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Halo Fest 2020: Combat Evolved

Halo: Combat Evolved rounds out a trio of FPS games, along with GoldenEye and Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64, that my brother and I did some serious bonding over in my late teens/young adult years while he was living back with my family – we’d watch each other’s playthroughs, hop into cooperative missions together from time to time, and of course, play tons of “Slayer” deathmatch against one another. Unusually, my dad, not much of a gamer, was also strangely drawn to Halo, often filling a third slot in our split screen multiplayer sessions. My dad really got into it and probably spent far more time with the single player campaigns of the first Halo games than either of us did. In fact, through sheer force of will (I imagine assisted by unabashed abuse of the checkpoint system) I think he even eventually beat them both on “legendary” difficulty.

Well, well, well. What do we have here?”
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?”

Beyond what it meant to me personally, Halo: CE was a special game. I still vividly recall my brother bringing home a brand new Xbox that he’d unwisely blown a chunk of a paycheck on, hyping us up on how awesome Halo was. At first I wasn’t all that impressed with what it was doing, since games like Half Life and Unreal had already started evolving the FPS genre in similar ways on PC, but I was quickly won over with its unique aesthetic, mysterious science fiction storyline, slick, polished execution, and almost perfect early implementation of dual analog stick FPS controls. I found the less linear, more open world sections (complete with crazy vehicles and more advanced AI than I’d seen up to that point) particularly compelling. As much as I had enjoyed some of the previous console FPS games, it was Halo that finally really sold the concept. To me, and to millions of others, it seems.

My enjoyment of Halo wasn’t isolated to consoles though – I preordered Gearbox’s PC port of Halo: CE mostly for the promise of at last being able to play multiplayer online, but I ended up being quite underwhelmed by it. The netcode in particular wasn’t quite as well suited for those of us pitiful enough to still be rocking dial-up Internet in 2002 as a lot of the other games I’d been playing on PC were. In more recent years that PC port of Halo: CE became the multiplayer game of choice for me and a couple of my co-workers during our breaks, and we still occasionally get together for online multiplayer sessions using the Xbox One’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection to dust our old favorite maps to this very day. While multiplayer really isn’t in the scope of Halo Fest 2020, I can’t go without at least mentioning it since it’s such a huge part of Halo: CE (and the rest of the franchise’s) success, and there’s definitely still a ton of fun to be had there.

Alright, tutorial time!
“Alright, tutorial time!”

On to this playthrough of Halo: Combat Evolved! I should note that I’m playing through the version of the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary included with the aforementioned Xbox One MCC. This was my first time playing the Anniversary edition remaster, and given that I’ve played through Halo: CE’s single player levels more times than I can recall, I’m going to spend much of my time here discussing that release more than the game overall.

The first thing that I noticed upon loading into the first level of Halo: CE Anniversary was the lack of the short tutorial section based around Master Chief waking up out of cryo-sleep. This immediately left a sour taste in my mouth. I mean, what the fuck? They removed the tutorial? What else did they remove? ARGH! Later I realized that this was because I started the campaign in “heroic” difficutly, which skips the tutorial just as it’s always done – nothing to do with the new version. Oops. Okay, well, of course, my attention then snapped back to the presentation.

While beautiful, 343 Guilty Spark feels quite different from the original.
“While beautiful, 343 Guilty Spark feels quite different from the original.”

All of the graphics in the Anniversary edition have been lovingly and painstakingly remastered to make the game look a little bit more suitable to newer generations of consoles. The remaster also makes efforts to bring Halo: CE in-line stylistically with the latter games in the series, particularly Halo: Reach. For the most part, I think this was a rather successful effort. The new artwork is mostly great and overall the game looks how most people would likely remember it looking after not having played it for years. Still, the change in style also means it is often quite a departure from Halo: CE’s original graphics, which were of course Bungie’s first stab at what would eventually evolve into what we got in Reach. The dark purples of the covenant forces have been replaced by lighter hues, the architecture of the buildings on Installation 04 now have a lot more detail, but losing much of their cold, stark character as a result. The dense foggy swamp of “343 Guilty Spark” is now a much more lush, and much less creepy, jungle. The list goes on and on.

This might have all been less obvious if 343 didn’t include the fantastic addition of being able to instantly toggle between new and old graphics with the press of a button. I found myself doing this quite often to really take in the differences. Surprisingly, sometimes the original graphics “up-resed” still looked quite acceptable, even rivaling the new ones, and it took me a few seconds to realize I was accidentally still on the old graphics on more than one occasion. They would have been even better if they weren’t based on the aforementioned flawed PC port. That said, the outdoors sections of the game are where the remastered graphics clearly blow the old ones out of the water. The lighting on the indoor sections is quite a bit different too, and while some might protest a loss in tension, some sections are much easier to navigate as a result. “The Library” is the prime example; while still being a Flood infested, repetitive slog, you can probably remove getting turned around and lost multiple times from your list of its aggravations now.

Ugh. The Library...
“Ugh. The Library…”

While discussing potentially unpopular changes, let’s talk sound. The music has been completely rerecorded for the Anniversary edition, and it’s mostly great. The biggest issue I have here is with mixing – there were definitely many points where the music was drowning out the in-game dialog, which is an issue I don’t remember having with the original game. They did eventually add the option to toggle between soundtracks to keep the purists happy, which is probably a good thing given how beloved the Halo: CE soundtrack is. The sound effects have also been completely redone. Again, they did a great job here, and most people probably won’t even notice, but some of the effects do indeed sound radically different which I’m sure irks quite a lot of the more hardcore Halo fan-base. While I believe they’ve included an option to use classic sound effects when starting a single player session in a recent patch, it’s still not instantly toggleable like the graphics are, unfortunately.

As I mentioned, I went through the campaign in “Heroic” difficulty, which is way more of a pain in the ass than I remembered it being. There were definitely a few sections where I had to bash my head against the scenario I found my last checkpoint throwing me into over and over until I managed to work out a strategy to survive, or at least had a rare bit of good luck with. Honestly, this didn’t feel much better than “save scumming” through the difficulty, and was seriously frustrating. Maybe this is just a case of me getting older and my l33t FPS skillz withering away though. Finally, as if Heroic didn’t make me hate myself enough, Anniversary added the “skull” system found in later Halo games, and while I did go out of my way to collect all of the skulls, I certainly didn’t activate any of them as part of my normal playthrough. Searching for them was a fun diversion, at least!

As annoying as the later levels can be, they have their moments.
“As annoying as the later levels can be, they have their moments.”

Throwing back to a complaint I’ve always had about Halo: CE, I hate how goddamn repetitive and long some of the levels in its campaign are. I’m looking at you “Assault on the Control Room”! At least the checkpoints come frequently enough to subdivide the levels into more bite-sized chunks pretty well. The infamous fact that you then have to backtrack through a few of them in later levels on top of that still almost feels like a direct middle finger from the developers to the player though. These rehashed areas tend to play out just differently enough to just barely work. The saving grace here is that, despite all of this, the campaign overall is fairly short. Again, this just barely works for me, and thankfully Bungie never really made these mistakes again in later games.

Halo: CE’s story has always been a little odd. The overall plot, which I’ll recap in my next entry, is easy enough to understand, sure, but there are so many vaugeries in its details and its backstory that only later get fleshed out as the series progresses, and even then, I’m guessing (having never read them) those are mostly only truly explained in the novels. The Anniversary edition adds a hidden terminal to each level that can be triggered for a short animated cutscene that goes a long way to help explain flesh out the origins of Installation 04, Guilty Spark 343, and the Flood. I have to imagine that some of these would be utterly bewildering to new players, but to a Halo veteran like me they’re pretty damn cool and very much appreciated.

I never get sick of The Silent Cartographer, especially in co-op!
“I never get sick of The Silent Cartographer, especially in co-op!”

You know, Halo: CE still managed to be a fun ride despite its old age and more well-known shortcomings. The first time you load up a Warthog with marines and go tearing down the beaches in “The Silent Cartographer”, out maneuver a charging Hunter to land that final shotgun blast to the small of its back, or perfectly stick a plasma grenade to a rampaging Banshee as it dives down from high above you, you’ll forget all about this game being almost 20 years old. To me, it remains a reasonably timeless game, and the Anniversary enhancements should only help it to feel that way a little longer.

Now onto a game whose campaign I’ve somehow only completed once, Halo 2!

Screenshots taken from the Steam community for the PC version of Halo: The Master Chief Collection.

Halo Fest 2020!

This most historic of gaming logs represents the first of a long series of posts which will chronicle my very own personal Halo Fest 2020. That’s just a stupid name I came up with for, in anticipation of the launch of Halo Infinite, replaying through every single one of the Halo games.

I’ve been into Halo since around the launch of the first game but I’ve only played through most of the single player campaigns a single time which should make going back through them pretty entertaining. I haven’t even played some of them yet, namely Halo 5 and the Halo Wars games, so I’m really looking forward to those. On top of that, going back through old gaming logs, I really haven’t talked much about any of the Halo games all that much, and my coverage of the few I did write about here was a little anemic. This will give me the opportunity to go into a little more detail about all of them.

Back into the fight!
“Back into the fight!”

Of course, this whole thing might very well take me longer than the next 4 months, which with Halo Infinite being delayed some indeterminate amount of time, works out okay I suppose, though perhaps I shouldn’t have put the year in the title. So, what first? I thought about doing these playthroughs chronologically in the order the story unfolds, but the technological leaps between the games seemed like it might be a little too radical. Instead, I’ve opted to play them in original release order, which means we’re starting from the beginning with the legendary Halo: Combat Evolved.

My next gaming blog entry should be following shortly!

This awesome concept art by Kai Lim is actually from the cancelled fan film Operation Chastity.

Grand Theft Auto V

Well, what I’ve actually been playing for the last few months is Grand Theft Auto V. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first game, and even dipped my toes into GTA V when my partner would occasionally recruit me to help her with her playthrough years ago, so I knew I’d be playing it eventually. Despite owning an Xbox 360 copy of it for years now, it showing up on Game Pass at just the right time inspired me to finally take the plunge and install the Xbox One version. Of course, it was removed from Game Pass well before I was finished, and by then purchasing it was incredibly easy to justify. Congratulations Microsoft, your insidious plot to make us buy games by giving them to us for free totally worked! *shakes fist*

Back behind the wheel again!
“Back behind the wheel again!”

I’d say it should be no surprise to readers of this blog, but honestly, my game logs from GTA IV (along with The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) weren’t really as positive here as they are in my head. Perhaps I focused a little too much on my criticisms? To save you some reading and myself any further explanation, let me just summarize by saying that I loved GTA IV. It wasn’t without its flaws, not by a long shot, but it was an amazing game. Thinking back to almost 10 years ago when I first played it, here are the prevailing impressions it left, in no particular order: the absolutely incredible job Rockstar did on Liberty City and its various simulated systems; the numerous improvements and additions to the series’s core gameplay systems (the cell phone, the GPS, improved combat, better mission checkpoints, etc.); the brilliant Niko Bellic and the noticeable “Ludonarrative Dissonance” around his story; the weird, weighty physics to everything, particularly when controlling vehicles; and the busted pacing of the story, which sometimes felt a bit aimless and certainly seemed to fail to really push most players through to the end. Obviously, those aren’t all positives. There I go again!

Well, I’m happy to say that it’s follow-up addresses or otherwise enhances every single thing on that list, and much more. I think that Rockstar might have literally bulleted every major complaint people had about GTA IV and used that list as the foundation for their design documentation. Really! It would be incredibly blatant if they weren’t improving what was an already great game.

GTA V's San Andreas is a technical and artistic achievement.
“GTA V’s San Andreas is a technical and artistic achievement.”

Going back through my list, to start, GTA V’s San Andreas is just as incredible as Liberty City was, and for every one of the simulated systems that’s been slightly dumbed down, another has been added. Plus, we have the expansive desert area to the north of the city, and even the underwater areas of the map (and keep in mind San Andreas is a coastal city) have been fully fleshed out. It definitely takes some cues from Red Dead Redemption, with more scenic outdoors areas, better natural lightning, and more wildlife than ever before. While I wouldn’t call it perfect, it is without a doubt an astounding technical feat. While I may not end up having the same long term emotional associations with San Andreas as I do with Liberty City, I’d chalk that up to my personal connections with the real-life locations those in-game cities are based on and not any fault of the games themselves.

Systems wise, pretty much every last thing I complained about from GTA IV has been “fixed” in GTA V, and even the major improvements GTA IV introduced have been yet further improved. For instance, the cell phone is less intrusive and more usable, the GPS is less finicky and much easier to read, the combat is even smoother, with things like targeting and the cover system being a lot easier to use, and mission checkpoints continue the trend of GTA IV’s DLC episodes (and the later Red Dead Redemption) of being more conveniently placed to make failing and/or dying on a mission way less of a headache. Every mission is also scored and easily replayable, not to mention better integrated into the open world in the first place. Perhaps my only real complaint in this department is that more and more of the side systems have become buried as the series has gone on. As an example, I didn’t even realize I could “hang out” with characters in GTA V until near the end of the story because it simply isn’t a feature that factors into the core gameplay. This has always been a thing in Grand Theft Auto though, and maybe it’s better than the alternative of the game forcing these little fun diversions on you by awkwardly shoehorning them into story missions.

Trevor being... Trevor?
“Trevor being… Trevor?”

While I wouldn’t claim there’s zero story and gameplay segregation issues with GTA V, Rockstar largely solves this problem by giving you three characters to play with their own personalities, backgrounds, and motivations, all of which can, to some degree, justifiably engage in those classic Grand Theft Auto open world rampages. This certainly helps avoid situations like Niko complaining about how he just wants to live in peace and start a new life sandwiched in between the massacre of hundreds of cops and the slaughter of half of Liberty City’s gang population. Hell, the infamous Trevor Phillips seems to be largely designed to represent that most chaotic side of player tendencies, and they even brought back the old “kill frenzy” system in the form of side missions for him. These new player characters are a little divisive it seems, but I can’t really relate to most people’s criticisms of them and their particular parts of the story, as I found them all perfectly enjoyably, even if Trevor’s violent insanity sometimes slips from being hilarious to feeling genuinely disturbing. Hell, you’re introduced to him brutally beating Johnny from The Lost and Damned to death in probably the series’s most WTF moment, at least for fans of that story.

GTA IV’s weird take on “realistic” physics are, for all intents and purposes, totally gone. The game still feels a bit more grounded in reality than previous GTAs which is probably necessary to maintain Rockstar’s priority for strong player immersion with this engine, but driving feels more like an arcade racer yet again, and it really seems like everything has been repurposed with a focus of being, you know, actually fun, in mind. What a concept! Speaking of which, planes are back! There’s even submarines!

But there's still a bit of moody crime drama too...
“But there’s still a bit of moody crime drama too…”

Finally, the story definitely meanders a lot less than GTA IV and doesn’t run out of steam before the end despite being around the same length overall, if not a tiny bit longer by the time you throw in a healthy heaping of side missions. No, it’s not flawless. Everything you’d been doing in San Andreas comes to a screeching halt as you end up in a new setting and with a new cast of characters when Trevor’s first introduced, for example. Still, it didn’t feel like it dragged on anything close to as badly as GTA IV did. Despite being able to swap between 3 protagonists at will, the mission structure is more linear which helps a lot with this, and the missions themselves tend to be much less linear as a nice trade off. Tonally, it feels a lot more like The Ballad of Gay Tony than GTA IV proper, which is to say a little more action movie than moody crime drama, though, in keeping with that similarity, the missions are a lot more over the top (and a lot more fun) as a result. Besides, Rockstar has Red Dead Redemption for that mature, serious storytelling stuff now, right?

In the end, GTA V feels like a great summation of the entire series, with the best overall versions of almost all of its systems, a ton of throwbacks and references to earlier games, and quite a lot of fun to be had. I could go on and on about this game. I mean, I haven’t even talked about the new first person mode, the excellent soundtrack and radio stations, all of the new side activities, or hell, GTA fucking Online, but I’ll just finish up here by saying that I absolutely love Grand Theft Auto V!

PC screenshots car jacked from random Steam Community users! Braaap braaaaaap!