waiting for my shield to recharge in Halo: Reach, somehow managing to get into my blind spot and creep around behind me to spin-kick me to death. As adept as Destiny‘s opponents are at ducking in and out of cover and retreating when I advance, nothing like the above situation happened during the beta. Of course, enemy difficulty will likely be toned down when you’re out in the open, given their propensity to respawn endlessly (a necessity for a game like this to work); in more closely-packed encounters in bases and other interiors the AI does pose more of a threat, though this is mostly because you have less room to manoeuvre. These more claustrophobic encounters do however force you to pick your targets and identify the major threats more effectively, something that was always a major part of the Halo experience on higher difficulties.

Additionally, one of the worries I had during the alpha persists into the beta, and that’s the depth of the side quests. Dotted around the play space are glowing green beacons that confer short missions upon you – missions that invariably take the form of that old mmo staple ‘kill/collect x of y’. These missions aren’t particularly well-communicated in terms of what you’re supposed to be doing and why, and they often lead to spells of running around waiting for mobs to respawn and then killing them for their precious docking caps or whatever. Of course, the core combat and environmental traversal, not to mention the carrot of an ever-increasing XP bar, mean that the missions remain fairly engaging so long as you don’t spend too long focussing exclusively on them. I hope to see more depth to these mini quests in the full game, however.

Lastly, there’s the Crucible, Destiny‘s competitive multiplayer suite. I must admit that I hardly touched this aspect of the game; during alpha, I watched a few streams and didn’t really like what I was seeing, but towards the end of the beta period I decided to jump in and see what it was all about. I played a match of 6v6 Control – essentially a King of the Hill game-type – using my maxed out Warlock equipped with all my best gear, and I found it to be quite unbalanced. I was plugging half a magazine into opponents before they dropped, but frequently got taken down in two or three shots, which was frustrating to say the least.

I’m not much of a competitive multiplayer gamer but I do enjoy Halo MP, and the main reason for that is how well-balanced it tends to be – you can guarantee that everyone has the same base stats and access to the same weapons on the map. Granted, Destiny is charting a different path with its emphasis on RPG-style progression and gear, so it’d be a bit strange if its PvP didn’t leverage that in some way, but I think it’s just not for me.

That’s fine though. PvP isn’t what’s drawing me to the game (and I’ll soon have the Halo: Master Chief Collection to take care of my competitive FPS needs). No, what’s drawing me to Destiny is the promise of a hybrid of two of my favourite things – Bungie’s unique brand of science fiction shooting and RPGs – mixed in with the ability to co-operatively quest through the game’s vast worlds with friends. The developer recently announced that almost five million players logged into the beta, so hopefully many more people will be drawn into the full game. After all, if we are to gather forth our Guardians to face down the Darkness on September 9th, we’re going to need all the friends we can get.

Cross-posted on 16bitkings

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With the recent announcement of Halo 5: Guardians, and the subsequent confirmation of its 2015 release, speculation has renewed as to what this year’s Halo title for Xbox One will be. Back at E3 last year, 343 head Bonnie Ross promised fans that their Halo journey on Xbox One would begin in 2014, a promise she reiterated when announcing Guardians.

And so, the oft-rumoured Halo 2: Anniversary pushed its way to the fore again; 2014 marks ten years since the game’s original release after all, so it seems like a no-brainer. But a rumour emerged over the weekend concerning an altogether larger plan for this year, something that would tally with Ross’ claim that Halo‘s Xbox One journey would begin with “a giant leap, rather than one small step”; according to Engadget, we’ll be seeing not one but four remastered Halo games this autumn.

Apparently dubbed ‘The Master Chief Collection’, the set is said to gather up remakes of all four main-story instalments thus far and serve as a story catch-up to fans old and new alike. As the collection is focused on the Chief, Engadget’s unnamed sources say that it’s unlikely that Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach will be a part of the package, which makes sense if the idea is to get players up to speed for Halo 5: Guardians.

While something quite similar was rumoured back in January of this year, I personally think this it’s a bit too good to be true. Can 343 really remaster four separate games in the two years that will have passed since Halo 4‘s release? Even with an external development partner (such as Saber Interactive, who 343 collaborated with on 2011’s Combat Evolved Anniversary) it seems like an absolutely colossal amount of work. I really, really want it to be true, but I remain sceptical (as an aside, I really hope if it is real, it’s not called ‘The Master Chief Collection’, because that’s just an awful name. Maybe call it Halo: The Great Journey, instead).

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a bit of fun with the rumour and speculate a little. As such, I’ve been wondering what shape the multiplayer component of such a release might take. Would they include all four games’ multiplayer modes? Would it be something based on Halo 4? Perhaps a beta for Halo 5? Or maybe something else entirely?

My first thought was that perhaps the collection would include just the single-player campaigns; Engadget’s sources are positioning it as a story catch-up, so multiplayer doesn’t necessarily play into that (and really, who’s going to complain about missing MP when you’ve got four campaigns to play through?). Secondly, if we consider that remastering four campaigns is a hell of a job alone, remaking separate MP modes for all four would surely be a nightmare.

Perhaps then, it’d be a port of Halo 4‘s multiplayer? Other than an extended Halo 5 MP beta, this seems the most logical idea. However, considering that ‘The Master Chief Collection’ seems very much like (massive, exciting) fan service, and that some series fans have reacted with annoyance to some of Halo 4‘s more mainstream contrivances (such as ordinance, loadouts, weapon unlocks), that may be seen as something of a black mark against the package.

But never mind what we’re likely to see. If we’re speculating here, why not draw up a wishlist? If I could have my dream Halo multiplayer mode included in this collection, it would be one experience rather than four disparate, game-specific modes. This single Halo multiplayer universe would be a relatively ‘pure’ Halo experience, perhaps modelled after Halo 3‘s multiplayer, and would include all the maps from all four games. If people wanted to play a more Halo 4-style game, have that as its own playlist – its own mode, like Griffball or Infection, but again, playable across all the series maps. Hell, you could even throw in a Reach playlist and all of that game’s maps, weapons and vehicles too.

Additionally, I’d like to see private lobbies where you can get together with friends and filter everything to create your own, pitch-perfect Halo experience. Make everything tweakable – rule sets, weapon sets, vehicles, kill limits, gravity, everything. If it’s going to draw on the entire history of the series, then why not allow fans to throw everything they want into a private match.

Then – and this is the most important part – it would be included with ‘The Master Chief Collection’ via a download code. That’s right, I want it to be a separate download. Why? Because I’d like to see 343 decouple Halo multiplayer from a collection of disparate games and have just one separate Halo MP experience that gets updated with new maps, modes, weapons and vehicles when a new Halo title comes out.

Just think about that for a second. It’d be like everythingHalo multiplayer’ in one place, updated and run as its own thing throughout the Xbox One’s lifespan. It’d mean no splintering of the community, no dropping an older game’s multiplayer to jump into the new one – just new additions as the series goes on, updated independently. It’d encompass both the past and future of the series in one fell swoop, and bring all Halo fans into one experience. And just think, you could launch it straight from your hard drive whenever you want, without having to put a disc in the drive.

Of course, I can’t see this ever happening, much as I’d like it to. I imagine it’d require 343 to staff up enough that they’d have an entire team always beavering away on the ongoing multiplayer service. But hey, if any platform holder has the money to do such a thing, it’s Microsoft.

But if I can’t dream, there’s one big issue I’d like the next Halo to address: please, please, please remove map voting. I know it sounds almost perverse, a player asking for less choice, but here’s the thing: the players can’t be trusted, and I don’t want to play Team Slayer on Ragnarok all day, every day. While most people will point to some kind of ‘CoD-ification’ as the reason why they’re not as fond of Halo 4‘s multiplayer as previous titles, for me this map repetition was what drove me away from the game. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen the DLC maps that I got for free with the limited edition, let alone played on them, and that needs to change.

Oh and also: bring back Invasion. Oh, and Firefight, too.

We’re just a couple of weeks away from E3 now, where we will surely hear all about 343’s plans for the rest of 2014. Only two weeks, to find out if my crazy fever-dream of a perfect, standalone Halo multiplayer service will come true. Who am I kidding? Of course they won’t. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be any less excited for whatever they unveil on June 9th, and while I may be sceptical about the rumoured collection, I’ll be absolutely over the moon if that’s what Bonnie Ross ends up unveiling on stage.

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In a post on Xbox Wire titled ‘The Halo Journey’, 343 General Manager Bonnie Ross has made Halo 5 official. For the first time since Combat Evolved, the game will carry a subtitle; Halo 5: Guardians is expected to be released in Autumn 2015 for Xbox One.

Calling the project “massive and exciting”, Ross outlined some of the core tenets that will shape Xbox One’s first Halo outing. “In the past, Halo games have pushed the Xbox forward, showcasing the console and its ecosystem in entertaining and innovative ways,” she said. “Making a Halo game that runs at 60 frames per second, on dedicated servers, with the scope, features and scale we’ve been dreaming of for more than a decade, is non-trivial. It’s a task that we, at 343 Industries, are taking very seriously to ensure we deliver the Halo game that fans deserve, and a game that is built from the ground up for Xbox One.”

Halo 5: Guardians is a bigger effort than Halo 4,” she continued, before announcing that the game will run on an all-new, more powerful engine. “Certainly there are some core elements carried over from prior games, but we’ve invested a huge effort in retooling our tech to take full advantage of the Xbox One’s hardware and ecosystem to create worlds and experiences worthy of next-gen.

“It’s a game that will hopefully demonstrate the talent, learnings and abilities of the 343 Industries team. A game that will incorporate the things we learned from Halo 4 about technology, aesthetics, performance and scale – and perhaps more importantly, understanding and embracing a community of gamers who love what lies at the heart of this game, and the limitless potential of the Halo universe.”

Accompanying the post was a piece of artwork depicting series’ protagonist the Master Chief, along with a mystery character. Both of them seem to be set against a backdrop of the dusty, sandy planet the Chief was seen traversing in last year’s E3 reveal trailer. But who is this other character? Their armour seems to mark them out as a Spartan, so the immediate conclusion to jump to would be Sarah Palmer, who played a supporting role in 2012’s Halo 4 (and was thus a character introduced to the franchise by 343), but looking closely, one can pick out an ONI symbol on the armour’s chest piece. If it is Palmer, she’s been moved from Spartan branch to intelligence. Of course, it could also be someone else; it’s a long shot, but perhaps it’s Serin Osman, a Spartan II candidate that didn’t make it through the augmentation process and later went to work in ONI. Though, given that she did not undergo the bone strengthening enhancements necessary to wear MJOLNIR armour, this seems unlikely.

Either way, I can’t wait to find out. I’ve said before that I’m a massive Halo fan and I look forward to seeing what 343 can achieve with the Xbox One hardware, especially considering what they managed to squeeze out of the then-seven-year-old 360 with Halo 4. That game seemed to be 343 saying, “See! We can make a Halo game!”, and while I thought it was an excellent addition to the franchise, I’d like to see what they could come up with having now taken full ownership of the series.

Interestingly, Ross also took time to reiterate that we’ll be seeing something Halo-related this year, calling back to a previous announcement that insisted our Halo ‘journey’ would begin in 2014. There have long been rumours that this year will see a Halo 2: Anniversary release (the game is ten years old this year, after all), and announcing Halo 5: Guardians for 2015 almost seems to confirm this. Ross assured readers that we’ll find out more at next month’s E3 conference, adding the tantalising promise that our “journey definitely begins in 2014 with a giant leap, rather than one small step.”

Perhaps then, it’s something more than an HD remake for Halo 2? Maybe the rumours of a HaloWar Collection‘, comprising Xbox One versions of Halos 2, 3 and 4 is a reality after all? One thing’s for sure; it’s not the forthcoming TV series being made in collaboration with Steven Spielberg, as Ross clarifies: “We’ll have more to share on the Halo television series as we near its projected fall 2015 release.”

Meanwhile, over on Halo Waypoint, Franchise Development Director Frank “Frankie” O’Connor also chimed in, adding that 343 “have significantly more to say about that at E3 and beyond. Suffice it to say, another shoe has yet to drop.” He also shared a new piece of concept art, which you can see below.

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Whatever form the beginning of our Xbox One Halo journey takes, I for one am very excited to see it.

hsa_editedHalo: Spartan Assault, a twin-stick shooter set between Halos 3 and 4, has appeared on the Xbox One games store. It was expected to appear tomorrow, so it’s a little surprising to see it pop up a day early. Maybe the Xbox Live people are knocking off for Christmas?

The game costs £11.99 (or £3.99 if, like me, you’ve previously bought it on Windows/Windows Phone 8) and the download weighs in at 2.53GB. I can’t seem to find a listing on Xbox.com, but the game is certainly available as I’ve currently got it downloading; just navigate to the store on your console and you’ll see it under ‘new releases’. The game will also hit Xbox 360 next month.

I’ll update this post with some impressions (and maybe a Game DVR clip or two) a bit later. For now, if you’re new to Halo: Spartan Assault, give my brief impressions of the Windows 8 version a read.

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I’ve managed to play a couple of hours of Spartan Assault, and it seems to be exactly the same game that I played on my tablet months ago – from its front-end to its cutscenes to its missions. This is no bad thing really as it was a fun game, and the pad controls work well, transposing Halo‘s FPS control layout onto a top down shooter: you move with the left stick, aim with the right, switch weapons with ‘Y’, melee with ‘RB’, use armour abilities with ‘LB’ and throw grenades with the left trigger. One thing that initially confused me is that you fire with the right trigger rather than just pushing the right stick in the direction you wish to fire. Obviously it makes sense in the context of Halo‘s console controls being moved across, but it threw me to begin with. Once you’re used to it though, it does grant you a finer degree of control in your firing.

Graphically, the game isn’t going to wow anyone expecting a next-gen powerhouse, but it does look very nice running at full 1080p, and it runs very fluidly. Apparently there is a new co-op mode in which you can take on waves of Flood with a friend. As I don’t know anyone else that owns the game on Xbox One, I haven’t been able to try this out. Hopefully in the coming weeks I’ll be able to give the new mode a bash.

For now, have a look at a video I made in Upload Studio. It’s five minutes of gameplay taken from the tenth mission, B5. In it, I take to a Scorpion tank in a large open map and proceed to blow the living crap out of Covenant infantry, turrets and Ghosts as I hunt down a number of Wraiths. Enjoy.

halo3_112621428_Full“Finish the Fight.”

So goes the tagline for Bungie’s penultimate entry in the series that made them such a force in the industry (it’s also a rousing track from that game’s soundtrack).

This, of course, was before Microsoft’s expensive new custodian of the franchise announced a new trilogy and a new antagonist for us to fight. But in the run-up to Halo 3‘s September 2007 release, we all knew we’d be ending the Flood threat one way or another and bringing (at least this part of) the epic galaxy-spanning space opera to a close. For me, it’s the perfect final chapter for a trilogy that has pretty much defined my last decade of gaming.

I’ve said before that I’m a massive Halo fanboy (behold my awesome Halo 3 and Reach Legendary Editions); I’m one of those strange people that has read (and thoroughly enjoyed) all the books, watched Halo Legends and Forward Unto Dawn multiple times and spent hours upon hours trawling through Halopedia entries trying to piece together the many and varied mysteries of the universe Bungie created.

Yet strangely, the first time I played Halo 3, I was a little underwhelmed. Not massively so – I still enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps I’d simply hyped it up too much in my head, imagining what would happen and where the story would go for so long that nothing could match up to the ideal trilogy-closer that I’d created in my mind. Yet subsequent playthroughs ended up cementing Halo 3 as my favourite game in the series.

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Halo has always been one of those games that you need to dig a bit below the surface to uncover its real depth. Sure, you can slap it on easy or normal and just grab a rifle and fly through enemies, rushing through the game to the final encounter much as you would in a Call of Duty game. But sticking to a single weapon means missing out on the variety of firearms at your disposal, a collection of weaponry where every gun earns its place and has a specific use. Similarly, running from encounter to encounter in Halo 3 without exploring off the beaten track means you’ll never find any of the game’s hidden skulls or terminals, secret items that respectively modify gameplay and uncover backstory from the distant past.

Adding to this combat depth, Halo 3 also introduced equipment into the mix. The precursor of what has since become Halo: Reach and Halo 4‘s armour abilities, equipment were single-use items that gave you access to, amongst others, a health regenerating field, a gravity lift to quickly reach higher areas and the now-iconic bubble shield. The first time I fought my way through the campaign, I played Halo 3 much as I had its predecessors, mostly ignoring equipment as it seemed like an unnecessary extra. Yet like everything in the game it has its place, and learning how and when to use equipment to its full potential takes time, experimentation and a bit of thought.

It was actually while playing through the level ‘Cortana’ that equipment really came into its own. Most people feel the level is the lowest point of the game (Halo 3‘s ‘The Library’, if you will); I always quite liked it for it’s creepy descent into the Flood-filled nest that High Charity had become, and because it meant Chief would finally be reunited with Cortana. I just found it a bit tough (on Heroic and above, because let’s face it, if you’re not playing Halo on at least Heroic you’re doing it wrong). Equipment really comes into its own in ‘Cortana’, helping you to overcome the swarms of tougher ‘pure form’ Flood that have infested what was once the capital of the Covenant’s interstellar empire.

Halo 3 also massively expanded the scale of encounters. The first half of the game takes place on a besieged Earth, as Master Chief, the UNSC and their Sangheili allies attempt to fight off the Prophet of Truth and his Covenant loyalist forces before they can reach the Ark, the Forerunner artefact that holds the power to activating the entire collection of Halo rings scattered throughout the universe. This setting gives the opening hours of the game a sense of continuity with the first handful of levels from Halo 2; granted, the environments are wider than those found in the second game, but Halo 3‘s beginning retains that undeniable sense of forward momentum that drove you through the more linear campaign of Halo 2.

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The encounters are certainly bigger though, and nowhere is this better exemplified than both games’ Scarab battles; whereas the sole Scarab encounter in Halo 2 is an entirely scripted affair, Halo 3‘s Scarabs (of which there are four) are entirely AI-driven. The Chief’s first encounter with one on Earth takes place in a large dust bowl arena with various other small vehicles swarming around the armoured behemoth’s legs, and the Scarab itself has free reign over the terrain. The larger scale and more open nature of the encounter also afford the Master Chief a number of ways to take the Scarab down.

Halo 3‘s best encounter, however, comes in the latter third of the game, in its finest level: ‘The Covenant’. The game massively opens up in the second half as we finally reach the Ark, the extra-galactic control station for the Halo Array, and it’s here that we find the largest levels and the biggest battles. ‘The Covenant’ begins with a beach landing and an assault on Covenant forces entrenched in Forerunner installations along the coast before taking to the skies for an aerial dogfight over the sea. Later, we’re bombing through a forest in a warthog, leading to a tank ride down a snowy mountainside. At the bottom, we’re confronted by a pair of Scarabs. This encounter, of which you can see a screenshot above, is the best battle in the entire game; there’s the Scarabs, there’s banshees and hornets buzzing overhead and on the ground you can jump into a mongoose or a ghost.

And how do you go about taking down those twin Scarabs? Well, you could fly overhead in a hornet and bail out, landing on the top deck, weapon in hand. What’s far more entertaining though, is to hit the ground, get in a mongoose and speed toward a conveniently-placed icy ramp. I’d played this encounter a number of times before I’d even thought to try this, and when I did it was glorious. Tyres somehow gaining traction in the powdery snow, I stormed up that ramp, flying off the lip of the slope and I soared. Here’s proof:

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I jumped out of the vehicle before landing, my momentum carrying me forward, and the mongoose hit the the Scarab before I did. It tumbled end over end on the top deck, rolling straight through that poor Brute chieftain as it went, removing him as a threat just before I hit the deck running. It might just be the best piece of player-driven inspiration I’ve ever experienced in a game.

Halo 3 also added a couple of major features into the series’ formula: Forge and Theatre. Forge allowed players limited map editing abilities; while the base geometry of a map could not be changed, each level has a budget that can spent on various pieces of scenery, weapons, equipment and vehicles. Once the community got to grips with this of course, it ended up spawning thousands of Rube Goldberg machines! I’ve messed around quite a bit in Forge on both Halo 3 and Reach (and though I’ve not yet tried it, the mode remains in Halo 4, having been made much more intuitive), and I couldn’t imagine coming up with something like the contraption in that link. And I spent hours in Halo: Reach‘s Forge World creating an enormous, multi-tiered bridge between all of the constituent parts…

Theatre mode is essentially a replay mode. Whether it’s in campaign or multiplayer, your latest play sessions are held in temporary storage for you to look through. You can save entire replay films, create shorter clips and capture screenshots (fun fact: every image in this piece was made by me in theatre mode from my own campaign runs) and then export them to your own fileshare for others to view. But Theatre’s killer app is its detachable camera; you aren’t tied to your player avatar in theatre mode, you’re free to completely ignore the carnage at ground level and float off to explore the parts of levels that you’ll never otherwise see, or capture birds-eye-view screengrabs of your own in-game exploits.

I have spent hours upon hours in Theatre mode, sometimes watching back some of the cool things I happened to do on a particular run, sometimes simply pausing the action and exploring every nook and cranny in the level, sometimes just framing awesome images like the two that bookend this article – both created from campaign runs. Unfortunately, campaign theatre has been dropped in Halo 4, which is an enormous shame given how spectacular the game looks; I begin to drool thinking about the screenshots I could capture in that campaign. Theatre remains in multiplayer modes though, which means I’m often saving films from competitive sessions where I managed to do better than usual.

There are many reasons why I love the Halo series; the minute-to-minute gunplay, that guns-grenades-melee holy trinity that leads to what Bungie call “thirty seconds of fun, over and over again”, the vehicles, the scope, the beautiful and mysterious sci-fi vistas, the story and the relationship between Cortana and the Chief, and the fact that, thanks to large environments and fantastic AI, encounters can often turn out wildly different each time. What makes Halo 3 one of my games of the generation though is how everything comes together to create such a dense videogame experience: from the trilogy-closing spectacle of the single-player to the fiercely competitive yet supremely balanced multiplayer, and the creative Forge and Theatre modes that allow any of us to create crazy and beautiful things, Halo 3 is one hell of a package.

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Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia

sastartWe’ve been waiting a little over a month, but it’s finally arrived. Yes, Halo: Spartan Assault is here! The game appeared on the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 stores a little after midnight last night, so I managed to try out a handful of missions. I chose to get the game on my Surface RT to enjoy it on a larger screen.

For those that haven’t been paying attention, Spartan Assault is a Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8-exclusive top-down twin-stick shooter in the vein of Robotron – that is, you control your character’s movement with your left stick (well, thumb) and weapon direction and firing with your right. That’s not all there is to it though; this being a Halo game, you also have access to melee attacks and grenades (I’ve seen frags and sticky plasma ‘nades so far) which are activated by buttons around the edge of the screen. Spartan Assault also contains all the usual Halo weaponry, and you also carry two guns at once as in the full console FPS titles, with the ability to swap with defeated enemies or pick up new weaponry you find along the way. The game also features Halo 4-style loadouts and the series’ trademark skulls:

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The weapons I’ve used so far (including the iconic pistol and MA5 rifle) are all instantly recognisable from their console counterparts, right down to their sound effects, and it’s nice to see that the pistol is typically overpowered here too. If that’s not enough, you can of course climb into Covenant Shade turrets or use their UNSC equivalents where you find them to cut the enemy to ribbons in seconds.

Spartan Assault also features a large selection of Halo vehicles, with one early mission giving you a Covenant Wraith and tasking you with taking out a handful of their anti-air variants, and another requiring extraction by Hornet. Covenant dropships are a constant presence on the battlefield (with the old Spirit ‘tuning forks’ returning again), dropping off more enemies for you to take down, and I’d be surprised if I go too long without a Warthog making an appearance.

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The game is set between Halos 3 and 4 and intends to illuminate a bit of the backstory concerning Halo 4 supporting character Spartan Commander Sarah Palmer (ably voiced by the wonderful Jennifer Hale in that game) – she of “Crimson” fame. It takes the form of a combat simulator hosted by Roland, the AI of the UNSC Infinity, who is using it as a Spartan training exercise – by studying Palmer’s past victories, he hopes to increase their tactical awareness for the future. Spartan Assault offers 25 missions across five chapters (with the promise of more levels to come in the form of updates), and it certainly nails the look and feel of a Halo game; not only does it look and play very nicely, the music is of a typically high standard and includes plenty of familiar themes and motifs. This may be a mobile spin-off, but it’s definitely still a Halo game.

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Halo: Spartan Assault is available now for Windows 8 (£4.99) and Windows Phone 8 (£5.49). The Windows 8 version will play across any machines running the OS, whether Pro or RT – indeed, I bought it on my Surface RT, then downloaded it on my laptop at no extra charge. The WP8 version is for 1GB RAM devices only at this time, and is unfortunately a separate purchase, but your saves and progress will carry across all versions of the game. Controller support will be coming to the Windows 8 version in August, as will a version for 512MB RAM WP8 devices.

Screenshots taken directly from my Surface RT

destinytravBungie have officially torn the veil from their secret project Destiny. Actually, they did yesterday, and I was busy. But enough about me.

Destiny is the first result of Bungie’s current deal with massive publisher Activision, a project they hope to expand across the next decade and the coming console generational divide. It seems to take the form of some kind of Massively Multiplayer FPS, as had been rumoured for some time. This, despite Activision publishing chap Eric Hirschberg saying that it’s definitely not an MMO. Well, that’s that settled then.

Bungie invited press to their offices earlier this week to unveil their new universe, so it’s worth scouring those articles for more detail.
Here I’ll just touch on a few things gleaned from them.

Destiny is Bungie’s big plan for the next ten years of their existence, and it’s described (by that same Activision fellow) as the “world’s first shared-world shooter”. What this appears to mean is that the game takes place in a persistent world (like an MMO), with your avatar being one of many player-characters in that world (like an MMO), and these characters can tackle missions together (like an MMO…). To be honest, I’m intrigued by a sci-fi shooter where I can team up with friends whenever I want to take on missions, as long as I can also enjoy any content I want as a single player, and Bungie suggests that Destiny will be perfectly playable in isolation… though you will need to be connected at all times while playing, meaning other player-characters will at least be visible to you in the world.

What really draws me toward Destiny is the opportunity to explore a new Bungie-created universe. I am an enormous Halo fan (you could quite accurately call me a total Halo fanboy), and part of that is down to the expansive universe that the series is set in and the depth of lore and history that can be found in the extended universe content. With a wide-open persistent world that’s begging to be explored, Bungie have an opportunity to bake a lot of that background into the world itself with Destiny, allowing players to stumble upon the secrets of the universe through their own rangings, and the concept art we’ve seen so far has me salivating. To accompany yesterday’s various press pieces, a ViDoc was posted to YouTube showing off various pieces of that concept art (and a few glimpses of in-game footage too), and I just can’t wait to explore these spaces, with or without friends. (And also, +1 internets to whichever Bungie guy named the ViDoc as an homage to their 1993 release Pathways into Darkness).

I like the premise behind the story, too; that a golden age of humankind was shattered by some unknown enemy, only for an equally mysterious saviour to come to our rescue. I want to know more about the enormous sphere that floats above humanity’s last city and learn who this cryptic benefactor is and what their motives were. I want to discover why these antagonistic aliens decimated our solar system and left our worlds in ruin. I want to journey to Mars and run through ancient human structures ravaged by battle. And I want to bound across the surface of the moon and look down on the besieged Earth below.
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Here’s hoping that Destiny offers all that and more, and that I can also drag a couple of friends along for the ride. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye or three on this in the coming months as Destiny nears release on Xbox 360 and PS3. A PC release is apparently under consideration.