Thursday, December 1, 2011

I'll just leave this here...

Hey, look what I did!


I imagine updates will resume at a more reasonable clip now that I'm done writing like a madman!

Maybe!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

...but you're still hungry.

The last post I wrote was talking about Duke Nukem Forever, and this one is too -- it's almost as if no time has passed! We can just continue on as if this blog didn't languish for the entire summer. With anyone else you might rightly suspect he spent the season soaking up the sun and engaging in a variety of healthy, outdoor activities. It's true! You might suspect that.

When I finished DNF the first time, my overall reaction was relatively positive. I could recognize that it wasn't a good game, but perhaps my fondness for the original Duke Nukem platformer and Duke Nukem 3D helped me find the fun in there. I had an okay experience with it. I went back to it recently in an attempt to wrap up the last four achievements (yes, yes, I know, achievements don't matter. It doesn't make me love them any less), and I'm finding it very difficult to make excuses for it anymore.

1) The game is ugly. I have an HD TV now, and games that used to look good on my ancient and doddering SD now look great. It doesn't have that effect on DNF, though, and instead it calls attention to how grainy and outdated the graphics really are. It's not just technically, either, but artistically too: everything is grey and brown and ugly. I love Gears of War, another game that goes for the grey-drab brown-muck approach, and even the blandest location in Gears is a work of beauty compared to DNF.

2) The game excels at nothing. DNF feels like Dr. Frankenstein's creature, stitched together pieces of other games -- and that's what I sort of liked about it! I liked the variety: you're driving an RC car, you're miniaturized, you're running fetch quests in a strip club, you're firing a turret from the side of a helicopter, you're throwing explosives at a giant boss, you're run-and-gunning through a lab. The downside of this is that none of those things I mentioned is done particularly well: the RC car controls sluggishly and makes you long for Half-life 2's air-boat (remember when we thought that part was bad?),  the miniaturized sections are full of one-hit instant death traps, the inclusion of the fetch quests is a real head-scratcher, the things you're firing at from that turret consist of one or two guys at a time along what's supposed to be a warzone but hilariously isn't, etc. etc.

3) The game's performance nearly makes it unplayable. Everything stutters and hitches, even when installed on the 360's hard drive, and loading screens are incredibly long. You read that sentence and you think you know how long these loading times are? They're longer than that. You get several checkpoints in each part of a level, but often you'll have ten or fifteen minutes of gameplay before you'll reach another one (and it could be longer than that on harder difficulties), and you need to sit through the same ridiculously long loading screen every single time. That miniaturized section I mentioned in point two, with all the one-hit instant deaths? That would have been almost enjoyable if you didn't have to sit through minute-long loading screens every time you failed to see what you were meant to do and instead guessed incorrectly.

4) The game is not funny. This is really the most grievous sin a game can commit when it has nothing else going for it and is supposed to be funny, but I can't help but think they really missed what made Duke entertaining in the first place. He was funny in the other games because he was an action-movie type fighting aliens and saving our babes in the seediest of places. Here the world apparently worships Duke, and after the third or fourth Duke-branded location the novelty had really worn thin. And a note: coming up to a boarded-up location in a mine and saying 'I wish I had a crowbar,' is not the height of satire. Yes, I enjoyed Half-life. Don't remind me I'm not playing it unless you're able to MINE the reference for hilarity. See what I did there? I wasn't funny. Just like DNF!

So I've shelved it for now. There are just too many good games out there to waste any more time on this one. At a certain point even my attempts to get every last bit of value out of the games I buy has to be abandoned in the name of keeping my sanity. At least I'll still have Duke Nukem 3D.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Vapor Condenses!

I've been playing Duke Nukem Forever for the last few days. That's pretty crazy. If you haven't followed its torturous course between multiple delays, engine changes, overhauls, and finally cancellation, followed by its subsequent resurrection, you might not appreciate just how crazy that is. Well, consider this exerpt from an interview with George Broussard and Scott Miller that appeared in the official Duke Nukem 3D strategy guide, published in 1997.

Scott Miller: We are also making Duke Nukem Forever, which will be out next Christmas for sure. DN Forever is not a sequel though, rather it's simply another episode in the life of Duke, just like each episode of Star Trek is not a sequel to the previous episode. DN Forever will be a side-scrolling platform game similar to the original two Duke games, but with far better technology and graphics. We're using the same Duke model from Duke Nukem 3D and adding dozens of new frames. Duke will climb chains, poles, ladders, walk hand-over-hand along wires and pipes, do midair flips, and ride several vehicles, including a jet ski and a Harley. The graphics will be very realistic and dark in style, and not cartoonish like the first two Duke platform games. Duke will have several familiar weapons, like the shotgun, RPG, and Ripper, plus several new weapons. And, of course, he'll still have his legendary attitude and Duke Talk(tm).

Duke Nukem Forever has been in development for so long that it was once a side-scrolling platformer! Unbelievable. I'll have more to say about DNF in a later post. There's stuff to talk about, for sure. For now, let's just say that I'd like to have played the platformer.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Triumphant Pre-E3 Return

Apologies for the last few weeks of no updates -- overtime at work, a nasty cold, excuses excuses. We're coming up to my favorite time of the year, though, so I wanted to get back in the swing of things: E3 week! It's that magical time when game companies unveil the surprises they've been cooking up for the last year in an attempt to win the heart and mind of that fickle beast, the elusive gamer. What company 'wins' E3 is a pointless discussion for the most part, but it's also fascinating. Who will it be this year?

There's been one pre-E3 news conference of note so far, and it was Konami's on last Friday. No memorable wackiness this time, unfortunately; it was pre-recorded, and undoubtedly vetted by the Powers That Be. That's okay. We'll always have One Million Troops, Tak Fuji.


The big news from the Konami conference, as far as I'm concerned, was the announcement of three new HD collections: a Zone of the Enders HD Collection, a Silent Hill HD Collection, and a Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, each of which will be on Xbox and PS3.

Outstanding! Especially the MGS one, which will contain MGS2 (Do You Know What Day It Is, Jack?), MGS3 (The Best One), and Peace Walker (Yes, This Is Why You Bought a PSP), all gussied up in HD and apparently containing Trophies/Achievements. You might laugh, but I love Achievements, and the Metal Gear series has long had the sort of gameplay that would be perfect for the things. If they rereleased MGS4 with Trophies, I'd buy it again in a heartbeat, for instance.

Some people are disappointed that the collection doesn't contain the original Metal Gear Solid, but I'm okay with it. The amount of work necessary to smooth out the jaggies on the original was probably prohibitive, and anyway the Twin Snakes version that was done for Gamecube is all tied up with Nintendo. You don't want to get involved with their lawyers, if you can help it. Plus, if you get the collection on PS3, which I'm planning on doing, you can get the PSX version of MGS and play through the whole series on one system anyway.

It comes out in November. That feels like a long time from now. Want!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chronological Halo, 23/52: Outskirts

Previously on Chronological Halo: The Covenant finally arrived in Earth orbit with a mighty fleet of... fifteen ships? Despite the small number of ships, they still managed to destroy two of the orbital defense stations, and would have destroyed a third as well if the Master Chief hadn't intervened. He took their bomb and gave it right back to them, with explosive results.

Mission Title: Outskirts (Halo 2)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 23/52

Summary
Three Pelicans fly from the 'In Amber Clad' down to the surface, where they approach the East African city of New Mombasa. As they approach the city, Cortana picks up a message being broadcast from the Covenant carrier stationed over the city.

Cortana: The message just repeats. Regret. Regret. Regret.
Miranda Keyes: Catchy. Any idea what it means?
Sergeant Johnson: Dear humanity... we regret being alien bastards. We regret coming to Earth. And we most definitely regret that the Corps just blew up our raggedy-ass fleet!

Sadly, that's not it. Cortana explains that 'Regret' is a name, the name of a Covenant religious leader. He's on the carrier hovering over the city center, and it's up to the Master Chief to get onboard that carrier and find out from the Prophet why this is the one place on Earth the Covenant chose to land.

But it won't be easy: as the Pelicans approach, a giant Scarab tank moves from between buildings and fires! One of the Pelicans is engulfed in flames, and the one carrying Sergeant Johnson and the Master Chief veers away, smashes into a building, and crashes. As our vision clears, we get our first taste of some of the hilarious section names in Halo 2.

'They'll Regret That Too.' Ha!


Together with Johnson and the surviving marines, we make our way from the crash site to a courtyard. We're in the old town, Old Mombasa, across the river from the city center. We fight off Covenant forces in the courtyard, and just as the marines prepare to put a satchel charge on the gate we need to get through, a pair of Hunters burst through!

Johnson: Stand back, marines! Let the Chief show you how it's done!



After the Hunters are taken care of, with our customary ease, we make our way through the streets of the old city dealing with Jackals with beam rifles. A Pelican lands and picks up Sergeant Johnson while we get through an abandoned hotel with the power out. On the other side a Warthog drives up; we can use it to go through the tunnels up to the bridge that leads to the city center. In the tunnel, Cortana comes to a realization.

Cortana: I've been analyzing the Covenant tactical chatter. They're surprised, confused... I don't think they expected us to be here. Not you and me... all of us... humanity, on Earth. Odd, I know, but it does help explain why they came here in such small numbers.

That's... strange. As we come out of the tunnel and up to the bridge, the level comes to an end.

Commentary
We're fighting in the streets of Earth, as promised by the promotional materials for Halo 2, but the worrisome signs continue. The long-awaited Covenant invasion of Earth is... an accident? The Covenant didn't know we were here? It does explain the small number of ships, but this is a long way from 'the goddamn apocalypse' the marketing for Halo 2 led us to expect. Honestly, we've seen what that would look like by now, in Halo: Reach (and it was amazing), but at the time that Halo 2 came out we didn't have any of that. It felt like a bait-and-switch.

Chronological Halo really shines when you're behind the wheel of a vehicle, and the long tunnel that ends this mission is no exception. It doesn't have the emotional impact of the escape at the end of 'The Maw,' but it does have similar gameplay, and is nice and long.



One last thing: we now know why the Prophet of Regret wasn't physically present at the trial of Thel 'Vadamee, and was instead participating via hologram: he was en route to Earth. But why? We don't know at the moment, and won't for awhile; but it certainly wasn't for the purpose of wiping out humanity. If it had been, this level and the one right before it would have been quite a bit different, and more like Reach.

Rating
This level gives us fighting in the streets and a fun stretch of driving, but the eyebrow-raising continues. The Covenant accidentally invading Earth is okay as a plot point, but the simple truth is that it's not what we were expecting.

Four Spartan helmets out of five.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Chronological Halo, 22/52: Cairo Station

Previously on Chronological Halo: The leader of the Fleet of Particular Justice, an Elite called Thel 'Vadamee, was put on trial by Covenant High Command for failing to prevent the destruction of Halo. Meanwhile, the Master Chief was on Cairo Station, part of Earth's Orbital Defense Grid, getting his gear upgraded. Also, Sergeant Johnson made it back safely! Don't ask how: it's classified.

Mission Title: Cairo Station (Halo 2)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 22/52

Summary
There's an interesting dynamic to the cutscene that begins this level: two ceremonies are occuring simultaneously, one involving the UNSC leadership and the other involving the Covenant. In High Charity, Thel 'Vadamee is led out onto a walkway in front of a crowd screaming 'Heretic! Heretic!' He's being escorted by a pair of Brutes, large ape-like creatures that seem to be responsible for the physical law enforcement of Covenant society.

They're below the societal level of the Elites, normally, but Thel 'Vadamee has been disgraced by his failure to protect Halo. Tartarus, the leader of the Brutes, fixes Thel 'Vadamee's hands to floating handcuffs.

Tartarus: You've drawn quite a crowd.
Thel 'Vadamee: If they came to hear me beg, they will be disappointed.
Tartarus: Are you sure?

Energy beams lash out to the Elite's unprotected sides, and he shakes with pain. Meanwhile, back in Earth orbit, the UNSC ceremony is proceeding with 100% less torture. The Master Chief and Sergeant Major Johnson are receiving the Colonial Cross, awarded for 'singular acts of daring and devotion.' It is also awarded posthumously to Captain Keyes, and is presented to his daughter Miranda, a Commander for the UNSC.
Cortana detects whispers of some activity near IO, one of the moons of Jupiter, and dispatches probes to investigate.

Back on High Charity, Thel 'Vadamee has endured extensive torture but isn't out of the woods yet. Tartarus produces a red-hot brand and presses it cruely to the Elite's naked torso; he is being marked, to make an example to those who would fail the Covenant. He bellows with pain.

The UNSC ceremony is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of fifteen Covenant capital ships just outside the kill zone of Earth's defensive cluster! Lord Hood, the leader of the UNSC who has been conducting the medal ceremony, thinks there's something strange about this invasion.

Lord Hood: Something's not right... The fleet that destroyed Reach was fifty times this size.

As boarding craft approach the orbital stations to try and take the MAC guns offline and give the capital ships a straight shot at Earth, Master Chief and Johnson go to arm themselves and defend Cairo Station.

After we fight off the first wave of boarders and find ourselves in one of the hangars, through the viewport we can see boarding craft leaving Malta Station. Cheers of 'they did it! Malta fought them off! They're retreating!' evaporate as the Malta explodes in a blinding flash of light. Shortly afterward, the same thing happens with Athens station: boarding craft leave it, and it explodes.



Cortana: That explosion came from inside the Athens. Same as the Malta. The Covenant must have brought something with them. A bomb.
Lord Hood: Then they sure as hell brought one here. Chief, find it.

The next section is humorously titled 'Priority Shift,' and involves our search for the bomb. If you hang around and don't go looking for the bomb, Cortana gets increasingly agitated.

Cortana: Just a friendly reminder: Bomb.

A brief detour through the Armory results in us seeing Master Guns killed by the Covenant, and we run into Commander Miranda Keyes; she was almost on board her ship when she was cut off by Covenant Elites. We head out into the vacuum of space to reach a cargo elevator that will take us down to where Cortana thinks the bomb is. Vacuum isn't as cool as it was in 'Long Night of Solace' -- our jumping height is different, but grenades are unaffected. Oh well.

As we're taking the elevator down, one of the Covenant capital ships blows right by the Cairo and heads for Earth! At the bottom, we clear out the Elites guarding the bomb, and Cortana deactivates it. This gives rise to one of the Master Chief's more badass moments.

Master Chief: Permission to leave the station.
Lord Hood: For what purpose, Master Chief?
Master Chief: To give the Covenant back their bomb.

Oh yes. Yes indeed. We pull the lever that opens the hangar doors and grab onto the bomb as it's pulled out into space. We float with it through a hole in the side of a Covenant carrier, reactivate the bomb, and then push off with our legs. It detonates right in front of the carrier's fusion core and we soar through space, eventually coming to land on 'In Amber Clad,' Commander Miranda Keyes's ship. The ship heads toward Earth; we're taking the fight to the surface.

Commentary
The first video reveal of Halo 2 was pretty incredible, despite the fact that a sequel was a foregone conclusion. It took the form of the Halo 2 Announcement Trailer, played in movie theaters and on TV, and showed up on the Game of the Year edition of Halo: Combat Evolved. It essentially showed the Master Chief's To-Do list, superimposed over shots of him moving through a station of some kind:

Explore Derelict Ring Habitat -- COMPLETE; Outwit Ancient A.I. Construct -- COMPLETE.

Meanwhile, we hear radio chatter from UNSC forces desperately calling for reinforcements, saying the fleet was destroyed and that 'Down here, it's the goddamn apocalypse!'

Stop Destruction of Human Race -- IN PROGRESS

The Master Chief pulls a lever, a hangar door opens, and he flies out into space to land on a Covenant carrier.



It was a pretty fantastic trailer and got people excited for the full-blown invasion of Earth by the Covenant. But when the game itself arrived, 'Cairo Station' already had a few troubling differences. Nothing major, yet, but enough differences from the Announcement Trailer to raise a few eyebrows.

First, the size of the Covenant fleet. Fifteen ships? That doesn't sound like very many. Reach was hosed, sure, but according to Lord Hood that was a fleet fifty times the size of this one. Second, none of the 'goddamn apocalypse' chatter is present in the actual game, and while giving the Covenant back their bomb is pretty awesome, it does seem like the full-scale war of the Announcement Trailer hasn't actually started yet. Maybe it'll happen in a level or two, when we get down to the surface. We'll see.

About giving the Covenant back their bomb, which I've already said is badass. It is. But there's a good question here: is it too badass? This is one of the first moments in Chronological Halo that really makes you question 'Did that really happen? That feels a little far-fetched.' Noble Six plummeting from orbit back to the surface of Reach even passes that test, because he's given a Re-entry Pack that is apparently designed just for that purpose. But Master Chief's trick with the bomb in 'Cairo Station' is just a little too credibility-stretching for me.

Rating
Despite my quibbles about the changes from the Announcement Trailer to the final game, Cairo Station begins with a neat back-and-forth cutscene between the UNSC and the Covenant, and ends with one of the Master Chief's most badass moments. It's a pretty solid 'battle on a human ship' level, of which there are only a handful in Chronological Halo.

Four Spartan helmets out of five.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chronological Halo, 21/52: The Heretic/The Armory

Previously on Chronological Halo: The Master Chief set off a wildcat destabilization in the fusion core of the Pillar of Autumn, and barely made it off the ship before it exploded, taking the Halo ring with it. He sets course for home, confident that the trouble with the Covenant, and with Halo, is not over.

Mission Title: The Heretic/The Armory (Halo 2)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 21/52

Summary
This is technically two levels, but there are several cutscenes sandwiching a brief playable tutorial, so I'll be covering them as a single mission. 'The Heretic' is the opening cutscene of Halo 2, and 'The Armory' covers Master Chief's new upgrades and serves as a basic non-combat tutorial before the action starts.


It's about a month after the destruction of Halo and the Master Chief's escape from Installation 04. A giant Covenant structure has travelled through slip-space to the wreckage. This is High Charity, the Covenant holy city, and deep inside a trial is being conducted. Two Covenant religious leaders, called Prophets, are interrogating a lone Elite. A third Prophet is not physically in the Council Chamber, but is participating via hologram. The Elite is not named in the game itself, but the Internets tell me his name is Thel 'Vadamee. Who is he?

Thel 'Vadamee, whose life has been better.

Thel 'Vadamee: There was only one ship.
Prophet of Regret: One? Are you sure?
Thel 'Vadamee: Yes. They called it the Pillar of Autumn.
Prophet of Mercy: Why was it not destroyed, with the rest of their fleet?
Thel 'Vadamee: It fled, as we set fire to their planet.

A-ha! So Thel 'Vadamee is the Covenant commander in charge of the Fleet of Particular Justice, the fleet that destroyed Reach! And he's in biiiig trouble. The Prophets are not happy that he allowed the humans to set foot upon the 'Sacred Ring,' and more than that: he could not prevent Halo from being destroyed. He tries to tell them that he was too busy concentrating on the Flood, and there was nothing he could do.

Thel 'Vadamee: Noble Hierarchs, surely you understand that once the parasite attacked -
Prophet of Truth: You were right to focus your attention on the Flood. But this Demon, this 'Master Chief...'
Thel 'Vadamee: By the time I learned the Demon's intent, there was nothing I could do.

The Prophets do not agree. Thel 'Vadamee led his fleet with distinction, but his inability to safeguard Halo was an inexcusable failure, and though he vows to continue his campaign against the humans, the Council has other ideas.

Prophet of Truth: Soon the Great Journey shall begin. But when it does, the weight of your heresy will stay your feet. And you shall be left behind.

We don't know what the Great Journey is at this point, but it's clear that this is bad news for Thel 'Vadamee.

The screen fades to another location, and we're near Earth's moon, and a large space station, the Cairo. Inside, the Master Chief, cause of Thel 'Vadamee's current woes, is having his armor serviced. The Gunnery Sergeant isn't pleased at the state of it, and asks the Master Chief if he knows how expensive it is.

Master Chief: Tell that to the Covenant.

The Gunnery Sergeant then runs us through a simple tutorial, teaching us the controls and letting us choose if we want to invert our look axis, etc. He gets amusingly exasperated if we don't follow his instructions. Once the tutorial is finished, Sergeant Major Johnson enters the armory to escort us. He brings us up an elevator and onto a tram, talking about the history of the Orbital Defense Grid which protects Earth: three hundred platforms like the Cairo, each one with a MAC gun powerful enough to take out a Covenant capital ship. We exit the tram and walk into a crowd cheering our arrival.

Commentary
This is our first glance behind the curtain at the Covenant leadership, and it's an intriguing one. We knew the Covenant had a religious slant from Cortana's eavesdropping on their battlenet, but it seems almost to be the basis of their society, centered around something called 'The Great Journey.' It's unclear what that might be, but those who endanger the Covenant are deemed heretics and unable to participate in the Great Journey, according to the Prophets.

The Prophet of Truth is ready for his close-up.

And here's something interesting: look how bad you feel for Thel 'Vadamee during his trial. This is the guy who was in charge of the Fleet of Particular Justice that decimated Reach, but here he cuts a sympathetic figure. Blame the voice casting once again; Thel 'Vadamee is played by Keith David, whose voice you may recognize from Every Videogame Ever, and he just has that sort of voice.

On the other side of the divide, the Master Chief gets an upgrade to his armor that is basically the same as what he had in Halo: Combat Evolved, but does away with a visible health meter requiring medpacks. It's strange to see Sergeant Johnson again (remember Cortana saying that all that remained of Installation 04 was 'dust and echoes?'), but the wink and nod factor is very high during the following exchange:

Gunnery Sergeant: So, Johnson, when you gonna tell me how you made it back in one piece?
Sergeant Johnson: Sorry, Guns, it's classified.

Johnson's history lesson as you ride the elevator and the tram, about how awesome the Orbital Defense Grid is and nothing could get by it, no matter what, is a little too obvious for my taste. You just know something's about to go down, you don't really need to put such a point on it.

Rating
No real gameplay in this level, but the glimpse into Covenant culture is intriguing and feels like a necessary next step for the series to continue without becoming too one-note.

Four Spartan helmets out of five.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Chronological Halo, 20/52: The Maw

Previously on Chronological Halo: Cortana's plan to overload the fusion core of the Pillar of Autumn and destroy the Halo ring required the override passcodes from Captain Keyes's neural implants. Keyes was imprisoned on the Truth and Reconciliation again, but now the ship was disabled by the Flood. When the Master Chief found him, Keyes had already been turned into a giant Flood mass. It was too late for him, but not for Cortana's plan: the Master Chief retrieved the neural implants and escaped the disabled cruiser.

Mission Title: The Maw (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 20/52

Summary
The captain's neural implants in hand, we pilot a Banshee to the crash site of the Pillar of Autumn. The ship is a wreck, and inside, Flood and Covenant and Sentinels do battle as we make our way to the bridge. Cortana uses the passcode from the implants to override the failsafes and begins the process of overriding the fusion core. The self destruct countdown begins...


... and is then deactivated by 343 Guilty Spark. He's flying around the Engineering Dept. of the Autumn, scanning the records in the ships database. He won't let us initiate the self-destruct sequence! He says he'll give us a painless death if we turn Cortana over to him (since she still has the Activation Index from the beginning of 'Two Betrayals'), but Cortana still controls access to the communications systems and shuts off his ability to pester us, so that's something.

Since Guilty Spark can shut off the self-destruct countdown even if we were to turn it on again, we'll need to set off an explosion in the fusion core by hand... grenade. We make our way through the ship to Engineering, a huge, multi-level room with exhaust manifolds located among the higher levels. By using certain control panels, we can retract the manifolds, and as they move away from the wall we need to toss a grenade or fire a rocket into the opening. There are four of these. Once we've triggered explosions in all four, Cortana directs us to a service lift at the top of the engine room.

We ride the elevator up as the Autumn shakes with explosions, and Cortana contacts Foehammer, directing her to come pick us up. She'll have to be quick, though: we only have six minutes to make it to the rendezvous point. Give thanks that we're not playing on Legendary, or we'd only have five! The only way we'll make it in time is to jump into a Warthog and drive along the service corridor that runs along the ship's outer hull while explosions rock the Autumn.

Eventually we make it to the rendezvous point and see Foehammer's Pelican on the way, but she's in trouble; she can't shake the Banshees on her tail, and her ship is on fire and listing. She doesn't make it, and we're stranded without an escape vehicle. Cortana calculates another escape vector: a Longsword fighter is still docked in one of the bays. If we can get to it, we can escape before the Autumn tears itself apart!


And now it's ON. The Halo theme kicks into high gear, and it's back into the Warthog for the final escape. The Autumn shudders and shakes as we drive to the docking bay, but it's too cluttered for the Warthog to make it all the way to the Longsword fighter; we have to run the rest of the way on foot. We make it to the Longsword, get it moving, and fly away as the Pillar of Autumn explodes!

When we're safely away from the blast, Cortana has us shut off the Longsword's overheating engines; we'll need them later. Looking out the side window, we see that Halo has been shattered into several large pieces. As we watch, one of the pieces smashes into another one from the far side of the ring. Halo has been destroyed.

Master Chief: Did anyone else make it?
Cortana: Scanning... just dust and echoes. We're all that's left. We did what we had to do. For Earth. An entire Covenant armada obliterated, and the Flood... we had no choice. Halo... it's finished.
Master Chief: I think we're just getting started.

And you know what? The Master Chief is right. We're not even halfway through Chronological Halo yet!

Commentary
This is the last level of Halo: Combat Evolved, and it finishes the habit begun in 'Two Betrayals' of returning to previous levels but with slight variations, but this one doesn't feel as much like a rehash as the last few did. That might be because we were last onboard the Pillar of Autumn nine missions ago, and it's less fresh in our memory.
But the major reason is that while we're fighting in a familiar location, the usual firefights with the Covenant and the Flood and Sentinels go by fairly quickly in order to get us to setpieces that are entirely new: destroying the engines in the Autumn and the Warthog escape.

The Halo series has struggled to give us satisfying boss fights, and with one or two exceptions, generally hasn't been very successful at it. I'd classify the bombing of the engines in this mission as a boss fight, even though Guilty Spark can't directly harm you: you need mobility to get to the upper levels of the engine room without falling to your death, you need to push a button in order to reveal a weak point (which is only available for a short time), and you need precision to throw a grenade or fire a rocket at just the right place. And you need to do all that four times. Sounds like a boss fight to me!

The Warthog escape is just masterful, and I can't say enough about it! One of the reasons it works so well is that Bungie handles the pacing in a really smart way. You jump in the Warthog and the music is a rather sedate piece with drums; it keeps you moving, but it's not as frantic as I'd have expected, given that we're racing a five or six minute countdown. We see the distance marker to the rendezvous point, and as it ticks down we start to relax. 300, 200, 100, and we've made it! Sigh of relief.

And then Foehammer dies. It's surprising how affecting that is, considering that she's only ever been a voice over the radio; it still gets me, even though I've played this mission countless times over the years. Credit the voice work for making us care so much. Not only that, but it's now revealed that the distance countdown was a fakeout, and we have much farther to go!

Godspeed, Foehammer.
NOW the Halo theme kicks in, and you see why they saved it. The adrenaline dumps into your bloodstream, and this last stretch is killer. Whenever you see Covenant now, they're not even trying to fight; they're just running, trying to get off the Pillar of Autumn. It's subtle, but it's a great touch. I also love the bit when Cortana says:

Cortana: Chief, up ahead there's a gap in the trench! At top speed we should be able to clear it!

I don't know if it's possible to clear it, actually, but I do love the musical sting that plays when you fly majestically through the air (like an eagle piloting a blimp, apologies to GladOS), and then don't make it, falling instead way, way down and having to take an apparently longer route.

When Master Chief says 'It's just the beginning' at the end of this mission, he's not kidding. We're twenty missions in and we've escaped the Covenant invasion of Planet Reach and destroyed a Halo ring. What could possibly be next? How about some insight into the mind of the Covenant? Things are about to get a little more complicated, next time on Chronological Halo.

Rating
'The Maw' is thrilling, the perfect ending to Halo: Combat Evolved. This is how you end a Halo game.

Five Spartan helmets out of five.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chronological Halo, 19/52: Keyes

Previously on Chronological Halo: Cortana learned why the Halo ring was built and how it deals with the Flood threat; not by destroying the Flood forms themselves, but by destroying their food: all sentient life within a radius of 25,000 light years from the ring! While she came up with a plan to destroy Halo, the Master Chief worked to lessen its ability to fire deep into space.

Mission Title: Keyes (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 19/52

Summary
Cortana has a plan to destroy the Halo ring. By overloading the fusion core of the Pillar of Autumn, we can cause an explosion large enough to cripple the Halo ring, and end its threat to the galaxy. She knows where the Pillar of Autumn crashed, but it's not enough just to go there and enact the plan; there are too many failsafes on the fusion core, even for her to override. We'll need the codes that only Captain Keyes has in his neural net, but he was captured during the events of the '343 Guilty Spark' mission, and brought to the Truth and Reconciliation. It's time for a rescue!

Cortana tells us that when the Covenant discovered the Flood, they panicked and ordered all their ships to evacuate Halo, but it was too late. The Flood overwhelmed and disabled the Truth and Reconciliation, and now the Covenant are worried that the Flood will repair the ship and use it to escape the ring. They've sent strike teams to the ship to neutralize the Flood and repair the ship to deprive the parasite of its transport. We'll need to deal with both the strike teams and the Flood as we try to find Captain Keyes.



Pools of coolant have spilled out of the Truth and Reconciliation; it's in bad shape
 The good news is that Cortana picks up Keyes's life signs as she teleports us onto the Truth and Reconciliation using Halo's teleportation matrix. The bad news is that the ship is in such bad shape that our progress is blocked by flaming rubble and collapsed passages. We need to drop out of the ship into a pool of leaking coolant, and fight our way through deadly canyons back up to the gravity lift that will take us back into the ship.

As we progress deeper into the ship, we receive communications from Captain Keyes. He sounds very weak, and he's telling us to leave him, and to turn back. As we get closer to his location, Cortana loses his life signs, and the reason becomes clear inside the battlecruiser's control room: Keyes has been turned into some large Flood mass. We do what we have to do: we punch our armored hand into the mass and remove Keyes's neural implants. It's what was necessary; now we have the codes we need to enact Cortana's plan to destroy Halo.


'We salute you, Mr. 'I've Been Absorbed Into the Flood' Guy.' ('Who else is iiiin here?')
 A huge pitched battle begins between a Covenant strike team and the Flood after we seize the implants, and we make our way to the hangar of the ship. We steal a Banshee and fly from the Truth and Reconciliation for the last time.

Commentary
Most of this mission is reheated 'Truth and Reconciliation,' with a stretch underneath the ship that's both new and very difficult. This level is also kind of a bummer - Captain Keyes was a cool character, and it's sad to see him go out like this.

One of the things I like about this mission, though, is how unsettling it makes the Flood. They were pretty creepy when they were introduced in '343 Guilty Spark,' but the levels that followed demystified them as being, basically, just alien zombies. We get hints in this level that they're actually more complex than that. First of all, the Covenant are afraid that the Flood might repair the ship and use it to leave the ring in search of hosts. This doesn't seem like mindless behavior. Secondly, here's a great line that creeps me out every time.

Cortana: Look, in the corners. The Flood are gathering bodies.

Indeed, the Flood have been dragging corpses from around the ship and piling them in the corners. It's never really made clear in any of the games, but there is a reason for this. We'll talk about it in twenty levels or so. Additionally, the Flood have done something different to Captain Keyes; is it because of his importance? Do they know about the information in his neural implants? If they were able to keep Keyes, would they learn the location of Earth? We don't know everything about the Flood yet, but we know enough to see how bad that would be!

Rating
I like the hints in this mission that there's more to the Flood than we've realized to this point, and unlike 'Two Betrayals,' the other Same Place But In Reverse mission, this one has a significant stretch of new material and still manages to be less confusing. The Flood are also revealed to be more dangerous than initially expected. The Flood may be like the Dreamcast: they're thinking!


Three Spartan helmets out of five.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Chronological Halo, 18/52: Two Betrayals

Previously on Chronological Halo: 343 Guilty Spark, the Monitor of Installation 04, escorted the Master Chief through the Library in search of the Activation Index. With the Index in hand, the Master Chief can activate the Halo ring, but an army of Flood stood in his way.

Mission Title: Two Betrayals (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 18/52

Summary
Now that we have the Activation Index in hand, Guilty Spark teleports us from the Library to the Control Room. When we arrive, he tells us something of significance, which also explains why he did not acquire the Index in the previous level by himself.

343 Guilty Spark: Unfortunately, my usefulness to this particular endeavor has come to an end. Protocol does not allow units of my classification to... perform a task as important as the reunification of the Index with the Core. That final step is reserved for you, Reclaimer.

He has called us 'Reclaimer' a few times to this point, which seems to be a title reserved for humans and Forerunner, but not the Covenant, who Guilty Spark calls intruders. Only Reclaimers can activate the Halo ring, but when we insert the Index, the lights flicker and go out. Something didn't work, and that's because Cortana, who is still inside the Core, has learned what activating Halo actually does. We protest, saying that we need to activate Halo in order to destroy the Flood, and Cortana has this to say.

Cortana: You have no idea how this ring works, do you? Why the Forerunners built it? Halo doesn't kill Flood, it kills their food. Humans, Covenant, whatever... we're all equally edible. The only way to stop the Flood is to starve them to death. And that's exactly what Halo is designed to do: wipe the galaxy clean of all sentient life. You don't believe me? Ask him!

Cortana is *not* amused that you almost wiped out all life in the galaxy. Women, am I right, fellas?
Guilty Spark confirms that this is the case, saying that the Halo ring has an effective range of 25,000 light years, but interestingly, more of the galaxy will be covered when 'the others' are activated. Our hunch was correct: this is not the only Halo ring in the galaxy. Cortana now has the Index, and although Guilty Spark could find another Reclaimer, he needs the Index. He is now our enemy, and sends Sentinels against us.

Cortana has a plan: if we can find the crash site of the Pillar of Autumn, we can detonate its fusion core to cause an explosion large enough to destabilize Halo, or destroy it completely. While she searches for the crash site, she wants us to hinder the ring's ability to fire by taking out three phase pulse generators in the nearby canyons. The generators amplify Halo's signal, and by destroying them the ring won't be able to fire deep into space.


We hijack a Banshee and use it to fly through the snowy canyons to the three phase pulse generators. By interrupting the beam inside each generator with our body, we are able to destroy the generator, but it brings down our shields and leaves us vulnerable to attack. Cortana locates the crash site of the Pillar of Autumn, but before we can go there we need to rescue Captain Keyes. Only he can override the failsafes in the Autumn that prevent the fusion core from overloading.

Commentary
Tons of story at the beginning of this mission! The explanation of how the Halo ring actually deals with the Flood is a fantastic old school science fiction gotcha, and gives us a third enemy type to deal with: Sentinel drones. They fly and fire lasers, but there's not much else to say about them.

The main problem with this level is that it's essentially 'Assault on the Control Room' in reverse, but now with Flood and Sentinels. This time we have access to Banshees, but that doesn't keep it from feeling like a retread, especially if you have trouble finding a working Banshee, as I sometimes have. It's very easy to get lost in all the snowy terrain of this area, especially since it all looks familiar from the last time we came through here, and the phase generator rooms are all high up out of reach. You know you need a Banshee, but it can take a long time to find one in working order if you're not careful with the earlier opportunities to snag one.

One thing I never noticed until this playthrough was Guilty Spark's mention of 'the others,' the other Halo rings in the galaxy that work together to combat the Flood. I think people generally felt like the addition of another Halo ring in Halo 2 was a cheap attempt at a sequel, but that's not the case. Bungie had already come up with the concept for multiple, linked Halo rings.

Rating
Redoing 'Assault on the Control Room' in reverse but with different enemies would earn this mission two Spartan helmets, but I'll bump it up to three for the excellent story developments concerning Guilty Spark and the Halo Array.

Three Spartan helmets out of five.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Chronological Halo, 17/52: The Library

Previously on Chronological Halo: Captain Keyes has been captured, but not before his squad discovered something the Covenant unwittingly released on Halo: a parasitic life form, the Flood. As the Master Chief tries to escape the Flood and return to his allies, he encounters an AI that calls itself 343 Guilty Spark.

Mission Title: The Library (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 17/52

Summary
And so we come at last to the Library, the least popular level of Halo: Combat Evolved and of the entire stretch of Chronological Halo to this point. 343 Guilty Spark teleports us into a massive Forerunner structure, telling us that we need to find something inside: the Index. Once we get the Index, we'll be able to activate Installation 04, the Halo ring.

343 Guilty Spark: This installation was specifically built to study and contain the Flood. Their survival as a race was dependent upon it. I am grateful to see that some of them survived to reproduce!

Our new AI buddy floats ahead of us, guiding us through the long corridors and chambers of the structure. Every so often he disappears down a hole high up in a wall to fix something or to check on a system or to open one of the giant circular doors that block our passage, and while he does, we fight off waves of the Flood. There are no marines on this level, since Guilty Spark teleported us to the Library alone, but there are flying combat drones, called Sentinels, that help us deal with the Flood.

There's a new type of Flood form we haven't encountered before: the Carrier Form. This is a bulbous Flood form that can explode on its own or if it gets hit with weapons, throwing the tiny Flood spores everywhere. Combine these guys with all the usual Flood, wielding every sort of weapon, and that's a lot of enemies to run towards you while you wait for a door to open.

Carrier Forms like to get as close to you as they can before popping.
And once we get to the end of the floor and ride the elevator up to the next one, we get to do it again. And then another time. And then another time after that. The best thing about this is the area name that appears on one of these trips: 'But I Don't Want To Ride the Elevator!'

We finally reach the final elevator and take possession of the Index, but just as soon as we do Guilty Spark teleports it into a subspace pocket, explaining that our organic form is susceptible to infection and protocol dictates that he transport the Index. He then says he'll teleport all of us to the Control Room where we can use the Index to activate the Installation.

Commentary
I don't hate the Library the way everybody else seems to, but it's still clear that this level is simply too long and too samey, and you really miss the variation provided by fighting Covenant alongside marines. The 'fight off a horde of zombies while Guilty Spark opens a door' thing is pulled a couple times too often, though I do really like his running commentary. It's like escorting a tiny floating C3PO that can't seem to decide whether it wants to destroy the parasitic alien or congratulate it for being so effective; or maybe it wants to do both. The voice acting and writing for Guilty Spark is top notch, especially if you misbehave.

343 Guilty Spark: Please, stop being human.

He also seems to enjoy pointing out how ill-prepared we are to deal with the Flood.

343 Guilty Spark: Puzzling. You brought such ineffective weapons to combat the Flood, despite the containment protocols... [The Flood are] insidious and elegant. As long as any hosts remain, the Flood is virulent.

But the level just goes on and on, suffering from the same copy/paste feeling the Forerunner structures in 'Assault on the Control Room' had, but this time without the helpful arrows on the floor to tell us which way to go.

The Library: very purple, and very full of Flood
Rating
I don't hate the Library as much as most of the Internets do, but it's clear that this is the least of all the levels in Halo: Combat Evolved. It serves an important purpose, story-wise, but since most of it is sitting in front of locked doors dealing with waves of Flood, the gameplay is less than inspiring. One Spartan helmet for the gameplay, and another one for Guilty Spark.

Two Spartan helmets out of five.

Friday, May 6, 2011

How We Saved Elfhelm's Bane

Chronological Halo will return next week. It might seem like the delay is because the next level is 'The Library,' unloved and unappreciated by many, but in reality there's a much better reason to talk about something else today: Elfhelm's Bane has been saved!

That might not mean much to you. Even if you had an Apple II back in the day, there were a lot of high-profile games available from Infocom, Electronic Arts, Sierra, and SSI to spend your time and money on. But sometimes you'd stumble across a game that did things differently or better, and Elfhelm's Bane was one of those. It was a text adventure, but it had roleplaying elements: monsters and stats and weapons and armor and spells and character classes. Much of the action took place in the city of Elfhelm, where priests have begun to worship the evil Wormlord. It's up to you to destroy the Wormlord, but to do that you'll have to explore the city and fight monsters to earn money and improve your character.

In fact, the title screen doesn't say 'Elfhelm's Bane.' Instead, it says 'The Realm of Angbar, written by Elfstone.' At certain locations throughout Elfhelm you'd enter a room with an exit to another location, and if you tried to go there, you'd be prompted to enter the adventure disk for that other location: Fangwood, or the Crystal Realm, or Mountain-lord of Eriath. Other games that would plug into Elfhelm's Bane to create the complete Realm of Angbar!

I found out later those games were never made, which was pretty disappointing. But I love the idea of it.

Since 2000 or so, I'd try searching for Elfhelm's Bane on the wide Internets every few years, but to no avail: it seemed like every Apple II game ever made had been converted into .dsk images except for Elfhelm's Bane. Did no one remember this game?

I found out yesterday that somebody did! A blog started in January of 2010 professed to be an Elfhelm's Bane Shrine! Find it at http://elfhelmsbane.blogspot.com/And listen to this, by the author of the blog:

Overmind the Great:
I actually had e-mail correspondence with [Mark Peterson, the author of Elfhelm's Bane]... (I think- it could have also been a fan who had direct contact with him; the e-mails were on my work e-mail, which I no longer have) a few years ago, and he managed to find the original discs and sent them to me in the mail. I believe he was shocked anyone remembered Elfhelm's Bane.'

You see where he mentions a fan having contact with Mark Peterson? That was me! Back in 2004 or so, I found his email address and asked him what ever happened to Elfhelm's Bane. He wrote back saying that every so often he'd get a message about it, but sadly most of his computer stuff had gotten packed away and thrown out over the years. He didn't have a copy of the game anymore, and since it had never ended up in a .dsk image, Elfhelm's Bane was going to be lost to obscurity.

So I made a copy of my disks, packaged them up, and sent them through the postal service to Mark. He wrote back when he received them, and said that he was going to contact one of the guys who had written to him about the game, who would probably be pretty excited to get a copy of it. That must have been Overmind the Great, whose Elfhelm's Bane Shrine now has the .dsk images for Elfhelm's Bane!

Seven years ago, I had hoped that by sending my disks to Mark Peterson I might help preserve Elfhelm's Bane from vanishing forever, but I didn't really think it was going to happen. But with a little luck, Mark's friendly assistance, and the go-getter attitude of Overmind the Great, I think we managed to save it. We saved Elfhelm!

Now we need somebody to make those other modules. Whaddaya say, Mark? :D

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chronological Halo, 16/52: 343 Guilty Spark

Previously on Chronological Halo: Foehammer dropped us off as close to Halo's control room as she could get us, and we proceeded to fight our way to it. Once there, Cortana accessed its data center and learned that the Covenant discovered something horrible buried inside the ring. Panicked, she sends us to stop Captain Keyes; the weapons cache he's looking for isn't what he thinks it is!

Mission Title: 343 Guilty Spark (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 16/52

Summary
In her extreme panic at the end of the last mission, Cortana didn't tell us what to expect from the weapons cache Keyes went to find, just that it wasn't what he thought it was and we needed to stop him before he got there. You have to think the Master Chief might be better equipped to deal with whatever it is if she told us more information, but I suppose we'll know it when we see it. (We will).

We're dropped off at the site, a swampy marsh, and find a crashed UNSC Pelican transmitting a distress message that repeats over and over. The message is hard to make out through all the static, but it sounds like Captain Keyes has been captured by enemy forces and the remaining marines have taken shelter in a large structure in the swamp.

Inside the structure, we search for the lost marines but only find one, and he's clearly been driven out of his mind. He holds his pistol on us and shoots at us if we get to close, screaming things like 'Stay back, you're not turning me into one of those things!' and 'Find your own hiding place, the monsters are everywhere!'

Deeper inside the structure, we find a helmet belonging to a Private Wallace Jenkins, and activate its helmet cam. Its last recording is from Jenkins's point of view, and we watch as his squad lands in the swamp and begins to explore the Forerunner structure, finding a dead Elite with its insides 'scrambled,' teaming up with Captain Keyes, and eventually encountering a door the Covenant have gone to great pains to seal. The squad opens the door and, on the other side, encounters a mass of tiny new life forms, little bulbs that bounce through the air and explode into spores when shot. These are Flood Infection Forms. The recording ends as Jenkins is overwhelmed by the aliens, but the fate of the rest of his squad, and Captain Keyes, remains a mystery.

Our objective now is to escape the structure, dealing with both Flood Infection Forms and the infected versions of both humans and Covenant: Flood Combat Forms. After making it back to the surface, we're contacted by Foehammer; she says she lost our signal when we entered the structure, but if we make our way to a tower nearby in the swamp she can pick us up.


Instead, when we get to the tower a floating blue orb and a group of flying drones descend and begin destroying our enemies. And then the orb speaks.

343 Guilty Spark: Greetings. I am the Monitor of Installation 04. I am 343 Guilty Spark. Someone has released the Flood. My function is to prevent it from leaving this installation. But I require your assistance. Come this way.

A flash of golden light, and both of us disappear, leaving Foehammer shouting into the ether that she's lost our signal.

Commentary
This is a controversial level, since it's the first time we encounter the Flood. Up to this point we've been fighting Covenant. They run for cover, they throw grenades, they try to flank us, if you kill the Elite leading a group of Grunts the Grunts will try to run away, things like that. Hunters fire their plasma cannons at us from a distance, and if we get close they try and slam us, keeping the weak point on their back pointed away from us. Jackals hide behind their energy shields, only lowering them to fire at us. Grunts and Elites can drive vehicles, firing weapons and trying to run us over.

The Flood run toward us, firing weapons. There are a lot of them, but really that's what they do. We've essentially replaced one enemy that's very fun to fight with a new zombie enemy that's less interesting. This level showcases the Shotgun, as it's the most effective weapon for dealing with the Flood.

We do learn that the Monitor calls this place Installation 04, but at this point in Chronological Halo it's not clear if he's talking about the Halo ring or the Forerunner structure in the swamp. I'll clear it up now, though: Installation 04 is the Halo ring. The implication is that there are at least three others out there, and maybe more.

Rating
The Flood aren't as annoying in this level as they'll get, and the story developments here are intriguing. We spend most of the time in Forerunner structures again, and while there aren't any Hex Rooms, the rooms here are still very samey. This is a level that's made by its cutscenes; the story of Private Jenkins is done very well, and serve as a creepy introduction to the Flood.

Three Spartan helmets out of five.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Chronological Halo, 15/52: Assault on the Control Room

Previously on Chronological Halo: Master Chief and a team of marines stormed the beach of a small island thought to contain the Silent Cartographer, a map room that contained the location of Halo's control room. They dealt with Covenant forces on the island, secured the map room, and discovered a Pelican-accessible tunnel to use to reach the control room.

Mission Title: Assault on the Control Room (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 15/52

Summary
This mission is a very long one, with some great wide-open battlefields, but it also demonstrates one of Halo: Combat Evolved 's main level design problems. I'll point it out when it rears its ugly mug, but for a heads-up just keep your eyes peeled for the phrase 'Hex Room.'

Foehammer drops us off inside a Forerunner structure that is as close to the control room as she can get. We fight through the structure and emerge onto a bridge out in the open, surrounded by falling snow. Cortana muses about the weather; is the weather control system malfunctioning, or did the Forerunners want the ring to have inclement weather? There are panels in the floor of the bridge made of glass, and in a nice touch, if we step on them they shatter. The Master Chief's power armor is heavy!

As we cross the bridge, a Pelican flies overhead carrying Fire Team Zulu. They land beneath the bridge, and Cortana tells them to stay put. We'll try and make our way down to them. At the end of the bridge is a Sword-wielding Elite that always manages to get me killed. Again and again. This playthrough is no different. There are some more Swordies later on that maintain the time-honored tradition of forcing me to reload my checkpoints.

Beyond the bridge is a hexagonal room. It probably doesn't have exactly six sides, but 'Hex Room' is an easier way to refer to rooms like this than Dodecahedral Room or Septagonal Room or whatnot. The center of the room may or may not be accessible from the entrance. Instead, there are corridors that trace the walls of the Hex Room, such that when you first arrive you can go either left or right. You follow the side wall until you reach a hallway in the outer wall; that leads you out of the Hex Room and further into the level. You can tell if you're going the right way by following the lit-up arrows on the floor, and you can tell if you're going to the exit by looking for the brightly illuminated hallway. A Hex Room can have walls blocking either the left or right corridor, and also the center of the room can be impassable or not. The exit passage can also change location, but it's always in the outer wall.

Note the white arrow on the floor, showing the way to go. Also, the illumination tells us it's the exit
So what is it about Hex Rooms that merits such a long discussion? Let's find out by keeping score. We've seen (ONE) already. Afterwards there's an elevator down to another Hex Room (TWO). On the other side is a massive outdoor arena where a Wraith and multiple Shade turrets fire on a flipped-over Warthog and a number of marines. Ghosts jet around this snowy landscape, and after commandeering one I remember one limitation of Halo: Combat Evolved that I'll be pleased to evolve past in the subsequent games: we can't boost the Ghosts. That makes them a little less useful, especially for trying to run down Covenant forces, which is a favorite hobby of the Master Chief's.

We don't mourn long, though, because there's a functional Scorpion tank not far ahead. We drive the tank through a tunnel to another open space, down a Forerunner tunnel (using a couple control panels to open large doors to let the tank through), across an underground bridge spanning a vast chasm, up a sloping tunnel, through another open space past a tower in the cliff wall, to a snowy spiralling path... and then the end of the road. There are bars we can't take the tank through, so we have to hoof it the rest of the way.


There's another open space that we need to cross to get to a door in the cliff face. On the other side is a Hex Room (THREE). An elevator goes up at the end, to another Hex Room (FOUR). There's an outdoor bridge past it, like the one at the start of the mission. We can see a second bridge running parallel to ours. At the end of our bridge is an Invisible Elite, so watch out for him. After dealing with him, we come into another Hex Room (FIVE), followed by another Hex Room (SIX).

We come out onto the parallel bridge, just as Hunters appear on the first bridge and fire at us. At the end of the bridge is another Hex Room (SEVEN), followed by a long passage with Invisible Sword-wielding Elites. These guys cause me no end of trouble, since I've been at one health for most of the level. I eventually get by them successfully, and it's... another Hex Room (EIGHT), though this one has Hunters in it. The exit from this one leads to a parking space with a couple Banshees in it.

If you're quick, you can jump into one of the Banshees before the Elites fly them away, and this time I manage it. If you aren't able to, you need to pass through more Forerunner structures (and I'd wager a couple more Hex Rooms, at least) to get to the ground level, at which point you can climb up the large Forerunner temple. Since we have a Banshee, we just fly up there. A couple garage doors later and we're inside Halo's control room.

Cortana accesses the database and marvels at the incredible amount of knowledge, but we just want to learn if Halo really is a weapon and how we can use it against the Covenant. Cortana starts to get puzzled, learning that the Forerunners built Halo as a 'fortress world,' and that the Covenant found something horrible buried inside the ring.

And then she freaks out. She tells us that we have to stop Captain Keyes... the weapons cache isn't a weapons cache at all! But she only speaks in vague hints and riddles and doesn't come right out and tell us anything, which is frustrating.

Commentary
This is a very, very long level, which makes Halo feel impressively big. We have to cover a lot of ground to get to the control room, but unfortunately this is where Halo begins to feel like Bungie may have gone a little overboard with the copy/paste function. Passing through eight (eight!) Hex Rooms which mostly look the same and differ only slightly in layout, sometimes one right after another, does not make for a feeling of excitement.

In a way it's puzzling, because other aspects of this mission are done so well: there are some pitched firefights in enormous locations here, and with a wide variety of vehicles (A Scorpion tank! Warthogs! Ghosts! A Banshee, if you're quick enough!). But by the end you're just sick of seeing the same Hex Room over and over again. And UNSC help you if you get turned around and lose track of which way you're supposed to be walking! You could walk through two Hex Rooms before you realize you've been going the wrong way.

That's why it's so important to realize that the floor arrows are pointing the way you need to go.

Rating
If this mission was just Hex Rooms one after the other, long and samey, it would only get one or two Spartan helmets. But it does have some of the best big battles in this stretch of Chronological Halo, as well as intriguing story developments at the end, so I think it deserves three. Barely.

Three Spartan helmets out of five.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chronological Halo, 14/52: The Silent Cartographer

Previously on Chronological Halo: A daring rescue mission into the Truth and Reconciliation, the Covenant battlecruiser that landed on the ring world, reunited us with Captain Keyes. During his captivity, he learned that the Covenant call the ring world 'Halo,' and they believe it to be some sort of weapon with unimaginable power.

Mission Title: The Silent Cartographer (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 14/52

Summary
The Covenant are looking for Halo's control room, and if the ring truly is a weapon, we need to be sure to find the control room before they do. Something called the Silent Cartographer, a map room located somewhere on a nearby island, holds the coordinates of the control room. Two Pelicans drop us and a group of marines off on the island, and we storm the beach.


Once we control the landing zone, Foehammer drops off a Warthog and we pile into it with a couple marines and begin our driving tour of the island. It's not that big and we can drive completely around it, noting a few significant locations:

1) A large building that Cortana's analysis reveals should contain the map room. However, once we get inside the facility, the Covenant manage to lock the door leading deeper inside.

2) A sloping path that leads into the island's interior.

3) A security substation, where we should be able to unlock the sealed door in the main facility. However, since it's built high up in the cliffs it's not accessible from the level of the beach. We need to follow the sloping path to reach the entrance.

We can save a small amount of time by going to the security substation before entering the main facility. If we do, the dialogue is slightly different, and we're disabling the Covenant's ability to lock the doors, rather than unlocking the door they locked. It's a small difference, but it's neat that Bungie accounted for it.

Once we get past the locked or lockable door in the main facility, it's down down down to the Silent Cartographer. Each of the levels we've seen so far in Chronological Halo are divided into smaller named sections, and occasionally they can be pretty funny. As we encounter a giant shaft leading deep into the ring, we start one such area.

Shafted!
As we make our way down to the map room, we hear voice communications from the surface: things are getting hectic up there as Covenant reinforcesa arrive. We activate the Silent Cartographer and Cortana uses it to determine the location of Halo's control room.

Cortana: Analyzing... Halo's control center is located there. That structure appears to be some sort of temple or shrine, if I've interpreted this correctly. Interesting. A shrine is an unlikely place to put such a significant installation.

The Halo theme kicks in and we fight our way back up up up to the surface, where we rejoin Foehammer and prepare to travel to the control room. Cortana activates a giant plate in the surface of the ring, which opens to reveal a tunnel. As Foehammer carefully negotiates the entrance and her Pelican descends into the darkness, we get one of the great Halo exchanges:

Foehammer: I hope your analysis is on-the-money, Cortana. This Pelican won't turn on a dime.
Cortana: Look on the bright side, Foehammer. The last thing the Covenant will expect is an aerial insertion... from underground.

The lady has a point!

Commentary
I didn't play Halo: Combat Evolved when it was released into the wild as a launch game for the original Xbox. I had been a Mac fan during my college years, and Bungie was the company making the Mac exclusives that really mattered: the Marathon series was a favorite, and its netplay saw a great deal of use on the college network, but Myth: The Fallen Lords was another standout, held back by the fact that only Krikor down the hall had a computer powerful enough to run it with the knobs turned all the way up; that just added to its mystique.

Bungie's acquisition by Microsoft and the subsequent change of the already-announced Halo from a Mac exclusive to an Xbox console game was a shattering event. I couldn't believe this was a real thing, and I couldn't believe that Apple was just going to let their preeminent games studio (as far as I was concerned) just slip away like that. And to make console games! And not just console games, but THIS console game, Halo, that was going to be the latest salvo in the war between Macs and PCs for the hearts and minds of gamers.

Well, Halo was being repositioned to fight a different war: the Console War. I was done with Bungie, for the moment. I had no plans to get an Xbox, and none of the launch titles (excepting Halo) had any appeal for me at the time. I read the glowing reviews of Halo: Combat Evolved, heard how it was a Must-Own game, heard that it was so good it was reason enough to buy an Xbox. It would be a long, long time before I would finally get to play Halo, and when I eventually did it would be the PC port.


A PC demo was released, containing a single level: 'The Silent Cartographer.' I bought the full game the next day. The level is just that good, a complete demonstration of the Halo experience: an exciting beach assault alongside marines, fantastic AI for both enemies and friendlies, vehicle driving sections in wide-open environments and corridor-shooting in underground facilities, with most of the weapons and all of the enemies (you care about) in a Halo game.

And when the rock-and-roll Halo theme kicks in as you prepare to escape from the underground? You know it's time to kick some ass!

Rating
I'm thinking about running another series on this blog of mine sometime in the future covering the Great Levels in videogames, past and present. 'The Silent Cartographer' belongs on that list. If you can only play a single level of the Halo series and want to know what it's all about, this is the level to play.

Five Spartan helmets out of five.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Chronological Halo, 13/52: The Truth and Reconciliation

Previously on Chronological Halo: After landing on the ring-world, we sought out other crash-sites and rescued marine survivors. By listening in on the Covenant battlenet, Cortana learned that Captain Keyes had been captured and brought to one of the battlecruisers she had disabled during the fighting: the Truth and Reconciliation.

Mission Title: The Truth and Reconciliation (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 13/52

Summary
Foehammer drops us off with a group of marines near the plateau where the Truth and Reconciliation is docked. Under cover of night, we'll move up the cliffs until we reach the gravity well the Covenant is using to transport forces between the battlecruiser and the ring-world.

We're given a Sniper Rifle with more than the usual amount of ammunition and told to pick off as many Covenant troops as we can, especially the Shade turrets that are stationed on the way, and the marines will move up to engage when we're spotted. It's unclear exactly how long we can maintain stealth on this mission, but in my experience it's never very long. This time around I don't get a single shot off before being noticed, but that's okay: the Master Chief has the firepower to make subtlety unnecessary.

Captain Keyes is being held on the Truth and Reconciliation battlecruiser.
Once we reach the gravity well, we fight off Covenant defenses, including a pair of Hunters that take the well down from the battlecruiser. Afterwards, Foehammer drops off some more marine reinforcements to accompany us up to the battlecruiser. But when we get there, the room that connects with the gravity well is empty.

First Marine: What? There's no Covenant here? Maybe nobody's home.
Second Marine: Contacts! Lots of contacts!
Third Marine: No Covenant... you had to open your mouth!

After dealing with a stealthed sword-wielding Elite and his allies, we make our way through the corridors of the ship, following the signal from Captain Keyes's transponder. Eventually we come across the brig and free Keyes and some marines from their imprisonment. He reprimands us for taking on such a reckless adventure, but he's still glad to see us. He's learned some intriguing information:

Captain Keyes: While the Covenant had us locked up in here, I overheard the guards talking about this ring world. They call it... Halo.
Cortana: According to the data in their networks, the ring has some kind of deep religious significance. If I'm analyzing this correctly, they believe that Halo is some kind of weapon. One with vast, unimaginable power.

Now that we've rescued Captain Keyes, we need to get him off the Truth and Reconciliation. He grabs a Needler and we retrace our footsteps. Another sword-wielding Elite stands in our path (possibly the Shipmaster of the Battlecruiser, though he's not identified as such in-game), but if we keep him away from Keyes he shouldn't be too problematic.


Foehammer calls in and tells us that there's too much air traffic; she can't get close enough to lift us off the battlecruiser. Captain Keyes has an alternate solution: if we can get him to the hangar we passed on the way up, we can commandeer one of the dropships and Keyes will fly us out of here. The plan works as envisioned, and even the sudden appearance of Hunters as we're about to fly away can't stop us; Keyes smushes them against the walls with the front of the dropship, and he triumphantly flies us away from the Truth and Reconciliation.

Commentary
This level isn't quite as interesting when it's played in Chronological Halo, simply because we've already seen a night-time sniping level (3/52, 'Nightfall'), we've already seen Hunters (as early as 2/52: 'ONI: Sword Base'), and we've already seen the inside of a Covenant ship (5/52: 'Long Night of Solace'). Originally all of those firsts belonged to this mission; now they don't feel as original.

I've always loved the ship-names in the Halo series, and this level introduces us to a great one, the 'Truth and Reconciliation.' It's always made the Covenant an interesting and more alien foe, as their ship names seem to have an almost religious significance; that becomes even more clear during this mission, when Captain Keyes learns that they call the ring world 'Halo' and that it apparently bears some religious meaning for the Covenant.

Rating
This mission is one that suffers a little from its new location in Chronological Halo, simply because we've seen most of what made it unique already. The sniping section during the first half of the mission is still entertaining, but the corridors of the battlecruiser during the second half are samey and confusing. Once Captain Keyes is rescued, though, all the pieces are in place for the next mission, one of the very best in Halo: Combat Evolved and my personal favorite. But that's for next time.

Three Spartan helmets out of five.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Chronological Halo, 12/52: Halo

Previously on Chronological Halo: Covenant forces attacked and boarded the Pillar of Autumn after it dropped out of slipspace. Master Chief was woken from cryosleep and charged with keeping Cortana out of Covenant hands: from her they could learn the location of Earth. Master Chief's escape pod headed toward a mysterious ring-like object even as Keyes attempted to manually land the disabled Autumn on its surface.

Mission Title: Halo (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 12/52

Summary
At the end of the previous mission, we gave a scared Marine a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he exclaimed that he didn't want to die. Things don't look good as this mission begins, though: our escape pod loses its air brakes too quickly as we near the surface of the ring, and sure enough, we're the only survivor of the ensuing crash.

We don't have time to mourn for the lost marines or the female pilot with the sexy accent. Cortana, speaking from her new residence inside our head, tells us that multiple Covenant drop-ships are approaching our location. If we're lucky, they'll think everyone on board the lifeboat died in the crash.

The surface of the ring at this location is green and lush. If it weren't for the vista of the other side of the ring rising into the sky on the horizon, this would feel like a proper planet. Cortana detects a lifeboat emergency beacon over the next hill, and we tangle with Grunts on the ground and evade Banshees flying overhead as we move to investigate.


There's a small group of marines near the crashed escape pod, among them Sergeant Johnson. He tells us that there are survivors scattered all over the valley, and Covenant pickets are seeking to wipe them out. After a small skirmish, we're contacted by a UNSC Pelican, designation Echo 419, whose pilot is code-named Foehammer. Cortana requests that she disengage her Warthog, and then it's off to the races. With a marine in the side seat and one manning the gun, we drive down a slope and into a clearly artificial tunnel.

Cortana: This cave is not a natural formation. Someone built it, so it must lead somewhere.

Cortana, AI Master of the Obvious
It's apparently Forerunner in origin, since it shares geometric similarities with the artifact Dr. Halsey was studying. It becomes even more apparent that this is alien technology when we find and activate a mysterious light-bridge that lets us cross a gaping chasm.

As we drive towards the cavern's exit, Cortana picks up a lot of chatter on the Covenant battlenet. Many more marines made it off the Autumn than she initially thought, and she decides that if we can rendezvous with them and find Captain Keyes, we could mount an effective resistance.

Once more on the surface, Cortana detects three lifeboat beacons. We can go to investigate them in any order, and at each location we rescue a group of marines from Covenant forces. Once all three groups are safe (or killed in the firefights), we meet up with Foehammer's Pelican and prepare to fly to our next location: a desert plateau 300 kilometers up-spin, where a Covenant cruiser has touched down. Cortana detects that Captain Keyes and the entire surviving command crew have been brought to that cruiser, the 'Truth and Reconciliation.'

Commentary
Like 'ONI - Sword Base' before it, this mission has a set of non-linear objectives: you can rescue the three groups of marines in any order you like, and the dialogue changes depending on the sequence in which you find them. A classic strategy for this level: pick up a Sniper Rifle, trade it to a marine, and have that marine follow hop in the side seat of your Warthog. He'll become a highly-accurate death-dealing machine. Probably not that necessary on Normal, which I'm playing on, but on higher difficulties that guy could save your life.

The ring-like object is covered in mysterious Forerunner buildings and artifacts
There are a lot of marines on this level, which means that we get a good look at a phenomenon we experienced occasionally with Noble Team, but is much more prevalent with the Master Chief: he's a figure UNSC troops hold in awe.

Marine: Thank god you're here, Master Chief! I thought we were in real trouble!
Marine: You're a sight for sore eyes, Chief! We're in a bad way.

This adds to the Master Chief's mystique, as it tells us that his adventures are known to the rest of the troops. He's new to us, but clearly he's seen combat and has already pulled off some some exploits. The Master Chief showing up is enough to fill the marines with relief.

Rating
The non-linear mission structure, the many marines you can fight alongside, and the Warthog driving all add up to make this an enjoyable mission. It's a little light on story, but the information we do learn about the whereabouts of Captain Keyes set up the next mission nicely.

Four Spartan helmets out of five.