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

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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?

Titanfall – Frontier Defense Mode – First Impressions

Titanfall - Title Shot
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Respawn Entertainment announced earlier this week that a free new co-operative defence game type has been added to Titanfall‘s online multiplayer modes.

I’ve had a quick hands-on with this new mode, called ‘Frontier Defense’, and from the brief time I’ve played so far, I have to say that this new mode is actually really good, and a welcome, refreshing addition to the Titanfall package as a whole.

It’s essentially a four-player Gears of War horde mode clone, only with robots and giant mechs as your enemies instead of the subterranean gun-wielding Locust.

Your task as a Militia pilot is to defend a giant ‘Harvester’ contraption in one of the game’s standard maps, along with three other players; you can all call in Titans like you normally can in the game’s competitive multiplayer modes, only the goal here is to work together to repel the invading CPU-controlled IMC forces.

Frontier Defense is pretty difficult. You and your teammates have got to fight off six waves of robotic and human enemies, all the while defending the rather fragile Harvester, which has regenerating shields, but limited health, much like the games’ Titans. By about wave four or five, you’re going to be absolutely overwhelmed by enemies pouring in from all angles.

The action here is desperate, and surprisingly, quite tense too; on your first Frontier Defense match, you won’t know what to expect at all, and a lot of the normal enemies have cloaking devices which let them sneak up close to your team’s Harvester, which makes the Grunts and Spectres in particular feel much more significant and dangerous than they’ve ever felt in the game’s competitive multiplayer modes.

In addition to the ground troops, enemy Titans also often deploy with floating companion cloaking devices, which you need to shoot down in order to reveal their bulky, lumbering frames. You have an enlarged map in the top left of your HUD, placing a greater emphasis on tracking enemy and friendly movement around the level.

There’s some interesting new twists on the regular enemy types too; you have to keep an eye out for the new Suicide Spectres, fast moving Spectres, strapped up with plenty of C4, who like nothing more than to run at your team’s Harvester, as well as Nuclear Suicide Ogre Titans. These operate just like the Suicide Spectres, only they are much slower, but much more deadly.

You’ve got to balance between taking out the bigger Titan threats, while also not ignoring the Grunts and Spectres, as in numbers they can quickly whittle down the Harvester’s shields and health. Teamwork and communication are needed to keep that precious Harvester in one still-functioning piece. You’re periodically given a defence turret at the end of each round, which you can then put in a strategic spot of your choosing as a means of picking off some of the smaller Grunts and Spectres weaving their way throughout the map. But ultimately, success in Frontier Defense comes from effective co-ordination with your human buddies; playing with random uncommunicative matchmade players when I’ve been online has so far led to disastrous results.

This new mode feels refreshingly chaotic and intense. It’s still the same wall-jumping, action-packed Titan stomping shenanigans that you know and love, only with a co-operative focus instead of a competitive one. It feels so different and entertaining to play in comparison to the usual Titanfall modes that I’m surprised that a mode like this didn’t make it into the main game in the first place. Anyway, I’m glad it’s here and that we’ve got it now in the form of this free DLC.

Everything feels pretty cinematic, exciting and different – much like the main game felt upon its arrival in March. When you die, you don’t just respawn, you’re dropped in by a dropship, which gives you chance to briefly survey the battlefield from above. It really adds to the sense that you’re dropping into an on-going warzone. At times, these cool little things make Frontier Defence feel like the sort of thing that would have been a perfect fit as part of a more traditional singleplayer mode, the sort of gameplay that a lot of Titanfall fans undoubtedly felt was missing from the rather underwhelming multiplayer ‘campaign’.

There’s some annoying achievements that have been released with this new free DLC update, which I’ll grumble about in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, if you’ve kind of forgotten about Titanfall recently, what with all these shiny new games dropping out of the sky left right and centre (much like a Titan), then I highly recommend that you fire your copy up, and try out Frontier Defense. After all, it’s free and, like me, you might just be rather pleasantly surprised by it.

Destiny Review

Destiny - Title Screen
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In space, no one can hear you grind.

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

Destiny, the fantastical new always-online sci-fi shooter adventure dreamt up by the original Halo developer Bungie, along with publisher Activision, is a bit of a mixed bag. Despite all my own excited desperation to play it prior to launch, and the buzz and hype about it in the gaming press leading up to its release, I have to say that Destiny is one of the most disappointing games that I’ve played in quite some time. Yet, it’s also one of the most enjoyable; it’s a game that I can’t stop sinking hour after enjoyable hour into, blasting away aliens and greedily snatching up that precious loot they drop. In fact, even as I type this opening paragraph, I’m really having to fight the urge to go and fire up the Xbox right now and get back into the action.

It’s hard to say exactly what the ever-evolving future of Destiny will be; whether that’s with regard to how it appears now in this initial representation, or when it has presumably grown into a larger extended franchise further down the line. Indeed, Bungie have promised to curate and support the game and its universe over an impressive ten year period. However, from playing what’s on offer in the game’s debut form, Destiny doesn’t quite yet feel like the brave new world we all so desperately wanted it to be.

On one hand, it has the fantastic first person shooter gameplay that a longtime Bungie fan craves, but on the other, it’s without a story of any similar depth or quality to their previous legacy. It has compelling and addictive loot mechanics, inspired in part by games like Borderlands 2 and Diablo III, but, sadly, these become frustratingly chancey and ever more confusingly unreliable as you get towards the level-cap and end-game content. However, despite some major stumbles, the game’s core shooting mechanics combined with an impressive social shared world experience with a strong focus on co-operative play make for a winning combo.

In a galaxy, far far away…

Destiny - Planetary Map

Pick a planet…any planet.

Destiny‘s narrative set up is as follows. In the present day, Mankind discover an otherworldly being on the planet Mars, a giant white orb known as ‘The Traveller’. The discovery of The Traveller sparks off a golden age of technological innovation and scientific prosperity for humanity, and upon making its home in a low orbit in the Earth’s atmosphere like a giant pale disco ball, The Traveller accelerates our growth across the solar system; terraforming other planets, tripling the average human lifespan, improving our tech and other such flashy miracles that giant space ball deities tend to do. However, it’s not long before an evil force, imaginatively named ‘The Darkness’ (no, don’t worry, it’s not Justin Hawkins’ band), comes to wipe out The Traveller and humanity. Not good. The Traveller sacrifices itself and manages to save the last human city beneath it, where the remains of our civilisation are surviving, before going dormant.

Some time after this catastrophic collapse, the game kicks off for you, the player, when a ghost – a robotic AI machine created by The Traveller – revives your long dead body (this is never really explained anywhere, so just go with it for now), and sets you out on your adventure as a Guardian. The Guardians are special warriors that can wield The Traveller’s light – in other words, kick some major ass and, you know, save the galaxy along the way and whatnot. You shoot your way through the tutorial mission, and upon finding your first rickety wreck of a spaceship, you head out on your epic quest to save the last remnants of humanity and The Traveller from the evil forces of darkness that are drawing ever closer…

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Destiny - Titan and The Traveller

The Traveller, hovering in all its vaguely hinted at glory.

So what exactly is Destiny then I hear you ask? Is it a first person shooter? Is it an MMO? Hell, could it be an MMORPG? Is it none of these things and instead just a figment of our collective imaginations?

Let’s start by going over some of the basics. Bungie describe Destiny as a ‘shared world shooter’, so let’s break down what this phrase actually means. The game is an FPS – First Person Shooter – where the player controls their Guardian character from a first person perspective, as in games such as the Halo and Call of Duty series. The shared world part means that the game is built around social interactions with other players in the game world, much like an MMO or MMORPG. Examples of MMOs – Massively Multiplayer Online games – and MMORPGs – Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games – are games like World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls Online or Guild Wars; these are games in which the player builds and customises their personal character and plays online with other players in a persistent online space.

In MMOs/MMORPGs, players typically complete quests, go on raids, craft items and take part in many other activities, all the while grinding merrily away and levelling up their character to make them more powerful. While many MMO players do like to play solo, these are games in which co-operation with other players is highly encouraged, and in most cases, essential to progress through the game fully. Players in these games can team up and interact with each other, to explore and fight their way through areas together in PVE (Player Versus Enemy) modes and even fight against each other in specific PVP (Player Versus Player) zones if they so desire. The game world in which all these activities take place is a persistent online space, which can change over time, and react to each player’s presence on the fly.

Bungie certainly drew direct inspirations and influences from the structure of MMOs when developing Destiny, which, on the whole, work well; in fact it’s arguably more of an MMO than a FPS in some key ways. Before we go into what works well and what doesn’t, let’s talk about the Guardian classes.

Classically trained

Each player in Destiny gets to create their own unique guardian; the idea being that every new player brings their own superhero-like space demon slayer to the fray to save the galaxy as a collective. Your Guardian’s character choices are purely aesthetic ones – do you want to be male/female, have short hair/long hair, do you want to be a human, robot, or space elf etc. (I’ve got more to say on these races, and their lack of any real background shortly), – but your choice of class is important, as it influences what style of combat you’re going to be best suited to when the shooting starts. You’ve got three different classes to choose from when starting the game – Titan, Warlock or Hunter.

Destiny - Titan

Titan.

The trio of classes operate like the typical classes you’d find in an MMO/Action RPG; the Titan is your Tank unit, which is exactly what it sounds like – a well-armoured tough-as-nails brute. Titans can take a lot of damage and deal it out in large amounts as well, and they’re generally most useful at dealing with large groups of standard enemies using powerful area of effect attacks.

Destiny - Hunter

Hunter.

The Hunter is your long ranged high DPS (Damage Per Second) character, who typically attacks from range, favouring sniper rifles and scout rifles; they also have some nifty throwing knives and special grenades to fling about, as well as a powerful golden gun attack which let’s them inflict massive damage to enemies for a short period of time. Naturally, this makes them crucial to taking down tougher enemies and boss characters quickly.

Destiny - Warlock

Warlock.

Last, but certainly not least, the Warlock is a sort of mix between a support character and what’s known in these circles as a ‘glass cannon’ – ie. a character capable of very high damage output at the cost of being rather fragile itself. They fill in the middle ground between Hunter and Titan, capable of dishing out plenty of pain one moment and providing support and resources for the other Guardians the next.

Despite each class being naturally geared to a specific type of combat, each class can be tweaked to your own personal preferences. Each Guardian class has two ‘Supers’ (think special moves) which they can equip, each with their own separate skill trees to level up. Only one ‘Super’ can be equipped at once, and they operate in an offensive/defensive pairing.

Destiny - Ward of Dawn

The Titan’s defensive Super in action – Ward of Dawn.

Through careful tweaking of each Super’s individual skill tree, all of the three classes can be largely customised to operate effectively in most combat roles, alone or as part of a fireteam (for the most part, fireteams are three-person max groups of players that you can adventure through the missions together as).

For example, you could design your normally slow and heavy Titan to be super quick and speedy at the cost of its armour, and likewise, you could tweak your normally fragile Warlock to be super tough and more bullet resistant at the cost of its speed and damage output. It’s all down to what works best for you. All guns can be used by all classes; however, some classes are naturally suited to wield certain weapon types over others, and will usually receive appropriate bonuses to their intended combat style through their class armour – for example, a Hunter’s armour will likely give boosts that support the use of sniper rifles, whilst a Titan’s armour will usually grant advantages with machine guns.

While it’s good that the classes are designed to be flexible in this way, unfortunately, this also means that when fully levelled up, each class can start to feel indifferent to each other. Combined with the fact that every class can wield every gun, and it soon becomes apparent that it’s not particularly important to have a balanced team of different skills and talents to overcome the alien hordes with; no, just make sure everyone in the fireteam brings their biggest and best guns and you’ll be just fine.

This isn’t a major problem as such, but it does undermine the idea of putting together a holy trinity of the three classes as a single cohesive combat unit – you’re just as likely to get through the same story mission with three armed to the teeth Warlocks as you are having a fireteam made up of all different classes. Oh, and speaking of the story missions…

Halo darkness my old friend…

Destiny - Hive Acolyte

A Hive Acolyte – far too close for comfort.

Remember earlier when I was telling you about Destiny‘s plot? The Traveller, The Darkness, evil space aliens, doom and gloom and all of that jazz – so far, so good right? Well, all of this is explained in the game’s opening cutscene. Make sure you’re paying attention to this cutscene, however, as that’s pretty much the extent of the story you’re going to get for the entire game! Yes, really!

This, to me, was personally my biggest disappointment with Destiny, and it’s something that I’m sure other players familiar with Bungie’s output over the years will pick up on pretty quickly when playing the game, so I thought I’d address it early on.

As a long-time Halo fan, I was both saddened and confused at how little the narrative barebones of this potentially very interesting plot set-up are actually fleshed out. In fact, upon getting about halfway through the game, despite seeing a few scant cutscenes here and there that might have at one point suggested otherwise, the horrifying realisation that no, there still isn’t anything resembling a story at this late stage felt very much like a brutal gut-punch to me as a player.

From the very start of the game, to the surprisingly quick end (the story mode can be played through in about 6-8 hours), I found myself asking largely the same old questions I had at the very beginning; What exactly is The Traveller? Why are there suddenly robots (the Exo) and shiny blue space elves (the Awoken) being nonchalantly classed as part of humanity as if we’ve always had them? Why have I not met any other significant characters yet? I know Bungie are planning to run and support this franchise for a decade, but come on, I need some characters and plot to go on in the meantime, or I’m just not going to have any real interest right now, let alone in ten years’ time.

Destiny - Mars City

The ruined cities of Mars. Despite finishing the story, I’ve still not got any idea as to how they actually got ruined unfortunately.

To be fair here, as much as I’ve loved the stories and plots of the wider Halo universe, the stories told in the Halo games haven’t exactly been the most original and ground-breaking things ever (the extra lore in the books and other media have expanded significantly on the small scope that the games cover, but that’s for another article). Yes, you’ve got the usual space marine clichés, and at times the cheesy military gung-ho attitude bursting forth at the game’s power armour clad seams might be a bit ridiculous, but the stories were delivered in a well polished manner and, like the Master Chief himself, stuck to their (many) guns, delivering a linear yet exciting dramatic space opera in the process.

However, I’m sure that even for those Destiny players who haven’t played the Halo series, the weak threads of Destiny‘s story will still be a bit of a major let-down to say the very least, no matter what your stance on narrative in games is.

 Letter of the lore

Destiny - Ghost Grimoire Card

The Grimoire Ghost Card. This is from the Destiny Companion App – you can’t access these from the game whatsoever right now.

As you play through Destiny, notices will pop up after killing enemies, collecting loot, completing story missions and finding items, saying that you’re unlocking new Grimoire cards. “But lo – what are these Grimoire cards of which you speak Reviewer?”, I hear you cry. Well, these cards are essentially lore cards that give extra information on the enemies, locations and weapons etc. that you’ll come across as you play through the game.

From what I’ve read myself, the lore itself is interesting and nicely ambiguous, and from what I’ve gathered from other players’ more extensive reading, there’s now some cool theories circulating online about just what exactly is going on in this sci-fi universe, and whether everything is as it narratively seems to be – but it’s all entirely separate from the actual game. There’s no way to access any of this content from within the game itself; you instead have to log into a Bungie.net account or fire up the Bungie Companion App to read your collection of lore cards, which seems like a massive oversight in my opinion. Even just having the utility to access your Grimoire cards in some out of the way options menu would have been adequate, but to make the player have to go and read up on the lore via a separate app, or through the Bungie.net website to get the story that didn’t make it into the final game seems like a really counter-intuitive decision.

Upon completing the main story missions, I’ve still not felt compelled to go back and read up on the lore, and this is coming from someone who has, overall, really enjoyed their time with Destiny. It’s a real shame, because at times, with the beautiful art direction, evocative soundtrack and the shared world social interactions between players, Destiny gets very close to capturing that sense of awe and wonder that Bungie really nailed when you first set your amour-clad foot upon the eponymous ringworld of Halo: Combat Evolved. There’s certainly plenty of mysteries out there in Destiny‘s universe, but you won’t be getting engrossed and drawn into them by playing the game at the moment, that’s for sure. Luckily, you won’t need to be.

Why Halo there

Destiny - Vex Minotaur

A Vex Minotaur, coming in close for some gentlemanly fisticuffs.

While Destiny has little to no story or characters, its real strength is in its engaging and satisfying gunplay. Anybody who’s played the Halo games will instantly feel right at home here; from the power and handling of the guns themselves with their thunderous reverberating gunshots, to the nuanced design, look and behaviours of the enemy alien species you’ll be riddling holes in with said powerful guns, the gun-toting gameplay in Destiny feels unmistakably Bungie, and thus, unmistakably fantastic.

Whilst the same unfortunately can’t be said for the story, the raw gameplay DNA of that defining first person shooter experience that Bungie pioneered in Halo: Combat Evolved is still delightfully intact and as satisfying as ever. It’s absolutely central to Destiny‘s genetic makeup. The gunplay is the key thing to what makes Destiny so compelling an experience – it’s rock solid and incredibly satisfying; it’s what will keep you coming back for more and more and more. The guns are all similar staples of ones found in the Halo universe; you’ve got such classics as all-out assault rifles, versatile three-burst pulse rifles, precise single shot DMR-like scout rifles, alongside fan favourite power weapons such as sniper rifles, shotguns and rocket launchers. Each gun has its own particular chunky feel, sound and weight, and you’ll amass a whole plethora of different armaments to mix and match with as you see fit on your inter-planetary jaunts.

The loot system is the other big draw, and it’s how you’ll be acquiring the vast majority of your weapons and gear in the game. For the most part, the loot drops work well for the majority of the game. All the loot in your game is unique to you; each player gets their own independent loot stream, which is a great design choice, as it means no more squabbling over who gets that shiny new gun or helmet a boss has dropped, as was prone to happen on a frequent basis in games like Diablo III or Borderlands 2. Although there are some flaws with the way the loot system works as you near the level-cap (more on this coming up later), generally, it works well.

Destiny - Cabal Combat

A full-frontal Cabal assault. In a word; painful.

The different enemy AIs are generally good; enemies usually require a good blend of strategy to overcome, and their decent AI programming for the most part stops them from feeling like simple bullet sponges. Destiny‘s enemies comprise four different alien races, each with their own unique abilities and tactics. Although all the four races have their own interesting combat strategies, weaknesses, enemy types and class hierarchies, it’s the last two you’ll encounter – the robotic Vex and the lumbering highly-armoured Cabal – that prove the most challenging and interesting to fight. The Cabal in particular are great for co-op play, as many of their troops carry impenetrable shields, requiring you to co-ordinate with your teammates and flank them in order to take them down successfully.

As the game is designed like an MMO however, with separate instances – an ‘instance’ is a term in MMOs for a specific portion of the world map that a particular bunch of players are currently in – when players move off, the enemies will routinely spawn back in and head back to predetermined spots, which undermines their otherwise good intelligence, and at times, can remind you that you’re not exactly playing a first person shooter or an MMO – it’s a blend of the two, a hybrid, which comes with definite pros and cons. In fact, as a result of this, at times, very predictable enemy behaviour, there’s now a growing number of players that have found so-called ‘loot caves’ to farm; places where enemies will constantly respawn over and over again after being killed, allowing players to repeatedly grind away, killing them repeatedly in the hope of acquiring loot at a faster pace than otherwise possible. It’s not a massive thing, but it does undermine the feeling somewhat that you’re playing against smart and responsive enemies from time to time.

Destiny - Vex Goblins Combat

A horde of pesky Vex Goblins. Vexing indeed.

Last but not least, with all this talk of good Halo-esque comparisons, the soundtrack deserves particular credit for building and sustaining Destiny‘s atmosphere. Martin O’Donnell’s superb scores work wonderfully well to establish the world and environments with atmosphere and character…which is just as well, as there are practically no other characters in the story aside from you and your Ghost, AKA the Dinkbot.

Game of drones

Destiny - Titan and Ghost

Guardian and Dinklebot; the ultimate duo in intergalactic crime fighting.

The Ghost is voiced by Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, and he’s your main companion on your adventures throughout the solar system. In fact, with a couple of exceptions towards the end of the game, he’s practically the only other character you have any meaningful narrative interaction with.

As a result, there’s no foundation for any sort of character development at all. Try as you might, even your own Guardian feels rather bland once that post character creation buzz has worn off, no matter how many colourful robes, cool knee guards or amazing technicolour dreamcoats you swaddle them in.

I know it’s been parodied to death already on the internet, but I’ve got to bring it up if we’re talking about the Ghost – Peter Dinklage’s wooden delivery of his lines leaves you really wanting more. From my experience, yes, whilst it’s true that the Dinkbot isn’t the most charismatic companion that will ever accompany you across a virtual landscape, I feel that it’s the poor quality of the material that he’s got to work with that lets his performance down, and not his acting ability per se.

To bang on about it once again, with no other characters to significantly interact with, and with a great deal of the narrative stripped out of the game and put into the Grimoire cards as external lore, the weak writing is laid painfully bare, time and time again. Again, the universe and lore of Destiny is definitely intriguing; it’s just that so much of the plot development is relayed to you via big ungainly exposition dumps from Dinkbot, which you’ll quickly become tired with.

Also, despite Destiny‘s strong focus on continually connected online multiplayer, co-operative play and the shared stories that emerge from playing and interacting together, it’s strange that, on the rare occasions when you do get a story cutscene to watch, only your character is displayed, and none of your fellow fireteam members appear with you. It’s not a big thing, but nonetheless it is a bit jarring if you aren’t playing solo. Considering that arguably the absolute core tenet of the game is to join up with your fellow gamers and tackle the story’s villainous mobs of aliens together, it feels like a bit of a confusing misstep to isolate you from your friends during the cinematic moments.

Destiny - Ghost in Hand

“Fly me to the moon, let me…hover, among the stars…”

Apart from these very occasionally occurring cutscenes, most of the game is spent wandering around the various planetary vistas with your own personal robo-Dink in tow. Unfortunately, despite how beautiful these areas are, they feel lifeless and hollow; there’s nothing really going on in them apart from them being home to endlessly respawning monster closets – spewing out hordes of enemies every few minutes, which eagerly rush back into their set positions to once again be slain over and over again ad infinitum.

So, the weak story, combined with a very repetitive mission structure, begins to quickly feel stale and tired after only a few missions in. At times, Destiny‘s missions can be so formulaic in structure it’s laughable. A typical story mission usually goes as follows:

  1.  Start of mission. Cue a substantial exposition dump of woolly information/backstory from Dinkbot to set you on your way.
  2. Go to objective location.
  3. Kill enemies.
  4. Go to next area, cue more story waffle.
  5. Kill enemies in this location, go to new location.
  6. Kill last bunch of enemies, maybe slaying a few tougher enemies along the way and possibly even a boss character to finish.
  7. End of mission. Cue breakdancing and teabagging a plenty.
  8. Return to planetary orbit. Go to Tower. Cash in engrams with Cryptarch, cash in completed bounties, and buy new gear and supplies if neccessary.
  9. Head back into orbit, pick new destination and mission.
  10. Rinse and repeat.

On reflection though, perhaps it was naïve of me to go in expecting a story comparable to that of Halo‘s. Afterall, the game isn’t a straightforward singleplayer game, in a lot of ways, it’s more akin to an MMO in terms of its structure than a FPS. Once I shifted my perspective away from what I would normally hope to get from a typical FPS experience, and I thought about the game more along the lines of how an MMO operates, then I somewhat let my gripes about a lack of meaningful story slide a bit. To bring up Diablo III as a point of reference again, I absolutely loved that game for it’s great gameplay and didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at its dark and serious storyline, and the same applies here for Destiny. It’s not about what or why you’re doing the things you’re up to in Destiny, it’s about who you’re doing them with. Once you come to this epiphany of a realisation, the game really steps up a gear and comes to life.

A little help from my friends

Destiny - Guardians at Tower

Guardians at the Tower, ready to go off a-questin’.

Having played the game both solo and with friends, it’s pretty clear to say that Destiny is a far more engrossing adventure with other Guardians in your fireteam who are also along for the ride. The social shared world aspects of the game, and the ability to bump into friends and other adventuring players on your travels really transforms what otherwise might have been a bland regular shooter into something truly unique and fresh. A lack of local co-op is a tad disappointing, although it’s perhaps unsurprising considering the general direction of multiplayer in the industry these days, so you’ll need other online friends on the same platform to go on your merry loot hunting adventures with.

The Tower is possibly one of the greatest things about the game. It’s essentially the main game hub; you’ll use the Tower as a place where you can meet up with your friends, buy new gear, and decrypt engrams you find (think bright colourful footballs containing mystery gear) from the Cryptarch. You’re normally coming to and from the Tower with a specific purpose in mind, but some of the best moments are when you are just waiting around and mingling with the other players.

Mingling is easy; the D-pad lets you perform simple gestures, allowing you to communicate non-verbally with your fellow Guardians, including waves, points, sitting down (to show when you are AFC, or ‘Away From Console’) and, of course, dance routines; naturally, this leads to some daft player interactions. Seeing a mass breakdance party kick off in front of one of the Tower vendors is always funny, always unpredictable and always incredibly charming.

As much as these gestures are greatly entertaining ways of interacting with your fellow Guardians, it’s the spontaneous way that you will naturally stumble across other players going about their own business while out on your own individual missions that make the biggest impression.

Destiny - Sparrow Racing

The Sparrow, your Guardian’s very own Star Wars-esque speeder bike, makes getting across levels a real thrill.

The emergent stories that arise from players coming across each other out in the wilds of the shared worlds are some of my own personal highlights from the game, and I imagine it’s this sort of storytelling that Bungie is counting on players experiencing when they go off adventuring as a fireteam.

When these special moments of spontaneous player interaction happen, they feel nothing short of magical. At their very best, you can experience some spur of the moment instances that feel like something carefully scripted, something you might expect to find in expansive and detailed open world games like Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption.

On one occasion, after wandering off the beaten path on a basic story mission on the Moon, I soon found myself lost deep within the Hive-infested tunnels below the surface. Think wandering around in the mines of Morria from The Lord of The Rings, only with space zombies, space knights and a cave troll-like Ogre that can rapid-fire lasers from its face, and you’re in the right ball park.

Destiny - Hive Ogre

Fee-fi-fo-RUN!

I fought for my virtual life throughout these gloomy dank catacombs for absolutely ages, hoping to find some secrets or perhaps just another way out, only to be greeted at every turn by hordes and hordes of enemies keen to make my acquaintance. This felt wonderfully oppressive (as strange as that sounds) and it created a heavy atmosphere of desperation, horror and dread that managed to draw me into the game world in a visceral and gripping way that the story completely failed to do. Being lost and on your own in a game normally swarming with other players makes you feel anxious yet electrifyingly engaged.

It took a long time, and an awful lot of bullets, but I eventually found a way out. Upon finally stumbling back outside onto the dusty lunar plains, my relief at seeing other players milling about and merrily dancing around each other was such a sublime moment of release. After being truly alone for a good hour or so, it’s hard to express how special it felt to be around other players again – it’s easy to take the shared experience feel of the game world for granted.

Destiny - Vex Goblins Combat 2

“I’m, too Vex-y for my shirt…erm, power armour.”

Another time, I was making my way through the Aztec-like ruins on the planet Venus (as you do) when I stumbled across a large group of players fighting off swarms of teleporting Vex machines. At first I had no idea what they were doing, but they were getting bombarded on all sides, so feeling the pull of bystander intervention, I shouldered my auto rifle and joined the fray. As it turned out, this was a raiding group I had stumbled across, and they were currently in the process of raising a spire to gain access to the Vault of Glass – Destiny’s first raid mission. Although I was a tad underlevelled in comparison to the rest of the group, I lent my firepower to their cause, helping them to hold the incoming Vex troopers off whilst defending the spire platforms in order to get the massive vault door open. It was an absolutely exhilarating battle to have just spontaneously walked into off the cuff. Sadly, although I couldn’t progress further into the Vault of Glass with them, it felt incredibly satisfying to have played a bit part in helping them on their way.

The Crucible

Destiny - Crucible Team Shot

Guardians strutting their stuff in the Crucible. I’m the one holding the flag – the team mascot, in other words.

Once you feel like you’ve slain your fair share of gruesome space ogres and time-travelling robotic war machines for the day, it’s time to kick back and head into the Crucible for a while. This is Destiny‘s PVP mode, where Guardians can battle each other for experience points, Crucible marks (one of the game’s special currencies) and, of course, fancy loot.

While perhaps not the most unique competitive multiplayer experience out there, the Crucible is fast-paced, exhilarating and a lot of fun. Most importantly though, it’s simplicity makes it a very accessible place to start for those who might otherwise not have bothered with a competitive shooter experience before.

The interplay between the Crucible and the regular co-op missions works brilliantly. Bungie have wisely allowed players to decide how and what they want to play in Destiny, gently encouraging them to try new experiences without forcing players into a painful grind in modes that they won’t enjoy.

Everything applies back to your character, so any cool gear or guns you earn in one mode can be used to help you out in another. All the gear and guns you earn in the game work in both PVP and PVE modes, so all the progress and rewards you earn in the Crucible you can carry over and use in the co-operative story mode also. I personally found this to be incredibly appealing; I’m not the biggest competitive shooter fan, so I’ve naturally spent the majority of my time in Destiny in the co-operative modes. But being able to bring across my favourite guns and gear from the story to the Crucible and vice versa definitely makes a big difference to me, and it gives an added incentive to jump into the Crucible from time to time to see how I measure up to the other Guardians.

Although players are complaining that the competitive multiplayer doesn’t completely balance out weapon stats – the game apparently only balances out the basic stats, and not some of the additional special effects the legendary and exotic weapons come with – I’ve personally not come across this problem myself. From my own experience of the Crucible, regularly playing at different experience levels with different combinations of weapons and gear, I found that, much like other competitive games with ranking systems, a player’s number or rank is just an indicator of how long they’ve been playing the game, and this doesn’t necessarily correlate to their true skill. Unless you’re playing an Iron Banner event (a special limited availability competitive mode that was playable in the Beta, where gear and gun advantages aren’t levelled out), then generally you don’t have to worry about other players having unfair advantages over you; the Crucible still manages to be a fair test of player skill for the most part, and an enjoyable PVP alternative to the story/co-op missions.

High level competitive first person shooter players have voiced their complaints at the lack of private lobbies however, and the lack of other features that they’ve come to expect from similar competitive online first person shooter games, so unless these are patched in quickly, the game will likely not catch on significantly in the pro/e-sports communities.

Light at the end of the (ambiguously long) tunnel

Destiny - Glimmer Chest

Loot, glorious loot.

With all these story missions and Crucible matches under your belt, you’ll soon find your Guardian levelling up at a delightfully fast rate. The upgrades come thick and fast, and you’ll have amassed a decent pile of guns and gear in your inventory. In fact, levelling up happens so fast, that you’ll find yourself at the level max rather more quickly than you may have anticipated.

Destiny has a relatively low experience level ‘soft-cap’ which can be reached with only a few hours on the clock. Although this itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the level cap of 20 has been repeatedly stated by the developers to be only the start of things with regard to the end-game activities – this is by all means a relatively low level cap in comparison to other big loot and grinding games such as, you guessed it, Borderlands 2 and Diablo III. Reaching the cap in those games can take hundreds of hours of play, whereas you’ll reach level 20 in Destiny in a mere fraction of that time.

Obviously, just having to grind for grinding’s sake does not a good game make, but your climb up the experience ladder in Destiny will most likely feel a bit anticlimactic to say the least. Combined with a relatively small number of unique missions and things to do, this does leave a bit of a bitter question mark hanging over the player’s head, with an unpleasant lingering notion of “Is that really it?” Well…not quite.

Destiny - Light Ratings

Finding gear with more light requires both patience and luck…lots of luck.

I say there’s a soft-cap of 20, because in actual fact, you can go past it. To level up past 20, you need to start acquiring wearable armour and gear for your character that have ‘light’ in them. This appears as a new statistic on the wearable gear you’ll find going forward, which you’ll need to move up into the post-20 levels (level 30 being the final cap for the time being). It’s at this point that the loot system goes from working nicely to being a cheap lucky-dip apple bobbing contest in a hand cannon’s muzzle flash.

The loot, armour and guns you’ll find while playing and that you’ll receive as mission rewards are, as far as I can tell, entirely luck based. You’ll still earn experience points as you did before, but once you’re at level 20, they only count towards levelling up your currently equipped gear, special ability and guns. From here on out, it’s totally down to lady luck as to if and when you get gear with better light ratings. Get a high enough light rating from your gear and you’ll go up a level. Don’t find anything with higher light ratings and, well…you could be stuck there for some time, and there’s nothing you can do about it except to get that plucky nose of yours back to the grindstone. All of a sudden, this turns levelling up from a smooth gradual incline of progress into a jagged stop-start purgatory-like traffic jam.

Destiny - Cryptarch

The Cryptarch. Helping and scamming players in equal measure. Somebody call Watchdog…

In fact, in some ways, the loot system is actually currently broken in a few key ways. Remember a whole bunch of paragraphs ago when I was saying that the system works well for the most part? Well, it does, but as you’re levelling up and playing the game, you’ll be dealing with this friendly blue chap in the tower called the Cryptarch. You might even come to grow fond of him; he’s an elderly Awoken mystic who is only too eager to help turn those glowing colourful engram balls you’ve hoarded into shiny new things for you to use on your next cosmic adventure.

For the majority of your game, you’ll be turning in green and blue engrams, which, by and large, give green (uncommon) and blue (rare) items, as you might expect from their corresponding colour scheme. However, once you’ve reached the level cap, you’ll be starting to find your first purple (legendary) engrams, which as the name suggests, you would think to contain legendary items. Nope. What it actually means is that it could be a legendary item…but it probably won’t be.

You might have been grinding for hours to get that purple engram, but there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get a legendary gun or piece of armour from it once it’s decoded. Needless to say, this can feel very cheap and frustrating – which, like I briefly mentioned earlier, has lead to a bunch of Destiny players spending all day farming loot caves in the hope of lucking out on rare items. This is apparently being patched by Bungie in an upcoming update to make sure that you definitely get the correct level of loot from the engrams you turn in, but it’s made advancing through the levels for current Destiny players a bit of a chore in the meantime.

Essentially, once you’re at the soft-cap the loot system degenerates into a game of chance. At level 20 and beyond, whether you’re playing in The Crucible or carrying out story/co-op missions, you’re playing with your fingers crossed at all times, hoping that any loot you come across has more light. There’s no other way to progress.

With all this chance involved in getting past the soft-cap, you might well ask “What’s the point in doing all this extra levelling up past 20? If it’s all down to luck, why spend hours grinding trying to go any further?” Well, it becomes particularly important if you want to experience the end-game content such as the raids. These are the key features of the game that Bungie are keen to impress upon players as the best bits of the entire Destiny experience.

Raiding between the lines

Destiny - Devil Walker

The fearsome Fallen Devil Walker can be a particularly tough nut to crack.

Raids are particularly difficult missions that require a team of six players to come together and tackle gruelling enemies and massive bosses, much like MMO raid players do in games like World of Warcraft, in order to get their hands on some of the most rare and powerful loot and weapons in the game for their characters. Raid missions require fireteams to have unrivalled communication skills, co-operation and teamwork in order to pull off these most difficult of missions successfully.

Here’s why levelling up is important past the soft-cap. It’s suggested that players need to be at least level 26 minimum to be in a decent position to start tackling the raids, and about level 28 in order to competently take part. The bottom line; these raids are pretty damn hard. To even begin thinking about tackling a raid before getting to the higher post-20 level is pretty much suicide, hence why you’ll need to spend a good portion of time beforehand grinding away for better gear, and hoping you’ll chance across enough decent gear with light in it.

Destiny‘s apparently hard-as-nails endgame content sounds terribly exciting. I say ‘apparently’, and ‘sounds terribly exciting’, because as of yet, I haven’t been able to play them. I’m essentially twiddling my virtual thumbs as I wait for my friends to level up. I’m a level 26 Titan myself (lucky me), but I’ve got to wait for my five other friends to have the same luck with light-filled loot that I’ve had, because here’s a bombshell – there’s no matchmaking system in place for the raids, and the weekly heroic/nightfall challenges (these are also pretty tough).

This means that unless you have five other highly-levelled and tooled-up friends playing Destiny, you won’t be able to get access to arguably some of the best gameplay and experiences that the game has to offer.

Why offer extensive and technically impressive matchmaking systems throughout the majority of Destiny, only to snatch them away for what are supposed to be the best bits of your game? In fact, as far as I’m aware, the game doesn’t actually tell you anywhere how to start up your own in-game clan (Destiny‘s integrated online team system, designed to help you organise raid dates and times etc. with all of your clan members as a whole). I’m only aware of the clan system and how it works from my previous experience with Bungie’s Halo clan systems over the years. I can only imagine that there’s going to be lots of people out there who won’t ever get to experience what’s touted as Destiny‘s best content as it’s not sufficiently explained to them in-game.

Destiny - Sepiks Prime

Sepiks Prime – AKA that giant electric floating eyeball thing, is also quite a brute on the harder difficulties.

I’ve found from my own personal experience with Bungie’s Halo games that they can be particularly heavy-handed when it comes to how they want you to play their games online. I can totally understand why they want you to just solely play the raids with people you have in your clan/friends list to some extent – you’re more likely to talk and communicate with people you know, players are less likely to unexpectedly drop out, and overall you’ll generally be more comfortable and more likely to get into the heat of the action as you navigate through these difficult dungeons together, where real-time tactics and communication are no doubt keys to success.

Friends-only raiding is absolutely a nice idea in some ways, but it feels impractical, and very prescriptive considering how open and flexible the rest of the game is. Bungie’s stance on the raids, unfortunately, seems to be unnecessarily difficult and officious. It’s like trying to get into a nightclub with a particularly stubborn bouncer on the door, who point blank refuses to let you in for some petty reason, even though you’re obeying the dress code and being perfectly charming.

They seem to have this overblown romantic idea of how you’re supposed to be playing alongside your online friends. You and these fine, brave men and women you’ve banded together with on your epic journey; these noble warriors of old, armour clad and powerful, standing tall with the galaxy’s finest weaponry in their hands.

Actually, no, not quite – I just want to play a raid for a few hours if that’s quite all right Bungie? Pretty please? I would of course prefer to play with my friends when possible, but I’d also like to just jump into a raid with strangers from time to time and see how we all get on if my online gaming friends aren’t available. Is that too much to ask Big Brother?

Does it really matter if we fail hopelessly at a raid? Can I not be allowed to try and fail on my own terms? I couldn’t care less if I repeatedly failed, or the team doesn’t communicate properly, or we just simply can’t pull it off in the end because people want to breakdance all the time – isn’t it the taking part that counts after all? Anyway, enough of these rhetoricals – to the Batcave! No wait, that’s not right – to the conclusion!

To Infinity, and beyond

Destiny - Ship Vortex

Set the controls for the heart of the sun…actually, on second thought, let’s go back to Earth instead.

So that’s Destiny, in an admittedly rather large planetary-sized nutshell. The game is fantastic and ground breaking in a lot of ways, but it has so many critical problems at its foundation. Some of these are just so inconceivably basic, especially so when you consider the amount of money that was reportedly pumped into the game – a whopping $500 million was the original (later said to be inaccurate) figure.

As a result, you’ll find yourself asking, “How did they manage to get this so wrong?” at times, only to be blown away mere seconds later by some ridiculously exciting spontaneous event that kicks off and gets everybody in the area playing together and having a genuinely good time. There’s moments where you’ll be truly amazed by what’s going on in Destiny, marvelling at how fresh and exciting this socially connected playing space is, only to find out how fragile and stale it is in places, like an abandoned flimsy cardboard film set, with no actors in sight for miles.

Despite the flaws, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in Destiny, and I plan on spending many more hours looting and shooting my way back and forth across the solar system for a long time yet. In terms of new content coming to the game over in the near future, there’s two paid expansion packs that have been announced as part of the Destiny Season Pass – The Dark Below and House of Wolves, with another two unannounced packs to follow, and free updates and patches for the game are rolling out on a pretty regular basis, so you clearly feel that the game has a great deal of support right from the off.

For me though, when I think about Destiny, it’s all about the guns and gameplay. The shooting mechanics in Destiny are an example of Bungie at it’s finest – from the moment you pick up that first ancient and rusted assault rifle in Old Russia, you know you’re in for something special. So special, in fact, that longtime Bungie fans will swear that they’re holding their gun in some very familiar green MJOLNIR power armoured hands.

Destiny - Green Titan

Cough, cough *Master Chief* cough cough.

Destined for greatness with its solid gunplay and next-gen co-op and social features, but significant flaws with the story and loot system prevent Destiny from truly becoming legend.

Pros Cons
+ Gunplay is fantastic. – Story is a complete mess.
+ Hunting for loot is exciting and addictive. – The action gets very repetitive, very quickly
+ Shared world areas lend themselves to moments of fantastic spontaneity and player interaction. – No matchmaking for key modes in an always-online multiplayer game is baffling.

Super Time Force Review

Super Time Force Logo
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(Reviewed on Xbox One)

Think of the game Braid. Now, imagine Braid with a team of whacky characters to choose from, each with their own ridiculous weaponry, quirks and daft 80’s references to boot. Now imagine Braid with those whacky characters and their ridiculous accoutrements, all wrapped up in chunky 8-bit graphics, stupidly awful time gags, internet memes and text speak, and copious amounts of dinosaurs, not to mention the occasional mecha-dinosaur. Especially don’t forget the mecha-dinosaur. Put all these ingredients together and what do you get? Well…to be totally honest, I’m not too sure myself, so forget that – let’s talk about Super Time Force instead.

Super Time Force is a joyous run ‘n’ gun romp through time and space, where logic and seriousness are left at the door, and ridiculousness, leet speak and testosterone-packed 80’s film references are welcomed in with rippling muscular 8-bit arms.

Super Time Force - Star Wars Text

It’s a game that takes time travel to a whole new level of insanity. Although at first the gameplay mechanics of Super Time Force appear to be totally incompatible with your normal brain functions, fight the urge to joy-vomit and stick with it; developer Capy have crafted a fantastic gem of a shooter that feels unique, inspired, challenging and downright stupid…in a good way.

Super Time Force - Dr. Infinity

Main antagonist Dr. Infinity, in one of his many ridiculous Dr. Robotnik-like killing contraptions.

The basic premise is that you need to battle through each level with your elite bunch of chronologically confused super soldiers and correct the wrongs of time (such as the extinction of the dinosaurs of course) by going back into the past, whilst also having a quick tinker about in the future too from time to time. The game plays as a 2D platforming shoot ’em up, a la games like Contra; you simply need to shoot/fart/explode/scream awesome rainbow chest beams of death (trust me, they truly are awesome) at Dr. Infinity’s pesky Blounbots, dinosaurs, knights, dinosaurs, mermen (did I mention dinosaurs?) and a plethora of other creatures that are trying to kill you whilst making your way to the end of the level. Simple right?

Well, not quite. You see, you’ve got barely enough time to make it through the level as it is, and if you do happen to make it through a level in one piece (you skilful thing, you) you’ll find you’ll have but a fraction of the firepower you’ll need to topple the end of level boss in time. The solution? Travel back in time and bring in another of your motley time-fighting team to fight alongside your past self.

Super Time Force - Future Level Action

Machine guns, rocket launchers, rainbow chest beams of death – you name it, the team’s got it.

You can wind back time when you die, or whenever you want by pressing the B button, which triggers a cool VCR style rewinding effect on the screen (ah, those were the days). You have 30 rewinds or lives in total per level, and once they’re gone, it’s game over man. You can wind back a few moments before your previous death and carry on before you got killed, or you can go right back to the start of the level and try from there. Each method has its own advantages; in fact, some levels require that you start back from the beginning each time, building up an unstoppable horde of time-bending banditos with which you can blast your way through the level boss and beyond.

Completing a level lets you watch and save a replay of all of your lives charging through the level at once, in real time as it were (not that there’s such a thing as real time in this game, but you get the picture), complete with a cacophony of gunshots, yells, explosions and some lovely 8-bit bleeps and bloops, courtesy of 6955’s great soundtrack.

The Super Time Force are, naturally, the stars of the show and the heart and soul of the game. You start off with the basic trio of Jean Rambois (Rambo’s French machine gun-toting doppelgänger) Aimy McKillin (puntastic sniper extraordinaire) and last but certainly not least, Shieldy Blockerson (yup, he’s got a shield). New team members are encountered as you play through the levels, often requiring you to save them from a heinous death sequence in order to add them to your growing team.

Each new addition to the team comes with their own individual shooting mechanics, and although some members are far more useful than others, each stupid new addition will undoubtedly bring a smile to your face. Two of my personal unlockable favourites are Dolph Lundgren, a bottlenose dolphin equipped with a massive minigun, and the Magnum Force Clint Eastwood inspired anthropomorphic shit monster, Squirty Harry.

Super Time Force - Dolph Explosions

The main problem that I encountered when playing Super Time Force was that due to the sheer ridiculous nature of the game, it can take quite a long time to get your head around just what the hell is actually happening onscreen. Bullets are flying everywhere, explosions blast through the environment and with all the various time copies of your previous runs playing through the level simultaneously along with your current actions, it can be an absolutely overwhelming overload of noise when you first start playing.

There’s just so much going on in general that it can take several of your precious rewinds just to work out what on Earth is happening! Also, it can take some time getting used to the instant vulnerability of your character. Unlike a lot of games, there’s not that brief period of invulnerability that you often take for granted when respawning, so when you jump back in with a new life/character, your placement back in the action has to be precise and particularly careful. It took me quite a long time to unlearn my ingrained habit of assuming invulnerable respawns when playing Super Time Force; not to mention other conventional game rules that you take for granted in a traditional 2D platformer, but once I’d got my head round the core concepts, I felt I’d got it…well, sort of…I think.

Once you’ve completed the main game, there’s a Super Hardcore mode on offer for the real sado-masochists out there, where upon a team member’s untimely demise, they remain dead unless you can wind back time and kill their attacker. This is where the game truly shines in my opinion, as it ratchets up the tension, adding more pressure to your character choices and tactics. Cock up with Jean Rambois early on in a level? He’s dead for good in Super Hardcore, and the only way to get him back is to kill the person that fired the projectile that killed him, so that he/she no longer exists any more (obviously). It really raises the stakes when you’re down to your last handful of troops, and you know that any mistake is critical. It’s in this mode that you really get to grips with the finer mechanics of each soldier, and their loss from your roster makes each death more significant and painful.

Super Time Force - The Lookers

Although Super Time Force isn’t the longest of games, it’ll likely be one of the most memorable and daft ones you’ll have played in a fair old while. There’s achievements up for grabs for getting the fiendishly placed time shards and other collectibles which will keep completionist players coming back for more, and it’ll take some serious practice to get perfect scores on each level and climb those all-important leaderboards for the most diehard and pain-loving of players.

Super Time Force is a gleefully stupid and highly enjoyable explosion of nonsensical joy, and arguably one of the strongest indie titles currently available on Microsoft’s Xboxes. Just try not to think too hard about what exactly is going on onscreen when it’s all going mental, and revel in the sheer absurdity of it all.

Since the game’s original release in May, there’s been the subsequent release of Super Time Force Ultra, a revised version of the game for PC; this updated version contains new characters, bonus challenge ‘Helladeck’ levels and alternate dimension powers; all of which I’m hoping will be available to console players as DLC in the future. If only there was a way of going into the future now and getting hold of that DLC right this very moment…aha! Excuse me while I grab a dinosaur costume, a time-machine, a skateboard and all the cheesiest 80’s references I can carry with my tiny dinosaur hands – I’ve got an appointment with the Super Time Force!

Super Time Force - Zackasaurus

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – an untimely but hopefully useful review and thoughts on Kojima’s latest offering

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(Originally published on MyIGN on April 12th, 2014)

MGSV: GZ Snake Goggles

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

I thought I’d tackle my first attempt at a games review with possibly one of the most controversial console releases in recent memory. The latest nugget of Metal Gear action from Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a standalone title, set to act as a prologue to the events and story in next year’s expected full release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Before I wade waist deep into the murky brackish waters of review territory, I thought I’d outline my thoughts and principles regarding the review process itself.

It is commonplace within games media reviewing to apply a figure or score to a review, such as the 10 scale rating system here on IGN, in order to quantify a game’s worth against the glut of competing games vying for your time, attention and money. This is perfectly logical and reasonable for most readers, and I appreciate and understand the need for such a scoring system. Choosing to ignore robust systems like this, I made, looking back with both bitterness and great amusement, a rather reckless and foolish day one purchase of (yes, you guessed it) Aliens: Colonial Marines for Xbox 360, without consulting the same day reviews (which came out once the last-minute embargos lifted, usually a bad sign indeed). Oh yeah. Not the worst game in the world, not by a long way, but certainly one of the greatest disappointments to fans, Aliens: Colonial Marines is quite possibly one of the most crushing bait and switches that the games industry has seen in recent times. The poorly executed and just generally sloppy game was written to be an actual canonical continuation of James Cameron’s seminal 1986 action movie classic Aliens – yes, Colonial Marines is now part of the cannon, like it or not. The game scored a 4.5 ‘bad’ rating on IGN, and 48/100 on Metacritic. I will have more to write about this wretched, mangled, fetid, septic pus-filled abortion of a game in more depth at a later date…oh yes…I haven’t forgotten Gearbox…sleep tight Randy…(maniacal laughter).

However, to leave that foul game and the disgusting adjectival phrases I’ve roughly stapled into its still-twitching corpse aside for now, I am personally of the opinion that by attaching a numerical figure to a review in order to place it alongside it’s peers in a critical manner can be quite problematic and not as neat a solution as it might first appear. A review, by its very definition, is not an objective view or evaluation of a product based solely on fact; a review will be a combined product of the reviewer’s own personal biases, their likes and dislikes, their leading opinions and everything else that informs their own unique opinion and makes it theirs. Even a well-written review by a professional editor or critic, which takes a critical stance towards all aspects of the product’s design, will still ultimately be as subjective as any other opinion on the product. It is a review – opinion, not fact. I find the detailed qualitative analysis that a reviewer goes into doesn’t mesh particularly well with the quantative numerical score given at the end. As a result, a great deal of discussion takes place about the value of the numerical score, and distracts from the content of the review itself.

I hope you’re ready for some more personal biases, as here’s a chunk of my own. I’ve often found that going into a game having read the review beforehand, racing down to the bottom of the page, ignoring the writer’s opinions to get to that vital and important, all-consuming number at the bottom of the page has more often than not, rather spoiled the experience of playing the game for me, whether it’s a generation-defining masterpiece of a game such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of TimeHalf Life 2, the original Metal Gear Solid or at that other end of the spectrum, Aliens: Colonial Marines (sorry that’s the last dig, I’m not bitter I swear). The most recent example I can think of would be playing through Halo 4 for the first time having had the IGN score revealed to me by a friend (9.8), meant that I was constantly evaluating my experience with the game according to this external, arbitrary number someone else had set. I did think the game was good, but I’d rather have just worked through the game without this number floating in and out of my consciousness as I battled through covenant and promethean troops.

Obviously, this rather cavalier (read: foolish) approach to avoiding the review’s numerical scoring system means that the risk of playing games at the lower end of the quality spectrum and feeling the cold, empty sting of disappointment more often is significantly higher. Trust me, I’ve felt that sting a hell of a lot over the years. In fact, when I was younger, I would often do exactly what you’re not meant to with books, and would very much judge my Megadrive purchases with but a glimpse at the front cover. Robot made out of interconnected green dots – sold. Big picture of bottle-nose dolphin with stars on its face – sold. Blue anthropomorphic hedgehog with running shoes, standing next to anthropomorphic fox with two tails, both characters under the glare of an angry disembodied representation of moustachioed villain – fuck yes, sold already. But, the flipside to this approach (of being an idiot) both then and now means that I’ve also enjoyed a lot of mediocre games that have received poor critical and player reviews a great deal more than I thought I would by playing them without having that final number at the end of the review etched onto my irises, something that I can’t un-see, and can’t un-know. I’m not saying don’t read reviews – I’m about to try and fumble my way through one in a couple of paragraph’s time, so please stay and read that…please! Its just that I think a good review really doesn’t need a numerical score – if it’s done well, the content of the review will tell you whether a game is worth buying, but leaving you enough to go on without scoring it. Scores just seem to be there to give people an arbitrary value system to argue about.

How do you evaluate a number’s worth? Is it in comparison to your own figures? What if I think a game is worth a six, meaning it’s average in my mind, but to you a six could mean it’s a colossal disaster? I don’t even know where to start when we get into decimal figures – Titanfall got an 8.9 from Ryan McCaffrey for example – what was the 0.1 mark deduction from 9 for? Is there really such a detectable difference involved that makes it instantly distinguishable from fellow games with a score of 9? Is that something that can be quickly rectified with patches? Or is it a tactical means of withholding it from being ‘excellent’ and just ‘good’? There’s too many factors to bear in mind here that it just becomes an unnecessary obstacle to determining the game’s worth. I’m an Xbox guy mainly, so I missed the furore surrounding Greg Miller famously giving Uncharted 3 a 10. But does it really matter that he thinks it’s a 10? People seem to like to criticize his numerical score, but don’t have much complaint with the bulk of his review. Maybe I’m just being finicky and fussy, and I’ll move onto the promised review next, but just thought I’d see what you guys think – does a game’s score matter to you? I would be genuinely interested to find out what the general consensus is, and I feel I’m likely to be in the minority on this one (slowly backs into a corner, awaiting angry rebuttals, complaints, and of course, the ol’ angry mob classics of flaming torches and pitchforks).

I thought I’d tackle Ground Zeroes as a starting point for a first review, as, even though this came out nearly a month ago, I imagine that there are probably quite a lot of people still on the fence on this one, wanting to play the game and get another desperately sought after Metal Gear fix, but are currently baulking at the price and the game’s short length. My plan was to originally pick this game up at the same time as whenever the main game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain releases in 2015, in an inevitable nice shiny collector’s edition. However, seeing it at £19.99 – £10 cheaper than the digital copy and same price as the last-gen 360 version of the game, I had to go for it. I’ve only just got round to playing it recently myself so I thought I’d give you my own 2 cents on it (as those American’s say…or so I’ve been told) in an untimely, but hopefully useful review.

To tie in nicely with the beginning of this piece and to totally lay clear my biases to the reader, I really liked Ground Zeroes. It’s a fantastic nugget of what next-gen Metal Gear is going to be – but I use the word ‘nugget’ very deliberately here, as it’s crucial to this review, or any other review of this game for that matter.

The events in Ground Zeroes follow on directly after the events in Peace Walker. Big Boss, aka. Naked Snake, is sent on a rescue mission to a Cuban prison camp, Camp Omega (itself a horrifying depiction of Guantanamo Bay) to rescue Chico and Paz, two young children who are hidden somewhere on the camp. The opening extended cutscene features some fantastically-realised graphics courtesy of Kojima’s FOX engine (I played on Xbox One, and from what I gather, they are even better on the PS4), which features some outstanding water and lighting effects, detailed sound design, it gives an introduction to the new game’s first major villain, perfectly capturing Kojima’s cinematic sense of grandeur and theatricality, it just welcomes in a fantastic sense of awe. As an opening scene, it’s one of the best I’ve seen on a console graphically and cinematically, with artistic shots and creative transitions from scene to scene, leaving you with some potent mysteries to ponder about long after the game is over. The facial mo-cap by actor and new voice of Snake, Kiefer Sutherland, is impressive, and the returning voice cast of the supporting Mother Base staff feels like you’re returning to play alongside long-time friends and comrades. Kiefer’s voice acting is solid, however, as a big fan of David Hayter, the original voice actor who has played Snake in all the major English versions of the game, and bestowed the character with his now trademark blend of gruff attitude and roguish charisma we know and love, I couldn’t help but feel his absence from this game. Snake looks and sounds great with Kiefer in the role, but it just feels like you’re playing as Jack Bauer with a mullet, not the Snake we know and love (he even has a couple of lines that could be taken direct from 24, which I can’t tell if it was deliberate choice or just a happy coincidence).

You’re quickly dropped into the action seamlessly from this cutscene, and from here marks the first major change to the Metal Gear formula, the open world format. You’re free to explore the camp in whatever way you see fit, which albeit there’s only two major objectives in the main mission, the game still gets across the scope of choice you have in dealing with these objectives. Do you head to the prison and spotlights to the east first? Do you mark off the guards in your binoculars, tracking them down and interrogating them for information about the prisoner’s whereabouts? Or do you just unsling your assault rife from its holster, take an almighty breath before roaring aloud to the dark rainy night, “LEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOY JEHHHHHHHHHHNKIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINS!” as the Rambo-like badass you are and proceed to shoot your way in? These are all viable choices, even the last one, which is a marked difference for the franchise, and you’re largely free to decide how to tackle things.

As a series well known for championing the stealth genre, one of the first things you will notice if you’ve played any of the other Metal Gears is the guards’ much more realistic lines of sight and awareness. Guards sweep the areas with floodlights, make frequent foot and vehicle patrols of their routes, and will deviate from their standard routes to investigate if they catch the slightest glimpse or sound of anything suspicious. This all makes for some lively and invigorating gameplay. Gone are the camouflage mechanics from Snake Eater and Peace Walker, and there’s still no soliton radar from the later games in the series to get visual representation of your enemies’ fields of vision. In their place is the ability to tag enemy soldiers, vehicles and other structures of note such as anti-aircraft guns and cameras, allowing you to keep track of them through walls, in a similar fashion to The Last Of Us. To balance this, guards now take much longer searching for you when discovered, conduct the most thorough searches I’ve seen so far in the series and appear to remain on heightened alert for a significantly longer period as well. My initial attempts to infiltrate the camp resulted in some incredibly tense sequences where four or five guards came rushing to my last known location mere seconds after I’d dashed into cover in the roadside bushes, and would often find me with little trouble, prompting another dash to cover.

Tranquilized and knocked out guards now no longer stay out of action for the full duration of a mission, and can sometimes revive just mere minutes later, giving the game a suitable risk/reward mechanism to players opting to use non-lethal methods, and generating a real palatable sense of urgency to conduct your operations as quickly and quietly as possible. Several times I stealthily approached a guard, knocked him out and then tried to rescue a P.O.W. nearby, only to have the guard quickly regain consciousness and signal to his fellow soldiers that he was under attack!

When a guard catches a glimpse of you out in the open, this ominous low atonal rumbling tone starts, reminiscent of survival horror games, which still manages to get my heart racing as I replay the game now. There’s now a reactive last second recovery mode, whereupon being seen by a guard triggers the classic series-staple exclamation mark noise and slows the game to a slow-motion crawl, giving you just enough time to attempt to squeeze off a shot, or grab them if you’re close enough before they alert the others and bring hell down on you. This feature can at times feel a bit too easy, particularly on replays where once you’re familiar with the guards’ general modus operandi and rough patrol areas, you can calmly waltz out in front of a single guard and then taking a nice leisurely headshot to take him down. This feature however be can be turned off in the settings, to a get a more old-school Metal Gear experience, and is automatically off when playing the missions on hard mode. Usually though, it’s too late, or you can’t land a decent shot (the tranquilizer darts need a headshot to stun immediately), and the game switches from one of stealth to one of survival.

Like Peace Walker before it, Ground Zeroes allows for lethal playthroughs, allowing you to shoot your way out of danger, or go in gung-ho from the off. Stealth is of course encouraged through the end of level rating system, but nevertheless violence is a suitable alternative. Just don’t expect it to be easy. Even on normal, and with regenerating health, the guards quickly rain lead down on you hard and fast, bringing out all of their major toys; armoured APCs, ant-aircraft gun emplacements, grenades, and their sheer number of replacements. My own first playthrough was a fantastic experience. Without going into spoilers, I approached one of my objectives entirely stealthily, evading cameras, regular guard patrols and navigating through some difficult areas with minimal fuss. I located my P.O.W. to rescue, and was in the process of heading back to a safe rendezvous point to call in the helicopter (this replaces the ridiculous but fantastic balloon extraction system for P.O.W.s and soldiers in Peace Walker and is a tad more on the realistic side) when disaster struck. I failed to notice that the guard’s shift patterns had changed, and this new patrol had stumbled across my P.O.W.’s empty cage. All of a sudden, alarms were ringing, reinforcements were scrambling around trying to find me and the missing P.O.W., and it was time to get out – fast. Trying to shoot my way out of the base was a desperate yet exhilarating experience one would easily find in a blockbuster action film, and it made the stakes of the mission feel much more important and real. I’ve always loved the slow-build in previous Metal Gear games, the gradual crescendo to their action-packed conclusions, but the way Ground Zeroes can switch instantly between infiltration and desperate escape felt electrifyingly brilliant.

So – what’s the catch? The necessary comparison to make here with this system of releasing a small ‘playable demo’ type of experience, prior to the main course if you will, is the release of Dead Rising 2: Case Zero prior to the release of Dead Rising 2Case Zero was a small £5 piece of prologue dlc to the main game, which introduced players to new protagonist Chuck Greene and his daughter Katey, after their escape from a Las Vegas zombie outbreak (for anyone interested, the Dead Rising: Road to Fortune comic is well worth a read, and gives a tad more gruesome look to the series). The dlc basically gave you a decent couple of hours of gameplay in which to try out the new weapon combo system, rescue some survivors and gain experience that would carry over into Dead Rising 2, and of course kill a whole fuck-tonne of zombies. The key thing here was the pricing; by the time the credits rolled and you’d sent Chuck and Katey on their way to Fortune City, you didn’t feel disappointed, you felt excited and keen to get your hands on the main game.

Ground Zeroes to be fair, accomplishes this same feat. It makes you very, very excited to play The Phantom Pain. However, unlike the short release window between Case Zero and Dead Rising 2, there’s probably the best part of a year to wait for The Phantom Pain, and that’s not to mention if the game is delayed or pushed back to tweak and polish it up. In addition, also unlike the very low cost of £5 for Case ZeroGround Zeroes is currently a £29.99 digital release, and bizarrely, as low as £19.99 I’ve found for the physical copy. Although not going for £40-£50 like a typical full release, the game was originally going to be £40 over here in the UK and $40 I believe in the US, before fan outcry after the game’s length caused Konami to reconsider and drop it to £30/$30 instead. That’s still quite a lot of money to drop for a game which is just a couple of hours long, when there are excellent indie titles available for less than that which have much longer hours of gameplay and replayability to offer.

Once I got to the mission complete screen, I did have a massive pang of “Oh? It’s over already” even though I was well aware of the game’s very short length beforehand. The cliff-hanger sets up things to go straight into the next game, and from what we’ve seen so far of the teaser trailers of the nightmarish hospital scenes with ghosts/apparitions/whatever the hell they are of Psycho mantis and Col. Volgin lookalikes, it’s a game that can’t come fast enough for me. There may not be much total content on offer in Ground Zeroes, but the limited bang you do get for your buck is pretty spectacular stuff.

My own completion time on my first run through the first main (and only canonical) story mission was roughly 1 hour and 40 minutes. However, akin to many of the reviews I’ve read, including IGN’s Lucy O’Brien’s take on the game, I instantly wanted to start again and try and perfect another run through. It may have just lasted one hour and forty minutes, but seriously, that one hour and forty minutes was packed to the brim with some of the most tense, electrifying, exciting and sheer nerve-wracking seat of your pants moments I’ve had in a game for a fair while, not the sort of experience I was expecting to get in such a small pared-down game in a series famous for it’s stealth gameplay.

One of the things I found beneficial about the game’s short length was it became much more palatable to try and attempt a ghost playthrough – playing through the levels attempting to be totally undetected, never seen, heard or even suspected of being there by the enemy even once. Normally in Metal Gear games, I’m so bad at the stealth that there comes a point where I just become reckless and desperate to advance the story. I always start off each one thinking I’m a total ninja, loving sneaking and crawling through the series’ compounds and jungles. But after a while, I’ll make a mistake, a guard will get suspicious, a CCTV camera will just get a glimpse of me making a single dash to cover slightly too far away to make without being seen, and it’s over. I’m no longer Snake, but a fraud, a clumsy panicking stupid fraud, running for my life, blood pumping loudly in my ears, crashing through doors and thundering down corridors, desperate to find a vent, a corner, hell, even one of the series’ famous cardboard boxes to get out of sight. “It’s all over and it’s all my fault” I weep to myself, trying to get Snake to crawl under a parked vehicle, fit into a vent or just cower pathetically in a corner like Otacon in the first game, with a slowly darkening patch of urine seeping down my legs.

Ah…sorry there, I let my emotions get the better of me. Where was I? Ah yes, ghost playthroughs, the staple challenge of all Metal Gear games and stealth games as a whole. Well worth a go if you’ve never attempted one before. Trying to stealth an entire Metal Gear game even on the easiest difficulties would normally be well out of my league as a player, so even though the main mission does feel abruptly short, the opportunity to mix up my normal playstyle on a smaller game map provided quite an enjoyable experiment. I’m not saying here that it’s a better game because it’s smaller – it’s not, but opportunities like this to really get to grips with the core game mechanics was a small plus in spite of the mission length.

To give you some idea of how replayable this game is, I’ve currently spent nine hours playing Ground Zeroes so far. These nine hours have been mainly spent just replaying the very first ‘ground zeroes’ mission, just going for a variety of achievements, unlocks and separate trials that unlock after beating each mission, such as fastest time to mark all the guards, or fastest time to execute all the guards. I’ve still not completed all the side missions and cleared the achievements and challenges. So I’ll be expecting to get somewhere between another 8-10 hours out of Ground Zeroes before I’ve had enough – most likely due to the fact that I’m not good at stealth games, and it’ll probably take me that long just to complete the other missions!

The game’s collectibles come in the form of XOF patches (reversed foxhound patches tied to antagonist character ‘Skull Face’) and cassette tapes, which, aside from some rather uncomfortable ‘listening’ in some cases – see Lucy O’Brien’s follow up piece about the ending here, but beware, spoiler alert (http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/03/25/whats-wrong-with-metal-gear-solid-5-ground-zeroes-ending) – they do a good job of catching up brand new players to the main events of the series lore so far, and a nice refresher course for returning old school Metal Gear fans, some of which are hidden in particularly devious and mischievous ways, thanks Kojima’s usual machiavellian sense of humour and game design.

My closing thoughts on Ground Zeroes go like this. If you are a Metal Gear fan who’s also a completionist gamer, who likes to take their time and replay the small number of missions to perfection, scavenge all the collectibles, audio diaries, blueprints, weapon mods, and all the other jazz that developers love to stuff into every hidden nook and cranny of their game (I should know, I’ve had the completionist bug, with a hefty dollop of achievement-itus for as long as I can remember), then I thoroughly recommend Ground Zeroes, as you’ll be able to find plenty of things to busy yourself with, and not only that, you’ll likely have such a good time playing the missions and going after all the records and collectibles that it won’t feel like a chore, you’ll actively want to do it. If you’re just after the next bit of story, you really don’t get too much in the roughly 2 hours you’ll likely spend on the main mission, and I’d suggest watching the main cutscenes and gameplay sections on YouTube to tide you over until the release of next year’s The Phantom Pain. I’m sure they’ll bundle Ground Zeroes in with The Phantom Pain, so you can enjoy the entire package as one.

Have you played Ground Zeroes? Let me know what scor- no wait, just tell me what you think instead!

(Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is out now for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4 and PS3)

Titanfall 2: Giant guns, grunts and gratuitous gesture controls – four cool ideas for the inevitable sequel from the mouth of an armchair idiot.

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(Originally published on MyIGN on April 7th, 2014)

Pilot Ejection

What goes up…

Despite going through 5 generations of combat training, each new generation a flawless recreation of the last, the Pilot found that he never got used to mid-combat titan ejecting. One moment you’re sat inside the hulking state-of-the-art chassis of a two-storey, 30 tonne walking tank, a few rapid keystrokes and a pull of a lever later and the next all you can see is wide open sky, the icy cold wind whipping against your visor and jumpsuit, the breath completely sucked out of your ragged lungs, which only seconds ago were full of the acrid fumes of internal cockpit fires and melting plastic, with nothing but your cloaking device, thruster pack and, hopefully, just hopefully, a great deal of luck that you’ll get back down on terra-firma alive and in one piece.

The ensuing fall itself was not so much of an issue, as the regulation Militia gravity-dampening boots would safely absorb the force of the impact, but rather the real danger came in the form of every enemy grunt, spectre and Titan on the field, which were undoubtedly calculating highly accurate lethal targeting vectors to shred the now exposed rapidly falling human in the sky before them into a cloud of fine red mist and a plummeting trail of several small lumps of scorched, bullet-riddled meat. Small arms fire from the IMC grunts and spectres started up as he fell into range, and the pilot could hear their R-101C and Hemlock BF-R rounds rattling through the air around him. The repeated crack of a Kraber-AP rifle, it’s high calibre rounds scything through the air, leaving an evanescent misty trail behind them gave away an enemy IMC sniper who was trying hard to snipe him on his descent, undoubtedly trying to get a flashy airborne headshot (which was quickly becoming apparent with each successive shot’s miss, quite clearly beyond his attacker’s skill) recorded onto his helmet’s capture equipment to impress his superior officers.

“Hmmn. Amateur” the Pilot sneered. A small flash of light in his periphery – ZAAAAP! A crackling white-hot bolt of lighting seared within a couple of inches of his torso, causing him to violently jerk about and cry out in an anguished combination of shock and pain. Although the shot was not a fatal direct hit – a ridiculously high voltage electricity projectile fired from a titan-mounted arc cannon no doubt – the intense heat and its proximity to his torso still managed to scorch the right side of his jumpsuit and helmet and causing his burnt skin underneath to instantly blister and weep. Too close, far too close his mind screamed at him, his body writhing and tumbling out of control through the air in pain and heat, sweat pouring down his face and mouth in salty streams, blood pumping loudly in his ears, whilst he blinked rapidly to see where to escape to before the titan could fire again.

Not now. He could deal with his injuries later, if he made it out alive – right now, such thoughts about his chances were only clouding his mind. He needed to focus. The Pilot quickly assessed the situation whilst plummeting toward to the buildings racing up to meet him. What he needed was an accessible rooftop or some nearby structure to get to, and fast – there. A cluster of small warehouses were coming up fast on his left – that would have to do. Pivoting in the direction of the buildings, the pilot simultaneously activated his cloak and fired the belt-mounted thruster pack slung loosely across his waist to set a trajectory for one of the skylights on the warehouse’s rooftop. WHOOSH! Another crackling jolt of lighting punched through the air, which would almost certainly have been the end of him had he not activated his thrusters mere seconds ago. Grimacing from the lightning bolt’s accompanying nauseating wave of burning heat, the Pilot curled his small frame into a loose ball shape, preparing to meet his reflection racing up to meet him in the clear window of the skylight below.

Crashing through the glass skylight, a cacophony of shimmering crystalline light exploding around him, he gracefully landed on the soles of his feet like a strange mechanical feline, maintaining his momentum whilst tucking into a forward roll, one hand reaching behind his back and drawing his carbine, scanning the room down the sights for movement. Nothing. Shards of glass tinkled to the floor from the shattered window above like fresh drops of dew, peppering his back and head, but the Pilot tensely held his stance, solid and unmoving like an old weathered and worn statue from eons past. Paused, waiting for the faintest movement, the smallest sound, the ever so slight visual distortion in the air that marked an approaching cloaked enemy pilot. Nothing. Exhaling a deep breath, the Pilot allowed a brief moment to pause and consider the next move. His head was pounding; his ribcage felt bruised and battered from the ejection, possibly a fracture or a broken rib and he could taste the cold coppery taste of blood in his mouth. The Titan’s outside this structure were obviously the main attraction on the battlefield for enemy infantry right now. He should be safe for the time being. He staggered over to a stack of ammunition crates stacked in the corner of the warehouse, slumping down heavily against them, relishing taking the strain out his aching legs and back. The faint tang of his burned flesh stung his nostrils as he removed his helmet, spat out a mouthful of dark crimson and wiped away the sweat from his forehead. The others. He needed to contact his fellow pilots. Pulling himself up with a grunt of pain to a sitting position, the pilot hailed his team’s comm. frequency on his suit’s inbuilt codec. “Pilots, report in, status update”. He received no answer except a ghostly distorted crackle. An enemy arc grenade’s EMP must have fried it earlier in the battle – he was on his own for now.

He already knew that the battle was lost. The Militia were getting destroyed out there. Thinking back to only a few hours ago when he jumped out of his unit’s goblin dropship onto the field of battle with 5 fellow pilots, the goal was simple. His team was to infiltrate the IMC base and locate and hack into 3 orbital sentry turrets in order to allow the Militia carriers to sweep in and siphon much needed fuel and supplies from the base. They had been told to expect a heavy presence of grunts and spectres, which were plentiful and swarming the battlefield like an angry uprooted colony of termites, rising up to smother the attacking Militia with their sheer numbers. His team was also expecting a heavy titan presence. Normally, the Militia’s titans could comfortably go toe-to-toe with the IMC’s any day of the week. After all, the Militia’s titans were of course IMC titans before they were stolen and given a gung-ho, kick ass olive-green and orange paint job. But the IMC had access to the latest up to date mods and equipment from Hammond Robotics, such as slaved warheads and dedicated 12 missile target-painting salvos, which more often than not gave their pilots a slight advantage over the Militia’s. The Militia had to make do with whatever modifications they could salvage from fallen IMC titans, or steal blueprints, mods and entire shipments of titans from IMC factory ships – but such operations nearly always resulted in heavy troop casualties and the loss of a great number of their ships – both of which were in short supply.

The battle had started to go awry when the IMC titans managed to project a massive co-ordinated particle wall – a shimmering blue-green distortion field which would absorb any projectiles fired at it, but allow those standing behind it to fire through at their targets with relative safety – between themselves and two of the turret hard points, effectively allowing them to shell the advancing Militia titans with impunity. The Militia had yet to perfect the reverse engineering of this technology, so without a viable defence, the only choice was to continue to advance into the thundering storm of shells, bullets, energy bolts and missiles. By the time the particle wall had dissolved, the Militia’s titans had taken such a severe beating that it didn’t take long for the IMC to mop up those left standing. The pilot’s own titan, an ogre class he affectionately nicknamed ‘Betty’ was one of the last to fall, fending off 2 nimble enemy stryders using a combination of electric smoke to scramble their targeting systems, a few well placed 40mm cannon shots and Betty’s brute strength to rip their shattered limbs from their fragile chassis and bludgeon their cockpits (and the doomed enemy pilots within) in as a final coup de grâce. With the two stryders down, the pilot intended to retreat and get to cover, before an enemy atlas model with an arc canon and a souped up damage core – the same one which nearly flambéed him mid-air only moments ago – arrived to put an end to Betty and her winning streak.

Perhaps if he’d opted for the standard issue vortex shield, then Betty’s last titan joust may have gone differently. But he favoured an anti-pilot build, complete with electric smoke canisters installed into the rear access panels that surrounded the titan’s brain core. Besides, it was too late to worry about that now. He had to hope that the militia had managed to get what they needed fuel and supply wise from the base. A sharp crackle of static from his codec interrupted his thoughts.

“Attenti…on…all p-pilots…miss…..f…ailed……..g-g-….et…..to….dropship….hurry!….”

It was Sarah, the chief Militia communications officer. Mission control must have seen the latest casualty reports and battle projections by now, and would be dispatching the small but hardy evacuation dropships to rescue any soldiers lucky enough to still be breathing. He needed to be there when they arrived. Getting unsteadily to his feet, he clicked his helmet back into place, checked the clip in his carbine, double-checked it just to be sure, and then, after a moment’s pause, the pilot raced towards the warehouse’s door.

Checking the coast was clear, the pilot activated his cloak once again and proceeded to lithely sprint down the alleyway between the warehouse and the next building. His burnt and fraying jumpsuit’s earlier brush with lightning meant that the light refracting technology of his cloaking device would probably be struggling to effectively conceal him for the normal duration, but it would have to do. The GPU readout marker in his helmet’s HUD marked the dropship’s estimated arrival location and ETA, and were both slowly counting down. 200m. 210m. 200m. 190m and dropping, and roughly 20 seconds away. The alleyway opened out into a small loading bay, which was filled with a group of spectres searching for stragglers. He needed to get to higher ground. Launching himself into the air, the pilot gracefully dug his toes into the wall, feeling the boots assimilate and grip to the rough concrete and bricks. Scaling the wall, the pilot ping-ponged back and forth between the narrow buildings, and eventually hoisted himself to a rooftop. There. The Goblin was just touching down a few buildings away. He could see other pilots were scrambling aboard and proceeding to lay down covering fire for their comrades. 10 seconds. With a final burst of energy, the pilot ducked and ran in a low crouch, leapt to the next building. 5 seconds. Another leap, and he was almost there, launching himself over the chasm between the final two buildings. 2 seconds. Firing his thrusters, the pilot boosted upwards to the open hatch in the dropship, a fellow pilot with arms outstretched ready to drag him into the hold, when…Crack!

You were killed by XxxXSnip3z4Ev4rY0l0XxxX.

Oh for fu…oh? (Notices the reader looking bored, yet still waiting patiently for the main point of the article, and puts down Xbox One controller)  Ah, hello there! Sorry, I didn’t see you come in! Let’s begin shall we? (TB321 gestures for reader to take a seat before composing himself).

Unsurprisingly, EA and Respawn have announced that the initial workings on a sequel to the massively popular Xbox and PC juggernaut Titanfall are starting to get underway. So, from the powerful and influential position of my sofa, here are some cool ideas that I think would personally be great implementations to get into Titanfall 2. Listen up Respawn, I’m only going to say this once, okay? Good. Ahem (clears throat before continuing).

1. The campaign multiplayer should have various outcomes and routes

Although the campaign doesn’t really have any major impact on the gameplay other than what the current match’s objective is (either attrition or hardpoint domination), it can feel a bit demoralising to have an established linear path laid out in front of you regardless of your team’s performance. This is a shame, as the inclusion of bots (which is a thorny issue for some) gives the game a really good sense of atmosphere and world-building. If you start a campaign playthrough from the beginning as the IMC, and win every match that comes up in the sequence, your faction still comes off as the worst of the two – the militia still steal your fuel, destroy your super-carrier, and your main battlefield commander still defects even if the IMC team absolutely dominate every single match. Once you’ve got your achievements for playing the requisite number of campaign matches, and winning every match as both factions, there is little to come back for in terms of replay ability here (unless more story is included in the upcoming dlc packs).

A campaign system similar to Star Fox 64 would potentially allow for some interesting campaign experiences that would be refreshing to replay multiple times as either side. Every campaign would start with an opening level which is identical each time – much like the opening round of hardpoint domination on Fracture in Titanfall, where both IMC and Militia sides are on a similar level footing in terms of narrative progression. From there, the next level would be one of a set of binary branching paths depending on which side wins – an IMC victory on the first map would take the campaign to a match on one of the nodes on one of the branching paths, and a Militia victory would take the campaign to a completely different map and different node. This could also impact on the gameplay in relevant ways. If the IMC team win the first match, then they could start the next map in the sequence with a much greater number of CPU controlled Titans at the start, giving them a slight numbers advantage. This would also make sense narratively as was well of course, as the Militia, having suffered a defeat in the previous match, would presumably have slightly depleted numbers of titans and troops. If your team wins a number of consecutive landslide victories in a row, you could maybe claim a total ‘checkmate’ style victory several matches earlier than a specific scheduled end point, but this highlights the very problem with this idea.

If each match’s outcome determines the state of play of the next, then it could lead to some punishing and not fun to play experiences – not what you want in an entirely online multiplayer game. An ideal multiplayer mode in a game like Titanfall wants to be balanced or it starts to feel unfair. The three titan models work brilliantly as distinctive vehicles of destruction as they are all delicately balanced with respect to each other in a pseudo rock-paper-scissors sort of way, and each have class-specific advantages and disadvantages in combat. The controversial smart pistol is similarly a cleverly balanced inclusion in the game, allowing beginners and those new to FPS a quick, intuitive and easy to pick up way of earning CPU kills for their team. To stop it feeling like an overpowered aimbot however, it takes approximately 3 seconds of uninterrupted aiming on a human player to score an instant kill, which means that it keeps the weapon from feeling too powerful, and encourages the player to graduate to using the other pilot weapons. So if arriving at the final level of a rolling progressive star fox-like campaign like the one outlined above means that one team is basically all but guaranteed to lose as the other team has significantly more game-changing resources, it would just feel really unplayable and broken. A secondary potential problem which could stem from such a campaign mode would be how to maintain and track the progression throughout the story with a regularly rotating set of players. What if the winning team quits, people rage-quit at the start or lots of people drop out from the losing team after a particularly punishing defeat? Would the campaign continue to carry on, or would a reset back to the lobby to wait for more people to join be needed if lots of participants drop out. It could feel very disjointed and muddled if you joined halfway through. Or, conversely, the alternative to this could be…

2. Have a stand-alone single player campaign

To completely contradict everything I just said in the last section, I actually think that the old school triple-A model of military twitch shooters having a separate single player, single-playthrough disposable campaign in addition to multiplayer modes would have actually worked out quite well for this game. Yeah yeah, the usual sci-fi tropes and action game/film clichés we all know and love are all present and accounted for; small rag-tag bunch of rebels up against the mighty power of the megacorporation and it’s vast army (check); grizzled and world-weary heroes called back to the action for one last job, needlessly sacrificing themselves for maximum cheesy dramatic impact (cough cough, MacAllan cough, cough) et cetera, but I think the unique moment to moment gameplay that makes Titanfall so unique would make a single player campaign feel fresh, even if the regular story beats are still pretty stale. Imagine launching in a titan onto an enemy battleship in low orbit, shooting your way through it’s defences before wrenching off an access panel and dismounting to get inside it on foot to deliver a bomb or hack some vital intel while your titan has to stand guard and defend your escape route. Or what about a level where you temporarily have no titan support, and you have to use a combination of stealth and guerrilla tactics to take down other pilots and their titans? I know boss battles get a lot of stick these days as an antiquated relic left over from the arcade era, but I personally like a well written boss fight, so the thought of taking on a massive new mega-titan as a final boss would also definitely appeal – but again, it would all have to be staged well or risk falling into standard well-trodden territory.

3. Let the Kinect supplement the titan controls

This seems like an absolute no-brainer to me. The main distinguishing feature between the Xbox One and the PS4 is the Kinect 2.0. Before the recent price cuts and Titanfall console bundle options were announced, the £100 difference between the two consoles was a significant deal breaker over here in the UK as to which one you were going to purchase, and the reason behind that price difference was the inclusion of the Kinect with the Xbox One.

As a result, Xbox One developers have the Kinect available to use in games as a viable control mechanism to be used alongside regular controller input. With regard to Titanfall 2, Kinect implementation would mean some potentially interesting ways of further immersing oneself in the game, particularly when clambering aboard your titan. Imagine simply lifting your left hand up with your palm out to activate the vortex shield, and then pushing it toward the screen to return the bullets and shrapnel back to the sender. You shell an enemy titan with your 40mm cannon, blasting away it’s health before rushing in, and reaching out with your fist to the screen to get your titan to wrench your enemy from their shattered and burning wreck for a grisly melee execution.

However, as any Xbox One owner will tell you, when the Kinect works, it’s great. You get an epic kill, you quickly squeal out “Xbox, record that”, and lo and behold, your moment of glory is recorded for all to see, and be passed down from generation to generation though the ages in the years and centuries to come – interestingly, my Xbox seems to think I’m saying “Xbox go back” instead of “record that”, perhaps due to my dulcet northern vowels. Hmm. Anyway, like I said, when it works, all is well…but…that’s usually not often, at least in my experience. Despite all the marketing for the device showcasing it’s ability to track your limbs, individual digits, facial expressions, and even heart rate, all in various light levels (which make no mistake, is highly impressive and commendable) – it can still fuck up quite pathetically at times. One particular bugbear I’ve personally run into time and time again is that when I’m sat on the couch with my legs up, it can’t even distinguish between my fucking hands and my feet! My hands and feet! I mean, yeah okay, I have 4 fingers and a thumb on each hand, and 5 toes on each foot. My hands are each attached to separate long fleshly appendages, commonly known as ‘arms’, and my feet are attached to long fleshy appendages commonly known as ‘legs’. I can see the similarities here Kinect, I really can. But I’ll be watching an episode of Twin Peaks (huge David Lynch fan) on LoveFilm, when if I accidentally move my legs and feet, the Kinect thinks that they are my hands, suddenly now attached to my legs it would seem, are frantically waving at the screen to pause playback or skip ahead (the recent system updates have now solved this problem for me somewhat, so I’ll respectfully stop grumbling…for now). I believe Halo: Anniversary for the 360 allowed for some voice commands to be utilised in combat alongside the standard controller functions for those who had the old 360 Kinect, although these appear to be rather arbitrary and non-immersive, such as yelling “THROW GRENADE!” (not something you would imagine the stoic Master Chief to yell Leeroy-Jenkins style as he leaps into battle). If Kinect is ever going to be a tangible positive addition to gameplay, it’s going to need to be done well and have it perform consistently, not when it chooses to work! I’ll be keeping a close eye on Kinect Sports: The Rivals to see how it holds up. That game absolutely has to perform well with the Kinect, otherwise it’s not looking good for our favourite black rectangular 2001 HAL-like beady eye perched above our televisions.

However, as Titanfall 2 will no longer be just Xbox and PC exclusive, this may not be a worthwhile endeavour for Respawn to pursue. Unless they can implement similar functionality and in-game use with the PS4 camera, Kinect supplemented controls may be just relegated to the Xbox One and PC versions (now with the newly announced Kinect sensor for PC), or most-likely, not at all.

4. Smartglass integration – maps and titan building minigame (This is scraping the barrel here, I know!)

Ever wonder what happens whilst waiting for your shiny new titan to drop? Well, now you can find out when you use a second screen device whilst you’re playing! Seriously though, this could be quite a nice feature for any non-gamer to get involved with your gaming sessions if they so wish (or just yourself, if you’re feeling in a particularly ambidextrous, multitasking mood). A mini game where you have to select the correct parts and weapon systems for the desired titan from a construction line and then weld them onto the main body chassis, using your finger to trace the lines on the screen as a rudimentary blowtorch could work quite nicely, with a slight time construction bonus for the main player (nothing too advantageous, just say 10-15 seconds shaved off your next build time). When not titan building, the smartglass experience could mark out where enemy CPU characters are being dropped on the map – again, nothing too advantageous, marking exactly where each unit is would be unfair, but just showing where each drop pod initially lands could lend a helping hand to a struggling player looking to quickly reap a few quick AI kills to turn their fortunes around. Certain burn-cards could work well on smart glass apps too – for example, the burn card which gives you full unfettered access to the map, displaying locations of all player and CPU characters, would be much more useful to be fully displayed on a second screen, rather than just the cramped mini-map view which appears in a corner on the main screen.

What do you think would be good features for Respawn Entertainment to put into the Titanfall sequel? Let me know in the comments and I promise not to plagiarise them and claim them as original ideas of my own…promise 🙂 Absolutely no intellectual theft at all, don’t you worry about that, no sir-ee! 🙂