Halo 5: Guardians Review

Title
Standard

Developer

343 Industries

Publisher

Microsoft Studios

Format

Xbox One

Released

27th October 2015

“What If You Miss?” “I…Wont?”

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

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

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

Un-Locke-y

Master Chief

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

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

As it turns out, quite a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locke & Chief

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

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

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

Blue Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

343 Ending Text

See you on Sangelios? Are you fucking kidding me?

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

I Need a Weapon. Please? Pretty Please?

Blue Multiplayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REQ

Ta-da! Microtransactions! They finally did it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

DMR

40+ hours to unlock the basic loadout? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

2. FUCKING RUN!

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

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

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

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

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

Osiris

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

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

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

Pros

Cons

+ Excellent gameplay

– Disappointing campaign

+ Fantastic multiplayer suite

– No campaign matchmaking or casual multiplayer playlists

+ Ongoing free multiplayer maps

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

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

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

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

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

Halo Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knight Screaming

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

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

  1. The Didact is Dead…Probably

Didact Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Spirit of Fire is Still Lost in Space

Spirit of Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Halsey now has both halves of the Janus Key

Janus Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EGX 2015 – Halo 5: Guardians, Warzone Multiplayer

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

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

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

EGX 2015

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

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

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

The Art of War…Zone

Halo 5 Xbox One

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

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

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

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

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

Laptop

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

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

Spring Cleaning

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

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

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

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

Aisle Shot

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

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

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

 Where the Wild Things Aren’t

Big Halo Sign 1

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

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

Check Yourself Before You REQ Yourself

REQ Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phaenting the Town Orange

Player Close-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indoor Ghost

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

Oh, Just One More Thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Corridor
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Life after Kickstarter: Catching up with The Corridor

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

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

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

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

Pig Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spider Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel Statue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killer Instinct Season 2: Character Guides

Season 2 Line-Up
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Select Your Fighter

Click on a character to go to their guide.

TJ Combo Maya Kan-Ra
Riptor Omen Aganos
Hisako ARIA Cinder

Season 2 of Killer Instinct is finally complete, so I thought it’d be a cool idea to tie everything up in a nice big messy and bloodstained bow by making a basic ‘hub’ page for all the character guides I’ve written over the past ten months. I’ll probably wax unlyrically about my overall thoughts on Season 2 in the future, but for now I thought that this would be a good way to wrap things up.

When Iron Galaxy first started their monthly roll-out of characters for Season 2 back in September 2014 with TJ Combo, I knew that I really wanted to write in more detail about Killer Instinct, but I was also deeply aware of the fact that this was the first proper fighting game I’d ever really played. I’d already fallen head over heels in love with Double Helix’s foundational Season 1 content, but what I’d previously waffled on about was just my own dumb feelings about the game, nothing particularly involved or technical. How could I write something more in-depth and useful about the new season with just the paltry scraps of beginner knowledge I had at my disposal?

As I watched and re-watched the TJ Combo reveal trailer in rapturous glee, an idea suddenly hit me like the fist of a cybernetically-enhanced boxer smashing through the brittle sternum of a six-hundred year old skeletal warrior. “Aha!” I thought, as a hackneyed giant yellow light bulb simultaneously pinged into existence over my noggin, “I can write character guides to teach other idi-erm, players, like me the basics!”

This epiphanic thought was quickly followed up with the familiar but unpleasant sting of anxiety, an ice-cold Glacius-like lance of doubt if you will. Could I actually do this, or had I essentially taken one too many heavy punches to the virtual face? Was I Tiger Fury-ing above my weight or just plain Shoryuken out of luck? Could I actually expand my Killer Instinct knowledge or was this the Endokuken of the line for me? Doing my best to put aside these concerns, I started typing ‘n’ fighting.

My aim was pretty simple – I wanted to make a very basic written resource for an entry-level player to learn the basics of each Season 2 fighter with minimum fuss. As each new character released, I wanted to put together something simple and accessible (and littered with as many awful puns as my pea-sized brain could produce) for a brand new player to use that might just help them learn the rudiments of each new fighter and hopefully give them a few helpful pointers along the way.

I tried to strip out any complicated technical terms where possible and explain the game’s concepts in plain terms without having to refer to external mechanics used in other fighting game franchises. You see, although there’s some incredible experts online making fantastic Killer Instinct tutorials, I find that as a low-level player myself, very little of this content is often delivered in a way that is considerate to a new player, ironically, even when that content is supposedly aimed at a beginner. All too frequently, the teacher makes the underlying assumption that the reader/viewer has some grounding in other fighting games and their mechanics. While this is arguably a fair assumption to make considering the popularity and proliferation of the fighting game genre since the late ’80s, there’s still going to be anomaly cases and weird outliers like me out there, for whom Killer Instinct is their primary jumping-off point.

To be totally honest here and to make sure I don’t just sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet in an endless free-form bebop jazz solo, these guides are pretty inconsistent to say the least, and pretty poorly written when I look back at them now. To say the earlier ones are really sparse when it comes to key information (sorry TJ and Maya, my bad) is putting it very lightly, and I think it’s only when I get to Kan-Ra and beyond that I start to actually go beyond surface-level impressions and into more useful nitty-gritty details. Alternately, when I go back and read some of the later guides now, I find there’s parts where I bafflingly go completely against my original intentions by incorporating more technical terminology into my descriptions – going exactly against everything I set out to do in the first place, despite my previous paragraph’s pontification! D’oh! Amusingly/pathetically, there’s also really obvious points in the writing where you can tell that I still couldn’t really understand how to properly use a character by the conclusion of a guide (sorry Omen, you crazy masked sonofabitch you).

Hopefully though, I think for the most part with the majority of the guides I was able to deliver somewhat on my goal some basic jargon-free information to the reader. Even if I was able to pass on just a couple of incredibly basic but helpful tips to a new player, then hey, I’m satisfied that they’ve served their purpose. Personally, to hold myself up as a clear example of if I can do it, anyone can, I’ve noticed that just from the process of writing these guides my paltry Killer Instinct skills have definitely improved quite a bit. Nothing incredibly impressive at all, don’t get me wrong – i.e. I won’t be competing at this year’s EVO tournament (I know, I know, a crying shame) – but to say that I actually managed to make it into the Gold tier of the ranked league system at all is definitely way beyond where I ever thought I could reach with my limited knowledge and skills. Please feel free to knock me down several pegs though by knocking my Jago Shadow (Gamertag: TB321) around for a few rounds to show me your moves as Captain Falcon would say; I’ll consider it a job well done!

If you’ve suffered with my guides long enough, and you’re looking for a place to get far better KI knowledge than anything my brain and fingers could produce (with way less cringe-inducing puns), then I highly recommend checking out Infil’s excellent Killer Instinct Guide for SFIV Players. It’s an incredibly detailed guide that goes through all Season 1 + 2 characters. Though as indicated by the very nature of the title the guide is designed for a player with a prior knowledge and familiarity of the Street Fighter series, I found the writing to actually be very considerate to those unlucky few like me with no previous knowledge of Capcom’s champion brawler. I discovered the site about halfway through writing my guides, and it provided an incredibly useful resource and framework to draw upon. Thanks Infil! (Please don’t hit me).

So, without further ado, below are links to my guides for all nine Season 2 fighters. They are messy, inconsistent and were a big challenge for me to write, but also an incredible amount of fun to put together. Congratulations to Iron Galaxy for a fantastic Season 2 of Killer Instinct. Bring on Season 3!

Killer Instinct Season 2: ARIA Beginner’s Guide

ARIA Front
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It’s Not Over ‘Till The Slim Robotic Lady Sings

And now, the end is near

And so I face the final curtain…

That’s providing you survive through ARIA’s beatdown of course Frank. You’ve listened to the support acts, but now it’s time to make way for the headline act. ARIA is Iron Galaxy’s final Season 2 character and Killer Instinct‘s first playable boss character, and boy oh boy is she an absolute badass to brawl against.

Determined and skilled players who were able to best the secret Shadow Jago boss in Season 1’s Arcade Mode first caught a glimpse of the enigmatic ARIA in the ending cutscene, but her true form was only revealed just a few weeks prior to her May 29th release at Chicago’s Combo Breaker tournament. The robotic CEO of Ultratech, ARIA – or, to give her full title, the Advanced Robotics Intelligence Architecture – is an artificial intelligence program designed to carry out the noble duty of protecting and uplifting the quality of all human life. Originally programmed and built back in 1948 by Ultratech’s progenitor, the Ultrafine Atomic Technologies Company and the industrialist Ryat Adams, ARIA’s goals were to end disease, famine and poverty; or, as the UATC rather sympathetically puts it ‘to push humanity out of…the primordial muck and mire it wallowed in.’ Who says philanthropy is dead eh?

Evolve or Die

Hmmm, tough choice there ARIA – can I get back to you on that?

Unfortunately though, it seems that in the past sixty-seven years those noble original intentions have gradually morphed from benevolent conservationism into a ruthless embodiment of extreme Darwinism. In her trailer dialogue, she concludes that the other Killer Instinct combatants – a motley crew made up of interplanetary aliens, frenzied werewolves and demonic spirits to name just a few – pose a dire threat to humanity’s continued survival (a rather logical conclusion I might add) so she vows to drag humanity “kicking and screaming into the future” to save them. Gulp!

The Pinnacle

Futuristic, elegant and designed for combat – The Pinnacle has a lot in common with ARIA herself.

ARIA’s stage is The Pinnacle, and as the name might suggest, it’s a suitably epic stage to close out Season 2 on. It’s essentially ARIA’s office located at the top of the Ultratech tower, and it reminds me a lot of the Final Destination stage from Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series with its sleek futuristic angles and muted purple and blue colour tones. As the fight progresses, the window blastshields recede to reveal a twilight sci-fi city skyline, and a pair of Fulgore bodyguard units materialise in the background to spectate the fight (and thankfully not wade into the melee themselves). The Pinnacle also includes a fantastic Stage Ultra. The victor smashes their opponent through the glass window (as opposed to the glass ceiling) and watches as they plummet all the way down to the cold, hard ground. As Aussie rockers AC/DC once said, ‘It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ‘n’ roll’, but man, it’s also a really fucking long way back to the bottom of Ultratech HQ, that’s for damn sure.

While it’s hard to top the awesomeness that was Cinder’s theme, ARIA’s theme still packs a mighty punch in the audio department. Mick Gordon has engineered a blisteringly fast blast drum ‘n’ bass aural battering for the players’ ears; while it might lack the strong, memorable melodic hooks of his previous character themes, the polyrhythmic cacophony of distorted beats, glitchy effects and screaming distortion of ARIA’s theme all blend together really well to create a brutal wall of sound. My favourite part of the track however is the moody multi-textured synth remix of the character select theme that plays when both fighters are idling, which acts as a lovely but ominous counterpoint to the complex aggressive sections that sandwich it.

Hand on Hip

ARIA isn’t impressed with my long-winded waffling; I’d better rattle through this next bit fast!

Okay, so we’ve gone over ARIA’s character background, The Pinnacle and the kickass music that’s playing on it – let’s get down to business (hey, just like a human CEO might say) and talk about her command list. But first, before that – yup, you’ve guessed it – here comes my noob disclaimer. As I’ve previously written at the start of all my previous Killer Instinct character guides, I’m no expert at Killer Instinct. Though I have a huge passion for the game and I absolutely love writing about it, the sad fact of the matter is that I’m certainly no pro player. Hell, don’t just take my word for it – have a fight against my Jago Shadow (GT: TB321), who’s currently swimming around in the suspiciously murky yellow waters of the online baby pool with his six-nil losing streak, and experience my woefully amateurish skills for yourself.

Look, all I’m trying to say is that I can’t provide you with in-depth frame-by-frame analysis of each fighter’s moves, give detailed match-up tactics and advice, nor do I have an impressive win/loss ratio to boast about. However, despite my own personally mediocre skills, hopefully I can pass on a few beginner’s tips, tricks and observations about ARIA and her command list that might just help a new player get to grips with complexities of this cybernetic CEO. Okay, all that being said, it’s time to pick up your conductor’s baton, crank up your metronome to a solid 174/175bpm and get ready for band practice with ARIA.

Anacrusis

Crouched

Running program kickass.exe.

The first thing that you’ll probably notice about ARIA is that she has three healthbars. This might look like a massively unfair advantage initially, but fear not, ARIA’s three shorter health bars are actually equivalent in total to every other character’s standard two. The catch is that ARIA’s health is distributed between her three Drones; Booster, Blade and Bass. These Drones each have their own set of special abilities and moves that ARIA can use either by uploading herself into a Drone to use it as a Body, thereby acquiring it’s specific abilities, or calling it out in battle as a Drone Assist. ARIA is only defeated when all three of her Drones have been destroyed.

In this sense, ARIA is perhaps best thought of as a core base character with supplementary modules you have to manage according to the ever-changing rhythm of the fight. Or, if you’d prefer a cheesy ’90s child analogy instead, she’s basically the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers‘ Megazord. Yes, ARIA is indeed that level of awesome. Before we go into the finer details of each of her Drones and Bodies however, let’s first look at her constant kick attacks that she has access to at all times, regardless of whichever Body she’s currently uploaded to.

These Boots Were Made For Blasting

Legshot

Boom, legshot!

What’s cooler than having robotic legs? How about robotic legs with shotguns for kneecaps? Medium Kick makes ARIA blast out a 12-gauge shotgun round at her opponent, the blast of which can handily destroy an incoming enemy projectile. On its own, this is a fantastic normal with great range which can be fired off both on the ground and in the air, and also works as a running auto-double when used directly after a forward dash. Additionally it functions as an excellent poking tool and combo opener which can be quickly linked into Shotgun Blitz (Quarter-circle Forward + Kick); a low-sliding attack which sees ARIA skid forward along the floor and fire off a shotgun blast into her opponent’s torso. It’s comparable in range to Orchid’s Blockade Runner or Jago’s Wind Kick, travelling across the screen at a distance equivalent to the strength of the kick attack used in the move’s input. Light Kick travels the shortest distance (but is the safest on block), Medium Kick goes a bit further across the screen and Heavy Kick travels really far – across pretty much half the screen.

Shotgun Blitz

ARIA performing a very literal take on the verb ‘kneecapping’.

Shadow Shotgun Blitz is a projectile invulnerable five-hit sliding attack which sees ARIA skid across the floor like a dangerously-pissed uncle at a wedding, firing off her shotguns as she goes. The arrhythmic pulse of the attack makes it a particularly tricky Shadow Move for your opponent to reliably break, making it really useful as a linker. Using Heavy Kick in Shotgun Blitz mid-combo executes ARIA’s Hard Knockdown Ender.

Surely nothing could possibly be cooler than robotic shotgun knees right? Wrong – ARIA also has a pair of grenade launchers installed in her robo-calves, making her legs easily the most simultaneously vicious and cool set of pins in the entire Killer Instinct character roster yet. Eat your radioactive heart out Fulgore.

Air Grenades

Orchid soon regretted calling ARIA nothing but a load of hot (explosive) air.

Heavy Kick is a normal attack which makes ARIA kick out with her leg to release a cluster of grenades at her opponent. Like the shotgun kneecap blasts, these grenades will also destroy incoming enemy projectiles. This normal is also particularly badass when used in the air, as ARIA backflips before unleashing grenades; if timed correctly, the move will first hit your mid-air opponent with the flip shortly before they are juggled by the subsequent grenade explosion. I personally love to immediately follow up the grenade explosion with Medium Kick whilst the opponent is still airborne from the grenade juggle, as ARIA will shoot her opponent back down onto the floor with a satisfying thud. It’s a short little flurry that does hardly any damage, but it just looks so damn cool and stylish that it’s well worth messing around with and throwing into your attack patterns from time to time. It’s also worth noting that ARIA will pause slightly when doing the aerial flip, making it a handy last-ditch method you can use to dodge an opponent’s projectile in a pinch. It’s an extremely brief pause however, so don’t rely on it as a consistent method for dodging incoming projectiles every time they’re thrown at you.

Explosive Arc

All those years of ballet leg stretches really came in handy after all, eh ARIA?

Explosive Arc, performed with Quarter-circle Back + Kick, is pretty much exactly what the name suggests; ARIA swings her leg up in the air to scatter out a cluster of grenades in a…well, a literal explosive arc. The strength of the kick attack used affects the speed and range of the attack. Light Kick is the fastest version of the attack with the greatest range, whereas Heavy Kick is the slowest with the shortest range but also the most safe on block. Medium Kick falls in between the two extremes offering median values for range, speed and safety. Shadow Explosive Arc is a really fast five-hit version of the attack, which is great to throw into your combos as a speedy way of racking up your total damage cashout. When used mid-combo, the Heavy Punch version of Explosive Arc acts as ARIA’s Launcher Ender.

Boost Me Up, Before You Go-Go

Booster Wings

Go go gadget awesome anime wings!

We’ve looked at the attacks ARIA has at her disposal regardless of which Body she’s currently uploaded to. Now it’s time to check out the special attacks that are associated with each Body. As it’s the default one that’s already equipped when ARIA starts out each match, let’s also start out by looking at Booster Body first. This Body gives ARIA some very Gundam-inspired wings and makes her look like a vicious metallic Valkyrie of vengeance.

Hover

Hovering allows you to dodge out of the way of many projectiles. Just watch out for anti-airs!

Aside from just making ARIA look cooler, the Booster Body grants ARIA some unique aerial movement abilities. If you hold Up after jumping with the Booster Body equipped, ARIA remains hovering up in the air for a short period of time. While you’re hovering, you can press Back or Forward to hover in that direction – making it a fantastic way to land cross-ups on your opponent. ARIA will instantly and automatically switch her direction when passing over her opponent’s head, allowing you to cleverly fake-out your opponent multiple times by passing back and forth over their head before landing your attack. Just make sure you’re watching out for your opponent’s anti-air attacks though if you’re spending a lot of time in the air. A good tactic you can use if you suspect your opponent is going to swat you down is to use the speed of the hover move to bait your opponent into anti-airing and then quickly float backwards as they attack. Correctly anticipated and timed, you will be able to punish your opponent in the lengthy recovery animation of the whiffed anti-air and start up a combo.

Crescendo

Watch out! Robot overlord coming through – fast!

When in Booster Body, ARIA gets access to the Crescendo special move. Performed with Quarter-circle Back + Punch, the move shoots ARIA forward in a sonic blast of sound. The strength of the punch used alters the angle of the attack; Light Punch travels horizontally across aproximately a quarter of the screen and starts up a combo on hit, Medium Punch travels upwards at a 45° degree angle (a great anti-air attack), while Heavy Punch travels directly upwards and is invulnerable on start-up, making it a great reversal. All of these Crescendo attacks can be performed whilst ARIA is airborne too; The Light Punch attack still travels horizontally in the air, whereas aerial Medium Punch will travel diagonally downwards at 45° and Heavy Punch will travel directly downwards instead. Shadow Crescendo travels horizontally for a five-hit attack, but it also has the benefit of having one hit of armour – very handy indeed. Utilising all the various properties of the Booster Body, ARIA can take the fight to the air-dominant characters such as Sadira and Cinder and aggressively apply lots of pressure in the sky. Used in a combo, Heavy Punch Crescendo acts as ARIA’s Wall Splat Ender.

Sing Sing Sing (With A Sword Swing)

Blade Normal

Blade Body has some incredibly good normals to poke at your opponent with.

The pen might well be mightier than the sword, but I very much doubt your average Bic biro would give ARIA’s Blade Body a serious run for its money. This is ARIA’s rushdown body, which gives her a giant sword arm to slash at her foes with, as well as several interesting movement buffs and combat abilities designed for being up close and personal with her prey.

Interlude

Interlude is a fast overhead strike – use it to catch out an opponent blocking low.

When uploaded to Blade Body, ARIA’s forward and backward movement speeds are greatly increased, allowing her to stroll around the stage a lot faster. Additionally, ARIA also gets an extra two normal attacks when she’s uploaded to the Blade Body – Medium Punch and Heavy Punch are two long-range sword swipes that have excellent range, making them really good poking tools to stab at your opponent from afar. Blade Body’s jumping Medium Punch is another great cross-up tool in her arsenal to be aware of, as well as Interlude (Forward + Heavy Punch), a unique command-normal overhead slash attack to Blade Body that’s similar in execution and speed to Fulgore’s Axis Slash.

Allegro

ARIA’s Blade Body also doubles up as a handy conductor’s baton when she’s not slicing up freedom fighters.

Blade Body also has its own special attack known as Allegro. Performed with a Dragon Punch input (Forward, Down, Down-Forward + Punch), the strength of the Punch button used determines the specific nature of the attack; Light Punch is a single Shoryuken-style uppercut with the blade, Medium Punch is a three-part horizontally-moving swipe attack and Heavy Punch combines both the uppercut and triple-swipe attacks into a single fluid motion. Like other Shoryuken-style moves such as Jago’s Tiger Fury and Orchid’s Air Buster, the light version of ARIA’s Allegro is another fantastic reversal you can use to smack a body-hugging opponent away from you after they’ve dealt you knockdown. Inputting Allegro with Heavy Punch mid-combo performs ARIA’s Damage Ender, so make use of it often to carve away great chunks off your opponent’s health bar; if you need to cut really deep, go for a Shadow Allegro for considerably more damage output.

All About That Bass, ‘Bout That Bass

Dissonance

Dissonance allows you to deal out punishment one sixteenth note burst at a time.

Bass frequencies can sometimes hertz your ears if they’re loud enough, but in Killer Instinct, they can also physically harm you as well. That’s thanks to ARIA’s Bass Body; this Body gives her a powerful chest cannon which allows her to fire bursts of rapid-moving sound pulses at her opponent, as well as greatly increasing her dash speeds.

Upwards Dissonance

“The hills are alive with the sound of screaming…”

As you might imagine, this combination of benefits makes Bass Body ARIA’s go-to zoning choice, allowing her to quickly retreat across the stage and keep an opponent at long-range with barrages of multi-shot burst projectiles. Known as Dissonance (Quarter-circle Forward + Punch) her projectile special move is absolutely fantastic for zoning, with three firing options according to the strength of the punch button used in the move’s input. Light Punch sends out a burst that shoots along the ground and hits low, Medium Punch fires one off at chest height that hits mid, and Heavy Punch fires a volley of shots upwards at a 45° degree angle. Shadow Dissonance sends out a burst of sound pulses in a wide scatter pattern that covers pretty much the full screen in its spread.

Shadow Dissonance

Shadow Dissonance will sweep the screen with projectiles, making it a very useful defensive tool.

Although each shot of Dissonance has quite a long recovery animation which leaves you vulnerable to attack, due to the rapid speed and full-screen reach of each burst, these projectiles are easily some of the best in the game and will destroy pretty much anything being thrown your way. What’s particularly neat about Dissonance is that ARIA can cancel out of the move into other shadow moves midway through the firing animation to make them safe – e.g. you can protect yourself with a Shadow Dissonance or Shadow Shotgun Blitz etc. if your opponent dodges the incoming projectiles or you whiff the attack angle. As well as functioning incredibly well as a zoning tool, you can also use Bass Body to open up your opponent for some close-range punishment as well. Depending on the distance from your target, you can shoot your opponent with Dissonance before immediately sliding into them with Shadow Shotgun Blitz to start up a combo from quite a long way out. Dissonance acts as ARIA’s Battery Ender when the Heavy Punch version of the move is inputted during a combo.

Droning On

ARIA Concept

ARIA’s original concept art, complete with her three Drones (clockwise from right: Bass, Booster and Blade).

Before we go into putting together all the various elements of ARIA’s arsenal of moves, another important aspect of ARIA we need to go over is how exactly her Drones function in combat. ARIA can switch between her three Bodies with Upload (All Punches/Kicks), a special move which transfers her into one of her available Drones (All Punches transfers ARIA to the top Drone, All Kicks transfers her to the lower one). Swapping between Drones is risky business – although ARIA is damage invulnerable during the initial animation of Upload as she disintegrates, she is very vulnerable upon re-materialising in the next body as the move has a long recovery animation. However, ARIA does have a special and much safer way of transitioning between Bodies when she’s in the heat of battle. Hitting All Punches/ Kicks when you’ve got a combo going will perform ARIA’s Upload Ender, which swaps her into the chosen Drone before finishing the combo. If you’ve taken a lot of damage and need to swap to a new Body as soon as possible, this is often a great way of making the switch, as by the time your opponent has recovered and got back to their feet, you’re already set up in your new Body and ready to keep up the pressure.

The two Bodies that ARIA isn’t currently occupying will hover behind her as Drones. Whilst inactive and floating behind ARIA, the Drones cannot be attacked by her opponent. However, ARIA can make limited use of their associated abilities by calling them into battle as Drone Assists (Back + Hard Punch calls in the top drone, Back + Hard Kick calls in the lower one). Each Drone has its own specific start-up, attack, invulnerability and recovery animations that you’ll have to learn in order to make best use of them.

The general idea is to use the Drone Assists to make your unsafe moves more protected, but beware – any Drone you send out can be injured by your opponent. If a Drone is hit, then it becomes inoperable for a short period of time and also takes quite a bit of damage. Knowing when to call the right Drone into action at the appropriate time is a tricky thing to get down at first, but with a bit of practice you can soon recognise decent opportunities to punish or trap your opponent with assists. It’s a bit of a risk/reward strategy; call one in too early or too late and it’ll likely just get swatted down, but time it well and they can really help you dominate your opponent. Here’s how each drone functions:

Bass Assist

Bass Assist.

Bass fires off a volley of shots across the screen. It’s slow to start and projectile and strike vulnerable before it starts to fire, but if deployed correctly then it’s a great way of temporarily zoning your opponent, as it will pretty much shoot through anything. A cool way you can protect the Bass Drone from incoming projectiles as it prepares to fire is to use ARIA’s Medium Kick shotgun knee attack to destroy any fireballs/iceballs/plasma shots or any other ball-based nasties heading your way.

Booster Assist

Booster Assist.

Booster swoops in and pushes the opponent away with a hard knockdown; the awesome thing about this last Assist is the fact that even if your opponent anticipates the Booster being sent out and blocks accordingly, they’ll still be shunted back across the screen. It is vulnerable however when it pauses after the attack, so you’ll need to cover it with projectiles from Bass or rush in and apply pressure with Blade.

Blade Assist

Blade Assist.

Blade swings upwards in a corkscrew motion close to ARIA to act as a very nifty anti-air attack. The Drone is strike-invulnerable on start-up and only becomes vulnerable in the brief pause it has after the attack, making it hard for an unprepared opponent in close proximity to deal with. If your opponent blocks the Assist however, then it is easy to punish as it floats back down.

The most important thing to do when using Drone Assists is to observe your opponent’s position and tendencies during the fight, and let those dictate the right drone for the scenario. Facing an aggressive rushdown character who just won’t get out of your face? Send Booster out to get some breathing room. Fighting a jumping opponent who loves nothing more than to repeatedly hit you with cross-ups? Cut them down with the Blade Drone’s uppercut. Need to pressure a long-range zoner and keep them peppered with projectiles? Call out the Bass Body. There’s also some crazy combination techniques you can use the Drones for as well; try going for a Booster Body aerial cross-up at the same time as forcing your opponent to block a hail of sound bullets from the Booster Drone, or sending out Booster while rushing in with Shotgun Blitz to clip their legs. Experiment, and see what crazy concoctions of swords, wings and projectiles you can come up with.

Come Together

Instinct

ARIA and Orchid’s synchronised dance routines were a bit rough around the edges, but they certainly had potential.

Remember earlier I compared ARIA to the Megazord? Well here’s why – ARIA’s Instinct mode (Combat Symphony No. 9 to give its full title) combines all of her Drones into one mega Body in one smooth anime-style cutscene. In Instinct, ARIA automatically swaps to her Body with the most remaining health and gets access to all of her available Drones’ special moves and movement advantages, as well as being able to cancel moves into Drone Assists when in Instinct. If ARIA has lost any Drones during the fight, then she will generate Mini-Drones that act as replacements for the time Instinct remains active. They basically function like Bass Body in that they fire off a projectile attack, but unlike Bass Body, these Mini-Drones automatically track and aim their projectiles at your opponent, making them a bit trickier to dodge.

Best of all, the damage ARIA absorbs when in Instinct is shared out equally amongst her remaining Drones, which essentially means that your opponent will only be able to inflict a third of their normal damage to you when ARIA is in Instinct. What’s even more crazy about ARIA’s Instinct is that ARIA’s Drones can’t be killed off whilst it’s active. Drones will remain at 1 healthpoint and will continue to absorb damage for the duration of Instinct, effectively allowing you to absorb damage beyond the normal threshold.

However, if her main Body is killed in Instinct, then ARIA loses and the match ends, regardless of whether her subordinate Drones are still in play, so watch out. If things do start to go badly and you and your Drone fleet are taking a battering, you do have some alternative tactics in your titanium trickbag to try and pull things around. You can use Disband by hitting Heavy Punch + Heavy Kick when in Instinct to share out your damage between your remaining Drones, at the cost of half of your remaining Instinct. It’s a bit of a last-ditch survival attempt, but it might just help keep you and your Drones alive a bit longer to secure victory.

Coda

Window

“No no NO! That’s the third window this week! Arrggh!” Ultratech’s glaziers are never out of action for long.

ARIA is an extremely versatile character who has what’s essentially the perfect set of weapons and tools for dealing with any situation or match-up the game can throw at her. She has a very flexible movelist which grants her a variety of options in combat, and with myriad Drones, Bodies and three varied fighting styles to draw upon, ARIA can tackle anyone, anywhere and from pretty much any angle. Although she might look and feel like a complicated character for a beginner to learn at first, the modular nature of her fighting style actually makes her rather easy for a novice player to pick up and practice. She actually plays very similarly to Jago and Fulgore, so some of the fundamental moves in her command list will immediately feel familiar to anyone who’s already gone through Killer Instinct‘s tutorial. With a bit of practice, you’ll soon be improvising your own increasingly complicated compositions of attacks, assists, covering-attacks and cross-ups, and fluently sight-reading when to punish your opponent’s mistakes.

Golden Glow

Will Orchid overwhelm ARIA, or be ultra-rekt by Ultratech?

The crucial thing any ARIA player does have to worry about, regardless of their skill level, is her health; keeping your eye on the distributed health of all her Drones is an absolute must when playing as the ultimate Ultratech warrior. In the wise words of KI‘s Lead Designer Adam Heart, ARIA is best thought of as not one but a team of characters. Thus, achieving success as ARIA comes down to how well you manage that team. Much like a real life sports team or an orchestra, focusing on one constituent part instead of the whole ensemble is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Remember, the team is only as strong as its weakest member, and your goal is to keep all three drones alive for as along as possible. Fail to switch your Bodies regularly and you’ll soon find those Drones are dropping like heavy metallic flies; lose one and you’ll be struggling; lose two and it’s probably goodnight Vienna.

Pointing

“You’re the best”. “No, you’re the best!”

Bearing this in mind, ARIA is strongest at the start of a match when she still has all https://tombennettblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/index.phpthree of her Drones available, and only gets weaker and forfeits entire portions of her command list as she loses them. On top of that, unlike the rest of Killer Instinct‘s fighters ARIA doesn’t automatically heal potential damage accumulated by her equipped Body. The only way for her to recover potential damage is to swap out of her current Body and Upload to a new one. On a side note, ARIA does also have some interesting beneficial side effects that somewhat offset the risks of having to regularly switch Bodies- for example, ARIA can actually nullify Kan-Ra’s Curse of Weight or remove Cinder’s Burnout Ender flames just by switching out to a new Body – swings and robotic roundabouts I guess.

Don’t let those concerns put you off playing as ARIA by any means though. In many ways, ARIA is theoretically the best character in the game. She doesn’t particularly have any major match-up worries that put her at a distinct disadvantage to any one character, and she can outperform each character’s specialist fighting disciplines if her resources are utilised effectively. In the right hands (e.g. not mine) and with all three of her Drones still in play, ARIA can tackle every single member of the roster with ease. Each Body is perfectly suited to its task; Bass Body is great for zoning out the rushdown characters, Blade Body is great for going on a rushdown offensive, and Booster is great at cross-ups and air dominance. Combine those three very different playstyles with her universal versatile kick attacks, Drone Assists and her damage absorbing Instinct, and she can be nigh on unstoppable.

Win Pose

ARIA – the ultimate Megazord matriarch.

Well, that’s pretty much all the beginner’s info I offer up about ARIA. As you can see, I’m no Grade 8 + player when it comes to Killer Instinct, but hopefully this guide might just help act as a textual rudiment to more advanced and skilled ARIA playing. So…that’s all folks! I’d better get back to the Shadow Lab and tinkle on the old ivories (i.e. whip my lousy Jago Shadow into shape).

Killer Instinct Season 2: Cinder Beginner’s Guide

Cinder Close-up
Standard

What’s Cookin’ Good Lookin’?

May – the month in which the weather starts to go from cold to slightly less cold here in the UK. It was also the month when we finally managed to get our cold frost-bitten hands on quite possibly the hottest character in Killer Instinct. Easy tiger – no I’m not talking about Sabrewulf in his rather skimpy shorts, but Cinder. The flaming fighter hit Killer Instinct on April 30th, and he’s been warming the hearts of both new and old players of the game in equal measure; alongside Riptor, TJ Combo and Maya, Cinder is the last original series character to be included in the roster, and he’s arguably the one that fans have been waiting to singe their hands on for the longest time.

The penultimate Season 2 character has had a slight retcon to his backstory in the original 1994 Killer Instinct. He’s still pretty much the same cocky Ben Ferris you know and love from the original game, only now he’s got a slightly different backstory. No longer the prisoner in flames (not chains) who’s been subjected to Ultratech’s crazy experiments against his will; Cinder’s now a mouthy merc for hire who has voluntarily opted for the Ultratech experimentation (the daft nutter), specifically a melding of human and Glacius’ species DNA… as well as presumably a fair old quantity of gasoline thrown into the mix for good measure. In other words, he’s a flying flaming torch with some formidable tricks, flips and stinging quips up his highly combustible sleeves.

Air Kick

Whether in the air or on the ground, Cinder is a flaming nuisance for his opponents.

For a man who’s essentially a walking bonfire, Cinder has an appropriately warm-blooded stage to fight in. Fury’s Core is a giant magma-filled crater complete with al fresco research labs (strange combination if you ask me, but it seems to be working) and plenty of flashy floating platforms whizzing around in the background. Though sadly there’s no Stage Ultra for this stage, it still manages to feel exciting and epic; the complicated flotilla of platforms in the background contrast really nicely with the simple rocky plinth the players fight on in the foreground.

Fury's Core

Fury’s Core; a fiery yet still strangely functional Ultratech facility. My nerdy Killer Instinct lore questions aside, it’s a fun stage to fight on.

It also helps that this level has arguably one of the punchiest and most aggressive theme songs in the game to go with it. Once again, Mick Gordon has totally knocked it out of the park on his soundtrack duty. Cinder’s Theme, Inferno, features a heavy remixed version of Robin Beanland’s Trailblazer from the original game’s soundtrack which has been expertly spliced with Mick’s own raunchy riffs, searing hot lead guitar solos and brutal beatdowns. The result is an incredibly good balancing of old and new music, and it makes the stage all the more cool to play on.

That’s enough window dressing for now, let’s move onto the main flaming man himself. As I like to say at the start of these character guides, I’m no expert at Killer Instinct, and though I have a great passion for the game and I absolutely love writing about it, the sad fact is that I’m certainly no pro player. I can’t provide you with in-depth frame-by-frame analysis of moves, give detailed match-up tactics and advice, nor do I have an impressive win/loss ratio to boast about. However, despite my own personally mediocre skills, hopefully I can pass on a few beginner’s tips and tactics about Cinder and his command list that might just help a new player get to grips with the fundamentals of this hothead honcho. Okay, with that said, it’s time to turn up the heat and get cooking with Cinder.

Flambéed Fisticuffs

Open Palms

When Cinder says he’s warming up, he’s really not kidding! Ouch!

So where to start with learning Cinder? I think one of the most important things to go over right away is his Fired Up combat trait. This is a unique effect that imbues all of his special attacks with additional and very handy buffs, and it’s an essential part of his playstyle to get to grips with.

Basically, it works like this; as the trait’s name suggests, Cinder ignites into flames every eight seconds. When Cinder is Fired Up his next Special Attack gains additional properties. After performing a special attack, Cinder will go back to a duller glow, and will re-ignite eight seconds later. Don’t worry, Cinder will glow very brightly when he is Fired Up, so the difference between his Fired Up and normal states is easy to distinguish regardless of whatever skin you choose (though it’s perhaps easiest to recognise at first in his default skin).

Additionally, upon activating his Instinct mode, Pyromania, Cinder remains Fired Up for the full duration of his Instinct. All special attacks gain Fired Up properties during this time, so you can really turn up the heat and give your opponent a roasting when you’ve got a full Instinct meter. What exactly are these special Fired Up buffs though? Well, they’re all specific to each special move, so let’s go through them.

Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire

Cinder’s is easily one of the most manoeuvrable characters of the Killer Instinct roster, with multiple aerial skills that can give even Sadira a run for her money. That’s largely thanks to Trailblazer, a fast moving attack which sees Cinder curl up into a deadly fireball and blast forwards through the air. Performed with Back Forward + Kick, Trailblazer is a great combo linker and standalone attack that can be used both on the ground and in the air, making it an extremely versatile way of attacking your opponent.

Trailblazer

Sick burn. Sick burn indeed.

The angle of the attack is determined by the strength of the kick attack; the Medium Kick version travels horizontally (approximately across half of the screen), the Light Kick one travels diagonally upwards. The Heavy Kick variant sees Cinder briefly shoot straight up in the air before hurtling diagonally downwards if performed on the ground, while the aerial version just sends him heading downwards with no additional upward boost. When Cinder is Fired Up, the move will destroy any non-shadow projectiles – allowing you to quite literally fight fire with fire when up against Jago players.

Afterburner

Look out below! Flaming supersoldier coming in hot.

What’s more, Cinder can also chain the move with another Trailblazer – known as Afterburner – which opens up your movement options further. While you’re streaking across the screen in fireball form, simply press Any Direction + Any Kick to aim Cinder in that direction. Afterburner can be used on its own, directly off a blocking opponent or when hitting an opponent in mid-air.

Cross Fire

Glacius and Cinder’s arguments about global warming tend to get just a tad heated.

Plus, if that wasn’t enough, when Cinder’s Fired Up you even can do a second Afterburner on top of your first as well – just press your desired direction and hit another kick button again to keep sizzling through the air. That means you can essentially perform Trailblazer three times with Cinder before his hot little tootsies have touch the floor again, which makes the move an incredibly handy cross-up tool when combined with the aerial Cross Fire (Down + Heavy Kick). The Light Kick Afterburner covers the shortest distance, the Heavy Kick one travels the furthest, and the Medium Kick is your median go-to.

Unfortunately, although you can’t perform an Afterburner directly after a Shadow Trailblazer, it has the bonus of being completely projectile invulnerable (until the recovery animation at least), making it a great way of getting through a projectile-heavy opponent’s defences. Finally, executing Trailblazer mid-combo with the Heavy Kick variety gets you Cinder’s Wall Splat Ender.

Pyrobomber Man

Pyrobomb

“Glacius! Catch!” Cinder’s attempts to bond with Glacius fell rather flat to say the least.

To go from one ball of fire to another, let’s look at Cinder’s Pyrobombs. Pyrobombs are Cinder’s projectiles, and what’s really interesting about them is that they function as glowing satsuma-like balls of C4; rather than causing damage to your opponent upon contact, Pyrobombs will actually stick to your opponent and require manual detonation. These throwable bombs can be chucked out from the ground and mid-air, giving Cinder some really interesting medium to long-distance zoning options to play with.

Executed with Back Forward + Punch, Cinder will throw out a bomb in an arc depending on the strength of the punch used; Light Punch throws a fast bomb at a long, low angle, Medium Punch sends one long-range but a slightly higher trajectory, while Heavy Punch sends one sailing in a very high, slow and short-range curve.

When Fired Up, Cinder throws out a slightly larger Pyrobomb which does slightly more damage than usual, and has a slightly larger blast radius than the standard explosives, and launches your opponent slightly further up into the air. In other words, it’s just better in every single way. Pressing All Punches activates Pyrotechnics, which is pretty much exactly what the name suggests – Cinder detonates all Pyrobombs currently onscreen. Just like with Pyrobomb throws, Pyrotechnics can also be triggered both in-air and on the ground. You can have up to three Pyrobombs onscreen at any one time – trying to throw a fourth while at max capacity will just function as an alternate detonation method.

Although the Pyrobombs are extremely cool, they do come with some caveats to bear in mind. If Cinder is hit before detonating any bombs, then they will all instantly disappear, so you have to be careful when trying to lob a load of them at your opponent. If left undetonated, Pyrobombs will also disappear after an eight second window.

The Shadow Version throws out a massive Pyrobomb, and its trajectory is determined by the combination of punch buttons you use to input the move. If you input the move by hitting LB (default controller mapping for All Punches), then the bomb will fly out in a similar manner to a standard Light Punch strength Pyrobomb. If you input the move using any two punch buttons simultaneously, you can choose which throwing arc you’d like to use.

Shadow Pyrobomb

Cinder’s Shadow Pyrobomb. Learning all the extended throwing inputs does take further time and effort, but Cinder (and your improved win/loss ratio) will thank you for it.

For this reason, if you play Killer Instinct using a fightstick, and like me, you tend to default to just hitting LB to activate shadow moves, it’s worth spending time to practice throwing your Shadow Pyrobombs using a dual punch button input as this will give you more flexibility over how to best deploy the big bomb in the heat of combat (I’m sorry, look the fire puns are only going to keep on getting cheesier from here on out – what did you expect?)

Okay, bear with me here, as this paragraph is important, but things are going to get just a little wordy and tedious – sorry in advance. Inputting the Shadow Pyrobomb move using Light Punch + Medium Punch throws the Shadow Pyrobomb in a similar arc to the standard Light Punch Pyrobomb. Inputting Shadow Pyrobomb with Light Punch + Heavy Punch throws the Shadow Pyrobomb in a similar arc to the standard Medium Punch Pyrobomb, and inputting Shadow Pyrobomb using Medium Punch + Heavy Punch throws the Shadow Pyrobomb in a similar arc to the standard Heavy Punch Pyrobomb.

Phew – did you get all of that? I know, I know, I know – it can be a bit of a major mindfuck trying to keep all these arbitrary-looking sub-divisions of the Shadow Pyrobomb input in the back of your head while scrapping online, but if you stick with it and give it a bit of practice, you’ll be a way more versatile zoning Cinder as a result of your hard work.

Whilst we’re covering Cinder’s throwable tangerines of terror, it’s worth pointing out their application in conjunction with his throws. Pyrobombs stuck to your opponent can be detonated between the second and third hits of Cinder’s throw animation. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry it’s not – Cinder takes an obvious moment between the hits to cool off his fist (the cocky git) before delivering the final hit of the throw so once you know what to look for it’s rather easy to get the necessary timing down. Grabbing an opponent and dishing out some extra damage with a cheeky bomb detonation mid-throw is incredibly useful, as the resulting explosion will launch your opponent into the air, allowing you to bat them around with a Trailblazer/Afterburner or two, or recapture them with Cross Fire and start a combo back on terra firma.

Pyrobomb Ender

Cool guys don’t look at explosions – they blow things up and then fly away. Laughing.

Performing any strength punch of the Pyrobomb input mid-combo executes Cinder’s Battery and Launcher Ender. This is a great choice when running low on meter, plus it sets you at a decent distance away from your opponent if you need some space. Additionally, Cinder’s Pyrotechnics combat trait means that whenever you perform any one of his Enders, he will automatically detonate all deployed Pyrobombs – so any bombs stuck to your opponent when ending a combo will just add to the total damage cashout. Cha-ching!

Burn Baby Burn

Speaking of Enders, Cinder has some other toasty tricks he can inflict on his opponents at the end of his combos. Specifically, Cinder can perform a special pair of Burnout Enders which affect your opponent in some really nasty ways. First though, let’s look at the special moves associated with these Enders – Fission and Inferno.

Fission Ender

“I love the smell of melted alien in the morning.”

While we’re still on the topic of hot orange balls, let’s look at Cinder’s Fission first. Performed with Quarter-circle Back + Punch, this move sees Cinder bash together two Pyrobombs to create a big tasty explosion that can be used as an attack, a combo linker or a handy way of destroying non-shadow projectiles. Medium Punch and Heavy Punch attack as normal, but interestingly the Light Punch version is a fake-out move which can be used to bait your opponent into a block. When Fired Up, the Medium Punch and Heavy Punch Fission blasts have a slightly larger blast radius than normal, and Shadow Fission hits a ridiculously awesome ten times and has a massive blast radius – great for punishing an opponent trapped in a corner.

Inferno Ender

Ben Ferris, AKA the human external combustion engine.

Inferno is a long-range flamethrower attack which sees Cinder spray his opponent with a far-reaching stream of fire. Performed with Quarter-circle Back + Kick, the strength of the kick attack used determines the attack’s range. The Light Punch version has the shortest range, Heavy Punch has the longest, and yup, Medium Punch lies in-between the two. Like Fission, Inferno can also be used to destroy non-shadow projectiles, and when Cinder’s Fired Up, the Inferno flame jets reach slightly further than normal. Shadow Inferno is the longest reaching version of the attack, which travels in an undulating pattern across pretty much the full screen distance. What’s really neat about all the Inferno attacks is the fact that even if your opponent successfully blocks the attack, they will still absorb the potential damage – pretty neat huh?

The Heavy Punch Ender versions of Fission and Inferno are Cinder’s Burnout Enders; what’s special about these finishers are that they actually set your opponent on fire. The Fission Burnout Ender will set your opponent’s arms on fire, and the Inferno Burnout Ender will set your opponent’s legs on fire. Whenever you alight your opponent’s limbs in this way, the flames will continue to burn between 3 and 7.5 seconds depending on the level of the Ender, and during that time period they will continuously take potential damage. What’s really cool however is that if your opponent uses an attack associated with that burnt out region (i.e. if they use any derivative of a punch attack when their arms are burning) whilst they’re still on fire, then they essentially ‘fan the flames’ and they keep burning and the potential damage continues creeping up. All you really need to do then is to start up and quickly end another combo (preferably with Cinder’s Damage Ender, Fireflash, performed with Down Up + Kick) to obliterate your opponent’s health bar once they’ve been cooking up all that potential damage.

Fireflash

Use Fireflash in a new combo directly after a Burnout Ender to wipe out a big chunk of your opponent’s health bar.

So, in other words, these Burnout Enders are incredibly important parts of Cinder’s moveset. A great tactic is to burn your opponent’s limbs and then repeatedly attack them in ways that will make them accidentally fan the flames, or leave themselves completely open for punishment. Either way is a big win for you as a Cinder player. Being spammed with projectiles? Burn your opponent’s arms to temporarily discourage further barrages. Getting poked from your opponent’s kick attacks? Scorch their legs and start pressuring low. Being swatted out of the sky with your opponent’s anti-airs? Burn their arms and swoop down from above with impunity.

All These Fire Puns Are Getting Pretty Charcoal’d By Now

Wave

Though he looks a bit intimidating, Cinder’s ashtually a really nice guy once you get to know him.

Personally, I find Cinder to be a very complex character for a beginner to get to grips with. For a start, like Riptor, Cinder is a hybrid input fighter who utilises both charge inputs and quarter-circle inputs, which makes him initially feel quite fiddly and awkward to get to grips with in my opinion. As a low-level Killer Instinct player myself, I prefer it when a character has either all quarter-circle move inputs, or all charge inputs – not a mix of the two.

Just like with my initial attempts to learn Riptor, I found it really confusing at first to get to grips with Cinder’s mixed inputs, and properly commit them to muscle memory. Plus on top of that, in order to be able to accurately control his Shadow Pyrobomb throws, you have to learn that whole other string of arbitrary alternative inputs we discussed earlier, which just complicates things for a new player (and idiots like me) even more. Thankfully, it’s not a massive deal and you’ll soon get to grips with his controls after a couple of matches, but for a new player just starting out with Cinder, his complicated command list can almost feel like a rather tricky opponent you have to fight right from the off.

However, get through that initial learning curve and he’s an incredibly fun character to use and one well worth persevering with. After some careful practice in the dojo, you’ll soon be chucking out Pyrobombs, darting across the screen with Trailblazer and burning up the competition in no time.

Fired Up Trailblazer

Cinder’s aerial Trailblazer juggles can be a bit tricky to pull off, but they’re incredibly useful, not to mention very cool.

In terms of his overall fighting style, Cinder is perhaps best described as an aerial rushdown character. He’s a bit of a strange mix in that he excels at being played up-close and aggressive in his opponent’s face, yet he also has some interesting but limited projectile/zoning options with the Pyrobombs he can use to attack from afar. From my own experience playing the character, it’s hard to pinpoint particularly difficult match-ups that he struggles against, but rather it’s that he can struggle to open up opponents with strong defensive playstyles.

Glacius Heavy Punch

Much like the readers of this guide, Glacius wants to put an end to all these tired fire puns once and for all.

When in the heat (cringe) of battle, keep your opponent guessing when using Trailblazer. A nice tactic you can use to catch an opponent off guard is to move in with a Trailblazer, dash backwards with your first Afterburner before rushing back in and landing the hit with your second. A careless opponent will likely read your backwards Afterburner as a retreat, and walk smack-bang into the follow-up – ready to receive a brutal barbequing.

Afterburner Dodge

Though Trailblazer/Afterburner are largely unsafe on block, a retreating Afterburner can allow you to avoid punishment if timed correctly.

Although you’ve got a variety of unique ways to pressure your opponent as Cinder (particularly through airborne Trailblazers), the vast majority of his special moves are unsafe on block. If you’re swatted down mid-air from a Trailblazer, or your opponent successfully blocks an Inferno/Fission, you can expect to get a swift battering. Luckily, Cinder has a very speedy backdash, which works incredibly well at getting you out of dangerous situations pronto, so make good use of it. If dealt a heavy knockdown from your opponent, Fireflash functions as a fantastic reversal that can be used on recovery as a swift riposte to an aggressive combatant’s new combo attempt.

Puddle Punch Block

Welcome to the hot ‘n’ cold gun show.

If you’re struggling to open up a defensive opponent, throwing out a cheeky Pyrobomb or three is a great way to get them to panic and lose their cool. Just remember that if you’re hit just once (even with a projectile) before you detonate then all your bombs will disappear, so be ready to block and play defensively yourself if your opponent launches into action. Additionally, don’t rely too heavily on the Pyrobombs as your primary offensive strategy; Cinder is primarily a rushdown character so think of them as a handy way of zoning and annoying your opponent when appropriate.

Again, as we’ve previously gone over, a large part of your gameplan when playing as Cinder should be to make frequent use of his Burnout Enders where appropriate. Keeping your enemy’s potential damage levels high will make them doubly anxious about getting caught in your combos, so use their hesitancy to your advantage. Once you’ve burned your opponent, try pressuring them in ways that will either cut down their chances to retaliate, or severely punish them if they do.

Win Pose

“I’m on fire!” Yes you are Cinder. Yes you are.

Well, that’s pretty much all the basic knowledge I can pass on about Cinder for now. Next up in the beginner guide hotseat is the enigmatic CEO of Ultratech. Unveiled for the first time at Chicago’s Combo Breaker fighting game tournament, ARIA is the final Season 2 character, and the big boss character for the upcoming Season 2 Arcade mode, who uses special drone modules to support and supplement her attacks. Whether there’s an additional secret boss one à la Season 1’s Shadow Jago remains to be seen, so we’ll have to wait until the new Arcade mode finally drops to find out. In the meantime, turn up the heat and dish out some blazing batterings.