A funny thing happened to me last year. After a lifelong habit of moving from game to game as soon as I felt I’d sucked the essential nutrients from them… I started finishing games. It helped that it was the year I got a PS4 and that, despite being awful in almost every other conceivable way, 2016 produced a bumper crop of great video games. So I thought I’d write about some of them. Not great sweeping reviews, but just little nuggets of writing that might clue you into whether they’re worth trying, or cause you to disagree violently if you’ve already played them yourself. Starting with…
There is a war raging in my household right now. It is not one fought with virtual bullets and soldiers, though they are entangled in the conflict. It is one fought in the physical sphere; in the living room, to be precise. The two sides? Those those who lay praise at the feet of the ‘Recon’ control-scheme and those who venerate the mighty ‘Default’. It is a series of battles, all fought over the same two-inch strip of white plastic battlefield, the weird hybrid known only as RB – the ‘Right Bumper’ – placed, between the buttons and triggers from whom it draws its mongrel DNA, on the top right of the Xbox 360 controller. Every battle begins the same way. In the middle of a particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach, an index finger strays to RB. It is squeezed, the player expecting a triumphant raising of gun-butt to the back of an enemy’s head. Instead, their avatar snaps a magazine into the rifle. Meanwhile, their opponent turns round, and places a messy no-scoped sniper round into their visor. The ‘seconds until respawn’ counter ticks down. “WHAT?!?” comes the inevitable cry. “WHY THE HELL IS RELOAD ON THE BUMPER?!?” This person is a follower of the ‘Default’ faction. A particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach. An index finger squeezes RB. They wait for the assault rifle they have been recklessly emptying – into the American 13-year-old who has been aggressively questioning their sexuality all game – to reload. Instead an impotent melee animation plays, gun-butt meeting disinterested air. They crumple to the ground, plasma rounds still hot The ‘seconds until respawn’ counter ticks meaningfully down. “Fag”, quips the 13-year-old. “WHO DID THIS?!?” screams the player. Meet the ‘Recon’ axis. Immediately, there is shouting, and cursing of names. Accusations are flung like daggers: did you do this? Did you change my set-up? Any further than this, I am afraid, conversation becomes unrepeatable on this family-friendly blog. The offended player presses ‘Start’, attempting to pause an ongoing game, while they fiddle with the settings, which only makes things worse for the person they are sharing a screen with. Treaties have been suggested: Why don’t we all agree to use the same control scheme? The response is a unequivocably clear ‘No’, often accompanied by language more colourful than one imagines hearing in the hallways of the UN building. Here’s the thing: controls are personal, as individual as the angle of a computer keyboard or the tuning of guitar. They represent your only way of interacting with this fictional world which exists inside the television screen. With that hindered, the link between you and the world of the game is severed. Personally, I always liked the switch the Halo games made between their second and third installments, taking advantage of the then-new 360 controller. ‘Reload’ was pushed onto the aforementioned bumper. For Halo 3, this also meant that the weapons wielded in the left or right hand could be reloaded individually with the two bumpers. It was a decision borne out of functional necessity, no doubt, but it felt more magical than that. You see, by placing all interactions with the guns on the bumpers and triggers, the game created a sort of distinction between the mechanical and the physical. The melee, jump, and change weapon functions were all assigned to the face buttons, colourful and inaccurate, the human inside the armour. The analogue-precision of the triggers and bumpers were saved for the Spartan’s primary interaction with the world: blowing things up with military efficiency. It fit in neatly with the Halo universe, which revolves around this dichotomy of precision and gleeful abandon. Dropping people silently from afar with a sniper rifle vs. manically squealing as you pound them in the face and hope for the best. It helped define the contrast between it and the (clearly inferior but equally fitting) controls of the Call of Duty games, then in the ascendant. That was a messy world of sudden headshots and dirt and blood flecked onto your screen. Halo is a clean-edged world of genetically perfected robo-men doing battle. Reach switched to a more CoDesque control set for its default, but that was nothing less than a flagrant betrayal of the series’ roots. Those controls were as much part of the series’ differences in the admittedly inbred world of first-person-shooters as having a recharging shield, rather than the traditional percentage health of med-packs. Call of Duty 3 had incorporated the more organic approach of red splats obscuring your vision rather than a health-bar. But Halo took that piece of artifice and moulded it into part of the game, a game where you played a man in a suit of armour which granted you extraordinary abilities. Now, with Reach‘s ‘armour ability’ toys (jetpack, shield, hologram, etc) assigned to the left bumper, that feeling is augmented. …Until someone comes and messes with your controls and puts them back to stupid ‘Default’ mode, that is. And so, the conflict rages on, at home and online. There are websites where ‘Default’ aficionados scoff at the ‘claw grip’ necessary to jump and aim at the same time. Which is practical enough, from a utilitarian standpoint and everything, but can’t you see how it ruins my fantasy? Can’t you just give in? This post is dedicated to the brave, stubborn menof St Stephens Road – the Benjamin Edwards, and GeoffreyMaillards of this world. May their names and uninformedpreferences be forever etched into the face of history.
It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m in love. It’s not an entirely healthy relationship, I know, but goddamn it, Halo: Reach makes me feel so good. I present this, the first of a planned series of articles this week on why. “30 seconds of fun, over and over again”. And in one fell swoop, Bungie pinned down everything about why their game Halo: Combat Evolved was so deeply addictive and satisfying an experience, leaving games journalists all kicking around with nowt to do. Self-aware as Bungie might have been about Halo‘s successes, however, they’ve struggled to fully recapture it. While the multiplayer has retained its initial vitality, growing over the years with the addition of online play, new maps, weapons, and ideas, that’s not been so true of the singleplayer campaign mode. The new mantra for Halo 2 was “Halo 1 on fire going 120 miles per hour through a hospital zone chased by helicopters and ninjas. And the ninjas are all on fire too.” Which, incidentally, is not a bad illustration of how over-encumbered the campaign segment of each following iteration has been. It’s telling that the last two Halo campaigns have done away with Halo 2‘s key innovation, dual-wielding two independently-triggered guns, altogether. From the very first, there was a sense of trying to recapture Combat Evolved‘s singleplayer magic; of faking it under the looming shadow of the Law of Diminishing Returns. But Halo Reach‘s singleplayer has stolen that spark back, and breathed new life into playing Halo on yer lonesome. A lot of that’s in the little things. The Covenant Focus Rifle, for example, neatly solves the problem of tension-creating but hugely frustating enemy snipers by forcing them to keep a consistent, visible beam on that headshot for a few seconds before it drops you. In the multiplayer, that means a more interesting, quirky variant on the standard sniper rifle. In the campaign, it reduces frustration of sudden random deaths without losing any tension. Mostly, though, it’s how streamlined the experience is. Bungie have dispensed with the vast majority of mythology that plagued Halo 3‘s nonsensical attempt at storytelling, or efforts at experimentalism that proved beyond the ability of ODST. It also ditches the Flood, a brilliantly fresh enemy for one or two levels, but the first thing to come along and undermine Halo‘s classic balanced formula. What does that leave? It leaves simplicity. There are plenty of other things I love about Halo campaigns – the satisfying weight of the vehicles, the feeling of genuine responsibility for your marine sidekicks – but ultimately they all weigh down the purity of the core “3o seconds of fun”. Looking back fondly on the first Halo, as I often do, it’s those wide-open green and blue vistas. The claustrophobia of Flood-infested corridors and Warthog races through linear tunnel systems, even the feeling of getting your hands on the all-powerful Scorpion tank for the first time, just melt away. It was always about those open environments. They’re iconically pretty, and provide these peaceful moments where you’re presented with a small base of enemies, three or four well-placed Elites and whatever two half-empty weapons you’ve happened to end up with. And you look at it all and try to work out how to best solve this puzzle you’ve been handed. These peaceful moment before you run in and watch it all fall apart, are something Bungie have managed to finally restore. For Reach‘s greatest asset is one that sounds monumentally lazy: the campaign levels are largely recycled. The arenas where this kind of battle takes place are shared with the multiplayer, or the co-operative Firefight mode. This means they are designed the same way Halo’s finest multiplayer maps are: full of explorable nooks and crannies, offering tucked-away weapons, or alternate approaches to the action. Reach‘s big addition, ‘armour abilities’ – toys which grant special abilities from jetpacks, shields, and holographic decoys of yourself – manage to genuinely increase your options, as well as streamlining Halo 3‘s smart but rarely-used similar range of pick-ups. All of this means there’s a unique feeling of being in control of your experience, making battles feel spontaneous, which just isn’t available in any sociably multiplayer mode of the game. Playing on your own means that: a) you’re not responsible for anyone else, and b) you can set the pace yourself. Trying to find a moment of quiet in Slayer deathmatch, or even playing the campaign alongside a co-op partner who wants to push relentlessly ahead, never offers the same experience. So you sit on your own in the dark, and eye up the Spire, having already died on your last six attempts at taking it. The Elites have all got powerful-but-short-range plasma cannons, one sniper has tucked himself up at the top, and there are a couple of Hunters there … and there. You swear softly under your breath. But right before Death #6, you happened upon the spot where the mighty rocket-launcher is hidden. So you look down the scope, empty your last three shells into those Elites over there, hold LB and sprint for your life in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the rocket-launcher in your grubby metal-clad paws before they catch up with you… Simple.
Hello. We stand right now at the very brink of the Halo: Reach beta, just about to end and, though, this was conceived originally as a lament, let’s shake off those funerary greys and paint our Mk. V armour celebratory pink! For Halo: Reach has been a success. A mixture of tweaks to the Halo formula and those big, bold additions make this the most worthwhile successor to Halo: Combat Evolved since … the elitist* in me wants to say Combat Evolved but as usual with elitism, that’s pure snobbery. The most worthwhile successor since Halo 2. And, though those exciting tech-porn power-ups, the Armour Abilities have been grabbing the headlines, and for good reason (okay, quickly: the shield is my favourite because it turns the game, for moments, into slowed-down strategy; the jetpack is second because it turns the game into a big old playground), I’m here today to talk about Halo: Reach‘s quiet revolution: Invasion. It’s barely tangible, being a game-mode rather than a new weapon or a shiny jetpack, but it fundamentally changes Halo and is the component, the one small cog, that absolutely makes the game. It combines everything great about Halo – both multiplayer and singleplayer – and has been destroying for productivity for a week now. And how does it do all this? By getting rid of the numbers. At its lowest ebb, Halo can feel a bit… pointless. It’s easy to lose hours into a few rounds of deathmatch, but sometimes, just watching those figures tick up, there’s no sense of achievement**, drama or tension to the game: all the stuff that marks Halo as a notch above all the other shooters it’s exactly like, for me. (It’s probably worth stopping here to note that, in games as in life, I basically consider numbers to be the enemy. They’re the gateway drug by which people are hooked onto lifeless MMOs, or Farmville. The levelling-up system so prevalent in Halo: Reach’s multiplayer does nothing for me. It repulses me. It is Rorscharch’s dog-brains-splatter to my psyche. But … I’m a Grade I Sergeant, what are you?) Instead of those horrid, horrid numbers, there’s a simple narrative arc set up for you. The aliens are trying to get our McGuffin, stop them! (Or, alternatively, the humans took our McGuffin! Get it back!) What this means, though, is that every kill, or death, or whatever, has some worth in a tangible way: it either helps or hinders getting to your goal against a ticking timer. This encourages small, perfectly-formed moments: the last-second rush being the most obvious, both sides gritting their teeth. But the one that comes to mind is my team of four (two allies having quit. Boo them) defending against six aliens just desperate for our lucky charms. Not expecting much, we hole up in the bunker that holds the McGuffin and wait… Plasma-sword-wielding Elites crash against us in waves but (to get nerdy) with a vertical formation of snipers and close-ranger shotgunners, we hold off until, in the dying seconds, one gets up in the rafters, takes our last sniper out. We’re chipped down to one man, me, standing over the McGuffin with a rapidly-emptying shotgun as the final second is counted. VICTORY. And so Invasion is. It’s simple, it’s hardly the first time it’s been done, but it gives all those plasma grenades and assault rifles a purpose. We kept the McGuffin! *Note: small ‘e’, as opposed to Elitist, the group of people who will choose, at all costs, the hulking alien monsters over our brave boys in red and blue. **Again, small ‘a’. As opposed to Achievement, those – depending on who you ask – absolutely necessary cornerstones of modern gaming or disease-spreading arbiters*** of gaming’s end-time. ***And that’s small ‘a’ as … ehhh, I think this joke might be done.
I like games about shooting. I like to run, and jump, and blow things up. I’m a fairly cerebral – some would say pretentious – type. My musical tastes are 50% chasing avant-garde newness, 50% over-thinking pop; in film, I talk about the new Coen Bros, how Where The Wild Things Are figures in the Jonze/Kaufman/Eggers canon, in a way that annoys my girlfriend. And yet, in gaming, it’s yr Halos, yr Marios, yr Grand Theft Autos that grab me. These are the videogames your parents warned you about- the ones with the explosions and childish colours and dinosaurs and mindless killings. As this blog attests, I like the more thinky games too – Bioshock, say, or indie games – and I definitely like to over-think games. But those games, almost without exception, are the ones where I get to do physical things. Shooters, platformers, action games… For me, gaming is that physicality. It’s fair to say that I am: fairly chubby, non-athletic, completely lacking in any hand-coordination beyond the confines of my keyboard. I’m not incapable of experiencing the rush of speed and activity: semi-regular biking, or my occasional attempts at fitness through running. But, by and large, I’m not regularly putting aside time for sports or major physical activity. I’m not in any Fight Clubs. In this way, I’m pretty much your average ‘hardcore’ gamer.My sport is Halo multiplayer, my exercise a burst of left-to-right platformer. I take out day-to-day frustration on the poor citizens of Liberty City, or the buildings of Mars, or anyone unfortunate enough to be worse than me on shooting games. I need that physicality- the Fight Club thought leads me down an entire new path of thought, where that extreme physicality – fighting strangers – is sublimated safely into the (largely) non-active pursuit of gaming. But, my point remains: a game needs to be physical to succeed. For me, anyway. I don’t mind using my brain – whether in Portal‘s puzzles, or deciphering the avant-garde mystery of Time Fcuk, or learning about Objectivism and Ayn Rand from Bioshock -I just want to feel engaged in that world. The world is physical, so a gameworld should be physical too. Simple as that.* Half of the joy of New Super Mario Bros Wii is bumping into your playmates, knocking them off ledges, picking them up, helpless. Living-room griefing, hilarious because of its unpredictability, bringing together housemates in a way only a few games have. Another of these being Sumotori Dreams, the fantastic slapstick physics–based drunk-outside-a-kebab-shop fighting game.Half-Life 2 made puzzles tangible, showing how using physics to carry through a simple task made it that much more entertaining. Portal took that a step further and, beyond a few mods floating around, no-one seems to have really tried since. I know it’s a tired maxim but games need to do what only games can. That’s interactivity, yes, but it’s also consistency, physical interaction. Remove the abstraction, and do less to distance the player. What I’m trying to say here, really, is aimed at the world of game developers in general. Make your games physical: represent what a player can do as fully as possible, make them feel possible of anything, and you can revive dead genres. You can make slapstick funny again. You can make a player feel powerful in a way Michael Bay never could. You can make it exciting to bounce a basketball around a room, for someone who’d never actually pick up a basketball. *It’s not quite as simple as that- my love for the point-&-click adventure game disproves my point, though my lack of love for strategy games, and loathing for turn-based combat** puts us back on familiar ground. Phew. **Further undermined by my current obsession with Solium Infernum. Balls.
The warthog rolls. Rolls. Say a quick prayer… Rolls! Yes! I’m back on my wheels, crew fully intact. I thank the UNSC for the divine gift of roll-cages. Oo-rah!Yes, it’s unmistakably Halo. I think the game gets a bad rep: that it attracts an audience of what might be (unkindly, but not uncommonly) termed idiots. This is the meta-story of Halo: the game for jocks. Also, the game that saved a system (Microsoft’s first Xbox). Sometimes people talk about the infamous 30-seconds-of-great-gameplay idea. But most of the time: it’s the shooting game for jocks. And, admittedly, it’s never going to be a classic example of Games-as-Art. Even a rabid fan like me (if I was doing an RPS-style Gaming Made Me– and I might yet- the first Halo would have to be on there.) I think that the reason for this status it that Halo, in multiplayer at least, is as close an example to sport as exists in gaming. A pure set of rules, occasionally tweaked, presented clearly; an environment for competition to flourish in.But there’s more to it than that. In its best incarnations (not Halo 3– a finely tuned sport for sure, but lacking a truly satisfying campaign), the singleplayer is a triumph. And here’s why that bit works, for me: it lets you role-play. I think it might just me be but… my fellow marines. In another favourite, Bioshock, the bittersweet triumph of felling a noble Big Daddy hurt. In Halo, losing the ally riding shotgun in my Warthog (the imaginatively named Rocket Guy) in a volley of purple laser causes me to emit a Vader-like “NOOO!” in mourning. Reason? Well, because I’m obsessively compulsive about keeping them all alive, the way I used to be about having 100% health (and a round number of bullets in each gun) in GTA3, a perfect record in Splinter Cell. But, more importantly, because in very basic ways these marines feel human. They shout like the marines from Aliens at opportune moments, and have individual accents. The much-mourned Rocket Guy, for example, was Australian, and knowing even that gives me something to grasp onto. Because, ultimately, half of the joy of gaming is role-playing. (The other half being rules, testing yourself against them, and testing their limitations. I know a lot of people who enjoy this element of Halo, too- seeking out the highest possible point on a given map, or investigating the “grenades under a Warthog” rumour.)Back to the point- I want to believe I am Master Chief, quietly iconic, as I crush a car under my tank tracks. The Master Chief would never leave a man behind. Even when it meant sacrificing the flow of the game a little- going back and replaying the last 10 minutes because . Testing the limits of the rules, again, but for a purpose. The replay becomes a mechanic in its own right, something that couldn’t exist in any other medium. It’s for this reason that the first level of Halo 2 is so brilliant. It knows exactly how excited you were going to be, dropping the hot-off-the-presses disc into the tree, and cribs from the Half-Life pre-game pre-amble, 10 minutes before you can even pick up a gun. But, with marines cheering me on as I stroll around a military base, I feel like a war hero. A celebrity. Later, my alien adversaries running away, screaming warnings of “The Demon”. An icon.And soon I’ve played too much and I have to put the Xbox away for a while. And then, the Bungie.net website steps in and lights up that excitable young boy in me (the one who never played D&D or any hardcore roleplaying, but looked at those fat glossy books of figures and descriptions and …wondered). Being able to read pages from the Halo Bible describing weapons, enemies and vehicles, sounds pedestrian -every game manual, surely- but the fiction runs deep. Reading marines’ accounts and comments on each topic gives a further edge of authenticity, next time I’m fighting to keep marines alive. It’s especially fascinating to see the fiction interact with the gameplay: a Ghost’s fuel tank is on its left-hand-side, so that is its weak point. It’s a world as immersive as you want to make it.(All of which is a little jarring next to the aforementioned sport of the online experience. A world of brillo-pad-to-the-soul-American-teenager-accents and racist abuse. A brilliant game, but with an execrable community behind it. That reputation is perhaps rightly deserved, but I’ve had some real tense, competitive games of Halo, more than anything else I’ve ever played.) So, Halo isn’t a piece of art. I don’t think many other people feel anything for their marines (in fact, I know people who purposely kill them, an idea which makes me wince as much as someone pulling the wings off a fly.) I know this is the last of the great Halo campaigns. But, the truth is: crouched behind a boulder as plasma bolts chip away at it, with Cortana whispering advice into my earpiece and fingering a magnum, I feel like James Bond, so why should anything else matter?