Summer Slow Season – What to Play

Sunset Overdrive Xbox BundleWe’re halfway through the month of July, which is traditionally the slowest time of the year when it comes to new game launches. Typically we see indie titles, arcade games, or re-releases and remasters. We use the summer for E3 and conventions and playing catch-up before the deluge of games returns during the fall. So with that in mind, I thought I would offer up a couple games that I have been finding myself playing during this slow time, along with a couple remasters that we know are on the horizon that I think, depending on price, are worth picking up.

First up, the obvious picks: Destiny and Call of Duty: Black Ops III. As a long time shooter fan, there are always a couple or more FPS games in my rotation. I keep a few on hand that way no matter which shooter mood I find myself in, I have something ready to go. It used to be Halo/Call of Duty/Battlefield, while these days I’m finding myself moving away a bit from Halo and Battlefield as I wait for their next entries. Destiny instead scratches that slower, Haloesque style combat. The Crucible, while certainly not perfect, has been a lot of fun to play again. What I think really helps is that it’s very different from Call of Duty, which I load up when I really want to scratch that twitch style FPS. There’s a reason that I keep going back and talking about them here, and that’s because they’re easily my most played games currently. If you like FPS games, and aren’t playing Overwatch, I really think both Destiny and Call of Duty are worth your time.

The other style game that I always have one or two on hand of is RPG, and that’s where I’m a little behind right now. I finally went back and have been finishing up Dragon Age Inquisition, which I have been playing for a bit over a full year. It was just on sale, so if you picked it up, there’s a lot to dive into, just don’t get burned out like I did and you’ll find yourself really enjoying Thedas. I’m powering through it though because I have Witcher III on deck, which I’m really excited to finally dig into. I also recently picked my first MMO up with Elder Scrolls Online and I’m slowly starting to get a handle on it. I talked last year about the beta, and I do want to revisit it here as I keep progressing through the game. It may be an MMO, and there are definitely some portions where spending some extra money feels like it’s beneficial. That especially extends to the DLC which all look like the amount of content they add in is definitely worth investing in. I don’t like that you have to use an intermediate currency instead of just directly using dollars. There are loads of good RPGs available right now, including Fallout 4, which I still need to dive back into. Summer is a good time for RPGs in general since you need to spend a bit more time playing them than other games.

My hard drive is currently rounded out with a couple less intense games – Mega Man Legacy Collection and Minecraft. While there’s nothing new coming out, this is the perfect time to go back and play some classic games. Combine that with the backwards compatible titles that are available now and there are plenty of options if you’re feeling a little burnt out on what you’re currently playing. Don’t feel like you have to keep going down that rabbit hole, branch out, find a sale or a used disc and try something new. That’s really what the summer is about for gaming.

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Halo 5: Guardians – Cartographer’s Gift Update Thoughts

Halo 5 WarzoneHalo 5 took a unique route to post-launch content for the series, forgoing a traditional map pack season and instead has been adding in monthly updates with free content, supported by real-money purchases of the REQ packs. Yesterday we got the December update, bringing with it the addition of Forge – Halo‘s map editor that has always been a fan favorite – along with a few new maps and REQ items.

I haven’t really dug into Forge enough to give that part a final thought. Forge has consistently been more and more in depth with each iteration, so I know that there’s a ton to really get into. What I did play was each of the new arena maps and the new social playlist. Warzone didn’t cooperate with me to put the new map on, so that’ll wait until I get that map to come up in the rotation too. What I will say is that if 343 can keep up their track record with these monthly updates, Halo 5 could be exactly what the franchise needs to bounce back from Master Chief Collection.

Those new arena maps though, boy howdy are they varied. Overgrown, the new 4v4 map, is so dense it’s almost impossible to get a grasp on it in one game. There’s so much in such a small map that games are pure chaos from the outset. The map is definitely skewed around close quarters – the railgun, shotgun and energy sword are all on the map as power weapons, along with an active camo pickup. Combine that with the layout of the map, and you’re going to have a lot of quick kills from around corners. You’re going to see plenty of corner crouch camping – or as I call it, douchey play. It’s a twisting, mazelike set of corridors, with an actual good mix of verticality. Do I think it’s going to be a new Halo classic? Probably not – it’s almost too complicated for that. But it’s a pretty damn fun map for sure.

The other two new maps are big team battle maps – Entombed and Antifreeze. Entombed is set on an asteroid or other space rock, and is basically a big valley with a few big buildings that act as bases. Of course, the power weapons here are what really dictate map flow – there’s the new SPNKr rocket launcher, a binary rifle, a wraith, warthog, over shield and active camo all over the map. Grab them and get up high, and you’ll be in a really good position to pull ahead. Antifreeze, on the other hand, is a bit more straight-forward. It’s a big valley, but map flow definitely is more based around the structures. The actual structure stretches across the whole map, with different points that act as the bases for CTF or Strongholds. You’ve got binary rifles and incineration cannons as power weapons, and ghosts as vehicles. It’s a bit more intense action since it tends to focus up around the middle of the map.

All in all, I think the new arena maps are all really good, in different ways. They show that Halo works at long, medium and short ranges. It’s just what the matchmaking needed to keep it fresh, and I hope that 343 continues it moving forward.

Halo 5: Guardians – Breakout and General Multiplayer Thoughts

Halo 5 GuardiansThe last week has been a pretty busy gaming week, with my Xbox One being back to working order. Between catching up on Destiny, playing Fallout 4 finally and hopping back into Halo 5: Guardians with my college buddies, it’s been a lot of different style games. Now that I’ve gotten a good chunk of play time under my belt with Halo, I thought I’d talk a little about how I see the game shaping up over time.

I talked way back at launch about the new Warzone mode, which features 24 players on the biggest maps in the game. Since I’ve gotten my Xbox back, I’ve been able to play a good amount of the other new game mode – Breakout. Breakout is a new competitive mode, based heavily on the paintball game of speedball. You have one life per round, and it’s first to five rounds gets the win. Weapons are a little different than normal Arena play, with you spawning with a SMG and Pistol. With no shields on the characters, finding the precision weapons on the maps becomes a pretty important part of playing. More than normal modes, I think communication is much more imperative in Breakout. You don’t have a particularly large margin of error – a good player can drop you in just a few headshots from the pistol. You need to make your initial pushes smart, and as the game progresses, evolve your tactics depending on the situation. It’s a lot like SWAT, just with a little more health, and the obvious different game type.

Halo 5 Breakout Crossfire

Map-wise, the selection of Breakout maps are all pretty similar. They’re all Forge maps that take place in a virtual reality arena. The pieces are modular, so they all look just about the same, it’s just the layout that changes. That said, they do take a little more to learn because of the nature of the game mode. You don’t have the luxury to learn the map as you play, because one wrong move could get you killed. To me, Breakout is the mode that requires the most mental focus – even over SWAT. You have to be thinking about your placement in relation with your team, as well as trying to predict the enemies tactics. Playing a team that does the same thing every round turns the game into an execution game, while playing one that changes based on previous rounds keeps each round as tense as possible. It’s also the mode that almost requires you to have a full team of four to really succeed. Solo-queue play is a great way to get frustrated fast, since you have to slow down on the start of a round to see what the rest of your team is doing.

In general, I think Halo 5 is the best game in the series since Reach on the multiplayer front. Warzone is a blast, and the more competitive modes actually feel really well matched. Sure you’ll still run into an Onyx ranked player while you’re a Platinum, but it’s a lot less frequent than previous games. What I think 343 did really well this time around was make all of the weapons feel right. The Battle Rifle hasn’t felt as good as it does now in ages. The other precision weapons feel accurate, while having the right range and rate of fire. My only real concerns online right now are spawn issues – which are typical this early on in a game’s life; and the vehicles can be a little wonky, albeit not as game swinging as they used to be. If you were turned off of Halo in the last couple years, this is absolutely the game that could bring you back in.

Halo 5: Guardians – Arena Multiplayer Quick Thoughts

Halo 5 GuardiansBefore my Xbox One died last week, I was able to play a pretty good chunk of Halo 5: Guardians online with my buddies. We played a bunch of Warzone while we had five online, and switched to Arena when we lost one member. I actually managed to play enough games to get my Slayer ranking before the Xbox update disaster of 2015 happened – and managed to pull a Platinum 1 ranking. So with that in mind, I want to quickly talk a bit about how I think the Arena behaves.

As far as the ranking system goes, I actually really like the idea behind it – it draws heavily on the way that MOBA’s rank their players. You get put into a group, and then have to work your way up through the brackets by playing well and winning. The better you do, the harder the competition is within your division. I think that this style of ranking actually fits better with the Halo style of play. It’s always been a series that’s had a strong link to the more hardcore competitive scene. This style of ranking just brings that to the masses online. Having you play ten games before you even get a ranking just makes sure that you’re placed where you should be – and if you aren’t you’ll find out quickly.

Halo 5 Warzone

When we talk about the actual gameplay, the two big factors that really impact how well Halo works are the weapons and the maps. In the play time I managed to get in, I will say that I think the rotation was a little weak – we played Fathom almost every other time it felt like. Now, Fathom happens to be a really solid map, but I definitely wanted to see more variety in the maps. I think in the few hours of playing we did, I saw Regret, Fathom, Plaza and Rig – that’s it. The maps definitely play into the new mechanics – clamber, spartan charging, thrusters – and work well with the weapons too. I actually think that the maps that I’ve played are, as a whole. a really strong mix. I don’t know that there’s a Blood Gulch in there, but they’re certainly not bad maps.

Halo 5 DMR Render

As for the weapons, I like the changes they made to the system here. Gone are Halo 4‘s ordinance drops, and we’re back to set weapon locations on the maps. I like that each map has a much lower number of power weapons on them. Doing that makes the matches feel a lot more intense, since they tend to revolve around those points more. They also simplify it with built in callouts for the respawns on the power weapons – what used to be a pro-level strat, now is just a part of the game. That helps everyone – newer players don’t need to worry about tracking those times, while pro-level players now can focus on other parts of the game. The weapons themselves feel just like Halo weapons should. The new Assault Rifle feels really powerful – especially in mid-range combat. It’s not going to beat a good BR or DMR user at mid-long ranges, but it can definitely do it’s job of knocking people out of their scopes. The fact that default loadouts are back to AR and Magnum puts more emphasis on learning the behaviors of the two weapons – Magnum is a five-shot kill, if you hit headshots all the way. AR is a shield drainer/support weapon to keep enemies in cover while you make moves. My biggest complaint with the new weapons is that the Plasma Caster and Hydra Launcher both feel really weak compared with the rest of the arsenal – they just kinda suck. Same with the Rocket Launcher, although that’s just because the projectile is really slow now.

All in all, with my unfortunately limited time with Halo 5: Guardians Arena, I really think 343 may have done what they needed to with it. It’s certainly more fun so far than Halo 4 was, at least to me, and it definitely works better than Master Chief Collection. I really wish that I could play it more – especially now that we’re a week out from launch and hopefully everything stabilized a bit more. Hopefully my repairs won’t take too obscenely long and I can split time with that and and Fallout 4. We’ll just have to see.

Halo 5: Guardians – Day One Warzone Impressions

Halo 5 GuardiansLaunch day is upon us for the latest entry in Microsoft’s vaunted Halo franchise. I talked a bunch yesterday about the pressure that I think this game is under to succeed, especially in this first launch week. So today, now that I’ve put a couple hours into messing with customization and playing a few rounds of Warzone, I thought I’d talk a bit about what I saw and felt. Halo is very much a “feel” game – especially in the online multiplayer.

Before I ever step foot into the online arenas in pretty much any shooter these days, I look at the customization options that are available to me. In Halo that used to just be emblem and armor colors, but has since evolved to include a whole slew of armor pieces and helmet options. Halo 5: Guardians takes that even farther than every before. In previous games there were maybe 20 or so helmet choices – in Halo 5 there are 75! That extends to the armor choices, and there are even more options than to customize than ever before. Visor colors, weapon skins, emblems, the stance your Spartan takes in menus and even assassination animations all can be changed to your personal choices. I think today I spent maybe 20 minutes or so just looking at all the different things I could tweak, and changing my actual setup with the very few options I had at launch. What I’ve always liked is that Bungie and 343 have always put some incentive behind customizing your Spartan with achievements. I love that, mainly because I always think that the more that players can make their in-game avatar their own creation, the better.

Once all that is handled though, it’s time to dive in to the arenas. I went with Warzone, both because it’s new, and also because I’m kinda waiting for my fireteam to play Arena matches – at least this week. Warzone had definitely piqued my interest pre-launch though. I always thought that Big Team Battle was the best way to experience the classic Halo gameplay, and Warzone is BTB done the Next-Gen way. Player vs. Player vs. AI in a massive 24 player lobby is tailor made for the world of Halo. With the new Req system that lets you pick weapons and vehicles as you want them – assuming you have the energy to buy them – it makes each game a lot more dynamic. It’s not about waiting and timing the spawns on power weapons and vehicles anymore. It’s about keeping an eye out for players doing well and knowing that they could be pulling a Scorpion out any time now. Keeping those power weapons banked for those moments is a really big tactical move now.

Halo 5 Warzone

All that is great when you realize that the default Warzone mode is essentially a big version of Battlefield‘s Conquest mode. You need to grab the three control points in order to open up the enemy team’s Energy Core, then blow it up. It’s Conquest, but works both ways – there’s no offense/defense, it’s just push forward until you win, or counter any attack coming your way. That in-and-of itself would be awesome for Halo in a BTB setting, but then you add in the AI enemies. They pop up every few minutes, with callouts and everything. Your team is rewarded for killing them – the harder the enemy, the more score your team gets. It’s entirely possible to win a match without holding onto the control points the most. Pick off the bosses, keep slaying enemy Spartans and you will have a win on your hands. All in all, I really think that Warzone is a really fun way to play Halo – it’s the perfect Halo experience really. It’s everything that the franchise has always been about in one setting. I really hope that we’ll see more than just the three maps available right now as the DLC season kicks off.

One thing that I always keep in mind when I play Halo is how it makes me feel. Halo has always been a game that’s close to my gaming core – some of my favorite gaming memories are from huge LAN parties back in High School in the original game. And so far, with a pretty small sample size, Halo 5 is doing a really good job of keeping that feeling there. Each weapon feels great – and different. Sure there’s some ducks in the bunch – I’m looking at you Plasma Caster – but the most important weapons all feel just like they should. I think that the opportunity for those special moments might be better than ever before with this game. The new mechanics make it easier than ever to move around the maps and get into combat – and then maneuver in combat. I can definitely see map knowledge and movement being more important than it has been in a long time here. Again, it’s still really early, but I gotta say, I have a good feeling that Halo 5 might be the game the series needed it to be.

Halo 5: Guardians – Under Pressure

Halo 5 GuardiansTomorrow is the launch of Halo 5: Guardians – actually the seventh Halo game in the main series – and with it I want to talk a little about expectations with big games like this. This is a tricky one for me – Halo has always been a special franchise to me. It’s responsible for me even getting into the Xbox brand. It proved to me that an FPS could work, and work supremely well, on consoles. And the series proved to me that online multiplayer was here to stay on consoles as well – and Xbox Live really owes its success to Halo 2 to this day I think. So for me to be truly objective here is certainly a little difficult. I want this game to succeed so badly – and it’s from that mindset that I got this post idea.

Halo is an interesting franchise to me. It’s Microsoft’s baby – it’s their Mario, or Sonic the Hedgehog. They’ve used Master Chief as a Mascot for a long time now – 14 years strong. But Master Chief isn’t the same as Mario – they appeal to very different audiences. Master Chief is very much an adult character, Mario is more for everyone. And it’s for that reason that I don’t think Halo can be treated as a sure-fire hit every time they put out a game. Whenever Nintendo puts out a major first-party game, it’s almost always a top-shelf quality experience. So far, Halo has had a similar track record – but there’s a variable that I think we need to talk about: competition. For those first three games, there really was no other shooter on the same level as Halo to give them a run for their money. Call of Duty was still growing into the behemoth it is now; Battlefield had yet to truly come to consoles, and any other potential threats were old horses on their last legs. That’s a very different scene that what Halo 5 faces this year. Destiny, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Battlefront and Titanfall all still have strong playerbases, and I don’t see any of those franchises going anywhere anytime soon.

Halo Master Chief Collection

With that, there’s one other thing hanging over Halo 5: Guardians – and it’s 343’s Master Chief Collection. Last year’s celebration of the Halo franchise should have been a win-win-win-win no-brainer. Unfortunately, the difficulties of running four different game engines, plus a UI that had its own issues just proved to be too much, and the game was a huge debacle. There’s really no way to go into Halo 5 without having that in the back of a fan’s mind. For me, 343 really has to prove that they can run this franchise for the future. Even Halo 4 was kind of forgettable to me – not bad, but not a touchstone game like the previous games were. That doesn’t mean I think 343 can’t do it – they have the right people there for sure. They just need to show it. The early impressions seem to show that Halo 5 has the ingredients there too. Sure the story hasn’t gotten amazing reviews, but these days, that’s kinda par for the course with FPS games. What really matters is the competitive multiplayer – that’s what keeps players playing the games for months or even years after launch. Halo traditionally has a multiplayer that does just that – keep the community involved for years after launch. Halo 5 is the biggest shake-up to the formula in a long time though, so I think this first week or two really will prove if the changes will work with full public servers. I hope to have some more concrete thoughts on the different new multiplayer modes and mechanics this week, it just depends on the servers working. MCC still is in my mind with that sort of thing, so we’ll just see how it goes.

Halo 5: Guardians Launch Prep – Things are a Little Different

We are about to hit the super crazy season – in the next five weeks, there are five major triple A titles coming out. Tomorrow is Assassins’ Creed: Syndicate, next week is Halo 5: Guardians, after that on the 6th of November is Call of Duty: Black Ops III, on the 11th we get Fallout 4 and the week after that marks the return of Star Wars Battlefront. That’s possibly the best lineup I’ve ever seen in such a short span of time – it’s hard to call now, but it’s entirely possible that there are multiple Game of the Year candidates in that lineup.

Halo 5 Guardians

And in that lineup is a game trying something a little different with its launch day events. That game would be Master Chief and Spartan Locke’s story in Halo 5: Guardians. Microsoft is starting to really push the hype train out of the station this week – there are plenty of people out there with the game as we speak. Twitch streamers, Youtubers, and press all got their copies over the weekend. That’s a pretty big cushion between early release copies and launch. My only personal experience with something similarly timed was with Skyrim – we got our copies at G4 two weeks early. What that means is that the initial launch content from those places should be really strong – not just reviews, but I would expect to see some more deep dives on particular portions of the gameplay, like the new Warzone or Breakout modes online. It also keeps the hype in mind – I’m sure they all have NDA’s signed so specifics can’t be discussed in public, but they can certainly talk about feelings about the game. That alone is pretty novel an idea from Microsoft – get the core base of the game engaged with it early, and hope that their hype spreads to the bigger market.

What I really think is interesting here though is the actual launch day festivities. Generally, with these huge games, we see launch parties and fan events. With first party games like this they get held at either first party stores, or at Gamestops in bigger cities. Every once in a while, you’ll see a studio rent out a theater or something like that. In this case, Microsoft is forgoing all that and doing it digitally. Huh? A digital party. Seems a little weird to me, but with streaming growing as quickly as it is, it kinda makes sense. Especially when you look at who’s doing it – Microsoft. They’ve been pushing the digital side on the Xbox One since launch, and two years later we’re starting to see it really bear some fruit. Now, do I think that this will be a rousing success – not really. Sure I expect people to tune it – maybe people on the fence about the game, or people waiting for their physical copies to install. But I am more interested in actually sitting down and playing a bunch of Halo again on the 27th. After the debacle that was Master Chief Collection, I am really hoping that 343 gets this right. The story looks solid – I like the idea of pushing four-player Co-op here. But what will really seal the deal is the multiplayer – if it has the same issues that MCC had, the series might have a real struggle regaining its audience. All signs point to the competitive scene being strong, and the actual multiplayer being a return to form, but it’s impossible to say for sure until we’ve played it for a couple weeks. Luckily we only have one more week to wait.