Tag Archives: Halo Fest 2020

Halo Fest 2020: Halo 2

The Story So Far: The “Master Chief”, a genetically modified “Spartan” supersoldier, is woken up from cryogenic sleep aboard a UNSC cruiser during an attack by an alien alliance known as the Covenant. With no options left and a plan to crash-land the ship on a mysterious artificial ring world nearby, the Master Chief is entrusted with safeguarding the ship’s AI, Cortana. On the surface of the ring the pair regroups with other survivors skirmishing with Covenant forces and formulates a plan to breach a facility that they hope will direct them to the ring’s central control room. In addition to learning that the Covenant worships the race who originally constructed this “Halo” installation, the Forerunners, Cortana discovers a weapons cache which might help turn the tide of the battle. It turns out that this “weapon” is a sample of a parasitic alien species called the Flood. Accidentally released, the Flood quickly begins to spread, overwhelming both the human survivors and Covenant forces alike. With the assistance of the installation’s caretaker, an AI called 343 Guilty Spark, the pair is guided to the ring’s control room so they can activate its defenses. Cortana stops the activation at the last moment, having learned about the nature of the defenses in question – the installation itself is a superweapon designed to combat the Flood by eradicating all sentient life in the galaxy. Not really loving that idea, the pair head to the wreckage of their ship to attempt to trigger a detonation that will destroy the entire installation and prevent Guilty Spark from carrying out its apocalyptic task. Successful, Master Chief and Cortana are able to locate a still-operational fighter in the wreckage and make it off of the installation just in time.

Halo 2 was hotly anticipated by Halo fans everywhere, setting pre-order records and ending up with massive sales and an amazing reception. Despite all of this, I somehow didn’t give too much of a toss about it. The truth is that 2004 was probably the peak of my involvement in online gaming and my clan at the time, The Praetorian Guard, was still playing America’s Army and Planetside as well as dabbling in some MMORPGs, with most of us waiting impatiently for World of Warcraft to finally be released. My brother, who had introduced me to Halo, brought home a copy of Halo 2 in short order too, but the hook didn’t quite stick the second time.

Back on Earth, at last.
“Back on Earth, at last.”

Halo 2 was quite a different animal than the original Halo: Combat Evolved. The game engine was rebuilt from the ground up and it really showed – the physics felt different, the game looked different, the weapons felt different, etc. On top of that, there were some huge gameplay differences too. One of the more notable ones was the overhaul of the health system. Now instead of having a rechargeable shield layered on top of a more traditional health bar, you simply have rechargeable shields which sit on top of a tiny buffer of unspecified, also regenerating health. This made tracking down health packs a thing of the past and really reinforced the importance of ducking out of combat to quickly recharge. While this feels quite jarring when playing Halo: CE and Halo 2 back to back, once used to it, I think I actually prefer Halo 2’s simplified take.

Another more “back of the box” change was the addition of dual wielding weapons. While nifty, it rarely felt advantageous to me since holding a second weapon came at the expense of being able to chuck grenades or melee attack, two staples of Halo: CE combat. On the other hand, basic melee attacks felt a lot less effective anyway, even if Bungie did decide to add a bit more depth to them by taking into account movement and what weapons you’re holding when calculating damage. Speaking of weapons, shocking at the time, my beloved assault rifle had been traded out for this new battle rifle thing, along with a new (weak and obviously intended to be dual wielded) submachine gun. While I’d eventually warm up to the battle rifle in future Halo games, neither gun felt like an adequate replacement for the assault rifle. There were numerous other weapon differences too, like the shotgun being all but ruined with its lower rate of fire and shorter range, and some new weapons like the Elite’s energy sword and Brute’s brute shot. Most of these special weapons were quite awesome though, thankfully.

That said, I love dual wielding plasma rifles.
“That said, I love dual wielding plasma rifles.”

Another big change to the core gameplay was to vehicles, and like the aforementioned melee changes, the theme here is added complexity and depth. Unlike in Halo: CE, where vehicles were totally invulnerable, there’s now a vehicle damage system in which the vehicles degrade with damage until they eventually blow up and become unusable. While I sometimes miss Halo: CE’s simpler system, Halo 2’s updates feel more advanced and ultimately much better, even if it can be incredibly disheartening to watch your ride disintegrate around you. The graphical effects of having pieces fly off your vehicle as it gets smashed up by a huge explosion (or a poorly planned jump, as is often the case in the Warthog) definitely only adds to the already impressive spectacle. It also pairs nicely with the new ability to board and assault and/or take over vehicles, critically leveling the playing field a bit more, especially in multiplayer matches.

As for level design, Halo 2’s maps are constrained to open arenas connected by corridors. The larger arenas sometimes come close, but nothing really quite captures the feeling of Halo: CE’s more open environments and battlefields. Despite being more linear, the backtracking and repetitious sections are mostly absent, and even when present, aren’t anything like the more tedious sections of Halo: CE. For better or for worse, Halo 2 feels a lot closer to a modern first person shooter than its predecessor. One other difference I noted was how the later levels often feel more chaotic in Halo 2. “Containment Zone” for example, features some insane battles as Elites, Covenant loyalists, Forerunner drones, and the Flood all go at it, often with an array of vehicles and powerful weapons to spice things up. The insanity translates into more of a challenge on higher difficulties too. Playing this on “Heroic” difficulty once again, many of these encounters felt a bit untuned, with too many enemies that were a bit too bullet-spongy for my tastes, even if they were a bit less frustrating than the harder encounters in Halo: CE.

Hooray for vehicle damage?
“Hooray for vehicle damage?”

So, while none of the above is bad per say, in fact most people would call most of these changes improvements, for someone who loved Halo: CE but didn’t get caught up in the hype around Halo 2, all added up, it was a bit of a hard pill to swallow. I still dabbled with Halo 2, of course, occasionally playing a few matches of Slayer with my brother and my dad, but it didn’t come anywhere close to pulling me away from my PC. In fact, I don’t think I ever made any real attempt to get into the single player campaign until years later when I made a concerted effort to beat all of my old Xbox games before finally moving on to the Xbox 360.

One aspect of Halo 2 that was closer to universally unpopular was the addition of a second protagonist. You take control of the Arbiter, an Elite who had been entrusted with a series of special missions which has him ultimately crossing paths with the Master Chief by the end of the campaign. A lot of people hated playing this random alien instead of their beloved Spartan, but I and many others actually thought the Arbiter’s story was pretty damn cool, as was the addition of a new Covenant adversary key to this storyline in the powerful Brutes. Perhaps spreading the missions where you play as the Arbiter out a bit more and having less of them overall would have helped avoid people feeling that the Master Chief was being overshadowed, but who knows.

As with last time, for this playthrough I played Halo 2: Anniversary, included with the Xbox One Master Chief Collection. Like with Halo: CE, this was my first time playing the Anniversary edition remaster, so naturally I’ll pick the particulars of this version apart a little too.

...and this one's Great Journey, are the same!
“…and this one’s Great Journey, are the same!”

The first thing that stands out about this new version of Halo 2 are the graphics. While Halo: CE Anniversary still looked a tiny bit rough around the edges in spots, Halo 2: Anniversary is a total triumph. First, they got the legendary Blur to produce beautiful new cinematic cutscenes to replace the previous in-engine ones. These new cutscenes are based directly on the original ones but, with the higher fidelity, they feel a lot more expressive to me. I particularly love the new Gravemind scenes! I also can’t escape the fact that the game, given a similar new “coat of paint” to its in-game graphics as Halo: CE, wears them a lot better. I’d largely attribute it to how much more advanced Halo 2 was – given its release being so late in the cycle of the original Xbox, it was practically an early Xbox 360 game. The remaster being one generation newer, targeted for the Xbox One instead of the Xbox 360, doesn’t hurt either. On top of that, while some areas of the game do look radically different than their original incarnations, for the most part it feels like 343 was much more respectful of the game’s aesthetics this time around. Also, on a totally subjective note, I could never stand how oddly washed out Halo 2 looked, an issue that has been absolutely resolved in this remaster.

Like Halo: CE Anniversary, the sound effects and soundtrack have been completely re-recorded too. The original soundtrack was already a masterpiece, so while which renditions you prefer is definitely a matter of opinion, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the new tracks. On the other hand, as with last time, I find the new mix to be a bit distracting. It’s not quite as bad about overpowering the dialog but it can certainly drown out other sound effects. A great example of this is the level “Uprising” in which the ambient jungle noises and sounds of distant battle are all but missing because the music is so much louder. A nitpick, sure, but these little things do make a difference. Halo 2: Anniversary also includes the awesome on-demand instant swap between old and new aesthetics, which I’m mentioning now, because it also includes swapping between those original and remastered sound effects and the soundtrack now. Excellent.

The Arbiter heading to The Anodyne Spirit on High Charity.
“The Arbiter heading to The Anodyne Spirit on High Charity.”

This new version also revisits the idea of including hidden terminals in each level. The cutscenes triggered by interacting with the terminals focus on the history of the Covenant, and particularly the concept of the Arbiter. Although I did like the terminal cutscenes from Halo CE: Anniversary, I found these ones so much more interesting, and more likely to be appreciated by a first time player too. The additional background on the Arbiter only made me appreciate his role in the story that much more. Very cool stuff. That said, Halo 2’s story (which, like last time, I’ll wait to spoil in the next post) didn’t leave as many seemingly crucial background details out and it’s told in a much more cohesive way overall, so these scenes really do feel like bonus content rather than a necessary attempt to fill in gaps.

In the end, Halo 2 is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, the game still undeniably feels like a bit of a departure from what I loved about Halo: CE. On the other hand, it’s a richer and more skillful effort, and the lovingly crafted makeover it received with Anniversary only reinforces that, feeling almost as easy to pick up and play today as it would have 15 years ago. That is, of course, a massive compliment to both Bungie and 343 alike. How impressed I am with this remaster does make me just a bit nervous to return to Halo 3, which has yet to receive any such overhaul. More on that next time though!

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

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 post represents the introduction to a long series of gaming logs which will chronicle my own personal Halo Fest 2020! That is, in anticipation of the launch of Halo Infinite, I’ll be playing through almost every single one of the Halo games as well as checking out some other, miscellaneous Halo media along the way.

I’ve been into Halo since around the launch of the first game in 2001 but I’ve only played through most of the single player campaigns a single time which should make going back through them all fairly entertaining. There are also some I haven’t played yet, most notably Halo 5 and the Halo Wars games, so I’m really looking forward to those. 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. While these won’t be full on reviews, this will at least 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 effort will surely take me longer than the next 4 months, though with Halo Infinite recently being delayed some indeterminate amount of time, it should still work out, though perhaps I shouldn’t have put the year in the title. Also, I thought about doing these playthroughs chronologically in the order the story actually unfolds, but the technological leaps back and forth between the games seemed like it might be a little too jarring. Instead, I’ve opted to simply 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.