Archives for posts with tag: Microsoft

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

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

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

Warzone Firefight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kait and JD
It’s more than two years since Microsoft acquired the Gears of War IP from Epic, and a good nine months since The Coalition unveiled their newest title in the third-person shooter franchise at E3 last year. But for all the familiar elements – the chunky armour, the chainsaw bayonets, the destroyed beauty and the waist-high walls – that reveal didn’t really tell us much. Who were these new characters? Where were they, and what were they doing? Were we even on Sera anymore?

Now, new details have emerged in a Game Informer cover feature. Set 25 years after the climactic events of Gears of War 3, Sera is a very different place. Though it is a time of unprecedented peace, the remnants of humanity now live in walled cities, while violent windstorms batter the planet, an effect of the Imulsion bomb set off at the end of Gears 3. A community of Outsiders – think Stranded, but not nearly so downtrodden – live apart from the COG in their own villages, preferring a freer existence. Into this strange new world come our three protagonists, JD Fenix, Delmont ‘Del’ Walker, and Kait Diaz. The son of the original trilogy’s Marcus Fenix, JD has gone AWOL at the start of the game for reasons unknown, followed by his fiercely loyal childhood friend Del. Taking refuge in an Outsider community, they meet Kait, daughter of the village’s leader Reyna, and described as a capable survivalist who offers a different perspective on the world. When all of Kait’s people are kidnapped, dragged off into the night, the trio set out into the deep, dark woods to look for them, and uncover the mystery behind the Outsiders’ disappearance and the arrival of a grave new threat to the people of Sera.

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Rod Fergusson tells Game Informer that the goal for Gears 4 is to return to that darker, more intimate feeling the first game had, which often felt like four soldiers standing against the night. “It felt like, as the series progressed, we lost some of the intimacy,” said Fergusson. “The first Gears was a little bit darker and spookier, a little bit more bogeyman under the bed. But as you went through two and three, especially three, Gears became more of a World War II game where the Locust essentially became Nazis in a way. Because the scale had grown, you had gone from this sort of incursion behind enemy lines to a war at a planetary level. Even though we were trying to make the stakes greater, on a personal level, it actually felt like the stakes were lessened.” To get back some of that feel, The Coalition settled on a story featuring three protagonists that stretched over a single span of 24 hours. Getting closer to their characters has allowed the studio more time to focus on their development, as well as the theme of lineage, something that will no doubt be an important thread in the narrative of Gears of War 4.

But that’s not to say that Gears 4 is looking to be a retread of the 2006 original. While The Coalition don’t want to reinvent the wheel, there will be plenty of new stuff to look forward to. First off, the eradication of the Locust Horde means our heroes need an all-new threat to combat, and we now know they’ll be called The Swarm. We’ve already seen one example of this mysterious new force, the agile Pouncer from the E3 gameplay demo, and there’ll also be at least two new creatures to go along with them. The first are Juvies, fast, agile pale humanoids that rush you down to force you out of cover, and are capable of evolving into another new enemy type, the Drone. Named for their counterpart in the Locust army, these hulking monsters are capable of using guns and will likely make up the bulk of The Swarm’s forces. Hopefully they won’t be too similar to the old Drones we all know so well.

Gears of War 4 Juvie

Our protagonists have a few new moves up their sleeves as well, mostly focussed around close-quarters combat. “One of the problems we’ve always had was with close cover,” Fergusson told Game Informer. ” Occasionally you’ll get into that situation where two people come onto the same piece of cover and it looks kind of silly. It’s kind of The Naked Gun moment where the two people are throwing their pistols at each other. One of our big things in Gears was never make the avatar look stupid, so we started to talk about how we could improve players’ ability to move over cover.” To achieve this, The Coalition reworked the mantle kick system from the third game, making it easier to clear obstacles in one smooth motion. If an enemy happens to be hunkered down on the other side, they’ll be staggered briefly, allowing the player to use another new feature – the combat knife. This can be used in close-quarters situations to quickly execute stunned enemies, and to that end, you’ll even be able to drag your prey out of cover to finish them quickly or, if you’re out in the open, use a new short-range shoulder charge (which can be seen in the E3 demo) to knock your foes off balance.

Those violent windstorms mentioned earlier – called windflares – will also play a part in changing up how you use cover. More than just ominous background elements, the wind can affect projectile trajectory, hinder your movement through the environment, and even tear pieces of it away. Game Informer describes a scenario where you could shoot out support struts during an intense windflare, sending a piece of heavy machinery barrelling across the battlefield, killing everything in its path, and The Coalition intends for the weather to heavily alter a play space, so much so that after you’ve moved through it’s almost a different environment. Additionally, these windflares are separated into four categories, with a category 4 also bringing with it lightning strikes. Thankfully, you won’t have to fight off The Swarm while you struggle to survive these intense moments: “Our original idea was that categories one through four would always involve enemies,” said Fergusson. “But when we started playing around with the wind, we realized that just trying to survive in a category four – just trying to do that rock-climbing-like movement to get from cover to cover – was exciting. I was like, ‘I don’t think we need enemies in a four, but we need something else.’ That’s where the ideas for those lightning flurries came up. I wanted to feel like we were swimming through jellyfish, like we were surrounded by danger on all sides and it was beautiful.”

windflare

With Gears vet Rod Fergusson heading the studio, and with The Coalition’s sterling work on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition under their belts, it feels like Gears of War 4 is in the right hands. “We have to do it right before we do it different,” said Fergusson. “That’s the message I came to The Coalition with. We were new stewards to the franchise, and we had to show that we respected the franchise and that we knew the franchise before we went off and did something crazy.” From what we know of Gears of War 4 so far, it’s sounding like it’ll be an exciting mix of the familiar and the crazy – exactly what we need for the return of one of the last generation’s classics.

Last week, Microsoft held a media event to showcase their upcoming Spring games to press. Xbox head Phil Spencer had previously noted that this was merely an event to allow the gaming media to get to grips with the company’s upcoming games, and stressed that fans shouldn’t expect any massive announcements. Nonetheless, some interesting news has filtered out this week, after the short press embargo expired on Tuesday.

A big focus of the preview event was the upcoming Quantum Break, out on Xbox One and Windows 10 on April 5th, while Dark Souls 3, Capybara’s top-down adventure Below and a handful of other titles were also available to try out. But there was still plenty of room for the odd new announcement. Read on to get all the news delivered direct to your eyeballs.

Gears of War hits Windows 10 Store
We’ve known for a while that Gears of War Ultimate Edition, The Coalition’s through rebuilding of the 2006 cover shooter, was coming to the Windows Store at some point. We just didn’t have a definitive date. Rather surprisingly, as the embargo lifted on Tuesday afternoon, the game also became immediately available to download, and for the very reasonable sum of £22.79, at that.

Of course, some will remain sceptical of Microsoft’s ambitions when it comes to PC gaming, having had their fingers burnt with the company’s previous attempt, Games for Windows Live. And while Gears of War Ultimate Edition offers a range of graphics options, including support for resolutions up to 4k, limitations in the Universal Windows Platform mean that things like GSYNC, multi-GPU support, modding or even Fraps won’t work.

Still, the fact that Microsoft are beginning to offer some of their bigger IPs on PC is a good first step, and hopefully they can continue to work on and improve their store offering. Spencer is also well aware of the limitations and told PC Gamer that the team are committed to buffing out some of the issues, saying: “…I don’t want people to look at this as a passing fancy on our part of, ‘can we just quickly port some console games over to PC and hope to make a little bit of money?’ It’s not all about that. We are the Windows company, and ensuring that the Windows gaming ecosystem is strong is important, and that means supporting these features.”

Forza Apex announced for Windows 10
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Microsoft also announced Forza Motorsport 6: Apex, a free version of last September’s Xbox One racer for Windows 10 PC. A slimmed-down take on the original, Apex will see release this Spring and take advantage of DirectX 12 and offer rendering resolutions up to 4k. While it doesn’t have the breadth of content of Forza 6 on the console, it offers 20 tracks across six different locations, with a total of 63 cars to race across them, though these have not been fully detailed yet.

Although the game is free to users, Microsoft have confirmed that Apex won’t be driven by microtransactions, and that you will be able to unlock new cars, tracks and events simply by playing. So why is it free? Well, the publisher also announced, via IGN, that all future Forza titles will also see release on Windows PC. Apex will, then, act as a taster to get a PC-gaming audience interested in the series as it looks to establish itself on the platform.

Ori and the Blind Forest Definitive Edition lands this month
One of our favourite games of last year is finally getting a definitive edition. Originally announced at Gamescom last year, Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition brings a sizeable new play area called Black Root Burrows, which expands on the past of Ori’s mother figure, Naru, as well as a couple of new abilities for Ori to wield throughout the game. To this end, the entire game has been rebalanced to a degree, to make the new moves usable across the entire game world. Moon Studios have also added a few more difficulty modes – easy, hard, and ‘one life’ – as well as greatly expanded the existing game’s theatre mode, weaving in plenty of behind the scenes material.

Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition will launch on Xbox One, Windows 10 and Steam on March 11th, and there will be an upgrade path for existing owners.

Killer Instinct Season 3 hits Xbox One and Windows 10 this month
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Another one we’ve known about, but simply been awaiting a release date for, is Season 3 of Microsoft’s fighting game, Killer Instinct. On March 29th, the game finally hits PC, on the same day Season 3 launches on Xbox One. Season 3 will bring eight new fighters to Killer Instinct, with four available at launch – Killer Instinct 2 veterans Kim Wu and Tusk return, while Rash from Battletoads and Halo‘s Arbiter make their series debuts.

Pricing has yet to be confirmed, but considering that previous seasons were around the £16 mark, it seems a safe bet to assume a similar price point. Additionally, if you’ve already bought the game on Xbox One, you’ll also get all your content (and progress!) at no extra cost on PC. The game will remain free to play (with one rotating character) on Windows 10, so if you’ve wanted to try the game out, you’ll get your chance in just a few weeks’ time.

Phantom Dust lives!
Originally announced back at E3 2014, many assumed that Microsoft’s reboot of the cult original Xbox action/strategy/card-combat game was dead after the small independent team developing it were forced to close their doors last February (as reported by Kotaku). Since then, Microsoft have been fairly quiet on the subject, with the last piece of news coming from Xbox head of Marketing Aaron Greenberg, who said that the game wasn’t currently in active development.

At the Spring Showcase, Polygon sat down with Phil Spencer and asked whether Phantom Dust‘s fortunes had changed. While he answered in the negative, he reaffirmed that the project remains on the table, telling Polygon: “… we started down a path with a developer, and it didn’t work out. There’s no — on my side, at least — nothing negative about that: it just doesn’t always work out. [Microsoft Studios head of publishing] Shannon Loftis and I talk often about what we want to do with Phantom Dust, so it is a thing from the conversations. She has ideas that she’s working on that she won’t show me yet.”

Most importantly, it seems the game’s rather tumultuous development may mean that original creator Yukio Futatsugi (of Panzer Dragoon fame) could return to the project: “He would definitely be attached to anything we would do with Phantom Dust, assuming his schedule allowed for it and everything else,” said Spencer. “I’d say from the Japanese sensibility he has, being a Japanese game designer, I’d want to make sure [he’s involved] – because that is kind of core to what that franchise is about.”

Xbox dashboard March update, features and rollout
Microsoft have been doing a great job of updating the Xbox One dashboard and OS, and that continues this month. The new update, out now, brings achievements back to the guide, boosts party chat from 12 to 16 users, adds options for GameDVR “Xbox, record that” clip length, and, perhaps most importantly, makes backward compatible Xbox 360 games directly available from the Xbox One store.

Previously, if a user wished to buy a digital copy of a backward compatible title, they would have to either do so on the Xbox website or an Xbox 360, and many have wondered if the inability to easily buy 360 games on the XBO has led to publishers holding back some of their bigger games for the backward compatibility scheme. Hopefully we’ll now see the games that sit at the top of the uservoice voting page, like Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops, begin to filter through.

See the full feature set of the Xbox One March update below.

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Team's Kelly

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

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

Oops. I’ve done it again, haven’t I? Rest assured, this blog hasn’t been abandoned, I’ve just been incredibly lazy recently. I’ve got some stuff ready to go, though – four GOTY 2015 articles, and then a couple of specific pieces that I’ll put up in the coming week. For now, I’ll post one of the GOTY pieces a day, starting today, with…

Ori and the Blind Forest, Xbox One/PC

You could tell Ori and the Blind Forest was something a bit different from the moment it debuted on Microsoft’s stage at E3 2014. As the trailer played, hundreds of lights winked into life, filling the auditorium, and we knew this was something a bit special.

The debut game from Moon Studios, a developer of no fixed abode made up of a team of individuals scattered across the globe, Ori is a true labour of love. A ten-hour platform adventure where no two pieces of scenery look alike, everything is hand-crafted with exquisite care, and you can really tell that this is a game that Moon Studios – led by ex-Blizzard cinematic artist Thomas Mahler – have always wanted to make.

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We’ve seen a grand revival of the 2D platform-adventure/Metroidvania genre in recent years, owing largely to the booming indie scene, and it’s understandable that some might be starting to feel a little bit of fatigue. If you’re a fan of the genre, however, you owe it to yourself to play Ori – it’s one of the best Metroidvanias the genre has ever seen.

Of course, a platformer lives or dies on how it feels, and here, Ori excels. The best platform games are those that make it a joy to simply move through the world, and it’s clear from the start that Moon Studios understands this. The controls are utterly sublime; there’s the perfect arc of Ori somersaulting through the air, or scrambling up a surface for a second before you execute a wall-jump. There’s the pixel-perfect air control that enables some of the most challenging platformer gameplay we’ve seen in recent years, and with abilities like Bash (which allows you to slingshot Ori off of enemies and projectiles), there’s plenty of opportunity to chain together multiple moves to soar through the air for minutes at a time. Who wants to stay on the ground, anyway? Besides, sometimes it’s literally lava.

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And then there’s the presentation. Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the most visually-striking games of the last few years. It’s almost as if the renowned Studio Ghibli decided to create their own platform game, with beautiful, hand-painted fantasy backdrops, and incredible, hand-crafted animations that bring the world and its characters to life. Coupled with a gorgeous, subtly-melancholic orchestrated soundtrack (with occasional, beautiful vocal pieces from Aeralie Brighton), it’s clear that Moon Studios put Microsoft’s financial backing to good use.

The result is a resolutely hardcore, old-school platform-adventure with a thoroughly modern, utterly sumptuous audio-visual presentation. Where the franchise goes from here is currently anyone’s guess – though we are getting an expansion at some point in the future – but one thing is clear: Moon Studios are certainly a team to keep an eye on. If you have the opportunity to play Ori and the Blind Forest, don’t hesitate.

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With the recent release of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for Xbox One, the maiden release from Microsoft’s Vancouver-based team The Coalition, one of the biggest franchises of the previous generation is back in the spotlight where it belongs.

First announced back at E3 in June, its stage presence in Microsoft’s keynote put to bed months of rumours that we’d be getting remasters of the entire series, along the lines of the Master Chief Collection. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition brings Delta Squad’s first adventure to Xbox One, with some extra bells and whistles and visuals rebuilt from the ground up.

Now nine years old, Gears of War was a graphical powerhouse when it burst onto Xbox 360 in 2006, but in the cold, harsh light of 2015 it’s surprising how rough around the edges the game now looks. For most people though, that’s not how the game lives in their memories, and that’s the problem The Coalition had to tackle with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. To that end, the team decided to keep the base geometry, AI scripting and source code – ensuring the game plays exactly as we remember it – while rebuilding absolutely everything else. Every single model and asset – over 3,000 of them – were rebuilt from the ground up for the Xbox One. That includes cutscenes, which have been re-framed, re-shot and re-mo-capped in their entirety, while five previously PC-exclusive chapters of the game – comprising roughly two hours of gameplay – that had to be excised from the original Xbox 360 release have been reinstated here. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is not so much a remaster as it is a remake.

It’s not just in the visual department that the new team want to make their mark, though. Back when Epic were first building Gears of War, they had no idea whether it would become a franchise, with sequels, merchandise, companion novels and the like. As the franchise evolved, so did the games, with Gears 3 in particular digging deep into the backstory and characters from the extended universe material. The Coalition wanted to draw some of those interconnecting lines back into the very birth of the series, though to preserve the game mostly as we remember it, they chose to go about it in fairly subtle ways; in a panel at this year’s SDCC, the team talked about some of their efforts to tie the original game more deeply into the wider world of Sera, mentioning a message scrawled in blood – “Welcome to the Slab” – in the opening prison level as an example of this – that prison wasn’t actually named until Karen Traviss’ 2008 novel Aspho Fields. Other touches are more overt, yet still hidden to a degree; collectible CoG tags now unlock pages from the series’ canon of comic books, that you can later read in the game’s menus.

Just as they did on the 360, Microsoft are looking to push Gears in a big way for the Xbox One. The difference this time is that they now own the IP, having acquired it last January from original developer Epic Games. It’s not often we hear of IP changing hands in this way, but Microsoft had to move to secure the exclusivity of one of their biggest franchises from the previous gen; Epic’s ex-president Mike Capps had previously indicated that he’d like to see the series hit PlayStation platforms, and not long after the acquisition, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed to Polygon that the developer had no plans for a continuation: “Because we weren’t planning on building any more Gears games,” Sweeney said, “we were just going to let that sit on the shelf for a decade or more, in case it had any future value to us.”

Clearly, Microsoft had to do something to secure the future of Gears, a franchise that Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer has called “part of the soul of Xbox.” It’s worth remembering what an enormous impact Gears of War had last gen: for many, it was the first truly ‘next-gen’ moment of the 360/PS3 cycle, influencing future projects like Uncharted, before going on to sell more than 22 million units and break the billion-dollar mark in franchise sales. So while we don’t know how much the acquisition cost Microsoft, and we’re unlikely to ever find out, its value to the Xbox brand is clear.

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We do know that it effectively cost Microsoft a studio though, or at least that studio’s name and potential (read: non-Gears) output. The IP acquisition led to Black Tusk (itself formerly Microsoft Vancouver) changing their name to The Coalition (a reference to the in-universe Coalition of Ordered Governments) and taking on Gears of War exclusively; much like fellow first party teams 343 Industries (Halo) and Turn 10 (Forza), The Coalition will now become ‘The Gears Studio’. This has unfortunately led to the shelving of Black Tusk’s previous project, known only as Shangheist (and of which only a vague concept trailer was ever shown), which has given some cause to decry Microsoft’s strategy of tying their small number of first party teams to a single franchise. However, Microsoft’s strategy for new IP appears to be geared more towards creating and curating new franchises with third party partners (see Platinum with Scalebound, Remedy’s Quantum Break, and ReCore with Comcept and Armature, for instance), while building up top-tier teams to handle their most valuable assets. With Microsoft retaining those IPs, this could be a smart way to do business and increase the brand’s pool of properties, but we shall have to wait and see how such a strategy pans out over the coming years.

One thing’s for sure though: with veteran series producer Rod Fergusson at the helm, Gears of War looks to be in good hands indeed, and the team at The Coalition is using their experience rebuilding the first game as a learning experience for the future. Upon Fergusson’s arrival at Black Tusk, as it was still known then, he tasked the team with a week or two of nothing but playing Gears games, the idea being to bring everyone up to speed quickly and furnish the entire team with an intimate understanding of what makes the games tick. The Ultimate Edition of Gears of War thus serves a handful of different functions: not only does it fill a slot in Microsoft’s end-of-year blockbuster blitzkrieg, but it also gets a Gears game on Xbox One to let people know that the series will see a continuation. Most importantly for the future of the franchise, it serves as, in Fergusson’s words, “the perfect on-ramp” for the team to take the franchise forward with Gears of War 4.

And what of Gears 4? That game was also fully unveiled back at E3, with Fergusson rather surprisingly demoing a six-minute playable slice that introduced the characters of JD and Kait and the beautifully rendered, dark and creepy world they inhabit. Not much is known about the setting for the game – we’re assuming it’ll still take place on Sera, but there’s no indication what time period it’s set in, who these two new leads are, or even what it is they’re doing.

One thing we can discern is, perhaps, the tone of the game. Gears has never been anything other than a big summer blockbuster action game, but the first instalment definitely had some horror stylings to it – it was massively influenced by Resident Evil 4, after all. For all its pale snarling monsters, impossibly-proportioned soldiers and Cole Train “Woo!”s, it was, at times, a darkly atmospheric experience, as anyone who remembers the foreboding, rain-soaked Lethia Imulsion Facility can attest, and while the later games didn’t necessarily lose that atmosphere, they definitely leant more towards the all-out-war side of the Gears experience. Gears 4 seems to be heading back to that tone, with the demo showcasing two lone Gears tracking some elusive, deadly prey through a deserted town in the midst of a deafening storm, only to discover that some hideous organic growth has taken up residence in the absence of people.

Just what is going on in Gears 4 will be the subject of much speculation for fans of the series as we head towards its late 2016 release, but right now, all eyes are on The Coalition’s shiny rebuild of the game that started it all. It’s time to start flexing that active reload finger.

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

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

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

Halo 5 thruster evade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halo 5 Battle Rifle Scope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

locke

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

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

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

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

macer

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

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

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

rottr
In a surprise move, Crystal Dynamics today announced that the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider will be an Xbox One exclusive.

Crystal Dynamics’ Darrell Gallagher took to the stage at Gamescom during Microsoft’s press conference this afternoon to announce the move, which has understandably upset a large number of the fans that bought into last year’s reboot. He later posted a blog entry to the game’s official tumblr account in an effort to shed some light on the move. Follow the link for the full story, but I’ve quoted a particularly relevant paragraph below:

Tomb Raider in 2013 was a success due in large part to your continued support. Our goal has always been to deliver something truly special with Rise of the Tomb Raider. Today’s announcement with Microsoft is one step to help us put Tomb Raider on top of action adventure gaming. Our friends at Microsoft have always seen huge potential in Tomb Raider and have believed in our vision since our first unveil with them on their stage at E3 2011. We know they will get behind this game more than any support we have had from them in the past – we believe this will be a step to really forging the Tomb Raider brand as one of the biggest in gaming, with the help, belief and backing of a major partner like Microsoft.

There’s a couple of things worth looking into here. Immediate reactions were that Microsoft had simply money-hatted themselves an exclusive, essentially paying for a game not to appear on their rival’s console. This may well be the case, but the text quoted above suggests, to me at least, that Microsoft may actually be helping to fund development in some way.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part, but let’s look a little closer. You’ll no doubt remember that Square-Enix were initially disappointed with the game’s sales – this, despite it moving an impressive 3.4 million copies in its first month on sale. Most games don’t get anywhere near that number, but it was a far cry from the 5-6 million the publisher wanted. Indeed, it would take the game until the end of 2013 to achieve profitability, suggesting that Square-Enix had pumped an enormous amount of money into its development and marketing.

Now, here’s where the speculation comes into play. Crystal Dynamics are going to want to build on the success they had with their previous title – Gallagher says as much in today’s blog post – and that suggests that the sequel will require a bigger spend than the first game if the developer is to realise their ambitions. Square-Enix will surely be loathe to pump as much money into the game this time, so perhaps they went looking for an external developer to prop up development?

It’s an interesting scenario – a third-party looking to a platform holder to complete a project – but it’s similar to what we saw with Titanfall. According to Geoff Keighley’s The Final Hours of Titanfall, the project was in dire straits; Respawn needed more funds to keep the project moving, funds that publisher EA was unwilling to give, with John Riccitiello, then-CEO of EA, referring to the project as “a massive economic problem”. Respawn shopped the project around, with Sony asking them to create a Vita game, before Microsoft stepped in and provided the funding that the studio needed to continue. That investment, of course, resulted in Titanfall being an Xbox/PC exclusive.

Of course, I’m not about to claim that Rise of the Tomb Raider was on the verge of being cancelled before this announcement – there’s absolutely nothing out there to support that – but perhaps Crystal Dynamics’ ambitions for the franchise are such that Square-Enix just don’t want to lay down the kind of money the developer is asking for. In this scenario, Microsoft stepping in to help nets them a big exclusive to tout on their platform while empowering Crystal Dynamics to realise their vision for the game.

Now, again, this is all speculation on my part, but it’s also the only scenario that really makes any sense to me. Keza MacDonald over at Kotaku points out that 69% of the sales of the recent Definitive Edition were on PlayStation 4, meaning an exclusivity arrangement with Microsoft essentially cuts out the vast majority of the series’ fans. Would Square-Enix really be happy with cutting out so many potential sales just to get a large chunk of change from Microsoft? I don’t know; while they’d have guaranteed income from such a deal, surely Crystal Dynamics wouldn’t be pleased about having their new game available to a subset of their potential fans, and a massive fall-off in sales between the first game and its sequel would surely damage the image of the series. It’s entirely possible that this is the case (and we’ll likely never know the level of investment from Microsoft), but I feel neither publisher nor developer would have gone for this deal if it didn’t benefit them both in some way other than a short-term cash injection.

Perhaps somewhere down the line it’ll all come out in the wash and we’ll find out for sure. For now, Microsoft will be hoping that Rise of the Tomb Raider will prove to be a system seller when it goes toe-to-toe with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End when both games release next year.

Cross-posted on 16bitkings

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