Halo Month, Part 2

Halo Month continues, with wrapping up Halo 2 and reading the “Halo Graphic Novel” and “Halo: Ghosts of Onyx” before playing Halo 3, then continuing to the books “Halo: Contact Harvest” and “Halo: The Cole Protocol” and Halo Wars.

The sad thing is, I think I may have read more books this month than I usually read in any given SIX months and they’ve all been these borderline-young-adult military adventure fiction things.  I have shame.

Halo 2 was… well it started well but honestly it had me kind of rethinking this whole plan after I got past the first few levels. It’s a game where you spend most of your time shooting at things that are trying to kill you, but so many of the guns are just terrible and it really felt like they deliberately dropped ones that people liked in the first game. The first Halo is… well, it’s clunky but it’s from 2001. That earns it a lot of forgiveness-by-context. I felt less inclined to forgive a game from three years later.

The Halo Graphic Novel is, I think, the first Halo media tie-in that seemed entirely skippable, and in fact I think I’m going to skip all of the comics going forward. If anyone reading this has any particular opinions on ones I SHOULD read, I’m open to advice.

Ghosts of Onyx continues the wacky adventures of Doctor Halsey and the Other Spartans Who Aren’t John. I am continually amused by the fact that all of these genetically-enhanced super soldiers have boring names. It also makes it easier to keep track of them, which is always my problem with fantasy and science fiction names. As an example, I can’t remember a single elf from Lord of the Rings except for Legolas, but I can remember “Linda the Spartan” JUST FINE. Anyway. It was a good read, as media tie-ins go, and I’m starting to feel a lot more connection to the overall story. So that’s a recommend from me.

Halo 3 was genuinely enjoyable, which was a really good thing after slogging through the first two games. I will admit a touch of impatience with “Cortana”, but… setting that level aside I thought it was well-paced and brought back all of the better guns from Combat Evolved and generally wrapped up the trilogy in a neat bow – the final scene is just full circle to the introduction of the Master Chief, and I think I’d have been perfectly content if they’d stopped making games at that point.

Plus, TANK BEATS EVERYTHING and the other random marine chatter will never stop making me giggle.  I think Bungie realized that they were in danger of being a little too stodgy and decided to lighten the mood a bit.

Contact Harvest and The Cole Protocol were prequels, so by-and-large less important. They have a lot of scenes written from the perspective of the Covenant races, so they’re probably mostly books to read if you’re curious how the …you know, what I said about Elvish names? It goes double for the alien-language names they gave to the Elites and Grunts and such. I will, therefore, ignore the alien names and say that if you’re curious how Grunt and Elite and Brute societies work, these are a good couple of books to read. If you don’t particularly care about back story or alien anthropology, they’re skippable.

Telling stories from the point of view of one of the Grunts seems to be a particular theme in the Halo novels, and they come off as quite the sympathetic underdogs. That won’t stop me from sneaking up on sleeping grunts in future Halos and putting a sticky grenade on them so I can watch the fun, mind you.

Halo Wars was the first new-to-me game, since I hadn’t played it on its original release.  Fortunately, while it’s not included in the Master Chief collection, there is a remastered release and I didn’t have to track down the Xbox 360 version.  I wasn’t really looking forward to it because I have never been much of an RTS player and I was expecting to have to constantly repeat levels and wasn’t looking forward to that kind of time investment.  I decided to set it to “Easy” and just grit my teeth and power through, maybe abusing the heck out of quick-save along the way.

It turns out, “Easy” really IS “Easy” and I needn’t have worried. I did feel a little rushed by the two levels with time limits, but the others were just a lovely peaceful experience of building up my home base – or bases – into impregnable fortresses and maxing out tech trees and finally rolling out with a ridiculous amount of infantry and armor and just steamrollering everything else on the map. It was a very enjoyable seven hours from opening to end credits and well worth the ten bucks it cost me.

I don’t actually know whether it DOES let you save mid-level, come to think of it.  I never felt the need to stop and save the game.

As a side benefit, it’s a Play Anywhere game so I was able to play it with a keyboard and mouse. I understand the controls are decent even with a joypad, but why handicap myself?

It IS 100% a side story and could easily be skipped, but you would be missing out on an enjoyable game and some cutscenes with a delightfully snarky AI.  Strong recommend.

Next up is, uh… Halo: ODST, followed by one book, then the animated “Halo: Legends” anthology and Halo: Reach. Then I have FOUR books to read and a movie to watch before I can start Halo 4.

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Halo Month, Part 1

So, Halo Month is off to quite the start. I’ve read the first three books (“Halo: The Fall of Reach”, “Halo: The Flood”, and “Halo: First Strike”), played through the MCC version of Halo: Combat Evolved, and started Halo 2.

As mentioned before, a big part of why I’m doing this is because I’ve never really paid attention to the Halo universe outside of the games, and that made following Halo 4’s plot very confusing – a lot of it revolves around Doctor Halsey, who I don’t think ever shows up in a Halo game before that point but who is hugely important to the book plots from the very first book forward.

I can’t really talk too much about the quality of the books. They suffer a bit from the need to lovingly describe the various weapons and gear used by the Spartans, and it comes off a bit… men’s adventure? Like, there’s a drugstore action novel feel to them, with all of the talk of calibers and high explosives – and to make things worse, some of the technical talk is just painful. There’s at least one moment where a character is described as using a “114mm sniper rifle”, for example, which I am going to pretend is just a really interesting typo.

Let’s just file them under not-great-literature and move on.

Two of them are basically lore dumps to get you into the first game and then to explain how one of the characters in that first game survived until the second. The middle book, “Halo: The Flood” is little more than a novelization of the game storyline, which was quite a disappointment. I had expected it to go into, well, the backstory of the Flood. Silly me.

Of all of them, I think “Halo: The Fall of Reach” is the most critical to read and I kind of wish I’d read it before playing the game for the first time – some details from the page don’t perfectly match up with the on-screen events, but it really sets the stage and the stakes for the campaign.

I’d played Halo: Combat Evolved through twice before, both the original Xbox version and the Xbox 360 Anniversary edition, which was a good thing. It meant that I was ready for the godawful slog that is “Assault on the Control Room” and knew in advance that “Twin Betrayals” was just going to be “Assault on the Control Room” in reverse. What I didn’t remember was just how easy it is to get absolutely murdered by random chains of grenade explosions, or how painful breaking into the landing bay in “Truth and Reconciliation” was going to be. I was only playing on Normal difficulty, expecting a cakewalk, and I had to reset my expectations several times over the course of the campaign.

A lot of Halo’s campaign, after your first play-through, is just working your way to the Flood outbreak since that’s where the game really kicks into gear. It’s probably an unpopular opinion, but my favorite level is “The Library”, just because I really love the sense of being constantly almost-but-not-quite overwhelmed by hordes of enemies. It doesn’t have the same adrenaline rush as the final mad dash in the Warthog, but it keeps up the tension level for a really long time. It may be a bit linear, compared to other levels where Bungie was happy to let you get lost and wander around for a while, but linear works for me.

I suspect I have just insulted a lot of fan-favorite levels, and I’d be interested to hear other peoples’ thoughts on the campaign.  Be gentle. 🙂

The Master Chief Collection versions of both Halo and Halo 2 let you swap back and forth between the old graphics and new graphics with the press of a button, and I found myself switching quite a bit. Unexpectedly, I found myself preferring the old lighting in most of the levels – the ring is supposed to be ancient and long-dead, and the Forerunner ruins in the original game LOOK it. The fresh coat of paint added for the remaster kind of destroys the sense that you’re wandering through the remnants, like they spent a long time on retexturing everything and then realized that they needed to turn on all of the lights or you wouldn’t be able to properly appreciate the work they put into designing wall panels.

Old Vs. New

Also, the newly-added ground flora does a fine job of covering up ammo and weapon pickups, and one of the primary reasons I kept switching to the old graphics was so I could find stuff after fights.

That kvetching aside, the new models for characters and vehicles are far better and usually won out over preferring the older lighting. If they ever RE-remaster the original game, I hope they find a bit of a middle ground.

As I mentioned, I’m only a little ways into Halo 2 – specifically, at the point where the Master Chief actually winds up on the second Halo installation. So far, I’m liking the changes to the visuals much more than in the first game, and there is a real evolution in pacing – the opening level is a bit of a drag, especially since I managed to get lost several times, but everything since then has been firing on all cylinders.

Next up, I should finish Halo 2, then read one or two more books and dive into Halo 3. I also have Halo Wars waiting for me, and that’s going to be the first completely new-to-me game. I don’t have a lot of RTS experience so I’m a little anxious about that one, but we’ll see how it goes.

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Five other things I played in March

I haven’t been going as whole-hog on my backlog this year, because honestly I feel like last year ended with me in control again after quite a while of feeling buried under the shame of a mountain of games I’d bought but never actually played.  I’m still, oh, 70 or 80 games behind but at least it’s not three digits anymore.

It’s a good feeling, and it means that I can do things like trying a different Dark Souls III spec without self-inflicted guilt.

I may be putting a little too much emphasis on this, but I don’t think I’m the only one to have backlog stress.  If you’re struggling with your own “to-play” list, or want to brag about how your first quarter of 2018 has gone, feel free to share your pain or triumph in the comments.  This is a judgement-free zone.

Anyway, even with being a little more mellow and with being distracted by replaying a game, I did manage to knock 5 games out.

A few years ago, I talked a friend into buying Borderlands 2 so we could co-op through it.  At the time, I didn’t realize that the campaign was quite so ridiculously long – I think we made it about 25 hours in before it kind of fizzled out.

Anyway, I decided that I would make another go at it and started from scratch. It turned out to be worth going back to – while the game’s inventory system is just awful, it has some really enjoyable gunplay, the script got some genuine laughs out of me, and I even managed to enjoy the “sorting through a pile of vaguely-similar weapons every 15 minutes” aspect, which usually bugs me in loot games.  Also, the cel-shaded look has aged really well.

I’m not being entirely truthful when I say that I bought a WiiU for Splatoon.  I decided to buy one when Nintendo announced that they’d be localizing Fatal Frame 5.

On the other hand, I knew I needed to have Splatoon in my life from the first time I saw the first video of it – maybe an E3 video? maybe a direct? I can’t recall, but I do remember really confusing the guy at Best Buy who I preordered the Splatoon console bundle from.  It was a mix of “wait, someone wants to buy a WiiU?” and “wait, we are actually taking preorders for WiiUs?”

I put a good number of hours into the multiplayer, but it also deserves special mention for having a really fun single-player campaign, capped with one of gaming’s best final bosses.

The sequel… well, I haven’t played any of the multiplayer yet, but I expect it’s just as good as the original game, just without needing to hold a massive tablet controller all of the time.  I did play through the single-player, and it was… well, it was OK.  It would have been worlds better if almost every level hadn’t had a “Sheldon Request” making you play with specific weapons, mind you.  It did not stand up to the standards of the first game.

That said, I am really looking forward to the DLC expansion announced recently.  The Octolings have really neat designs and it seems sad that they’re limited to being the bad guys in a part of the game most people will only play once, if that.

I’ve never had a ton of attachment to Mario, but I wound up playing a whopping three Mario platformers last year – and two of them were excellent games.  I probably wouldn’t have gone out and bought a fourth, but Nintendo added 3D World to their Player Selects line and $20 felt like a good price.

It turned out to be a lot of fun, and I’m glad I took the plunge.  I don’t do well with platform games – I tend to seize up when asked to do something like jump from one swinging platform to another – but the short levels and mid-level checkpoints meant that I was able to brute-force my way through every level in the first 8 worlds and send Bowser packing.

Being a pre-Odyssey game, it still has the annoying combo of limited lives AND stage time limits, which was particularly vexing in one of the Bowser stages where I was supposed to be knocking things back at him to damage him and he ran out the clock on me by not throwing enough things for me to knock back… but lives were easy enough to come by, and I still had 30 in the bank when all was said and done.

Special mention goes to the “Captain Toad” puzzle levels, which were absolutely charming, and I may just need to check out his solo game when it gets a Switch release later this year.  Or I could always hunt down the WiiU original.  That might be a lot cheaper.

While I used to be a big comics reader, I stuck mostly to the DC side of the comics shop.  As a result, my only exposure to Deadpool has been the recent movie, which was a surprisingly good non-Marvel-Studios Marvel movie.  Really, between Deadpool and Logan, Fox was really firing on all cylinders when it came to super-hero movies.

(Let’s just try not to think about X-Men: Apocalypse right now.  I apologize if by mentioning it I have reminded you that it was a thing that happened.)

Anyway, I had just enough exposure to Deadpool that I decided to buy the game when it was announced for delisting from Xbox Live, and I finally got around to booting it up this weekend.

It’s not a long game – it took me about 7 hours on the “Veteran” difficulty setting – and there’s very little about the gameplay to recommend it – really, it’s a by-the-numbers 3rd-person brawler and suffers from a severe lack of variety in level design.

HOWEVER.  It’s funny as hell, and that makes up for a lot.

Well, that deserves a qualifier, really, because the humor is definitely on the mean-spirited side of things and for maximum appreciation you really need to have been a 12-year-old boy at one time or another.  If your reaction to random fart jokes is to roll your eyes rather than giggle, you might not have the same positive reaction to this game.

You will also need a fairly high tolerance for male-gaze-heavy camera angles whenever there’s a woman on screen… though, even though Psylocke’s role in this game is mostly to stand around with her butt directly pointed at the camera, it’s still a better use of the character then the previously mentioned X-Men: Apocalypse.

Finally, while the combat is mashy as heck and really tedious for the first hunk of the game, it starts getting much better once you’ve unlocked a few weapons and upgrades, and the last level features a boss gauntlet that really justifies all of the time you spent getting to it – it just throws wave after wave of mooks and previous bosses at you, and is a wonderfully hectic affair.  I even picked up one of my favorite recent achievements from this level:

So this gets a thumbs-up from me.  If you’re on the fence… maybe go on Youtube, watch the first half hour or so, decide for yourself whether the gags are up your alley.

Finally, Never Alone, which has exactly zero fart jokes.  No jokes at all, really – it’s a fairly bleak affair, a puzzle platformer which has you taking control of a small girl and a fox in an effort to survive inclement weather and a particularly nasty villain.

Seriously, I really hated the guy, with a passion that I can rarely summon for videogame antagonists.  I was glad to see him brought to a fitting end.

It’s gotten a lot of praise for its setting and for its source material – it’s based on an Inuit folk tale and has a number of videos you can watch to find out more about the culture if you want to learn more.  It’s pretty much the game equivalent of Oscar bait, and has accordingly won a ton of awards.

I kind of suspect that most of the praise has come from people who didn’t actually persevere through the whole thing, however – it is a VERY short game, which you’ll likely knock out in 3 hours or less (I took 2 hours 41 minutes, and as mentioned earlier I am rubbish at platformers), and while it has a very good “first level completion” rate of 87%, a bare 15% of players actually stuck with it until the end.  That’s a steep drop-off.

You will die a lot in this game, many of the things that kill you are poorly-telegraphed until you die from them, and it can be quite an unenjoyable affair at times.

On the other hand, cute fox.  REALLY cute fox.  You may decide to play this game only for the cute fox, and I don’t think there’s a single thing wrong with that.

So, not cutting down the backlog with quite the same force as last year, but still generally having a good time at it.

For April, I have a self-imposed backlog challenge theme.  When I bought my Xbone, I also got the Master Chief Collection and Halo 5, so I’d like to rack up some more hours in a green helmet… but I’ve held back, because playing Halo 4 a few years back didn’t make a ton of sense and I really felt like there was a whole lot of backstory that I was missing out on.

So, this April is Halo month – not just the mainline games, mind you, but I’m going to read the books AND watch the movies AND play the spin-off games… and I’m going to do all of this mixed-media consumption in release order, which I hope is not too painful.  I have constructed a spreadsheet.

I may even buy some Doritos.  And Mountain Dew.  You know.  Game fuel.  Advance warning, I may be going Full Bro here.


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Dark Souls III: There IS an easy mode.

It’s been nearly two years since I decided to man up and see what all the hype about “Demon’s Souls” was about, and that lead to me spending most of April and May of 2016 playing through that game and then the three Dark Souls games.

This was entirely out of character, because I am not typically drawn to difficult games and the Souls fanbase rather revels in the legendary difficulty.

It turned out that, well, they’re not forgiving games BUT they reward patience and persistence rather than twitch reflexes, and that’s pretty well suited to a old guy.  I didn’t ever really feel like they were unfair… until I hit Dark Souls III, which was just BRUTAL.  It took me a good fifty hours to claw my way through and I wound up summoning other players to help with the vast majority of the bosses.

A good part of that, it turns out, was just because I decided that I was going to play a pure magic user – no pyromancy, no miracles, just raw sorcery – and I did this just in time to start a game that was really unforgiving to glass cannons.  I spent hours grinding INT up and collecting the four rings needed to make sorcery even halfway viable, and the result was… well, if I could make space between myself and the thing I was trying to kill, I could usually blow it up REAL good.

Dark Souls bosses rarely let you make any space, and the bosses in Dark Souls III are particularly keen on getting right up in your proverbial grill.

Anyway, I mentioned a few days ago that I’d been needing distraction and had started a second playthrough, this time picking the Knight starting class and working on the Yuria of Londor questline since I’d missed my chance to do it the first go ’round.

It went pretty well.

Actually, let me rephrase that.  It went shockingly well.  I gave the Soul of Cinder a merciless beat-down with only about 30 hours on the clock, and on my first try.  Excluding Pontiff Sulyvahn – I have NEVER been able to reliably parry in a Souls game – I didn’t get hung up on any boss for more than a few attempts and had a surprising number of first-attempt kills – all solo, with the exception of summoning Yuria for a fight because I wanted her armor set.   I didn’t even go nuts hunting down Estus flask upgrades or gear, with the exception of about two hours of beating up Lothric Knights so they would drop me their armor set.

Fashion Souls IS the true end game.

Some of this, yes, I did play the game about two years ago and I did remember a few things, but most of it was realizing that the game really wanted me to play a character who would go toe-to-toe with the bosses instead of running around trying to pew pew them to death.

So.  Lessons learned and all that.  I may have to rethink my personal ranking of the series, because I was quite harsh on this game when I originally played it, and it turns out I was just doing things wrong.


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On Secret Weapons

So, I had to be on a conference call from home tonight, and my only role was to sit and listen for my name and answer questions if asked.  We’ve been having this call every night so far this week and I have yet to be called upon, so tonight I decided that I would start a new character in Dark Souls III, and make a melee build since I’d had such an annoying time playing it as a pure sorcerer build the first time around.

It worked out pretty well, until I decided to start going after the Sword Master just outside Firelink Shrine.  I’d killed him on my first playthrough because, well, I was playing a pure sorcerer build and could just blow him up at range.  As a melee character, he was not quite such a pushover, and I died a few times.

Then my wife walked in and saw that I was playing a game while I was technically supposed to be working, so she shook her finger at me and said “shame!” and then walked over and put her hands over my eyes.  While I was fighting him.

So I flailed around a bit and then decided that discretion was the better part of valor and just pushed the stick dead forward until she said “HOW CAN YOU EVEN SEE WHERE YOU’RE GOING” and took her hands away in disgust.

And my vision was restored just in time to see 2000 souls added to my total, because apparently he’d fallen off a cliff chasing me, and then I went and picked up the uchigatana from his spawn point.

I love these games.


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Star Wars: Battlefront II, March 21st Update: A New Hope?

Earlier this year, I rented Star Wars: Battlefront II – mostly just to play through the single-player campaign since they actually did one this time.  In the process, I tried out the game’s “Starfighter Assault” multiplayer mode, and had way more fun than I expected flying around and getting shot down by other players.  So… when it showed up in a sale at 60% off, I went ahead and bought it.  I am weak.

For the last few days, it’s been my go-to game for the couple of hours between getting off work and going to bed, and my “playing” to “respawning” ratio has improved considerably – as long as we are clear that we’re talking only about the Starfighter Assault mode, as opposed to any of the other multiplayer modes in which I spend more time waiting to respawn then actually playing.  I really don’t have the reflexes for the ground-based combat play modes, but Starfighter Assault is a much more casually-paced affair and has objectives that you can contribute towards even if you aren’t very good at one-on-one dogfighting.  It’s a lot like Splatoon or Titanfall in that way.

And, in that time, I have come to admire the utter bastard efficiency in which the card-based progression system was designed to point out to you how your frequent and unavoidable deaths are the result of having Worse Cards than the guy who just killed you, and (by the way) you could probably get some Better Cards if you just opened a few loot boxes.  This REALLY comes out in the game’s “Heroes Vs. Villains” multiplayer mode, where you not only have to deal with the other players having Better Cards but also with the problem that half of the characters on either side are locked and must be unlocked with currency earned at a glacial rate through repeated play sessions.  Want to play as Luke?  That will be 5000 credits. (A typical 15-20 minute multiplayer session nets 350 credits on a good run.  If you’re feeling short of credits, well, those are in the loot boxes too.)

Put simply, this is a heck of a greedy game, but today’s patch is going a long way to turn that “is” into a “was”.

For starters, you no longer get abilities or upgrades out of card packs.  Rather, if you spend a lot of time in the cockpit of an X-Wing, you will get more levels in X-Wing, letting you unlock the specific upgrades and abilities you want.  Now, if you get slaughtered by a guy with a purple-quality level 4 weapons upgrade card, you can just look at it as something you will eventually be able to get.  The other effect is that you can’t pick a particular game mode or unit that you’re good at and use that to grind upgrades for a different unit.

In addition, all of the hero and villain characters are unlocked.  Rather than having to choose between the four “free” characters offered to you at the start of a Heroes vs. Villains match, you now have a full complement.

These are some pretty good changes, and the end result is that this is now a game, rather than a thinly-disguised advertisement for loot boxes.  Honestly I think they’re wishing they’d released it like this instead of in a state that not only cost them sales and consumer goodwill, but which has inspired legislatures to start asking whether the industry is really capable of self-regulating itself.

One thing I will recommend, if you decide to pick this up now, is to make sure that it’s installed to an SSD.  I had it running off a traditional hard drive, and load times between maps were in the 50-60 second range.  On an SSD, they’re much less frustrating – and, as a side bonus, having this on an SSD means that I load into the hero selection screens faster than people using hard drives, meaning that I have a good 30 seconds to lock down Darth Vader before anyone else can try to choose him.

On second thought, maybe it’s best if you stick to a hard drive.  You probably don’t want to bother with that. Yeah. 🙂


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The Beige Box, Part One

So, I mentioned that I had a new piece of very old hardware come into my home a few weeks ago, and I wanted to show off some of what I’d been doing with it in the meantime.  I also wanted to play around with recording some video content.

So, here it is.  You’ll have to pardon the frequent awkward pauses and the way my camera keeps deciding to shift between color profiles.  I have a tendency toward being dissatisfied with things and to decide that I need to tweak and fix them and this means that there are a lot of projects that I’ve never actually finished.  This is maybe a little far the other way.

Oh dang.  I forgot to say “don’t forget to like and subscribe”.  I feel like I’m breaking some rule or something.



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