Archives for posts with tag: Xbox 360


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s been a while since I posted about my YouTube channel, A Game with Chums, so I thought I’d throw up a short update.

As Hallowe’en is now upon us, I’d like to point out that we’ve been playing horror games all month on the channel, and tomorrow, October 31st, our final video goes up. We’ve been continuing with our let’s play of Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn on Mondays, and then uploading a random horror game every Wednesday and Friday, until last week when we decided to go all out in the run up to the day itself, and post a new one daily. Here’s our latest one, which went up yesterday.

This was our first time playing Forbidden Siren, so we weren’t great at it. It was pretty tense though! Below you can also find the latest part of out Until Dawn let’s play. Things escalated pretty damn fast.

Here’s the list of all the games we’ve played so far for our month of horror, as well as the platforms we played them on. Why not catch up before our final video goes up tomorrow? I’ll also have a timely review for you tomorrow as well.

Project Zero || OG Xbox
The Evil Within || Xbox One
The Thing || OG Xbox
Yomawari: Night Alone || PSTV
Layers of Fear || Xbox One
The Suffering: Ties That Bind || OG Xbox
Dead Space || Xbox One
Corpse Party || PSTV
Condemned: Criminal Origins || Xbox One
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth || OG Xbox
Resident Evil Revelations 2 || Xbox One
Silent Hill 2 || OG Xbox
Forbidden Siren || PS4

If you happen to check out any of our videos, please do let me know what you think below, and come back tomorrow for that final video and spooky review.

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Blue Dragon is now backwards compatible on Xbox One.

Announced on Twitter today by Xbox Live’s Major Nelson, Blue Dragon has been a much-desired title for the console’s legacy support program and follows hot on the heels of Mistwalker’s other Xbox 360 exclusive jRPG Lost Odyssey, which hit Xbox One back compat a little over a month ago.

Like Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon is a very traditionally-styled multi-disc Japanese RPG, though while Lost Odyssey hews closer to the Final Fantasy template, Blue Dragon feels more like that other juggernaut of the genre, Dragon Quest, right down to the designs by Akira Toriyama. Like Lost Odyssey and a few others, the game is currently disc-only as no digital version exists. Phil Spencer has commented that the BC are looking into making this possible, so we’ll have to wait and see if that happens. In the meantime, we can expect second hand prices to rise in response to the announcement.

This brings both of Mistwalker’s big Xbox exclusives to the current gen, both of which were part of Microsoft’s early push to try and make their console a success in Japan. The 360 saw a number of exclusive Japanese games in its early years, including Tales of Vesperia (which is absolutely the best jRPG of its generation and you should play it right now) and a few others, and it’s a shame that it’s a strategy that never really paid off. We’re certainly seeing the results of that now, as plenty of Japanese games are skipping the Xbox One, from smaller titles like the recently announced Danganronpa and Nonary collections all the way to larger publishers like Square Enix, who are skipping the console for games such as the upcoming NieR Automata.

No Automata :(

No Automata ;_;

I’d like to see Microsoft invest a bit more in Japanese games again – not necessarily to make inroads in Japan, because I don’t think anyone believes that’s even the remotest of possibilities now, but to diversify their line-up a bit. So far, we’ve only seen a collaboration with Yukio Futatsugi that resulted in a pale imitation of his cult favourite Panzer Dragoon series in Crimson Dragon, and the multi-team partnership that gave us ReCore, even if Keiji Inafune’s Comcept only really consulted while the US-based Armature handled development duties. Scalebound is yet to come, and I’m really looking forward to that, but I’d love to see Microsoft throw handfuls of cash at Hironobu Sakaguchi again to get something like Lost Odyssey made.

Still, one thing Microsoft do deserve massive amounts of kudos for is their support for backward compatibility. The catalogue grows every week, and in the last few months we’ve not only been given access to some big hitters, but others that weren’t performing quite so well have been updated to run even better than they did on native hardware. It feels like Team Xbox is really hitting its stride now with BC.

One of the Xbox 360’s most beloved titles has finally made its way to the current generation, as Mistwalker’s Lost Odyssey launches today for Xbox One’s backward compatibility programme.

Directed by ex-Squaresoft legend Hironobu Sakaguchi – the father of Final Fantasy – with music by fellow Final Fantasy icon Nobuo Uematsu, Lost Odyssey is something of a rare breed: a jRPG exclusive to a Microsoft platform. It stars the immortal warrior Kaim Argonar, who has wandered the world for a thousand years, yet remembers little of it thanks to a bout of jRPG amnesia. It’s an incredibly traditional example of the genre, complete with a turn-based battle system – albeit with a dynamic touch thanks to a timed ring-matching system – that many fans hold up as being truer to Final Fantasy‘s legacy than the last decade of titles in the series that effectively spawned it. Also of note are the ‘Thousand Years of Dreams’, lost memories of Kaim’s that you can find throughout the adventure which contain some of the best writing you’ll find in the genre.

LIRUM ;____;

Lirum!!! ;____;

Lost Odyssey has been one of the most wanted games for Microsoft’s backward compatibility programme since it was announced back at last year’s E3 conference, though the lack of support for multi-disc games (Lost Odyssey comes on four of them) held up its availability. Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut was the first multi-disc game to launch for the programme earlier this year, so it had been assumed that it was simply a matter of time until Mistwalker’s game saw release.

Lost Odyssey will remain a strictly physical release, as a Games on Demand version does not exist on the Xbox storefront, so you’ll need a copy of the game if you wish to play it on your Xbox One. Inserting disc 1 will prompt a 22GB file to download and, according to a post on NeoGAF, the game is only playable with that first disc in the drive; discs 2, 3 or 4 simply will not work. While this sounds a bit odd, it also means you will no longer need to switch discs while playing, which can only be a good thing.

LO-Battle

Also announced for backward compatibility today are Disney’s Toy Story 3 and Guwange, a Muromachi Period-set vertical shoot ’em up from genre legends Cave. They come hot on the heels of the addition of Call of Duty 3, World at War and Sega’s Virtua Figher 5: Final Showdown and it’s excellent to see continued support with more big name, much-loved titles making the generational jump. There are now more than 250 Xbox 360 titles available to play on Microsoft’s current machine, and apart from the benefit to end users, it’s a great way to ensure some degree of preservation for games otherwise locked on old systems.

With E3 around the corner, we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Microsoft’s backwards compatibility program for the Xbox One. Announced by Phil Spencer on-stage at Microsoft’s E3 presser last year, the program allows players to revisit a growing number of Xbox 360 games that might otherwise have been left behind, and now seems to be a good time to take a look at the current state of backward compatibility on Xbox One.

There are currently over 150 games available, and while the most sought-after titles (as voted for at the Uservoice page) such as Black Ops II, Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption have yet to surface, there are still some heavy hitters ready to play right now – games like the original Black Ops, which has just been added, the entire Gears of War saga, Halo Reach and Halo Wars, and Alan Wake. Some publishers seem to be happier than others to make their games available on the service, with Sega in particular showing strong support; just recently we’ve had Jet Set Radio HD, Sonic & Knuckles and Phantasy Star II added, among others. Here’s hoping for Sonic Generations and Racing Transformed before too long.

Backward compatibility was Microsoft’s big surprise announcement last year, and one wonders how they might follow that up next month. Spencer has previously indicated that he’d love to see original Xbox compatibility make its way to the Xbox One, and while I’d personally love to see that happen (if only for the Sega exclusives still stuck on that platform), I think we’ll likely be waiting a while for that; while additions to the 360 catalogue have picked up a bit recently, it’s still going to be a while before the bulk of that catalogue is available on Microsoft’s newest machine, so that’s undoubtedly where the team’s focus will be for the foreseeable future. Having said that, Mike Ybarra, one of the main minds behind 360 BC, has indicated that his team have a couple of things in the pipeline that are on the same scale as that E3 2015 announcement, so who knows? It’ll be interesting to see what they bring to the Los Angeles Convention Centre next month.

Oh Dom, why do we have to do this again ;___;

Oh Dom, why do we have to do this again ;___;

There’s an ongoing joke about backwards compatibility that says it’s the feature everyone wants but nobody uses, and that past the first year of a new generation, as the hardware beds in and more games begin to take advantage of the additional power, it gets forgotten. For my part, I’ve always made rather sparing use of backwards compatibility in generations past, but to my mind, two things make the Xbox One feature particularly great.

First of all, I’m still playing 360 games. The previous generation was a long one and I’m sure I’m not the only one who still has some kind of backlog on their last gen systems – I’m yet to play South Park: The Stick of Truth, which is one of the games playable on the Xbox One. Knowing I can get around to it whenever I feel like it without having to hook up another system is pretty handy, and I hope some more of the games in my backlog, like Binary Domain and Asura’s Wrath, get added down the line. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my 360 hanging around, but it’s not always hooked up, unlike my Xbox One, which is always connected in order to feed my Halo 5 addiction.

Secondly, there’s the way the feature integrates with your existing library. You can of course simply put a compatible disc in, download the game and then play, but it’s the ease with which your digital purchases carry over that makes backward compatibility such a pleasure to use. Maybe you bought The Witcher 2 on the Xbox store a few years back, or got Gears of War 3 via Games with Gold? Perhaps you bought Shadow Complex back during 2009’s Summer of Arcade? All of them will simply appear in your download list on the Xbox One, ready to go when you want them. I already have around 50 Xbox 360 games installed on my Xbox One, and it almost makes the console feel a little bit like my PC Steam account; I can just pick from a bunch of games and then launch one without having to get up and switch discs. Add to that the ability to use Xbox One-specific features like taking screenshots or game clips, or even livestreaming, and they may as well be native games.

Just 'cause Alan's still got his 360 hooked up doesn't mean we all do.

Just ’cause Alan’s still got his 360 hooked up doesn’t mean we all do.

While the backward compatibility program hasn’t noticeably moved the needle on console sales (and I imagine that the main aim of it was to encourage 360 owners to make the jump), it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser for those already deep within the Xbox ecosystem, and it makes me wonder what Microsoft’s plans are going forward. We’ve had comments from Spencer about mid-gen hardware refreshes in the last few months, and with the recent PlayStation 4 Neo leaks – including the expectation that it’ll be both backwards and forwards compatible – it’s looking like the console landscape will be moving to a model of iterative hardware, with the focus on an evolving platform, rather than a specific piece of hardware. Imagine buying a console in 2026 that also gives you access to everything you bought back in 2006. Or even 2001. What if there’s no PS5 or XB2, but instead just a ‘PlayStation’ and an ‘Xbox’ that play all of your games, past present and future. Wouldn’t that be pretty amazing?

To me, Xbox 360 backward compatibility feels like Microsoft’s first step in enabling a future like that. It’ll be interesting to see where they go from here.

Though it has since become the embodiment of the term ‘cult classic’ for the PS3/360 generation, NieR had something of an inauspicious start. Released a mere month after the hotly-anticipated Final Fantasy XIII to a middling critical reception, the game was hamstrung before it even hit store shelves. The fact that NieR was a spin-off of the already-niche Drakengard series that followed on from the first game’s ending E – where a giant statue and a red dragon faced off over the Tokyo skyline before being shot down by fighter jets – certainly didn’t help.

Things aren’t made much clearer when we get into the game itself, which opens in the summer of a post-apocalyptic 2049 as a desperate father strives to defend his sick daughter from strange, ethereal monsters. Realising he can’t beat the massed horde before him, he reaches for a strange book that seems to grant him magical powers. And then we spend about half an hour in a car park beating the crap out of monsters with a length of pipe. It’s not a great start, admittedly.

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY LENGTH OF PIPE!

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY LENGTH OF PIPE!

Things get even weirder as we abruptly jump 1312 years into the future. Far removed from whatever ravaged the world in the past, mankind now lives a more feudal existence, inhabiting small villages in and around the ruins of civilization. In one of these villages, a peaceful, green, walled settlement surrounded by vast, empty plains, live an oddly-familiar man and his sick daughter. In fact, they look exactly like that same pair from thirteen-hundred years ago. There’s absolutely no acknowledgement of this, of course. With a short voiceover, Nier tells us that his world is slowly winding down, once thriving populations now ravaged by disease, while strange monsters known as Shades roam the land, killing all those in their path. But Nier doesn’t care about any of that; his personal struggle is to save his daughter Yonah, and to hell with everything else. At the same time the player is on a parallel, and at times opposite, quest to discover just what happened in this strange world. Why do two people from 2049 appear to be alive in 3361? What was it that destroyed human civilization in the past? And just what are these Shades? Maybe Nier doesn’t care what’s going on, but you certainly will.

While many fans feel the game was given short shrift, it’s kind of understandable that critics were a bit mixed. NieR is a difficult game to review; on the face of it, it doesn’t really excel at much. It’s a game of competent design in graphical and gameplay terms, feeling something like a knock-off 3D Zelda to begin with, as you start in a small village hub, before journeying out onto a vast green plain and beyond. It’s fair to say that the graphics aren’t going to wow you, with much of the world being made up of blandly textured, low-poly environments, but despite the low-budget looks there is some really memorable design work to be found.

These are not your average jRPG companions.

These are not your average jRPG companions.

Nier isn’t alone in his quest to save Yonah, of course; he’s joined by an interesting cast of characters in Grimoire Weiss, a talking book that grants him magical abilities (wonderfully brought to life by Liam O’Brien channelling the dearly-departed Alan Rickman), Kaine, a foulmouthed female warrior that likes to kill things first and ask questions never, and Emil, a young boy whose eyes can petrify anyone they look at. Your party members all see a lot of growth over the course of the story, especially Kaine, who, despite her rough edges, almost ends up being the heart of the game. Each of them also has a fantastic, memorable look to them, and while it’s unfortunate that the player character is rather bland looking, the same issue actually works in the enemies’ favour; the game’s oddly-intangible Shade enemies are barely recognisable as anything other than wispy, vaguely-humanoid shapes, and considering we aren’t supposed to know what they are or where they come from, it’s a smart way for both narrative and design to work together to help mitigate such visual shortcomings.

Likewise, there are some fantastic locations to be found. If the starting village is a touch underwhelming, and the Northern Plains nothing more than an expanse to be raced across from one plot point to another, you absolutely will not forget the Aerie, a suitably-eerie village suspended over a seemingly bottomless canyon that has shut itself off from the world, or the desert city of Façade, whose masked inhabitants must adhere to tens of thousands of arcane rules that govern every aspect of their lives and decree that no two buildings can be built on the same level. And the first time you see the Lost Shrine, an ancient sanctuary built atop a spire of rock that rises out of the mist in the centre of a cavernous valley, you’ll be left a little breathless despite yourself. NieR‘s world may not be rendered in the highest detail, but it has a tremendous sense of place.

Similarly, combat isn’t going to win any awards, being fairly workmanlike for the most part. There is a decent degree of depth there for those who care to look, with three different weapon classes to get to grips with and upgrade, a handful of magic spells, as well as words, equippable modifiers that will boost stats or add status effects to your arsenal. But in all likelihood you’ll stick to a single weapon and two or three of Grimoire Weiss’ spells for much of the game – there’s just not much of a reason to mix things up. Boss fights are another story entirely though. Huge, multi-part encounters that are half-RPG boss, and half-bullet hell shooter, these are fantastically imaginative moments that will live long in the memory – especially the two set in the Aerie that see the fighting span the entire town, forcing you to run, jump and climb all over its bridges and walkways to vanquish these enormous beasts.

Yes. You will have to fight this guy.

Yes. You will have to fight this guy.

Happily, average graphics and competent combat isn’t all that NieR has to offer. If there’s one game in recent memory that truly is more than the sum of its parts, this is it. The game excels in characters, story and music, all of which lend the whole a deeply mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere. On the narrative side, though much of the game is framed as a simple tale of a father striving to save his daughter, there’s far more going on than that – as should already be evident from that initially-baffling time-jump at the start of the adventure. Though you’ll get some resolution by journey’s end, there’s still much left unexplained, and it’s a decidedly muted ending; sure, you achieve your goal of saving Yonah, but at what cost to the rest of the world? Nier frequently reminds us that he cares only for his daughter and his friends, and his actions reinforce this. But more often than not, he’s acting out of complete ignorance of the bigger picture.

It’s almost like the apparent simplicity of the narrative seeks to mislead the player, and this same disregard for convention can be seen in gameplay, too. While structurally NieR is an action RPG, it doesn’t take long for the game to start messing with your expectations; enter a creepy mansion and you’ll find yourself in a Resident Evil game, complete with fixed camera angles and arcane key systems. Dive into an underground research lab and suddenly you’re in an isometric dungeon crawler. Need to ascend a series of scaffolds to reach a higher vantage point? Now you’re in a 2D platformer. Best of all is the section in the Forest of Myth where the game transforms itself into a text adventure for a short while, capped off with a few simple logic puzzles. Director Taro Yoko has said that this genre-hopping is something of a response to modern games that give up all their systems in the first thirty minutes, leaving little new to look forward to, and while it does give NieR something of a ‘master of none’ feel, it is genuinely refreshing to mix things up every now and then.

It’s like Cave made a 3D action RPG, and it is glorious!

It’s like Cave made a 3D action RPG, and it is glorious!

Topped off with a stunningly melancholic soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe that mixes haunting choral pieces with gentle piano-led compositions and rousing, vocal-led battle themes, it all comes together to create a package that is far greater than the sum of its parts. NieR is mechanically solid, graphically average, and yet utterly, utterly unforgettable.

Taro Yoko is often asked where the ideas come from for his “dark, insane” stories, and answering this question in a fantastic sock-puppet video interview for Drakengard 3 – called Philosophies of Violence – he explained that certain things he does are reactions to gaming tropes that he sees as crazy. Describing the thoughts that led to the original Drakengard, he said: “I was looking at a lot of games back then, and I saw these messages like, “You’ve defeated 100 enemies!” or “Eradicated 100 enemy soldiers!” in an almost gloating manner. But when I thought about it in an extremely calm state of mind, it hit me that gloating about killing a hundred people is strange. I mean, you’re a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just struck me as insane.” These ideas informed the twisted, unhinged world of Drakengard, “where everyone’s wrong and unjust.”

It’s of course something many have touched on in recent years, that we seemingly have little input in many of the games we play, save for killing, and that these murderous sprees are rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the characters we embody or those around them. It’s not really something Yoko’s games strive to change, as such – Drakengard and NieR are action RPGs where you kill lots of enemies, of course – but he often uses the characters and narratives of his works to make players at least question this act and what it means for these worlds and the people that inhabit them. In the same interview, Yoko explains how his views shifted post-9/11, as the rise of terrorism and ideological conflict changed the vibe he got from the world at large.

“What the hell are these things?! Ah, who cares, let’s just kill ’em all!”

“What the hell are these things?! Ah, who cares, let’s just kill ’em all!”

Now the world seemed to be saying that you don’t necessarily have to be insane to kill someone, you just have to think you’re right. This thinking heavily influenced NieR, where the player character willingly slaughters his monster-like enemies without even knowing what they are and why they might be hostile. Indeed, he doesn’t even care, at one point responding to the insinuation that these are intelligent, sentient beings with the retort, “I don’t care if they can tap dance and play the fiddle.” What begins as one of Nier’s defining, positive characteristics – his desire and willingness to do anything to save his daughter – is turned on its head later on as players are made to wonder if it isn’t Nier, and by extension the player, that’s the real monster, the true danger to the world.

Those famous – or perhaps infamous – multiple endings play into this turnaround quite wonderfully, giving us new perspectives on events we’ve only seen through the rather blinkered, misled eyes of our protagonist, whether that be understanding the strikingly-familiar motivations of the apparent villain of the piece, or being able to understand the speech of the Shades you’ve spent twenty hours slaughtering. The game doesn’t allow you to deviate from the path, even with this knowledge, and it’s actually stronger and more affecting for that; at one point, you’re made to realise that a seemingly powerful boss you might have struggled to vanquish earlier was actually a defenceless child that you’re made to kill. Armed with that knowledge, it’s genuinely unnerving to be forced to do so. And should you make it to the fourth ending, you’re rewarded with a bit of quite brilliant fourth-wall breaking that is almost painful to watch. It’s absolutely worth seeing.

Looking back at his body of work, it’s clear that Yoko has ambitions that frequently outstrip his means, so it’s incredibly surprising to see a Platinum Games-developed sequel on the way. That’s certainly a team that understands gameplay, and with Yoko and Producer Yosuke Saito returning at the top, character designs by Akihiko Yoshida (of Ivalice fame) and another astounding soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe, Nier Automata is shaping up to be one of the most exciting games coming out this year.

coletrainwoo
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.

brumakwoo

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.

lismaxmain
Have you ever wanted to turn back time? Sure you have. We all make mistakes after all, wishing at times that the ground would open up and swallow us, embarrassments and all. And during the cautious, nervous years of adolescence, as we’re trying to understand the world and our place in it, these slip-ups seem all the more important.

But what if you could go back, rewind time to find a better outcome, or better yet, make sure you never stuck your foot in your mouth to begin with? This is the situation that Maxine “Max” Caulfield finds herself in at the start of episode one of Life is Strange, the new title from DONTNOD. The Parisian studio seems to have something of an obsession with our perception of time, first allowing us to mess with people’s memories in 2013’s Remember Me, and following that up by empowering us, through Max, to directly affect their actions by learning from them, and then rewinding to exploit them.

Comparisons have been made to Quantic Dream’s output, but in truth Life is Strange is something of an amalgamation of Gone Home and Telltale’s recent output seen through the lens of a lo-fi indie flick. For the most part, we’re on fairly familiar ground in gameplay terms; as Max, you’ll explore her environment, examining everything you see and talking to everyone who will talk to you, all the while moving from one small objective to the next, each a step along the path to a larger goal. You’ll also be making a number of choices as you go, and you’re encouraged to rewind and try again to see what might have happened under different circumstances.

Life is Strange's Max

This means that you can easily see the immediate outcome of each choice and then go with the one that seems to be the ‘best’, but while this sounds like it could have an adverse effect on the consequences of your actions, DONTNOD alleviates this concern by forcing you to accept your choices before moving on. These decisions will no doubt come back to haunt you later in the series, as well; already, there are some that seem right at the time, but by the end of the episode have you wondering whether that’s really true. An early decision offers you a choice between capturing photographic evidence of a friend being harassed, or to just step in and stop it right there and then, and one option certainly seems more valid in that moment. But maybe that photograph could come in handy down the line when you’re trying to prove someone’s wrongdoing?

The tone is quite far removed from the creeping dread and suffocating tension of the likes of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, too. Max’s adventure is possessed of a more gentle, autumnal feel, as she returns to her bucolic pacific-northwest hometown of Arcadia Bay after five years away to begin her studies at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, and this first episode is infused with a lazy, ‘school days’ vibe, the pacing deliberately and appropriately slow as Max explores her surroundings, her new abilities and herself, making observations about fellow students as she goes. That’s not to say Life is Strange is particularly light-hearted. There’s a dark thread of small-town alienation threaded through the entire episode, and while there are moments of tension, a couple of which are tantalisingly front-loaded and tied into Max’s newly-awakened powers, after these passages are over we’re returned to that languid, measured pace as we venture out onto the school grounds to immerse ourselves in Max’s new surroundings.

Max is something of a socially-awkward, unsure lead. She’s the quiet nerd in all of us, and as she struggles to find her place in the world, and subsequently understand her new gift, we get to experience it through her interactions and her playfully sardonic internal monologue. It’s a great way to anchor the player in the setting, and while we may not all be as shy as Max, we can surely all relate to being new to some thing or some place. She’s not much more settled in this environment than the player, so it makes sense that her inner thoughts are mostly centred around trying to make sense of her world, a design decision that does as much to inform the player as it does to reinforce Max’s character.

Life is Strange, Nerd cred,

Nerd culture references come thick and fast, and can sometimes be a bit overbearing, but they mostly work. The writers clearly know their audience, and it’s in these moments that the game delivers most of its humour.

Max also keeps a diary that gets updated as events pass, but go back a few pages and you’ll find there’s plenty to read that leads up to the start of the game, too. You can (and should) take a few minutes to read these earlier entries right from the off, and they serve as a good foundation for Max’s character, expressing her love of photography, her excitement at being accepted into Blackwell as well as her hesitance at starting a new chapter of her life. Some of the writing in Max’s diary can hew a little close to being obviously written by someone outside of their teenage years trying to think like a teenager, but it mostly holds up. In fact, Max is actually a pretty well-written character in general: while she loves her area of study, she’s also a proponent of the ‘why do today what you can put off ’til tomorrow’ school of thought; she hates the rich-kid cliques that enable and encourage bullying, but she’s not above rifling through a fellow student’s belongings or rearranging a photo wall to resemble an upturned middle finger; she’s somewhat unsure of who she really wants to be, but she’s also hesitant to find out. Basically, she’s a teenager, and her flaws and her contradictions make her all the more believable.

Then there’s Chloe. Max’s old “BFF” is almost unrecognisable to our heroine when their paths finally cross, and she’s very far from the girl Max remembers. Loud, brash, tattooed and blue of hair, she’s a good foil for our introverted, reserved heroine, quick to act where Max is more deliberate, and it’s immediately obvious that she hasn’t had an easy time since Max left. As Max and Chloe begin to rediscover themselves, their friendship and each other, their interactions are at first awkward and strained, and here we’re afforded another big choice: do we step in and help her out, strengthening the bond between the two young women, or do we stand aside and put our own interests first? It should be interesting to see how their relationship develops over the course of the series, and to what extent our decisions affect it, and it’s obvious by this first episode’s end that Max and Chloe’s friendship will form the core that the rest of the narrative revolves around.

Which is quite handy really, as the rest of the cast is filled out by a group of fairly typical high-schoolers; there’s the nerdy guy who’s clearly interested in our lead, the distant, troubled girl, the bitchy rich girl and a whole group of meathead jocks. And of course, every school setting needs at least one unstable psychopath to ratchet up the tension. While they’re clearly drawn from a bunch of archetypes, it’s a little early to label them stereotypes from one episode alone, and already there are a few characters whose arcs should hopefully be interesting to watch unravel as the episodes continue.

But at the heart of all that sits the mystery of Max’s new powers and the reveal at the episode’s climax of a looming threat to the small town, though we are of course none-the-wiser about what it will be that causes this unnatural catastrophe – only that Max, through her powers, is the only one that knows it’s coming. If future episodes of Life is Strange can deliver on the promises teased in this opening chapter, it’s sure to provide an interesting mystery story wrapped up in a poignant coming-of-age tale.

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.

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.