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Halo 4 in Review

When I think of what makes Halo great, I think of things like simple, accessible shooter gameplay built on a rock-solid foundation of impeccably balanced and specialized weapons leveraged in sandbox-y encounters that invite me to develop strategies and overcome impossible odds. I think of raucous multiplayer battles that feel more like schoolyard games than uber-macho paramilitary kill-fests. I’m put in mind of epic vistas and setpieces where I’m taking down a massive enemy vehicle single-handedly or riding out across an alien terrain in a cool tank. Then there’s the sweeping, portentous music and the particular sound of it all- from the announcer that says “Sssslayer” to the report of one of the game’s ubiquitous assault rifles. These things are all part of what Halo is to me.

It was when I was firing one of those assault rifles early on in the single player game that I realized that I wasn’t playing a Bungie Halo game, but a 343 Industries one. It sounded bigger, meatier, and richer. Everything did. Come to find out, they reworked all of the sound and if it’s not an entirely new graphics engine, then I’m shocked because the game looks sometimes astonishingly good. Who’s really impressed with graphics anymore? Play Halo 4, and you will be. During the opening cutscene, I actually had to kind of squint to see if the characters were real actors or CGI models.

343’s effort is an immaculate piece of AAA game-making, reportedly the most expensive game Microsoft has ever made. It shows. This is the product of folks working at the peak of their technical and artistic craft, every single element of the production from texturing and character animation to interface design and dynamic lighting is almost staggeringly polished and refined to near-perfection. But most importantly, Halo 4 is a smash success following up on 46 million copies and $3 billion dollars worth of successes , regardless of who’s steering the ship. In other words, they got it right and it’s money in the bank. More than that, I think it is likely the best Halo game to date if only because it is so carefully studied, constructed on the established foundations of this massive franchise.

But following on from and building on Halo’s past also means that some of the other things I think about when I think of Halo are there. The not-so-good things, mostly connected to the single-player campaign. The first part of the “Reclaimer Trilogy” story is another somewhat vague framework for outstanding gameplay and a number of bravura action sequences- almost all of which are player-controlled, not cutscenes. Master Chief is back, as adverstised, as is Cortana. Complete with all of her horribly written, horribly executed comedic relief lines. Some of the emotional beats playing to the silly relationship between Spartan and AI actually had me groaning, which is a huge disappointment in a game that is otherwise best-in-class. Believe me, the scene where you’re practically a one-man escort for the world’s biggest Tonka truck will make all of the feeble writing worth sitting through.

So yet again, the writing and story isn’t what it could be. Since I’ve never really been invested in the Halo story or the transmedia surrounding it, I found myself wondering why in the hell I was fighting my way up to a button and who the hell the Forerunners are, anyway. It didn’t really matter, I had a great time anyway and I just sort of shrugged off the nonsense. Hell, if nothing else the soft-headed story dragged me through some really awesome-looking places across several different kinds of environments.

And I do mean dragged, because Halo 4 can be brutally, refreshingly difficult when played on the Heroic or Legendary settings, which is really what you should do. The difficulty makes every firefight, sniper alley, or desperate rush tense and exciting, with a great sense of reward when you work out that guerilla tactics will get you through an area or simply playing the stealth game and avoiding a fight altogether is the best option. And there’s always the issue of bringing the right tools to the bench, so to speak. I love that in Halo 4, as in past Halo games, the two weapons you’re carrying are a major strategic concern.

So Halo 4 is Halo, and all that entails- which is both exactly what I wanted it to be, but it is also a minor disappointment. I went into Halo 4 hoping that 343 would really rock the boat, upending the series and revitalizing it with new concepts and forward-thinking ideas. It seemed like the mandate was there with the changeover in stewardship. But they really didn’t change that much in the formula other than bringing in some challenging new enemies that fight nothing at all like the Covenant or the Flood and an entire armory to go with them. Sure, they put you behind the stick of a Pelican and there’s a new mech you can rampage in, but most of the game is, as stated, a continuation of ideas from past games including Reach and ODST.

A reality check is in order. Halo simply can not be innovative and groundbreaking anymore because it is such a successful franchise. The old saying goes, “don’t mess with success”. You don’t gamble on a release like this. You make a game that will please most of the people most of the time. The developers can fidget with some elements of it, but ultimately this game has to be Halo first and foremost, and it has to touch all of those Halo things. You can’t possibly say they failed in doing so. No, it’s not the latest heart-filled, scrappy indie game made with ten grand of Kickstarter funds and the pipe dream of remaking an esoteric 1990s PC game. But anyone who thinks that 343 didn’t knock this out of the park- while also setting the stage for the next generation of FPS games- needs to get their head checked. So what if they stayed the course. It worked.

However, this stay the course approach is mostly apparent in the single-player offering, which is extremely generous for a linear playthrough but virtually unlimited in replay thanks to co-op and modifying skulls. The multiplayer game, where many would say that Halo comes alive, has seen some pretty extensive renovation and I’m not quite sure yet what to make of it all both because I’m kind of overwhelmed by the changes and also because I need some more time beyond the review period to sort of let it all settle in. there’s a new leveling system with unlocks, killstreak-like weapon drops, and a much wider range of customization and ability options. it’s a fairly controlled set of variables, but it is still moving Halo away from the more egalitarian multiplayer game of Reach and all before and more toward a Call of Duty-like system where some players have, and some do not. I don’t mind ending a game feeling outperformed, but I don’t like feeling like I’ve just been outgunned because I don’t have the top unlocks.

The maps are awesome, as good as anything in past Halo games, and the game types are the usual mix of fun Slayer and objective types and there are tons of customization options for each. Many, I predict, will bemoan the loss of Firefight but rest assured that the new Spartan Ops game, which is sort of cross between Call of Duty’s SpecOps and Firefight, is likely to emerge as something far better. it’s a series of weekly missions, complete with cutscenes and narrative context, that can be tackled solo or with three other players. I really like that it’s practically a serial, ongoing campaign.

I’ve not even touched Forge or any of the theater options but they’re available for the interested. One of my favorite things about Halo has always been that it lets players play the game they want to play, and 343i has maintained this design principle. If you don’t like the new leveling system and abilities, you can set up games without them and go purely old school. If you hate multiplayer, there’s tons of single-player game to be had or you could never touch the campaign and solely play this online with friends or strangers across any number of game types. Halo is extremely accommodating, a true mainstream game that welcomes the hardest of the hardcore and the casual-est of the casual. At this level of the business, that’s a necessary goal.

Halo 4 is Halo, that’s what I keep coming back to when I collect my thoughts on the game. It is exactly what it is, and if you are already dead set against Halo or if you resent it for being a simple, accessible shooter or for any other reason, it won’t change your mind. But it also won’t give you anything new to hate, because the game is what you make out of it. The product itself is an amazing, enormous, and sometimes ravishing piece of software. The game is almost preternaturally refined, precise, and peerless in its technical execution. But no matter what it all is to you when you put it together in your mind, Halo 4 is Halo- definitively.


Hybrid’s Many Questions

Last night I fired up the beta for Hybrid, the upcoming multiplayer only XBLA shooter from 5th Cell. You may recognize that name from Scribblenauts and Scribblenauts 2: Revenge of the Scribbler (not its real name) as well as the Drawn to Life series and Lock’s Quest. “Wait a minute”, you may be asking, “what do these games have to do with a multiplayer only cover shooter set in a persistent online world?” Beats me. Did I mention there are jetpacks? Not Tribes-style jetpacks, but jetpacks nonetheless.

I know you have questions. Trust me, I do too, many of which came about as I stared at deployment screen after deployment screen. Yes, I am terrible at Hybrid. No, this is not a surprise.

The game kicks off with a little speech about how at some point in the future we found something called dark matter. Really, Hybrid? That’s all you got? Dark matter? I know that there was a sentence on the screen about how the tutorial speech wasn’t finalized, but you can’t come up with something better than dark matter? Dark matter was first theorized in the ’30s so at the very least, don’t say that you discovered dark matter, say that you confirmed the existence of dark matter or you synthesized dark matter or better yet, come up with something original like Unobtainium. Ok, that’s not original either, but you get the idea.

In the process of finding dark matter, Australia was obliterated. The world then—wait a minute. Australia was obliterated? Like, gone gone? Is there a giant hole where Australia once was? If so, did the ocean rush in to fill that hole? If so, what did that do to the rest of the world? Speaking of world effects, what would the destruction of an entire continent do to global weather patterns, much less to the global economy? And why Austrailia? Why not North America, or South America. What does 5th Cell have against Australia? What are you not telling us 5th Cell?

The tutorial then goes on to say that the world was split into two factions, the blue guys and the red guys, who are exactly like the blue guys but more sinister. I don’t know what that means. Both are working to collect enough samples of dark matter to reverse the incident. What does that mean? Does that mean that Australia comes back? If so, how does one restore a continent to sinister ends? Killer koalas? Giant, rampaging kangaroos?

The tutorial finishes up by stating that you and the other guys are both trying to get 110 samples of dark matter. That’s a very concrete number. First side to get to 110 samples wins, but they don’t explain why. Is there a machine that both sides have that’s just sitting there, waiting to go, until someone pours 110 samples of dark matter into it? Why 110? And if you got to 109 samples and the other guys got to 110, wouldn’t it be worth trying your machine and not just going “Oh well. They got more samples. Last one out, turn off the lights.”

After the setting is established you’re dumped into the tutorial. Hybrid is a cover shooter that allows you to move from cover to cover via your jetpack. In fact, there’s no running or walking or any ambulatory motion of any kind. You select a piece of cover, hit the A button and jetpack there. You can strafe in the air as well as shoot and use a burst of speed. You can also change to a new piece of cover mid-flight by selecting it and pressing A, similar to how Batman can change direction with the line launcher. If you get to your new piece of cover and find that you’ve made a tactical error, you can hit B and immediately fly backwards to your old cover.

Like every multiplayer shooter, you level up your character and get shiny new abilities as a result. Also like other shooters, you get goodies for kill streaks in the form of drones. Kill one guy and get a drone. Kill three guys and get a better drone. Kill five guys and get a super-ninja drone. I’m not sure killing one person constitutes a streak but for incompetent players like me, it’s nice that I get to get in on the kill streak action too. Drones stick by your side and shoot whatever you’re shooting except for the ninja who heads to your enemy like a homing missile.

I went with team deathmatch and was dropped in a somewhat small map with cover both on the ceiling and on the floor. The jetpacks allow for ceiling based cover but it didn’t make a lot of sense for said cover to be there. I was fighting a battle someplace in South America but was I in a warehouse, a dark matter processing facility, a Brazilian Walmart? Why were there platforms in the air with barriers? It wasn’t a blown up ceiling situation. These were clearly floating ceilings with barriers for cover. Also, if both sides are desperate for dark matter, why are they agreeing to arbitrary “first group to 25 kills” rules like some sort of throwback to the 1700’s when civilized men fought only between 11AM and 3PM and not on Tuesday or if it was raining?

Remember in Battlestar Galactica when Galactica et al realized that they could kill skinjobs all the live-long day, but until they knocked out the Cylons’ ability to resurrect, it was a losing battle? Wouldn’t the smarter thing to do in Hybrid be to say “Screw this battle stuff, we’re winning the war” and try and take out whatever technology is allowing the other side to spawn in indefinitely until they reach some arbitrary kill count? A control point type of match makes sense in the context of this game, team deathmatch does not. While we’re on it, wouldn’t it be awesome if, as you progressed through the levels in Hybrid you could unlock a special Commando level that then allowed you to go on super difficult matches against the best players with the reward being some sort of game changing event that affects the entire world? Like, maybe you go on a mission where you knock out a respawn facility and if successful, for an hour everyone who plays in battles in Asia plays against enemies that can’t respawn or has limited respawns? And if you lose your special mission match, maybe you can’t take on special missions or defend against the other side’s special missions for something like an hour. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

While playing I kept asking myself why I couldn’t see my enemies, who the hell was making that giant blue globe that kept damaging me and why I suck at shooters so much. Then I began wondering if I could drop out or if that would be a dick move, leaving my teammates to go out it with 1/3 fewer players. Then I wondered if, given how many times I was getting killed, I would actually be doing them a favor by not giving the enemy so many free kills. Finally I stopped wondering things because the match was mercifully over. Then I asked myself why I wasn’t playing Witcher 2. Then I played Witcher 2.

I’m not saying Hybrid is a bad game, although I am completely unqualified to make that distinction based on how awful I am at shooters. I can say that the setting needs a little work as the framework it provides only makes things stand out as being “game-y”. Maybe most people don’t worry about these things because they’re too busy being awesome and they don’t have as much time staring at the deployment screen and wondering why 5th Cell hates Australia.

Think of the wallabies, 5th Cell. Think of the wallabies.

Sine Mora in Review- a Shmup Masterpiece

Sine Mora, new to XBLA this week via Hungarian studio Digital Reality in partnership with Suda 51’s Grasshopper Manufacture, is a stunning masterpiece of the “bullet hell” shoot ‘em up genre. It’s a devastatingly beautiful, crushingly difficult orchestration of creativity and challenge, a true East-meets-West shmup summit that deserves to stand alongside the best from such masters of the form as Treasure and Cave. It’s cleverly classical, paying homage and due deference to genre definition. But it also revises and surprises in a way that isn’t very common within a game style that doesn’t offer much wiggle room either in terms of innovation or in the pixel-width spaces between the millions of bullets that streak across the screen.

At eye level, the look is jaw-dropping with every element from the extremely detailed side-scrolling backgrounds to the tiniest of aircraft rendered in full 3D. Squadrons in the distance bank over lush, rolling hillscapes to attack. Environments are uniformly compelling, evocative and fascinating from undersea tunnels populated by worms that explode in an acid shower to automated robot factories that are visual tapestries of machines and mayhem. The art style is equal parts Porco Rosso-era Miyazaki , French comics such as Blacksad or Metal Hurlant, and Metal Slug.

Anthropomorphic animals tell the game’s vague, largely suggested science fiction story in subtitled Hungarian, speaking in interstitial narratives and through in-flight pilot chatter. It’s a tale of revenge, rebellion, loss, and time control. A chief concept in Sine Mora- which translates from the Latin to “without delay”- is time, and its function as a game element is absolutely brilliant.

Per the title, a sometimes brutal urgency informs every single second of this game. Unlike most shmups with one-hit kills or a shield bar, your proximity to death is measured by a timer. Being struck by anything that the game throws at you incurs a time penalty, and when it hits zero, your time is up. But time can be earned by destroying enemies, so there is constantly an impetus to shoot something, anything, to keep the timer flush with precious seconds.

It’s almost a racing game-inspired concept, but instead of hitting checkpoints to increase the timer you’re shooting at things. This creates some interesting and unusually tactical decision points during gameplay. where you might really need to destroy a particular weapon on a boss that has a difficult-to-avoid bullet spread but with just a few seconds left until death, the better target might be another component with a shorter damage bar.

There is also a time capsule mechanic, which slows everything down. It can make finding your path through the torrential hail of bullets easier or you can use it strategically to line up a shot. Power-ups increase the meter, and there are also pick-ups that impart a color-coded shield, secondary weapon replenishment, or primary weapon upgrades.

You’ll need to grab what you can because Sine Mora is tough. The Story mode offers two difficulty modes but even the “normal” one will test the mettle- and patience- of more casual shmuppers. The higher difficulty settings and the insanely difficult Arcade mode will be were the pros and masochists roost. There are also score attack and boss practice modes.

And oh, those bosses. They are, simply put, among the best if not the best shmup bosses I’ve ever seen, and there’s not a dud among them. I can’t say that I’ve ever had to battle an observatory before, let alone a towering robot construction worker called Papa Carlo. The boss fights are inspired, grueling, and truly epic. The showstopper is a battle against a rotating labyrinth, as much a test of endurance and fine control as it is about shooting its four cores. The mechanical design for the bosses is the work of Mahiro Maeda, a renowned anime illustrator with Neon Genesis Evangelion among his credits. The astonishing bosses in this game are some of his finest work.

Akira Yamaoka also turns in his best in audio support of this shmup masterpiece. The soundtrack is on par with this rest of this outstanding game, a sophisticated retro-electro collection of tracks influenced by Giorgio Moroder (particularly Midnight Express), Vangelis, and some of Jean-Michel Jarre’s darker work. From look to gameplay to score, this game fires on all cylinders without a single skip in its diesel(punk) engine. Even the stark, beautifully designed menus and logos are worth praise.

The nitpick fault most will cite is that it is short- at least if your idea of completing the game is a single pass through the seven-stage story mode on the normal difficulty. I’ve played through the story mode three times and have been enjoying some of the other more difficult modes using a variety of unlockable planes and pilots, logging well over four hours with the game in a week. And I still want to get back into it almost every time I turn on the 360. Sine Mora is a best-in-class game to be savored, loved, and played for years to come.

Nexuiz in Review

Review, Nexuiz for Xbox 360

The rebels were decked out in JNCOs, the cool girls were sporting The Rachel, and Fred Durst was doing it for the nookie. Back in the late ’90s, there were no cover systems, no lifesaving perks, and regenerating health meant grabbing a med-kit. When Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament dominated the scene, survival required breakneck speed and serious marksmanship, and maybe a rocket-jump for good measure.

Nexuiz (pronounced “Nexus”) aims to pull the sub-genre off life-support and give it a pulse. With no classes to choose from or ranks to work through, Nexuiz is going back to basics; way back. Without features such as balanced matchmaking, methods to boot idle players, or simple character customization, Nexuiz severely strains the divide between streamlined simplicity and under-development.

Team Deathmatch and Capture-the-flag are the only two modes available. That’s all I need to keep myself entertained, but players quitting and/or staying idle through multiple matches are serious problems, and there is nothing that you can do about it. Also problematic are the immediate respawns of flags in CTF (eg no 20-second cooldown after scoring), making it all too easy for a mildly coordinated team to steamroll the other.

Most of the weapons are of the techy-big-barrel-thingamajig variety. You’ll find the expected shotgun, rocket launcher, sniper rifle, and assault rifle. There are a few mild surprises though, such as a pistol that fires miniature missiles in rapid succession, and the reflective shots of the Crylink. Every weapon has a use, and I can appreciate the subtle strategy added by the alternate firing modes. The shotgun, for example, can fire a wide burst for close-range or a concentrated burst for long-range.

Although the nine maps feel small, they are packed with multiple levels, jump-pads, teleporters, and just enough crannies for more tactical-minded players. But, the maps are far too symmetrical. While this ensures a fair game of capture-the-flag, the symmetry makes for a less intense, and somewhat disorienting, deathmatch experience. Outside of capture-the-flag, what purpose does one half of a map serve when it’s exactly the same as the other half? It’s more space for the sake of space.

Mutators are the driving force of Nexuiz. As much as I enjoy them, they are the blue shells of shooters, and will surely repel many of the more serious-minded players. After picking up a Mutator, you choose from one of three random effects. It could be something as simple as shielding yourself or beefing up a particular gun, or as outlandish as turning the floors into slip-and-slides. You can spend points to increase the likelihood of getting a particular Mutator, but like it or not, you will get burned at some point.

Call me a traitor, but Nexuiz reaffirms how much I enjoy gaining ranks and unlocking new equipment. A good kill-to-death ratio doesn’t hold the same weight that it once did, especially now that I’m older and have more responsibilities, and less spare time to defend my online reputation. By no means do I consider unlockable content to be a prerequisite or a gauge of quality, but it is a major factor to consider. After all, I felt the nostalgic touch, the desire to recapture the days of hijacking the school’s computer lab for secret deathmatches, but the memories were better left untouched.

Despite all this talk of the old-school, the more I play Nexuiz, the more I realize that it really isn’t that far removed from the multiplayer in games such as Crysis 2, Halo: Reach, and numerous other games of varying quality. Has the genre really changed ‘that’ drastically that we need a homage? Where do we draw the official line between the old-school and new-school? After all, Halo launched in 2001, only two years after Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament. At least with the Halo series I get numerous modes to help keep the experience fresher for the long run.

Nostalgia is fine, but there are methods of merging classic gameplay with modern features. Nexuiz doesn’t so much as try, and, had it not been announced as a throwback, I doubt that we would be having a discussion about the old days. More likely, Nexiuz would only be seen as a competent FPS lacking the remarkable traits needed to stand out from the masses of generic sci-fi-themed shooters.

Binary Domain: Surprise!


What a weird game, this Binary Domain. I knew very little about it when Sega sent a copy my way last week. I knew it had robots. And guns. And the Yakuza guy had a hand in it. That was about it. I was still crusading across medieval Europe when it showed up so I really wasn’t in the mood for a sci-fi squad based third-person corridor cover shooter, which Binary Domain most certainly qualifies.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Indifference Land. Binary Domain ended up being pretty darn good. Better than average, at the very least. This is a game that has sailed totally under the radar for most, as people gear up for Mass Effect 3 Day. It’s also a game, unlike Mass Effect 3, that reviews sort of matter. Really, how many reviews will you read of ME3? Are you going to base your decision to buy it on a review? You’ve likely pre-ordered it and will be there day one to get that game. Reviews for such games are somewhat pointless – unless the game tanks or is a weird departure (Dragon Age 2…) But Binary Domain? Here’s a game that could really benefit from some press.

The game takes place in 2080; you are part of an elite international “Rust Crew” (special ops type guys) and you fight a shitload of robots. There’s your premise.

With you are a few other comrades: The Chinese sniper chick, the two Brits: an explosive expert guy and a woman who loves to use a shotgun. You have your buddy Big Bo, a heavy weapons expert and along the way you pick up an allied robot that is fairly bad ass. Each of these characters, yourself included have base stats for range, ammo, reload speed, damage, etc. They can also be upgraded via these Nano things that you find or buy at in game stores which upgrade various stats, add health, defense, etc.

You earn cash by killing robots – and you earn more by targeting body parts. Not sure why— just go with it.

During the game when your team splits up (which they do a lot) you pick two of your crew to go with you and you can issue orders to them via the pad or…if you have Kinect…you can talk to them.

This confirms just how much I despise the Kinect for anything that doesn’t involve my 11 year old daughter showing her dance moves or playing with her fake pet tiger. The voice recognition is hilariously awful. You’ll issue orders like, “Hold!” or “Regroup!” or “Charge!” The problem is that the noise reduction is awful so even when you’re walking around without any bad guys near you may issue an order. You may inadvertently issue the wrong order. It’s a mess. There’s also this weird dialogue system in the game. Yes, Binary Domain wants to be more than it is – these dialogue options are also comically bad. And depending on how you answer these crazy questions your relationship with team members improves or they start to hate you.

Example: British Shotgun Chick: “I think the slums are bad for people. What do you think?”

You can answer: (and I’m not kidding) “Sure” “OK” or “Damn!”

That’s gold. Makes NO sense at all but really who cares?

The problem is during a fight when Kinect doesn’t hear you correctly and you tell your teammates to hold when you want them to charge. Whoops. I just ended up unplugging that damn thing. Stupid Kinect. Not only does it not work but I feel so damn silly yelling “Fire!” and “Regroup!” sitting on my couch My dog looks up from his nap…wishing we hadn’t saved him from the shelter.

There are two things that you know about Binary Domain. All of that stuff doesn’t matter. Here’s what you need to know:

1: The cut scene dialogue is actually quite good – borderline damn good. It’s light hearted but it fits. I enjoyed watching the cut scenes play out which I rarely care about in most games. Witty banter goes a long way. Not the in-game dialogue – but the cut scenes are well written and acted.

2: Most important: The shooting is excellent. From the targeting of robot body parts and shooting their heads off (which make them attack each other) to the inaccuracy that comes with being shot while aiming with your sniper rifle. The guns are satisfying, and the set pierces are extremely well done and it makes me forget the dumb ass Kinect support and the silly conversations I have with my team members.

When you get right down to it: the pew-pew in Binary Domain makes it worth the price of admission. This is a competent action game. That may not sound like a huge recommendation but sometimes competent shooting can go a long, long way.