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

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.'

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.

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.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chronological Halo, 11/52: The Pillar of Autumn

Previously on Chronological Halo: The Pillar of Autumn managed to escape the devastation of Planet Reach thanks to the heroic sacrifice of Noble Six, and upon leaving slipspace encountered a mysterious ring-like object.

Mission Title: The Pillar of Autumn (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 11/52

The UNSC halcyon-class cruiser Pillar of Autumn drifts toward a strange ring-like object orbiting the planet Threshold. Captain Keyes stands on the bridge, talking to Cortana about the situation.

Captain Keyes: Cortana, all I need to know is did we lose them?
Cortana: I think we both know the answer to that.

The answer is 'no,' as a dozen Covenant ships arrive, having tracked the Pillar of Autumn all the way from Reach. Keyes wants to know how it's possible, since the ship took a 'blind jump,' and Cortana essentially responds by saying Covenant ships are faster, the Autumn wasn't exactly subtle, Cortana couldn't change course very much at lightspeed, not her fault, etc. etc.

Captain Keyes on the Bridge of the Pillar of Autumn.
Keyes says that he wants everyone at fighting stations, *everyone*, and a call is made down to Cryogenics: They're to wake up the Master Chief.

And that's where we come in! For the first time in Chronological Halo, we're playing a new character, Master Chief John-117. He's a Spartan-II, like Jorge of Noble Team, and he's been in cryosleep on the Autumn presumably since Reach.

After we're woken up and shake off some of the rust with minor training exercises, the Covenant break onto the Cryo Control Room and we rush, weaponless, to the Bridge. Once there, Keyes initiates the Cole Protocol, which states that anything that might lead the Covenant to Earth must be destroyed; in this case, that means Cortana can't fall into enemy hands. Keyes takes Cortana out of the ship computers and hands her data chip to us. We need to get her off the ship and keep her safe from the Covenant. Meanwhile, once the escape pods are away, Keyes is going to try and land the Autumn directly onto the giant ring.

We fight our way through the ship alongside UNSC marines, fighting off Covenant boarders. The Covenant ships are attempting to destroy escape pods as they leave the Autumn.

Cortana: The Covenant are destroying the lifepods. They really don't want us on that ring.

We finally manage to make it to a Bumblebee escape pod and shoot away from the Pillar of Autumn as Keyes prepares to take the ship down to the ring.

The title of the mission up there might look familiar, but it's not a mistake. If you play the Halo games in the order of release, that means that the first level is called 'The Pillar of Autumn' and the second-to-last level (because of 'Lone Wolf') is also called 'The Pillar of Autumn.' They're like bookends, but for Chronological Halo you lose that effect.

There are also a few things that feel like inconsistencies, though there's probably some explanation in the books and other Expanded Universe materials to make everything line up. Here are a few of the issues you see by playing both 'Pillar of Autumn' levels in such close succession:

1) Cortana is treated like the ship-board AI of the Pillar of Autumn, an integral part of the ship, and doesn't feel like the recent arrival she really is. Didn't Noble Six just drop her off? It's been twenty days since the Autumn left Reach, but Cortana is already fully-integrated with the ship?

2) Keyes says the Autumn made a blind jump, but given Dr. Halsey's narration at the end of 'Lone Wolf,' the implication has to be that Cortana's random coordinates weren't actually random at all, but were instead culled from the Forerunner artifact Dr. Halsey was studying. That way the discovery of Halo is directly tied in with the data Cortana acquired before the escape from Reach.

Obviously these are minor things, the result of making the games out of sequence and expanding the storylines after the fact, but they do make you raise an eyebrow slightly when playing Chronological Halo.

But the best thing about the transition is that we already hate the Covenant. We've seen what they did to Noble Team and to Reach, so they're not just faceless invaders when they attack the Pillar of Autumn. We've seen what they're capable of, so the stakes are already much higher. This isn't the first level of Halo anymore; it's the eleventh, and feels like it from a story perspective. The tutorial sections don't feel as out-of-place as I was expecting, since we're playing a new character. It makes sense for Master Chief to need to shake off some of the rust.

It's good to get inside the Pillar of Autumn after seeing everything Noble Six went through to help it escape Reach, but it's a pretty standard 'escape the ship' level. In fact it's easy to get turned around and run the wrong way, causing it to be more frustrating than it was supposed to be.

Three Spartan helmets out of five. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Chronological Halo, 10/52: Lone Wolf

Previously on Chronological Halo: Noble Team's final mission is accomplished, and Dr. Halsey's AI, Cortana, has been delivered to the Pillar of Autumn with the information from the Forerunner artifact intact. To ensure the Pillar of Autumn could escape Reach, however, Noble Six stayed behind to man the mass driver cannon, and he is now left behind on the planet.

Mission Title: Lone Wolf (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 10/52

The credits for Halo: Reach have rolled, and the Pillar of Autumn has escaped Reach with the fruits of Dr. Halsey's research. What could be left?

We are. Noble Six is left, alone, staring up at the sky as Covenant vehicles fly overhead. At some point we start walking, and as the final mission of Halo: Reach begins, we have arrived at a building we passed in the previous mission. If there's a final stand to be made, it'll be made here.

Let's just get down the hill for starters.
Our only objective is this: 'Survive.' This isn't a mission we can win, as Covenant forces approach our location slowly at first, but gradually they appear in greater numbers, eventually bringing unhijackable Wraith tanks to bear.

As we sustain damage, our HUD gradually disappears, and great cracks appear in our visor, obscuring our vision. Once we've endured a massive amount of damage, it's simply too much to bear, and we lose our helmet. In a cutscene from our helmet's point of view, we witness the final moments of Noble Six, assaulted by numerous Elites and staving many of them off, but finally succumbing to his enemies.

And then there's just our helmet, lying amid the wasteland, as we saw at the beginning of the game.

This is an unbelievable mission. We're not accustomed to unwinnable situations in videogames. Usually you fight to a certain point, and then you either achieve victory or are saved by the cavalry, usually in a cutscene. Here you are trying to last until a cutscene, but the cutscene isn't triggered by winning; it's triggered by losing. And we're not going to be saved by the cavalry, because there isn't any cavalry to arrive. Maybe Jun, the only other member of Noble Team whose fate is uncounted-for (and remains so, in the games; I hear it's explained in the Halo Expanded Universe that he died ensuring the safety of Dr. Halsey), but it's unlikely. And even if he did make it to our location in this mission, we'd just die together instead of alone. There are no ships remaining on this continent of Reach that can make it to orbit.

The name of this mission, 'Lone Wolf,' is itself a fantastic callback to the very beginning of Halo: Reach, as well.

Carter: I'm glad to have your skill set, but we're a team. That Lone Wolf stuff stays behind.

Here at the end, his team dead or gone, Noble Six is the lone wolf again.

After it's unavoidably all over, there's another cutscene: Noble Six's helmet lying where it fell, but now it's years later and the planet is clearly recovering. Grass is growing again, and there's a recently-landed human ship in the background. Halsey's voice provides narration, talking about Noble Six's sacrifice and what it meant in the grand scheme of things, in the long run.

As the concluding cutscene of a single game, this cutscene is necessary: you want to end on a positive note, get the audience out of the theater buzzing about the experience, instead of in a glum stupor. It's intended to make you feel better about the fact that the character you've been playing for the entire game was just killed by his enemies, after going through so much.

But for Chronological Halo, it's unnecessary. We're only 1/5 of the way through *this* game. This is the opening act, much like the pre-title scenes that always started The X-Files or C.S.I. -- you meet a character, and then that character dies in a horrible way and the rest of the episode is about solving the mystery of what happened to them. We don't need Dr. Halsey to tell us that things eventually get better for humanity because of Noble Six's sacrifice; we're going to see it in the next forty levels or so.

Next time we'll properly meet two of the most significant characters in Chronological Halo, and see the first real effect of playing these games in this sequence: when the Covenant do catch up to the Pillar of Autumn, they won't be 'just' alien invaders. We've seen what they did to Noble Team and to Planet Reach. The stakes are high. We'll already hate them.

On some level we all expected that Halo: Reach would end this way, but it takes a lot of guts to actually go and do it. It's executed brilliantly. The lack of music, the grim atmosphere of now-desolate Reach, the pace at which the Covenant appear and slowly start to overwhelm the player, the loss of the HUD and the damage to the visor -- it all adds up to an amazing experience.

Five Spartan helmets out of five.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chronological Halo, 9/52: The Pillar of Autumn

Previously on Chronological Halo: Noble Team's mission to Sword Base was a ruse to get them to Dr. Halsey, who was much less dead than they previously believed. She entrusts Noble Six with the AI she has been using to study the Forerunner artifact buried beneath Sword Base, believing that the knowledge it contains could be what humanity needs to defeat the Covenant.

Mission Title: The Pillar of Autumn (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 9/52

If the knowledge locked within Dr. Halsey's AI can save humanity, we need to get it off Reach. That means we need to get it to the Pillar of Autumn, the only off-planet transport on this continent, but the Pelican we're taking there has suffered heavy damage. Carter has taken even worse damage, and as we go to the cockpit to check on him he says the skies are too jammed with Covenant for us to last much longer.

Carter: It's a ground game now.

So we jump off the Pelican with Emile, and Carter draws off the pursuing Banshees. We manage to find transport in the form of a pair of Mongooses, but as we set off down the road orbital insertion pods fall from the sky, delivering more troops.

We can't destroy this thing!
These are followed first by one Scarab, and then a second. Weaving between the enormous walking tanks, we come to another obstacle: the bridge ahead is out!

What good is a bridge if it has no gap in it?
On the other side of the broken bridge, we have to abandon our vehicles. Making our way past a Wraith and Covenant infantry, our road leads into a narrow canyon. Inside the canyon, the way is blocked by a third Scarab. Emile is right: we don't have the firepower to get past it, and neither does Carter's Pelican. But as Carter brings the Pelican around, he tells us that he does have what it takes to destroy the Scarab: he has the mass necessary.

Carter: You're on your own, Noble. Carter out.

Carter flies the Pelican into the Scarab and it's enveloped in a massive fireball and falls off the cliff-side. Afterwards, we emerge from the canyons to a see a massive battle happening between Covenant and UNSC forces amidst the wreckage of the ship-breaking facilities. As we work our way through the battlefield, we're contacted by Captain Keyes of the Pillar of Autumn. He's tracking us and is preparing to receive the package we're bringing: Halsey's AI.

We work our way through the skeleton of a broken frigate, through the factory complex, and toward the drydock where we'll meet Keyes. As we emerge at the docks, a marine tells us that they've rigged the mass driver to cover the Pillar of Autumn; without the covering firepower of the big gun, the Autumn will never make it to orbit. Emile volunteers to man the gun while we clear the landing pad for Keyes's Pelican.

When he arrives, we hand him the package: Halsey's AI. At that moment, Phantoms arrive and destroy one of the Pelicans. Keyes's Pelican is forced away from the platform, and Covenant troops drop onto the mass driver cannon. Emile takes some of them out, but is overwhelmed by a sword-wielding Elite; he tumbles off the gun, bringing the Elite that killed him to its grave.

Keyes's Pelican drifts back toward the landing pad, and a marine beckons for us to jump onboard so we can get out of here. But without someone to man the gun, we know the Pillar of Autumn won't have the cover needed to reach orbit.

Noble Six: Negative. I have the gun. Good luck, sir.
Captain Keyes: ...good luck to you, Spartan.

We're on the last stretch now, as we fight our way up from the landing pad to the mass driver cannon.

Walk softly and carry a Very Large Gun.
Once we reach the mass driver, we charge up the cannon and use it to destroy Phantom dropships as they approach. But there's one last difficulty: a Covenant Cruiser is moving into position, charging its laser, and the mass driver can't crack its shields! As the plasma beam is about to fire, we target the only location on the Cruiser not covered with armor: the plasma port.

There's a huge explosion, and as the Cruiser falls from the sky, the Pillar of Autumn rises against the sky and is soon gone, safely bearing its crew and Dr. Halsey's AI, Cortana, to an unknown future.

The credits for Halo: Reach begin to roll, and the Pillar of Autumn exits slipspace a long, long way from Planet Reach. It's moving slowly toward a large ring-like structure.

Captain Keyes: Cortana, all I need to know is did we lose them?
Cortana: I think we both know the answer to that.


There's a lot of variety in this mission: a Mongoose chase weaving between multiple Scarab tanks, huge battlefield setpieces between vehicles and infantry, and even a short but significant turret sequence in the control seat of a mass driver cannon. It's a long mission, and feels like something of an endurance test.

You can see the module containing Cortana on Noble Six's back during this mission, which is a nice touch.

Carrying Dr. Halsey's AI, Cortana, on our back.
By the end of this mission, we've lost two more members of Noble Team and Noble Six is left in a precarious position. We don't know what happened to Jun, whose mission was to escort Dr. Halsey to Castle base. We're on our own. If you're participating in Chronological Halo without having played the other games, you may be surprised when Noble Six refuses to get onboard Keyes's Pelican and instead chooses to man the mass driver. If you have played the other games, this is the moment you've been expecting the whole time.

Noble Team's final mission was successful in the short-term, because the Pillar of Autumn has escaped Reach with Dr. Halsey's AI, Cortana, onboard. But there's a lot of Chronological Halo left (forty-three levels!) to find out if Noble Team's mission did what Dr. Halsey hoped it would: save humanity from the Covenant.

My biggest complaint about the level is more of a technical design choice I happen to disagree with. If you play this level with Campaign Scoring on, you won't get the credits sequence at the end. This wouldn't be a big deal, but it means you also don't get to see the scene with the Pillar of Autumn approaching the ring-like object and hear the dialogue between Keyes and Cortana. It's pretty significant, but if you're following along for Chronological Halo, you'll hear it again anyway, of course.

This level is something of an endurance test; the sheer distance you have to travel to reach the Pillar of Autumn is pretty staggering. It's Noble Team's last mission, and keeping the Phantoms and Cruiser at bay while the Autumn makes its escape feels sufficiently desperate.

Four Spartan helmets out of five.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Chronological Halo, 8/52: The Package

Previously on Chronological Halo: Noble Team took to the rainy night-time skies of New Alexandria in order to destroy a series of Covenant jammers and reestablish communications with the UNSC. As the Covenant began glassing the city and Noble suffered another casualty, new orders came in: a torch-and-burn op in the ruins of Sword Base.

Mission Title: The Package (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 8/52

The city of New Alexandria is finished, bombarded by plasma beams from Covenant Corvettes, its surface turned to glass. There's nothing left for us there, and some would say there's nothing left for us on Reach; the Covenant have won. Colonel Holland gives Noble Team one last mission to do, but it's a torch-and-burn op: we're to go to the ruins of Sword Base, now completely under Covenant control, and demolish it. Holland doesn't want any of Dr. Halsey's research falling into the enemy's hands.

And so it is that we're dropped off near Farragut Station, not far from Sword Base. Since we last saw this area in the 'ONI: Sword Base' mission, it's been overrun by the Covenant and is now home to deployable lookout towers and Shade turrets. Since the Covenant are defending against a major strike, they're not as prepared for a small-group infiltration. That will work to our advantage if we keep a low profile.

Farragut Station, partially-flooded and well-nigh unrecognizable
Further on, there's a still-functional Scorpion tank that makes the business of mopping up Covenant forces much easier. Arriving at Airview Base, we tackle the two Tyrant AA Guns there, which allows UNSC Falcons into local airspace to deal with the Banshees overhead. This stretch of territory is hard-fought (so hard-fought that there's even an Achievement for reaching the gate to Sword Base with the Scorpion tank still intact on Legendary difficulty), but eventually we gain entrance to the courtyard of the base.

Tank beats everything.
Elevators are out inside Sword Base, so we take a series of maintenance passages to reach a set of 'prearranged coordinates' sent to us by Auntie Dot. She doesn't seem to know much about them, other than they're the coordinates she was sent by ONI. When we get to that location, a nondescript room in Sword Base... there's nothing there, just the corpses of defenders.

Jun: Looks like they got themselves cornered.
Carter: Or were committed to the position.
Jun: I'm going with cornered. There's nothing here.

But just then, Auntie Dot gets an update: a new set of coordinates, a click and a half distant, and two thousand feet underground. When we ask where they came from, she has a puzzling response:
Auntie Dot: By an AI of unknown origin, whose clearance is well above mine.

As Noble Team discusses this, and whether the coordinates are junk, a wall in the empty room slides open, revealing a passage into darkness. On the other side is a tram, and once everyone is onboard and it's underway, a monitor on the tram activates to reveal the image of Dr. Halsey!

She was believed to be dead, killed during the Covenant occupation, but instead she's alive, hiding in a massive excavation beneath Sword Base. She tells us that the data module we delivered to her did indeed contain a 'latchkey' discovery, and it has almost unlocked the secrets of the vast Forerunner installation that is the subject of the excavation, and her research. She says that we need to safeguard her research.

Carter objects, saying that Noble Team's mission is to destroy Sword Base. Dr. Halsey says that our orders were a pretext to bring us to her, and we now belong to ONI. The Covenant begin blasting holes into the excavation, dropping troops and equipment into the cave complex, and it's up to Noble Team to defend the entrance to Dr. Halsey's lab while the final decryption of the data completes. Why is this data so important?

Dr. Halsey: The decrypting data is still underway...
Carter: I don't think you understand. We're out of time. If it isn't portable when we reach you, it's gonna get buried.
Dr. Halsey: Bury any of it, and you bury mankind's best chance of survival! Commander, you've been wondering what your Spartans died for? They died for this. Please. Buy me all the time you can.

The massive Forerunner artifact Dr. Halsey has been studying.

With the help of four Wolf Spider defensive turrets, we prevent the Covenant from gaining access to the lab. Inside, the decryption of the data from the Forerunner installation is completed, and we have our first encounter with the AI that gave Auntie Dot the coordinates that brought us here. Dr. Halsey says that this AI is the custodian of the excavation's knowledge, and she has chosen us, Noble Six, to be her carrier. Our mission is to bring her to the ship-breaking yards in Aszod, where a Halcyon-class cruiser waits to bring this AI off-planet with the critical information she now holds. The name of the cruiser? Pillar of Autumn.

We bid farewell to Jun in this mission as well. While the rest of Noble Team will undertake to bring the AI to the Pillar of Autumn, Jun's task is to escort Dr. Halsey to Castle Base. The implication of Carter's parting words to him, 'make sure *nothing* falls into enemy hands,' is that Jun may be required to kill Dr. Halsey if the Covenant get too close. We won't see either of them again.

This mission is an interesting one because it takes us back to the environs of Sword Base, which we saw in a previous mission; this time it's Covenant-controlled and in ruins. There's a very different feel to the level on this visit, so much so that until this playthrough I didn't recognize either Farragut Station or Airview Base. Driving the Scorpion tank is a lot of fun, and there are plenty of targets on which to use its main cannon, especially the Revenants and Ghosts.

Inside Sword Base itself, the focus is on the mystery of the strange coordinates. Meeting Dr. Halsey again gives us the shape of Halo: Reach's endgame: to escort Dr. Halsey's AI to the Pillar of Autumn for escape off-planet. And of course, for players of the series, this AI is known to us, though we're not told her name in this mission. She'll be a major player in the levels to come.

Dr. Halsey's AI, the caretaker of the Forerunner knowledge gleaned from this site.
So what is the information that Halsey's AI has gotten from the Forerunner installation buried beneath Sword Base? We're not told in this mission, and in fact it's never completely explained to us, but for now we just know that this AI has some information concerning Forerunner technology. Since the Forerunners were an advanced and ancient alien race whose installations can be found throughout the galaxy, if anything can help humanity against the Covenant, this may be it.

This mission is a reprise of 'ONI: Sword Base,' but it doesn't feel like a rehash, thanks to the very different atmosphere and level of resistance, as well as the use of a Scorpion tank, which we didn't have last time. The pitched battle at the end is an exciting skirmish, and the use of the defensive turrets makes for an interesting wrinkle. For Halo fans, the piano cue at the reveal of Dr. Halsey's AI is as emotionally-charged as any music in the series. A solid level that sets up the endgame of Halo: Reach.

Four Spartan helmets out of five. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rebooting GladOS

Wait! Don't go yet! The title of this post makes it sound like it'll be full of spoilers for Portal 2, but it actually won't be. The game is amazing and exactly the sequel it needed to be, but I'm also not finished yet and don't want to accidentally spoil anything for anyone who's in a slower boat than I am. And that's a slow boat!

Instead what I'm going to talk about today is the Rebooting GladOS event that took place over the weekend. A website with a countdown timer appeared last week, and the timer expired at 12:00 PM on Friday. That countdown led to *another* countdown, this one on the glados@Home site.

This text appeared near the top:
08:57 - Default boot scheduled to finish in 93:50:18
08:58 - Activating emergency distributed computing grid...
09:00 - GLaDOS@home starting...
09:01 - Recruiting cpus to force faster boot sequence...

About halfway to go!

The idea is that GladOS needed computational power in order to reboot, and her current power would allow the rebooting sequence to complete in a little over ninety-four hours: the launch time for Portal 2. Beneath the countdown timer and a large progress bar, there were thirteen *other* progress bars, one for each of the thirteen Indie games in the Potato Sack Pack, available for purchase on Steam through convenient links on GladOS@Home.

Each of the thirteen progress bars displayed the number of 'Current CPUs' applying toward the progress of the bar, and this number could go up and down: the number of people currently playing that game. The longer people play the games, the more the bars fill up, and each game whose bar fills all the way up contributes an amount of progress to the main bar. Every time a game's bar was completed, the countdown timer for the reboot underwent an adjustment, bringing Portal 2 closer to release.

Now, this was only for the digital release on Steam. For those of us who already ordered the game on PS3, there really wasn't any reason to participate, other than for the general feeling of helping out, contributing to the cause. But that was plenty - there were enough games on the list I'd always been interested in that this was the perfect excuse to pull the trigger on and do my part for the effort: Audiosurf, Super Meat Boy... and I already owned Bit.trip Beat.

Additionally, each of the games on the list had hidden objectives in them that would reward you with 'potatoes,' little potato icons that appeared on your Steam profile. These were basically faux-Achievements, but more importantly there was a counter on the bottom tracking the number of potatoes everyone had collected. At a certain threshold, about 450,000, the number of potatoes started winding down at a rapid rate, increasing the progress of the thirteen game bars.

Here's the punchline, though. Portal 2 did come out early as a result of this effort, ten or so hours before it originally would have, but that wasn't early enough for the Internets: people are spamming user review sites with negative reviews for Portal 2, message boards are full of raging about Valve and the whole event, and I think maybe the point was missed.

I loved it. It was the perfect way to get even more psyched for Portal 2 and to support some good indie games in the process. If you're interested in reading some of the behind-the-scenes goodness about the whole event, here's an interesting read that also talks a bit about the formulas in play:

Chronological Halo will be back next week, as Noble Team goes on their final mission: a torch-and-burn op to keep valuable research from falling into Covenant hands. Till then!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Chronological Halo, 7/52: New Alexandria

Previously on Chronological Halo: After the destruction of the Long Night of Solace, we found ourselves on the outskirts of the city of New Alexandria. We aided evacuation efforts in the city, and were eventually contacted by Kat. She sent a Falcon to pick us up.

Mission Title: New Alexandria (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 7/52

It's a rainy night in New Alexandria, and the ride in the back of the Falcon is a lonely one. Eventually it lands on a rooftop and we're reconnected with Noble Team. We apologize for coming alone, without Jorge, and Carter tells us to make him proud.

The Covenant have installed jammers throughout the city, and we've lost contact with Holland. Noble Team needs to destroy the jammers, and Noble Six is charged with flying the Falcon to each location.

The three jammers we need to take out over the course of the mission are located in differing locales, but each one consists of similar gameplay: we fly to a location, land, enter a building and fight through Covenant defenders, deactivate the jammer, and get out. Then it's on to the next jammer, with maybe a secondary objective en route.

The second jammer we need to deal with is in a nightclub, Club Errera, where four Hunters are keeping UNSC forces at bay. Funnily enough, with a Jetpack it's possible to run straight up the middle of the club, fly up to the second floor, deactivate the jammer, and then run back to the entrance without engaging the Hunters... at least on Normal difficulty.

The third jammer is in the Sinoviet Industries building, the lobby for which is identical to the layout of the 'Ivory Tower' multiplayer map from Halo 2! Once we deactivate the jammer there we're surprised by a small army of Drones, but again it's a relatively simple matter to escape back to the elevators and exit the building.

Once the jammers are gone, we can finally get through to Holland, and we receive a message sent to all teams that there will be evacuations at the ONI headquarters, but long-range Shade turrets are keeping the evac birds on the ground.

After we deal with the turrets, we rendevous with Noble Team and get a few great lines. First, referring to Jorge's sacrifice:

Carter: He gave his life thinking he'd just saved the planet. We should all be so lucky.

And this great exchange between Carter and Kat while she works to patch up the connection with Holland:

Carter: You want to know if we're losing?
Kat: I know we're losing. I want to know if we've lost.

Carter doesn't have an adequate answer for that. Once the connection is up with Holland, we pick up a desperate call from him, imploring us to respond and ignore security protocols. As Carter does, and starts listening to the message, there's suddenly an enormous radiation spike: the Covenant are glassing the city! Low-range bombardment of plasma beams blasts the surface of the planet, turning everything to glass. Carter says he's lost Holland, but he heard enough of the message first: Noble Team is being redeployed to Sword Base for a torch-and-burn op. We're to destroy whatever remains of Dr. Halsey's research so it doesn't fall into Covenant hands.

As Noble Team runs to reach a fallout bunker to escape the devastation, Kat suddenly takes a needle rifle bolt to the back of the head. Carter lifts up her body and brings her to the shelter, but by the time it's safe to emerge again, she is dead. Noble Team has lost another member.

This mission is noteworthy for a couple reasons. First of all, you spend a great deal of it flying a Falcon, or conversely, if you're playing in co-op, manning one of the Falcon's turrets while a buddy flies. That by itself makes it a great change-of-pace level. Second of all, this level is unique in that the mission objectives are randomized. The three main jammer destinations (the Hospital, Club Errera, and Sinoviet Industries) can appear in any order, and there are numerous secondary objectives that can appear in between each of those main objectives.

If you're a Halo fan and familiar with the other games in the series, one of these secondary objectives is clearly superior to the others: escorting Gunnery Sergeant Buck on a secret mission. If you're unfamiliar with the other games, and are experiencing Chronological Halo for the first time, his mission won't stand out at all; but this can be our first encounter with a character who becomes important later on.

The structure of this mission is unique enough that I forgive the relatively interchangeable nature of the objectives, but I do think Buck's secondary objective should have been unmissable. Also, flying the Falcon through the rainy night-time sky of New Alexandria as Covenant Corvettes begin glassing the planet is atmospheric and a needed change of pace. Noble Two's death at the end of the mission is sudden and shocking, a capstone on a memorable level.

Four Spartan helmets out of five.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chronological Halo, 6/52: Exodus

Previously on Chronological Halo: A desperate plan looks to be the UNSC's finest hour, but even the destruction of the Covenant Super-carrier isn't enough to achieve victory. A massive Covenant fleet, the Fleet of Particular Justice, arrives by slip-space transit. It's not about defeating the Covenant anymore. It's about surviving them.

Mission Title: Exodus (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 6/52


We've fallen through the atmosphere and safely back to Reach, thanks to our Re-entry Pack, but all of our weapons are lost; the only heat we're packing now is a pistol and our quick wits. Still carrying Jorge's dogtags, we climb a short hill and find ourselves on the outskirts of the city of New Alexandria.
The Long Night of Solace, destroyed at great cost
As we make our way alone through the deserted city, we pick up an emergency broadcast directing all teams to proceed to Traxus Tower to help with the evacuation of civilians. The pad is green, but may not be for long. Furthermore, there have been sightings of Covenant 'suicide squads,' teams of Grunts who arm plasma grenades in both hands and charge their enemies with no concern for their own lives. Passing through buildings in New Alexandria, we encounter a number of these squads and need to dispatch them with our pistol only.

Fear the blue glow, for it hates you and it hates itself
It's a relief to come out of the darkened buildings and encounter first other humans, and then an Assault Rifle. They're both equally pleased to see a Spartan. Our new fireteam is engaged with a new enemy: Brutes, large ape-like creatures fond of heavy armor and heavier Gravity Hammers. As we wait for the elevator to come back down to the Atrium, we get a chance to test out one of these Hammers for ourselves.

The Gravity Hammer: it's super effective!
The Starport is now covered by a Covenant Corvette, so that plan is no longer viable. A team of ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) specialists cooks up an alternate plan: to use an executive landing pad for the evacuations instead. And that's how we meet the Bullfrogs, a group of jetpack-wearing ODSTs who take us on a jumping tour of Traxus Tower's cargo port, leaping across gaps in the catwalks and working our way up the Tower.

Jump! Jump! Slide!
When we arrive at the executive landing pad we come into contact with armored Shade Turrets, Hammer-wielding Brutes, and other Covenant nasties, but Noble Six comes out on top. A Falcon lands, and we jump aboard to cover the evac transports. Evac Dispatch tries to get the UNSC frigate Stalwart Dawn to conduct a strike on the Corvette over the Starport, but this time won't be like the end of the 'ONI: Sword Base' mission; no Longswords are available. The pilot of one of the evac transports panics, saying he's got six hundred people aboard and needs to get out of the city *now*; his transport takes off anyway, but doesn't stand a chance.

After the grim sight of that transport splashing beneath the waves with all onboard, our Falcon lands. We have a new mission: priming two missile batteries and then using their control board to attack the Corvette over the Starport. The distraction should give the remaining transports time enough to get away. It works, and we're contacted by Kat. She picked up our transponder signal about an hour ago, but couldn't risk open communication. But now she does, and we tell her the sad news about Jorge. She sends a Falcon to bring us to the rest of Noble Team.

This mission is all about defending civilians and getting them onto their evacuation transports. The shadow of the Covenant Corvettes bombarding New Alexandria loom over everything, and it's interesting to think that each of them is similar to the one we boarded in the last mission; and look what it took to get rid of that one!

We're out of contact with Noble Team for the duration of this mission, interacting instead with civilians, ODSTs, and military personnel. These are mostly faceless and nameless entities, though the Bullfrogs leave an impression. That's mainly because aside from the short sequence at Spire One in a previous mission, they give us our first lengthy taste of the Jetpack, bounding across gaps as we make our way toward Traxus Tower. It's a fun sequence. Also fun is the on-rails Falcon turret sequence towards the end; consider it a warm-up for things to come, especially if you're playing co-op.

This is a serviceable level, with the Grunt suicide squads, Jetpack sequence, and destruction of the civilian evac transport being memorable moments, but overall it's not a standout. The color palette is grey, the weather is overcast, and it's suitably glum, but this is pretty standard as far as missions go.
Three Spartan helmets out of five.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Chronological Halo, 5/52: Long Night of Solace

Previously on Chronological Halo: The UNSC counter-attack is launched against the Covenant landing zone! AA guns are taken down and the frigate Grafton demonstrates immeasurable firepower in the war effort! A Covenant Super Carrier decloaks and destroys the Grafton, and Noble Team can only look on in horror as the frigate falls to earth.

Mission Title: Long Night of Solace (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 5/52

Noble Team has taken up refuge in a cave, and outside Scarab tanks stalk the dusty landscape. Auntie Dot reports that 60% of the entire UNSC fleet is en route to Reach, and will arrive in 48 hours, but Kat points out that 'they'll be backing up a graveyard.' That's just too long.

But Kat has an idea. There was an accident on a colony ship some years back, when the ship's slip-space drive malfunctioned and teleported half the ship to oblivion. She thinks the Covenant Super Carrier that destroyed the Grafton could be made to suffer the same fate. They'll need a way to get into orbit, and they'll need a slip-space drive, the most expensive equipment known to man. Where can they get their hands on these things?

Kat says she certainly doesn't know. Unless, that is, we use the 'non-existent' launch facility used in the 'non-existent' Sabre space program, and which their newest member, Noble Six (us!), was certainly never a test pilot.

Noble Team, unsurprised by our Mysterious Past(tm)
That's right, the parts of our file that were blanked out involved our time with the secret Sabre space program as a pilot. It would be a complete surprise to us if we didn't watch any of the E3 footage from before the release of the game, or read the instruction manual, or looked at the screenshots on the back of the case very closely.
Carter goes to send the plan to Holland, and before you know it we're storming the beach as close to the Sabre launch facility as we can land.

Inside the launch facility, it's a short run to where the Sabres are already prepped and ready for flight. Jorge will be coming with us, so we climb aboard, and the the Sabres blast off! After a short launch sequence with some gorgeous visuals for space-nerds, we approach the Anchor 9 space station orbiting Reach. Holland contacts us on the Comm and tells us he'll be coordinating Operation: Uppercut, which is the codename for Kat's hare-brained scheme.

Our first mission is to defend the Anchor 9 from waves of Banshees and Seraph fighters. Our Sabre's primary cannon is perfectly sufficient for dealing with the Banshees, but the Seraphs are a little more interesting. The ideal way to deal with them is to use the primary cannon to deplete their shields, and then to switch to the lock-on missiles for the killing blow.

Anchor 9's defensive systems come online, and just in time, too: multiple inbound Phantom gunboats appear and must be dealt with. Once they're destroyed, we bring our Sabre in to dock with the station. Jorge exits the Sabre and approaches a Pelican, on which has been loaded the frigate Savannah's slip-space drive. This is the drive that will serve as the make-shift bomb for Operation: Uppercut.

Command has identified a Corvette en route to the Super-carrier, and once we get the bomb onboard that'll be our delivery system. We disable the four engines with missiles and cannon fire, and bring our Sabre in for a landing on the topside landing pad. We exit the Sabre and drop in. Fun with low gravity! Jumps are super-high, grenades fly straight ahead as they're thrown, and the sound design is superb; it sounds like we're fighting underwater.

We need to clear out the Comm Center crew so they can't tell the Super-carrier what we're up to, and after that's taken care of we move to the hangar to clear a spot for Jorge to bring in the Pelican with the bomb. In the hangar we encounter a strange creature we haven't seen before. This is an Engineer, and it seems to be blanketing its fellow Covenant with a shield. Stay tuned to learn more about them, but it'll be awhile. For now just kill it.

An Engineer. More about these guys in... twenty-six levels. Patience!
Once Jorge is onboard with the Pelican carrying the bomb, he stays in the hangar to 'discourage the curious' and we go to the bridge to manually initiate the refueling sequence with the Super-carrier. On the way there, though, we pass a battery of guns mounted on the side of our Corvette and watch them deal the killing blow to the frigate Savannah. That was our ride out of here.

Once the refueling sequence is locked in and we return to the hangar, Jorge has good news and bad news for us:

Jorge: 'Well, I got good news and bad news. This bird took some fire and her thruster gimbal is toast. Which means the only way off this slag heap is gravity.'
Noble Six: 'And the good news?'
Jorge: 'That was the good news.'

The bad news is that the timer for the bomb is fried, and someone will need to trigger the bomb manually when the Corvette is close enough to the Super-carrier. That someone is Jorge, as he tells us that Reach has been good to him and he wants to return the favor. 'Don't deny me this,' he says, as he activates our Re-entry Pack and tosses us out of the hangar. As we fall back to the planet, we can only watch as the Corvette approaches the Super-carrier and a giant slip-space hole teleports half the Super-carrier to oblivion.

Immediately afterwards, Auntie Dot reports that slip-space ruptures are being detected everywhere. The Covenant Fleet of Particular Justice has arrived. Jorge's sacrifice was for nothing.

Unless you were living under a rock in the months leading up to the release of Halo: Reach, you probably already knew the big surprise of this level: space combat! It featured in videos at E3 that year and renewed anticipation for the game, but questions abounded. How would it work in co-op? Would it be available for Competitive Multiplayer? And while everyone was abuzz with refreshed excitement about the game, it actually tempered mine a little.

Firstly, I knew that it couldn't be that long a stretch of gameplay and that the amount they showed at E3 was probably a good chunk of it. And secondly, I was bummed that we were being shown what would have to be the last level of the game, and if not the last level, then close to it. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened. Footage of Gears of War 2 before its release revealed our COGs descending into a giant sinkhole and then deciding the only way to get where they needed to go would be to capture and ride a Brumak. I spent the entire game waiting to get to that point, and it turns out that it's the very last level of the game, and the Brumak rodeo is the final 10-minute stretch of gameplay before the credits. I was convinced the same thing had just happened to Halo: Reach.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when it turns out that the much-vaunted space combat section of Halo: Reach is only half-way through the game! And what a high point it is: gorgeous visuals as the Sabres launch into space, great controls (as you'd expect from such a vehicle-friendly series as Halo), and a smartly-limited playfield in which to do battle. In practice it's like the arena battles of Starfox 64, and works very well.

Here's a clever thing. Noble Six is supposed to be an expert at Sabre-flying, but as a player this is the first time we've seen space combat in a Halo game. How do we reconcile these two skill levels? First of all, Holland calls us up at the beginning of the sequence and says, 'These Sabres have been customized for orbital defense. Take some time to reacquaint yourself with them.' So Noble Six is an expert, but these Sabres are slightly different than the ones he's flown in the past. You get a good warmup to the controls, and it feels natural. Secondly, the aiming for these sequences deserve special mention. Your primary cannon highlights enemy targets, but the reticle appears in front of the target, adjusted for its current speed and direction; so as long as you keep that reticle in your sights, you'll be hitting the target. Your secondary weapon system consists of lock-on missiles; acquire a lock on the target, and then fire and forget. You'll feel like an expert by the time the preliminary enemy waves are taken care of.

The rest of the mission is relatively standard combat, with a few noteworthy story developments. First is the bombardment of Sword Base from Covenant ships, observed by Jorge on monitors from orbit. Auntie Dot registers his heightened heart rate and correctly deduces that he's concerned about Dr. Halsey, telling him that there's nothing he can do for her now. Our Spartan-II comes to the end of his road in this mission, staying behind to activate the bomb and destroy the Long Night of Solace. As is becoming a theme in Halo: Reach, though, the destruction of the Super-carrier is not the long-lasting victory the UNSC had hoped for, as the Covenant Fleet of Particular Justice arrives immediately following Jorge's sacrifice. Humanity can't catch a break. Carter will sum up Jorge's sacrifice beautifully well a few missions from now, but we'll talk about that when we get there.

This may be the defining mission of Halo: Reach. Not only does it have the shiny new space combat sequence, but it also has intense firefights on the beach before the launch facility and onboard the Covenant Corvette. It's also the mission where Noble Team suffers its first casualty, and where the tide turns against the UNSC. The conversation changes after this one. It's not about defeating the Covenant anymore. It's about surviving them.

Five Spartan helmets out of five.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Chronological Halo, 4/52: Tip of the Spear

Previously on Chronological Halo: Under cover of night, Noble Team infiltrated the Covenant 'dark zone,' an area impervious to electronic surveillance, and discovered the landing area for an invading army. Recon teams were called back to base to prepare for a major offensive to take place at dawn.

Mission Title: Tip of the Spear (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 4/52
This is it! Finally, the UNSC counter-attack begins. Warthogs tear across a plain toward the Covenant landing zone, and above them Falcons provide air support. The Stealth Pylon we found the previous night is detonated remotely, and then banshees scream out of the sky. Wraith tanks bombard the onrushing UNSC force, and a mortar round demolishes the bridge Kat is driving toward! We make the jump, barely, but the Warthog wrecks on the other side; another Warthog tries to clear the gap and isn't so lucky.

Poor dudes.
The slope is hard-fought. Banshees and Shade turrets guard the rise. Once it's clear, Carter calls from his airborne Falcon with new targets: there are two hostile anti-air guns not far from our location. A Pelican drops off a Missile Hog, a powerful vehicle, and we all hop in to drive to the first AA gun.

A huge battle rages in the valley below, but until the AA is down the UNSC frigate Grafton is stuck out of range. We fight inside the AA gun and destroy the core. Once it's gone, the Grafton lumbers into view overhead and absolutely demolishes the Covenant forces in the valley, including numerous Scarab tanks. One more AA gun to go, but the bridge is out!

Pelican, bridge-layer edition
There's a mining facility between our current location and the second AA gun, and once we're inside, Auntie Dot informs us that a high-value target has been detected: an Elite Zealot. Carter doesn't want us to forget our primary goal, but if we can defeat the Zealot while passing through the mining facility, we definitely should. If we're interested in Achievements (which we are!) we'll want to defeat the Zealot on one playthrough, at least.

Beyond the mining facility, I jump on a Ghost and cruise to the location of the next AA gun. This one is heavily defended: a pair of Hunters, two Wraiths, and a large number of Covenant troops. The power core of the AA gun is as fragile as the first, once we're inside, and soon air superiority is restored to this area as well.

A Falcon lands with Jorge on it, and we clamber aboard. The plan is for us to fly the rest of the way to the Spires that Command wants scouted. We man the guns on the Falcon as we're flown down the canyon, past Covenant ground forces, but as we enter the energy field being generated by Spire One, the Falcon loses power! The ensuing wreck kills the crew, and it's up to Jorge and Noble Six to move on to the Spire, which ONI believes to be a teleportation device linked to... something. The Grafton can take out the Spire, but first we'll need to disable the Spire's control room. And that calls for Jetpacks!

Once the energy shield is down, the frigate Grafton arrives on the scene and demolishes Spire One, but the celebration doesn't last long: a Covenant Supercarrier appears and the Grafton is shot from the sky.

The cutscene that starts this mission is fantastic: the UNSC counter-attack, in all its glory. Dozens of Warthogs racing across the plain, everyone is excited, there's a feeling of 'hoo-rah!' flag-waving to the whole proceeding... and then things go bad and your Warthog blows up and you're flat on your belly, charged with taking an enemy-held slope. It evokes every World War II movie you've ever seen, and it's phenomenal.

Special mention to the doomed 'hog-load of soldiers that don't make it across the bridge. It's a brilliant 'oh crap' moment, and it's the best transition from cutscene to first-person gameplay so far (and, as far as I can remember, in the entire series).

This is as good a time as any to talk about Auntie Dot, who communicates with Noble Team during missions and keeps them connected with each other when they are separated by distance. She's an AI construct that monitors the situation on the ground by tapping into security cameras, and her representation (as a series of blinking lines) appears during loading screens. Carter communicates with her directly, and uses her information to plan missions for Noble Team. In Chronological Halo, she's the first AI construct we encounter, and she'll seem pretty limited compared to the others we'll meet, but Auntie Dot is a good baseline as our first.

The first appearance of Jetpacks is a lot of fun. They're not strictly necessary to get to the Spire's control room, but it's definitely entertaining to fly around the giant structure.

The UNSC frigate Grafton takes charge
I also appreciate how early in the mission, you're shown the tremendous destructive power of the frigate Grafton, and maybe you start to think that the UNSC has a chance... but at the end of the mission they take that away with the reveal of the Covenant Supercarrier. We'll get a chance to tackle with that in the next mission. Oh yes.

When Halo: Reach was first announced, this is the mission everyone expected: a huge battle during wartime, with tons of targets and things exploding everywhere, Warthog shootouts, Banshees screaming overhead, Wraith tanks firing blue plasma, huge structures exploding. The battles are huge, and the Spire at the end of the mission is even bigger.
Five Spartan helmets out of five.