Sunday 16 November 2014

ANALYSE THIS! Also, Scan It.

Arriving at Halo: Combat Evolved (Anniversary Edition) is sort of like putting on a comfy, old, much-loved and well-worn jumper only to find out that somebody dry cleaned it, patched up the holes and sewed in an extravagant weave of fibre optic multicoloured lights that you can program yourself (to, let's face it, spell all the bad words and draw rude ASCII pictures). I mentioned in an earlier ramble just how much time I spent with the original Halo, and maybe that seemed a little excessive - but it was a combination of factors, really. I was sixteen and poor; I'd saved all my summer job pennies up to buy an original Xbox (my first console since owning a Mega Drive in the mid-90s; oh, the neighbours I drove insane, dropping in to play your Tony Hawks and your Goldeneyes): and Halo Multiplayer was just the best thing to happen to teenage nerds since anything ever (and until Nathan Fillion).

Let me start by saying that online multiplayer is great: Xbox Live parties, a big screen each, all that jazz. It's marvellous, it really is. That being said, some of the best weekends I (and I hope I won't be inaccurate in saying "we") spent in my (our) teens necessitated loading our xboxes up into our parents' cars and massing at the house of the friend with the most TVs (thanks, Pete. You're a gentleman and a scholar.) and getting into some serious Team Slayer business. It's a geek cliché, no doubt: there were almost certainly Doritos, and if it hadn't been banned for being radioactive or something, you can bet your arse there'd have been Mountain Dew; and yes, it was almost exclusively a boys' club, at least early on. You can't win them all.

Tangent: I've always taken issue with that particular geek culture archetype - the basement-dwelling loner who never talks to anyone et al. Purveyors of this unfair propaganda somehow unfailingly managed to overlook that the vast majority of nerdy passtimes - gaming, especially, be it electronic or tabletop - are SOCIAL enterprises. (insert jokes about playing with oneself here at your own leisure.) Always seemed rather unfair.

Anyway: I'm happy to say that I usually acquitted myself pretty well at these gatherings - winning occasionally, and more often than I came last - unless it was Rockets on Wizard, in which case I spent 90% of the game as a fine vapour. Cooperative campaign play was a revelation, too - strong storylines meshed well with the fantastic gameplay. The Warthog levels in particular were clearly made for two players (and cause far more arguments that I'd care to admit whilst determining driver/gunner rights).

Playing through this last time, I was impressed by how solid the game still is, even before considering the shiny new coat of paint. It certainly feels more stately than later additions to the series, and other more modern shooters, but not prohibitively so. The score is still fantastic - that main theme is deservedly one of the most iconic pieces in video game history and still gives me goosebumps - and the that coat of paint is really rather pretty. It's an impressive balance - everything is sharper and gloriously detailed, but it still feels like Halo. No mean feat. Got quite a lot of enjoyment flipping back and forth between the classic and modern graphics. Notably, this is the only game in which I didn't absolutely loathe fighting the Flood: They were still fresh (not literally) and genuinely pretty scary when they showed up. The Guilty Spark level was deliciously atmospheric. It's sort of a shame that I had the plot spoiled for me by jumping into co-op with a friend at that point in the game. That being said, that same friend's enthusiasm was also the driving force behind me buying the Xbox in the first place. (Also, he got me the summer job that let me pay for it. And also got me a broken arm. Swings and roundabouts. Thanks, Dan! Mostly.)

Thanks to my slightly screwy playthrough order, this is the first time the proper terminals appear, and I managed to find them all this time, with MINIMAL assistance from google. They're really rather great. Watching Guilty Spark go slightly nutso over the course of thousands of years is highly entertaining. On the flipside: Kinect integration. I guess Anniversary must have come out right around the time they were still trying to force Kinect down our collective throats, even though it was clear no-one with an ounce of sense wanted to buy one. Anyway, long story short, I bought one (shut up) and basically only use it to yell XBOX! PLAY DVD! when I can't be bothered to find the control pad. (Or to use Dragon Shouts in Skyrim. In fact, forget my buyer's remorse: the first FUS RO DAH was entirely worth the money.)

Anyway, H:CE:AE (deal with it) has a great little in-game item scanning feature that gives you a fun background article on most of the items, characters and enemies (great little explanation of why the human pistol is SO effective against Hunters) in the game... except it makes you use Kinect to activate it. So if you're slightly obsessive about collecting them all, like I was,then every time you see a new item, you have to shout ANALYSE to activate a blue-filtered scanning mode that lasts about ten seconds, centre the reticle on the item you want to scan, yell SCAN and wait two seconds until the item scans. This, of course, assumes that the Kinect listens to you when you shout ANALYSE, that you are looking exactly at the item you want to scan when you shout SCAN, that the thing you're SCANNING does't run out of shot/explode/chew your face off before the SCAN is complete, that the Kinect hears you shout SCAN before the ANALYSE mode ends and you have to shout ANALYSE again, and that during this LABORIOUS process your neighbour doesn't SNAP and BURN YOUR HOUSE DOWN.

Oh well. No game is perfect. TO HALO 2!

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Recalling Reach

I could be mistaken here, but I feel like most fans of the series don't hold Halo: Reach in particularly high regard. This seems like a real shame to me - when I decided to replay the series, I was far more excited to get to grips with Reach again than I was for Halo 2 or 3. Call me a Heretic (Covenant jokes? Really? Shame on you. Nerd.) but I really enjoy a prequel that holds together - and for me, Reach is one of the good ones.

The Halo universe is good old fashioned Space Opera, and doesn't apologise for it. Halo: CE wrapped its parasitic little tendrils around the ornate brass and quartz mechanism I keep where my heart should be way back before I knew what space opera WAS. As a consequence it's the yardstick I measure all my sci-fi gaming experiences against, and I'll always have a soft spot for the Chief and his chums. The series is a good mix, really - it's just bright and shiny enough without being on the Megaman scale of eyeball liquidization, and just gritty enough to have some impact without being populated by Gears of War style perambulatory tree-trunks, seemingly covered in a thin layer of leaf mould and communicating via a series of dour grunts.

So: Reach.

It's not often I play a game in which I know from the get-go that most of the major characters are going to die. Probably painfully. Certainly needlessly. It's tough to get attached to them: some of them, I never did. The archetypes are rather unsubtle in this one - Noble Leader (Carter) no more character than the faceless, nameless, apparently gender-nonspecific player character, Noble Six. Some storytelling lessons were learned here from the exploits of Commander Shepard, I'll wager. That being said, the opening shot of the game focuses on the battle-worn (and notably empty) Spartan helmet that is quite clearly decorated in the colours you've most likely just spent some time picking out for your character - for me, that was enough of a hook. And it's worth saying that Reach is really, really pretty. In skybox terms, Bungie didn't pull any punches. The gameplay is recognisably Halo, of course - FPS, recharging shields, Grunts making silly noises and running away - but with enough of an overhaul that it feels pretty fresh. Noble Six certainly feels a little more delicate than the Chief - she's a Spartan III, a rather pale imitation of the older, tougher, more 'kidnap your kids, brainwash them and turn them into cyborgs without their or your consent' Spartan IIs. Dual-wielding is gone (or.. hasn't appeared yet? Chronology is hard, you guys), but armour abilities are introduced that work far better than the 'equipment' of Halo 3: none of them are overpowered or gamebreaking, but they allow you to mix things up a little here and there, and that's all to the good.

Also: Jetpacks.

I'm still not sure how they explain away the disparity in the performance and availability of the weapons and vehicles you encounter in each subsequent game, and ESPECIALLY in Reach: not only that, but there are new Covenant enemies in this game that don't appear anywhere else in the series. The only conclusion is that Noble Team murders them all. (Achievement unlocked: Genocide! - 40G) One of the first things I notices in this game was how QUICK the Elites are. It certainly makes them feel like more of a threat, especially when they're also a lot bigger than everyone in your squad (except maybe Jorge, being your lone Spartan II. Yes, Jorge, we all see your magnificent giant machine gun. No, noone thinks you're compensating.). The assault mode on Multiplayer was pretty damned great, too.

As endings go... pretty bittersweet. We knew it had to happen... but that post-credits sequence was surprisingly harrowing. ("Current Objective: Survive." OH GOD I TRIED) I don't think I've ever been so invested in a single fight sequence, and seeing Six's visor slowly crack as she takes damage and finally succumbs to overwhelming odds makes the ending monologue from Halsey (or Cortana? These space ladies all sound alike to me) genuinely poignant.

Other stuff to love:
> The Fillion cameo (yes, Fillion again. Shut up, he's dreamy.)
>  Using armour lock to stop bastards on Ghosts running you down
> Halsey/Cortana/Pillar of Autumn
> Jorge being Jorge. I liked him.

Stuff to hate:
> that SON OF A BITCH grenade launcher. It is just the worst.
>  Kat's accent.
> Emile being Emile. I didn't like him.

Thought for the day: never underestimate a Bungie employee's ability to come up with new synonyms for 'Ghost'.

Monday 10 November 2014

Starting the fight again (so I can finish it)

Occasionally I tell myself that I've fallen out of love with the Halo franchise. "It's a spent force", I tell myself, "out of date and clichèd and you can do BETTER, Daniel!". Which is weird, because I only get called Daniel when I'm in trouble.

This line of thinking falls apart with but a brief glance at my games library. I own all of them. ALL. Even Halo Wars (shut up it's fun for what it is). When I bought my original Xbox back in 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved was the only game I owned for a full ten months and by the time I scraped together the pennies for a couple more games I STILL played it. It's the kind of game where, if I pick it up now, muscle memory kicks in and I know exactly what is going to spawn where, where the glitched shortcuts are, and exactly when I'm going to die because I've only got plasma weapons and a Lekgolo pair are eyeing me up. Without eyes. Which is impressive.

It hasn't escaped my notice that the Master Chief collection is upcoming for those amongst us blessed with the reinforced shelving and hastily-constructed oversized gaming annexes necessary for the ownership of an Xbox One (shut up again I'm not bitter). Resolved as I am not to upgrade to upgrade to next gen (continue to be shut up I'm not calling them current gen) until the pricing and game selection is more competitive (and/or the Mass Effect, Fallout or Elder Scrolls franchises spawn a sequel), I thought I'd cut out the middle man and play through the ones I already have. Maverick that I am I thought I'd play them in chronological, rather than release, order. I was half way through Reach before I realised that ODST is the giant spanner in the works here, of course, but I'll forgive it because Nathan Fillion.

As I write I've got as far as High Charity in Halo 2, and it's pretty amazing how much of Halo and Halo 2 are ingrained on the nerd-centres of my brain. I'm sort of rushing 2, even if I feel guilty about it - I'd like to say I can get past how aged it looks, but having played through the Anniversary edition of CE, and the relatively modern Reach, I guess I'm just spoiled. On top of that, as much as I do love Halo 2, everything thing feels so... thin. And flimsy. I'm not sure that's anything to do with the graphics. But hey! I'm having fun - maybe even enough to ramble on some more sometime.

Apologies in advance. And no, I don't count Spartan Assault. I'm not an ANIMAL.