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.

Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – Review

Title Screen
Standard

(Reviewed on PS4 and Xbox One)

No Alf Measures With This Fresh Meat

17 years ago, the gaming world was presented with one of its most unlikely yet most loveable mascots. Blue, alien, dopey, and most certainly odd, Abe the Mudokon made his debut in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, released in 1997 for the original PlayStation. Developed by Oddworld Inhabitants, figure-headed by series creators Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, the game introduced players all over the world to the eponymous loveable blue stitch-lipped hero of the title, and his quest to save his enslaved Mudokon people from becoming tasty snacks at the…well, figurative hands at least, of the industrial Glukkons.

A 2D side-scrolling action adventure game, Oddysee was renowned at the time for its unique art direction, detailed environments, cinematic CG cutscenes, challenging difficulty, and, of course, its oddball characters. The game’s story followed Abe, a Mudokon slave labourer (think cute blue and green aliens with rather fetching ponytails) working as a lowly floor waxer in Rupture Farms; a shady and dangerous meat packing plant run by Molluck the Glukkon (think a purple suit wearing greedy Octopus and you’re on the right lines). Hard at work waxing the factory floors late one night, Abe eavesdrops in on a Glukkon profit meeting, only to discover that Mudokon slaves are next on the menu to be chopped up and served as tasty pie fillings. Yikes!

Hearing this fantastic news, our petrified hero goes on the run and begins his adventure. Over the course of the game, Abe escapes the meat plant, seeks out his hidden power by braving two shamanistic rites of passage out in the wilds of Eastern Mudos before returning to Rupture Farms to use his new-found power to free his fellow enslaved Mudokons. Simple right? Well, not quite. You see, as far as video game characters go, Abe was just a wee bit underpowered in comparison to your regular gun slinging action hero. Unlike your typical armed to the teeth space-marine clichés, he had no guns or any physical means of defending himself; instead, all you had to rely on were your quick wits, Abe’s handy but limited possession ability and his noisy bowel (seriously) to make it through each screen in one piece…and not in several smaller bloodier ones.

Anxious Abe

Abe, our loveable schmuck/hero finds out that Mudokons are next on the menu. Gulp!

Players would need to guide Abe on his journey through traps and environmental obstacles, and past trigger-happy guards and vicious wildlife all out to kill him in a variety of increasingly unpleasant ways. Because of his positioning as a hapless everyman-sort of character (only with far-from ordinary flatulence problems) Abe became a popular mascot for the PlayStation brand back in the late ’90s. A sequel, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus followed in 1998, before Oddworld Inhabitants moved development on new games in the series over to the big green Xbox machine, starting with Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee in 2001 and later Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath in 2005.

Anyway, I digress. Jump forward all those years to today, and our loveable blue chump has made the transition to PC and next-gen consoles in Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – a complete HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee, with development this time being carried out by Otley-based studio Just Add Water. So, as Abe would say, “Follow me” and let’s get stuck in.

Boardroom

Molluck the Glukkon, along with the rest of Rupture Farms’ shady executives.

The gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty is simple. Just like its 1997 predecessor, the aim of the game is to guide our hapless blue hero through each dangerous area alive. Landmines, trapdoors, electric chambers, meat grinders, flying landmines and many other horrific hazards are strewn liberally throughout the environments, usually in deadly combination with each other. Slig guards (think robotic trouser-wearing slugs with machine guns) march around with incredibly itchy trigger fingers, eager to mercilessly gun you down on sight, snickering loudly when they do (the swines), and dangerous wildlife that are more than happy to devour you become very present and real threats as you progress into the later levels. In other words, there’s a lot to worry about, and one wrong move is usually fatal.

However, it’s not just all about getting Abe out alive. Throughout the course of the game, you can choose to try and save as many fellow Mudokons as possible, simply ignore them, or, for those especially black-hearted gamers out there, actively go out of your way to kill them. How many you save/ignore/kill affects your Karma, or ‘Quarma’ as the game likes to call it, which ultimately influences which ending you’ll get. If navigating through all those previous hazards and enemies sounded difficult solo, trust me, it can be even harder with several Mudokons in tow. Saving your fellow Muds is tricky, but getting them to follow you is in fact incredibly easy; you just need to talk to them.

Chatting to your fellow Mudokons is done by using the ‘Gamespeak’ function; pressing the d-pad directional buttons when standing next to fellow Muds lets you interact using simple greetings and imperatives. This was a core feature of the original game, and it returns here with several small improvements, such as multiple variations on each response, and most importantly, a dynamic randomised library of fart sounds, which are both hilarious and actually essential to progression in certain areas of the game.

Additionally, this is the first of many fantastic improvements that Just Add Water have made to the original game. Whereas you could only give commands to one Mud at a time in Oddysee, you can now address multiple Muds at once in New ‘n’ Tasty – a feature which was only later introduced in Abe’s Exoddus. This removes a lot of the tedium that plagued the original game when you’d have to individually lead every single Mud in an area to the bird portal escape, before going back and braving all the obstacles you and your previous Mud just successfully navigated to do it all over again with the next escapee.

Bird Portal

Abe opening a bird portal for Mudokons to escape. Impressive stuff, feathery friends!

All the levels that you’ll be, running, jumping, sneaking and farting your way through have been carefully updated from the Oddysee, and some have been ever so slightly redesigned in order to better fit with the new screen mechanics. This is because one of the major changes from Abe’s Oddysee to New ‘n’ Tasty in terms of overall gameplay design is the conversion from a flip-screen camera to a scrolling one. In this sense, it’s almost like an entirely new game on a mechanical level, as all the original environments and puzzles have been built to accommodate this new change. It’s an incredibly awesome alteration to the original design that I absolutely adore; not only does it remove the small but irritating delays you’d get when moving from screen to screen in Oddysee, but it really helps the strange and wonderfully bizarre environments you’re moving through feel much more intricate and cohesive.

Don’t worry though, the new scrolling camera doesn’t suddenly make the game unfairly punishing. There’s plenty of ambient audio noises and helpful visual cues that clue you into what nearby enemies and hazards lie ahead so that you’re not constantly worried about bumping into some unseen threat that’s not currently onscreen. For example, the Sligs now have a radar-like scan ability on their visors, which keeps them challenging and effective with this new screen change; it effectively lets them search areas outside of their screen bounds. In the original, you could generally escape them by just running offscreen and hiding, whereas in New ‘n’ Tasty, they will give chase but now also stop to scan the environment when they lose you. It’s a cool mechanic, as it keeps them deadly and prevents you from running (and farting) rings around them without deviating too much from Oddysee‘s blueprint.

Slig Shooting

Watch out for Sligs, they can chase and scan for you offscreen now in New ‘n’ Tasty.

On a contrasting note, New ‘n’ Tasty does deviate from the original game’s template when it comes to difficulty, as there are now three difficulty modes to choose from when starting a new game. Rather than sticking slavishly to the Oddysee‘s challenging difficulty, which inspired Marmite style love it/hate it responses from gamers when it originally released, New ‘n’ Tasty opens things up for those completely new to the franchise. Although this might be something that returning hardcore fans of the Oddworld franchise might initially scoff at, in my opinion, offering the player a choice of difficulty options is a very considerate design decision.

On easy or medium difficulty, Abe has a health meter represented by a flock of birds (which can be viewed by pressing the Triangle/Y button), and can take a couple of bullets from a Slig before going down, as opposed to the one-shot kill of hard mode. It’s not a huge advantage; Abe still can’t take much punishment, and certain things will still kill in one hit, such as those annoying flying landmines, but this small concession to include a health meter makes many of the enemy encounters much more palatable for an unfamiliar and new audience.

Difficulty Select

The ability to choose your preferred difficulty level is a great move, giving newcomers to the series an accessible and gentler starting point without diluting the original challenge for returning hardcore fans.

New ‘n’ Tasty also implements an inspired solution to Oddysee’s spread out checkpoint system. The original game could feel incredibly punishing at times, often sending you a significantly long way back in a level upon each unlucky death. Thankfully then, the new game allows players to make their own ‘QuikSave’ checkpoints as they play, eliminating much of the frustration from a game in which difficulty and repeated deaths reign supreme. Simply tap the DualShock 4’s touchpad/Xbox One controller’s View button once to make a QuikSave, and then when things inevitably go wrong and you don’t quite time that jump right, or that pesky Slig manages to riddle Abe with bullets, never fear! Just hold the button down to instantly load your last QuikSave and you can seamlessly carry on as if that hideous yet darkly comedic death never happened.

This change to the checkpoint system doesn’t make the game significantly easier; it just makes it significantly more enjoyable to play. This is an Oddworld game afterall, and a violent death awaits Abe around every corner. Throughout your adventure with your loveable blue chum, Abe will get shot, electrocuted, minced by grinders, ripped apart by hostile wildlife and experience many other pleasant ways to go; being able to cut out the tedium of having to wait for a lengthy checkpoint load lends the game a more fast paced and arcade-y feel which suits it perfectly.

Speaking of hideously comical deaths, the fun and humour in New ‘n’ Tasty feels much more prominent this time round compared to the original game (hell, even the online manual is a hilarious read). The new ragdoll physics in play now mean that when things do go wrong (and trust me, they often do), the results are gloriously daft. Seeing Abe get shot mid-leap by a Slig, only to then flop down onto a tightly-packed pile of landmines below is both humiliating and amusing in equal measure. Abe in particular looks and moves with such charm, and the way the hideous Scrabs now barrel after you with a frightening, lurching gallop will make even the most hardcore of returning Oddworld fans tremble in their Mudokon loincloths. You will die a lot whilst playing New ‘n’ Tasty, but you’ll also be cracking up just as much, as each fantastically ridiculous demise plays out before you.

Scrab

Abe face to…well, beak, with a fearsome Scrab.

Graphically, it’s a real treat to see the game running in a buttery 60 frames per second. Having played the game on both the PS4 and Xbox One, it’s worth pointing out here that while the PS4 version remained smooth throughout, the Xbox One version did seem to repeatedly struggle to keep at steady 60. I’m no expert on framerates and I have a hard time distinguishing frame rate dips and such with the naked eye, but playing both versions of the game side by side, things did feel noticeably slower and not quite as snappy on the Xbox side of things unfortunately. However, it’s only a small disappointment, and the gameplay still manages to feel fast and enjoyable on both platforms (I haven’t personally played the PC version, but I’m sure that it’s probably closer to the PS4 version in terms of smoothness).

The Oddworld games are known for the grotesquely beautiful art direction, and New ‘n’ Tasty absolutely delivers on that front. It’s one of the first things that you’ll notice when you fire up the game, and it creates a pleasantly weird dichotomy; the levels look at once both nostalgically familiar yet also excitingly different, bursting with a vibrancy and brightness that the original sorely lacked. Even the menu screen looks fantastic, which displays Abe in all his HD glory.

Rupture Farms Escape

Even the interior shots of Rupture Farms look really vibrant and colourful.

All of New ‘n’ Tasty’s environments have been painstakingly recreated in a full 3D engine (Unity to be precise), as opposed to the pre-rendered backdrops of Oddysee, and the world looks far more interesting and detailed as a result. Oddworld itself looks nothing short of beautiful, particularly so in the more rural levels of Paramonia and Scrabania.

Paramonia

The outdoor areas are real graphical treats for your eyeballs.

The Oddworld series has never looked so alive and vibrant, even whilst you’re still inside the grimy blood-splattered interiors of Rupture Farms, the colours and lighting effects still manage to pop out at you. The early moments inside the plant showcase great big smelting vats and furnaces throw up fantastic orange embers and the glow from the swirling orange liquid metal creates some fantastic lighting effects, giving some of the early factory scenes a hellish Dante’s inferno look to them. The twilight evening sun that’s setting as you first set foot outside is another visually jaw-dropping moment, with lovely dynamic lighting from the low setting sun casting long shadows across the kennels and cages of the Stockyards.

Slig Foreground

Each level has plenty of intricate things going on in both the background and foreground.

The attention to detail is impeccable too. At various points in the game you can see Sligs on faraway platforms diligently patrolling about (and probably grumbling loudly to themselves out there in the distance), and on a more grisly note, Scrab and Paramite meat conveyor belts can be seen clunking away in the background of the early Rupture Farms levels. Outside the meat plant, the guard towers, glinting in the twilight now move like automated gun turrets and scan the environment in the foreground and background, with floodlights that sweep through the pens and catwalks that Abe’s navigating through.

Additionally, new camera angles dynamically respond to where Abe currently is in the environment, giving the game a smooth polished cinematic sheen that massively improves on the original game’s pre-canned CG transitions. The camera gracefully arcs over the scenery to track Abe as he goes through doorways, and it cinematically zooms in to create dramatic moments, and zooms out to bridge transitions between environments, all in glorious real-time 3D.

Rupture Farms Exterior

Rupture Farms, in all its orangey, industrial glory.

On the topic of moving through the lovely environments, back when the game launched in July last year on the PS4, I initially did have a couple of specific issues with New ‘n’ Tasty‘s controls, though thankfully these have since been addressed. The game’s default control scheme has been configured with today’s gamers in mind first and foremost; the original title’s controls have sensibly been revised and brought into line with what brand new players to the franchise would typically expect a platformer to handle like today.

One of these revisions is a change to the way the jump controls operate; When you pressed jump in Oddysee, it would make Abe hop forwards in the direction he’s facing; pressing jump in New ‘n’ Tasty now makes Abe jump vertically straight up in the air. This took a while to get used to as a big fan of the original Oddworld platformers, and it was hard to unlearn Abe’s original behaviours that I’d become so familiar with over the years. For other returning old school Oddworlders like me then, it can take a bit of practice to get the timing down for the hop (pressing the jump button ever so slightly before the desired direction seems to do the trick), but it’s not a massive hurdle, and likely something that a new player wouldn’t even think twice about.

Abe Hop

Whatever you do, don’t look down!

A slightly more frustrating concern however was that originally all of Abe’s movement in New ‘n’ Tasty was governed by how much pressure was applied to the left stick. Pressing the stick fully to the left or right made Abe run at full tilt, whilst applying gentler pressure caused him to plod along with his characteristic walk. Due to the overall faster pace of gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty, having both the walk and run controls assigned on a continuum of sensitivity to the same controller input made sense for the most part, and perhaps made things a bit more intuitive for a new player who hadn’t previously played the originals.

Scrab Chase

The chase sequences and puzzles feel faster (and far more terrifying) than ever before.

However, without a clear tactile distinction between running and walking, a lot of the more intricate platforming sections quickly started to make the new movement controls feel maddeningly imprecise. I spent a decent chunk of my early hours in New ‘n’ Tasty desperately fighting my own ingrained 17-year old muscle memory until I could start to develop a feel for the appropriate walk/run sensitivity needed to make a pixel-perfect precision movement between obstacles under pressure.

For example, while navigating through the more meticulous meat drill puzzles in some of the game’s challenging secret areas, it could sometimes feel incredibly inaccurate and frustrating when I’d just slightly overshoot/undershoot the correct left stick pressure and repeatedly send Abe careening into the gnashing blades of death over and over again. After only a few such sections, I really missed being able to toggle running on and off with a separate button like you could in Oddysee.

Meat Drills

Watch your step Abe!

Thankfully though, in a very neat move, Just Add Water later patched in an optional control setting which gives you the option to assign the run control to a separate shoulder button press, just like in the original game. Problem solved – and now I have absolutely no excuse for my terrible platforming skills…sorry Abe.

Finally, to top off the whole New ‘n’ Tasty experience, Just Add Water have also not only revamped Oddysee, but added their own piece of unique content to the franchise as well. Alf’s Escape is a brand new piece of DLC that tasks players with a rather unique and interesting spin on the main game’s platforming mechanics.

Unlike the main game, you’ve only got the one Mudokon to rescue here, and it’s none other than the fan favourite, mailbag-checking, amateur shrink and barista extraordinaire of Oddworld Inhabitants himself -yup, Alf from Alf’s Rehab and Tea fame of course. The DLC is essentially an intricate and extended obstacle course for two, an elaborate Oddworld version of Takeshi’s Castle if you will, in which you first have to navigate through successfully solo, before reaching Alf’s bar and making back to the start of the level in tandem in order to escape.

The action here can get insanely fast and can require some particularly quick thinking to pull off. Having to coordinate your movements so that both Abe and Alf can escape uneviscerated is challenging, requiring both quick reactions and nimble finger dexterity in equal measure. There’s also some cool easter eggs for observant oddballs to ogle along the way, so remember to keep your eyes figuratively peeled and not literally peeled as you dodge the myriad of meat drills, swinging buzzsaws and many other nasty, sharp pointy objects that are in your way.

Abe Grin

Overall, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a bit of a paradox. It feels like a completely fresh and brand new experience whilst also delivering a heady rush of nostalgia for fans of the original game. It’s faithful to the original’s legacy, whilst also carefully taking thoughtful creative liberties here and there when necessary. The smooth framerate and responsive controls make the game a real pleasure to play, and without the flipscreen changes of the original, there’s a faster and more enjoyable rhythm to the gameplay thanks to the on the go QuikSave system. If you’ve already guided Abe out of Rupture Farms (and beyond) all those years ago, then New ‘n’ Tasty will far surpass your expectations. If you’re new to the series, then get ready for a whacky and delightful adventure into the world of Odd.

EGX London 2014 – Photos Galore

Gallery

EGX 2014 - Earl's Court

EGX 2014 kicked off at London’s Earls Court this week on the 25th September, so yours truly hopped on a train down to the Big Smoke to get hands on with some of the upcoming games I’m most looking forward to playing in the near future…and to buy as much Bowser related merchandise I could possibly carry (don’t ask).

EGX, formerly known as Eurogamer Expo, is a four day extravaganza of gaming goodness; jam-packed with exciting new games to try, cool cosplayers strolling around and heaps and heaps of gaming merch to buy…such as Bowser t-shirts, just saying.

I wanted to play everything, but there just wasn’t enough time – I was incredibly tempted to try and hide somewhere in the massive building and evade overnight capture in order to stick around for another day or two, but alas, I decided against this course of action. Next time though…

I’ll write up a separate piece later with my personal impressions of the games I did get chance to play – Halo: The Master Chief CollectionAlien Isolation, Dying Light and The Evil Within – but for the time being I thought I’d share some of the pictures I snapped whilst wandering around…erm, I mean steadily queuing inside Earls Court in a state of happily maniacal excitement.

EGX ran from the 25th-28th September this year, and I highly recommend getting down to see everything going on at future EGX events yourself if you get the chance. So, without further ado, click on the thumbnails to feast your eyes on these juicy .jpg nuggets!

Stewart Gilray Interview & Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty Preview

Abe
Standard

Hey All’ya!

If I could go back in time using some new-fangled time-travelling device of sorts, and tell the seven year old me, that one day, I would have the opportunity to go to the studio that would be working on the Oddworld series of games, he would have most likely stared at me in disbelief… before enviously setting a pack of ravenous Slogs upon me, chuckling noisily to himself like a malicious Slig. What a nasty little seven year old eh?

Luckily for me then, no such device exists, and no time-bending paradoxical meeting with a past version of myself (with an over-developed sense of vengeance) ever took place, and thus, I live to tell the tale of my very pleasant and exciting interview with Stewart Gilray, CEO of Just Add Water and Business Development Director of Oddworld Inhabitants.

Here I am, un-savaged by Slogs, on a sunny June morning in Otley, West Yorkshire, on my way to interview Stewart about himself, Otley, the origins of Just Add Water as a development studio, and of course, the new game. Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a proper HD remake of Oddworld Inhabitants’ 1997 classic Abe’s Oddysee, about to be imminently released at the end of July for PlayStation 4, with other console versions to follow later in the year.

I gaze up at the Wharfebank Business Centre, the home of Just Add Water as I cross the car park; the building itself is a grandiose old textile mill turned groovy office complex, and I can’t help but let a small, wry smile play out across my face at the irony that New ‘n’ Tasty is being made here. A game about a hero, Abe, freeing his oppressed and enslaved Mudokon people from the greedy industrial Glukkons of the Magog Cartel, is being developed in an old mill of the real life industrial revolution, infamous in the 19th Century for their appalling working conditions and high casualty rates. If Abe were here today, he’d be running for his life out of the industrial behemoth of a building standing before me, and not trepidatiously wandering into it like I am.

Don’t get me wrong though, this is certainly no Rupture Farms, or SoulStorm Brewery. Oh no, quite the opposite. The sunlight gently dapples against the majestic stone of the mill, giving it a warm and gentle golden-yellow hue against the horizon. Big leafy trees surround the outer edges of the car park and sway gently in the breeze. I pause at the edge of the riverbank, the spongy grass of the bank nestled right up to the tarmac at the far side of the car park, and gaze out at the River Wharf. Listening to the tranquil body of water, quietly but contentedly rippling along as it flows downstream, I watch the passage of the river make its way under a majestic canopy of green foliage before gradually curving out of sight. The scene is picturesque, and about as far away from the dark Satanic mills of Blake’s poem as one can imagine.

I find my way inside, and after cunningly sneaking past their Slog pens and Slig patrols, I find myself at Just Add Water’s offices. I knock on the door, and almost immediately have to resist the near-overwhelming urge to greet the friendly JAW employee that opens it with my best impression of ol’ stitch lips’ classic “Hewow” greeting. Thinking back to the original game, I half expect to have to perform a Monsaic Lines call and response style whistle and fart combination in order to be allowed to cross the hallowed threshold. Luckily for me, no such response is required, and I’m ushered deep into the land of Odd.

Out of all the treasures in the room before me, my eyes were immediately drawn to the glass table next to the sign-in book. There on the table before me, lay the original PlayStation manuals for Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus. Two bibles, if you will, of my gaming youth. I remembered pawing through these important scriptures… erm, manuals upon getting the original games when I was but a wee child, back in a now all but forgotten era when reading a game manual was the first ritualistic step to getting immersed in a new game. I quickly scrawled my name in my usual angular and spidery handwriting, eager to get a better look.

Seeing these two slim but mighty tomes of virtual wisdom on all things odd on the sign-in table just shattered what little resolve I had left mentally to remain a somewhat-respectable functioning adult and I felt myself devolve back into that seven year old Oddworld-obsessed oddity of years past (minus vicious Slog pack of course). With great difficulty, I managed to pull my gaze away from the manuals and ’90s original PlayStation beside them (no guesses as to which game was currently in the disc tray) and cast my eyes around the rest of the open plan office area.

I was in an Oddworld fan’s dream. Liberally splayed out across the walls and drawing boards are pages and pages of artwork, early concept drawings and design documents, featuring beautifully detailed artistic pieces from all the games in the Quintology so far. Jokey slogans adorn the doors, with quotes pulled directly from the games and amusingly re-appropriated for office life (‘You escape and all 28 employees in this office die!’). Awards, accolades and trophies (real shiny ones, not just those coveted virtual ones) line the shelves and are modestly nestled in amongst various magazines, props, and games consoles of years past. The passion in the room is almost overwhelming at times; part hardworking office and part glorious gaming shrine.

The office has the relaxed camaraderie of a probably very tired but undoubtedly hard working team. The JAW staff are poised at their desks, simultaneously quietly chatting away and clattering away at their computer keyboards. I try to glance at their computer monitors, hoping to catch a cheeky in-game glimpse of any characters. Abe, Elum, Mullock, hell, even a pantless Slig from Exoddus will do… but alas, my C in GCSE maths cannot decipher the strange codes of numbers and programs on their screens, no matter how much I squint at them.

With the latest E3 demo of New ‘n’ Tasty whisked away to the mystical land of LA the day before, the atmosphere here is that of the quiet but temporal eye of the storm; the release date of the remake is racing up ever closer in just over a month’s time – July 22nd in America, while we Brits across the pond get it a day later on the 23rd. The finish line is in sight, but it’s getting down to final crunch time.

In all my wide-eyed lollygagging and finding myself in this nirvana-like state of pleasant dumbfound-ness, Stewart arrives and is ready to talk. Dressed in a Star Wars t-shirt and jeans, he has a relaxed and cool confident air for someone who’s probably been under increasingly mounting pressure and rapidly looming deadlines whilst getting the E3 demo ready to go out to the States. We shake hands and I plod after him, like one of the green worker Mudokons from the game faithfully following Abe, to a quiet office where I can fling my questions at him from my word-crossbow, Stranger’s Wrath style, like a bundle of knowledge-hungry Fuzzles out for information rather than outlaw blood.

So, that’s quite enough of my yakking and incessant Oddworld reference dropping for now, without further ado, let’s hear from the main man himself.

Stewart Gilray Interview

Mullock

Tom Bennett: First of all, I wanted to know how did you yourself get started in the games industry, and what were your early inspirations?

Stewart Gilray: Oh god… I’ve been working in the business now since ’88, so this is my 26th year, but I started off as programmer on the Atari ST and [Commodore] Amiga back in the day. (Adopts Yorkshire accent) Back in’t day! I literally did it from school, I got into computers when I was 13/14, did a bit on the [ZX] Spectrum and then went onto the ST, Amiga and learned how to program, and wrote a couple of games on there. So it’s been a long haul, and a lot of years.

TB: What was the first kind of game you made then?

SG: Well the first thing we did which was published was actually the introduction sequence for the game Powermonger, by EA/Bullfrog. We were hired to do the introduction sequence, which we did, and then we were hired to do the introduction sequence for the game Birds Of Prey on Amiga. We did a Populous 2 one but it wasn’t used in the end because EA cut the budget for the manufacturing of the discs, so instead of having two discs in the box they only had one disc in the box, so our intro was cut.

TB: Aww!

SG: Nevermind. But then at the same time I was writing a game called Rubicon on the ST and Amiga for 21st Century Entertainment, and that was finished in January ’91 and it came out in February/March ’91. I did a couple of other projects on the side, and then I worked for 21st Century Entertainment as an In-House Junior Producer. I did that from ’93-’97. In ’97 I joined Grolier Interactive as an External Producer working on external projects – at the time it was David Braben’s V-2000, and a couple of other ones. Then after that I went to work at Revolution Software in York, and I worked on the very end of Broken Sword 2 American version and In Cold Blood as Development Director and Gold and Glory: The Road to El Dorado, which was a licence they did. Then I left there to work at Runecraft in Dewsbury, and there I did the Soldier of Fortune game on Dreamcast and Spec Ops Ranger Elite on PS1. I left there about a year or so later, and took a couple years out the industry… no I didn’t, I tell a lie! I started up my own company, Binary9 Studios, did that for a year or so, left the industry for a couple of years, came back in to start up a job in October 2006, and here we are eight years later.

TB: Wow, so quite a plethora of different styles and games there!

SG: Hmmm! I was asked recently to give my full back catalogue of what I’ve worked on, and I worked out that including different platforms, it’s 75 titles, so it’s like (nervously laughs).

TB: Wow. That’s-

SG: A lot!

TB: Yeah that’s an impressive track record there – well, following on from that, what made you want to actually start developing games as opposed to just say, consuming them and playing them?

SG: I think in the ’80s it was different, I think if you played games you wanted to know how they worked, and you thought, there’s a game, I want to play this game, but this game doesn’t exist – I’ll write it, you know? In the ’80s, programmers, well developers were programmers, artists and musicians in one. People like Stephen Crow who did Starquake and Firelord, he did everything himself, and John Phillips as well, he did everything himself. I think it was born out of that industry, in the way it was in the ’80s, and that was it really. I just wanted to make games, and my mate Richard, who’s now at Zynga in San Francisco, we grew up together from the age of 10, he did art, I did programming, and that was it really.

TB: Wow, like you say it’s very different from today isn’t it, where you’ve got highly specific development teams made up of-

SG: Thousands, yes! Yeah I mean we [Just Add Water] employ 17 people. Out of that, I’d say 13 or 14 are development. Audio in-house, we’ve got, 6 artists, 4 programmers, a producer, a QA, office people and stuff you know, so it’s busy!

TB: Well you’ve kind of partially answered my next question; I was going to ask how many people make up Just Add Water in total and what was the inspiration behind the name?

SG: Oh the name! My wife came up with the name, but I kind of took the holistic hippy-ish view to it that human beings are 70% water; so to make something you have to add humans to it, so you’re adding water to it… too much Pink Floyd in there!

TB: No no, I don’t think you can ever have too much Pink Floyd in anything!

SG: But yeah that’s where the name came from really. As for having people, there’s 16 or 17 now, you know, a couple of people have changed, coming and leaving and stuff, things like that you know, and it’s maintained at around 16 or 17 people.

TB: Nice! What was the process in getting all these people together and how did that come about; Have you just picked up people from other various projects you’ve worked on over the years?

SG: No, well, I mean Steve our CTO, he and I worked together at Runecraft, and when I started JAW in 2006, it was just me at first, and Steve came to do some freelance work back in 2009, and then, you know, he became a member of staff properly and actually later a co-owner with me in April 2011. But since then, we’ve built up and we had 4 people in April 2011, when we did this sort of reboot if you like of the company. We hired more people, and I think over that time we hire for what we need. We’d probably like to get some more programmers in, I’d like to have 6 programmers in full-time, we’ve currently got 4 as I said, so yeah, we’re getting there. I think that the number we’ll stick at for a while is 20 people.

TB: That’s kind of a comfortable size is it?

SG: Yeah… otherwise it gets too expensive!

TB: Of course, of course! What were the reasons behind deciding to locate Just Add Water to Otley?

SG:I live here! That is it entirely! I came up here at the end of 1999, to work at Revolution in York, my wife’s family was in Otley at the time, so she wanted to come back here from Oxford, so yeah we bought a house not far from here. That was it really, but I didn’t work in Otley until 2006. Everything else was away from Otley. In 2006 when we started the company up and we started work in Otley, JAW was at the house for the first 6 months, and then it was based in an office in the middle of Otley, then an office downstairs here, and now we’re up here in this one. So we’ve had 4 moves really as a company. But you know it’s been alright; If we had to move from here it would be a right pain in the backside, because when we came up here we only had 9 people and we’ve now got like I say 17 and lots more equipment!

TB: There aren’t a lot of development studios up north are there really, a lot of them are kind of mainly down south.

SG: You’d be surprised – there’s a lot in Yorkshire, of course you’ve got Rockstar Leeds, Team 17, members of Chinese Room, some of them are based in Leeds. There’s Game Republic, which is like an overhang if you like, it used to be part of Screen Yorkshire, but then the Government binned all that stuff. We, a lot of developers put money in to keep Game Republic going – it’s basically, I won’t say governing body, but its a sort of umbrella across all of us and they’d get people up first to meet us like Sony or Microsoft would come up to meet the indies. In total there’s something like 65 members in Game Republic, and that’s companies, members of the republic. Then you’ve got Ga-Ma-Yo, which is run by Andrew Crawshaw, who is part of Chinese Room – he is 260 members as individuals. So there’s a lot of developers in Leeds!

TB: So I basically need to do better research really then! (Laughs nervously).

SG: Well, no but you’re right it’s hard to work out because you wouldn’t think it; there’s Revolution in York still, they’ve just done Broken Sword 5, [and] there’s other developers not in Leeds themselves who are just individuals, you know.

The Boardroom

TB: So, what attracted you to the Oddworld series in the first place?

SG: I mean I was a fan back in ’97, when Abe’s Oddysee first came out, I was playing it, and my cat who’s no longer with us, he used to sit and watch us playing it. He used to sit and watch the telly like this and go left and right as he watched Abe run around on the screen on a big 32-inch CRT.

A friend of mine, Dan, moved out to America in 2006/7, and he met Lorne Lanning [Oddworld Inhabitants CCO and Co-Founder] before that, and I kept saying to Dan “You should get Lorne to remake Abe’s Oddysee or do a 2.5D game”, but he said he doesn’t want to do games anymore, and then I was actually introduced by Dan to Lorne in GDC 2009 and we kind of stayed in touch via email and things.

Then in June 2009, he asked us to do some stuff for him, we which gladly did, but then in April 2010, they had some problems with the developer they hired to do the game Stranger’s Wrath on PC, so we kind of took over that. Steve and I did that; Steve did 95% of it and I did the other 5%. So two of us did a PC port in five months basically, which got some slack and flack when it came out in December 2010. We did some patches and some updates for it which fixed it, but then we started doing a PS3 version of Stranger’s Wrath in… well, the art actually started in September ’10. We didn’t start coding until the end of March/beginning of April ’11, and we released it in December 2011. So the relationship came out of the fact of we were looking for work, Oddworld Inhabitants were looking for some people who they could trust, you know, the people they had before, they just kept breaking their promises and deliveries and stuff. We said, “Look, we’ll do it for cost price for you, here you go” and they went ok, and we went from there really, and our first project, it was let’s say $50,000 budget, the next one was $250,000. This one, New ‘n’ Tasty, is $2 million so it’s escalating scale, you know, and it’s gone alright, we’re awfully successful at that.

TB: Yeah I mean New ‘n’ Tasty is certainly a hyped game isn’t it, there’s a lot of people that are excited for it – me included!

SG: Yeah, we’ve got some pods in the Sony Booth at E3, and the trailer – well you know the Sony America are putting the press conference in theatres in the states? We’ve got the New ‘n’ Tasty trailer playing in the theatres before the press conference, which is cool. Sony of America are definitely behind us and we’re still dealing with Sony Europe on some stuff but yeah it’s good. We’ve not got a lot of time left, you know, a few weeks left to be completely finished, you know, but the E3 build is testament to us, the fact that we’re almost there. So it’s literally just bug-fixing and final balancing now, and then we’ll be done hopefully very shortly. So then the fans can get it in their greasy mitts!

TB: That’s what it’s all about!

SG: Hopefully it will do well!

Stockyards 2

TB: It’s really good to see Abe making a return because back in the early days of the PlayStation he was one of the main faces of the brand. You had Crash Bandicoot, who was kind of like the main Sony mascot and there was also Abe, and people have kind of forgotten about him, but it’s good to see he’s coming back to his original levels of popularity.

SG: Yeah I mean, what’s quite funny is that when people who haven’t seen the news in the past two years that New ‘n’ Tasty is coming out suddenly see a trailer and go “Oh wow, that’s like Abe’s Oddysee” – it’s like “Where’ve you been?” (Laughs).

It’s interesting, there’s enough things that are different in the game for it to be a brand new experience to a lot of people, including people who played the original ones. We’ve added some stuff in there, some mini-levels and things, which will and do make it different from the original. Some of the mechanics and the way they work have made it different as well, we’ve had to introduce some other mechanics to get past some of the design changes because of moving from the flip screen to scrolling environment system.

TB: I was going to ask you about that yeah.

SG: So yeah there are a few differences, but not massively. Most people will go “Oh I know that bit” – of course you do, it’s based on the original game – apart from that it’s a complete re-build from the ground up – there’s nothing in there that exists from the original game at all, which is nice.

Rupture Farms Wanted Abe SignTB: Right well yeah that’s a nice little segue into the next question! How did you first get started on remaking Abe’s Oddysee? Was there an obvious place to start or did you have to experiment and see what would be the best way into it?

SG: Well, I had a vision in my head of what it would all look like and play like, and I’ve been bugging Lorne for ages and with calls and stuff, and I said “Let’s do Abe”, and he said “Ah I don’t want to do it” and I said “Why?”I remember one conference call I had was me, Lorne, Dan and Larry [the old President of Oddworld Inhabitants] and Lorne and I were chatting non-stop about what to do in Abe for about 10 minutes and Larry just went “Would you two guys shut up and come back to topic please?”

Obviously we we’re starting to get charged up with ideas and things, but that was 2010, and we’d started pre-production on ideas and stuff probably mid-late 2011, and then we didn’t get more people in properly until 2012 so we’ve been working on it for over 2 years now. So it’s been a long time in coming and the problem is the longer a project is, the bigger the blues are at the end of the project. You know it’s going and you think, “Just one more thing”, those things, you know?

TB: It’s your baby.

SG: Yeah, it’s hard at the moment because a few of us are feeling fatigued, but also (in a sad voice) “Oh it’s going” you know? It makes it… not difficult but emotional I guess. It’s strange putting your baby out in the world and hoping that people don’t rip it apart! (Laughs).

This week at E3 our press guys have got the wall-to-wall E3 presentations and interviews with the press, so I think we’ll know later this week what people think! Even if it’s not reviews it’s previews still, so euuugh!

(Well, the previews are out by now of course, and they’re pretty damn good!)

Rupture Farms Furnace

TB: I know what you mean – from what I’ve seen it does look fantastic. New ‘n’ Tasty features a floating/scrolling camera now, as opposed to a flipscreen one in the original. I remember in the original you could get slight delay when running from screen to screen which would give you a slight split-second advantage over pursuing Sligs, and other creatures, I was wondering how that sort of thing works now?

SG: We’ve made some changes; there are three difficulty modes now. If you play it in hard mode, you know, it’s one shot – you’re dead. If you choose easy, Abe’s got life energy basically, so you can take two or three shots before you die.

TB: That’s interesting.

SG: We’ve done that for the players who probably don’t want to experience how raw the difficulty was in the original game, because the original game was criticised for being overly hard. Some people thought that was great because it was too hard, so experienced players will want to go in at hard mode but people who are not so much from that era can play easy or medium first.

It opens it up gameplay-wise, so there are areas where you’re being chased by Sligs and maybe a Slig gets a shot off and he hits you, you know, or you can tease them a bit more now than you could do in the original. They’re not so draconian shall we say, so you can almost climb up on a ledge and go “Wooooo!” and then run away again, and they’ll go “Arrrrrrgh!” and try and shoot you! So you’ve got a bit more fun and play involved this time.

I mean, this is because the game is in full 3D now, there’s a lot more animations going on, and with ragdoll physics as well when characters die too. Today I was playing it, and I’d climbed up, jumped over a ledge and didn’t realise there was a Slig there – he turned around and he shot me and just as I landed, Abe went flying backwards and got shot in the head and fell down a gap – I thought “Ah you bugger!” But we were laughing more than anything else, as it looks ridiculous, but in a good way! That’s been the biggest thing, the biggest challenge is to make sure that fun and laughter is still there.

TB: Yeah that was a huge part of the original – I was going to ask you later on, but on the topic of humour, can Abe still fart in the new game?

SG: (Said indignantly) Of course he can! You can’t possess the farts though, that’s Exoddus [Abe’s Exoddus, the sequel game released in 1999, introduced the highly underrated gameplay mechanic of possessing your own farts], but in Oddysee, in fact, there’s one part where… you have to fart!

TB: I see!

SG: But I won’t say why, you’ll find out when you play.

TB: Oh nice, a little teaser there! With the new trailer, I noticed that there’s quite a few cutscenes in there that weren’t in the original game.

SG: Yeah we’ve added two or three new ones. Well actually, one of them was in the original game, but it’s now completely different. That was because Lorne felt that the original version was just never what he wanted to see, so kind of in some ways, this is almost like a director’s cut of the first game, there’s things that they couldn’t get in the original development because of memory and other PS1 stuff that they couldn’t do, where we have now been able to pull them out of the design archive and use them effectively.

So we’ve done a bit of that, there’s also all these designs in the levels and environments as well that they couldn’t use in the original game because there’s no memory or they couldn’t work out how to do it, but because we’ve got live 3D we can do it all in real-time 3D now. So we’ve pulled some of the things out from the archives, for example the original 1993/4 sketches of the Elum bell [a giant rustic bell used to summon Abe’s trusty camel-like steed] from the start of Scrabania. We recreated that, so it’s now as the original design looked.

Abe, Pipe and Scrab

TB: Ah right, so is that massively different from the one in the original game then?

SG: It’s bigger! That’s all I’m going to say is that’s bigger! It looks like “Woah! That’s huge!” now. That’s been fun, and having built real-time camera transitions and stuff now, literally screwing with the camera, so for example at the start of Paramonia in the original game, you originally start at a standard 90 degree position to the environment. Now in New ‘n’ Tasty, Abe drops down the chute at the start and you’re looking at him up close and personal at 10 degrees, and as you start to walk forwards, the camera pans out gradually. It’s things like that you couldn’t do before, but that’s all real-time, they’re not pre-canned CG, it’s all real-time now. That’s nice. Even the transitions on the lifts too are real-time, and in the original game, when you would go in a door, it would be just movie-playback. One particular moment I’m thinking of is at the start of the game – that’s now a huge cargo lift, Half-Life style, where it’s all real-time. Abe puts his hand on the button.

TB: Ah yeah the three finger-

SG: Four!

TB: Ah woops, my apologies, four, sorry!

SG: Ah, the Japanese version was three.

TB: Ah of course, sorry!

SG: He’s got four fingers again – yay! Abe puts his paw on the pad and as the lift starts going down, the camera pulls and tracks out – all in real-time. So that’s nice.

Stockyards

TB: How much creative control did you have to add any new elements and ideas to the game or was it more a case of did you have to stick to what Lorne had wanted?

SG: Actually, the biggest change that we’ve made is to the jump mechanism. In the original game, you pressed X and you hopped forwards. Modern players don’t expect that. Modern players expect when you press X that you just jump straight up vertically in the air, not perform a forward hop. So we’ve changed it a little bit. When you’re pressing jump now, he starts to crouch down to his jump position, and at that time if you press right, if he’s facing right, then you’ll do the hop to the right.

There’s a few changes like that. They’re more aimed towards modern game players and the new generation who maybe didn’t play the original game and don’t know about the original hop jump, so we’ve done little things like that, but nothing that will make people go “This is rubbish!” and throw away the joystick – it’s not like that. It’s more about… I’ve kind of seen it as more bringing the original into the 21st Century, to meet expectations from today’s players rather than anything else.

TB: Just to leap back a few questions, when you were talking about the difficulty, one of the things I really liked about the original game was the fact that it was hard, it was like trial and death, as opposed to trial and error; you had to try each obstacle a few times and eventually several grisly deaths later you would work out what to do – you can see how that kind of idea of needing to die and fail repeatedly to find success has influenced other games such as Limbo, et cetera. I find it interesting that you’ve allowed players to choose an easier difficulty setting; did you not feel that would dilute the original game’s feel too much?

SG: Well there is still a lot of trial and death in it. But there are some places where I think modern players will think “I know how to do that” and work out some of the puzzle/obstacle solutions right away, as it’s… formulaic to some degree, but there’s not much of that in there. There’s a lot of the game where we’ve made changes; for example, because the problem you’ve got with the original game was that if you were one screen away from patrolling Sligs, you could still hear the Sligs, and you might also be able see them occasionally, but they couldn’t see you unless they were chasing you. But now of course, because we’ve got a scrolling camera, you can literally be in the original point, where you would have originally had a left screen and right screen and now it’s literally just one screen because your camera is halfway between the two of them. So what do you do now with the Sligs then? Well, what we’ve done with the Sligs is we’ve given them radars on their visors basically.

TB: (In awe) Oh wow!

SG: So when they stop and look, they scan out with their radars, and there’s a little beam that comes out of their visors-

TB: Like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica?

SG: Hmm, kind of, but it shows the distance of how far they can see, so as long as you don’t move within that area, you’re fine.

Abe, Sligs and Sign

TB: I see, and it’s like a motion sensor is it?

SG: Yeah kind of, so we’ve had to do that because of the problem with the camera, but the nice thing is that the view distance is the same from the original game. It’s just that we’ve had to visualise it now because we haven’t got the added bonus of having the flipscreen where you can just go offscreen and reset everything again. Things like that we’ve had to do, but it’s not… I don’t think it’s going to be alien, in fact people have told me that die-hard fans of the Oddworld Inhabitants forums, have gone “I don’t like this!” and then, scrolling down, you see four posts later “Actually, I get that now” and then after that the next five posts “Yeah that’s fine now”. They kind of argue themselves into liking it, but at first they are like “Noooo what have you done!” Pitchforks at dawn! Calm down, you know!

Slig ShootingIt’s been alright actually – if those guys get it, and if people who remember the original game do too, then that’s good. The weird thing is, the amount of people I know in life who know I make video games, they’ll say to me what are you working on these days, and I’ll say I’m remaking Abe’s Oddysee and they’ll go (shocked voice) “Oh I remember playing Abe back on the PS1!” That’s cool!

The original game sold about 3.5 million copies, which for the mid ’90s was unheard of, you know, so that’s nice. There’s a huge fanbase there for it, and I just hope that what we’ve done is respectful enough that they’ll enjoy it… and buy it! (Laughs).

TB: I think it was Rod Fergusson [Studio Manager of Black Tusk studios, currently remaking Gears of War for Xbox One] who came out with an interesting comment recently about the fact that when you’re rebooting a game or franchise, in a way you’ve almost got to betray the hardcore fanbase in a way in order to innovate and try something new and ultimately win back their trust again.

SG: Yes, yeah that’s it, there’s an adage of looking at what die-hard fans want and thinking – it’s not quite screw them but it’s just a case of… what’s more important to us is, introducing the game to a new generation because some of the people who played the original in ’97 won’t be gamers anymore, because they’ve moved on. It’s been almost twenty years since the original came out, so some people will be playing the games now who weren’t even born when the first one came out, you know? The whole thought of downloading a PS1 emulated game on their PS3 might be (in mopey voice) “Ah I don’t wanna do that”. So we have to appeal to a brand new audience that have never heard of it or played it before.

We were going to release the Wii U version of Stranger’s Wrath first and then do the Abe games afterwards, but Nintendo advised us against that because you might get people who don’t know what Abe’s Oddysee is, or what New ‘n’ Tasty is, and they might just play Stranger, see a new Oddworld title coming out and think “Oh I don’t want that because I didn’t like Stranger, I don’t want to play FPS games”, and not realise that they’re entirely different genres. So they’ve advised us, for example, to do New ‘n’ Tasty first and do Stranger’s Wrath afterwards, because of that perception.

Stranger's Wrath Title Screen

I mean I hated Stranger’s Wrath when it first came out on Xbox back in 2005. I thought, I don’t like this, but having to remake it and port it to other machines, now it’s… well I’ve come to love it! I see the first quarter of the game as pretty ‘meh’ and the last three quarters is fantastic, but you know when you’re playing a game and you don’t get past that first quarter, it’s just like “Urgh, yeah whatever” and if you get that impression stuck in your mind that that’s what all Oddworld games are like, which they’re not, then that’s the problem, so it’s trying to get rid of that perception by negating it.

TB: I suppose Stranger is kind of like the slightly odd one out isn’t it, because even Munch’s Oddysee [the third game in the Oddworld series, orignally released on Xbox in 2001] was still mainly about platforming and exploration wasn’t it?

SG: Munch’s Oddysee was still Abe and Munch, and Stranger… well there’s only two characters types in Stranger’s Wrath from the other games, which are Fuzzles and Slogs [Vykkers too actually I think, with Doc’s character]. Slogs are in every Oddworld game. In fact, speaking of Slogs there’s some funny moments in New ‘n’ Tasty actually – when you electrocute a Slog, it just cracks me up every time I see it. There’s things like that, so yeah it’s definitely a unique game and a new experience, and that’s the thing that got me to want to do it in the first place. I think the big thing, the reason why I wanted to remake Abe’s Oddysee was not that there was anything wrong with the first one, but there’s something missing from the first one for me, and that was – and this is a bit of a cheesy link, but – do you remember the original Ridge Racer?

TB: Erm, yes, er – I’m rusty but-

SG:It was basically an arcade racing game, pure and simple, but off the track, you had things happening – you had planes flying overhead, and diggers and stuff.

TB: That’s right yeah!

SG: So in Abe, I wanted to bring the environments to life, and have things happen in the background, which were nothing to do with the game. So that’s what we’ve done a lot of; there’s flocks of birds flying everywhere in Scrabania in the backgrounds and stuff, there’s Sligs patrolling parts of Rupture Farms that you couldn’t see before but they’re there now, there’s furnace areas with huge fires and big furnaces and things, there’s machines in the background mincing Scrabs and Paramites. You see them going into the machine in a cage and coming out as meat, so we’ve added all that kind of stuff, which does nothing to the gameplay, but it really brings the environments to life! It makes it more… captivating.

Rupture Farms Grinders

TB: Well yeah I think a large part of the Oddworld games is the characters like you say, and characterisation that goes into the environments and even the enemies too; you’re often terrified running from a Scrab, but you’re almost thinking “Oh wow, look at that thing!” You’re kind of fascinated by them as well as terrified in equal measure.

SG: You were in Munch because obviously you had flocks of Scrabs and Paramites chasing you in 3D! Whereas in Abe’s Oddysee and Exoddus, you didn’t have so much of that because it was still flat 2D, we’ve been able to bin that choice in some respects. Now, even the secret levels in New ‘n’ Tasty are based on the original secret levels but with some slight changes. With some of the secret levels, there’s still 2-play depth to them but we’ve also got the background as well behind that. In the original game the background would be static and nothing happened, but there’s now things going on, like there’s bits where you can run along a long bit of secret level and the environment behind it, it just looks the business! It really does, I mean, we’ve got 4 environment artists and they’ve done the entire game, you know in pretty much 18 months and that’s just… ooooph, they deserve a medal frankly! Fantastic job.

Secret Area

TB: I don’t know what you can say about the secret areas exactly, but as a fan I have to ask, do you still have the one in the very first screen that’s hidden behind the barrel?

SG: Oh yeah! All the Rupture Farms secret areas are still there; they might not look the same as the original ones, but they are still there!

TB: Nice, I had to ask that one! There’s about three or four Mudokons in that first secret area you’ve got to save – I remember on my completionist playthrough attempt back in the day I was like I’m pretty sure I got them all, but oh no I missed the ones hidden in the very first screen! (Laughs).

SG: There’s a secret area in what was the original second screen, a secret area in the bit with the mines you’ve got to jump across, there’s a secret area after the electric gates, and there’s a secret area a bit further on.

TB: Good, I’m glad that they’re still there! With regard to the gamespeak function, at the time of the original release that was, well it still is really, a revolutionary kind of interesting gameplay mechanic; have you made any changes to Abe’s dialogue?

SG: Yes we’ve kind of made changes, but we’ve kind of also made the system a little bit more like Exoddus. So in Oddysee you can control one Mudokon at a time, in Exoddus you control multiple. So we’ve now made it so that you can control multiple Muds in New ‘n’ Tasty. Which makes it a lot easier and lot less frustrating, having to go back and forth rescuing them one at a time. If you’ve got four Muds in a straight line, you can do it in groups now, but we’ve also made it so at the start of the game, Abe starts off with (in Abe voice) “Hello”, but the more you go on he starts going “Hi”, and “Hey”, so it’s the same instruction, it’s just we’ve added more lines.

Rupture Farm Walking Muds

TB: Oh wow, that’s really cool!

SG: We’ve done that kind of stuff, and that’s brought it to life. Also, with the Muds as well, before you rescue them, they’re sitting there doing their jobs like scrubbing the floors and stuff, they’ll start talking to themselves. “Why is he employee of the month?”

TB: (Laughs).

SG: “Oh, not again, more mess” – all this kind of stuff, but also when you rescue them, some of them go “Yay, I’m freeeeeeee!” as they jump through the gates. Things like that. There’s even some standing there whistling. We’ve got some cameo voices in there, and one of them whistles the theme tune for the TV show he used to be in, which is quite funny.

Rupture Farms Escaping Muds

TB: Oh nice! (Laughs) Just as little nods to them?

SG: Yeah, and there’s an awesome one, but I’ve not actually found him in the bloody game yet! There’s an awesome one, which I want to find because we recorded his voice twice, and we had to re-record it a third time. We recorded the first one twice, he did two different versions of the voice, and then he did a take of another voice which was completely different, as a homage to something. We heard that, and we thought “Oh my god, we’ve got to get it in!” So we hired a studio in LA for him to go in and re-do everything again, based on that third voice, and I haven’t heard it in the game yet!

TB: I see, you’re desperate to find it!

SG: Yeah I don’t know where it is actually I’m going to have to ask him later on. Anyway, yeah so we’ve also got 20-odd (pun very much intended) fans I think it was who’ve provided voices as well. We held a competition, and we got people to use their voices and all these people have their voices listed in the credits, so it’s definitely a fan collaboration. A guy came up with a logo, another came up with a background painting, the box pack shot as a basic, and we went from there. There’s the song by Elodie Adams [her single ‘Born to Love You’ is featured in the E3 trailer for New ‘n’ Tasty], she was a fan and she reached out to us you know. There are celebrities in the game. They’re fans – I mean I remember [that] I asked one of them if [he] would like to do a voiced videogame, and he replied with “As long as it’s Oddworld!”

TB: There you go – that’s what you want to hear!

SG: That says it all!

TB: Perfect!

SG: We’re doing another Oddworld project sometime later this year/next year and that guy’s doing a big character in that for us. I sent him the concept documents and stuff and he just went “Yeah I’m there, signed up”. Cool! Really? Yay!

Rupture Farms Creeping

TB: Check! Talking about Mudokons and stuff, are there any new Slig variants, because Exoddus had the flying ones, Munch had the Big Bro Sligs, have you got any special ones in New ‘n’ Tasty?

SG: There’s no Big Bros, there’s no flying ones, there is a special Slig somewhere, and again I don’t know where he is – I can’t even tell you because I don’t know where he is. The guys in the office will talk about it and I’ll say “Where is it?” and they’ll be like “Ah I’m not telling you” (annoyed grumbling). I think die-hard fans will recognise him as soon as they see it, but there you go.

TB: Nice, I’ll look forward to that one. Have you made any changes to the morality system – again that was quite a new unique thing in games at the time, and now every game has got some kind of morality system running through it, like “Press left for the good option and press right for the bad one”.

SG: Yeah, but those options are more like you choose it, aren’t they? In this, you choose it by not rescuing Muds, you know, so the more you rescue the better you are, the better karma, the less you rescue, the worse you are. So that’s as it was.

TB: Does that impact on what you were saying earlier about how the dialogue variations can change between Muds, do your actions impact on the conversation lines?

SG: It doesn’t, I have to say, and I think that’s something that we wanted to do, we just didn’t have time to do it. I mean, to be honest, we’re nine months late already anyway, so it’s kind of “Woah!” So there’s plenty of features on the wall we wanted to put in but we couldn’t do which will likely be in a future game, if we do decide to do Exoddus it’ll be in that, but we don’t know yet.

Rupture Farms Glukkon Head Ball

TB: Yeah I see, cool. With the PS4 and PS Vita, you’ve obviously got the new touch interfaces on these devices, have you reworked any-

SG: No-

TB: controls or-

SG: No!

TB: (Laughs) Next question?

SG: No, I mean we did Stranger on Vita a couple of years ago, in fact, 18 months ago we did Stranger on Vita, we released it with the ability to punch on the back panel, but we noticed that if you’ve got big hands, you kind of want to hold the back panels, so it’s a bit of a negative. So we ended up releasing a patch, 6 weeks later, which removed that as a default, but still gave you the option to switch it on or off in the options menu. Most people I know now play it without touching the back panel, so whilst Sony did well to add the back panel, (laughs) it’s not something we actively encourage anymore, because it’s just as soon as you become an adult, your hands just get to this size, and it’s not comfortable to hold the edge of the thing with big hands.

TB: You want to get a good grip don’t you?

SG: Yeah, and the only way to do that is to put your hands on the back bloody panel! So if you’ve got something and you’re touching it, you’re going  “Ah, forget it”.

TB: Just constantly punching! (Laughs).

SG: It’s a pain, so we decided not to use the back panel. For the front panel… we have had to use a bit of front panel on Vita, not much though. For the PS4, there were a couple of ideas we had a while ago which I don’t think we put in, which was the faster you move your finger in a circle on the front touchpad of the Dual Shock 4, the faster Abe did the chant, so you could go faster and slower, but then it became too awkward to try and get it right every time, so we binned that idea. I think at the minute, you press the touchpad button and it comes up with the pause menu! (Laughs).

That’s pretty much it, you know, truth be told, the option button on the PS4 is pretty awkward. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony changed that for a next version of the Dual Shock 4 if they do do it, but you know at the minute, for a lot of games, if you push the pad button it brings up the pause menu. It’s a big button, you can’t miss it – bang!

TB: Well, every game needs a pause menu! (Laughs) You’ve got Gravity Crash Ultra coming out in July – what specifically is it about, well you’ve already touched on it – well, touch, nice one (laughs) – cheesy pun aside, what makes you want to develop for the Vita specifically and how does it differ developing for handhold versus a console?

SG: Well… as a game or as a platform?

TB: As a platform when you’re developing for it.

SG: To be honest with you, there’s not that much of a difference; the Vita’s just a small console. It sounds a twee thing to say but it’s true! What we’re conscious of today though is that Sony last year released the Vita TV in Japan and I wouldn’t be surprised if they announced it at E3 for Europe and America (This indeed did happen, with the announcement of PlayStation TV – good predictions Stewart). So, you know we have to now think about developing games for Vita which can have touch, but as a secondary option. So, from that point of view, it is literally just a small console, but a very powerful console, which happens to be a PlayStation linked to the PlayStation Network which means we can share things between different versions.

When we decided to do Gravity Crash Ultra, that literally started off as me saying to Pete, the main programmer on Stranger’s Wrath Vita, “Go on, have a bash at putting Gravity Crash on the Vita”. He finished Stranger’s Wrath off, and he had the first playable alpha of Gravity Crash Ultra running within 5/6 weeks. I sent that to friends at Sony and said “What do you think of this?”, and they went, “Yeah great idea – who’s going to publish it?” I said that we’ll publish it if we can do, because the rights to the PS3 version are owned by Sony. We sold the rights to them for large sums of money… if only it was large sums of money! But you know I said “Look, I would like to publish the Vita version.” They went okay, and we literally agreed the deal on Twitter; Shahid and I [Shahid Ahmad, Senior Business Development Manager at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe], in tweets, private DMs on twitter, in February last year. We started doing the legwork properly in March/April time but because we had licensed music from Tim Wright, CoLD SToRAGE, for it, we had to re-do and re-license it all again and that took 6 MONTHS to sort out!

TB: Ooph!

SG: So we didn’t actually start properly – we announced it at Gamescom last year, the contract wasn’t signed until mid-October last year (laughs) and we started it in the first week in November and we pretty much finished it in February this year apart from some moderation stuff, because we can create and share levels, and then it went to Sony’s submission, two weeks ago. I made a cock-up in the paperwork, so it went back in again! (Laughs).

TB: Oh no!

SG: The idea is to have it released in July. So that’s nice, but as a platform as it goes, you know in some respects it’s more powerful than the PS3. It’s got more memory than a PS3 – well, that’s not exactly true, it’s got the same amount of memory, it’s that the difference is the PS Vita’s memory is accessible by all, whereas the PS3 is 256MB of video and 256MB of system RAM. Vita’s got 512MB megs, so it makes it a bit easier, the Vita’s also got a 4-core processor where technically, the PS3’s got a single-core processor, apart from the sound chip which has got 6 or 7 cores that you can use and SPUs, but you have to program those dedicatedly. When you do Vita stuff, because it’s made basically as a single CPU with 4 cores in it, you can write proper multi-threading core technology and it goes and does it itself and things now, you don’t have to worry about it. So we’re kind of now at that stuff. I mean we’ve been working on PlayStation stuff since the PS1 days, so [when the] PS1 came along, Sony gave you libraries and you could just go write your game, it was fairly easy. PS2 came along and it was like “Oh my god!” Not that it was hard, or it was bad to program for; it was just different to program for. It was the same with the PS3, then the Vita came along and it’s just like you plug it in and you’re off – like “Wow! Really? That was what? What!”

PS4 is exactly the same again, you plug it in and you’re off within minutes really. There’s nothing like “Oh my god how do I make… oh, that’s how you do it!” You know? It’s all fairly simple. Sony have really grown up as a company and I think a lot of that’s down to Mark Cerny, who designed the PS4, but he also was made one of the leads on the Vita as well, so his involvement with Vita and PS4 is very obvious to developers. It’s been amazing from that point of view and it’s… I have to say, you know, working on Vita has been pretty good. We’ve got New ‘n’ Tasty to get done on Vita yet, and then I think we might do one other thing on Vita after that, but at the moment it’s nothing really big on Vita to come from us I think. Not saying we’re walking away from it, but we’re trying to spend more of our time on PS4 stuff, which is, because it’s a full-blown console, you have to create bigger and better experiences than you do for a handheld, and that’s what we’re doing. You know we’ve got, as a company, two other projects, which we’re prepping early work on ourselves, and you know, one of them will take us 2 years probably to do, but it’s not Oddworld, you know, and that’s going to be interesting to do and that’s been designed for PS4, so that’ll be good. (Pause) I hope I answered that in some shape or form.

MGSV: GZ Snake Goggles

TB: Yeah that was great! I remember reading a while ago that Just Add Water had appealed to Hideo Kojima-

SG: (Groans) Oh god!

TB: Yeah here we go, the Metal Gear question! Basically what I want to know is, is Solid Snake coming to Otley anytime soon?

SG: No – well not from us it’s not! The weird thing with that is, right, it started off, I kid you not, it started off as “[Do] you want something to do on the FOX engine?” Cool – we could never do that, we’re too small, I know we could never do it. “Oh you should just ask him [Hideo Kojima] for a crack at it” – that’s what it started off as, it was never meant to be serious!

TB: I remember reading your open letter at the time.

SG: Our PR guy at the time, he wrote this thing up. I said that [he should] take out line three maybe because, you know, it’s not true, well it is true in the sense that it would be cool to do it, but we’re making no bones about it we aren’t the size of company to do it, so it’s more of a case of it’s a love letter to the game and Kojima, it would be great to get the game on the platform, but not something we would actively be interested in doing ourselves on a serious level. It went out, with the note that we really really want to do it. And I literally, I kid you not, went out for a meeting with some people from Amazon, and I came back and I emailed some Oddworld CEO and heard people saying “What the fuck are you talking about?” “What? What press, I don’t know what you’re talking about? What?”

It was literally two weeks after E3 had finished, it was the Wednesday, that I kid you not, there was no other bloody news that day, and as a result, every site on the entire planet picked it up and I just went “Oh Christ!” Friends at Eurogamer said to me that if you’d released this news on Tuesday, it would have been ignored completely, but because there was nothing else on Wednesday, it got picked up! So no, we honestly have no interest in doing it – it would be cool if, but as a company we know we’re not tooled up or the size or capability of doing that project, you know? It was literally just like a love letter to Kojima, and it was never meant to be taken seriously! As it happens, I’ve heard rumours that someone else has been taken up on it… so we’ll see.

TB: It would be nice to see a decent HD remake of the original Metal Gear Solid as they’ve released the HD collection with Snake Eater-

SG: Well they’re just straight ports though aren’t they? But the thing that really got me was in Metal Gear Solid 4, when you went back to Shadow Moses, I was like “Yaaaaaaay!” I remember this and it looks good! I have to say I think Metal Gear Solid 2,3 and 4, and to some degree Ground Zeroes, they are all kind of ‘meh’ in comparison to the original Metal Gear Solid, because MGS 1 was just phenomenal. It was the first game to do those things, and the problem is he’s [Kojima] done them now so you can’t re-do them again. Like the whole thing about Psycho Mantis reading your mind and using the second controller port to beat him, you can’t do that anymore because players will expect that sort of thing now. The whole thing about reading your mind, “You’ve been playing Ape Escape“, reading your saved games off the memory card – you can’t do that anymore because it’s been done. For those things alone, the original Metal Gear Solid holds a special place in my heart. The series went too cutscene-y for me, the fact that the final cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 are an hour and fifteen minutes long in total! It’s like really? Oh please! Too much man! Step away from the director’s chair!

TB: Have you played Peace Walker?

SG: No, I never got on with the PSP [PlayStation Portable]. I mean we did a couple of games on it, but I never got on with it at all. I’ve still got my original launch PSP in my drawer actually, but I could never go back to it. I know a couple of guys have got it on PS3, was it the PS3 it came out on?

TB: That’s right yeah, it came out with the HD collection for PS3 and Xbox 360.

SG: Yeah, and you know… (pause) my idea of remakes, I think when you do remakes and ports, I still think you have to make it platform centric. Despite the fact I loved Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus on the PS2, I think Bluepoint Games screwed it up on PS3, I really do. There’s no reason for those games to be running at 60 frames per second and they’re running at 30. No reason at all. The other thing they didn’t do as part of Sony’s TRC regulations is ‘X is accept, Circle is back’ – that’s in the documentation, but no no, they made it as X to confirm, and Triangle to go back, which was the same as the PS2 days. Now, it would have taken them an hour to swap that around to be current platform PS3 certified, and they didn’t, so to me that was shoddy work. Lazy work. I played it and I just thought it doesn’t feel the same, it doesn’t feel like it did on the PS2. I know it’s rose-tinted glasses but from when we did Stranger’s Wrath on PS3, we ramped the crap out of that. The main character went from 3000 polygons to 20,000 polygons – there’s more polygons in Stranger than there is in the main characters from Beyond Two Souls for Christ’s sake!

Stranger Close-Up

There’s more polygons in Stranger than there is in an Uncharted 1 & 2 character, because we had passion and care for it, so we ramped it up, we did the controls properly, all this kind of stuff, we remade the whole UI for it, you know, we went through the levels and put higher-res detail maps in there, we took care of it. We didn’t just say, “Lift it from that platform, put it on that one, ship it!” If you’re going to port a game, you don’t just move it from platform to platform, you have to do it properly; it needs to be a proper remake, especially if you’re labelling it as a ‘Remaster’ on the box – you’re not, you’ve just ported it. The thing with Metal Gear Solid HD Collection was, when I came to play Metal Gear Solid 2 on PS3, I just didn’t like it because I got so used to changes they made to the way the gameplay works in Metal Gear Solid 4, that Bluepoint again, they made a step backwards to what was on the PS2. No – you have to grow with your audience. If your audience has grown up and got used to something else, you don’t send them back 6 years. (Pause) I’m done now! It’s a pet peeve basically, if you’re going to do something, you do it properly; you don’t just lift it and drop it.

TB: Well, you’ve dropped a few hints, but what’s next for Just Add Water? Are you wanting to go straight into another Oddworld game; is Exoddus on the horizon?

SG: We want to see how New ‘n’ Tasty does first. We’ve said that publicly a couple of time now. If New ‘n’ Tasty doesn’t sell, which I can’t see, but if it doesn’t sell, then there is no money to make an Exoddus. We don’t have publisher money. JAW/Oddworld Inhabitants are the publishers and developers, so to make the next game we have to make money from the current game. We went over budget with this one by a huge amount because we spent an extra 9 months on it, so we’ve spent the budget for pre-production of Exoddus kind of already, so we’re going to be waiting 3-6 months to see how New ‘n’ Tasty does before we make the decision about doing Exoddus. Yeah we’d like to do Exoddus. If we do decide to do it, because we’re doing our non-Oddworld projects next, we will have to ramp up to twice the size probably to do that, because Exoddus, even though it’s the same game engine and the same gameplay, as you mentioned earlier, you’ve got flying Sligs, and there are a few other things that are different, possessing farts-

TB: Yeah, that’s crucial!

SG: But the big thing is that there are twice the number of locations, so you need more artists, so it’s chicken and egg. Before we commit to doing Exoddus, we have to make sure though that there’s enough money in the bank from ‘New ‘n’ Tasty to make sure we can do Exoddus and do it right. We’ve got a couple of other projects ourselves, I think there will be an announcement at Gamescom for one of them… touch wood. I’m talking to people on Wednesday at Sony about something else as well, we’ve already pitched another project to Sony Europe, which is the 2-year project I mentioned to you, but that will be more of a case of… we want to greenlight that, but we want to greenlight it at the right time, so we’re going to go through all our steps for Sony Europe first and make sure we come up with a project that’s right, and we’re not just wasting our time with it because it’s a big one. It’s a complete departure from anything we’ve done before, so that might surprise some people if we do go ahead with it. On top of that there’s another mini-ish nine month project that I’m hoping to greenlight by the end of June/beginning of July, so we’re going to be busy. We’ve got a new website coming as well, and it’s got 6 project icons on the front page, and two of them just say ‘unannounced’, so that will be interesting to see those when they can be announced!

TB: A few teasers there then?

SG: Yes, well we like teasing people. I get in trouble for it. Our PR guy, Alex, keeps giving me grief – “Shut your mouth!” Sorry! (Laughs) “I know you’re the boss but shut your mouth!” Okay! I’ll hide in the corner now, whoops! (Laughs).

TB: Brilliant! Well, thank you very much for your time Stewart!

SG: Not a problem at all.

E3 Demo Impressions

Rupture Farms Electricity

After the interview, I had the pleasure of seeing the full E3 demo of New ‘n’ Tasty’, which again got my heart racing. Moving to a room complete with a massive flatscreen TV and surround sound system, I set myself down into one of the chairs while Stewart grabbed a Dual Shock 4 and fired up the dev kit skulking on the coffee table below the TV like a great silvery beetle. “Wait, that’s not a PS4!” I cry, both unsettled and fascinated by the big bulky box on the table before us.

The dev kit boots up, and there on the PS4 interface is the menu picture for New ‘n’ Tasty. It felt incredibly exciting seeing how things look on the developer side of things as opposed to the fan’s side of the fence, and that difference really hit home when I saw the main logo. Seeing it there, perched on the screen made the game feel tantalisingly closer and yet still so far away.

The game loads up, and we’re presented with Abe’s apologetically smiling face leaning out at us from the Oddworld Inhabitants sign, just like he’s always done in Abe’s Oddysee. It’s as if he’s been patiently waiting here for us to return to play for the last 17 years, with that loveable yet lonely wide-eyed expression and once again I’m feeling both emotional tinges of melancholia and desperate unabashed excitement in equal measure.

Stewart points out the three difficulty options players have to choose from when starting a new game, and then we’re off. The game starts and launches into the opening cinematic, which is even more awe-inspiring and beautiful looking than I had imagined it to be. Everything looks brighter and much more vibrant, whilst still retaining that same fearsome dark and gloomy aesthetic of the original meat packing plant we ran through with Abe all those years ago.

Lorne has re-recorded his opening monologue as Abe, and he impeccably nails every line and inflection with the same precise yet comedic delivery that I remember from all those years ago. I point out to Stewart that the Glukkons sound different; they seem to have a much lower voice, which makes them sound even more gruff and menacing. Stewart laughs and says well that’s down to Lorne getting older and changing vocal chords and whatnot. Mullock’s dismissive grunt of “Watch” to the other Glukkons in the boardroom sounds much darker and more threatening compared to the original take.

The cutscene ends and we’re thrust into the opening chase sequence. The game looks stunning. Absolutely stunning. Abe dashes across the screen on a long catwalk, the classic large ‘Wanted’ sign flashes up on the screen behind him as he passes, and there’s a pack of gun-toting Sligs hot on his tail. It’s at once very familiar whilst at the same time it looks like an incredibly new and fresh experience. The camera then pulls away from the chase scene and swoops down to that familiar wall of barrels from the original game’s first screen as our blue hero descends on a large lift as Stewart mentioned earlier.

It’s a real treat to see the game running in a buttery 60 frames per second. The character animations and ragdoll physics combined with the super smooth frame rate makes the gameplay look so much more fluid. Abe in particular looks and moves with such charm, and the hideous Scrabs now barrel after you with a frightening, lurching gallop, which will make even the most hardcore of returning Oddworld fans tremble in their… ah Mudokons don’t have shoes… loincloths then. Their loincloths.

Stewart shows me the secret area in what was originally the second screen. Instead of hoisting himself down onto a hidden ledge and dropping down into the screen below in the old game, Abe now performs a new animation where he pulls open a trap door in the factory floor before jumping through. It’s small touches like these that really make you see the attention to detail JAW have brought to the project, in addition to their ingenious and playful twists on the original source material.

Rupture Farms Chanting

Before long we encounter our first Sligs, in fact immediately before we leave the first room they come charging in, and they look just as freaky and menacing as they did all those years ago as they hiss and clank about on the screen. Complete with their motion detecting visor radars, they look set to even the advantage the player now has with the scrolling screen. Stewart navigates through the early screens, demonstrating the way they scan out with their radars and look for you when you’ve eluded them, and how on lower difficulties Abe can take a couple of shots from a Slig’s machine gun before going down.

Hearing about this feature during the interview, I wasn’t massively convinced about this choice being a stubborn fan of the original, but seeing it in action I can see that it was a sensible and considered way to let players pick the difficulty that’s right for them. After all, death is never far away in New ‘n’ Tasty, and it’s easy to see how a new player could get discouraged after repeated failure to get past those pesky trigger-happy Sligs on the original one hit and you’re dead hardcore difficulty setting.

Like Stewart brought up during the interview, the game seems to strike a good balance between catering to those who are completely new to the series, whilst also still appealing to those most die-hard of Oddworld fans. Along with giving the player a choice of difficulty modes, this ethic can be seen very prominently in the improved checkpoint system. Checkpoints now appear throughout the game far more frequently; one of the complaints often levelled at the original game in comparison to it’s sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, is that the sequel had a much better checkpoint/autosave system. In Abe’s Exodus, if you so desired (as I often did) you could neck a bottle of SoulStorm Brew, let rip with a noisy stomach-churner of a fart, and possess it before blowing yourself into a nice ‘n’ tasty pile of Mudokon chunks without fear of losing much progress – the checkpoints were effectively spread out and regular.

If you mis-timed a jump or couldn’t quite outrun that vicious Scrab in Abe’s Oddysee you were usually faced with a respawn quite significantly further back in the level from where you died, which could be quite annoying. The resulting slog (sorry, I’ll stop with the puns now) back through the level to where you originally died gave Oddysee a harder and more unforgiving feel in comparison to Exoddus.

New ‘n’ Tasty addresses that issue head on; in the demonstration I saw, checkpoints were much more plentiful. Each checkpoint is aesthetically designed to match its environs too; the ones in Rupture Farms are electronic with TV screens built in – changing from the stern unflinching gaze of Mullock the Glukkon to the dopey yet loveable mug of our stitch-lipped blue friend. The ones in the more rural areas of the game are all organic and resemble totemic witchdoctor-esque poles complete with blue gems – I must say, I do like a good blue gem.

Free-Fire Zone Mines

What’s more, when you do get torn to shreds by a pack of hungry Slogs (what a way to go) or get pounced on by Paramites, you’re respawned instantly, so there’s no hanging around staring at the screen and waiting for the game to load as there sometimes was in the original. It’s good to see how the checkpoints have been updated to accommodate an unfamiliar new player to the game and it’s systems, while simultaneously making the game much more enjoyable to play for returning players.

Having said that, you will find yourself staring at the screen an awful lot anyway, as the graphics and visuals look incredible. The combination of a graphical powerhouse like the PS4 and the fantastic art direction is a perfect match and the results look phenomenal. The Oddworld series has never looked so alive and vibrant, even whilst you’re still inside the grimy blood-splattered interiors of Rupture Farms.

Rupture Farms Slig Meat Room

Great big smelting vats and furnaces throw up fantastic orange embers and the glow from the swirling orange liquid metal creates some fantastic lighting effects, giving some of the early factory scenes a hellish Dante’s inferno look to them. Out in the Stockyards, the twilight evening sun that’s setting as you first set foot outside Rupture Farms is a real highlight, with lovely dynamic lighting from the low setting sun casting long shadows across the kennels and cages.

The attention to detail is impeccable too. You can see Sligs on faraway platforms diligently patrolling (and probably grumbling loudly to themselves out there in the distance), and the aforementioned Scrab and paramite meat conveyor belts can be seen clunking away in the background of the early Rupture Farms scenes. Outside the meat plant, the guard towers, glinting in the twilight now move like automated gun turrets and scan the environment in the foreground and background, with floodlights that sweep through the pens and catwalks that Abe’s navigating through.

New camera angles dynamically respond to where Abe currently is in the environment, giving the game a smooth polished cinematic sheen that massively improves on the original game’s pre-canned CG transitions. The camera gracefully arcs over the scenery to track Abe as he goes through doorways, and it cinematically zooms in to create dramatic moments, and zooms out to bridge transitions between environments, all in glorious real-time 3D.

Stockyards 3

A particularly impressive camera moment in the demo presented itself when Abe is escaping from Rupture Farms for the first time and navigating past the Scrab pens and motion-sensor laser gates in the Stockyard. Just before you exit the area to go the Free-Fire Zone, the camera pulls back and frames Abe against the full backdrop of Rupture Farms; the resulting view is both equally beautiful and horrifying. The full sight of the pulsating, smoke-belching sepulchral mass of metal and steel that is Rupture Farms engulfs the screen in its enormity, and it gives a great sense of scale to the hideous meat plant that was never quite visually achieved in the original game – it utterly dominates the horizon. Seeing the entire plant in all it’s horrifying glory at the end of the level is a fantastic move as it only encourages you to quickly hightail it out of there as fast as you can!

Free-Fire Zone Creeping

We’re now in the Free-Fire Zone, the atmospheric (but still very dangerous) area just after the Stockyards, with its beautiful star-lit night sky complete with numerous moons. This area was particularly dark in the original, but here, the environment really benefits from being a bit brighter. Splashes of turquoise from the clumps of luminescent fungi growing on the ground add much-needed bursts of colour to the almost entirely black foreground, and they work well with the ambient motes of light from the fireflies which guide Abe’s way. Campfires along the path add small areas of contrasting warmth to the environment, and the dynamic lighting from their flames cast flickering shadows on the rock walls. With the full expanse of the dark blue night sky framing everything, these small artistic additions and graphical tweaks give the environment a much greater sense of atmosphere and mystery as opposed to the original design.

Naturally then, this is the perfect time to check out the stealthy new additions to Abe’s moveset. Our favourite blue chump now has the ability to shuffle forward whilst crouching, in addition to his normal forward roll. This looks to be an incredibly useful way of quietly sneaking through an area in addition to just the standard tip-toe sneaking of previous games. Stewart navigated Abe through a particularly dense flying minefield at the start of the Free-Fire Zone, using the crouching shuffle, and it will be interesting to see how this move is utilised in other no doubt just as sadomasochistically difficult sections of the game.

Free-Fire Zone

Although during the interview Stewart said that Solid Snake won’t be infiltrating the picturesque town of Otley anytime soon, Abe has certainly learnt a few tricks from Kojima’s stealthy hero in the passing years, specifically Snake’s use of empty magazine cases as noise making distractions. Taking a leaf out of the Foxhound agent’s stealth playbook, Abe now has an unlimited supply of bottle caps (presumably SoulStorm brew bottle caps no doubt), which he can throw to distract Sligs. The trade-off to having an unlimited supply of these handy noise-makers is that they can’t be used to inflict damage to enemies or trigger off mines and explosives – you still need to source out rocks and grenades just like in Oddysee to get the pyrotechnics going.

Rupture Farms Lift & Mines

We reach the end of the Free-Fire Zone, and the E3 demo draws to a close. It’s time for me to go, and let Stewart and the rest of the team get back to work. Try as I might to desperately think of cunning ways to prolong my stay in the JAW offices for a bit longer, my well and truly blown-mind fails to come up with suitable shenanigans. We head back to the front door, and my eyes feverishly look for a place to hide and stowaway somewhere out of sight until everyone in the office has gone so I can play some more New ‘n’ Tasty.

However, with each anguished step bringing me closer to the front door that leads to reality and the outside world, such genius childish ideas start to dissolve and ebb away, and with regret and some sadness, I feel my (only ever so slightly) more mature 24 year old mind-set reassert itself. Just in time actually, as at that moment I find I need to say my goodbyes. With a Steef upper lip, I smile and graciously thank Stewart, who reciprocates, before opening up a Mudokon bird portal for me to exit through. A friendly handshake and a running leap through the portal later, and I once again find myself standing outside of JAW’s offices, Otley’s ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of gaming goodness if you will.

As I make my way back outside, even though I’m well aware I’m in a bit of a post-adrenaline/excitement slump, I can’t help but notice how… well… just how un-odd everything is on the outside. I trudge back across the car park, expecting to find a great big dopey Elum waiting for me at the side of the road to saddle up and ride home, but alas there’s just my car parked up instead. I sigh, and unlock the door, get in and start the drive home.

However, what little sadness I felt at my wonderful experience at JAW being over, I’m extremely heartened that one of the most beloved games from my childhood is, without a shadow doubt, in the best possible hands. The passion, care and loving attention to the smallest of details that JAW have brought with them to the project, combined with their own inspired artistic touches, have managed to bring Abe’s classic adventure into the modern day.

I’m so happy that Abe’s back, and I’m very much looking forward to going on more fantastical adventures with my blue childhood friend and hero once again in the near future. “Follow me”; of course I will Abe.

Abe Hoover