Tag Archives: 343 Industries

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens – Hands-on at E3 2015

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

Let’s get this right out of the way: HoloLens, Microsoft’s response to the virtual reality resurgence of late, is incredibly cool. It’s not necessarily impressive, but it is undoubtedly neato. You throw it on like any other VR headset but it instead opts for an augmented reality experience, altering what you can already see rather than replacing it wholesale.

If you saw the Microsoft press conference earlier in the week, then you’ve seen what they’re selling you. The Minecraft demo is the goal for the product, and it kind of delivers on that; you certainly are seeing things that aren’t there. The odd part is the field of view.

Namely, it’s not that great. The stage demo and the special camera rig to display it shows it as an all-encompassing experience. It’s not that. Imagine you are peering through another smaller seamless window in the headset about the size of a deck of cards hovering a foot or so in front of you. That’s what you see. It’s disappointing but not necessarily jarring.

Preceding a demo of Halo 5: Guardians, there was a super high to-do about a multiplayer briefing. The area was mocked up to be a UNSC facility with UNSC scientists milling about. It all felt very much like a marketing coma-inducing simulacrum. The lab coats measured our interpupillary distances and then we were sent on our goggled way.

You look to the left down a corridor and what you see is almost unbelievable. It would have been breathtaking if survival in the video game industry required some amount of emotional culling. It was a Halo waypoint. Not a poster of one plastered on the wall or some styrofoam approximation hung from the ceiling. It was a waypoint, counting down the meters until you reached it.

Once you got there, you were directed to another room. In it was a window. Well, not a real one, but one projected by HoloLens. Peering through, you can see all manner of Pelicans and marines and whatnot. This is no longer some PR-purchased estimation of Halo. This suddenly became the UNSC Infinity.

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

Turning around, there’s a briefing table with a hologram of the Infinity floating there. You can actually use a virtual pointer to spin it around, which was pretty fun just by itself. But then it’s replaced by Spartan commander Sarah Palmer detailing how the new Warzone mode works.

All the while, you can walk around the table, circling the future like a hungry shark. It tracks just as well and you’d like it to with no stuttering or jumping. With no hanging circuitry or wires, the headset is light, too, almost leaving you to forget it’s even there on your noggin.

The magic, however, begins to falter due to the aforementioned viewing real estate. You pretty much have to be backed up all the way to see everything in a way that doesn’t feel like peering through a mail slot. Forcing you to physically accommodate the limitations of the system breaks the sensation of being aboard a UNSC ship and suddenly you’re back in a room with several strangers wearing things on their heads.

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

It’s an odd feeling, for sure. I’ve worked with this technology before from the engineering and programming side, so knowing its actual limits based on current research and development has tempered by excitement, but experiencing it all in the context of a world I know fairly well makes it smile-inducing all over again.

And knowing it’s still not all quite there similarly curbs giddiness. The field of view is the biggest problem, but it also leads into an issue with proximity. The closer you get, the more the illusion of immersion breaks not only because you stop seeing everything at once but also because you start to see jagged edges and some slightly ragged tracking. It’s at a low degree and a rarity, but it’s enough.

There’s not quite an applicable use for this just yet. There wasn’t much to get from this that you couldn’t get from the Warzone trailer and it’s definitely not plausible for this to exist in every player’s house (not that Microsoft would even consider that option, but still). It was slick, though, and absolutely does the job of getting the idea of what’s possible with HoloLens stuck in your mind.

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Microsoft E3 2015 Recap

Microsoft E3 2015

There was actually something genuinely surprising about the Microsoft press event yesterday, but it’s probably not what you think: there wasn’t even a sliver of a presence for Call of Duty. That showing has been happening like clockwork for the past forever and it wasn’t there this year.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad or even how I feel about it, but it’s certainly remarkable. But there was plenty of other news for the Redmond company and their little gaming machine that could (and then did and became a beast of an ecosystem for entertainment).

You can also watch the entire presentation if you’d rather do that.

Halo 5: Guardians

There was a substantial co-op demonstration that happened. And that just about sums that up. At this point I’m pretty sure you know if you’re going to buy a new Halo game or not, let alone get excited for hearing 343 Industries studio head Bonnie Ross talk about the brand new engine that runs single and multiplayer at 60 fps.

Warzone, however, sounds pretty fun. It’s a new 24-player mode where you’ll face off against both AI and player-controlled enemies via drop-in, drop-out co-op. The maps are massive at four times bigger than you’re used to. Josh Holmes of 343 appropriately called it “ambitious.”

Backwards Compatibility

This is an ostensibly big move. This will open up an entire generation’s worth of games up to Xbox One owners for free (so far it’s just a smattering of titles) and will definitely set the system apart from the PlayStation 4 feature set, something they’re keenly aware of.

“We won’t charge you to play the games you already own,” said head of platform engineering Mike Ybarra, an obvious jab at the fact that PlayStation 4’s backwards compatibility works only so much that you can stream old games via PlayStation Now. Ybarra says it won’t take any extra development from studios and players just need the original disc to download a new digital version. It’ll be available to everyone this holiday season.

Fallout 4

Here’s so more Fallout 4 footage, including stuff we didn’t get to see yesterday during Bethesda’s event. I mean, it all follows the same path of content, but it’s bonus gameplay at some parts.

Game director Todd Howard also announced that PC mods will work for the Xbox One version of the game, but not right at launch; that will get added somewhere in 2016. And they’ll hopefully bring that same compatibility to the PlayStation 4 version.

Forza Motorsport 6

We already know there’s a new Forza game. Even if you didn’t know that, it seems like you could have assumed that anyways. Turn 10 Studios’ Dan Greenawalt says there will be over 450 cars and 24-player multiplayer. That’s kind of all the excitement I can muster for this.


Even if Tacoma just ended up being Gone Home in space, I’d still be cool with that. But developers Fullbright has earned more respect than that. It’s very obviously going to be about a singular experience and story-driven, but rehashing the same ground is (hopefully) beyond them.

Co-founder Steve Gaynor announced that their upcoming game will come to Xbox One and PC first before hitting Linux and Mac.

The Long Dark

Billed as “the first survival game on Xbox One,” The Long Dark is very obviously a survival game. You’re out all alone in a frozen wilderness and have to face the cold and wolves and whatnot.

The bigger tidbit coinciding with this is that Microsoft now offers Xbox One Game Preview, their own Early Access. The Long Dark isn’t out now, but you can play it on Game Preview right now. (Game Preview is not be confused with the Xbox One Preview program, although it exists within that and, yeah, you get it.)


Dean Hall, creator of DayZ, announced his new project Ion. It will also be available on Game Preview first and will attempt to realize Hall’s vision of “a game that wasn’t a game.” The press release describes the game as “an emergent narrative massively-multiplayer online game in which players build, live and inevitably die in huge floating galactic constructions.”

It aims to feature fully simulated environments involving power grids and heating and a bunch of other things to maintain space living. It seems pretty neat, though it may cross that line into too ambitious real quick.

Sea of Thieves

Rare is making a new game! What more do you need to know? Hopefully not much more because they didn’t give us much more.

Rare Replay

Coming August 4 to the Xbox One, the Rare Replay collection will feature just about every game you’d want to play from Rare’s history. This includes some serious bangers like Battletoads, Perfect Dark, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Blast Corps. If this doesn’t excite you then you must be dead inside.

Gears of War Ultimate Edition

This remastered version of the original Gears of War will come to Xbox One on August 25. It’ll have updated graphics (which Kotaku has a nice comparison of), integrated Gears of War 3 gameplay features, and the additional content previously exclusive to the PC version from 2007.

Gears of War 4

I dunno. Are you guys excited for a new Gears of War? I’m interested, I guess, but not necessarily looking forward to it. It’ll be the first one not developed by Epic Games. Maybe there will be a fresh take on some of the old staples of the series we’ve grown accustomed to? Gears of War 4 will hit during holidays 2016.


This is a pretty impressive demo for Minecraft with HoloLens, Microsoft’s 3D head-mounted display technology. In it, one player is on a Surface tablet playing the game while the other assumes a more godlike role through HoloLens, able to peer into the entire world and manipulate it from on high.

But it’s also very much unbelievable and in a not great way. Do you remember what we were promised with Kinect? Yeah. And having worked with this sort of tech before, I’m all the more wary. Still cool, though.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

There was also a trailer that came out, but that’s pretty much inconsequential compared to the gameplay demo they threw down. It’s coming across as even more Nathan Drake than before, but it still looks great. Drake’s defining characteristic is that he’s lucky as shit and knows it. Lara didn’t have that.

In 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara started with getting impaled and it somehow went downhill from there. But this demo shows Lara dodging bullet after bullet and that’s kind of Drake’s thing. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it seems worth mentioning.

And that’s it! Actually, there was a lot more like the above promo for the new Xbox One interface, the Xbox Elite controller (which will cost a whopping $150), and a bunch of other games, but these were kind of the big hitters. It’s fantastic that Microsoft focused so hard on games this year. It felt refreshing.

It’s also worth mentioning that there was a distinct lack of Kinect talk, and with the lack of Kinect in the new Xbox One bundles, it calls to question if Kinect is being swept under the rug. I don’t necessarily buy it, but Ben Kuchera raises some good points over at Polygon.

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Halo 2 and the 10-Year Itch

Halo 2 and the 10-Year Itch

There has been a lot of Halo in the air. It’s a bit like a roaming, free-floating sensation of Christmas jollies surrounding you, but it’s far more explosion-y. Halo: The Master Chief Collection is on the verge of release (it’s happening tomorrow), including a fresh launch trailer for the sizable aggregation. The reviews have already hit and roving around. And there’s that Halo 2 documentary.

Freely available on Xbox Video and the general Internet, it’s a roughly one-hour look back at the development of one of the most hyped games ever released and how 343 Industries went about remastering it for the aforementioned collection. The title—Remaking the Legend – Halo 2 Anniversary—is more than a bit presumptuous. There’s no denying the game made a huge splash both before and after release, but legend might be more marketing than fact.

It’s not that anything the people in the documentary said were entirely false. That would just be lying. In fact, Halo 2 did almost singlehandedly manufacture the now standard and widespread concepts embedded within current online multiplayer including playlists, matchmaking, and, well, playing shooters online with a console. It basically took the burden of justifying Xbox Live upon its green armored shoulders and plowed headlong into the future.

What it does manage to gloss over (besides other influences within the realms that Halo 2‘s multiplayer innovations dallied in) is what a colossal disappointment that game was. Okay, let’s dial it back: both “colossal” and “disappointment” are relative. It is, by all means, a great game and still holds up in most regards today, but you have to know the context with which it was released could not generate anything less than some degree of tepid nostalgia.

The two chief pillars to which critics will point first involve the Arbiter, the second playable character in the game’s single-player campaign. The impact upon the mythos this Covenant pariah has is conceptually solid, but it plays out within the rest of the story like a prequel Star Wars. It’s full of politics and not enough basely intuitive or intellectually stirring actuations the brooding conflicts and twists.

Not only that, but playing the Arbiter was far from compelling. For all the ire that the Flood drew in Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie saw fit to instead excise the entirety of that painful underground exercise into its own segment involving a character no one really wanted to play. Perhaps it was some twisted idea of redemption in proving they can actually make the Flood fun, but the net result was the same.

Halo 2: Anniversary

Then there is the ending, or lack thereof. It does, for all reasonable analyses, end only in the strictest definition of the word. It is the terminus of the campaign, yes, but it goes so far out of its way to be a cliffhanger that it must have been as inconvenient to write as it was frustrating to watch. The only way it could have been more insulting if Master Chief had actually been hanging from a cliff. (The real reason follows below.)

This makes the documentary—this 62-minute trailer barely qualifies as such when it so directly is aimed at wallets—a lackluster addition to the game’s history. It has some neat tidbits and behind-the-scenes clips (who knew John Mayer played on the soundtrack? That’s incredible.) but it also skips over the most compelling arc of all: an education.

It’s lightly touched upon in the part where some folks that worked on the game discussed its genesis, which was sloppy to say the least. It was a haphazard affair with a lot of guns pointed in a lot of directions that all hoped to cooperatively shoot down the giant sequel hype beast while not really planning ahead or even communicating all that well. It serves to highlight the true value of Halo 2, which are its contributions to Halo 3.

Halo 3

Put aside all of the multiplayer influences that linger about today and focus on the broad strokes. Halo 2‘s development was, by all means, a nightmare. Most, if not all, of what was shown as the first bit of publicly viewable gameplay in 2003 was scrapped and the game was not playable until a year later. And the subsequent and seemingly interminable engine work blocked production and design, rendering half of the team useless.

This led to the final year of development to be described as “the mother of all crunches” in an IGN retrospective. A split team structure resulted in broken lines of communication and a prototypical mess with an impending deadline. It was the paragon of poor planning and excessive ambition.

Yet we still ended up with one of the highest rated games of 2004 and one of the best selling games ever. But all it led to was the immediate production of Halo 3, which would eclipse its predecessor in terms of sales and ratings. And if you look at its actual development, it came across as a far more structured endeavor. Instead of spreading thin across arbitrary divisions of labor, Halo 3 worked between a single-player and multiplayer chasm, producing individual builds and weekly, publicly accountable updates.

Halo 3 Believe ad

The end result of this lesson in growing from a “messy adolescence” (as Halo 2 engineering lead Chris Butcher put it) to a legitimate organization and a superior product that had a metered and met ambition and expectation. And from that, we had several ensuing games of the same universe grace our gaming libraries.

It’s interesting to think of the material contributions Halo 2 had on the industry and its studio and our lives directly and in fact makes for a good sell to think fondly on and purchase the Master Chief Collection, but an equally compelling thought is how it shaped the studio that would come to continually pump out game of the year contenders. (And a somewhat average, derivative game about light and dark.)

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Concept Art Roundup: Beyond: Two Souls, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Rainbow 6: Patriots, And More

Concept Art Roundup: Beyond: Two Souls, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Rainbow 6: Patriots, and More

All right, so maybe this Concept Art Roundup thing isn’t going to be as regular as I’d hoped, but after the Weekend Play thing petered out, what did you expect? Well, maybe I should bring that back, too. What if I just did a Daily Grace-style thing where every day is a set theme? Would anyone prefer that to me just rambling almost every single day on something nobody really wants to read about? Talk to me!

Anyways, back to the matter at hand. This collection of concept art is particularly exciting because there are some unreleased games in here. I had a whole slew of Gears of War 3 and Guild Wars 2 pieces all picked out for today, but then I stumbled across these little gems. There’s not much there—just a couple of concepts and promo things—but it’s still pretty neat considering this may fuel whatever imagination engine you have running your head about these games.

There are some old games in there, too, because the art was just too good to ignore. Also, I had to flesh this one out a bit, but it really is because these concept artists are so damn talented. If I could, I would dump everything at once and just let your eyes glaze over like little Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

In fact, let’s start with a previously released game in Halo 4. This comes from a fellow named Nicolas Bouvier, though he seems to much rather go by his Internet pseudonym Sparth. He currently works at 343 Industries and was actually the lead concept artist for the game. He previously worked on Rage by Id Software, Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, and Alone in the Dark 4, all of which I consider fantastic games with fantastic art. I wonder if Bouvier has anything to do with it…

This next bit is going to be a tad more low profile. All right, a lot more low profile. How many of you have heard of Asura Online? I see like one hand up, and that’s okay. I only know it by name and almost nothing else, but an MMO fiend friend of mine gave me the highlights: it’s an action RPG MMO set in a craggly-looking fantasy world viewed from an isometric perspective. It’s apparently pretty good, but also it’s also entirely in Chinese, so just know that if you decide to set out looking to play it.

But that’s not the point. The point is that the art is pretty effing rad. All I know is that this guy is named Yang Qi and lives in Shenzhen. He’s also fairly active on Weibo, a Chinese chimera beast of Twitter and Facebook and all the rage over there. Based on Chrome’s built-in translation feature, he seems to love sharing art (natch). But check out this art!

Next up is Geoffroy Thoorens. He currently works at Applibot, creators of Legend of the Cryptids and employer of an odd number of concept artists I’ve come across today, but he has also worked on Sonic Unleashed, R.U.S.E., and, most notably, Beyond: Two Souls, the upcoming Quantic Dream game/experiment/Twitter discussion fodder generator starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Really, there are just two pieces of the game that I could find, but they are pretty great. The other two are from Galaxy Saga, the newest battle card game from the aforementioned Applibot.

Huddled up all the way over at Ubisoft Singapore is Jan Urschel, a concept designer and jazz lover (or so he says). Despite that, he’s got two pieces of EA’s Command & Conquer floating around out there. I guess he does contract work through West Studio who was signed on to work on the game or something. I don’t know. What I do know is that looking at this here tank makes me want to play the upcoming RTS like crazy hard. The other two pieces are just some great things he drew that I kind of love.

Lastly, we have Xavier Thomas, better known as Seed Seven and one dot of Two Dots. With Two Dots, he’s worked on with Riot Games, Ubisoft, Square Enix, and many other studios. As Seed Seven, he’s worked on Assassin’s Creed III (he did the Game Informer cover and a lot of the iconic marketing imagery), the insanely stylistic Prince of Persia reboot, and now two upcoming Tom Clancy Ubisoft games: Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Rainbow 6: Patriots. Blacklist at least so far looks like a decent game and Patriots has gone radio silent since its first announcement (though it might now be a next-gen game), but with Thomas working on the art, we know they’ll both at least look good.

He’s also got some stuff up for an unannounced sci fi thing called T.Project that looks interesting, one of which looks especially like it’s straight out of Prometheus.

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The Quality Of Quantity In Video Game AI

The Quality Of Quantity In Video Game AI

It’s a joke I heard first from the guys on The Totally Rad Show, and it kind of always stuck with me. Since that year, I’ve always thought about the winners and nominees of the Best Directing Academy Award: is it really the best directing or is it just the most directing? It is usually called and presented as the Best Director award, but that presents its own set of issues. What qualities of the director are you judging? The ability to connect with the actors? How much time is spent covering non-directorial aspects of the film? There’s no clear-cut answer and is open to a great many interpretations.

Of course, the other way doesn’t help much, either, but it’s still an improvement because it’s really just the one question of best versus most. “Best” directing is easier to quantify than director since you can see what scenes or shots were most effective in any given film and see what ended up as the most cohesive product, but that once against circles around to whether that is because there is more directing or better directing. Over the past couple of years, it’s most likely that the former has taken the reins.

These two attributes tend to conflict in video games as well. Sure, some publishers tend to put out more games over better games, but I’m talking instead about artificial intelligence (and, to a certain extent, simulation) systems and whether quantity or quality is valued more. They are two notions people often conflate, just as they do with the Best Directing Oscar, but the question remains: is it better AI or is there just more of it?

This is, obviously, an oversimplification of a very large facet of gaming, but it’s a lot easier to wrap your minds around than delving into the particulars of it all. AI is such a deep and wide foundational slab intrinsically connected with video games (you generally can only find AI-free games in pure multiplayer affairs, but even then, you will probably find some sort of basic level of interlocking systems) that to talk about them superficially is just about the only way for both of us to get out of here with our sanity.

But let’s start from the beginning and define what Best AI really is. To me, it is the absolute appropriate systemic response to the current state of the world. The more accurate the game can replicate your expectations, the better. For the most part, the state of the world will be subject to your input (otherwise, as Harvey Smith puts it, it’s just simulation) and thus as long as your input is changing, the world should be changing accordingly. Pac-Man had simple but effective AI; if you got a power pellet, the ghosts would run because they knew the shoe was on the other hand at that point. That is good AI while, very simply, bad AI is when those reactions don’t exist, propagate, or seem appropriate. Crysis 2, for example, had enemies that wouldn’t even shoot at you if you were punching them right in their dumb, blank faces.

So what is Most AI? That is when there are plenty of reactions to your actions, but they are not necessarily appropriate or effective the given context. By and large, when people say AI, they mean enemy behavior, but this can also extend to other game systems like wildlife and information dissemination and the like. All of that can and should interact, but sometimes AI will do things that simply don’t make sense regardless of the current world state, or would only make sense if you or another system had provoked it to do so.

Take a look at Borderlands 2. For the most part, people lauded the improved enemy behavior given the Serious Sam-esque battle encounters of run backwards, circle strafe, and never stop shooting that the first one nailed and exhausted within the first hour (though I still ended up playing days’ worth of it). However, while I do believe there were improvements made to the AI systems of the game, it doesn’t seem like the actual enemy behavior has gotten any better. There is simply more of it. For instance, instead of running at you in a straight, unwavering line, Psychos will now every once in a while step off to the side in an effort to dodge your incoming fire. If that sounds familiar, that’s because that’s basically how the zombies in Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5 worked, and they were mindless undead.

Psychos and the rest of the bad guys you face in Borderlands 2, as far as anyone can tell, still have some sort of self-preservation, but instead of counting for intelligence when you’re fighting them, you are just trying to adjust for random fluctuations in the pattern. This does not make for mentally engaging encounters because you are not engaging with systems that offer commensurate response to your input; you are fighting against a list that gets checked off every 10 paces or so.

Compare that to just about every stealth game that came out this year. All of them are driven by their systems and don’t just ask them for advice every once in a while. You feel as though if you hadn’t become involved, there would still be a very functional world operating. You just happened this one time to muck about in it.

Dishonored probably achieved this best this year. Three-dimensional sound propagation made it so that you were very conscious about running too close to oblivious enemies and watching out for rogue bottles / other clink-inclined items. Vision cones showed how far and wide suspicion is liable to turn into full-on awareness. And the ensuing reactions always seemed proper. Guards would yell for help or search nearby hiding spaces after discovering a dead or unconscious body, and you can throw bodies to distract swarms of infected rats to avoid getting your health all chewed up. It seems like whatever you do, your actions will yield a fitting response.

Far Cry 3 also succeeded because you can watch as things you have no part in unfold, and then change directions as soon as you intervene. Or maybe it was about you to begin with, prior to sinking its hooks in and the AI systems take over. Both would happen frequently to me. While scoping out an outpost, a tiger may linger around me after giving up on a deer chase. I’ll take cover in some foliage and pray to god it doesn’t see me when it suddenly runs into the enemy camp to kill a barking dog/everything else in there. I then step in and kill the tiger and the last sniper myself.

Or maybe I’ll be running from the tiger to begin with. I’ll be sprinting down a dirt road when I happen across two patrolling enemies. They open fire as I run literally in front of their faces. A rogue bullet of theirs strikes the oversized cat, and it soon stops chasing me to maul those poor dolts while I commandeer a nearby jeep to rundown that foul feline. The AI responses are expansive and expected in a very real-life-reflective sort of way. It achieves a breadth that you normally only experience while interacting with the real world.

Then again, that’s exactly the same predicament of More AI instead of Best AI. I would argue that Call of Duty games have the trappings of better AI where things (enemies especially) react as you expect to your actions. They will take cover when you fire, flank when you don’t, knife you if you get too close, and grenade you when you’re far. It is the breadth of reactions that you would expect from those in the thralls of battle, but it still somehow comes across as insufficient engagement. It feels like pure if-then statements and function calls.

Halo games have the same wide array of possibilities based on similar premises but with Elites ducking behind Grunts and Jackals scattering at the sight of a Needler. And sometimes reactions are…imperfect but are infinitely more believable than Call of Duty AI. There are many occasions when your foes and allies will take cover against lesser threats while a bigger one looms over them. There are cases when grenades are haphazardly thrown and blows up some friendlies. Halo games react believably but imperfectly, which kind of mirrors the natural, emergent course that reality often finds itself on.

So then maybe it’s not a question of Most versus Best. Maybe it’s about effective versus ineffective. When people say “better AI,” they often mean “more AI,” but that’s not to say that more of it is bad or to say that cold, calculated reactions are more affecting than imperfection. It’s about what is best for the situation—what is convincing and relatable—over what is alienating, which I guess is the great takeaway from every lesson in life.

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Internalizing The Different States Of Halo 4

Internalizing The Different States Of Halo 4

Open-world games generally have a very specific save system in that you can save anywhere and anytime. On PC, they usually facilitate this with quicksave and quickload keys so that you can you don’t even have to go through a menu to use and abuse these two functions. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for instance, you just have to press F5 to save and then press F9 whenever you want to return to that point in time.

The purpose of this for developers is to offer players with so many extra keys the ability to utilize them and not be burdened by unnecessary menu navigation (ostensibly, anyways). For players, it works on a different level: experimentation. When I come across a situation that looks to be game-changing or know I’m headed for a conversation in which I’ll have to make a heady decision, I quicksave before I proceed. This way, I can tinker around with the game and see how I can immediately affect the world and my progress. And, sorry to say, I kind of use it as a cheat in Bethesda games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 so that I can get by locks and conversations that are way beyond my skills.

But that’s kind of the point: to cheat the system a little. I remember my first abuse of quicksave/quickload was Max Payne 2 on PC. After every encounter, I would quicksave just in case another one would surprise me and leave me wanting for ammo and health. On a certain level, it’s expected and opens games to a completely different type of gameplay, one where the player treats the world as a sandbox ripe for poking and prodding. Just look at Dishonored of this year. With its quicksave and quickload capabilities, it invites quick and rapid iterative testing. You can easily test the limits of guard patrols and sight distances and reload with no consequence. While the saves and loads may be quick, it slows down the game to a very deliberate pace and greatly expands the experimentation theme of the game without directly affecting how the game plays

It’s different, though, when those reload points land out of your control. When the game operates on checkpoints instead of offering the user the ability to choose when he or she wants to roll back to, it kind of homogenizes the experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just makes for a different kind of game. In Hitman: Absolution, for instance, every person playing the game will always start out from a predefined set of locations and circumstances. There is absolutely zero variability here (especially since everything and everyone respawns upon reloading a checkpoint, but that’s a gripe for another time).

That’s what makes Halo games so special. It kind of mixes the two into a dynamic auto-checkpointing system. People have hypothesized and pondered how it works, attempting to divine what qualifies as a good time to checkpoint in Halo games, but it all seems rather moot. The game chooses and you live and die—sometimes repeatedly—by that autonomous decision. Sometimes it very overtly is based on when you kill enough enemies while other times it’s obviously checkpointing at certain locations on the map, but almost as frequently, Halo saves a checkpoint just because. It might be in the middle of a firefight, you in the middle of retreating behind cover, or it might be as you flip a Warthog over a barrier. Much like life, Halo checkpoints just sort of happen.

More than previous games, Halo 4 made me conscious of this. Maybe it was sheer happenstance or maybe it was a tweaked checkpoint system from past games, but it seemed like Halo 4 would save at the most inopportune moments. A second away from death, out of ammo, or after walking in the completely wrong direction for what feels like far too many minutes, I would see that checkpoint hit and just kind of wonder why. Other times, I would scream aloud WWWHYYYYYYYY, but my point remains: it was all nigh inscrutable.

Until it kind of landed on me—heavy in the chest with a thick and solid thud—that it was opening up the game to a similar sensation to the Skyrims and Fallouts and Dishonoreds of the gaming world; it was opening me up to rapid experimentation. However, my mental model worked in a fundamentally different way. In the discrete save/loading methodology, it was easy to empty my mind of each past and future and just focus on my present (likely dire) situation. I would usually refamiliarize myself with the current state of the world just to make sure nothing had miraculously changed in a world I’d thought static all Pleasantville-like.

In Halo 4, though, I began to notice that I was doing a mental quicksave myself whenever I saw that checkpoint hit. I would quickly internalize the state of the world for future reference. It was more than remembering; it was like a pure data set, an infallible visual representation of the entire world of the game, was stored in my brain. I could see and recall in an instant the exact location of the three Grunts to my left by that pillar. I instinctively know there is a firing Needler coming in from my 5 o’clock. It might as well be a fact of everyday life that an Elite has position (x,y,z) and current vector of (u,v,w). The entire quicksave function had relocated to my brain.

This opens the game up to an entirely different method of experimentation that plays into the puzzle-like mechanics of Halo so well. Since the control of the checkpoints is completely out of my hands, progress soon becomes the only worthwhile milestone of the game, but the necessary elegance soon becomes all encompassing. As I’m sure is the same with most of you, when you begin any encounter, you have some idea of what an optimal flow would be. Head left, throw grenade right, clear out hallway, cut across the center, and choke up on the middle as the Covenant try to overwhelm you.

But that fails. Luckily, you hit a checkpoint right after you threw the grenade and the world at that moment is imprinted on your brain. That frag is flying out over two barriers and a mildly empty expanse. A Jackal is over there, unfortunately pushing you towards the hallway you just died in. More importantly, you know that every part of your plan before that grenade worked. Everything after that? Not so much.

So now, instead, you push forward. Bad idea. There’s a Hunter, and he’s going to need to be taken care of one-on-one. Your mental imprint is updated. You fire right and push the Jackal into your grenade (silly Jackal). You retreat backwards that way and dump into the hallway, clearing it out, so now you can take care of the Hunter, the same one that just smashed the ground not two inches in front of you.

All of this happens in an instant. This all happens without thought so much as instinct because that checkpoint is internalized and made to be a very specific part of you. Emotive associations begin to form with good and bad parts of the surround area, where there will be trouble and where there will be aid. Rather than sit and ruminate on your predicament, you act. The dynamism of Halo 4‘s checkpoint system forces you to not think as much as you do simply react. Saves happen in the moment, so your actions happen accordingly. You don’t have time to stop and think so you don’t. You adapt and the game changes with you.

I’m not entirely sure it started out purposeful or not with Halo: Combat Evolved, but this in-the-moment, mystical checkpoint system that Halo 4 still uses absolutely works. More than that, it’s elegant. Deliberate or not, it a relatively small, front-facing change from the usual checkpoint systems that manages to fundamentally changes how the game works. Later Call of Duty games worked similarly, though it was more a matter of where you were and what you were doing at the time an objective completed, so you could be anywhere doing just about anything when you kill the last guy. It makes for trudging through on Veteran a unique experience, but I digress. Neither Call of Duty nor any other game makes the same instant flash imprint on my brain like Halo 4 does. An entire digital world is stored and recreated and analyzed within a single moment and recalled just as quickly.

There’s still a little part of my brain that remembers where I left off two weeks ago. And I still know there’s an Elite hiding behind that rock.

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Waiting To Appreciate Episodic Content

Episodic content in video games is nothing new. A scant seven years after the release of Pong in 1972 and Automated Simulation’s Dunjonquest series kicked off on the TRS-80 with Temple of Apshai. The definition of the concept, however, has changed in recent times. There was often a year or more separating episodes back then, likening the series more to a franchise of discrete entries rather than a series of quick, connected vignettes.

In its earliest incarnation, episodes were basically expansion packs. They were much shorter little epilogues to a longer, grander story. This is most clear in the add-on of scenarios for Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu that was simply called Xanadu Scenario II. It was simply a chunk of extra things to do, an idea further explored by the series with Sorcerian a year later.

Expansions, however, have come under fire for flying under the episodic banner. Then-vice president of content for GameTap Ricardo Sanchez laid out his Three Laws of Episodics in a D.I.C.E. Summit talk, three rules that would discredit expansion packs and so-called episodics like the Half-Life 2 episodes and Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

  1. Each episode stands alone but is part of a larger whole.
  2. Each episode has a relatively short duration of play.
  3. Episodes are delivered on a regular schedule over a defined, and relatively brief, period of time that makes up a season.

Combined, those concepts seem a bit familiar. In fact, they are what make up the basic building blocks of seasonal television programming, which is handy because that’s what episodic video games have come to resemble. Even the failed alternate reality game Majestic caught on to the seasonal and regular bits because developers Anim-X knew that those are the important parts.

While the success of TV shows are largely predicated on quality content, the meta structure of weekly episodes works in its favor. Each week, another brief but hopefully meaningful entry is made into the series and opens itself to two vital tenants of community: analysis and speculation. Episodes are necessarily short (relative to the season) so that fans can catch up easily and gives regular breaks in the overarching story so that they can extrapolate hopes and dreams into future fantasies. It aims for the ideal confluence of timing, impetus, and resolution so that all that goes on the day after is water cooler discussion.

A perfect example is this year’s The Walking Dead adventure game series from Telltale Games. Aside from the fact that it tells an amazing, grounded story with stellar characters and believable drama, it hits every necessary point for being episodic, and it works in its favor. Each episode takes somewhere around two or three hours to complete—a far cry from the 20 or so you’ll dump into Assassin’s Creed III or, well, Far Cry 3—and has its own encapsulated story of equally potent conflict and strife that fits within the season’s major through line. Each episode hits major points within itself that will trickle down to everything after it while informing things before it. It hits Lost-like levels of discussions after each release. What more can you ask for?

Maybe not much more, but it definitely gives it to you through its release schedule. Released every two months since April, it gives just the right amount of time for people to download, play, cry, discuss, weep again, and then speculate. If 45 minutes of TV can spawn a week’s worth of discussion and salivation until the following episode, it only makes sense that two and a half hours can hold down two months.

But it’s more than that. It’s the anticipation that a regular schedule creates. With the Half-Life 2 episodes, Valve’s “it’s done when it’s done” scheduling may work for quality assurance but it does nothing for fans’ waiting. The focus then becomes about delays and timetables and the like instead of speculating over what the next episode will break down and answer. By adhering to the regular bimonthly schedule, Telltale is able to lodge itself in a player’s brain for long after they’ve stopped playing since they know they’re a scant few days (or weeks) away from validating or refuting their hopes and fears.

Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops similarly works analogously to television. Over 10 episodes and 10 weeks, Spartan Ops tells a story about a team of Spartan IVs called Fireteam Crimson on the planet Requiem. It, however, is somewhat light on story, drama, and, from what I’ve seen, quality. But since it is on a weekly schedule, Spartan Ops still works because you only have to wait seven days until the next episode is out. Faith (and Legendary difficulty) can sustain most fans for that long regardless of objective quality. Spartan Ops is definitely fun to play, but its story is fairly lacking.

The first rule of episodic content is kind of a gimme. That’s just how good visual storytelling works. Every part of a movie or show or game must be able to be broken down into smaller, discrete chunks of drama. And episodes happen to be one of those units of drama, where its own content can be further rendered down to multiple developing plotlines. The last two are more relevant and perhaps most important to episodic games. You are building the community and the discussion from the inside out with each episode where every week or month or whatever you are aiming to create enough tension and anticipation to where you aren’t forgotten by the next episode. You have to know what you’re developing and who you’re developing for to sustain this cycle of fan froth to fan discourse.

And just like any good show, you should be able to marathon through its gamut and still enjoy it. Basically what I’m saying is if you haven’t played The Walking Dead, you should do so immediately. And then come find me because I still want to talk about it.

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Nailing The Fundamentals Of Halo 4

Every once in a while, a development studio will stumble across a hit. Not just one that hits certain sales numbers or is simply critically well-received, but rather they will somehow wring out from nothing a game that is socially impactful. Elements of the game will permeate gamer culture, infusing the zeitgeist with its own original flavor while its mechanics begin to appear in various forms in other products. Resident Evil 4 had “what are ya buyin‘?” and an over-the-shoulder camera; Gears of War brought about trailers of violent gameplay over melancholy music along with the active reload mechanic; and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare paved the way for main character deaths in the campaign and killstreak bonuses in multiplayer games.

After these seminal games hit, these studios are more or less locked into pumping out more entries into the franchise on a regular basis (or at least revisit it in some way or another). Infinity Ward, for instance, has exclusively produced Call of Duty games throughout its entire existence. Capcom has an entire god damn litany of franchises it has to touch back on every couple of years lest they miss out on a money-making opportunity. It is very much both a blessing and a curse to find such success.

If you look at Halo, though, you find something fairly unique. The series itself is, of course, a landmark in the history of video games. It brought about the two-weapon limit, regenerating shields instead of discrete health packs, dual-stick vehicle controls, sophisticated FPS enemy AI, and so much more, which is not to mention the creation of one of the most iconic characters in the history of anything along with the impetus for one of the first majorly successful machinima series in Red vs. Blue. Studio-wise, though, Halo is also the first to ever spawn a dedicated studio to the franchise.

Treyarch, I guess you could say, is a prototype for 343 Industries, the spinoff studio that formed after Bungie left Microsoft to become independent once again (since Microsoft retained rights to the series). Treyarch used to develop a wide swath of titles and genres ranging from hockey to a Max Steel game to a Minority Report title. Since 2004, however, they’ve developed exclusively Spider-Man and Call of Duty products, save for a brief dip into the James Bond mythos with Quantum of Solace in 2008. They, however, mostly stumbled into this fixed position. 343i was made for it.

While a fledgling studio in its own right, 343i is led by some industry and franchise veterans. However, Halo 4, possibly the biggest release of the year and maybe the most important game in the series since the first Halo, is still a fairly tall order for a new group of developers. Their primary goal could probably be distilled down to this single phrase: don’t fuck up.

It’s crass, but it’s true. Their first outing could justify their whole existence (though from the reviews currently up, it seems like they’ve done a mighty fine job). Not only do they have to create a good game but they also have to appease an innumerable mass of fans that demand consistency, creativity, and reverence. So it’s no surprise that Halo 4 falls fairly hard on the safe side of things.

To put it succinctly, 343i nailed the fundamentals of Halo. The unique interplay between guns, melee, and grenades that has identified the series since its inception is as strong as it has ever been. Each weapon, while workable in any situation, also has clearly defined strengths and weaknesses, making every firefight a puzzle of suitable armaments. The story serves to build on the foundation laid before it, not ruffle any feathers. Halo 4 is without a doubt the most Halo-ass game in quite some time (which is not to put down Reach or ODST; they were excellent games but also definitely departed from the formula).

And that’s fine. It’s like the first time you jump off a diving board; you start out with just a straight pencil dive, not a sweet life-endangering gainer. 343i has created probably one of the top three Halo games and did so with plenty of originality that managed to not alienate any psychotic, die-hard fans. There is so much fan service just from the novels that I can’t believe it isn’t required reading just to purchase Halo 4.

But perhaps that created something a bit too static in some regards. The Forerunner weapons, while visually interesting and easily distinguished, are all too familiar, which is odd for a race so much older and more advanced than either humans or Covenant. These are ancient weapons yielded by the mysterious Prometheans, so why do they all have conventional analogues? The lightrifle is basically the Covenant carbine. The binary rifle is the same as any other sniper rifle in any other shooter. The scattershot even pumps shells like a traditional shotgun despite shooting out god damn light.

The new vehicle even seems a bit too conventional. The Mantis basically a rehash of every other mech sequence you’ve ever played in a video game; you’re slow, lumbering, and overpowered, briefly but severely changing the entire game to serve as a respite from shooting things with significantly smaller guns. Jeff Gerstmann has quite a bit to say about it in the Giant Bomb Quick Look that is, for the most part, spot-on.

Little additions that tangibly change Halo 4 like Promethean Vision and the default sprint (the multiplayer has even more changes that may have serious implications to the long tail of the online game), but for the most part, the game is entirely a product of a super concentrated dose of Halo. It’s not even that you would call it evolution over revolution but instead just severe refinement. Wheat from chaff, fat from meat, and all that. 343i went down to Home Depot, bought a hammer, and put that Fundamentals board up on the wall because they are nailing it.

And that’s fine. For now. This can be considered testing the waters, a heat check for the studio as a whole. But knowing the leads at the company, it’s unlikely they’ll stay this reserved for long. A departure like ODST and Reach can only be expected after six years of hewing the same stone, but 343i and Halo 4 is a big ol’ reset. Now we’ll have to see how they build on the foundation they’ve built for themselves. At least those fundamentals will help.

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