Friday, September 2, 2022

343 Industries, what are you doing?

Being a Halo fan the past few years has been... interesting. I remember when Microsoft first launched the Xbox at the start of the millennium, and it was common knowledge that Halo was the reason you would buy an Xbox. Games were released with the promise of being a "Halo killer", and none seemed to be able to do the job. Halo is often cited as the game that proved first-person shooters could be played well on a console. Sales of the game broke records that were previously dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. The story of Master Chief fighting a collective of alien races obsessed with destroying humanity — and ultimately all life in the galaxy — was told with just enough information to give you a purpose in the game, but with enough mystery to leave fans wanting to know more about the universe. The story built upon itself over three games, plus a side story and a prequel, and came to a satisfying conclusion.

Then things changed. Bungie separated from Microsoft and left Halo behind. A new studio was created, hiring some of the original talent, to continue the story. But with the Covenant War story wrapped up, they had to create a new story with a new antagonist, something that would be interesting to fight in a video game. So, 343 Industries went back in time to the race that built the Halo world. Novels had been written about this people and what drove them to build the Halos, so fans that were into reading the literature had a handle on what was going on and who the characters were. But in order to make the story accessible to people who only played the games, Halo 4's story included a lot of exposition-heavy cutscenes. This attempt to tell-not-show the backstory about an unfamiliar enemy was probably one of the biggest reasons the campaign got a lot of criticism. In the end, the main antagonist, the Didact, is defeated. Technically, he isn't destroyed, and the end-game voiceover implies that he may return. But, perhaps in response to the fan backlash, or perhaps without a clear plan for what might be next, 343 Industries elected to leave the Didact's ultimate fate to a graphic novel, never to be revisited in the video games again.

343 Industries introduced a new storytelling technique in the form of Spartan Ops, an episodic feature that explored the story of a former Covenant fanatic, Jul 'Mdama, who sought to claim ancient Forerunner technologies and continue the war against humanity. The story was interesting, but the gameplay was very basic and repetitive. Once again, following public disapproval, 343 Industries elected to abandon the story and finish it off in a graphic novel. The ending of the story would serve as the opening of the next game, where Jul 'Mdama is killed off in a simple cutscene and never mentioned again.

With two failed storylines with different antagonists abandoned, 343 Industries once again rebooted their storytelling with a new threat. This time, they elect to pick up the pieces of a beloved character, Cortana, saying she actually survived her sacrifice at the end of Halo 4. Common theory is that this version of Cortana is from her corrupted fragments that were branched off during Halo 4's gameplay, a view that helps to explain why she turns out to be the main antagonist in Halo 5 (though her actual story was, once again, only explained in a graphic novel outside of the games). For many, Cortana's turn to the "dark side" felt like a betrayal, but that was only the start of the issues with Halo 5's story. An excellent marketing campaign set the stage for a mystery and a showdown, how Master Chief would be at odds with another Spartan team that believes he went rogue and needs to be hunted. The game itself, however, failed to deliver on that story, watering down the Spartan vs. Spartan story to a series of alternating setpieces, with the fan-favorite Master Chief getting the overwhelming minority of screen time. Many felt Master Chief was being sidelined in an underwhelming attempt to pass the torch to a new, unknown Spartan Locke, and there was a lot of resistance from the fanbase. The game's story ultimately ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, with Cortana beginning to subjugate the galaxy, and Master Chief gathering with his former foes without a plan to take her down.

Once again, this storyline would be unceremoniously dropped in a dumpster. 343 Industries attempted to go back to the series's roots, by bringing in a Covenant-like enemy introduced in the Halo Wars real-time strategy series, the Banished. While the narrative tells the end of Halo 5's Cortana story, it's all in flashback cutscenes that happened between Halo 5's ending and Halo Infinite's opening. (At least it's not in a book or graphic novel this time, which is a modest improvement. It is still unsatisfying at best to know we didn't get to finish the fight ourselves and can only watch.) But, unable to resist the temptation to introduce yet another new antagonist, the game makes several references to a new race, the Endless, of which you only see and fight one. There is a promise that the Endless will return in the future, as Halo Infinite is promised to be a "platform" for future stories; but I, for one, can't help feeling a sense of déjà vu that they might kicking this new antagonist into the trash as well.

That's the story. But what about the gameplay itself? Well, it's on even more shaky ground. On the one hand, there's a lot to love about Halo gameplay. While 4 and 5 felt more "un-Halo" (whether by gameplay mechanics, or just general "feel"), Infinite "feels" more like the Halo we used to know, even with the new abilities and mechanics that were introduced. But there's a lack of content. Armor customizations, which started in Halo 3 and really started to take off in Reach, felt way too restrictive, with even colors locked down to defined "coatings". Many customizations were locked behind battle passes, which dripped content much more slowly than even Halo 5's random "loot box"-style of unlocks. Locking armor parts to individual "cores" was even more restrictive, and made even less sense when you could see computer-controlled bots mixing up different combinations (meaning the reason for limiting their use was clearly intentional, not a limitation of the game engine). Slowly, 343 Industries has been opening up these customizations, but it's still very limiting at almost a year after the game's launch. "Seasons", where new content and story elements would be released, have been long-delayed and lacking in content as well. There is still a small number of maps and game types (especially compared to previous games, all the way back to the original).

Perhaps the most egregious issues are the lack of features that have long since been available in Halo. Halo 5 was the first game in the series that lacked split-screen local co-op in the campaign, which was something highly criticized. 343 Industries stated that they were even disappointed with themselves in that omission and promised it would return in future games. Halo Infinite, the "future game" at the time, launched campaign with no co-op features whatsoever (not even over the network). They finally tested a network co-op release, which they promise is coming soon; but they have now, officially, cancelled plans to develop local split-screen co-op.

Forge, too, has long been a part of the Halo ecosystem, ever since Halo 3. The game launced without this feature as well. In a move that I'm not entirely sure was accidental, the unfinished development code was leaked out with the campaign co-op build. On the plus side, modders were very excited and impressed with what they found. This may be one feature that proves to be worth the wait; though it feels as though we've been spending a lot of time waiting for the potential that Halo Infinite can bring.

That is really the biggest issue: the waiting. Six years since the last Master Chief Halo game, almost a full year after the game's "release", and it still feels unfinished and empty. It feels like every communication, every road map, is such a small list of features coming, with no specific timelines, and previous promises are delayed or cancelled. Leaks and data mining revelations are interesting and encouraging, with positive YouTube and Reddit comments; yet analyses of official announcements and communcations are concerning and distressing to the same YouTubers and Redditors. The roller coaster of all these ups and downs is nauseating, and so many people have gotten off the ride at this point that Halo is going to have to work to not only keep players, but try to win them back.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Extra Life time again!

I must be a glutton for punishment, because I'm doing it again. On November 3rd, I'll be doing another marathon for Extra Life. 24 hours of game playing to raise money for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

Once again, you can donate to the cause at, and watch me play on Mixer at Not sure what I'll be playing this time, but Forza Horizon 4 will be out. It's also been suggested that I tackle the Bioshock series, which has been on my backlog for ages. I'm open to suggestions, though... ;)

Saturday, September 29, 2018

CyberKnight Versus the Volcano

Gather 'round and hear my tale of my first night voyaging in the Forsaken Shores in the game Sea of Thieves.

I was sailing on a two-man sloop doing a Gold Hoarder mission in the Forsaken Shores (red maps, nice touch), when my shipmate had to call it a night. Since there were a couple hostile brigantines in the area, we decided to sail out to Galleon's Grave Outpost to sell our booty before he logged off.

Alone, I decided I might as well try to finish out the voyage, since there were only one or two islands left, so I set sail. On my way to the Forsaken Brink, I passed near a volcano that went active. I started getting close to my island, so I started to pull up on the sail, when— WHAM! a fiery boulder hit my ship. It didn't do much damage to me, but it was enough to knock me off of the rigging. I went to check on the damage, and WHAM! my ship was hit again. Peeking down into the hold, I saw my hull filling with water, and decided I had better put a stop to it before I sank.

I repaired my little boat and bailed out the water, then got back up to the helm, only to find that I was still moving fast and about to run smack into the rocks of my island destination. I hit the anchor and managed to skid to a stop, with my bow scraping against the rocks. I go down below. One hole in the bow. Could've been a lot worse. I start to patch it up, and— WHAM! another hit from the nearby volcano. Took a bit of a hit to my health, but nothing a potassium-rich snack won't fix. But first, have to go back to patching that hole in the boat.

That taken care of, I decide I need to move my ship around the island so I don't— WHAM! WHAM! More holes in the boat. It's getting serious. I start pulling up the sails so I can get ready to pivot away from the island rocks and get mov— WHAM! Knocked off of the rigging again. Eat a quick banana and go below to start repairing and bailing before I don't have a ship left.

I get the leaking under control — not completely fixed, but enough that I should be able to get the boat moving before I sink. I get on deck and try, once again, to lift the sails, and— WHAM! direct hit. I'm dead.

I respawn, with my boat miraculously still afloat, but with the hull holding out the water about as well as your average kitchen colander. The water has nearly filled the hold. I start bailing furiously and only manage to lower the water level an inch or so, and decide that I should probably at least patch up one hole so I can make some headway. I start pounding in a board, and WHAM! another flaming meteor knocks me out of position. I try again, but, despite my head still being above water, the insurance company has declared my vehicle a total loss. I can't repair. The boat starts to sink.

Now I'm on the beach of the island, trying to decide my next move. Dig up the chest? Nah, no point, nothing to store it in. I'll just get in my respawned boat and come back. I see the mermaid spawn offshore, and I run towards it. Just as my feet touch the water, I happen to glance up and see the firey tails of— WHAM! Another direct hit from the volcano. Dead again.

Waiting for the game to reload, I wonder where it will spawn me. Hopefully not too far away, so I don't have too long of a trek back to the island. I hear music. My vision clears.

Galleon's Grave Outpost.

Thus ends the tale of CyberKnight Versus the Volcano.

Epilogue: I sail back to the island to give it one more chance. All is quiet this time. I leave my ship and go ashore. Check the map, head for the approximate location of the X. Wait, what's that hissing noise? Gunpowder skeleton! Run! BOOM! The explosion knocks me up into the air and sideways towards some rocks. I'm alive, but barely, with only a sliver of red remaining on my health bar. I look around, and all I can see are rocks. I'm standing in about an inch of water, completely surrounded by boulders, with the only way out too high for me to jump out of. I am completely stuck.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Physical vs. Digital

I created this list in response to a Reddit post once, and I thought it would be worth keeping around. If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you probably know by now that I don't have a very high opinion of "digital distribution" when it comes to video games (i.e., games that are sold without any physical medium, just downloaded over the internet via your account). But to prove that I don't think it's completely useless, I have a list of the pros and cons of each. I may update this list as new information comes to light.

Note that this list was created in the Xbox One subreddit, so some of these items may be specific to that platform.

Physical Discs

  • You can loan, rent, share, sell, or give away discs, to anyone at any time.
  • You can return the game to the store if it doesn't work, or if the purchase was accidental. [Though Microsoft will be allowing digital returns within 14 days and under 2 hours of play soon.]
  • You can play them on any Xbox at any time, no matter who is signed in.
  • Installing is faster, since the bits are installed from the disc instead of downloaded over the internet. (Though large day-one patches that have to be downloaded may negate this advantage somewhat.)
  • If your account is stolen, hacked, or banned, you still have your games.
  • If Xbox Live goes down at any point in the future, your ability to play your games won't go with it. (The ongoing support of 360 games suggests this won't happen anytime soon; though history shows it has happened before.)
  • Prices in physical stores tend to decay over time, as retailers try to move inventory.
  • If the disc is lost, broken, or stolen, your license to play is gone.
  • Can't simultaneously share a single copy with more than one person.
  • Have to change discs to change games. (While this may not seem huge when you're physically at the console, it's much bigger if you're away from the console, like with the streaming to Windows 10 feature.)
  • In order to play the game on any console (e.g., visiting a friend), you must bring the disc.

Digital Downloads

  • No physical item to lose/maintain.
  • One copy of the game can be played on two consoles simultaneously — the one you're signed in on, and the one you've chosen as your "home console". (Although this isn't strictly endorsed by Microsoft as a way to share with someone outside of your household, they have so far turned a blind eye to this "game sharing".)
  • Not having to insert the disc to play. (The Windows 10 Xbox app feature of being able to remotely connect to your Xbox, start a game, and stream it to your PC or tablet, makes this even more convenient, as the disc doesn't have to be in the drive already.)
  • You can purchase (and in many cases, pre-purchase) games, and the console will automatically download and install them, instead of waiting for you to insert the disc before it can install.
  • If you sign in on any console, you can download and install the game and play it there (without having to bring along a physical disc).
  • Any console that has the game installed already, you can play it on when you sign in (as long as you're connected to Live).
  • Some titles you can purchase once and have the ability to download/play on multiple platforms (Xbox "Play Anywhere" titles that can be played on the Xbox and PC).
  • You cannot transfer the license to another person, temporarily or permanently.
  • Officially, no refunds — all sales are final. (Some have managed to get refunds from Microsoft on some occasions, but it can be dependent upon a roll of the dice as to what customer support person you end up talking to, and whether or not you've had to ask more than once.) [Though Microsoft will be allowing digital returns within 14 days and under 2 hours of play soon.]
  • The license to play is limited to at most two consoles at any one time — your "home console", and the console on which you're signed in. It cannot be shared with someone (other than you) on a third console, unless you sign in there yourself, too.
  • If you reassign your "home console" to a friend (i.e., use this feature as a form of game sharing), you can't play your own games if your internet connection goes down.
  • If your account is stolen, hacked, or banned, you lose access to your games.
  • Microsoft can revoke your license to play at any time. (Some people got lucky enough to "buy" a digital game for a deep or complete discount from the digital store due to an error on the website, only to find the game purchase revoked when the error was corrected — even though the item was downloaded, they could no longer play it. Xbox Fitness content that was purchased, was inaccessible when Microsoft discontinued the service.)
  • Prices for digital versions do not decay over time as quickly or as frequently as their physical counterparts. (It's not unusual to see an item of downloadable content never go on sale from its original price.)

For me, it's all about simplicity and freedom — the ability to share my content with my family any way I choose, without having to manage my licenses via some external party. As it stands now, if I wanted to put an Xbox in what we call the "teen room", no one there would be able to play anything I bought digitally. (Unless I made that my "home console" — but then no one would be able to use anything I bought digitally on the main TV in the family room.) Consoles in my house are not personal devices. They are shared, family devices; and anything that restricts my ability to share content with my family across those shared devices isn't a convenience, it's a hindrance.

Updated May 2017 to include Microsoft's new policy on returns of digital games.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Extra Life, Round 2

Yep, I'm doing it again. Coming up this weekend, I'll be doing another marathon for Extra Life. This one, though, will be a 25-hour marathon, since we traditionally end at the same time Sunday as we start Saturday, and this year's event falls on the same weekend as the travesty known as Daylight Saving Time. (So much for that extra hour of sleep.)

Once again, you can donate to the cause at, and watch me play on Twitch at This year, I'm planning on playing the entire Gears of War series from the Xbox 360. I've never played them before (besides just a couple levels of the first game), so it'll be a learning experience. The game is also heavier on language and violence than the Halo series, so viewer discretion is advised. ;)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Help the kids get a life... an Extra Life!

About six years ago, one of my boys ended up in the hospital with a "mystery disease" that kept him there for five weeks. It was a pretty traumatic experience, with all of the tests that were never 100% conclusive. (Even the disease they're pretty sure he had, and given that he responded to the treatment for that disease, the tests still didn't fully match the markers established for it.) Long story short, he's alive thanks to the work of the doctors at the Children's Hospital here in Denver.

The Extra Life foundation was established as a way for gamers to give to the community by raising money for the Children's Miracle Network hospitals. It's long been on my to-do list to get involved, and this year, I've finally made the commitment to join in.

Starting on Saturday, November 7th, I will be doing a 24-hour marathon to raise money for the Children's Hospital of Colorado. You can help by sponsoring me here: I will be streaming much of my marathon live on my Twitch channel, where you can watch me try to stay awake for 24 hours.

Please help me help the kids, and tune in on November 7th! Thank you for your support.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Building the Covenant Scarab

Two years ago, I built the Halo Mega Bloks set Forward Unto Dawn, and I documented the building process for fun. Recently, I got my hands on the Scarab building set, and I decided to do the same thing.

The set is a record 3,340 pieces — beating the previous two sets, the Mammoth and the Forward Unto Dawn by a decent margin. It comes in a roughly 15lb box that is about as tall but not quite as wide as that of the Dawn. Inside the lid is a picture of the set in an "action shot" with some special effects (laser blasts and explosions) added. Two boxes contained the parts, and the instruction manual was underneath.

The parts came in 34 numbered bags, two larger bags that themselves contained smaller bags of parts (not numbered), one variety of plates that was completely loose, and one tiny bag that had replacement parts for the Jackals' forearms. (The simple instructions included with those indicated that I was to remove the forearms that came on the Jackals, throw them away, and replace them with these. To be honest, I couldn't tell any difference between the parts I tossed and the replacements.)

All pieces, and the one that's missing (inset, left)
The first task, as always, is to open all of the bags, sort and count all the pieces, and compare the counts with the counts in the manual. I've come up with a decent system over the years, that involves taking pictures of the piece counts in the manual and importing them into OneNote. As I open a bag, I sort and count the pieces, and then scribble over the count in my OneNote picture when the counts match (or circle them with the actual count number for later). Although there's not much of a correlation between the pieces in the bags and the order the pieces appear in the manual, it is probably the easiest way I've come up with to do it. Alas, of the 3,340 pieces required, I was short one piece of one type. Although I've collected quite a few spare parts from other sets over the years, there were none that would substitute for this one. So, I put my replacement order in on the website, and then set about the monumental task of building this thing.

The instructions are divided into sections, and the first gives me a nice, quick "win": building the Prophet of Truth's hologram. The next sections constructed the legs. The nice thing about the leg construction is that each set — the front pair and the back pair — are identical; so I just had to do each step twice. On the one hand, it's a little disappointing that there isn't a little more variety in construction; but on the other hand, it was much more satisfying to build them than to build one full set of instructions for one piece, and then build a whole new set of instructions for the other piece that was simply mirrored from the first.

The following section was for the top turret, but I decided to leaf through the pages and see if my missing piece was featured in this section. Seeing a step that required that piece, I decided to skip it and move on to building the body. As I was pretty confident that I would not be able to complete the entire build in one Saturday, I preferred this order anyway — I figured I could get most of the pieces accounted for, and when I had to clean up at the end of the day, I would have to deal with fewer loose pieces to try and keep organized.

The build was long, but mostly uneventful. My biggest difficulty was this step:

Steps like these are extremely difficult to deal with, because it requires a large collection of pieces to fit precisely over another large collection of pieces, and they are never a perfect fit. This particular step took me several attempts at getting it to fit, including some shoving and slipping and causing a corner of a block to take a chunk of skin off of my hand. The Mammoth had a similar step, but that one wasn't as difficult as this. What I found particularly annoying is, it could very easily have been rewritten to build up upon the existing base instead of building the full plate and trying to attach it all at once. I know this because, when I got it almost on but had to adjust the fit on one side, I ended up ripping it apart a bit and was able to put it on in a couple pieces.

This build loses some more points for having another similar step a little later (though a smaller area made it not as difficult as this).

One thing that surprised me was the lack of a sticker sheet. I didn't feel that there were too many details missing without them, and to be honest, I wasn't too disappointed with the omission. The stickers have a tendency to curl up around the edges and tend to be more of a pain to put on than they're worth, to be honest.

The completed build stands taller than the Dawn and much larger than the Mammoth.

Overall, I'd give the Scarab a 7/10. Most of the build isn't too difficult, it's just long. The difficult build step noted above was even more disappointing in that it makes a rather large interior section almost completely inaccessible, as you can see in the pictures below (disappointing if you want to recreate the Scarab boarding scene from Halo 2). There are other details that seem wrong, such as the exclusion of turrets on the sides (that are essential for taking one of these bad boys down in Halo 3), and the power core mounted just a little higher than it should be. The knees don't bend, either -- though, to be honest, I doubt they could have realistically built those joints and have them hold the weight of the body. They are fairly limited in their range of movement, though (again, probably to maintain some semblance of structural integrity), which makes it very difficult to find a place to display the thing. With my wife's help, I did manage to find a bookshelf on top of which it could actually fit; though in my quest to find a suitable home, I did end up bumping the legs on a wall, only to hear one of the pieces of "knee armor" rattle behind the bookshelf and out of sight. I hope to find it again someday….

The Prophet on his throne

Rear view, the "inaccessible" area is at the bottom

The panel over the cockpit can be easily removed

The business end of the Scarab

Side view. Note the lack of a plasma turret on the sides.

The cover of the upper deck folds up easily, revealing weapon storage and the ramp to the inaccessible area below.

The Achilles' Heel