More Halo 5 Thoughts

I hadn’t finished the campaign when I last wrote about Halo 5, and I hadn’t even touched the multiplayer side of things. Now I have done both, so it’s time for a few more relatively spoiler-free musings.

The single-player campaign is surprisingly brief, despite being fifteen levels in length. Three of those levels are not combat orientated, and are basically an excuse to hide exposition and collectible items. The traditional Skulls denoting different game modifiers are hidden in each level, and there are also varying numbers of audio files that provide extra background information to find as well.

The level design is pretty much a traditional linear progression from point A to point B, with wide open spaces for large numbers of set piece encounters. It’s very Halo, and there’s a comfort in that. What is very different is the AI of your team.

In previous Halo games, the player has typically been a lone wolf figure, battling through seemingly insurmountable odds. Any additional computer-controlled characters have tended to just be cannon fodder, useful only for the weapons and ammo they drop when killed by the opposing forces.

In this game your team is actually pretty helpful. They provide covering fire, can be ordered to concentrate fire on designated targets and pick up weapons if you tell them to. Most importantly, they can revive you and others for a short period after incapacitation, which makes a huge difference in avoiding restarting levels and checkpoints.

The team support is so good in fact, that it’s only really at the Legendary level of difficulty that I started to find them less helpful. There isn’t a huge difference between difficulty in playing Normal and Heroic, but the step from Heroic to Legendary actually made it feel a challenge because it was so noticeably harder.

This is a good thing, though maybe playing co-op will make it easier. I haven’t done that yet as no one in my usual gamer circle has yet bought the game, and without split screen I can’t play on the couch with anyone (yep, sorry, raising this one again).

That said, I enjoyed the story, even if it suffered from the curse of setting up the sequel rather than resolving anything. The new big bad is suitably worrying, even if their reasons for acting feel out of character and petty. I’m not sold on their motivations (how’s that for vague spoiler-light fare?) even if I’m more sold on their allies’s reasons for joining.

The multiplayer side of things is slick, there is no doubt, and I’ve enjoyed it far more than I did Destiny’s Crucible games, if only because the skill matching seems generally more even. The current PvP modes seem balanced, and I’ve rarely experienced lag. On my connection, that’s pretty impressive.

I had worried that the new Halo would prove to be a bit of a one trick pony, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by its replay value and the online carnage. I’m actually looking forward to the new content landing next week, including Big Team Battles in Arena, which has always been a favourite.

Halo 5 First Impressions

Oh, Halo 5, you’re very pretty, I’ve almost forgiven you the rank stupidity of being a digital download only. Almost, even if it did take nearly four days to install you. You’d have thought that buying the Limited Collector’s Edition might possibly have given you physical media from which to install. I wouldn’t have minded multiple discs, or even a USB stick – because downloading roughly 60Gb to install a game when you don’t have blistering fibre connections (thank you BT) is a fecking pain in the proverbial.

But you’re working now, and all those tricks they’ve engineered to keep things running at 60 frames per second are so far making this a glorious experience. Now, I haven’t touched the multiplayer side of things yet as I’m an old fashioned soul who prefers to play the single player campaign through first. I’d love to co-op play it with Lady M, but the lack of split-screen still rankles. Previous incarnations of the XBox, and Halo in particular, won my loyalty for enabling side by side couch gameplay with friends and family. It’s departure is keenly noticed and still irritates the hell out of me.

So, I’m in the third mission now (hey, I do have to work too, even if I was playing it this morning before going to open up the library), and I’m happy to report that so far it does actually feel and play like Halo, even with the new features. What is very interesting is how the UI differences give the impression of the age difference between Spartan Locke’s system and Master Chief’s system. They actually play pretty much the same, but Locke feels like the newer production model compared to The Chief.

The game seems so far to be full of little signifiers like this. The newer Spartans seem more mobile and speedier in how they engage the enemy, compared to the more solid and deliberate movements of the older ‘classic’ Spartans. There’s some good dialogue and banter between characters too in the cut-scenes, building on the foundations laid in the Spartan Missions from Halo 4 as well as the rest of the main game series.

Is it a deep and diverting game? No, it’s Halo, not Tolstoy, but it’s so far hitting all the right notes. Now, if the multiplayer side delivers when I get to it – and the Beta suggests it will – then I’m going to continue to be a happy bunny. Just sort out that split screen 343!

ODST re-release

Like many, I was so excited when the Halo Master Chief Collection was announced, and mildly bemused to note the absence of the ODST section. At the time, I shrugged it off because Master Chief doesn’t appear in it, but the game has always retained a soft spot in my memories. This was largely due to the mixture of multiple viewpoints, gorgeous music, and writing that had both subtlety and simplicity.

It was, first and foremost a game of running around and shooting aliens, but there wasn’t so much of the bombastic tone of the main series. My main memory was of feeling more human, more fragile, and part of a team that was struggling to get back together. It was an approach that seemed to be developed in Halo: Reach, but there the theme was reversed, with the experienced team being dismantled over the course of a brutal invasion.

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The announcement then that ODST was going to be remastered for free as recompense for the shockingly awful implementation of multiplayer Halo (arguably the element that so many of us had actually bought the collection for) felt something of a mixed bag. I’ve been online a few times with the MCC, but found those early attempts so painful that I’ve been focusing instead on the single player games and their co-op versions, relishing on at least having a good split screen experience to share with people on the couch.

So, how is the MCC ODST conversion? The campaign is sitting as a subdirectory of Halo3 in the MCC menus (they use the same, tweaked, graphics engine after all). I’ve been hammering the single player story the last couple of days and it has simply been a joy. The graphical updates are simple, making things seem just that little bit crisper, while the gameplay feels exactly the same. I mean, you’d hope it would, but I did fire it up on the 360 to compare and I can’t tell the difference.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed crisscrossing the city as The Rookie, picking my route and battles, and the different feel of each specialist’s section keeps changing the flow nicely, breaking up what could have been a monotonous run and gun. The city’s AI, Virgil, is a constant but subtle presence, changing video adverts to point the way, unlocking equipment caches, and even raising and lowering traffic blocks to provide cover during firefight. It’s simple but effective, and I’m developing a great appreciation for this unseen addition to my team.

In terms of collectibles, the audio clips I’m picking up are not only filling in back story, but feeding the gamer score craving with a steady flow of 5 points here, 10 points there too. What can I say? I’m a simple soul at heart, easily pleased. And then there’s the music; haunting, bluesey one moment, a military tattoo the next, driving you forward into combat. The soundtrack is so good, you’re going to want to buy it, and fortunately all the major digital outlets have it in stock. Treat yourself.

So, if you’re wondering what to do with this free download you’ve got, just dive in and enjoy a piece of background development for the main saga you may have missed first time. For the rest of you, grab it when you get a chance, and remember what Bungie can do when they focus on telling a story.

Halo 5 Multiplayer Beta – The Holidays Have Started

Both Lady M and myself are on leave from our respective workplaces for the next couple of weeks – with a new job on her horizon and general chaos seemingly on mine. So we’re intending to carry on making the best of what life throws at us and grinning in adversity’s face.

Normally, this would be a weekend where the Charleesi would be staying with us, but with it being Christmas week, we’re instead having her arrival delayed a day. We’ll have her with us all week, so this is hardly a disaster. Instead of taking her riding this morning, as would be the normal part of our weekend routine, we had a lie-in (luxury) and while Jo sneaked a little last minute paperwork in, I fired up the Halo5 Multiplayer Beta.

Halo5 Beta LobbyAccess for most people to the Beta is due to start next week, but I’ve joined a sneaky (relative) few by being part of the XBox One Preview testers. As a perk of taking part in testing out new features on the dashboard we’ve been given an extra weekend ahead of everyone else.

My first impressions? It’s a lot of fun. The first game or so felt a little odd in comparison to the more fluid run and gun play of games like Destiny and Titanfall, and I felt initially like I was moving a little more slowly than I would like. Then I stopped and checked the button mapping settings so that I wasn’t trying to double guess what I was doing. Once I’d remapped to the old Halo4 settings, it all felt a lot more natural.

There are four things that are new, and that to my mind are great improvements. Each of them is largely to do with movement:

  • Aiming down the barrel has been introduced, for all weapons, and it doesn’t break the game. I found movement still smooth, and getting hit by anything shifted me back out of it into the more traditional Halo viewpoint
  • Sprinting is available for everyone, as opposed to being an armour loadout as introduced in Halo4. This allows you to move in bursts, and overcomes the initial feeling of moving through molasses that I first noted. When you are sprinting, your shields do not regenerate, so there are real tactical advantages to both modes of movement when under fire.
  • Thrusters – the new suits include thrusters – also introduced as an armour loadout in Halo4 – for all players, to provide short bursts of speed. I could never get the hang of them in the previous game, but in this incarnation they’ve proved useful in both offense and defense. In addition they can be used to provide a brief hover time in a high jump and a Destiny Titan-like ground-pound attack that can be devastating.
  • Mantling – If you don’t quite make a jump and are near an edge, you can tap your jump button again and clamber on to the ledge you were aiming for. Familiar from Titanfall as an essential part of parkour-like vertical movement, I’ve been enjoying having this added to the new game.

It’s been really easy to string these various modes of movement together to perform rapid map traversals, especially on the more human industrial map called Empire. With a series of sprints, jumps, thrusters in mid-jump and mantle at the end, it’s possible to shift rapidly from one side of the map to the other and surprise opponents engaged with other members of your team in another direction.

At the moment there are only two maps available, and not all the classic weapons are in use yet, but everything has felt in balance.

  • The Assault Rifle benefits from the new scope abilities, becoming a short burst weapon when in use, or fully automatic when in normal mode. It’s a good all round weapon and I’m using it more than I thought.
  • The Pistol is more like the Halo2 pistol than the mighty Halo CE tool of destruction, but I’ve got more than a few head shots at range with the scoped mode and it’s a good semi-auto weapon that will keep up with trigger pulls with a minimum of spread.
  • The SMG is a good short range weapon that deals a lot of damage but that tapers off quite rapidly at medium range and above.
  • The Sniper Rifle continues to be an excellent power weapon, and the Empire map contains two of them. If you already like the sniper, you’ve nothing to complain about here.
  • The Battle Rifle is still the weapon of choice for my money – a great balance of fire and precision.
  • The DMR is a great compromise between the Battle Rifle and the Sniper Rifle, but I’ve yet to fall back in love with it. I suspect on bigger maps it will come into its own.
  • The Energy Sword continues to be a lethal tool, but is balanced by just how bright it is – I’ve run the risk of running right past people when I’ve had it equipped because I’ve not seen them through the glare. A better tactic is to run around with your rifle and quickly switch to the Sword when in close quarters.

Competitive Ranking is back – I’ve just qualified as Bronze II, so I’ve a long way to go as I get used to the game. I’m not too worried about that – I’m well aware that I’m an average gamer at best, but I’m competitive enough to want to hone my performance. Matchmaking so far has been pretty good at providing even matches – to the point where even if the final score has looked unbalanced at 50-28, it’s never felt like a walk-over. Every point has felt hard-won.

So – guess what I’ll be carrying on doing in between delivering presents, doing last minute grocery shopping and partaking of the occasional tipple..?

Halo CE on the XBox One

originalI’ve just finished running through the single-player campaign of Halo CE as presented in the recent Master Chief Collection, and I’d forgotten how tough and unforgiving it was. I was only playing on Normal difficulty, and found myself alternating between nostalgic joy at the classic run and gun play and wanting to rage quit as invisible Elites insta-killed me, Sentinels set me on fire, or Flood kept getting back up as fast as I could shotgun them down.

Have I enjoyed it? Oh hell yes, and at the same time I’m glad I’ve got through the campaign. Now I can move on to Halo 2, to see what the remastered graphics look like. I still need to go back and get a couple of the terminals and skulls – and I’ll try to play through levels at higher levels. Maybe I’ll try to speed run and beat the par times and scores too – there’s a lot of challenges buried in this remix that have me hooked enough to keep coming back, even if the multiplayer is only now starting to be reliable.

Right, back to the fight…

Some Spoiler-Free Thoughts on Halo 4

I was chatting the other night with a friend while we were playing Halo and we started talking about the approach to storytelling and back history taken by the game. N has never read or viewed any of what I call the extended media around the Halo franchise. As a result, his reactions to certain key events or personalities revealed along the way are markedly different to mine.

I’ve been a relative latecomer to reading the various novels – many game tie-ins over the years have been lackluster across the industry in my opinion – but when I heard that 343 were intending to use the latest crop of novels as a launchpad for the new game, and saw that they were getting people like Greg Bear and Karen Traviss to write them I started keeping an eye out for them. Greg Bear’s series of books are set deep in the history of the series, but are hugely relevant to the events of the new game, while Karen Traviss’ book Glasslands acts to tie together the previous novels and set up the situation revealed in the new game.

On top of that, the Forward Unto Dawn webseries was released in the five weeks leading up to the game’s launch – a high quality live-action series that does a lot to set the tone of the latest part of the series and introduces a new key character who interacts with the Chief during the game.

This all adds up to a lot of back story that pays off for me when playing the game, but as my friend pointed out, it also seems to have led to some lazy storytelling in the game itself. I can entirely understand his point. There are certain key moments and reveals in the Campaign that fall flat without knowing the back story. Instead of saying “Oh no, its the ****** inside that *******, now it all makes sense”, it becomes – “Oh… that’s what’s inside that piece of scenery… he looks powerful. Guess he’s the bad guy.”

Don’t get me wrong, I am really enjoying the game and losing many many hours playing it online, discovering codes and terminals to unlock weird and wonderful things, but from a storytelling point of view it does all feel a bit rushed. Using the minimally spoilery example above, for example, the material used in the Domain Terminals could have been used to flesh out and foreshadow the existence and nature of the Big Bad, or to have clue the player in after the reveal to add an emotional resonance to things. The Chief, after all, has a history of accidentally nearly triggering large extinction events, so the way the Big Bad is revealed is entirely consistent with previous games – but unlike the original Halo, not so much effort is put into explaining why this is a Bad Thing. The Chief becomes even more of a reactive cipher than before. He is fighting the Big Bad because there is a Big Bad to be fought.

While I hope that the plan and consequences are picked up in the next game. While its obvious that a huge amount of care and attention has gone into the game play and the technical elements, it is a shame that there is this feeling of a missed opportunity. Other minor niggles like being unable to drill back into medals or make theatre clips and screen shots from campaign or spartan ops sessions just add to a very slight sense of “humph” – but then I think we’ve been spoiled by just how superior Bungie’s previous handling of these features has been.

I’m sure I’ll ruminate more, but for now I have a Haggis cooking and some creamy mashed potatoes to prepare. Catch you all later…