Halo 5: Guardians Review

Title
Standard

Developer

343 Industries

Publisher

Microsoft Studios

Format

Xbox One

Released

27th October 2015

“What If You Miss?” “I…Wont?”

Halo 5: Guardians is a bit of mixed bag. To use a tired old football cliché, it’s a game of two halves. On second thought, let’s put that in more of a pseudo-Dickensian way – it’s the best of Halo games, it’s the worst of Halo games. Nah, that paraphrase just looks weird now that I’ve typed it out, let’s just go with a classic; it’s 50/50. Actually, forget all these cheesy turns of phrase, I’ll just spit it out; Halo 5‘s multiplayer is great, but the campaign is a big let-down. Happy now?

Wait, don’t go! Look, I know what you might be thinking, but please don’t scream “Un Forastero!” and reach for the torches and pitchforks quite just yet. Instead, allow me to lexically backpeddle for a bit as I try to put that blunt assessment across a tad more eloquently.

Halo 5: Guardians is an okay Halo game. It’s not bad, but it’s also not great. It exceeds expectations in some areas, but severely disappoints in others. Developer 343 Industries have pushed the gameplay of the fourteen-year-old Halo franchise forward in exciting new ways with this new title, but unfortunately in doing so seem to have dropped the (odd)ball on a whole host of other equally important issues.

Un-Locke-y

Master Chief

Don’t give me that look Chief, I’m just being honest. Hey, at least the multiplayer is still good, right?

Dichotomy and duality permeate every element of Halo 5: Guardians, and it’s in the campaign mode where these themes are given centre stage. The story picks up approximately eight months after the conclusion of Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops story (and shortly after the events of the Hunt the Truth podcast), and follows the exploits of two elite Spartan fireteams; Master Chief’s original Spartan-II Blue Team and Agent Locke’s new Spartan-IV Fireteam Osiris. A certain series of events come to pass, and Locke and co. are sent to apprehend Blue Team after they go AWOL…what could possible go wrong?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

Okay, let’s bite the bullet and get the painful bit out of the way right now. Despite all the months of hype and build-up, prime time TV advertising slots and extensive (and surprisingly very good) social media campaigns, Halo 5‘s campaign is a deeply disappointing offering and the first major nadir of the series.

Considering the Halo franchise built its reputation largely on the strength of its story-driven campaigns, it’s a real shame then that Halo 5 has such an underwhelming one. The moment-to-moment gameplay is fine, and the presentation is top-notch, but ultimately a terrible script and overly linear level designs make Halo 5‘s campaign a feeble and shallow experience.

Initially, things start out on a very strong note. As you blast your way through the snowy Kamchatka cliffsides, it’s easy to see how 343’s revisions to the standard Halo formula work wonders in breathing new life into the series’ ageing systems. Gone are the Armour Abilities that granted extra abilities in Halo: Reach and Halo: 4, and in their place is a suite of new movement and combat controls that persist across campaign and multiplayer.

Known as Spartan Abilities, these new transplanted movement and combat mechanics enable players to tackle the series’ familiar first-person sci-fi shooting ranges with greatly improved skill, and a hell of a lot more style. The ability to sprint indefinitely, clamber up ledges, shoulder charge and ground pound à la Superman are all welcome new additions to your Spartan’s moveset, but specifically it’s boost and smart-link which steal the show.

Boost, as the name might unsurprisingly suggest, allows your Spartan to instantly shoot forwards in the direction of your left stick’s choosing.It’s basically a souped-up version of Halo 4‘s weedy Thruster Pack with a fractionally shorter cooldown. Though it may not sound like much on paper, these short accelerated bursts of movement irrevocably change the rhythm and pacing of traditional Halo combat for the better. Whether it’s to quickly dash to cover, dodge incoming grenade blasts or shoot towards an enemy for a snappy melee kill, using boost quickly becomes an essential part of how you navigate the battlefield. When deployed at the apex of a full speed jump, boosting also allows for increased verticality during engagements, allowing your Spartan to scale the environment with speed and aplomb. It’s speedy, snappy, and really quite brilliant.

Maybe even better than that though is the Smart-Link aiming system. Every weapon in Halo 5 can be now Smart-Linked (AKA aimed down sights) for increased accuracy – whether that weapon is an assault rifle, sniper rifle, or even a plasma sword (seriously, Smart-Link lets you make micro-adjustments to your sword lunges). It’s subtler in effect than the boost, but the ability to aim traditionally inaccurate and unwieldy automatic-fire weapons like the Assault Rifle, Covenant Plasma Rifle and Forerunner Suppressor with significantly improved accuracy across long distances greatly freshens up these previously less desirable weapons and makes them far more useful than they’ve ever been in the past. Additionally, when the aim button is pressed and held mid-air, your Spartan will activate stabilising jets which let you briefly hover in position above the ground for a few seconds to complete a tricky shot (or alternatively line up a cheeky ground pound below you). Unlike previous Halo titles, aiming is now mapped to the left trigger by default (like in Call of Duty or Destiny) and while it can take some time to adjust to this new setting, it quickly becomes second nature after only a few minutes of playing. In fact, it’s incredibly hard to imagine how you ever played the older games without Smart-Link and all the other new accoutrements at all. Truly, this is combat evolved.

Although the core gameplay of the series has been given some substantial new tweaks and improvements, the same care and attention to detail doesn’t appear to have been applied to the game’s script. Once you’ve shot your way through the first couple of levels, the threadbare nature of the plot becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Without a doubt, this is easily the weakest story in the mainstream Halo games to date. New characters are introduced with no backstory or motive, there’s hardly any significant character development at all from the start of the game to the end. Some characters have even had complete re-writes, making them hard to even recognise as the same person from when we last saw them in Halo 4. It’s jarring, strange, and very un-Halo like.

Perhaps one of the most egregious points about the campaign mode though is that it primarily focuses on Agent Locke and Fireteam Osiris, and not Chief and Blue Team. In spite of the false impression that Halo 5’s box art and marketing materials gave, this is essentially an Agent Locke game; the campaign has you playing as Locke and co. for a whopping 80% of the game, whilst Chief and his buddies are given just three paltry missions to shoot through. Considering the backlash that Bungie received for pulling a similar stunt in Halo 2 with the Arbiter, it just looks like 343 has learned absolutely nothing from the series’ past mistakes. Though a lot of players didn’t necessarily enjoy the Arbiter sections at the time, the Arbiter was undeniably an interesting new character; one who gradually develops alongside the player and shows meaningful character progression through the course of the game.

The same cannot be said for Locke. Already a boring character when he debuted in the awful Halo: Nightfall, I was actually looking forward to learning more about this secretive ONI deuteragonist and finding out what drives him to aggressively pursue the Master Chief. Incredibly, despite starring in twelve of the game’s fifteen missions, you learn absolutely nothing about Locke from the first trigger pull to the last. He has no personality, no charisma, and is completely unmemorable as a character.

Locke & Chief

Locke is a serviceable protagonist, but one utterly devoid of anything resembling a personality.

Though the other members of Fireteam Osiris help inject some much needed flavour and personality into the on-screen action (Nathan Fillion in particular does some sterling work as Buck, absolutely carrying the Osiris sections), Locke’s character remains a gaping hole in an already paper-thin script, in spite of Ike Amadi’s quality voice work. 343 undoubtedly have further plans for the character in future games, but for fuck’s sake, give Ike something – hell, anything – to work with next time. Master Chief is already one of the most bland video game characters out there as it is; his supporting cast need to be more interesting than he is, not less.

Ironically, while the game is very light on plot, it doesn’t bother to unpack some of the very lore-heavy information that actually is in the game for every player to understand. As a whole, the Halo 5‘s campaign is far too reliant on extra materials from the expanded universe of the books and comics. It offloads the responsibility to understand what’s going on and who these six brand new characters actually are (or why we should even care about them at all) to the player and makes little effort or explanation in the actual game itself to bring everyone up to speed. Which is a shame, as with the exception of Locke, these are some of the most interesting characters in the Halo universe – particularly Chief’s fellow Blue Team members, who are arguably far more intriguing than ol’ Johnny boy himself. Alas, they are simply included here to act as additional player surrogates, nothing more, nothing less.

Blue Team

Master Chief and Blue Team are relegated to a mere three of the fifteen total levels. Talk about out with the old and in with the new.

Playing the campaign co-operatively with other players naturally makes it easier to look past these narrative shortcomings and just concentrate on the great gunplay at hand. However, the lack of a dedicated matchmaking system for the campaign and no local splitscreen multiplayer option means that unless you have three other friends with their own seperate Xbones and copies of the game, you’ll be playing through it on your tod.

Which really isn’t the best way to experience things, because the accompanying Spartan AI leaves a lot to be desired. You see, your fellow computer-controlled Spartans are as ignorant as Monty Python Gumbys at best, and downright stubborn mutineers at worst. Commands can be issued to your computer-controlled teammates by looking at a point of interest/weapon/enemy and pressing up on the d-pad to get them to move there/pick that weapon up/target that enemy. It’s rudimentary stuff, and though tactically shallow it tends to work for the most part. I say ‘for the most part’ because unfortunately your AI teammates have a lot in common with the Xbox One’s Kinect sensor; they’re temperamental, finicky, and tend to struggle to understand even the most basic of instructions.

Typically, it’s when you need their help the most they’ll just flat out ignore your orders, dumbly standing still in a stationary stupor.

Or alternatively get stuck on pieces of the environment and start binking about like excited rabbits rather than help get fallen teammates back to their feet.

So much for ‘your team is your weapon’, your MJOLNIR-clad musketeers are consistently inconsistent variables you just have to oblige and babysit as you play. They’re serviceable companions when they want to play nice, but oh-so-infuriatingly irritating when they decide to go off – or more appropriately, into – the rails.

Whether you choose to play together with friends, or persevere with the computerised cretins solo, thankfully the high production values of the campaign do confer a slick layer of triple-A polish to the experience that helps to somewhat gloss over the flimsy script. Graphically, the series has never looked better, and a consistent 60fps framerate keeps the action buttery-smooth throughout. Of particular distinction is the excellent sound design; everything from the tiny tactile squeaks and strains of MJOLNIR armour to the thundering BOOM-ker-plunk-chick of Scorpion tank cannon fire has been meticulously recorded and mixed to perfection.

Perhaps most commendable of all are the inclusion of a few brief interactive combat-free sections. These small interstitial hub stages grant 343 further environmental storytelling opportunities outside of the usual FPS lens, and act as a really nice unexpected breath of fresh air to the player. Although these levels are very basic in design and execution – walk up to the indicated person/object of interest and hold X – they don’t outstay their welcome, and the chance to pause, interact and engage in dialogue with characters outside of your immediate squad lend the middle act of the campaign a more contemplative and immersive feel. These rudimentary yet promising sequences show a great deal of potential, and judging from Franchise Development Director Frank O’Connor’s recent comments about possibly exploring completely non-combat Halo experiences in future games, the ideas debuted here will hopefully be revisited and expanded upon in the series’ future in some shape or form.

As Halo 5 is a first-person shooter however, the fact that these combat-free sections are the most memorable standout sequences in the game speaks volumes about the quality of design throughout the rest of the campaign. For all the new technical and gameplay enhancements the game makes, Halo 5 never manages to match the same powerful stride of its predecessors, let alone outdo them. Crucially, it’s in terms of level design where Halo 5 feels particularly lacking. This campaign features some of the largest Spartan playgrounds yet seen in the series, but also some of the least interesting and memorable ones of the lot. Although the locations and set pieces impress in terms of sheer size and scale, they lack the sandbox magic that made the original Bungie trilogy of games zing with that potent combination of possibility and curiosity. Multiple paths can be discovered through each firezone, yes, but ultimately these tend to just offer hidden weapons or slightly different positions to shoot from, rather than offer up fundamentally different ways of tackling the level. There’s nothing here that’s comparable to the myraid ways you can bring down the first Scarab in Halo 3, or the freedom you have to plot your own course through Halo: CE‘s eponymous second level. The Halo campaigns have always been linear affairs, but Halo 5‘s feels the most restricting and one-way of them all.

This feeling of being funnelled down one specific way of playing isn’t helped by the way in which the game all too frequently wrests control away from players by taking key action sequences out of gameplay and putting them into cutscenes. Sure, the Halo games have always leant heavily on their cutscenes to deliver the bulk of their narrative, and there’s no denying that Halo 5‘s cineamatics are high-quality, beautifully rendered sequences in pretty much every regard. It’s just a shame then that they are used to interrupt the action with such frequency that they rapidly become tiresome, eye-rolling roadblocks to player involvement.

On top of that, when you actually are in control of the action, 343’s decision to overuse a recurring boss character feels particularly unwelcome. Boss fights have never been Halo‘s forte, but at least they’ve been sparingly used in the past. Not so here. This tedious antagonist plagues the second half of the campaign like a belligerent herpes infection, and has to be bested no less than seven times; each new repetition just as dull and uninteresting as the last. Forget search and destroy, this character’s prerogative is rinse and repeat.

Finally, as a parting insult to a plethora of injuries, the campaign comes to an abrupt halt with a poorly-executed cliffhanger of an ending. Again, have 343 learned nothing from their real-life forerunners? Fair enough, a sudden cut-off in the action like this is certainly an effective way of getting fans champing at the bit for the inevitable Halo 6, but for a developer of this pedigree, it’s just about the cheapest trick in the storytelling book to play. Delivered in context – at the end of a sluggish story that’s only just getting into gear during its final moments – this ending just comes off as weak, lazy and, quite frankly, insulting.

343 Ending Text

See you on Sangelios? Are you fucking kidding me?

Unlike Halo 2‘s divisive ending (which, for the record, I actually enjoyed), Halo 5‘s brutal severance simply feels unmerited, and nothing more than a cynical cop-out way for 343 to kick the olive-green can down the road for the next few years. Halo 5’s campaign looks, sounds and feels like a snazzy big budget production, and 343 unquestionably deserve credit for pushing the traditional gameplay of the series into brave new territory. That said, a superficial script and a monotonous, one-dimensional approach to level design greatly overshadow the campaign’s technical successes, and suggest that its creators have fallen out of touch with what makes a great Halo campaign. Sod Chief and the virtual reclamation; let’s hope that 343 can reclaim their own mantle of responsibility in time for Halo 6. Finish this fight…on a high?

I Need a Weapon. Please? Pretty Please?

Blue Multiplayer

Feeling blue after the campaign? Don’t be, the multiplayer is fantastic.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Luckily, it appears that the same rule apparently applies to space clouds too, as Halo 5‘s multiplayer suite goes a long way to pick up the slack of its campaign counterpart.

For a start, one of the major accomplishments of the multiplayer suite that you’ll notice right out of the gate is that everything actually works. Compared to the disastrous launch of last year’s Master Chief Collection, it’s certainly a very pleasant change, and great to see that the problems that riddled the team’s first Xbox One effort appear to have been rooted out and solved here. From day one, the matchmaking systems have been both speedy and fair, getting you into hard-fought battles faster than ever before.

Which is appropriate, as not only is this the fastest multiplayer experience in a Halo game to date, but also the most balanced one in recent years too. Halo 5 equalises the playing field by standardising Spartan Abilities for all players across all modes, so no player has any one particular movement advantage over anybody else. By the time the credits have rolled on Locke’s misadventures in the campaign, you’ll have had plenty of time to adapt to get to grips with the Spartan Abilities, but it’s only when you jump into the game’s competitive multiplayer modes that you’ll truly master them.

Although it might be painful for a Bungie-era Halo purist to hear, these new moves totally change up the pace of multiplayer. Thankfully, it’s a change that’s clearly for the better. Halo 5‘s Spartan Abilities provide players with a familiar yet refreshingly different-enough set of tools that make tackling both the maps and enemy players an absolute joy. To put it another way, this is the freshest multiplayer experience the series has boasted since the halcyon days of Halo 2.

While it can’t compete with the kinetic pace and balletic grace of Titanfall, Halo 5‘s multiplayer experience is still a lithe and limber beast in its own right. For a start, the maps feel less like traditional multiplayer map fare, and more like whacky sci-fi jungle gyms for you to scurry over and explore. They allow for all sorts of creative new approaches to playing, and there’s this really exciting newfound sense of freedom and improvisation deeply married to the moment-to-moment gameplay. Clambering and boosting allows cunning combatants to shortcut their way around the maps and get the drop on their enemies, while sprint and shoulder charge allow aggressive players to dominate in close-quarters clashes like space bulls in a sci-fi china shop.

Like special moves in a fighting game, these Spartan Abilities are powerful tools in the hands of a skilled player, but they are carefully balanced so as to never feel overpowered or unfair. For example, sprinting allows you to cover distances at a greater speed, but will negate your shield’s recharge ability until you return to walking pace. Sprinting while under fire, or running away from a firefight with depleted shields means you risk being picked off with just a single shot by another attacker. Smart-Linking enables greater firing accuracy at longer ranges, but comes with the caveat of a reduced aiming speed, so hip-firing weapons the old fashioned way tends to win the day at close range.

Perhaps the most evident case of fine-tuned balance can be observed in the aerial ground pound attack. A fully charged pound will instantly kill an enemy Spartan on contact, but executing the move comes with a number of costly risks. First, the move has to be charged for a few seconds mid-air, leaving your motionless Spartan completely exposed and an easy target for others to pick off. Secondly, if you miss your target and don’t get a clean kill, then the move’s recovery animation will leave you wide-open to a swift counterattack (usually delivered in the form of an assassination) from your intended victim. Just like a fighting game then, learning how to best utilise your abilities and how to string them together in different contexts is vital to success in Halo 5.

If the campaign is the training course, then Warzone and Arena are the exams, and oh boy, if only every exam could be as much fun as these two. Arena is the mode most in-line with traditional competitive Halo multiplayer experiences. Arena matches are all about seizing power weapons and using co-ordinated teamwork to control small tightly constructed maps. These maps are ranked four on four affairs that feel like claustrophobic rat runs, (if rat runs happened to be populated by armoured supersoldiers carrying ridiculously powerful ballistic and beam weaponry) though the recently added eight on eight fan favourite Big Team Battle mode helps to add a bit of much needed variety in terms of maps and gameplay.

Which is handy, as the selection of modes on offer in Arena is rather slim pickings indeed. You’re basically looking at just Team Arena (which houses Capture the Flag, Strongholds and other objective-focused modes), Slayer, Big Team Battle, Free-For-All, Breakout and SWAT. The new paintball inspired Breakout is a curious new addition, which plays out like a Halo version of Counter-Strike, yet it ultimately ends up feeling like a protracted, clumsier version of SWAT and, and will likely only appeal to the most hardcore of players and esports wanabees. Compared to the number of modes offered in previous games, Arena definitely feels a tad stingy at the time of writing, and the lack of dedicated unranked casual playlists to compliment the uber-competitive ones feels like a glaring omission on 343’s part. Nevertheless, for players who are of a competitive nature, an accurate skill-based matchmaking system means that you’re in for fair but close-fought battles with similarly adroit antagonists no matter which playlist you choose to play. Plus, extra modes are temporarily introduced every now and then as one-off weekend experiences for players to dip into and help spice things up a bit. Shotty Snipers anyone?

At the other end of the multiplayer spectrum is Warzone. This is pretty much the exact opposite of Arena in every single way. Billed as a large-scale ‘anything goes’ type of experience, Warzone is a non-ranked twelve on twelve battle which incorporates some choice MOBA influences into the already bustling mix.

Warzone is basically Big Team Battle, only on a much larger scale and played on much larger maps. At the start of a match, both teams spawn in at their bases, and have to clear out the occupying AI enemies (usually irritating Forerunner Crawlers) that are rushing out to meet them. Once that’s done, the battle then becomes a large scale version of Halo 4‘s Dominion/Call of Duty‘s Domination; players have to try and capture three control structures on the map to score points for their team. Extra points can also be accrued by killing enemy Spartans and taking out further AI characters that will periodically spawn into the map, with the biggest points bounties going to those players who manage to take down the difficult Legendary bosses. If a team manages to control all three control points at once, then the shielding on the enemy team’s base drops and the attackers can rush in to attack the core.

If that all sounds confusing don’t worry, the win conditions are really quite simple – the first team to accumulate 1000 points or destroy the enemy core wins; in other words, seize and hold the capture points and shoot the living daylights out of anyone and anything that isn’t on your team. But the beauty of Warzone is that rarely do matches play out in such a simple fashion. Each point capture and boss kill is a potential game-changer, and learning how to read the flow of the match and integrate this ongoing info into your personal strategy is vital. Is it better to play the long game and hold down two control points for a long, slow win or aggressively push to try and capture a third? Is it wiser to defend your core in close proximity when it’s under attack, or better to lock aggressors out of your base altogether by taking back a control point and maybe even make a heroic counter-attack in the process? In well-matched games, both teams will jostle for the lead right up to the last second, and questions like these can make or break the match. Put simply, Warzone is one of the most exciting and tactical multiplayer modes seen in a Halo game yet. Its a winning combination of surface simplicity and integral complexity that makes it the go-to mode to play in Halo 5. But…

REQ

Ta-da! Microtransactions! They finally did it!

…there’s a catch. If Warzone were Achilles, then the REQ system would be his eponymous heel. REQ is a microtransaction system 343 have implemented in Halo 5 to replace the previous loadout system of Halo 4. Primarily speaking, the REQ system controls how weapons and vehicles are distrubuted in Warzone matches. Here’s how it works. Players earn REQ points by playing matches and earning medals in multiplayer, which they can then exchange for REQ card packs – think FIFA card packs, only packed with guns and vehicles instead of overpaid prima donna crybabies. The cards in these packs can be used at REQ stations in Warzone matches to requisition (get it?) the equipment on that card for use in the current match. The cards come in three varieties – permanent unlocks (loadout weapons and their variants), one-use consumables (all vehicles and power weapons) and cosmetics (armour, helmets and gun skins).

To prevent players from just instantly spawning in with their best cards and dominating a Warzone match, REQ cards also come with an energy requirement. Energy is gradually earned as Warzone matches progress and players kill enemies and capture bases. Once a player has met the energy requirement for a REQ card, then they can call it in. It all sounds a bit faffy and complicated on paper, but in actual fact the process of calling in vehicles and weapons from REQ stations actually works pretty smoothly in game.

So what’s my beef then? Prior to the launch of Halo 5, I voiced a lot of concerns I had about how the system would be implemented in the finished game, and lamentably, most of them still stand. The REQ system is a frustrating obstacle that consistently impinges upon the player’s experience, and sets a worrying precedent for how future multiplayer modes in 343 titles are likely to be structured.

The big problem with the system is that it allows players to purchase REQ packs with their real world money. Or, to put it more accurately, the system is specifically designed to act as an arbitrary barrier between the player and the multiplayer equipment in an effort to get them to part with real cash. While it’s not directly a pay-to-win system, the REQ system has been implemented for an equally nefarious reason – to coerce players into spending money to avoid an unreasonably lengthy grinding process.

As all the cards from REQ packs are doled out at random, it can take players who don’t pay into the REQ system a ridiculous number of hours to unlock just the basic set of loadout weapons (let alone anything fancier) without spending money. Gold and Silver REQ packs guarantee two new cards for your collection, but as there’s no order or routine to how players move through the unlock system, more often than not your hard earned points just seem to get you more useless cosmetic tat. This is a significant disadvantage for a starting player, as although the starting Magnum and Assault Rifle combo is great for close to medium-range combat, these weapons simply can’t compete with the Battle Rifle and DMR at long-range on the huge Warzone maps. Players who don’t have access to these more specialised scoped weapons are consistently outgunned once both team’s energy levels get to the Level 3 mark.

Take my own absurdly long quest for a DMR as an example. Listed as one of the five basic weapon loadouts in the REQ menu, I naively assumed at the start of my first multiplayer match that I’d have my preferred long-range weapon of choice in my Spartan’s gauntlets in no time. Poor old Level 1 me, how hopelessly wrong you were.

DMR

40+ hours to unlock the basic loadout? Really?

After diligently saving up my points and clocking up 11 hours in Arena and 29 in Warzone (correct, I have no social life), I’ve only just got a DMR variant from one of my most recent pack openings. I’m sorry, but forty hours’ of playing just to unlock the basic weapons is absolutely ridiculous! Unless you’re regularly reaching into the digital wallet of yours, Halo 5 has no respect for your time in the slightest. When a task as simple as unlocking the loadout weapons (which only took playing a few matches in Halo 4 I might add) requires almost two entire days of playing time, it just comes off as hilariously out of touch with modern multiplayer design, and how the majority of people play multiplayer games today. Or, perhaps more cynically (and likely), maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe the system is designed to feel so random and uneven that spending money to get ahead on REQ packs looks like an increasingly tempting proposition. The Rolling Stones once sang, ” You can’t always get what you want”. Unfortunately in Halo 5‘s multiplayer, you can’t even get what you need. I feel you Mick, I can’t get no satisfaction either.

Using the REQ system as a crude sort of lucky dip bag to get new cosmetic items is harmless enough, but that’s because they are effectively meaningless freebies. Personally, once I’d finally unlocked most of the basic arsenal, I found that I just couldn’t care less what fancy-schmancy helmets the game decided to chuck my way anymore. That being said, even the way in which the REQ system doles out these cosmetic items at random completely removes any of the value and prestige that used to be associated with these items in previous Halo games.

Because all the multiplayer unlocks you get (save a few specific armour sets which are tied to achievements from The Master Chief Collection) come from the luck of the draw (and the depth of your wallet) it never feels like you’re actually earning any of the shiny new trinkets that land in your lap. The REQ system completely fails to capture that sense of pride you’d originally get from having to work hard at unlocking a flashy piece of armour in the old games, and strips all significance and meaning from the various bits and pieces you’re allocated from the packs.

If, for example, you came across an enemy player in Halo 3 who was rocking the Elite Ascetic helmet then you instantly knew two pieces of information about that player just from their appearance alone:

1. This player is handy with the Energy Sword, as this armour is unlocked by getting the ‘Steppin’ Razor’ achievement, which requires getting a triple-sword kill. I should keep my distance.

2. FUCKING RUN!

As anyone can earn any armour at any time with the REQ system, this interesting nuance of detail and player expression is completely lost in Halo 5. The outcome is that the ‘winnings’ of your REQ packs feel like nothing more than tawdry throwaways; each new armour unlock an empty worthless husk to add to your collection.

Perhaps I wouldn’t feel as strongly as I do about the REQ system and its randomised card nonsense if I hadn’t already played a version of Halo 5 that didn’t implement the card collecting REQ system whatsoever, and was a far better experience without them present. At EGX this year I got to try out the Halo 5 Warzone demo, in which every weapon and vehicle in the game was available for use from the off. No silly consumable cards were in play – the energy level requirements of each piece of equipment alone managed to keep the gameplay balanced – and it was absolutely fucking glorious.

In the Warzone taster I played, I was able to order up a Ghost, a Warthog, a Mantis, and a Phaeton all in the course of a single match (as could every other player), and it was a hell of a lot of fun. To recreate that same experience in the finished game today would require me to either shell out potentially hundreds of pounds on REQ packs to get the cards I need for those vehicles, or spend who knows how many more days of total play time in multiplayer to earn the necessary number of REQ points required to achieve the same ends. In other words, it’s going to be a very VERY long time before I’m going to be able to experience the same highs I felt during my first hands-on with the game.

To be fair, if implemented instead in a free-to-play game, the REQ system wouldn’t feel nefarious or gross in the slightest. In fact, in such a context, the system could arguably function as a considerate and reasonable method of mediating out new content to players at fair, reasonable costs. However, when used as the core backbone of a full price first party triple-A flagship of a game like Halo 5, it just feels completely out of place and greedy. 343 have forced a free-to-play payment scheme into a big budget game, and it’s to the detriment of an otherwise excellent multiplayer suite.

Wake Me…When You Get Another Master Chief Card, Yeah?

Osiris

That’s all folks. See you in 3-5 years for Halo 6: The Search for Locke’s Character.

So, how to conclude this ridiculously long train of thought (one that legitimately started off as an attempt to write something shorter – my bad)? If you’re a long-time fan of the franchise, or solely interested in multiplayer, then Halo 5: Guardians is still well worth your time, despite the game’s many failings. Though the campaign marks the first significant stumble of the 343 era, the multiplayer is perhaps the best iteration of the system in any Halo game to date, in spite of the heinous REQ system. Plus, while the campaign will always be painfully mediocre, the multiplayer will potentially get even better with age, given the free map updates and other new content 343 are going be periodically rolling out over the coming months. It’s a flawed and fractured package, yes, but when considered as a whole, Halo 5‘s positives manage to just about outweigh its negatives. Just.

Given the general consensus of the game from the big names and publications of the gaming world, I’m sure that 343 will take on-board the concerns of its critics to eventually deliver a Halo 6 that excels on both the campaign and multiplayer fronts. Just please 343, don’t make us all another promise like ‘Hunt the Truth’ if you know you can’t keep it.

Pros

Cons

+ Excellent gameplay

– Disappointing campaign

+ Fantastic multiplayer suite

– No campaign matchmaking or casual multiplayer playlists

+ Ongoing free multiplayer maps

– REQ pack microtransactions do not belong in a full price retail game

Five Things from the Expanded Halo Universe That You Probably Don’t Need to Know for Halo 5

Chief Helmet
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Time sure does fly when you’re having fun. Conversely, I’ve found that it tends to drag a bit when you do nothing but stare at the Xbox One’s marketplace screen for hours on end, salivating in anticipation of that glorious moment when the Halo 5: Guardians game tile finally appears in the new releases section. As the old adage goes, a watched kettle never boils, and the same idea is true for digital games. Well, not literally I suppose, what with kettles and boiling water and how not checking the download never…okay fine, it’s a bad analogy. The point is, with only a few hours left to go before the release of Halo 5: Guardians, hype levels for the new game are through the roof. Well, through my roof anyway, and let me tell you, these roofing bills are fucking expensive.

To pass the time between roof repairs and eye watering sessions of endless screen staring, I’ve been gradually getting my Halo fix via alternative means. Namely, I’ve been catching up on a variety of exciting goings-on in the Halo universe by reading a bunch of the latest books and comics that have hit digital and physical store shelves. You see, being a bookworm bastardo, one of the things I particularly love about the Halo franchise is how it has gradually spawned a detailed and rich expanded fictional universe that massively enriches the basic narrative told within the confines of the games. While the main plot of the series is usually experienced from behind the familiar golden visor of the Master Chief, in my opinion the best stories of the Halo universe are instead explored from the eyes, cameras and tentacles (seriously) of the far more interesting characters (sorry Chief) encountered in the books.

While it’s understandable that the cerebral storylines of the novels wouldn’t really work at the breakneck pacing the games require, I sometimes feel that it’s a bit of a shame that the more unique character-driven stories of the Halo universe are relegated to the comics and books, a place where the majority of fans won’t experience them. That’s not to knock those mediums at all (hell, I’ve been lapping them up like a thirsty Unggoy for years since they first started), but for a series that’s first and foremost a video game franchise, it’s hardly surprising that a large part of the game’s fanbase just simply aren’t going to want to go and trawl through all this extra narrative material to get clued up on the Covenant, Crawlers and carbines. Oh, those sweet, sweet carbines.

Halo Books

You thought speedrunning the Halo games was tough? Try speedreading your way through this lot (with all skulls on).

Hell, it’s certainly not what you might consider a bit of light reading; alongside the six core Halo games, there are currently twenty novels, eight comic series, a podcast radio play, a collection of anime shorts, two live action TV series and a plethora of online ARG sites. Bearing this sheer quantity of material in mind, perhaps the most impressive thing about all of these expanded extras is that they’re all officially canon. With the exception of one delightfully daft Dragonball Z-esque episode of Halo Legends, everything in the expanded universe is written and designed specifically to be officially canon with respect to the story and events told in the games. Pretty impressive for a series that’s been going strong for the last fourteen years and counting huh?

So just why exactly am I prattling on about the Halo expanded universe here? Well, since 343 Industries inherited the Halo mantle from original creators Bungie, they’ve notably tried to cross over more of the giant lore library of the expanded universe into the realm of the games. While this is a very cool thing for a total square like me who’s thumbed their way through years of supplementary lore materials, it’s not always clear to the average Halo fan who’s not even read this wealth of extra materials just what exactly is going on at times.

This was a common complaint voiced by fans after the release of 2012’s Halo 4. That game’s inclusion of a significant chunk of supplementary plot material from outside the core games rankled with a number of players, and looking back at the game now, it’s easy to see why. At times, it can feel like the game expects players to be well read up on the developments that have taken place in the intervening years between the events of Halo 3 and 4, and doesn’t ever really pause long enough to bring those who are unfamiliar with said events up to speed. While this approach certainly made for a thrilling and streamlined gameplay experience, narratively speaking it meant that a lot of important but nerdy details were left out, and many players were left in the dark.

So, to butcher some time before the arrival of Halo 5, I thought I’d momentarily tear my bloodshot eyes away from the TV screen and repeatedly thump my head against this keyboard a bit to put together five daft pointers about the expanded Halo universe. Who knows, a few of them may even to be slightly useful as background context for the new game…maybe.

Specifically, I’m going to be looking at tidbits of info that aren’t covered in particular detail in the games themselves, or are otherwise just plain skipped over in the interest of time; small nuggets of knowledge that might just suggestively tickle away at your swollen curiosity glands in-between bouts of gunfire, grenades and ground pounds. It goes without saying then that I’m going to be discussing a fair few spoilers (a pretty major one right from the off in fact) so consider this your official klaxon-sounding SPOILER WARNING!

Knight Screaming

In case you missed the last one, SPOILER WARNING! AGAIN!

Still with me? Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, it’s time to put down those BR85 Heavy Barrel Service Rifles and let me lore you to death. Speaking of which…

  1. The Didact is Dead…Probably

Didact Death

Look, I did warn you that the first one was going to be a biggie, so don’t give me that look. Remember that big bad Forerunner overlord dude from Halo 4? The nasty six-fingered fellow with telekinetic abilities who commands a synthesised robotic army and is packing some mean-looking incisors to boot? Well, he’s as dead as a digitalised dodo. At least, I think he is anyway – allow me to explain.

Although we see the alien antagonist plummet into the ominous orange eddies of The Composer in the finale of Halo 4, his ‘death’ actually occurs in the comic Halo: Escalation Volume 2. As the title suggests, ‘The Next 72 Hours’ is a three-part story arc that takes place immediately after the climactic events of Halo 4’s campaign. Master Chief and his fellow Blue Team compatriots – Fred-104, Kelly-087 and Linda-058 – are deployed to Installation 03 to investigate the sudden loss of communication from a science team working under the supervision of Black Team (the same specialist ONI Spartan team encountered in Halo: Blood Line as a matter of fact).

The Blue Team buddies arrive on the scene to find that things have gone just a tad pear-shaped at the unresponsive science camp. The scientists are dead, Black Team are dead, and the place is crawling with enough Promethean pests to warrant a prolonged visit from Rentokil. What a cracking start eh? Shortly after defeating their attackers, Blue Team then discovers a structure known as The Composer’s Abyss, which houses a slipspace portal to The Composer’s Forge, the original resting site of the deadly weapon the Didact used to try and digitise the Earth’s population.

Going through the Portal to the Forge, John comes face to face with the dastardly Didact once again. You see, it turns out that after falling through The Composer’s portal, the Didact was warped to Installation 03, where he’s eventually encountered by the rather puzzled Spartan Black Team. Being the cheerful chappie he is, the Didact proceeds to tear apart the Spartans and scientists, and is currently in the process of repairing Installation 03 to use it against humankind, the slimy bugger.

Being purveyors of righteousness and whatnot, Blue Team leap into action and try to stop him. However, they are easily overpowered by the Didact’s Jedi-like mind powers and reactive armour, which gradually becomes immune to their basic ballistic weapons. Despite putting up a valiant fight, the mighty Blue Team are thrashed.

Just when things are looking pretty grim for Johnny and the blues though, the monitor of The Composer’s Abyss, 859 Static Carillon, joins the fray. This little orb is downright appalled at the Didact’s procurement of Prometheans (apparently vaporising humans to twist them into monstrous robotic killing machines is a bit of a Forerunner no-no – who’d have thought?) and in a moment of rage, teleports the Didact away before he can deliver the killing blows. However, being a bit of a dingbat, Static has only gone and sent the Didact to Installation 03’s control room – exactly where he needs to be to fire the ring. D’oh!

While the rest of Blue Team return to their Longsword fighter, Chief gets Static to teleport him up to the ring to try to stop the Didact. Mocking the now unarmed Spartan, the Didact asks how Chief has any hope of stopping him in combat, to which Chief states he can’t; he lets gravity do the job for him instead. Ejecting the ring’s control platform, Chief and the Didact hurtle back down towards The Composer’s Forge. While Chief is safely teleported to Blue Team’s Longsword at the last second, the Didact isn’t so lucky; the final shot we see of the fearsome Forerunner is of him bellowing out a final Darth Vader-like “Noooooooooooooooooooo!” as he digitally dissolves into the Forge. Ouch.

While this certainly looks like quite a painful way to go, it’s not exactly a confirmation that the Didact is 100% dead and gone. In a debriefing to Admiral Hood back on Earth, Chief considers the Didact a ‘contained’ rather than eliminated threat, so it’s not clear whether he’s actually dead, or just trapped somewhere in the matrices of the Forerunner Domain. Only time will tell I suppose. Whether or not the Didact makes another comeback in Halo 5 or future titles is yet to be seen. But if he does, one thing’s for certain – he’s going to need a heck of a lot of after sun lotion to cool off after his digital dunking.

2. The Spirit of Fire is Still Lost in Space

Spirit of Fire

The massively underrated Halo Wars by Ensemble Studios was not only one of the few examples of a real-time strategy game done well on a home console, but also a really good Halo story in its own right. Instead of shooting your way through alien hordes from the first-person perspective of a MJOLNIR armour suit, Halo Wars zooms the camera way back to a third-person overview and lets you call the shots from above as a UNSC commander. You’re still shooting your way through Covenant and Flood, just mixing things up a bit.

With regard to the game’s story, there’s some very intriguing plot threads that are suggestively left dangling by the time the credits roll – ones that may have much bigger repercussions in Halo 5. Here’s the condensed record of events. Taking place twenty years before Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo Wars‘ story follows Captain James Cutter and the crew of the Spirit of Fire, who are sent to investigate a Covenant excavation operation on Harvest, the first human planet to be attacked in the human-Covenant war (as detailed in Halo: Contact Harvest). Touching down on the glassed planet’s north pole, the UNSC discovers that a Covenant fleet (under the command of the brutal Arbiter Ripa ‘Moramee) are sticking their jaws, beaks and tentacles into places where they shouldn’t – namely into a fancy schmancy Forerunner relic site.

Clearing out the Covenant forces at the structure, the human ground forces move in and discover a giant interstellar map. Fearing the worst – that the Covenant have acquired the location of Forerunner weapon cache – the Spirit of Fire goes in hot pursuit of the alien fleet, tracking them first to Arcadia, before eventually intercepting them inside a hidden Forerunner shield world (similar to the Requiem planet in Halo 4). Within this giant safe-like planet, things quickly go from bad to worse; it turns out that the Covenant are in the process of reactivating a massive fleet of ancient Forerunner warships. To put it lightly, if they succeed in getting them operational, it’s pretty much game over for the human race.

Realising their only hope is to play the dog in the manger card – if we can’t have the Forerunner ships, no one can – The Spirit of Fire sacrifices its FTL drive as a rudimentary bomb to destroy the entire planet and its deadly cargo. The Spirit of Fire escapes the exploding planet using some clever gravitational slingshot manoeuvres…but without her FTL drive, the ship is stranded way out in the vast darkness of uncharted space. With no means of returning home, the crew solemnly enter cryosleep one last time, and prepares for a potentially very long nap.

Hang on a second – what the hell has this got to do with the books and comics you might ask? Well, as it turns out, quite a bit actually. In Halo: Escalation Volume 1, we learn that James Cutter’s son, Daniel Clayton, isn’t all too happy about the fact that Admiral Hood and the UNSC have basically declared the Spirit of Fire as lost with all hands. Not too happy at all.

Joining up with the New Colonial Alliance, an insurrectionist anti-UNSC militia, Clayton tries to strike back at Hood in 2558 by attacking a post-war peace summit between the Sangheili and Jiralhanae on Ealen IV. Thanks to the efforts of Commander Palmer and her Spartan IVs, the NCA are unsuccessful at taking out Hood and further souring relations between the Brutes and the Elites, but Clayton is quick to push a counter-offensive by sending the UNSC Infinity a Trojan space horse of sorts. Intercepting a distress signal from the Pilgrim’s Pride, a damaged freighter with faint life signs and a rapidly venting atmosphere, the UNSC pick it up only to find the core is rigged to blow with explosives. Just brilliant right? Fireteam Majestic board the Pride, and eject the core to prevent the Infinity being blitzed. Afterwards, it’s established that the assault ships deployed from the wounded freighter during the attack came from a certain vessel called the Spirit of Fire – which leads Hood to realise who’s behind the attack, and why.

Cue obligatory flashback scene. In command of the Roman Blue during the events of Halo Wars, Hood (at this point in time just a Navy Captain) is tasked with retrieving the Spirit of Fire’s log buoy after the battle of Arcadia. Encountering a Covenant fleet enroute to the buoy, Hood disobeys orders to not engage the enemy and attacks them out of wounded pride. Though he emerges victorious from the battle, it’s at a great cost. Having sustained heavy damage, The Roman Blue has to abandon its search for the Spirit of Fire, effectively dooming the ship and her crew to the inky blackness of space. Whoops.

Tracking the assault ships back to a Covenant space station hidden in the asteroid belt of Oth Lodon, the UNSC Infinity engages Clayton’s forces, but takes an absolute battering from the station’s plasma cannon. Just when it looks like lights out for Hood and the Infinity, Clayton’s plans are foiled once again by Commander Palmer and her Spartan IVs, who lead a booster frame assault on the station to do what they do best – kick ass and take many, many names. Though he’s ultimately captured and detained in the Midnight Facility (the Halo universe’s equivalent of Guantanamo bay), Clayton swears revenge on Hood, boasting that he’ll meet again when the UNSC finally crumbles. Oh Danny boy, the cells, the cells are calling…

For all we know, the UNSC Spirit of Fire is still out there drifting away in the cold black void of space – and if the final few panels of the comic are to be trusted, there might be a few unwanted stowaways lurking on-board as well. Whether it turns up during the events of Halo 5, Halo Wars 2 or beyond, who knows, but whoever eventually finds it may be in for a very unpleasant surprise.

  1. Master Chief is Potentially a Reborn Version of the Iso-Didact

Chief Evolution

Greg Bear’s Forerunner Trilogy is an excellent read if you want to learn more about the mysterious Forerunner race that is at the heart of Halo‘s many mysteries. Set millennia before the events of the first game, the books chart the fall of the mighty Forerunner civilisation to the greasy, corrupting tentacles of The Flood. Over the course of the trilogy, some very provocative questions are raised in the reader’s mind, ones that are likely to have far-reaching implications for the Master Chief in particular.

There’s an awful lot of info to cover on this topic, but I’ll try to give you the whistle-stop tour. The Forerunner Trilogy is told primarily through the eyes of Bornstellar-Makes-Eternal-Lasting, a young Forerunner Builder (think an alien Luke Skywalker, only one who designs fancy buildings as opposed to working on a moisture farm) who is reluctant to go into the family business so to speak, and instead yearns for adventure and to learn more about the Precursors (the Forerunner’s fabled forebears…still following me?)

Sneaking aboard supply transport headed for Erde-Tyrene (AKA Planet Earth) under the direction of his ancilla (a Forerunner AI), Bornstellar eventually meets the Didact (popular guy huh?) who after awakening him from his Cryptum (the same big orange and black ball thing we see in Halo 4) imprints his consciousness, memories and genetic markers on the young Manipular. I’m glossing over a lot of details for simplicity’s sake here, but this basically turns Bornstellar into a second copy or clone of the original Didact if you will.

To cut a very long story short, from this point onwards two versions of the Didact exist in the Halo universe – the Ur-Didact and the Iso-Didact. The Ur-Didact is the big human-hating bastardo who players encounter in Halo 4 and the one digitised in Escalation Volume 2, whilst the Iso-Didact is the pro-human version responsible for activating the Halo array and whose last communications to The Librarian you can read in the hidden terminals of Halo 3.

So how does this all tie back to the Master Chief? Because it’s strongly hinted at throughout the Forerunner trilogy and other sources that John-117 is actually a reincarnated version of the Iso-Didact. Cool right? Here’s why.

One of the key pieces of evidence for this theory is linked to how 343 Guilty Spark, monitor of Installation of 04, interacts with Master Chief after he almost fires the ring in the ‘Two Betrayals’ level of Halo: Combat Evolved. When Chief asks whether 343 already knew the ring’s true purpose – to wipe out all life in the galaxy – Guilty Spark is absolutely baffled:

“…You already knew that. I mean, how couldn’t you? We have followed outbreak procedure to the letter. You were with me each step of the way as we managed this crisis. Why would you hesitate to do what you have already done? Last time you asked me: “If it were my choice, would I do it?” Having had considerable time to ponder your query, my answer has not changed: There is no choice. We must activate the ring.”

Out of context, this all sounds like nonsensical gibberish. However, there are answers to be found in the musty pages of the books. It’s revealed in the Forerunner Saga that 343 Guilty Spark used to be the proto-human Chakas, who befriended Bornstellar back on Erde-Tyrene all those millennia ago. Midway through their galactic gallivanting, Chakas becomes mortally wounded, so Bornstellar (the Iso-Didact at this point) transfers Chakas’ consciousness over to a monitor unit to save him. Eventually, the duo find themselves in the unenviable position of having to fire the Halo rings in a last ditch effort to stop The Flood. Moments prior to firing the Halo array, the Iso-Didact asks 343 this:

“Were it your choice, could you fire the Halo array?”

Why is this line important? Because it gives vital new context to 343’s confusing utterances on ‘Two Betrayals’. In other words, 343 Guilty Spark recognises Master Chief as Bornstellar/Iso-Didact, and is utterly confused why his friend has no apparent knowledge of the weapon system he has already fired years and years ago.

Need more evidence? You got it. In Halo 4, the theory that Chief is the Iso-Didact is further supported when Chief encounters a vision of The Librarian, the Didact’s wife and the main Forerunner Lifeworker responsible for curating and studying all life in the galaxy. Shortly before catalysing the mysterious geas (the Forerunner word for a latent genetic command) hidden in Chief’s genetic makeup, The Librarian reveals some rather interesting secrets indeed:

“Reclaimer, when I indexed mankind for repopulation, I hid seeds from the Didact. Seeds which would lead to an eventuality. Your physical evolution. Your combat skin. Even your ancilla, Cortana. You are the culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning.”

This revelation, taken with 343’s recognition of Master Chief as Bornstellar in Halo: Combat Evolved strongly suggests that Chief is indeed a human reincarnation of the ancient Forerunner Warrior-servant known as the Iso-Didact. Fascinating stuff huh? Although all this is just unconfirmed conjecture at this point, my personal assumption is that whatever latent genetic properties that the Librarian activates in John will undoubtedly have some major bearing on his journey. Whether we’ll get more information on the Chief’s genealogy in Halo 5 or a future game remains to be seen, and while I don’t think we’ll ever get a look under that olive-green helmet of elusiveness, here’s to hoping we get further info on his mysterious heritage sometime soon.

  1. Halsey now has both halves of the Janus Key

Janus Key

Though Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops was a tedious and uninspired attempt at bringing new post-launch story content to the game, one aspect of the package that couldn’t be faulted was the fantastic quality of the pre-mission cutscenes by Axis Animation.

These weekly cutscenes from the Glaswegian studio were easily the best thing about Spartan Ops, and while the missions that followed them were often just the same hackneyed shooting galleries ripped straight from the singleplayer campaign, the pre-episode shorts told an interesting brand new and exciting story, taking place six months after the events of the main campaign.

The second batch of Spartan Ops cutscenes were where the story got particularly interesting though, with the final episodes of the season depicting an exciting clash between Commander Palmer’s Fireteam Majestic and Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant splinter faction – the fallout of which could have a big influence on Halo 5‘s narrative.

To recap, Spartan Ops ends on the ominous note that Halsey has defected to ‘Mdama’s legion and wants revenge on the UNSC. After she’s nearly assassinated by Palmer, and loses her arm to the stray bullet, it’s kind of hard to argue with her logic. Halo: Escalation Volume 3 picks up shortly after Spartan Ops’ story, and shows how Halsey is actually going about the process of enacting her revenge by reuniting both halves of the Janus Key.

What is the Janus Key, and why is it important? Well, the Janus Key provides the real time location of every piece of Forerunner technology in the galaxy, and was gifted to Halsey on Requiem by The Librarian. She instructed Halsey to take the key to a place called the Absolute Record, and use what she finds there to elevate humanity. That’s before she was shot by a fellow human however, so now it looks like she’s going to use whatever might be there for the purposes of crippling humanity rather than progressing them. Bummer.

Now working alongside ‘Mdama as his brainy second in command, Halsey lures the UNSC Infinity to the Planet Oban, where she remotely tampers with the UNSC Infinity’s engines (using some fancy-schamncy Forerunner tech, natch) to prevent them making a slipspace jump away. Descending to the planet’s surface to determine the cause of the interference, the idiotic Dr. Henry Glassman discovers what he thinks might be the Forerunner artefact messing up the Infinity’s engines, and requests to have his half of the Janus Key brought down to him. What he doesn’t know is that the artefact is actually a fake planted by Halsey to dupe Glassman into bringing his half of the Janus Key out into the open, so it’s ripe for the taking. Needless to say, it’s not long before Glassman’s half inevitably falls into the paws/claws of ‘Mdama, and no thanks to Palmer cocking up her Halsey assassination attempt number two, the two conspirators escape.

The story arc ends with Halsey and ‘Mdama reuniting the two halves of the key, and finally acquiring the location of The Absolute Record, a suppository of Forerunner tech and goodies that really shouldn’t belong in the hands of a mad scientist with a thirst for revenge. Shitting crikey, that really can’t be good – perhaps Master Chief will have something to say about her change of heart in the very, very near future.

5. Master Chief has a Bit of a Crush on Linda-058

Linda-058Okay, so this is a bit of a daft one to finish on, but what the heck. It’s subtly hinted at several times in Halo: First Strike that John is romantically interested in his fellow bootcamp buddy, Spartan Linda-058. As Linda is part of Chief’s Blue Team unit in Halo 5: Guardians, this should give them plenty of time to get to know each other way better.

Considered to be the galaxy’s best shot with a sniper rifle, Chief reckons Linda is by far the strongest and most independent of all the Spartan IIs. Praise indeed from one of the most efficient killers in the UNSC.

First Strike only has a few subtle clues about these two – a tender embrace here, a lingering glance there – but there’s enough references throughout the novel to suggest that John and Linda have a bond that’s perhaps just a teeny bit more intimate than the typical Spartan camaraderie.

As these are sexually repressed supersoldiers bred for war we’re talking about here, I doubt we’ll see a blossoming Rule 34 fan-fic romance play out between the two characters on our consoles, whether we like it or not. So while the Halo equivalent of Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher coupling probably isn’t on the cards any time soon, it’ll be interesting to see if this tantalising narrative thread will be picked up in the Halo 5 script.

Anyway, that’s enough background noise from me – enjoy Halo 5, and I’ll see you on the other side Spartans. Kick a Guardian in the face for me yeah?

EGX 2015 – PlayStation VR, Kitchen Demo

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The Morning after the Fright Before

Picture the scene. You groggily come to, bleary-eyed, and find yourself in a dark, grimy kitchen. You try to get up and move, only to discover that your hands and legs are bound with rope to the chair you’re slumped in. The unblinking glassy eye of a camcorder stares back at you from atop a creaking tripod, recording your every wince and struggle against your restraints. A dishevelled man in a dirty suit lies sprawled out across the greasy tiles, and you can’t tell if he’s unconscious, dead or somewhere in-between the two sorry states. A typical morning after the night before in Huddersfield, you might say.

But no, this isn’t the morning after a particularly sordid night of bacchanal northern excess, or the opening to a new SAW film, but rather the opening to Kitchen, Capcom’s virtual reality horror demo for Sony’s PlayStation VR. While in Birmingham for EGX 2015, I got the chance to try out this sleek blue-tinged helmet to see what Sony is bringing to the virtual reality table…and find out what horrors were waiting for me in Capcom’s scary scullery.

Though I’m still yet to be truly swayed about VR gaming in general, from my hands-on with Kitchen I can safely say that there are some very cool things to be excited about if you’re even just the slightest bit interested in the marriage of horror and virtual reality. Particularly so if, like me, you’re also a cheery masochist who happens to enjoy having virtual sharp pointy objects thrust close to your virtual eyeballs from time to time, Dead Space style. Oh yes.

Before we get to the juicy bits though (quite literally in this instance) it’s time for a quick recap on Sony’s VR device itself. Initially revealed to the world at the 2014 Game Developers Conference as Project Morpheus (named after the Grecian God of dreams, and sadly not Lawrence Fishburne’s pill-popping pugilist), PlayStation VR is an in-development virtual reality visor designed for use in conjunction with the PS4 and due out in the first half of 2016. With a 1920×1080 display capable of running at speeds of 120fps, it’s a beefy piece of kit, and one that many of Sony’s first and second party studios are busy creating games and experiences for. There’s already a fair few decently fleshed out VR demos that are currently available to play on the device, many of which have been doing the rounds at previous events such as E3 and Gamescom. Sony followed suit with EGX in the UK, and so the usual suspects such as The London Heist and Battlezone were among the titles available for people to try out over the course of the event.

Sadly, due to the way the public appointments were scheduled, you couldn’t actually choose which demo you’d like to try in your PlayStation VR demo slot. Instead, it was simply down to the potluck of getting whatever demo just so happened to be free at the moment you strolled up for your allotted time. Luckily for me however, finding out that I’d be sampling Kitchen was pretty much the ideal personal scenario; after hearing Lucy O’Brien positively detailing her experience with the demo on the IGN AU Pubcast, I was keen to strap on a mental apron of bravery and check out this kinky kitchenette simulator for myself.

There’s an Onryo in My Kitchen, What am I Gonna Do?

Kitchen

Okay, so here’s how things played out. After an extensive wait in a Sony holding pen (seriously), I’m eventually collected, stripped, sheared, hosed down and deloused (not seriously) before finally being seated for my demo session. As my demo assistant carefully adjusted the PSVR unit for my noggin, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the PSVR headset is way less bulky and heavy than I expected. Although the only other hands-on experience I’ve had with VR tech was with the Oculus Rift earlier in the year at March’s Rezzed event, I can’t exactly remember an awful lot of how the Rift physically felt on my head, but that’s most likely because I was having a lot of fun running for my virtual life in the fantastic Monstrum at the time, but I digress. Having said that, the PSVR felt both lighter and comfier than the Rift from what I can remember. Of particular note is the fact that Sony’s headset has an adjustable slider to set the position of the internal cushioning around your nose and eyes, which is great if you’ve got a bit of a wonky ol’ konk like mine.

With eyes, ears and proboscis all sealed in my virtual sarcophagus of headset and headphones, it’s finally time for the fun to begin. A brief title screen appears, which is quickly replaced with the decrepit kitchen of my first paragraph. I’m told to hold my hands out, and shortly after I feel the warm clammy contours of a DualShock 4 placed in my palms – nice. I’m then instructed to keep hold of the controller with my hands loosely held together in my lap (to simulate being kinkily tied up), and to gesture forwards with it to begin the demo. I thrust my hands forward, clattering the camera tripod to the floor, and an unfortunate set of events are slowly set in motion.

So yeah, you’re sat in this grungy kitchen (think something along the aesthetic lines of The Evil Within‘s environments and you’re on the right track), and for a while, nothing happens – which is good, as this gives you ample time to have a good look around. Looking down at my virtual body, I see that yes, my hands (and also presumably my virtual feet) are trussed up, hence my current immobility.

However, unlike my virtual body, my physical one is under no such restrictions, so I can actually turn round in my seat and get a 360-degree view of the room. It’s hard to overstate just how impressive this basic motion is, even though it’s an extremely basic tenet of pretty much any VR experience, but it really is quite something. Even though it is sort of immersion breaking in this instance – surely if these bonds are loose enough for me to fully rotate around in my chair, I could wriggle out of them in no time right?

Another small point on the visuals was that while the overall fluidity of motion of PlayStation VR was very slick, the picture quality of the display did seem a tad grainy and fuzzier than what I had previously experienced in Oculus. This may well have just been a visual filter added for a gritty horror aesthetic in just the Kitchen demo itself, but it was hard to say for sure.

Anyway, I’m just nit picking here – time to go back to the demo. Eventually, the man on the floor slowly starts to get to his feet, looking dazed, confused and, perhaps most importantly, not hostile. In fact, he looks scared. No idea why though, as nothing has clearly gone wrong already, and surely nothing could continue to go wrong in a kitchen in such fine upkeep as this. Nonetheless, he picks up a rusty knife off the floor and gestures for me to hold out my hands – AKA the controller – that he can cut my bonds. Gulp.

As someone who gets a bit queasy thinking about things like wrists being in close proximity to rusty knives, this next section is a tad uncomfortable to say the least. Holding up the DualShock 4 doesn’t really feel like holding one’s bound hands together at all, yet somehow the sensation of holding the controller out in front of you whilst your eyes are simultaneously seeing your virtual hands held aloft in the visor is surprisingly immersive.

This immersion becomes even more effective when this dude starts hacking away at the messy tangle of rope lashed between your wrists. Seeing the blunt knife slip and slide through the thick ropey cords in quick jerky motions suddenly makes what you’re seeing feel all the more tangible and distressing. It’s easily one of the more uncomfortable bits of the demo, and it still makes me feel a bit queasy just thinking about it now as I write this. To make matters worse, with no warning at all, suddenly a ghostly Onryo woman raises up out of the floor behind your rescuer and shanks him up pretty badly before cutting off his head. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

From here on out, the final minutes of the demo involve this Hisako lookalike fiendishly toying with you in a number of dastardly ways, the most memorable of which happens in another uncomfortable section where this ghastly ghoul slowly points the business end of the knife closer and closer towards your eye. Even though it’s an ancient 3D film cliché at this point, it’s still effective and really unsettling to see something come within inches of your face. There’s a few more moments of her scuttling around the room while you rapidly try to locate her position, but eventually, a cold grey hand covers your eyes from behind, and it’s game over man. Game over.

Ghosts Versus Cockneys

VR Dude

The PlayStation VR unit in use by a bearded Zelda-loving chap (AKA not me), wielding a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, probably for The London Heist. Cockney rhyming slang not included.

So, what did I think to PlayStation VR and Kitchen? Overall, they’re both pretty neat. The PlayStation VR unit itself is an impressive (and surprisingly comfortable) piece of tech, and though it’s just a basic demo at this point, Kitchen certainly does make a compelling case for full-on VR horror experiences very nicely indeed. But…

Okay, so I’ve got a couple of issues here. First, there’s the classic problem of VR motion sickness. Just like with the Oculus, PlayStation VR it’s a device that seems to quite frequently make a significant number of its users feel sick, including yours truly. I started to feel pretty queasy only a few moments into the Kitchen experience – definitely from motion sickness I might add, and not the grimy aesthetic of the demo – and I continued to feel pretty grim for some time afterwards. Although Sony claim that the fast refresh rate (120Hz) of the PlayStation VR greatly reduces motion sickness in comparison to other VR headsets, I personally didn’t feel any noticeable difference on a user level and quickly found my stomach roiling with waves of nausea in no time at all. But hey, this technical wizardry is beyond my tiny little pea brain, and I’m sure this is the sort of the thing that will eventually be solved given the inevitable march of progress, technology and time.

Secondly on a software level, although Kitchen was a lot of daft fun, it wasn’t really what I’d consider an interactive experience by any stretch of the imagination. The only sort of interaction the game required of me as a player was to roughly gesture forwards with the controller on two occasions – that’s it. It’s immersive and visually impressive certainly, but Kitchen is basically just a short VR horror film. Not exactly the killer app you’re looking for in a new piece of gaming-specific hardware, right?

Perhaps if I’d got to try out Sony London’s The London Heist for example, my opinions here might be slightly different. In that game, I’d have needed to duck and crouch on the spot in reality in order to pop in and out of virtual cover in the game, and use PlayStation Move controllers to point and shoot weapons at incoming enemies. That’s while I’m also Benny Hill slapping burly Statham-like skinheads on their shiny domes, slurping down great salty bowlfuls of jellied eels and yelling “Cor blimey mate, get down them apples ‘n’ pears, faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaackin’ ‘ell!” between each briny mouthful of moray. Typical video game stuff, in other words.

Yeah, I know, it’s pretty standard faire to want to shoot endless hordes of goons in a video game, but at least The London Heist‘s gameplay actually requires a significant level of interaction from me as a player, as opposed having me sit still as a passive observer like in Kitchen. A VR experience like that with a few basic mechanics and gameplay elements in play might have sold me on the use of PlayStation VR as a serious gaming platform, and not just a fancy supplementary VR cinema contraption. The small vignette demos and experiences on the PlayStation VR right now are very cool and exciting, but personally I need to see something more involved, more interesting and way more interactive to seriously consider buying a finished retail unit in the future (I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky).

Speaking of which, there’s the cost issue. PlayStation VR is certainly a flash and exciting device for the PlayStation 4, and going forward we’re probably going to see Sony put a much greater emphasis on its VR headset as a premium way of enjoying its burgeoning catalogue of games. But damn, what a premium it’s going to be. The latest news on the pricing is that PlayStation VR will retail at somewhere around the $300-$400 mark, after Andrew House (President of Sony Computer Entertainment International) suggested to the press that the headset would have a price point comparative to the cost of a new next-gen console, and would be marketed as such. That’s one hell of a lot of money to spend on what’s essentially still just a console accessory, no matter how revolutionary it may be.

Obviously, developing this VR stuff is expensive – I’m an idiot (that’s a given) but I do understand that developing tech like this costs a lot of money. Hell, you could even say that the headset being priced at the equivalent of a new console is actually cheap considering how advanced this VR visor actually is. But the fact remains that $300-$400 for a secondary PS4 device is still a hefty price tag for the average consumer, no matter which way you cut it.

However, even with all those whiney concerns of mine, there’s still an awful lot to be excited about with PlayStation VR and the whole VR industry in general. If you’ve read this far (you poor misguided sod), you’ll have no doubt realised by this point that one of the inherent problems with trying to explain all this VR stuff lexically is that it’s a massive injustice to the whole concept. Particularly when it’s an idiot like me who’s the one typing all these lexemes out for you to read. VR is an experience which you really have to see for yourself in order to grasp it’s full potential – you have to get your head inside a VR unit and nearly have your eyes poked out by a knife-wielding wraith to see why it’s such an exciting concept. It’s way more fun than it actually sounds, trust me.

While I personally think a great game will draw in and immerse a player in its world regardless of whether they’re experiencing it with a VR headset on their cranium or not, I’m sure that one day VR will probably be the way most people experience and play video games. It’s a cool and exciting future, definitely, but I think for most of us, that future is still a way off from being a practical and affordable reality any time soon. In the meantime, I’m happy to be stabbed by ghosts and shot at by Cockneys in the place where I’ve always enjoyed those activities – on the TV. Now where did I put those jellied eels…

EGX 2015 – Halo 5: Guardians, Warzone Multiplayer

Queueing Sign
Standard

Hands-on with Halo 5‘s Massive New Multiplayer Mode

Going to EGX is both an exciting and daunting proposition. On one hand, it’s a great opportunity for a regular punter like myself to be able to get hands-on access to the brand new shiny games shown off earlier at E3 and Gamescom. On the other, because you’re attending as Joe Public, what sounds like a fun-filled day of non-stop gaming action on paper is actually more like an eternity of queuing, pocketed by evanescent moments of virtual escapism. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an exciting place to be, but boy is it exhausting on the pins.

Aside from the expected physical aches and pains, operating as an individual blogger at an enormous expo like this can also be quite a mental strain as well. From the second you set foot inside, it’s easy to quickly feel way out of your depth; everywhere you look there are these big professional teams of hip, young trendy YouTube personalities going about with their own personal harem of cameramen, boom-wielding sound engineers and lighting technicians that document every second of their time there. It’s a bit intimidating to say the least, particularly when all you’ve got for company during your hours of queuing are a notebook, camera and a half-eaten tuna sandwich – oh joy.

EGX 2015

However, such is the life of a solitary blogger, and despite this whingey and pessimistic pre-amble, I actually had a very enjoyable few days of checking out all that’s new and exciting in the gaming realm. EGX 2015 was held at Birmingham’s NEC as opposed to last year’s venue London’s Earls Court (which sadly is due to be demolished like a set piece in a Call of Duty campaign), and although the NEC itself felt like a rather bland backdrop for a video game convention, the important thing is that a lot of the games on show were well worth the long queues to play.

One such game that is very worthy of your attention if you like sci-fi first-person shooters is 343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians. My verdict? To paraphrase the all-consuming Gravemind, “There is much talk, and I have listened, through rock and metal and time. Now I shall talk, and you shall listen”. In other words, get a cup of tea, get comfortable, and I shall regale ye rotten with my thoughts on Halo 5‘s multiplayer.

Or to cut a long story short, yeah it’s pretty good (does the Ocelot gun gesture).

The Art of War…Zone

Halo 5 Xbox One

Like many other Xbox owners around the world, my fetish for seeing men and women in bulky combat armour clank into each other on virtual battlefields only intensifies with each new release in the Halo series. So, to indulge my insatiable desire for steamy power armour on flesh action, I headed straight to the big green Microsoft stand after getting my entry wristband to join the already massive queue for their marquee title.

Three hours of queuing (and heavy excited breathing) later (all the while enduring the dopey antics of some of the most punchable dudebros I’ve ever come across), I was finally able to pick up a controller and get stuck in to a 20-25 minute Warzone match on the ‘Escape from A.R.C.’ map. Before we get into the nitty-gritty details however, let’s back up for a second and go over the basics.

As already indicated by the title of this post, the mode 343 had on offer for the Halo-hungry hordes attending EGX was Warzone. This is the new large-scale competitive multiplayer mode debuting with Halo 5 which pits two teams of twelve players in a head to head (or more appropriately, helmet to helmet) battle of attrition, but with the added twist of also fighting off malicious mobs of AI attackers. 343 have playfully dubbed the mode as ‘Player Vs. Player Vs. Everything’.

Warzone is basically a riff on the familiar Big Team Battle mode from the previous Halos mixed with the point capturing of Halo 4’s Dominion and some choice MOBA elements that put an interesting new spin on the series’ traditional multiplayer formula. If the use of the word MOBA makes your stomach churn in panic, don’t worry – Warzone’s objectives are simple. The first team to 1000 points wins; points are earned for killing enemy players, killing enemy AI characters and capturing and holding target zones on the map.

See, nice and easy right? Having said that, there is a very cool twist to Warzone, and it’s here that the MOBA influence comes into play (Don’t panic, this is straightforward too, I promise). If one team simultaneously controls all the zones on a map, then the opposing team’s power core will be exposed back at their base, leaving it wide open for an attack. If the power core is destroyed with, say, a cheeky proton torpedo or two (read: plasma grenades), then that counts as an instant win for the attacking team, irrelevant of the current points total – yippie-ki-yay motherfucker indeed. It takes a lot of hard work and close co-ordination with your teammates to pull off a successful core detonation, but the sweet reward of a decisive on-the-spot victory makes all those gallons of blood, sweat and tears worth it.

Laptop

The culmination of all these different gameplay ideas working together results in a multiplayer mode that feels consistently exhilarating, regardless of whether you’re trouncing the opposition, or being completely dominated. There’s always hope of a last-minute comeback victory for the losers, but also the ever-present danger of defeat for the winners at any moment, which serves to keep both teams on their toes right to the very last second of the match.

Okay, so that’s the theory of Warzone out of the way – let’s crack on with the practical.

Spring Cleaning

Big Halo Sign 1

At the start of a Warzone match, both teams have to first clear out the pesky AI Forerunner squatters that have taken up residence in their respective bases. With the stern yet dulcet tones of Jennifer Hale’s Sarah Palmer in my headphones, my Red team chums and I drop into our base via Pelican dropship and prepare to fuck up some ferrous Forerunner ass.

These starting enemies mainly comprise the canine-like Forerunner Crawlers first introduced in Halo 4, but there were a few of the new Armiger enemy types amongst their number too. Sadly I completely missed this early engagement with the Armigers as I had to readjust my settings to invert my aiming and look controls, so I can’t really say much about how these new enemies operate as they were all wiped out by the time I properly joined the fray. From what I could see though, the Armigers appear to operate as a sort of much-needed intermediary enemy in the Forerunner ranks – stronger than the Crawlers, but weaker than the Knights.

With our base secured and free from enslaved human robots, the next few minutes see our team slowly wander out into the map to butt heads with Blue team and try to capture zones along the way. It’s all pretty low-key stuff at this early stage in the game; snipers volley short-range pistol shots at each other across the glinting metal rooftops, run-and-gun attackers clutch assault rifles and zig-zag across the dusty open ground from cover to cover, and explosive indoor corridor jousts flare up wherever the two sides meet.

It’s at this point that Halo 5‘s Spartan abilities really come into play and give you some interesting new map traversal options to experiment with. In particular, the new Spartan Boost ability that transforms what previously would otherwise be a rather dull and tired part of the Halo multiplayer experience – commuting across the large distances on foot to get to the action – into a high-speed adrenaline rush. Take a running leap off a platform and hit your thrusters mid-air and your Spartan is temporarily soaring through the air round the map like a bird. An ungraceful man-sized metallic bird with an assault rifle in its hands (or should that be talons?), but a bird nonetheless. Used in conjunction with the also new wall-clambering ability and the capability to indefinitely sprint (finally), it’s easy to achieve moments of kinetic (no, not that kinetic) grace as you swoop and soar your way across the map’s sandy orange dunes.

Aisle Shot

As both teams settle into the to-and-fro rhythm of capturing and defending zones, the interior spaces of these structures inexorably play host to the most intense firefights of the match. It’s here where the true benefits of the Spartan abilities come to the fore, as players clash in a crackling blur of extinguished shields and smoky thruster trails, a lightning-fast ballet of quick fingers and even quicker wits. The ability to hover mid-air, clamber up ledges and deal out deadly ground pounds give players access to a whole new vertical library of punishment, transforming a basic indoor scrap into a ridiculously exciting pressure cooker of claustrophobic indoor chaos.

In particular, mastering the nuances of the Boost ability in a close-quarters combat situation proves essential to survival. Learning when to rocket forwards to rapidly close distances and deal out crunching melee hits, or backdash with a reverse boost to escape a hail of bullets or the thundering blast of a grenade are vital manoeuvres to commit to muscle memory. With regard to the latter point, it’s hard to get an accurate feel of just how Halo 5‘s pineapples are balanced in this current pre-release build of the game, but they seem to pack a bigger wallop compared to the frag grenades of old, presumably as a means to compensate for players’ increased manoeuvrability.

Interestingly, as a final point on the zone capturing, whenever you move in to capture an enemy-controlled structure, a small readout on the HUD appears to let you know how many enemies are still occupying the building. This small detail is fantastic, as it helps you to quickly make important snap decisions; is it better to fall back and get reinforcements, or keep pressing on and find where that last dirty little cloaked camper is and rip out his thro…ahem, sorry about that, got a bit carried away there (deep breaths).

 Where the Wild Things Aren’t

Big Halo Sign 1

One of the slight disappointments with Warzone is that despite the mode’s inclusion of AI enemies, the truth is that there really aren’t an awful lot of them to go around. In addition to the handful of standard enemies occupying the bases at the start of the match, there’s a few straggling outliers huddled near each of the zones, and…that’s about it. Whether the AI population is an ongoing balance issue that’s still being tweaked, or whether it’s simply the case that the Escape from A.R.C. map simply doesn’t have many standard AI enemies to hunt, I’m not sure. Perhaps I just went in with my expectations set too high, expecting to see swarms of enemies rushing both teams in numbers comparable to Halo: ODST‘s excellent Firefight mode, but thankfully it’s not a big deal. The exciting part of Warzone is, of course, taking the fight to the enemy human players à la Big Team Battle.

However, what the AI troops lack in number, they more than makes up for in might. As both teams are racking up kills and holding down zones, Palmer occasionally pipes up to announce that Covenant and Forerunner boss enemies have spawned into the map. Simply put, these things are fucking beasts. These bosses are essentially souped-up versions of the standard Covenant Elites and Forerunner Knights found in the campaign, but don’t let their appearances fool you. Though they might look like the typical enemies you’d encounter in a Halo campaign, they have significantly better shielding and health to draw on, and can pack a much heftier wallop compared to their story-based counterparts. I repeatedly tried to take down a big Elite commander lurking in an out of the way construction tunnel by myself, but after being melted one too many times by its plasma rifle, I quickly decided to focus my efforts on helping my team hold down zones instead. Teamwork is essential to taking these big baddies down, but for those who enjoy a bit of bounty hunting, there’s a hefty jackpot of bonus points to bag for felling these fierce foes.

Check Yourself Before You REQ Yourself

REQ Station

To even think about tackling the enemy AI bosses, you’re going to need some serious firepower, and this is where 343 have decided to mix things up a little. Warzone differs from the rest of Halo 5‘s multiplayer in that it utilises the new REQ system as the primary means for players to get their hands on better gear.

Unfamiliar with it? Let me bring you up to speed. REQ is a vehicle and weapon requisition (get it?) system that 343 have designed specially for Warzone as a sort of middle ground between traditional first-come first-served weapon and vehicle distribution of the older titles, and Halo 4‘s controversial loadout system. Players earn energy points in Warzone by killing enemy players, AI troopers, capturing and holding bases etc. which they can then cash in at REQ terminals in their base to get a shiny new weapon or vehicle to kick ass with. Each item you can order belongs to a specific tier, and these tiers gradually unlock over time according to their energy requirement; basic items with a low energy requirement (such as pistols and rifles) will unlock sooner, while the power weapons and big vehicles will unlock later on in the match. It’s a clever and elegant way of allowing the player to pick the weapons they want, whilst still keeping the competitive playing field fair for everyone else.

Come to think of it, why am I trying to explain the ins and outs of the REQ system, when I could have the sage-like Mister Chief do a much better job of it for me:

It’s a difficult equilibrium to achieve, but I think on the whole 343 have got the balance between player choice and competitive fairness pretty spot on (though I still have some major concerns, but I’ll get to these later). A lot of Halo traditionalists disliked 343’s first foray into personalised weapon distribution in Halo 4, as they felt it negatively impacted the classic map and power weapon struggles they adored in the older games. Others disagreed, and enjoyed the more flexible approach to basic weapon acquisition, seeing it (alongside the inclusion of a standardised sprint function) as a progressive and considerate step in contemporising the Halo franchise to its industry peers and bringing it up to speed with the expectations of the modern FPS player.

As one of the minority of players of Halo 4 who actually appreciated the ability to spawn in with your preferred low-tier weapon of choice ready to go in your hexagon-riddled gauntlets, I think the REQ system will satisfy both schools of Halo thought. The timed unlock tiers of the arsenal mean that players can’t just instantly spawn in with top-tier armaments and wipe the floor with everyone else, and the energy requirements encourage players to think wisely about their purchases. Should you cash out on a Covenant Carbine, or save your energy and splash out on a Spartan Laser a few spawns later on? Go for a Gungoose early on, or splurge on a Scorpion tank further down the line? The choice is up to you (and the contents of your sizzling green energy wallet).

 Unfortunately though, as my Warzone match progressed and piles of dead Spartans started to pile up in crumpled heaps around the map, it gradually became apparent that hardly any players were making use of the REQ system. This was probably due to the clownish oafs Microsoft employed to man the Halo booth being more interested in dancing to the tunes thumping out of the nearby Rockband 4 stand than, you know, actually telling people how to play their fucking game, but hey, that’s just my guess. For whatever reason, a lot of the players I encountered didn’t seem to know how to get hold of a new gun or vehicle – either that or they were perfectly content to just go running out into the map with nothing but the standard issue assault rifle and pistol combo. This was a shame, and as a result the match I played didn’t really have the same level of intensity and pandemonium that the pre-release trailers have hyped up to the max. I’m sure when the final game comes out and people are familiar with the new systems that things will quickly start to feel more jam-packed and manic, but my first Warzone match definitely felt weirdly quiet at times.

Fortunately for me then, the noticeable lack of other vehicles and power weapons on the field meant that when I took to the skies in a Forerunner Phaeton I met very little anti-air resistance (cue Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, and pull on a pair of tinted aviators).

Phaenting the Town Orange

Player Close-up

Being a long-time Halo wheelman, I knew instantly from the second I picked up the greasy display controller that I wanted to get behind the controls of Halo 5‘s coolest new vehicle ASAP. I made sure to frugally hold back enough energy points for one so I could deploy this new toy as soon as the time-restriction passed, and it was certainly well worth the wait.

Allow me to indulge in my obsession for this beauty. The Forerunner Phaeton is a beastly aircraft, and the first vehicle we’ve seen from the Didact’s Forerunner faction; it’s an angular gunmetal grey aircraft that combines the shape of a Harrier Jump Jet with the sleek contours of stealth bomber. It also has a lot of orange paint on it, because you know…Forerunners and stuff.

Mechanically speaking, it’s an interesting vehicle to get to grips with. Unlike its Human and Covenant peers, the Phaeton feels designed first and foremost for defence over offence. It manoeuvres and hovers in a similar fashion to the Hornet, though it’s increased size means that it handles more like a floating gun platform than nippy attack chopper, swapping speed for increased durability. It comes equipped with a beefy futuristic chaingun, which spits out a hail of hard light bullets at your target, which quickly turn enemy Spartans into fizzing puddles of Tango. These bullets are powerful, yes, but they’re also quite slow moving (compared to the fire rate of a Banshee’s primary projectiles for example), so learning to lead your shots just slightly in front of your target is essential to land hits.

The most unique feature of this flying Forerunner craft though has to be its ability to phase in and out of the air, meaning you can essentially juke out of the way of incoming projectiles. While I couldn’t figure out how to activate the dodge ability myself in this match, it’s definitely going to be a vital thing to be able to pull off in the heat of combat.

I spent the entirety of my time in the craft punching sizzling orange holes in ground-based infantry targets, so I didn’t get to see how the Phaeton holds up in an aerial dog fight, but I imagine the trick to taking on airborne vehicles will be to stand your ground and let your attacker come to you rather than give pursuit. While the Banshee and Hornet can probably outrun the Phaeton in terms of raw speed, the Phaeton’s phase ability gives it an unparalleled flexibility at short-distances; continually warping out of range of your attacker’s guns will be highly irritating, and also give you extra time to rake nasty orange bullet scars across their hull.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and ultimately my airborne killing spree was cut short when I was rudely blown out of the sky by a particularly determined rooftop defender. It was time to get back to the fray on foot for the final few minutes of the match, but my next thought was, to quote the mighty 117 himself, “I need a weapon”. Again. Although I’d been regularly plucking out basic ranged weapons throughout the course of the match, I didn’t really have a full perusal of all the goodies on offer until I’d had my fun with the Phaeton.

Warzone’s arsenal consists largely of Halo 4‘s returning armoury (sadly minus the sticky detonator) along with a few new additions such as the Hydra, a homing RPG weapon that debuted in the previous Arena multiplayer Beta. Though my natural tendency was to stick to familiar favourites when ordering weapons (nothing comes close to speed, accuracy and satisfying thunk-thunk-thunks of the Covenant Carbine at mid-range sniping in my opinion), I did make an effort to sample some of the new tools on offer. One such newbie is the Covenant Plasma Caster; this is a purple crossbow-like contraption first showcased in the Gamescom campaign demo which has both rapid fire and charge-shot capabilities. It basically functions as a sort of hybrid between the Concussion Rifle of and Reach‘s Plasma Launcher – I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to use, but sadly, due to a deadly mixture of impatience and unfamiliarity on my part, I couldn’t really get it to work for me in the short time the weapon was in my grasp.

Indoor Ghost

The final few minutes of the game were a busy blur of running between bases, capping fools and dodging those fearsome AI bosses. Though we had a solid lead points-wise, our team still had a bit of a shock when all of the zones bases were suddenly under blue control, and we had to quickly scramble to capture at least one back to shut them out of our core. We managed it by the skin of our teeth, and before long we had all three zones under our control – touché Blue team. I’d just leapt into the bulky cockpit of a Mantis and was thudding my way across the map to launch everything I had at their exposed core when Red team won with a 1000 point total anyway. Sighing with contented relief, I turned my Mantis towards the sun and thudded into the distance as the monitors faded to black. Mission complete.

Oh, Just One More Thing…

Yes I’m doing a Columbo here, and yes I know this piece is really dragging on by this point now, but this last bit is important, trust me. Remember how I alluded to some concerns about the REQ a few paragraphs ago? Despite the delightfully daft attempts of Frank O’Connor’s scribbled Spartan to harbour goodwill towards this new system, having tried REQ out first-hand, I’m still uneasy about how the system will work in the final game. Specifically, I’m apprehensive about how it’ll impact on one of the key aspects of Halo multiplayer – vehicle and power weapon acquisition.

You see unlike the build of the game I got to try, when the finished thing hits store shelves and the Xbone marketplace later this month, the REQ system will have an secondary layer of virtual currency added to it – REQ cards (Mister Chief outlines how they work in the video I posted earlier, but for the benefit of doubt I’ll explain them again here). REQ cards are digital trading cards that players will use as a secondary payment system (on top of the energy level costs) to acquire power weapons and vehicles in Warzone matches. In other words, in order to call in a specific power weapon/vehicle in the retail version of Halo 5‘s Warzone mode, three conditions have to be met:

  • The player has the sufficient level of energy required to spawn in their chosen power weapon/vehicle.
  • The REQ system has time-unlocked the tier that the player’s chosen power weapon/vehicle belongs to.
  • The player owns the corresponding REQ card for that power weapon/vehicle.

Upon first glance, these conditions seem pretty fair and straightforward. However, there’s a catch. A couple of catches actually. As an old-school Halo wheelman, the initial worry I have with this system is that unlike the game’s basic weapon cards (which I believe are classed as permanent, unlimited unlocks once earned), Halo 5‘s power weapon and vehicle cards are categorised in the REQ system as single use cards. This means that whenever you order up your chosen vehicle/power weapon of choice, it costs you a card each and every time you want to spawn that item into a match. To put it another way, no card = no vehicle/power weapon. Out of Warthog cards? Sorry Spartan, you’ll have to hoof it on foot. The much bigger worry I have is the fact that packs of REQ cards will be available for players to buy with real world money as microtransactions. Want that Rocket Launcher soldier? Drop and give me twenty…pence.

Yup, we’re finally at the point ladies and gents – the mighty triple-A Halo series is soliciting microtransactions in addition to asking for your £60 upfront. Before you roll your eyes, no, I don’t think microtransactions are an inherently evil concept. Like additional DLC content, microtransactions can be well designed and fairly implemented in a game, usually offering purely cosmetic items for sale, or they are implemented in such a way that they don’t negatively impact the core gameplay experience of you or other players. Free-to-play games like Killer Instinct and Planetside 2 are excellent examples of games that positively use microtransactions in non-invasive ways, and most importantly, they don’t reward the players that do spend their money with unfair advantages over those who don’t.

Microtransactions absolutely have no place in a boxed £60 retail game like Halo though, and their inclusion is just unacceptable in my opinion. We’ll have to see exactly how these REQ cards work in the finished product of course, but from everything 343 has told us so far, it looks like the microtransactions are purely there to act as a tertiary barrier to encourage players to open their digital wallets.

To momentarily play devil’s advocate on 343’s behalf, players are said to be able to earn REQ cards for doing pretty much anything in Halo 5‘s multiplayer modes. Although we haven’t been given any solid info on frequency and drop rates for these cards, for all intents and purposes it sounds like players will be earning them at a steady rate, so I’m pretty confident that they won’t be given out quite as randomly and inconsistently as the engram rewards that the infamously tight-fisted Cryptarch in Destiny doles out (the smug blue-faced cunt). But the fact remains that although 343 have said that players will be continually earning plenty of cards for everything they do in Halo 5, these cards are an intrinsically unreliable resource by design. You won’t be able to 100% guarantee that you’ll have the capability to spawn in a Mongoose for that vital last minute rush on the enemy’s core unless you’ve paid cold hard cash for it.

Not getting the sniper rifle or Wraith you wanted exactly when you wanted it in the previous Halos wasn’t a big deal, as all the weapons and vehicles spawned into the map at once and were available on a first-come first-served basis. Missed out on getting a Banshee? No worries, just keep playing and it’ll respawn back in later. Conversely, Halo 5‘s REQ cards turn the process of getting into vehicles and getting power weapons into a random lucky-dip bag, unless you spend extra money. Why make a system that’s deliberately built to be unreliable in one area otherwise? If players can order up basic weapons at any point without requiring additional consumable cards (providing they meet the energy and time requirements) why can’t we do the same with the vehicles and power weapons?

It just feels completely unnecessary and tacky. In the Warzone match I played, vehicles and power weapons were already rationed out fairly to players with the energy cost and staggered time-based unlock requirements of the REQ system. These are more than adequate safeguards already in place to stop people abusing the system, and it simply looks like the REQ cards have simply been introduced to add another level of unnecessary complexity to the system, and a means of nickel-and-diming desperate players for extra cash. I’ll happily have my concerns proven overly-cynical, ill-founded and wrong – nay, fuck it, I’ll go one further and say I desperately hope I’m proven wrong – but until we get the finished thing in our hands, I’m definitely more than a bit worried.

Anyway, I’m just chuntering at this point, so I’ll climb off my soapbox for now and call it a day. Warzone is very cool, I had a lot fun with it, and I’m looking forward to vegging out playing more when Halo 5 drops at the end of the month. See you on the battlefield Spartan…or something like that, yeah? Oh, you’ve gone. Sadface.

Tim Newsome-Ward & Darren Flowers Interview (Desktop Daydreams)

The Corridor
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Life after Kickstarter: Catching up with The Corridor

Around this time last year, I happened across a rather interesting indie horror game called The Corridor: On Behalf of the Dead. Developed by Bradford-based indie studio Desktop Daydreams, it’s a 3D first-person horror game coming to PC and Xbox One, and, if I may say so myself, I think it looks pretty damn cool.

You haven’t heard of it? Allow me to bring you up to speed. The game places you in the shoes of Ri Anderson, a Custodian (think a neurological Sherlock Holmes mixed with equal parts Judge Dredd and Inception‘s Dom Cobb and you’re on the right lines) who has to enter the mind of a suspected murderer and navigate through their various memories to get to the truth of a (probably rather grisly) murder case. This process of entering minds and poking about with their memories is facilitated with the use of a special program called The Corridor (think The Matrix‘s VR program, only with less gun-blasting lobby scenes and designer sunglasses and more creepy monsters and mind-bending madness). As the name might suggest, the program displays the suspect’s mind to the Custodian as a virtual corridor, which acts as a hub area from which the player accesses the various scattered memories of the subject. I say scattered, because the order in which they are accessed is randomised each playthrough. The player has to navigate their way through mysterious mental echoes to find important clues, avoid creatures and gradually build up a case of evidence in order to make a final judgement on the suspect at the climax of the game.

Sounds neat right? Intrigued by the game and its curious cognitive concepts, I previously spoke to the game’s Designer, Tim Newsome-Ward, on the eve of the game’s August 2014 Kickstarter campaign to find out more. Although the game generated positive media coverage, was selected for Steam Greenlight and picked up plenty of new fans along the way, in the end the project sadly didn’t reach its minimum funding goal. Since then we haven’t heard much from the Desktop Daydreamers, and to an outsider, it looked like the lights might have ultimately been switched off on The Corridor for good.

Thankfully, I can tell you right now that this is definitely not the case. I once again met with Tim and his colleague Darren Flowers, Desktop Daydream’s Creative Director, to talk about what’s new with The Corridor, and it sounds like things are very much full scream (sorry) ahead.

Pig Head

“It’s a been a tough road,” laughs Tim good-naturedly as he nurses a hot cup of coffee, “We’re still going strong even though we’ve had a rollercoaster ride at the beginning of this year.” It’s a bright sunny Bradford morning when I meet Tim and Darren, and in contrast to their pleasant and cheery company, the nice weather and the plush furnishings of Waterstones’ cafe, I’m about to learn just how dark and tough this rollercoaster ride through the harsh reality of indie development has been for the tiny two-person studio. I kick things off with a rather unsophisticated opening question; what happened next after the Kickstarter failed?

“We had to think positively,” Tim recalls. “Steam have given us the okay, so we thought look, let’s keep working on the game keep pushing as far as we can.” Their resolve to keep going in the face of adversity is even more impressive when it’s revealed that the team’s programmer left the project at the end of last year. “We got to Christmas, and then our coder Chris left, so we lost our technical side. As a designer I’m part technical and part arty, and Daz is full art on the creative side of things, so we just thought oh shit!” he laughs. “We’ve known Chris since university, and we mean no disrespect to him; he had other things to do and his own financial concerns to deal with. He had to move on. We still talk to him and he’s still interested in working with us at some point, but basically he couldn’t dedicate the time that we needed and that’s fair enough.”

Chris’ departure inexorably forced the team into the unenviable position of having to find a new programmer – fast. “Everything we’d done up to that point was just a prototype, there were no solid or fixed frameworks; everything was hashed together to get a playable idea down. What we really needed was someone who could come in and tackle the engineering side of things. Someone to come in, take the reins and tell us what we need to do from a tech standpoint. We were humming and hawing for ages, but eventually we just turned to the community to see if there was anyone who liked the idea. We set up a post on the Unity forums at the beginning of this year which contained a few screenshots and the basic premise of the game.”

Little did they know however, that their programming soulmate was just around the digital corner. “We got tons of replies from coders, so it took a while to sift through all these applications. Eventually, we contacted Tony Li from Pixel Crushers in the States – he’s been fantastic as he bought into the whole idea and just gets what we’re going for completely. There was just something about Tony that made you know he was going to deliver; he was very much to the point and he came across with a lot of confidence. He was really good because he just knew what we needed and was totally professional. We sent Tony the GDD (Game Design Document) and he read through it and said what would work and what wouldn’t. We actually ended up ripping out more or less everything we’d started with and started again from scratch.”

On top of the personnel setbacks, another big concern from a technical standpoint was the game’s engine. Up to this point, The Corridor had been developed using Unity 4, but the release of the shiny new Unity 5 engine in March 2015 posed an enticing, but costly temptation for Desktop Daydreams. “Unity 5 had just launched and we thought wow, that looks nice! We’d already built a lot of the game in Unity 4 by this point – we had about five or six full levels finished and looking nice with the physically based shading kit, so we set these up in another test project and started converting them over to Unity 5.”

The decision to move things over to the newly announced Unity 5 was a particularly agonising choice for Darren. “I went kicking and screaming into Unity 5!” he laughs. “I didn’t want to do it at all, because there’s only two of us tackling this side of the game, so to completely changeover from Unity 4 to 5 would be a lot of work. We’d both put so much time into the game already, but were at a point with Unity 4 where I think we’d pushed it to its limits.”

Nevertheless, as Darren explains to me their visual aims for the game, it certainly sounds like all the extra work that went into migrating the project over to Unity 5 was well worth the trouble. “The main thing we had to be sure of was that it would be visually acceptable. We’ve set ourselves quite a high mantle – we’re not skimping anywhere, and if there’s something that doesn’t look right then we do it again. At first, when opening what we’d already made in Unity 4 in the new engine, it didn’t quite have that ‘wow’ factor, despite all the new shaders, lighting and textures in there. Now though, there’s nothing of the original game left – we’ve rebuilt everything, and it all just looks totally different and so much better now. We’ve worked on levels where we’ve completed everything, and then decided it’s not good enough, so we scrap everything and start again. It can be quite tearful binning something that you’ve spent the past six months working on, but we’ve had to do it because we want the game to look and feel the best that it possibly can.”

Basically, we started the whole game again, and reassessed everything,” Tim adds.With the new lighting, everything has this new realistic look to it because of the new physically based shaders and stuff, it works really well. It feels a lot more in line with other games that are already out there, but it’s going to take more time yet. We’re getting to a point where in the next few days we’ll be at the Alpha stage, all the in-game systems and mechanics are present and working. We’ve still got to do a lot of work in terms of getting levels and memories working, and getting the actual gameplay of those levels up to scratch, but because all the base frameworks are in place that will be a lot easier now. Looking back, we’ve done the right thing moving to Unity 5 because we think that we’ve got a much better game now as a result.”

With a new programmer in place, and the migration from Unity 4 to 5 well underway, Desktop Daydreams’ next move was to seek out potential publishers. Tim and Darren reached out to Microsoft, specifically their ID@Xbox program, who were quick to help step in and support the game. “We thought about what we needed to do next and decided to approach Xbox One and the ID@Xbox team. Having been Greenlit on Steam gave us a bit of leverage, and Xbox shipped us through the ID@Xbox onboarding process really quickly. We’ve got the XDKs, they sent the kit out really fast. It was really surprising and nice because they wanted to see a bit of the game, some screenshots and what figures we’d got from Steam. They were really good and supportive – it was like wow, we’ve got some kit from Xbox, even though we haven’t really got anything solid to show yet! I think they just saw the idea, thought that it was good and decided to get us onboard.”

Understandably in light of the tumultuous events, the game’s release window has now been delayed to Spring 2016. “Originally, we were aiming to have the game out by Christmas of this year, but with all the setbacks with losing staff and upgrading to Unity 5, it’s pushed us over into next year. I think towards the first quarter of next year, around April-ish hopefully. It’s going to be another few months before we get to Beta, but once we’ve signed off on the Alpha and we’re happy with everything, the Beta will progress pretty quickly as it’ll just be a case of building levels, building the gameplay in those levels, getting the story working and then testing it all. Testing is a big phase though, so we’re thinking of trying a closed Beta. We would like to do an open Beta, but with the game being so story-focused, we don’t want the narrative to get out there and onto YouTube before the finished thing is actually out and ruin it for people. We might release some specific playthrough videos or small slices of trailer footage, but it’s tricky because of course we want people to play it, but we also don’t want to give away the story. When you’ve only really got two people working full-time on a game and you’re going for top quality on all parts of it, then it does take time. It’s all part of the cycle of development; it’s been hard work, but we’re getting there.”

“We’ve been working on this for so long, and we’ve had such a knockback with the changeover to Unity 5 – all those events have put us back at least six months or so at least – that we don’t want all the people who helped us get through Steam Greenlight to forget that we’re still bringing this game out,” Darren earnestly attests. “Hopefully the game will have matured a lot, and it’s now just about giving us the time to get the finished thing out. But hey, these things happen when you’re making your own game with basically just two people and no budget!”

Without a central office for the team to work out of, there’s also a pressing need to keep morale levels up amongst everyone on the team. As well as Tony, Tim and Darren also regularly collaborate with animator Andreea Lintaru, but due to both geographic and chronological concerns, it’s hard to find time when everybody is free to touch base. “I think for a team to successfully work virtually without an office, everyone needs to be self-disciplined and have that drive to get up and do what you need to do,” says Tim. “Otherwise, you’re going to lose motivation and it’s just not going to work. Thankfully though, the DIY attitude of indie development certainly seems to have focused the team’s ongoing efforts, and kept them a close-knit group. “We’ve been working on the game for over two years now. We’re such a small team for a project of this scope and we’ve got to do everything ourselves. It’s an exciting process, but in terms of finance we’re running on fumes really. It can be a strain at times, but that’s also part of the fun of it all; you can only rely on yourself to get everything done. Daz tackles the creative side of things and I do the design, Tony writes the code and Andy animates. It’s how it is, you’ve got to learn what you need to do and just get things done.”

Spider Man

With the main pieces of Desktop Daydreams’ story over the last year in place, our conversation moves onto more specific details about the state of The Corridor itself. As a story-heavy singleplayer horror game with a mixture of linear and non-linear parts, I’m keen to hear how they still plan to get these potentially conflicting narrative elements working together cohesively. “We want it to be different to your typical linear video game story even though you’ll play it linearly with junction points where you’ll be able to choose your path,” Tim tells me.

“We had an idea first that when the player moves through these memory booths, you’d end up in a completely random level, but we decided that to get it right it just wouldn’t be a practical thing for a team of our size to do. So instead we decided to come up with a set amount of levels and really, really polish them.”

Interestingly, Tim explains how they have looked to real world brain psychology for inspiration when designing the structure of these in-game memories. “How would you access the memories in somebody else’s mind? Would you randomly access these memories, or would they come to you in some sort of structure? Could you travel back through that mind again and go to a different memory? Thinking in terms of the science behind real life memory engrams, we don’t really know how they work or how they are stored in the brain, so we built that idea into the in-game science and lore of The Corridor. The game might give you two hatches to go through, each taking you different ways – so that concept plays into how this virtual mental corridor is structured. We came up with the idea to have these branching points where you have to make a choice, and then once you’ve played through a memory, you’ll go back to the main path.”

“As you choose your own path through the game, you might do or see something in a memory that might influence how you perceive the story, and your decision process might be completely different if you went another way. You are going into these different memories at various branching points, and although it might feel disjointed along the way, when you get to the end you’ll be able to look back and piece it all together.”

While we’re on the topic of jumping into people’s minds and rooting through their memories and whatnot, I ask how the process of integrating Oculus Rift support is going. Unfortunately, although the whole premise of The Corridor makes it an ideal fit for VR, sadly it sounds like things are still at an early stage here. We haven’t got any of the Oculus kits at the moment,” admits Tim, “but we’ve also not really been at the stage where we felt like we needed one just yet. It’s still something we really want to do though, because I think it adds to that feeling of immersion we want. We’ve been building the levels with a 60fps target in mind, so things have already been optimised a lot for VR. It’s a time consuming process, but we’re getting there.”

Aside from the general narrative concerns, another big challenge for the two developers is designing a horror game around the personal and mutable tastes of its players. “We’re trying to scare people – that’s our main aim really, but it’s such a subjective thing. What do you do exactly?” Darren muses.

“Creating a universal fear is a very hard thing to achieve,” adds Tim. “We’ve done a lot of research into different types of horror, and ultimately fear is a relative thing to each person. People take their own personal fears and experiences into the games they play. Jumpscares are probably going to be a scary factor for some people, but we don’t want to overuse them as a mechanic.”

“A lot of games rely purely on jumpscares, but I find that once I’ve had one or two thrown at me then I just quickly get used to them,” interjects Darren. “It’s about keeping that fear in the player throughout the game. We’re almost trying to get people frightened of themselves. They might walk into a room and see something and make a decision based on what they’ve seen. Later on, it might turn out that they made completely the wrong decision, and we might try to make that realisation a bit upsetting. We want people to be aware of what they’re doing within the game’s environments all the time. Getting that idea to work within a horror framework is quite hard.”

“That’s why a lot of horror games don’t work, because they probably don’t have that level of fear to them.” Tim reasons. “It’s all about getting that uneasy feeling of being somewhere you don’t ever really feel comfortable. Some horror games are largely about the combat and the blood etc., but for us I think the important word isn’t so much horror, but fear. One of our main points of reference which we always go back to is Silent Hill. That first game had that feeling of constant dread, you never really knew what was coming, you never felt safe at any time – that’s the atmosphere we’re aiming for. It’s not necessarily about being anxious of dying, but rather capturing that feeling of tension and discomfort and sustaining it throughout an entire game.”

Darren suggests that a crucial factor in effectively creating and sustaining anxiety in the player is the aesthetic design of the world. “A lot of that goes back to the environment design. For example, one of my favourite bits from the first Resident Evil is the part where you move the bookcase in the Dormitory and go down into this flooded chamber just before you reach Neptune’s Aqua Ring. The creepy music playing in the room before you get to the flooded lab was so effective and it just sent shivers up and down my spine. It’s about creating that sense of fear and eeriness and having it pervade throughout the game continuously; We’re trying to create similar moments and memories in The Corridor that will hopefully stick with players for a similarly long time.”

“I think above all, you’ve got to capture that feeling of the unknown, so we want the environments to be as diverse as possible. They might throw unexpected things your way, so it’s not just about what you’re seeing and what you feel, but also questioning the nature of the spaces that you’re in as well. Am I actually in this environment or is it something else? One minute you might be outside, one minute you might be in something very cartoony, but they’ve all got that element of horror running through them, that similar atmosphere of fear that we’re after. Silent Hill did it with the radio static; if you were near to a creature you’d get the static crackling through on the portable radio. You might not even be able to see what you were close to, but it still sent that shiver down your spine.”

Silent Hill has not only inspired the team artistically, but also in regard to what elements aren’t necessary for The Corridor – such as a combat system.

“The only thing I didn’t really gel with in the game was the combat. You’d find a creature and have to batter it to death with a dodgy stick! It just felt like it was taking something away from the mood for me,” Darren reasons.

That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to put combat in The Corridor,” Tim affirms. “A full combat is not in the game because we’re trying to keep things true to the story of the game. The player’s character is attached to a machine that connects them to another person’s mind, and you’re entering their thoughts and walking through a virtually constructed representation of their memories to see what they’ve done and to find evidence of a potential crime. Would you really be there to fight things? Would you be there to shoot and kill? Your character is more of an observer, but would you still have to defend yourself from this other mind? We’ve gone through all these questions so many times! Thinking along those lines, we’ve come up with a scenario where you might come across a gun or weapon, but it might not be necessarily for shooting something or someone. If you fire off the gun, then you might actually just ruin the puzzle it was the solution to.”

Having said that, the team has experimented with the idea of a combat system to see how it could function. “We’ve temporarily got guns in the current game at the minute actually,” Tim reveals. “You can run round and shoot at stuff as part of a test mode we’ve built, and it is quite cool to have those weapons in there to see what combat in the game would be like. But we’ve got to be realistic and remember that to build an entire combat system with such a small team and to suitably balance the levels to accommodate combat would be a real strain on our already limited resources. It’s also a question of whether the game actually needs all this stuff?”

Darren jumps in right away to answer. “I don’t think it does. I remember playing Doom 3 for the first time and I was petrified. There was a time where I walked through a dark room and I could hear something breathing next to me, and when I got a tiny bit of light in there I could just see this bloke stood next to me! He didn’t do anything, but still, that moment was very creepy! The moment the combat started though I just lost interest in the game as it was not really what I wanted anymore. I really liked that emphasis on the fear element, I liked the uncomfortable feeling that you got from the characters and the environment.”

Angel Statue

I get a particularly insightful look into Tim and Darren’s different design philosophies when the topic of Konami’s cancelled P.T. comes up in our chat. Specifically, it’s talk of P.T.‘s metagame puzzles which sparks up an ongoing debate the two developers are still currently working through for their own game about how much help should be offered to the player in a game via the user interface. Darren wants to create a totally immersive experience in The Corridor, one that doesn’t overtly direct or influence the player by highlighting items or displaying textual hints whatsoever.

I like that feeling of total immersion where there’s just the barest minimum of UI elements present to guide the player. I like to know what I’m doing in a game without being explicitly told what I’m supposed to be doing. For example, if you see an item such as a book, if it’s part of the game you might be able to interact with it, if it’s not, you can’t. I don’t like it when you walk into a room and you’ve got two or three objects that you’re obviously supposed to interact with and they’re all shining brightly. Personally, I’d rather have those items not so directly indicated to the player,” he says.

On the other hand, Tim would prefer the UI to subtly call out important items and offer additional information to the player when necessary. “It’s about finding that balance. A lot of games will highlight important items in the game world, and we’re trying to work out what the best method is of calling out important items to the player. Do you highlight or put a glow around an item, do you change the cursor to a hand icon when it’s hovering over it? Do you put important items in more light, do you design that room in such a way that the items stand out? Do you make them aesthetically pleasing, or do you put a little red carpet running right up to each thing? There are good examples of this in games like Bioshock, where important primary narrative items had that golden glow to them, where secondary pickups like ammo and audio diaries had more of a subtle silvery shimmer. If you’re going for a totally immersive experience though, where the idea is to put the player into the game as if they were actually there, then you don’t want to have those sort of effects present. It’s a hard thing to get right!”

Darren suggests that a careful ‘less is more’ approach to the level and item design is vital for such a stripped down UI to work. “Basically it means that you’ve got to put less clutter in a room. If you put too many things in one area and people are searching absolutely everywhere, they will likely get bored, so the trick is to put less items into the environments but make them more meaningful and clear.

It’s fascinating to see how the two guys go back and forth on this tricky issue. Ultimately, they tell me that they’ve decided to go with a traditional UI and hint system, and give the players who want a hands-off experience the option to turn all UI hints off. “In The Corridor, we’re going to put the option in of being able to turn off visual hints in the user interface, so if you want you can play through without any overt visual feedback to guide you through the game,” elaborates Tim. “It’s been a point of contention, but some players will want that sort of fully immersive experience, while others will want more direction.”

“At the same time, we don’t want people to get totally stuck, to the point where it becomes frustrating. If the player has been working around for five hours and just can’t find the solution to a puzzle then you can just turn the hints back on again. I remember playing games like the original Tomb Raider, where I’d be looking for a missing cog puzzle piece for about four or five days! By that point I just didn’t want to play anymore, but then once I finally found the missing cog it was simply the best thing ever!” he laughs.

As we finish our coffees and our conversation draws to a close, Darren speaks about reconciling the contradictory schools of thought around what constitutes good indie game design. “I was reading something the other day on Facebook from Ga-Ma-Yo where one lad was giving some advice, which was basically when you make a game you need to make it for yourself. Then somebody else said no, that’s totally wrong, you need to make it for everybody! I think we’ve done a bit of both; we’ve made a game that we’d like to play but we’ve also tried to do a game that other people would really want to play as well.

Tim echoes his sentiment. “We have to be realistic. It’s bad to say it, but we’re running a business, we’re trying to make a living doing this, and you’ve got to consider the market. You’ve got to make something people want to play, something that people will want to pay money for. When you’re an indie developer, you’ve got to do something a little bit different to put yourself out there, and people will pay for quality. The good thing is that now we’ve got all the core mechanics working, it’s more a case of just building assets now and getting them all working correctly. The end product will hopefully be something that gamers will absolutely love to play.”

At the end of the day,” Darren laughs “we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love gaming. It’d be great to get a game out there that we were involved in that people enjoy. But loads and loads of money would also be alright as well, I’ve got a wife and two small children to feed!”

Here’s hoping 2016 goes plain sailing for Desktop Daydreams. You can follow Tim and Darren’s progress over @desktopdaydream on Twitter, and keep an eye glued to their website and Steam Greenlight page for the latest updates.

Alek Wasilewski Interview (Tsioque)

Tsioque
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Princesses have been around in video games for almost as long as the medium has existed, but unfortunately they (and sadly many other female game characters) are still to this day often relegated to the tired old damsel in distress role. It’s refreshing then to get to play as a princess who actually gets to do the adventuring for a change.

Tsioque (pronounced /tsIɒk/) is the upcoming point and click adventure game from OhNoo Studio & animator Alek Wasilewski; the game places you into the small triangular brown shoes of the eponymous princess as she navigates her way through an imp-infested castle to thwart the plans of an evil wizard (who incidentally rocks a fantastic combusting coiffure I might add) who has usurped her mother’s throne. It’s already successfully been accepted onto the Steam Greenlight program, and the team are currently midway through an ongoing Kickstarter campaign to get the project crowdfunded, so if you want to help a virtual princess out, then you know where to go.

Having particularly loved OhNoo’s previous work, Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, I was only too keen to check out their new project and see what it’s all about. I got the chance to talk with Alek, the game’s writer, director and animator, about his career in animation and filmmaking, what his early video game influences were and how collaborating with OhNoo has allowed him to make the ultimate game that he’s always wanted to make. So, just what exactly makes Tsioque tick…or should that be tick Tsioque? Let’s find out.

What made you want to be an animator, and what were your early inspirations as a filmmaker?

Oh man, a big question to start with. I guess it started very early. Like every kid out there, I was left in front of cartoons by parents who wanted a moment of peace. Disney, Hanna-Barbera, obscure Polish cartoons, whatever was currently on. I guess what made the difference in my case was that as I grew up I didn’t dismiss ‘cartoons’ as an inferior art form to, say, film or literature, which then helped me to seriously consider the dream of becoming an animation filmmaker.

I consider myself a storyteller – I’ve been making stuff up and drawing comics since I was four – and I still feel the same joy that comes from telling stories in my adult life. I chose animation because I thought that of all mediums film works the strongest and most directly, and while I didn’t have professional film equipment and trucks full of actors and crew, I had a computer and could draw more or less.

You’ve worked as an animator for twelve years – what made you want to make Tsioque as a game rather than a film? What was important about making the project an interactive experience?

In addition to all mediums I’ve already mentioned – film, animation, books, comics – another one which ranked very high on my inspiration list was games. Next to animation, it’s another previously dismissed art that only now seems to be getting more credit, mostly thanks to people who grew up playing them and recognized their true potential as a means of expression and an art form.

I spent a fair amount of my childhood playing videogames, and by no means I’d call that time wasted – I had a great time, and some experiences were truly unforgettable. It was only natural I wanted to try to make a game myself someday, so as a kid I messed around with modding tools and made a couple of maps for Quake and Half-Life. Then, as time passed and various life choices were made, I didn’t think I’d have much of a chance to make my own game anymore. Until now.

Having already worked on Tsioque for two years previously to launching the Kickstarter, how did you come across OhNoo Studio, and what made you want to collaborate with them?

OhNoo Studio contacted me with some minor Flash-related issue, as both of us frequently work in Flash. They seemed like okay guys, both professional and with the right mindset, I offhandedly suggested making a game together and they said “Okay”. It was only then that I got to work on Tsioque. I had a story in mind that I thought could work for a game, but I would never have started to really work on it if I hadn’t talked with OhNoo first. I already wear too many hats in filmmaking and to put on yet another and try to program the whole game myself would be suicide! They’ve made games, I haven’t, so I trusted their experience. The two years following this talk I spent working on the game mostly solo, occasionally dragging OhNoo away from Tormentum, the project they were doing at the same time.

What prompted the shift to go from independent solo project to a crowdfunding collaboration?

The idea to crowdfund the game came hesitantly, as we initially tried to finish Tsioque on our own. It was only after I kept animating day and night with hardly any sleep, even with help from part-time assistant animators later on, and work still wasn’t going fast enough, that we decided we would need help if we wanted to finish the game anytime this decade.

Your Kickstarter places great emphasis on the fact that the hand-drawn animation required for the game is a huge part of the project, and that this is the area where the majority of the funding will go. Can you go into what sort of creative challenges animating a project on this scale actually entails?

It’s a pure matter of workload. 2D, frame-by-frame animation is a tedious, time-consuming task; it’s well justified why gaming doesn’t take this direction anymore. There are new, cheaper and more streamlined processes that don’t require so many skilful hands to do the job. Still, the effect just isn’t the same, and there is simply nothing like watching hand-drawn characters move – they have real soul.

The creative challenge will be to keep the scale within its realistic limits – high enough to deliver the aforementioned soulful feel of quality animation, and low enough for it to still be within budget. I find it a more managerial task if you ask me, the line is blurry. A lot of it will most likely require me still doing most of the animation work myself.

Caught

The cute art style of Tsioque is a big aesthetic departure from OhNoo’s previous game, Tormentum. Can you talk about how Tsioque‘s look came about, and was it a challenge to find an artistic middle ground between OhNoo’s style, Michał Urbański’s and your own?

OhNoo’s Piotr Ruszkowski was responsible for all art in Tormentum, whereas in Tsioque it’s me who looks after the art and general integrity of the vision. I find it quite funny that the art style in Tsioque is regarded as ‘cute’. My work has usually been called the exact opposite – dark, disturbing maybe, but not cute. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition next to the hyperdark metal Beksinski-esque art of Tormentum that makes Tsioque’s art look sweet and well-behaved, but I don’t mind. I actually find it a relief because I did have some concerns if Tsioque’s art style still isn’t a bit dark after all… totally unjustified, great!

Making artistic sense out of unifying many talents in not easy, but my experience from filmmaking makes me think I have it under control. I’m not sure if it’s about finding a middle ground, I find it more about projecting your vision to other people so they can get as close to it as possible… which later they don’t really do, but very often it leads to explorations so interesting they actually enhance the vision rather than diminish it.

In describing the game’s art direction, you point out that you’re not going for a ‘pseudo-retro pixel art’ look.

Games of old went out of their way to overcome the technological limitations of the era they were made in – often in great, innovative ways. It was a challenge to tackle. Resolution and color palette no longer limit us – but many developers still choose to make pixel-styled games. It’s an artistic choice, a reference, pining back to the good old days. Sometimes the results are great and you get awesome stuff like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Shovel Knight. Other times, however, it just seems like a cheap shot at nostalgia. While, admittedly, we also take a lot from nostalgia, our artistic choice was not to purposely limit ourselves with false barriers. We’re making our game like the old games were made – using available resources and technology the best way we can.

Day of the Tentacle, Heart of Darkness and King’s Quest are listed as some of the key game design influences behind Tsioque – what is it about those classic adventure games that influenced you as both a player and a designer?

The influences of those games were mostly unconscious for me as I grew up playing them! I’ll never forget the thrill of watching the awesome animations that I’d get in reward for solving complex puzzles in Day of the Tentacle, the glistening disc of my first ever CD-ROM game King’s Quest V… I never got very far in the latter but it wasn’t important. It was magic. It wasn’t so much about recreating that same magic feeling, but more about using what I learnt from playing these games to tell my own story, and to be able to evoke in other people the similar emotions I felt when playing these classic adventure games as a kid.

From a game design perspective, what felt important to achieve was that extra care in animation rewarding you for your progress, smooth, well-paced gameplay, and the possibility of death. There was a reason why point and clicks stopped including fail states in games, and it was the same reason why I never got very far in King’s Quest V. It was frustrating having to restart all the way to your last save point just for just trying something, where trying anything to work with anything is (unfortunately) pretty much the epitome of the whole genre.

Still, years passed, the games started to be thoroughly tested, both the players and developers learned a lot. I thought it was possible to re-introduce the death/failure mechanism in a way that doesn’t punish you that much and allows for more immersion – you’re a prisoner in a monster-infested castle; if you’re careless something can happen to you! In fact, a good failure animation can be rewarding as well – I dream of making Tsioque complex enough to have people try to do wrong things on purpose just to see the mess it causes. This requires a certain stretch goal to be achieved, however, and for the moment chances of reaching that goal seem distant. Having said all that, all of the above would of course mean nothing without a proper story.

Castle

You suggest that Tsioque’s gameplay will occasionally feature moments that will “break the classic point and click mould”. What exactly do you mean by that rather intriguing statement, and what sorts of changes from the point and click norms should gamers expect to encounter?

If I was to put it down to one thing, it would be removing that reassuring feeling of always being safe. Still, this sentence is a bit of a tease since the ‘mould-breaking’ aspects in our game – the action elements, minigames, the possibility of death – are widely present in classic point-and-clicks. Take a game like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis for example, where you can fist-fight, run from guards and failure at every other puzzle results in your death. These sort of elements are just forgotten, and not regarded as part of the classic point-and-click formula anymore. Well, with Tsioque we’re bringing it back, but in a lighter, more forgiving manner, better adapted to the modern player.

Elle Kharitou and Edward Harrison are both on soundtrack duty for Tsioque. What is it about their musical stylings that made them the right fit for the game’s audio direction?

I knew Ed from our previous collaborations on animated shorts. He did a fantastic soundtrack for my short film Lucky Day Forever, as well as for a Splinter Cell short I did for Ubisoft. He’s a frighteningly talented musician with a growing track record of game and film soundtracks, and at the same time simply a nice guy to work with. He was my first choice for Tsioque’s soundtrack and I’m delighted he said yes. Elle came to the project through Ed’s personal recommendation. I didn’t know her work before, but I have total confidence in her talents and everything I heard from her so far seems to prove I was right to invite her to the project.

The music – as heard in the demo and the reveal trailer – works just the way I wanted it to, and beyond. The dynamic music system we’ve developed for Tsioque brings the experience to the whole new level that could never be achieved in a non-interactive medium, and I’m thrilled to watch it work. It really lets you sink deep into the narrative, where every little action you can possibly do has its own tightly fitting soundtrack. It not just compliments the rich in-game animation, it’s one of the key elements that make this special feeling of being inside an animated film truly work.

You’ve revealed that the game has an unexpected twist of sorts – are you not worried that announcing said twist beforehand might encourage players to approach the game with a mindset to concentrate on working out what the twist is, rather than just enjoying the game?

Good question. As a creator, I’d find it much more comfortable if I just shut up about it and have people experience and discover everything for themselves, without a clue what’s going to happen. As a self-marketer however, I have to at least suggest something is going to happen, because it’s one of the things that makes our game different, and we have to talk about what makes our product special or else nobody is going buy it. I hate this, as much as I hate soliciting my own work and having to convince people that what I do is really great. I’d rather they just find out themselves… but it’d need a finished game first. And I can’t finish it if I don’t convince everyone it’s going to be great. It’s a vicious circle.

I appreciate the fact that you want to tell a full, complete story, and not break it down into separate piecemeal parts to sell through a season pass. Do you think the episodic model of releasing games is starting to feel a bit tired by this point?

Long, episodic narratives for games are not a bad idea on their own; I couldn’t wait for the new season of The Walking Dead Game as much as I couldn’t wait for the new season of the TV series. That being said, it requires a lot of discipline, commitment and respect for the players on the part of the developer to not abuse this model, to not drag a story out forever and keep milking it with no end in sight. With Tsioque, we chose to be completely transparent and offer a clear deal – one complete game from start to finish, no more, no less. An experience you don’t have to wait 2 years from first pressing start and paying $60 to find out what happens in the end.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank everyone who lasted long enough to read to this point! Whether Tsioque gets made or not is now up to you.

Tower

The Tsioque demo is available to play now on PC and Mac and can be downloaded via the team’s Kickstarter page. At the time of writing the Kickstarter campaign is entering it’s final few days, so if like me you also really want to see the game get finished, then consider dropping by to back it and maybe even pick yourself up an imp plushie (or five). I for one definitely want to see and play more of Tsioque, so here’s to hoping the game makes its funding goals. Now what to do with all these plushies…

Jaime Cross Interview – Team Junkfish (Monstrum)

Brute Attack
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If for some tragic reason you’ve been locked in Davy Jones’ sub-aquatic locker for the past two years, then you might not be aware of Monstrum, the brilliant and brutally addictive horror game from Dundee-based Team Junkfish. Let me fill you in on the details while you splutter up all of that rancid seawater.

In development since 2013 and approved for Steam Greenlight program in March 2014, Monstrum has proven popular with horror fans since the game left Early Access in May of this year. The game is essentially a massive nautical nightmare; you find yourself trapped on a decrepit 1970s cargo ship, with the rest of the crew nowhere to be found. Well, sort of – it depends on what exactly you classify as ‘the crew’. Unfortunately, it soon transpires that you’re actually stuck on board with a monster who is only too happy to make your acquaintance…before it mercilessly crushes/eats/twists your head off, naturally.

Your goal then is pretty simple; repair one of the three escape vessels by collecting the necessary tools and get the hell out of dodge. So far, so Slender, you might say – but wait, there’s a twist. What sets Monstrum apart from the majority of its creepy collectathon rivals is the fact that it’s a roguelike with extensive procedurally-generated systems in place. Every time you fire the game up, you have no idea what the interior structure of the ship will be, no idea where the specific items you need are located and, perhaps most importantly of all, no idea which of three different monsters is currently hunting you. With no one layout to memorise or a single strategy to master, the pressure can quickly ratchet up to ridiculously high levels as you desperately try to make your daring escape. In the words of Scooby Doo‘s Shaggy, “Zoinks Scoob!”

Monstrum is a harsh, demanding but incredibly rewarding game of hide and seek on the high seas, and one that’s had me gripped (like a monster slowly crushing the life out of a frightened, isolated sailor perhaps) since release. Keen to learn more about the game and its dastardly delightful design, I reached out to Jaime Cross, Team Junkfish’s Director and Audio Designer to talk about monsters, audio design and the exciting multicultural future of the horror genre.

How did Team Junkfish originally form as a studio, and what’s the story behind the cool name?

Team Junkfish came together in 2011 at Abertay University. In the third year we had to do a big group project – they have a lot of big briefs from Microsoft, Sony, Disney etc., but students also have the opportunity to form their own team and present their own idea. They can pitch it to the lecturers and if it’s good they’re given the go-ahead. Back then, there were currently nine members of what would become Team Junkfish, and they wanted to do this big idea but they were told they were probably not going to be able to do it unless they got a sound guy. So they pitched for a sound person in front of the entire year, and I just said “I’ll do it, aye!” and that was kind of it. There’s been ten of us ever since, and it’s coming up on four years now in total that we’ve been working together. It’s scary when you think about games companies and the way they can come and go, but yeah we’ve been doing this for four years and we officially became a company two years ago now. The Team Junkfish name came from when we did our first big prototype, and it was basically a giant flying mechanical whale, and we just went “Yeah, let’s call it Junkfish!”

Your previous projects FooFoo and DinerSaur were aimed more at children and younger audiences. What prompted the shift to darker, more adult material, or was it just a natural evolution of the team’s creative urges?

Originally the FooFoo game was part of the Samsung Student Developer Challenge, so we put it together mainly for that competition. We did quite well – we got a lot of press out of it, which was very cool. DinerSaur was made for the Dare to be Digital competition a couple of years ago, it was a cool augmented reality arcade shooter. The game itself was technically made just by six members of the team (then known as Prehistoric Spatula) over a period of nine weeks. That included three programmers, two of the artists and me doing the audio. We had thousands of people come by and play it, and after that we sort of decided “So what do we actually want to do now?” Everybody pitched in with ideas, and the one that we thought seemed the most interesting and doable was Monstrum. It was more of a diplomatic way of moving forward rather than an impulsive choice of “Let’s just do horror games”.

Where did the original idea for Monstrum come from, and what were the main influences throughout the game’s development?

The original pitch was basically what would happen if you mixed The Binding of Isaac with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We ran with that concept for a roguelike horror game, something that would be replayable over and over and where you’d never get the same jumpscare twice or anything like that. That was the main emphasis that we were working on – to make a really replayable horror game.

What was the reason for situating Monstrum in the 1970s? What is it about that time period and aesthetic that was crucial to the look and feel of the game?

With regard to the game’s setting, the designer decided that with landlocked locations – such as the usual horror game tropes of hospitals and asylums – not only are these environments overused, but theoretically you could also just break a window, escape and you off they go. However, if you’re stuck on an abandoned ship out at sea then you have to escape in a more specific way, because otherwise you’re probably just not going to meet a great fate otherwise! (Laughs) As far as the ’70s aesthetic went, it was down to a mixture of things. In the original concept for the game, the player was supposed to be exploring an old ship but one that’s set in the current time period. It’s since shifted from that obviously, but generally we just thought that it was an interesting aesthetic that hasn’t really been done all that much. We thought it would be something that would make the game stand out that little bit more.

Hunter StairsYou’ve previously described the Monstrum experience as ‘Alien on a boat’ but interestingly you suggest that the player’s experience is more closely aligned with the character of Captain Dallas rather than Ripley. Can you elaborate a bit more about this distinction?

It was one of those weird things where we thought yeah, ‘Alien on a boat’, that’s a really great way to describe the game. Then Alien: Isolation got announced and we were just like “Fuck!” It kind of put a bit of a dampener on us all; we thought we were screwed. This new game is coming out, it’s going to look amazing – we’re done. However we gradually started to pick ourselves up after that and reminded ourselves that actually no, Monstrum is probably going to be quite different from Isolation – we’re aiming at different markets, let’s just keep going. We were at EGX Rezzed in 2014 and Creative Assembly were also there with a big Alien: Isolation booth set up with VR headsets, so we got a good chance to compare the two games there. That was quite reaffirming, as it showed us that they were different enough.

The focal point of the Ripley/Dallas character comparison was based around that sense of impending doom that surrounds your character in Monstrum. Namely that Ripley survives her alien encounter and makes it through the film as a survivor, whereas Dallas doesn’t! We wanted to apply those feelings to the players; that you’re not Ripley, that you’re probably not going to make it out of this. You’re just going to have to get out of there as best you can and try. I think that was the basis for comparing the two characters.

I understand that you prototyped Monstrum as a board game first before moving ahead with the bulk of production. How was that as a testing experience, and did it highlight any issues about the game that you hadn’t previously considered up to that point?

It was very, very loosely tied into the game and really strange, but it did give us a feel for how the real game would eventually play out. Essentially it was a singleplayer board game where you had to move through the randomly placed corridor pieces and rooms to find the random items potentially hidden in them. We had all these different systems going on, but some of them didn’t carry across all that well because they were based on dice rolls and stuff like that, but in terms of generally planning out whether all this would work as an actual game, it really helped us look at different issues we might not have properly considered before. How should things be placed? What speed should this monster travel at? How easily should it be able to find you, or chase after you? Little concerns like that eventually become much bigger things once you actually start to develop the game and are really important, so having that sort of stuff trickle down into the final thing was pretty useful. It’s stuff that we’re doing again now as we’re prototyping new ideas – paper prototypes are still very important.

Did you ever have any ideas about including randomised sea conditions in with all the other procedurally-generated elements of the game, or would that have been just a technical nightmare or simply not fun for the player?

Yes we did speak about having different environmental conditions as part of the experience. Things such as large-scale environmental fires – you can manually set small fires in the game with the fuel cans, but we wondered what if they could break out around the ship itself? Or what if you had some decks which were flooded and now underwater? We even talked about small things such as whether to have the ship rock back and forth, but ultimately it was one of those things where in the end we decided that it would be a nice idea, but it really wasn’t that important and far too much work for the little return it might give. They were all good ideas, but ones we couldn’t really make viable. Also, on the topic of having choppier seas, because we started Oculus Rift integration very early on, that was one of the big things that made us think having a rocking ship wouldn’t work well and potentially might just make people feel even more sick! (Laughs)

Notes

Speaking of Oculus, how is the VR integration coming along? With the game already out at this point, how do you plan on making VR functionality feel like an integral part of the experience rather than just a bolted-on extra?

We’ve been working on the VR integration right from the beginning of the project, developing for Oculus Rift alongside the game since we started in September 2013. It’s not like we finished the game and just decided to stick the Oculus stuff on it and then start again from scratch. So in that sense it’s been really good, we’ve been aware of any issues that we need to address, and we’ve been going back to fix them as we’ve been moving along.

Our programmer Stephanie has been getting all the VR stuff sorted; there’s a lot of weird things that you might not consider when designing for VR, such as user interfaces and post-processing effects. Elements like that don’t really work the same way in the Oculus because of the stereoscopic screen. Getting that sort of stuff working has been quite difficult, so she’s done a lot of iteration on the UI systems and solved some weird clipping and animation issues. It’s all these little weird problems that you might not consider all that much until you run into a wall and you can suddenly see through the entire ship – that is a bit of a problem!

The concepts of player agency and responsibility are particularly well implemented in Monstrum – how did you manage to balance the game’s difficulty so that it works well for both brand new players as well as expert ones?

A lot of this stuff came about from simply doing lots of playtests to see if people wanted another shot – yes or no? If players came from a background of having already played roguelikes such as The Binding of Isaac and knowing how those sort of games work, then they could quickly adapt, learn and experiment through dying. The main issue came from people coming in from the opposite end of things who hadn’t played a roguelike before. They would go “What do I do? I don’t know what to do with this thing! Nothing is telling me anything!” We didn’t want things to be hand-holdy; Monstrum is very much a difficult game, and we say up front that it is hard and you will die quite a lot. So we iterated quite a lot on the initial tutorial room which basically just says “Here’s some stuff, this is what you use it for, press these buttons for interactions”, but beyond that you’re on your own. You have to explore, you have to check your journal to see “How do I solve this situation? Ah, I need to need to find X, Y and Z to escape – okay, got it.” The main thing that we were looking to build into the game was that as long as the player learns something from each death, it doesn’t feel like a complete failure on their part. It’s stuff like that where if you’re new to the game and run into a new monster, you don’t know what it’s going to do so it’s about picking up on its behaviours. On your next run, if you get the same monster again, you’ll then have a better idea of how to deal with it. Picking up important information like that is very cool, and interesting to see how different people do it.

Hunter Attack

Have you been surprised by the ways in which players go about tackling the various monsters and escape routes? Have there ever been instances where you’ve seen players do something totally unexpected?

Yeah, there’s been quite a lot of those instances just because of the way the game is built. The procedural generation is one thing, but the monsters are all AI-driven, so there’s no real pre-set things or scripted things that happen as a result. There have been a few instances where I’ve seen players carefully following a plan, and then suddenly BANG! A door suddenly just flies through the corridor and you see them freak out! This also goes on in the Team Junkfish office itself, especially with the Oculus Rift testing. You just see people go jumping right out of their chairs! It happens at trade shows as well, so it’s been fun to see how people take to that and all the different instances that can happen. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody have the same exact runthrough, which has been our main thing, our overall objective. It’s a very emergent experience; we hear people telling their own stories about how they would be trying to find a particular item, and then out of nowhere this intense chain of other events kick off. I think that’s an interesting thing in games in general. Being able to give people that opportunity to have their own version of the same game is pretty cool.

Brute Grab

The way you have designed the monsters according to various forms of fear is a really interesting concept; the animalistic rage of The Brute, the claustrophobic paranoia of The Hunter and the cruel psychological mirth of The Fiend all come across really effectively in their designs. Can you talk about the inspirations behind each monster and what went into designing their unique AI behaviours?

In terms of the monster designs, we’ve always had those three basic archetypes in mind. The Brute is big and chunky, triggering your primal fear response when it’s chasing after you. Then you’ve got The Hunter which is the thing lurking in the dark making creepy noises, and then The Fiend which is the sadistic psychological one. Even when we didn’t know exactly what the monsters were going to look like originally, we’ve always had these design concepts in mind; we basically thought about what each one’s going to do, and then expanded out from that. The Brute was the first one we built because technically he’s the simplest. We built a lot of the backend AI work around him, and then adapted it for the other monsters to make sure that it worked for each of their unique behaviours. It was interesting to see it change up, especially when it came to stuff like The Hunter, because he’s completely different from the other two monsters in that he’s not really available on the ship and instead he pops out at you from the vents. It was interesting to get those systems all working together, especially from the audio perspective, to make sure that they all tied into the ship and the environmental sounds. You might hear a rumble and be able to identify it as the monster, or you might not and think “Oh no what was that? What do I do now?”

The Fiend

On that topic of encountering a new monster, you ingeniously put The Fiend into the game disguised as part of a routine lighting update. I’m guessing you must have heard some crazy horror stories of people encountering it for the first time?

We snuck it in just to basically beta-test it and see what we thought. Then we saw people on forums just going “Why are the lights going weird? What the hell is this thing?” and all that sort of stuff. We saw videos where people were just freaking about this strange new thing that had just killed them, and calling us sneaky bastards – we were just like “Yes, yes we are!” So yeah, it was pretty cool and it gave us a decent opportunity in Early Access to see how people took to it and tighten it up a bit more before release.

The in-game notes dotted around the ship allude to a spawning ground from which the monsters were presumably collected – is there a possibility that we’ll get to see this area in a future game?

We’ve talked about future stuff, and even if we’re not necessarily doing a direct sequel, it’s something that we’d like to keep continuity wise. It’ll be interesting to go back to it in a future game, even if it’s not the next one. We’ve created this little world, now how can we expand on it? We’ll see.

Sparky

Any chance we’ll get to go up against the original test monster Sparky?

I’m not sure! It’ll be interesting to see if we can polish and change him up a bit more, and see what else he can bring to the table. I’ll mention that to the team – “Hey we’ve got a half-finished monster here!” (Laughs)

You’ve been using Ableton as your primary digital audio workstation throughout the project. What is it about that program in particular that appeals to you over Cubase/Logic/Pro Tools etc. and what VSTs and plugins do you tend to favour when working?

Ableton was one of the things that I was taught when I was at college alongside Pro Tools. I was mainly using Pro Tools going into university but it just kept crashing too much, so I decided “No, go away I’m using Ableton!” That was basically it, there was no big overarching decision to it and since then I’ve been using Ableton for the past four years nearly exclusively. As far as VSTs and everything goes, for a lot of the sound design in both the music and the game itself, I basically used a lot of Ableton stock stuff. Their granular delay is really cool – I’ve used it quite a lot on various different things, and it’s just a really weird sounding delay which stretches the sounds out – it’s weird to describe without letting you hear it, but it was one of the ones I’d always go back to. It was just basically a lot of the standard Ableton tools that I used, nothing super fancy or expensive. I’ve got some Waves stuff that I’m sometimes using in newer projects, but when it comes to stuff like EQs or compressors, I’m still find myself going back to Ableton because I know their tools so well. I know exactly how they affect sounds so I can get them to work really quickly. I suppose that’s me being lazy and not learning new tools to a degree, but it’s also down to familiarity of speed. There’s a trade-off there I guess.

The game’s soundtrack is an interesting blend of atonal textures layered with creatively melodic noises and effects. How did you approach the composition process for Monstrum?

A lot of the music wasn’t necessarily instrumentation as much, but rather a lot of sound design and manipulating samples. All the monster themes were built around that idea.

For example, with The Brute’s theme, I really wanted to focus on it being driving and pulsing because he’s this big physical thing charging after you. That’s a lot of percussive elements with a strong drumming pulse going on, which also ties into the creature’s fire elements too. There’s actually an engine loop playing on the track which I basically warped out of time, then pitch stretched it in Ableton to make it into a constant triplet rhythm. So you’ve got these two pulsing rhythms running through the track which give it this chaotic chase feeling. Then there’s other sounds like steam screeches and stuff like that going off in the background which are basically samples where I was pitch shifting them to have them sound melodically in tune.

Another VST I made use of was Camel Audio’s Alchemy. That one was really cool, but unfortunately it doesn’t really exist anymore. It allowed you to sweep through various presets, and it had the two XY pads which are similar to Ableton as well so it meant you could do really quick automations and stuff like that. It was very handy, especially for The Hunter’s themes where I used it quite a lot.

For The Fiend’s themes I ended up using one of the Max for Live plugins called Granulator. It’s an interesting granular synth that reads little bits of a WAV file which you can then stretch out and control how many times they’re repeated. Once I’d composed the Wander theme I simply dragged it into that synth to use it as an instrument. I ended up using the Wander and Chase theme as three separate instances, so that was interesting.

You’ve mentioned before that Silent Hill‘s composer Akira Yamaoka was a big inspiration for the soundtrack. What is it about Yamaoka’s music and compositional style that appeals to you?

There are a few different things which come to mind. Looking just at his music on its own, it’s the way he uses sound and samples to create that signature feeling of his. Like with the original Silent Hill soundtrack, it’s dark, gritty and very industrialised, whereas the later ones sort of become slightly more melodic. You can sort of see a different musical feel in the other games from that point on, but he still keeps that familiar really oppressive feeling across the whole series. When you’re hearing his music in the context of the game, it just works so well with all the stuff that’s going on. One of my favourite Silent Hill moments is the final Pyramid Head encounter from Silent Hill 2. There’s those big screeches and crunching sounds playing which mirror the movements of his knife and helmet, but then you’ve got this eerie choir coming in behind all that which gives the scene this sort of otherworldly, god-like feeling. It’s moments like that where he uses those sounds and contrasts really well together which I find pretty cool.

When designing the diegetic sound effects, did the procedurally-generated room reverb systems make your mixing process easier or more complicated?

It was a mixture of both really. Some things we made quite dry, such as footsteps, but because of the way our system worked, in some cases we had to pre-bake the reverb onto specific effects. The reverb in the game engine is mainly for spatialisation – making an effect sound like it’s actually in that area and space you’re currently in. There were some sounds which didn’t play well with our in-game reverb system, such as the environmental rumbles I mentioned earlier for example, so in those cases we had to pre-bake all of the reverbs onto those sounds and give them all different distances and drop-offs and things like that. Sometimes you just have to do one or the other really! (Laughs)

I particularly enjoy the small changes you make to the music as the game progresses, such as the way the main Wandering Alone on a Ship at Night theme will irrevocably change once you’ve encountered the monster for the first time.

It’s one of those things where I didn’t think it felt right for the music to sound the same after the player experiences the monster for the first time in a game. The way you’re now perceiving the game world is different, and so the music should reflect that change. It was one of those things where musically you’re almost starting from a blank slate, but then after the first monster encounter it should change and morph into something else. You know what you’re up against now, and you want to carry that feeling across in the music even when it’s not there onscreen. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with changing up the wandering themes.

You wrote a really interesting blog post which explores the fallacy of the ‘game audio as 50% of the experience’ adage. Why do you think that audio design is overlooked in a lot of games design, and what can be done to better integrate the process with the other design disciplines?

I have this personal philosophy about world building when it comes to games. I think everybody should work together to make a cohesive role as opposed to everybody doing their own little thing separately and hoping it’ll all come together and work somehow. In other words, there needs to be plenty of back and forth on everything – conversations like “What’s the monster design in terms of the art team’s perspective? What does it do design-wise?” I see what I can take from those discussions and make music from them basically. Rob Bridgett talks a lot about this design approach in his book, Game Audio Culture, which is definitely worth reading. He writes about this sort of stuff and how we should improve game audio workflow, and just game workflow in general. It’s a really interesting concept and I really hope it carries forward.

It’s one of those things where people will have a lot of appreciation and nostalgia for things like game music, but they might not necessarily understand how it actually works in the context of a game. A lot of the time, other members of the team might just say we need a sound effect for a specific thing, but it’s very much a black box situation. They’ll tell the audio designer what they need, but not talk about what they’re doing, and the audio designer will just make the effect and say “Here you go, does it work?” Again, communication is the big issue, and it’s essential in order to have programmers, artists and designers understand audio designers workflows and vice versa. It’s about seeing how you can come in from the audio side of things and how you can influence your fellow designers, how they can influence you, and making sure that when you’re trying to explain stuff to them, they’ll actually understand what you’re saying and not get confused with really weird technical jargon. I think that’s where a lot of the issues lie. With artists and programmers and designers, they have this shared lexicon where they can probably speak to each other roughly but they might not know the technical nuances of everything. However if I started speaking about things like parametric EQs, they’d all just be like “What is that? What does muddy mean? I have no idea what you’ve said…but okay!” (Laughs)

Yeah I suppose it’s hard to express some of those sonic qualities accurately from a linguistic perspective. It’s similar to trying to describe the minutiae of a particular part of the colour spectrum to another person; what might appear as a bright red to my eyes might look more like a reddy-brown to yours.

Yeah, it’s all about understanding the implementation process. When it comes to getting the right ‘feel’, a lot of people will say they really want an element to feel a certain way, but getting it to that point is not necessarily down to just making the right sound effect. You can make the effect so that it sounds good on its own, but when played in the game, it might jar with everything else that’s going on. Things are getting a bit easier with middleware programs like FMOD and Wwise, which are opening things up a bit more. We actually didn’t end up using anything like that in Monstrum for the final game, but we did use it for prototyping early ideas, which made it a lot easier for me to explain the various systems to programmers. I just had to set up all the logic and explain that this is how it works; these are all the music things, if you trigger this element, then this will happen. Even using it for non-traditional methods like that, it’s still really handy, and learning those tools is really useful for anybody who wants to do game audio and game music.

How do you see the future of Monstrum going forward? You’ve successfully released the game through Steam Greenlight and it’s now out there in players’ hands – do you consider the game to be a completed project now that you’ve left Steam Early Access, or as more of a platform you can go back and add new content to over time?

Well we did say we’d get the Oculus stuff out, so once that releases then the game’s technically ‘finished’, but it’s one of those things that’s never really finished as such. There’s lots of stuff we’d like to add in, or maybe even things we could go back to and patch up, but it’s just a case of having limited time and resources to actually do these things. That’s the unfortunate reality of the situation which has kept us from just going “Yeah let’s keep working on this and adding loads of extra monsters” and stuff like that. It’s a shame really, but we’ve got other projects that we’re trying to do as well, and I suppose we have to make sure that we can keep roofs over our heads!

As far as future plans go, I’m not entirely sure right now. We’d like to add more stuff, even if it’s just smaller things, but we’re just sort of seeing how things pan out. We’ve got a few bits and pieces of work that we’re doing just now to keep us ticking over while we’re sorting out new prototypes and all that sort of stuff. We’ll see how it goes, but we’d like to anyway.

Any thoughts about porting Monstrum to PS4 and Xbox One?

We’d really like to, but it’s another question of resources, and figuring out all the necessary backend stuff. If we speak to somebody at Microsoft for example, it’s working out whether they actually want the game on their platform and all those sorts of other hurdles. Hopefully though – it’s one of those things where if we got the greenlight to do it we probably would, but getting there is still quite a lot of work. Maybe!

Nightmare BonnieWith the rise of streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, do you see traditional horror games becoming something of a rarity in the future? In other words, do you see traditional solo horror experiences giving way to more community-based spectator sport experiences?

I’m not too sure. An interesting game to watch out for, especially in that regard, would be SOMA. I’m hoping it does really well and it does still prove a point that you can make these horror games that are primarily singleplayer experiences that you’ll want to really immerse yourself in and go through by yourself. At the same time though, I don’t think group/spectator-orientated horror games are necessarily bad. Things like Five Nights at Freddy’s have done really well, and every time I’ve seen [creator] Scott Cawthon speak about the games he’s basically said look, this is my work – if my games don’t appeal to you, they will to someone else. A lot of people complain about the rate at which he’s producing his games, but from a game developer perspective I think it’s really clever, because he’s got all this extra stuff that he adds in with each new game. It’s not just another churned out sequel with the same content, there’s more things going on in each new one; he might need to develop extra systems and stuff like that, but a lot of the same signature backbone is there every time. In that respect, I think he’s done really, really well off the back of it, and the way he’s kept the continuity across all four games is impressive as well. Reading all he’s posted about the series, he comes across as very humbled by it all and grateful for his fans – a genuinely nice guy. People are obviously engaging with that series and really enjoying his games, so there’s room enough for all types of horror games to co-exist. So Five Nights at Freddy’s might be a great horror game for one audience, whereas Silent Hill, Amnesia, or say something like Clock Tower might be more to the tastes of another. They’re all different horror games but they’re all horror games in their own right.

I suppose they aren’t mutually exclusive categories are they really – like you say, horror is now such a broad genre that there’s now games available for pretty much every particular niche.

I think the more interesting thing to look at is the different types of horror that will come in to the genre from other cultures. Japanese horror games are obviously quite big and they’re based on their own culture’s thoughts and considerations of what horror is, and the same goes for their films too. When films like Ring and Ju-on get remade as for American audiences, they didn’t really have the same sense of horror to them. They still work as basic horror films, but not in the same way; there’s this feeling that some crucial part was lost along the way. It might just be people insisting the Japanese versions are better because they were the originals, but other people might say that there’s slight translation issues and influences that aren’t as apparent culturally to western horror audiences as they would be to Japanese ones. That’s why those films might be way much more terrifying for Japanese audiences than western ones. In that respect, I’m sure there are horror things things we have in British culture which aren’t necessarily applicable to America or anywhere else in the world.

Dreadout

Seeing new horror games exploring different cultures of horror will be really interesting, especially with the advent of major game engines like Unity now going for free. This democratisation of game engines allows smaller teams or even individuals to make their own games – Digital Happiness, the Indonesian developers who made DreadOut are a good example, and seeing titles like that coming out of countries you might not expect is very exciting. There might already be a really thriving scene there, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s going to be really cool to see all these different aspects of horror, or even brand new genres coming out of these different cultural elements. A lot of people moan that this means we’re just going to get a load of random people flooding Steam trying to sell a load of random crap. While it’s kind of true on one hand, on the other it enables people who might never have had the opportunity to make their own games now have the means to get stuck in. Instead of just rushing something half-baked out, they could take years working on their magnum opus before finally releasing it; it might be this really good game. Look at people like Tom Happ with Axiom Verge for example. He was doing everything himself on that game, and when it came out people just thought it was absolutely amazing. People always seem to look at the negatives rather than the positives when it comes to things like an abundance of Unity games appearing. We used Unity for Monstrum, and other companies much bigger than us have also used Unity to great effect, it’s a powerful engine. Lots of people don’t seem to consider that however, instead just writing off anything on the engine as just another random Unity game. It’s a shame. I guess it’s one of those things – if you don’t like these games, then don’t play them – but people like complaining I guess!

What’s next for Team Junkfish then? Any plans to revisit Into the Sky perhaps?

Right now, we’re prototyping two different projects. One of them is completely different to Monstrum, while the other one has a couple of similarities, but is still quite a bit different. I’m not entirely sure which one we’ll be pushing ahead with, but hopefully we’ll have that sorted out in the next month or two. Into the Sky would be interesting to go back to, but it’s one of those things where we’d have to start from scratch again and look at the core idea and ask ourselves can we rebuild it. If these prototypes pan out then we’ll hopefully announce something next year. One of them is very similar to Monstrum, so hopefully we can capitalise on our success as well as learn from our mistakes.

Hunter Sub Escape

Are you looking at going through the Steam Greenlight process again for these projects, or have you considered crowdfunding it through Kickstarter etc.?

Greenlight is a weird thing, in that Valve have been saying for a long time that they’re planning to get rid of it, so we’re not really sure what the deal with that would be. It might be a case of having to go through the Greenlight process with new projects anyway, or it might already be gone by that point – we just don’t know. It’s the same with Kickstarter – we don’t know if we need to do a Kickstarter, and if we did that then there’s so much planning that needs to go into that. Now that’s a scary thought! (Laughs)

Fiend Attack

Monstrum is out now for PC, Mac and Linux.