On Trying New Things

So, one side effect of playing an awful lot of Halo recently is that it got me curious what Bungie had been up to since Halo Reach.  That lead me to the local Gamestop’s 4-for-$10 bin to pick up a copy of Destiny, which I will try at some point so I can see how the single player campaign stacks up against the Master Chief saga.  Of course, I also had to pick three other games out of the same bin, and I had the crazy notion to try something COMPLETELY out of, and I pray you will forgive me here, completely out of left field.

Cue a purchase of Sony’s MLB The Show 15.

I’m not a huge sports fan in the sense of having a favorite team for each sport and dividing the year by which season we’re currently in, but I do enjoy watching baseball.  It’s a nice medium between the glacial pace of American football and the frenetic speed of basketball, which tends to remind me of a rather chaotic game of Pong played with five paddles to a side.

We will, for the sake of this discussion, completely forget that hockey exists as a sport.  I hold two passports, neither of them is Canadian, I am therefore not actually required to understand or care about winter sports.

I did have a Canadian friend try to explain the draw of curling to me once, and she summed it up as a sport where you get to do a lot of drinking while other teams are taking their turns.  That seemed like a fair explanation.

Anyway.  Baseball.  Meditative, but not sleep-inducing, and played in enough sheer volume that nobody really takes any individual game all that seriously and there’s generally some happening somewhere any day of the year between April and November.  The perfect sporting experience.

Mind you, the last baseball GAME I played was “Hardball”, on the Atari 8-bit.  While I like the sport, it’s not like I’ve gone out of my way to seek out digital representations of it during the last few decades.

Anyway, The Show has a single-player career mode called Road to the Show, where you start off as an amateur and try to make your way up through the minors and on to the roster of a Major League team.  The ’15 version is, of course, completely out of date with regards to modern player rosters, but that doesn’t particularly bother me.

Anyway, it sounded promising, so I added it to my stack of cheap games and brought it home.

When I played baseball in school, I always had a terrible time judging what pitches were actually safe to swing at and which I should let go by, and it turns out that I’m equally as bad at it when trying to do it with a virtual bat.  The “Road to the Show” starts off by having you play through three exhibition games, and I went 1-for-12 at the plate, with only slightly better performance on defense, and wound up being drafted 24th in the fifth round of the draft.

It doesn’t help at all that the game’s commentators seemed to take a sort of devilish glee in making light of my abject failure as a batter.  There IS such a thing as rubbing salt in the wounds.

So… short version, it was a cheap way to find out that maybe I should stick to spectating.  I mean, “The Show” is marketed as kind of a sim-heavy game, so it’s possible I’d do better with a version of the sport that was a little more arcade-style, but I’m not sure that such a thing even exists.

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On Procrastination

While I haven’t talked much about the series in a few years, I used to be quite the fan of the “Assassin’s Creed” games.  I had something of a break with the series after III, which was the point where Ubisoft decided to take this pretty impressive meta-plot they’d had running over the first five games in the series and throw it out, followed by making a game about pirates and slapping the Assassin’s Creed brand on it.

I understand that recent games in the series are a little closer to the original concept, and I keep meaning to check them out at some point, but every time I think about it I am reminded by how disappointing Black Flag was and then I don’t.

But, that aside, I wanted to talk about Assassin’s Creed II and something that has been vexing me for, oh, nearly 8 years now.

Back when I originally played AC2, in 2010, I got really into 100% finishing the villa and buying all of the gear and tracking down all of collectibles and doing optional stuff, and this culminated in spending most of an evening sitting on the couch with my wife, with her holding a map of feather locations, finding every single one of the bloody things.  This was extra fun because, well, I’d picked up a bunch of them during the course of the game up to that point, so we were never quite sure whether I wasn’t finding one because I’d already picked it up or whether I wasn’t finding one because we weren’t reading the map correctly.

At any rate, after finishing that particular scavenger hunt, I realized that I’d gotten what is widely considered the hardest trophy to get and that it couldn’t be too hard to actually get the platinum trophy.  This was something I hadn’t considered doing in any PS3 game up to that point, so it was a Big Decision.

Sadly, I then discovered that the game had a single missable trophy (“Fly Swatter”) tucked away in a non-repeatable mission, and that I’d already missed it.  So, I put my dreams of shiny trophies aside and didn’t actually get a platinum trophy in ANY Playstation game until 2016.  That was for Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit!, by the way.  I have no shame.

At some point, Ubisoft put out a DLC episode for Assassin’s Creed II, and they put a repeatable section into that DLC where you could actually get the trophy I’d missed.  A cynical person would say that they could have saved everyone a fair bit of time by just letting you pay $5 to have the Fly Swatter trophy unlock, but maybe someone thought that would be just a little TOO obvious.

Anyway.  I am a bit stubborn at times, so it took me quite a while before I broke down and bought that bit of DLC.  It was during a PSN sale, so at least I wasn’t spending full price just for the opportunity to go back and get one darn trophy.  This is how I justify things to myself, you see.

Then, of course, I didn’t actually get around to PLAYING the DLC until a couple of nights ago, when I’d finished up the Halo games and needed something different.

It turns out that going back to a game after 7 years can be a LITTLE tricky to get the hang of, but… well, eventually I managed to figure out the controls and finally cross that one nagging item off my never-ending to-do list.

So, well, it only took me seven years, seven months, and 4 days to get back to AC2… but I DID get around to it.  You know.  Eventually.  I can’t decide whether I should be proud of this or not, but I am at least satisfied.

As an aside, “An Old Friend Returns” may be the single most common “you beat the game!” trophy I’ve ever seen.  I look at the completion percentage for most games I play, and even really popular ones frequently have completion percentages in the 30% range.  People really loved them some Ezio.

 

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Halo Month, Part 7: I don’t know why you say Halo, I say goodbye.

Technically, I did not absorb EVERY piece of Halo-related media in the last three weeks. There are a few comics, a whole mess of audio logs and terminal records, and a couple of books I didn’t get around to.

That said, my most recent dive into the Halo lore – reading the “Shadow of Intent” and “Smoke and Shadow” novellas, playing “Halo Wars 2” and its DLC, and going back to read the four graphic novels that make up the “Escalation” comic series – was a hell of a binge and a good place to stop and call this experiment a success.

I had intended to skip the Halo comics, for the most part, since they didn’t seem to be particularly important… but it turns out that 343 decided to stick the plot that happened between Halo 4 and 5 into Escalation, including resolving the fate of Halo 4’s main antagonist, and it also ties into the original Halo Wars game, which looks like it will be a big part of upcoming events.

So, even if you ignore every other comic series, this one seems pretty essential. Also, you should read it before Halo 5, not after like I did.

Ignoring the fact that I read them out of sequence, I liked them a lot. They’re definitely not standalone affairs, and I continue to marvel at just how obtuse this series is if you’re not reading everything ever published for it, but I suppose that the intended audience for a Halo comic is someone who has probably at least played most of the Halo games and is looking for some content to fill the time between new entries.

Leaving the comics aside, I also read two short (and digital-only) novellas, the first being “Smoke and Shadow” which took kind of a look at a few average joes just trying to get by in the post-war universe and getting themselves wound up in a bigger mess.  It’s a good setup for a solid mystery/adventure, and a perspective that is a nice change from all of the “the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance!” high-stakes drama. It ended kind of prematurely, though, probably because it ties into Halo Wars, was released before Halo Wars 2, and couldn’t actually have a real ending without knowing where Halo Wars 2 was going to wind up. That’s a mark against it, but I will be looking forward to any sequels.

I also liked “Shadow of Intent”, even though it was yet another Elite novel. Your reaction to it will likely be directly proportional to how curious you were about what happened to that one Elite with the weird face in the Halo 2 cutscenes.

Finally, Halo Wars 2, which was yet another surprisingly-enjoyable spinoff game. Once I got it installed, anyway.

The first Halo Wars seemed to be very deliberately separated from the mainline games, and I expected that the sequel would likewise be happening in a place and time set well away from them. Instead, it takes a path that stretches credulity just a tiny bit to get it closer to the events of the numbered games, but… well, you know, that’s not really all that important. The thing I like about any RTS is the process of building up a massively-overpowered army and then using it to steamroller over the entire map, and Halo Wars 2 was just as good as the first game at scratching that particular itch. The fact that the end ties directly in to the end of Halo 5 as well (with one of the better “stuff just got real” moments) is just a bonus.

The base campaign is pretty short. I think you could probably blow through it in a day if you approached it in a businesslike fashion, and the two DLC campaigns are even shorter. I took about three nights to go through all of it. Now, I’m a big fan of shorter games, and got it for half price in the recent Spring sale, so I’m 100% happy with what I got for what I paid… but if you are paying full price this might be a tougher sell unless you’re interested in the multiplayer.

As an experiment, I even tried the gamepad controls for a level or two, and they weren’t bad.  This is definitely something you could play from a reclining position on the couch, if you were in the mood – I wound up going back to mouse & keyboard, which fit my tastes better, but I did miss the easier camera control of the more console-centric controls a little once I’d done so.

So, that makes 17 novels, 3 Novellas, 5 graphic novels, 4 movies and 11 games, just to be caught up for whatever Halo 6 turns out to be. At some point, they really need to figure out a way to bring the player up to speed on all of the different bits of the storyline, though I’m not sure how you’re going to do that without a “Thank you for purchasing Halo 6! Please watch this massive clip-show of a movie before you start!”

It looks like it will probably be bringing the crew of the ship from the two Halo Wars games in contact with the crew of the ship from Halo 5, and I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to that.

I also can’t deny that, as crazy as the prospect of doing a deep dive into all of the games and media tie-ins was, I enjoyed the experiment. It has me really tempted to do another play through the Mass Effect games, this time with all of the DLC installed. That was another series where the games just didn’t flow well at all, and I have to suspect that most of that was because I was just playing the vanilla versions.

Maybe I should take a little break before I do that, though.

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Halo Month, Part 6: Sweet Christmas

It’s an odd thing to realize, but of the 10 Xbox One games I’ve finished since owning the console, 8 of them have been remastered versions of games that were originally released for the Xbox or Xbox 360 – with the exceptions being ReCore and now Halo 5: Guardians.  It’s almost shocking how much prettier a game is when it was built ground-up for a modern console, and I was regularly gobsmacked – there’s a word I don’t get a lot of use out of – by just how gorgeous Halo 5 was.

Anyway, since the last Halo Month post, I watched the “Halo: The Fall of Reach” animation, which wasn’t terrific, and played through Halo 5’s single-player campaign in normal difficulty.  It was pretty good in a lot of places and a little weird in others, so let’s talk about all of the positive things.

I think I’ll start with the guns, because it’s a game where most of your interaction with the world comes in the sense that you are trying to put holes in the parts of it that are trying to put holes in you.  Some of the Halo games do not have very good guns, and even the best Halos have had one or two downright stinkers.

Halo 5 does have One Bad Gun.  I think it’s called a Plasma Caster or something? It basically shoots bouncy plasma grenades, which sounds way cooler than it actually is.  I did not like it, and I only used one once or twice during the campaign.

Every OTHER gun I picked up was really good.  Even the needler!  I have hated the needler in almost every Halo game up to this point, but the version in Halo 5 is actually….dare I say? FUN to use.

The enemies are also much less irritating bullet sponges in this outing.  Hunters are still, well, they’re Hunters and they take a ridiculous amount of damage to bring down, but I couldn’t help but notice that virtually every instance where a Hunter pair showed up came with a convenient Fuel Rod launcher or detachable turret just lying around somewhere nearby.

Halo 5 also has a much more familiar control scheme – something that probably rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way when it hit, come to think of it.  For the first time in the series, you aim down sights with the left trigger and fire with the right, and every gun seems to have an ADS mode.

Speaking of sights, by the way, considering my rant from the other day, I was happy to notice that the default human pistol DOES have sights, which makes sense – all of the various rifles tie into the armor HUD to provide a sight, but a pistol is a weapon of last resort, so it’s designed to be used without access to armor.  It’s a tiny detail that I liked a lot.

The Covenant Carbine ALSO has a flip-up reflex-style sight, which again makes sense because it’s mostly used by Jackals, who don’t generally wear armor.

Finally, the campaign was really compelling to play through – it felt like the game was over in no time at all, and it was quite difficult to stop halfway through so I could actually get some sleep, the first night I played it.  There are a couple of little “walk around and talk to people” levels that provide breathers, but outside of those it’s just really fast-paced and always pushing you forward to get to the next big thing blowing up.

So, negatives now.

First, I didn’t really expect to be spending so little time in Master Chief’s helmet.  At least two thirds of the game have you playing as Spartan Luke Cage with Spartan Rick Castle along for comic relief.  It made the segments where you play as John and his merry band of child soldiers stand out, however – they did a good job of showing the differences between Fireteam Osiris and Blue Team, so there’s just a whole different feel when playing one or the other, even though the general goal is the same. (Shoot things.  Try to avoid getting shot.  Get to the next big explosion.)

Second, man, Halo games have never really had boss fights before this, and this has the same boss fight repeated like three or four times.  It doesn’t ever get good, either, each one is pretty much a case of switching weapons to the Big Gun you picked up a few minutes back and have been saving, then blowing the Warden into small glowing pieces, in one case before he even had a chance to finish his megalomaniac speech about uh killing all humans or something.

Third, when I said in an earlier post that Halo 4 sure felt incomprehensible without having read all of the books, that just goes double for Halo 5.  It turns out that even the two books from this last batch that I really thought might be skippable – “New Blood” and “Hunters in the Dark” – are actually kind of important to knowing just who the characters in Fireteam Osiris are and why Gunnery Sergeant Buck from Halo 3: ODST is a Spartan now.  Real talk, if you want to enjoy Halo 5, you need to read at least a dozen books in addition to playing all of the previous games.

Oh, and it all ends with one heck of a cliffhanger and suddenly it is vitally important that you know – again, from the books – that Elites have never really liked AIs and thus Elite ships don’t HAVE shipboard AIs.  I suspect this is going to be a huge plot point in Halo 6.

In theory, I COULD stop Halo Month right here.  I’m caught up on all of the mainline games and most of the spin-offs.  That’s, like, 10 games this month!

But… I did buy Halo Wars 2 during the big Microsoft Spring Sale.  I should try to take that off the backlog right away instead of letting it hang around.

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Halo Month, Part 5: Embracing Product Synergy

The most recent batch of Halo media consisted of six books (“Mortal Dictata”, “Broken Circle”, “New Blood”, “Hunters in the Dark”, “Saint’s Testimony” and “Last Light”, one video series (“Halo: Nightfall”) and two PC ports of mobile games.  At this point, I just need to watch the Fall of Reach animated series and then I will be ready for Halo 5.

Even though “New Blood” and “Saint’s Testimony” were pretty short, that’s still a lot of reading and it does kind of blur together.  Fortunately, either I’m getting more used to reading Halo books or the writing is getting better, because there weren’t any real duds in this most recent batch.  I don’t know how many of them are exactly essential to understanding future games, but you could honestly get by with reading Mortal Dictata and Last Light.  Hunters in the Dark was pretty good – I was surprised to see Peter David’s name on the cover of a videogame tie-in novel – so that one is probably worth reading as well.

Only read Broken Circle if you really want some more Deep Lore revolving around the Covenant’s early days, and New Blood is the novelization that Halo 3:ODST really didn’t need.

If I was surprised to see Peter David credited on a Halo novel, imagine my utter astonishment in seeing a producer credit for Ridley Scott on Halo: Nightfall, and then seeing Mike Colter – Luke Cage from the Netflix Marvel series – as the lead actor.  Apparently Microsoft decided to spend a dollar or two on this, and it turned out really quite well.

I have to say, though, that the various gun designs in the Halo universe look pretty silly when made into props that actors have to actually point at things and make pew pew noises.  They have no sights, for one.  I think the in-universe explanation is that they don’t need sights because they’re tied into armor HUDs etc, but they still just look like big plastic toys.

As a side benefit of watching Nightfall through the “Halo Channel” Windows 10 app, I got some unlocked cosmetic bits for multiplayer in the Master Chief Collection and in Halo 5.  I’m unlikely to ever use any of them because I rarely DO multiplayer, but I’m always impressed with the way Microsoft links one thing to another.

Anyway.  Moving on to Spartan Assault and Spartan Strike, two ports of games that were originally released for Windows Phone, where I originally bought them – and where I quickly came to the conclusion that the controls were just not really well suited for my huge thumbs on a relatively small screen.  Thankfully, the PC versions let me use a gamepad.

Both of them are top-down twin-stick shooters with campaigns consisting of a few dozen over-in-five-minutes missions, which doesn’t sound particularly impressive when I put it like that, but I was impressed with how much they felt like proper Halo games.  I’ll chalk most of that up to the soundtrack and effects – they just SOUND right.

There’s not really any point to playing these for the story – they’re presented explicitly as combat training simulations, so I doubt they’re considered canon in any sense – but I had a lot of fun with both of them. They’re worth playing on their own merits, with the caveat that both of them have some dodgy mobile monetization built-in, in the form of being able to buy power-ups with in-game currency earned through completing missions… OR by just making a small monetary transaction.  It’s not mandatory to complete the games, mind you, but gosh it’s helpful if you want to go for gold stars on every level.

I didn’t bother with gold stars on Spartan Assault – the silver and bronze stars I was getting were just fine – but Spartan Strike won’t unlock its final batch of missions unless you get golds on all missions in the first four batches, and I would have been very chuffed with Microsoft about this sort of thing in a non-free-to-play game, if it weren’t for some more of that lovely corporate synergy that I mentioned earlier.

Basically, when I logged in to my Xbox Live account in Strike, it looked at my achievements in the Xbox One Halo games and cheerfully handed me a massive stack of currency for each of the campaigns I’d completed in the Master Chief Collection.  That was enough to buy the score booster power-up for every mission, which lead to a streak of gold medals with very little effort.

Look on my cheevos, ye mighty, and despair.

Anyway!  On to The Fall of Reach series and then Halo 5: Guardians.  There are a few books between Halo 5 and Halo Wars 2, and unfortunately our local library has none of them available.  I am not sure I’m quite ready to start BUYING Halo novels.  I think that might be a rabbit hole there’s no clawing my way back out of.

 

 

 

 

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Halo Month, Part 4: Finally, some payoff.

Halo Month continues.  I wrapped up Halo Reach, read the “Forerunner Trilogy” (Cryptum, Primordium, and Silentium), read the first two books of the Kilo Five Trilogy (“Glasslands” and “The Thursday War”), watched “Halo: Forward Unto Dawn”, played Halo 4’s single-player campaign and watched the story cutscenes from Spartan Ops.

The real motivation behind this entire madness came from having played Halo 4 on the 360 a few years ago and having been completely lost during the whole thing.  It felt like there was an awful lot not being explained, and I am easily annoyed when I feel like things aren’t being explained.

Apparently, my reaction to being annoyed is to spend two weeks reading media tie-in novels and playing videogames.  I guess there are worse ways to vent frustration.

Anyway, short version: Halo 4 made a whole lot more sense this time, and I really liked it.  So, if for some reason you have come to this page wondering what you should do before playing Halo 4, let me recommend that you simply read The Fall of Reach, First Strike, Ghosts of Onyx, Glasslands, The Thursday War, Cryptum, Primordium, and Silentium, and play Halo 1, 2, and 3.  That will give you all the background you need to properly appreciate the Deep Lore of the game.

Needless to say, this is kind of nuts.  Yes, it’s reasonable to expect SOME degree of player familiarity when you’re shipping something with a “4” on the end, but at some point you may just need to admit to yourself that your universe is getting just a little full of itself.

Anyway.  Some thoughts on the most recently-consumed load of Halo media.

Apart from Halo Wars, which was a completely side thing, Halo: Reach was the least-necessary game in the series so far.  It’s basically the Star Wars: Rogue One of the series.  It also has a really uncomfortable control scheme if you’ve gotten used to the standard controls from the previous games, and it took me the first few levels before I stopped meleeing when I wanted to reload.  I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, it’s just kind of there.  I get the feeling it was released more as a multiplayer game than on the strength of its campaign, so I probably shouldn’t judge it.

The Forerunner trilogy is a bit slow to get moving and loves to throw science-fictiony-sounding words at the reader, expecting that you will eventually get them from context.  This vocabulary and the characters from the books do eventually show up in Halo 4, so these are kind of must-reads.  I really didn’t care for the middle book, but it starts and ends well.

Glasslands and The Thursday War, by contrast, were more up my alley – probably just because I’ve read enough novels starring these characters that I’m starting to get to know them.  They cover the ever-interesting question of what happens AFTER two sides aren’t technically shooting at each other anymore, with a focus on the Elites on the covenant side who have just realized that, thanks to thousands of years of being the military force for the covenant and having all their needs met, they don’t really know how to feed themselves or build stuff.  It’s a good premise.

Forward Unto Dawn is pretty solidly in the skippable column.  It’s a web series that serves as a back story to one of the UNSC characters who shows up in Halo 4, and there are two bits of dialogue in Halo 4 that don’t make much sense if you haven’t seen it. It also has some pretty good visuals and it’s only 90 minutes long so you might as well check it out before playing Halo 4.  You don’t absolutely need to, though.

After all of that, Halo 4 was a really enjoyable game.  I mean, I spent a lot of time repeating the checkpoint -> die -> try again -> and again -> make it to the next checkpoint -> die cycle, and I won’t deny that there were a couple of OH, COME ON NOW deaths.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as when I played it on the 360, where I eventually knocked the difficulty down to Easy because I kept running out of bullets before the game ran out of guys to throw at me.  I didn’t have that same problem this time, so I may have gotten SOMETHING out of playing nothing but Halo games for the last two weeks.

The new enemies are a nice change after so many games of Grunt Grunt Grunt Grunt Grunt Elite Brute Grunt Grunt Grunt GODDAMNED HUNTERS, and setting the whole thing on a Forerunner planet meant all kinds of new science-fictiony guns with Tronesque glowing lights all over them.  Two thumbs up, would shoot giant glowing rat… dog… salamander THINGS in the heads again.

After THAT, I thought about playing through the Spartan Ops campaign – 50 missions, all tuned around four-player co-op and all dry as toast – and elected to simply watch the story videos instead.  The Master Chief Collection, thoughtfully enough, makes all of the videos available with no pesky unlocking required, so that was a big win.  I don’t know how much of an impact they’ll have on the upcoming games, mind you, so I can’t judge whether they’re essential or skippable.

Next up! Halo: Spartan Assault, a mobile game that eventually got a PC release.  I originally bought it on my Windows Phone but couldn’t get on with the controls.  Fortunately, owning it on Windows Phone meant that I got a license for the PC version when it came out, so I don’t need to buy it again.  Let’s see how this goes, then.

 

 

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Soon.

So, seven days from now it looks like I will be able to play Panzer Dragoon Orta, upscaled, on my purchased-for-a-song Xbox One S.  Moreover, if they follow their normal pattern, everyone NOT lucky enough to still have a disc kicking around will be able to buy it from the Xbox Marketplace, probably for $9.99 or equivalent in local currency.

Heh. Upscaled.  It’s a game about a dragon.  Never has “upscaled” been more appropriate.

I have to say, I was not impressed with circa-2013 Microsoft.  They really seemed to have gone wildly off-track chasing the Kinect and media audience.  This new Microsoft?  I think I’m really starting to become a fan.

Now, back to Halo: Reach.  I really wasn’t clicking with this game to start, but I discovered the most important thing ever and now I’m doing OK.

(You can play pretty princess dress up with your Spartan)

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