Archives for posts with tag: Early Access

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.

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inqgroup
It’s fair to say that in the run-up to release, many have approached Dragon Age: Inquisition with, at best, cautious optimism. Others of course, have been downright pessimistic, lingering memories of Dragon Age 2‘s more reductive ideas and restrictive world still playing on their minds.

Some of us have been less restrained than the rest however, so when the game popped up on Xbox One’s EA Access service I couldn’t help myself. Six hours of pre-release Dragon Age fun? Oh go on then. The only problem I had to contend with was what class/race combo I was going to roll. My Warden in Origins was a Dalish rogue, but my Hawke in Dragon Age 2 was a mage, and I had loved both. So I decided to try both, playing the first hour as an elven archer before restarting and eventually settling on a towering qunari mage (don’t call me saarebas!); I have to admit, witnessing every other character in the game craning their neck to look my Inquisitor in the eye was amusing. With that, it was into the game proper.

The first hour takes the form of a prologue dealing with the immediate aftermath of a magical catastrophe at the Temple of the Sacred Ashes in Haven. What was supposed to be a peace summit to end the conflict between mages and templars that began in Dragon Age 2 ends in the deaths of hundreds, with your player character the only survivor. You awake in chains, confused, and you’re soon heading out with Cassandra to attempt to close the Breach that hangs ominously in the sky, and hopefully save your own life into the bargain. Everyone assumes you’re the cause of the cataclysm, so it might be prudent to do something about that.

The prologue is fairly linear, and sees you travelling up frozen mountain paths, battling demons and closing smaller rifts as you head towards the now-ruined temple and the enormous hole torn in the heavens above it. You’re introduced to dwarven rogue Varric (who has thoughtfully brought Bianca along) and elven apostate Solas, and as we battled our way up the mountain, I was immediately reminded of the Sacred Ashes trailer for the original game. This short prologue feels like it gets closer to achieving what that trailer promised than the relevant quest in Origins ever did (sans dragon, obviously), and you’re travelling through the same part of the world, too. I can’t help but wonder if the call-back is intentional.

After fighting your way up the mountain, you reach a forward operating base where you’re afforded your first choice. You need to push onward to the Breach, but do you take a dangerous mountain pass where some of Cassandra’s soldiers have disappeared, hoping to discover their fate along the way, or do you charge through the valley with the bulk of the forces? Ultimately, both sections play out much the same; a small rift battle, and a run-in with an NPC – Cullen, if you storm the valley. Upon reaching your destination, Varric worriedly points out that the Temple is infested with primeval red lyrium, and as you attempt to prise open the rift in order to properly seal it, an enormous pride demon bursts from the Fade to stop you.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

It’s a great first boss battle, an arena-based affair with a huge boss to wear down, a few waves of adds to deal with, and that Fade rift that needs closing. It’s also a good time to get fully to grips with Inquisition’s combat, which neatly blends elements from both of its predecessors. Should you choose to play entirely in real-time, the game plays much like Dragon Age 2, though with auto-attack mapped to a hold of the right trigger rather than requiring constant bashing of the A button. You also have eight quickslots for your talents now instead of six, with the right bumper button added to the previous games’ X, Y and B slots. The left trigger now switches between sets of four talents.

Playing entirely in real-time however means ignoring Inquisition‘s tactical camera, resurrected from Origins‘ PC release and now available on all platforms. Fans of the console titles’ radial menu-based pause-and-play system may mourn its loss (with the radial menu, on left bumper, now offering simple commands like potions and party-hold), but really you’re trading up here. You can enter tac cam at any point during gameplay, which allows you to scan the battlefield before even getting into combat, scoping out enemy positions, strengths, weaknesses and immunities at a glance, and the overhead view makes it possible to inspect the terrain, making it easier to move ranged characters onto higher ground, perhaps, or position a tank in a chokepoint to draw enemies in. And if you’re playing as a mage, the tac cam is invaluable in making the most of your AoE spells.

Much has been made of the fact that mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition have no healing spells, but it’s really not an issue. You have a finite pool of healing potions, but they can be re-stocked at a camp, which you can fast-travel to from anywhere. Moreover, the focus here is on damage mitigation rather than heal-spamming; warriors can generate Guard, a second health bar that protects main health by soaking up some damage, while mages have an area-of-effect spell called Barrier that does much the same, albeit for a period of time. It means that it’s no longer absolutely necessary to have a mage in the party, and should help to encourage more flexible party composition.

After defeating the pride demon and halting the expansion of the breach, you’re hailed as the Herald of Andraste. After a brief 80s TV-style “gettin’-things-done” montage, the Inquisition is reborn and you’re off to the game’s first truly open area, The Hinterlands. A verdant, fertile stretch of land in the heart of Ferelden, the region and its people are under threat thanks to the conflict between mages and templars. The first time you open your map to see a vast expanse of icons littering the Hinterlands, it’s more than a little overwhelming; it can be difficult to figure out where your focus should be, and so you strike out with your party to explore the surroundings. Don’t go too far in one direction though, as you’ll likely get wrecked by a roving group of bandits or maybe even an ill-tempered bear or two.

The best idea seems to be to spiral outward from your starting area, filling in your map as you go and and establishing further camps in the wilderness that you can use to rest, refill your potion stocks and even fast travel between. Doing so also extends the Inquisition’s reach through an in-game currency called ‘Power’ that you will need to accrue in order to further the story and unlock more regions. There are landmarks to claim for your faction and quests to undertake are everywhere. A good few of these seem to take the form of the “kill x of y” template so beloved of MMOs, but if you get bored of monster-culling, there’s always something else to do, like hunting down mysterious magical shards, picking herbs for crafting, or even just exploring to find yet another pretty vista. There’s so much to do – after five hours, I had uncovered what appeared to be less than half of the map of the Hinterlands, and this is just one region out of about ten. This game will eat your life.

Dragon Age Inquisition Hinterlands Map

This was my map of The Hinterlands after five hours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition absolutely nails the sense of exploration that I have always felt the series was lacking; with the exception of the relatively-sprawling Korcari Wilds, Dragon Age: Origins was fairly narrow in its environmental design, and the smaller scale of Dragon Age 2‘s world is now legendary. Inquisition updates Dragon Age for a post-Skyrim world, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a copy; while you can and will (and, more importantly, should) head off into the great unknown to discover what lurks in that dense forest or over that nearby hill, Inquisition‘s Thedas isn’t one large, contiguous landmass like Skyrim, but rather a number of large zones – again, that impression of an MMO comes to the fore – and though The Hinterlands is the only one I’ve seen so far it is absolutely rammed with all kinds of stuff to find and do, and positively dripping with detail. Just like in Skyrim, you’ll find yourself frequently side-tracked in the middle of a quest by some strange landmark that catches your magpie eye.

And this is to say nothing of the game’s visuals, which are splendid. Inquisition is absolutely drenched in colour, The Hinterlands coming across almost as a bright fairytale countryside, though torn with strife and infighting. Yet the fields and forests still teem with wildlife, some of which you’re going to have to hunt down to fulfil some of those aforementioned quests. In the snow-covered paths of the Frostback Mountains that make up the prologue, the sun glints off of the cracks in frozen-over streams and characters leave footprints in the snow as the powder kicked up by your party’s feet is carried away on the wind. The environment is so dense that after a couple of hours you’re given a search function (mapped to a click of the left stick) that subtly picks out nearby loot that might otherwise blend into the detail-rich scene. Codex entries and misplaced letters can be found all over the place, filling out the history of the region, and even landmarks inform you of their history when you claim them. You’ll stumble across mages and templars engaged in pitched battles, crafting materials will slowly grow back after you’ve passed through to harvest them, and heaven help you if, under-levelled, you wander into a surly bear’s territory. You get a sense of an environment that exists alongside you as much as it does for you, a world that could move on with or without your input.

After five hours, I can already see I’m going to lose weeks to Inquisition. BioWare has always made games that are reactive, but I’ve long wanted their settings to feel more like a real, sprawling world, rather than an interconnected set of places, and here the fantasy series feels like it’s really reaching to grasp its potential.

This is the most expansive Dragon Age has ever been, the most alive Thedas has ever felt.

Wow, it’s been some time since my last Eorzean postcard! My last entry in the series was back in November! Unfortunately I drifted away from the game for some time a few months back, just after finally advancing to the bard job class – I’d just bought both an Xbox One and Wii U, and so they were claiming all of my gaming time.

Funnily enough, it’s another console purchase that brought me back to the game today, as my PS4 arrived this afternoon – just in time for the start of the platform’s early access period for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. After transferring my PS3 license (for free, I might add!) to the PS4, all I had to do was install the client… which took almost three hours. But anyway, once that was all done, I spent a few hours getting reacquainted with the world; at first, I thought I’d completely forgotten how to play the game, but it all came back to me as I spent a couple of hours touring Eorzea, revisiting my favourite haunts and seeing how they looked on PS4.

With that in mind, here’s a call-back to one of my previous postcards – a nice view of the Shroud’s Little Solace, temporary home of the Sylphs, only this time in shiny PS4-o-vision.

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(you’ll have to excuse the renegade mouse cursor – I need to get used to that Dualshock 4 touchpad and stop accidentally brushing it with my finger).

BONUS ROUND!!

Seeing as it’s been months since my last series entry, let’s celebrate the impending launch of the PlayStation 4 version with a couple more screenshots. First up, here’s a nice colourful pic of Nophica’s Altar in Gridania. Notice the easter eggs scattered around on the ground – it’s Easter in Eorzea, and that means it’s time for the Hatching-tide festival!

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As part of the Hatching-tide quests, adventurers are given fetching egg-themed headwear. Here’s my Elezen bard modelling one of these handsome adornments.

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And last, but certainly by no means least, here’s a pic of the game on my Vita, running via remote play.

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I was in a room directly below the room where the PS4 was, and while the remote play connection wasn’t as stable as my Wii U, it was generally very responsive and playable. Controls are somewhat compromised, given the lack of buttons relative to a controller, and while I certainly won’t be running dungeons on my Vita it was a perfectly good way to spend a couple of hours in front of the TV doing some crafting. I’ll certainly get some use out of it for the slower-paced, more considered side of the game.

That’s it for this edition of Postcards from Eorzea. I promise not to leave it so long next time.

Feel free to share your own postcards from Eorzea, and let me know in the comments what you think of Naoki Yoshida and his team’s world. I’ll share another of my shots next week. To browse through this and previous editions of Postcards from Eorzea, click here.