Halo 4: From Beginning To End

As you may or may not know, I am a teacher and father of a two-year-old boy. This means that I spend the whole day essentially as other people’s property – either teaching the structure of a language contorted by the Normans, Celts, Vikings and Shakespeare, or running around saying things like “DON’T eat the jigsaw” or the classic “PLEASE STOP HITTING THE DOG WITH THE KIWI” (true story). As a result, my decades old gaming habit (addiction?) has taken a real battering. I realised that when I fell asleep, exhausted, in the middle of an intense virtual firefight, thumb still pushing my avatar into a wall as dreams took hold, my traditional gaming window had ceased to be viable.

This has lead to my backlog of unfinished titles growing to huge proportions, even necessitating the creation of an Evernote list just to keep on top of it. However, sometimes the Universe synchronises and I get the rarest of rare opportunities – a day off, in my apartment, with my son elsewhere and no work to be done. These cannot be squandered. So, today, I’m treating myself. The reading chair has been moved and has temporarily become the gaming chair, and in front of me I have *Halo 4* installing on my Xbox 360. I’m going to play the whole damn thing, from beginning to end, and update this article as I go.

I think this might be the last hurrah for the old 360. I started transitioning over to the PS3 early last year when my Live account ran out and I’ve barely used it in the last six months. I think later this week it’ll go on Craigslist while it’s got any kind of value before its successor emerges in April. How fitting, then, that *Halo 4* will be its swansong. I bought my first Xbox to play *Halo* and my first 360 for *Halo 3*, so this would be a fine send-off. I hope. The *Halo* fanboy in me is a little apprehensive, but there’s only one way to find out.

Here. We. Go!

9:43am – After the frustration of Heroic at Matt’s house, this is the first game I’m choosing to play on Normal. Hope it’s not too easy.

9:48am – Certainly is very shiny.

9:52am – Chief OF Duty. FFS. QTEs have *no* place in *Halo*.

10:10am – Nice prologue, but I hope Cortana doesn’t spend the next five hours telling me *exactly* what I need to do at all times. Tearing through Covenant with the BR and Magnum never gets old, though.

10:21am – “The whole ship was destroyed in the crash, but these Warthogs…they’re fine”.

10.35am – Either the Magnum is (still) ridiculously overpowered or the Covenant weapons feel incredibly weak. Either way, being forced to use a Storm Rifle is draining my fun and motivation already, which probably doesn’t bode well…

10:42am – The Forerunner architecture is beautiful, though. All tall and *Tron*-shiny. Becoming much more attracted to games with nice architecture, makes a big difference.

10:50am – To be fair, if I were to design an AI avatar, I’d probably make it a shapely brunette in a sparkly spandex suit, too.

10:54am – Feels like an attempt at a Best Of up to now. Crashing onto alien land, hunting Elites through lush green hills, Warthog sliding, bridge cross…check, check, check.

11:02am – And then there was the time where an Elite hijacked my Banshee then flew it straight into a wall and didn’t move. Then another one followed suit. Definitely finding some differences with the enemy AI compared to the flawless previous games’ performance.

11:08am – I’ve always been a lover of the solid AA games, and quite miss how they’re not really made any more, but it’s always nice to see the result of when an AAA game has *all* the money thrown at it. Some great artists at 343 Industries, that’s for sure. I just hope the story matches the artistic beauty. As someone who’s deeply involved in writing and language, a well-told story is what elevates anything to greatness.


11:13am – So when an Elite bursts out and charges you, and he’s got an energy sword so it’s a guaranteed one-hit kill, and the weapon you’ve got is too weak to damage him, and there’s no way you could have survived so next time you just spam grenades where you know he’ll emerge – I’m not sure that qualifies as good game design. Hmm.

11:22am – It’s *so* pretty. Amazing that they were able to squeeze graphics like this out of such old hardware. Oh good, Cortana’s pressed some buttons and now all hell’s broken loose.

11:32am – As much as I love the dismantling reload animation of the Promethian weapons, they feel as punchy as a handful of wet spaghetti. Magnum back, please. Also, Matt, you’re totally right – all the species’ weapons are basically reskins of each other’s. Most disappointing fact, so far. Love the feel of imaginative weapons in something like, say, the criminally underrated *Bulletstorm*.

11:35am – Croissants and hazlenut Nutella time. Also plan on drinking so much tea that I start sweating caffeine. Brb.

11:46am – I would like to thank (blame?) my Swiss students for getting me on to Nutella. They eat it with butter, just to make sure that it’s not healthy in the slightest. So, sugared up, tea made, time for more!

11:55am – How to infuriate me in two easy stages: STEP 1) Design enemy AI that make targets run away and attack from long range; STEP 2) Force me to use the only weapon in any abundance, the Supressor, even though it’s *completely* useless at long range with near zero accuracy.

12:01pm – Oh good, and the Scattershot’s useless too. How wonderful.

12:16pm – Hey Matt, remember when we first played this on co-op and we got stuck on the bit where we had to destroy the power to the pylon and put the draining of fun down to the difficulty level? Nope.

12:25pm – Oh, good. Instead of changing difficulty level – because there is no fun in cheap death and weak weapons – I restarted the whole. Damn. Pylon. Mission. Remember that time I was going to play the latest instalment of one of my all-time favourite gaming franchises in one go?


It remembers our previous co-op progress, so I can jump in to the next level! I’ll miss the unveiling of the Big Bad, but apparently I’ve seen that already. Obviously left a big impression.

12:31pm – O! D! S! T!

12:34pm – It’s uncanny how much the Mammoth rolling along the cliff edge echos the exact same tank sequence in the one of the *Gears Of War* games.

12:44pm – OK, finally. *Gorgeous* engine, fighting Covenant with a squad of Spartans and ODSTs, original weapons. Bungie’s *Halo* at its very best. Really underlines how weak an enemy the Promethians are, though. And I never want to have to use their weapons ever again, thanks.


12:50pm – Oh good, three more power sources I have to shut down. How very original.

12:51pm – Aaaand a Warthog just killed me by driving straight over me as I was lining up a shot. Obviously Master Chief isn’t *that* vital to the war effort. This is the exact same spot where I gave up on the campaign in co-op – let’s see if I make it through this time.

1:03pm – Now I’m fighting my way to the grav lift into a Covenant ship in the *exact* manner it happens in *Halo 3*…

1:12pm – “We literally *think* ourselves to death”. Literally, Cortana? Literally?

“I promise…I WILL NEVER DIE”

1:22pm – Always been a fan of sniping, but nothing breaks the immersion more than being given ten seconds to “RETURN TO THE BATTLEFIELD” if I dare to strafe an inch out of range. Still, this section is the first to feel like classic *Halo*, even if I did have to drop the difficulty down to Easy just to squeeze any fun out. I really think 343 messed up the difficulty levels, they don’t match the other games in the series at all.

1:34pm – I’m working on the theory that pizza makes everything better, if when it’s burnt to a crisp. Speed Bake indeed.

1:36pm – Brilliant game design #44: After going up a ramp, enemies rush you, and *directly* behind you is an insta-kill drop. GOOD WORK EVERYONE.

1:42pm – Aah, the Promethians are back. Pizza, why must you fail me now?

1:52pm – Just not a patch on the Covenant. Nowhere close. Inside somewhere now that looks *a lot* like *Halo*’s Library, and we all know how *that* turned out. (Spoiler: Not well)

1:58pm – Took ages for the light bridge to come out so I could try and find Cortana, was wondering up and down that walkway for ages. Bug? Maybe.

2:05pm – So the (albiet extremely impressive) CG exposition sequence has left me more confused than ever about the story. Master Chief is the result of the genetic seeds placed in humanity by an librarian who hid a weapon – The Composer duh duh DUUUHH – away from the Big Bad after humanity tried to kill everyone and everything. Right. What? Now Chief’s evolution has ben “accelerated” so I guess I’ve got laser eyes or something now.

2:14pm – Well, picked up Cortana, still no idea what’s going on, found a portal (very convenient, these portals) and now I’m suddenly back here. So I guess I’ll keep shooting things until something changes.

2:19pm – You know, *Halo 4*, the more you put me back in a UNSC squad, taking out Covenant in a Scorpion tank, the more I just want you to be *ODST 2*.

2:24pm – Yeah, good luck arresting Master Chief. Go for it.

2:26pm – True love.


2:32pm – And now I want a whole game flying a Pelican. Shivers!

2:36pm – BOOM


2:39pm – My ride. Seriously, 343, make this happen. An *X-Wing/Tie Fighter* style game set in the Halo universe? Day one.


2:48pm – And another callback to *Halo 3* with the defence of a slow-moving space gondola.

2:59pm – The perfect mid-weapon-change Pelican money shot.


3:04pm – Haha, as soon as Cortana said that we had to destroy some power attenuators, I knew there’d be three. Bingo!

3:05pm – Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the very worst of *Halo 4* – trapped in a metallic Forerunner structure, surrounded by the Annoying Dog Promethians, The Insect Bastard Promethians and the Flying Arsehole Promethians, having to destroy three of something before I can proceed. Sigh.

3:15pm – So I did the three things by jetpacking all over the place like a crazy person, just scraped through, heart pounding, then died on way to door objective and it put me back before the three things. FFS.

3:31pm. Yeah, take *that* three arbitrary things that need to be destroyed. Back to the Pelican.

3:34pm – Um…my Pelican keeps randomly blowing up on the way to the next waypoint. Maybe it’s a comment on the fragility and reality of the universe. Or maybe it’s a bug.

3:36pm – Uh, OK, it was an invisible ceiling. My mistake for thinking that I was piloting a spaceship that could fly upwards.

3:43pm – Wading through Covenant again, trying to get to the control terminal for the defence spires. Must be close to the end by now.

3:45pm – Big, wide open space and a Banshee. Recipe for Halo success!

3:50pm – Endgame.


3:53pm – Or not, as it seems. Last push to grab an artifact, which is actually The Composer, from the space base above…THE THIRD HALO RING DUH DUH DUUUUH! (Totally did not see that coming at all)

4:02pm – Oh man. Fighting Covenant in a space base alongside UNSC infantry and human scientists. If only the whole game had been like this.

4:13pm – The dog needs a wee, and my son will be here in 30 mins. Looks like this will need to be continued. Hope you enjoyed this with me, a few of the later levels were bordering on classic Halo. Hopefully will polish this off later, so keep your eyes peeled!

8:32pm – *Halo 4* playthrough part 2 is GO GO GO!

8:37pm – There’s no question about it, 343 are definitely referencing highlights in the series so far. Just making my way through a dark service tunnel, just like in the first *Halo*. Is this a good thing? It’s certainly very nice to see it so very shiny, and it does help to reignite those old *Halo* feelings.

8:49pm – Lots and lots and lots of dead Covs. Honestly, they could have made a ten hour game out of this and I would have been ecstatic.


8:59pm – Whoa! *Halo* Mech! Wait. *Halo* Mech???


9:05pm – To be fair, the Mech is exceedingly good at making Banshee rain. Impressive number of enemies in the fight without even a hint of slowdown, kind of what fans have been wanting in a *Halo* game for a long time.

9:09pm – Another stuck Banshee up against a wall. Maybe it’s a new trend.

9:14pm – Some nice *Raiders Of The Lost Ark* face-melting there! Didn’t *quite* manage to rescue those scientists. Sorry, scientists.

9:16pm – Aww. The interaction between Cotana and the Chief is actually quite touching. Her facial expressions are very subtle. Genuinely impressive. Now, back into space, after the Diadact!

9:18pm – So now it’s the run into the second Death Star from *Jedi* that’s the inspiration. Heading headlong into the Diadact’s ship in a Broadsword, the same space ship that was playable in *Halo Reach*. Still looking absolutely lovely, and I get the feeling this might be *Halo 4*’s version of the final Warthog chase.


9:24pm – I’m a sucker for a great spaceship-flying-into-something-big sequence (you can blame *Star Wars* for that), so this is doing *all* the right things for me at the moment.

9:39pm – Back inside, on foot, fighting the Promethians again. Would have quite liked the spaceship part as the finale, I think.

9:47pm – Gravity. Hammer. I’ve missed you, old friend.

9:53pm – The big weapon being powered up by the Big Bad, a closed door, and a selection of weapons. Last part, then.

10:19pm – Really really really the end now. The *Call Of Duty* crawl rears its ugly head again, unfortunately. At least the QTEs turned out to be just bookends.

10:27pm – Game over.


So, thirteen hours, three dog walks, one trip to playgym, two meals and four trips to the bathroom later, *Halo 4* is finished. Thanks for sticking with me and I hope you found my trip back into the *Halo* universe as much fun as wading through a crowd of Covenant in a Banshee. Tomorrow I’ll post my review and final collected thoughts on the whole thing, after a trip to Wikipedia to work out what was actually going on. Good night!

Simon’s Best of 2012

Best film – Looper

There’s so much to like about my film of 2012. Great script, stellar cast, strong direction from a relative newcomer…but Looper‘s best trick was what it didn’t tell you. The trailer would have you believe that you’re going to be watching a time travel action movie, young self hunting old in an indie twist on Terminator. What you actually got was a slow-burner that certainly had these elements in the background, but was really an exploration of family loyalty, the consequence of action, and how love can mutate and save at the same time. It gave us a further element to the age-old nerd dilemma: kill or spare young Hitler? Looper dares to suggest an alternative – change him, before it’s too late? It’s really something special, and the final message that Love Is The Answer resonated deeply over the weeks that followed the closing credits.

Also, it blatantly sidesteps the inevitable discussions on the holes in its time travel: Bruce Willis tells us directly that it just doesn’t matter. Deal with it. Watch the damn movie.

Honourable mentions:

Ghost Rider 2 – Really, one of the most enjoyable cinema experiences I’ve ever had. Take away the need to “act”, let Nic Cage be crazy and mo-cap the shit out of him, use the Crank directors, combine for great success.

Avengers – Awesome superhero ensemble party with Whedon serving fine cocktails. High art? Nope. Amazing, enjoyable, thrilling and genuinely funny? Yep. In spades.

Skyfall – Not just a great Bond film, but a fantastic action thriller that will hopefully act as a blueprint for the future of the franchise.


Best Game – Super Hexagon – iPhone

What’s the meaning of life?

Sorry, let me backtrack a little and give you some context. Super Hexagon has a simple premise: don’t die. Walls of death approach and all you can do is rotate your tiny triangle around a central hexagonal spoke. Inch through the space, repeat. Score is time. One touch is death, game over. Press to restart. Over and over and over again. Time slows and seconds become milestones. First twenty, thirty, forty. Sliding forward, each instant restart a chance to improve and slice away at your best score. Last a minute, and the game tells you you’re wonderful. You feel it too, with a sense of elation that is unmatched by many other “deep” games. And that’s just the first level – knowingly labeled “Hard” – before you fling yourself further down the rabbit hole in comparative, superlative and Hyper versions.

How can something so simple – an iPhone version of a Flash game, for God’s sake – leave such a lasting impression on so many gamers? I think it’s the purity. There’s absolutely zero fluff or filler in the design. Story, character, Freemium DLC (spit) – all eschewed in favour of a single beating heart. It reminds me of the hours I spent playing the version of Geometry Wars Waves buried in Project Gotham Racing 4 (if you haven’t tried it, I recommend throwing five bucks on a used copy and heading straight to the arcade cabinet in your garage). It’s almost like it contains the very root of everything I love about gaming, distilled and concentrated in one single action.

But, then, it goes even a little further. It feels like its trying to tell you something about yourself, about life. The desperation to stay alive, the fact that you have to read the situation, make your decision, move and live by the consequences. You can never go back. Indecision is the enemy and leads to failure. Read, move, act with instinct and trust that deep, deep voice inside.

There have been a few times where I’ve looked at the encroaching walls and my brain has given up. You can’t do it, it says. That’s it. Game over. Then I watch passively as my fingers take over and lead me through the gaps with millimetre precision. Maybe that’s why the iPhone version is actually my favourite – the timing windows for the gaps are buried somewhere very deep in my nerve endings. It’s also with me all the time, and is the perfect distraction for the occasional spare two minutes between being an effective teacher and responsible parent. I play it and the world shrinks away for ninety seconds, the music vibrates my fingers, my heart pulses in time with the screen.

What’s the meaning of life? Who knows. But for me, this year, it’s been Super Hexagon; keep moving, trust your instincts, make your decision, and go. You can never go back.

Honourable mentions:

Journey – PS3 – Beautiful, moving and meaningful. So rare to get this from a game these days.

FTL – Mac – Just getting into this, but it’s already worming its way into my thoughts. It’s certainly made me consider doors as a higher priority.


Biggest disappointment (game or movie) – The Dark Knight Rises

I’m sure Matt’s chosen the same. You only need to listen again to our podcast to hear the abject disappointment hanging on every groaned syllable. His analysis will no doubt act as a highly-detailed magnifying glass over one of the year’s biggest films, but let me be the blunt hammer to his scalpel. The Dark Knight Rises ultimately does the unforgivable – simply put, it is just A Very Bad Movie.

Not a rarity, not this year or any year, but let me tell you why this badness is especial:

This is a Christopher Nolan movie

Inception has spoiled me. It’s practically ruined anything remotely in a similar genre. The last film that had that effect on me was Fight Club, especially as I was then a student of filmmaking who, right up to that point, arrogantly thought I could improve on anything with my unsurpassed dynamic vision and seemingly limitless talent. Fight Club left me physically shaking in a taxi, wondering how the hell I could ever be that good. Inception did the wondrous thing of telling a story that could only have been told in that medium, by that director. Insomnia, Momento, The Prestige; all additional rock-solid signs that Nolan utterly understands the silken weave between pace, time, story, setting and character. How could all this vision, this experience, result in something as wooden and splintered as Rises?

The Dark Knight exists

Batman Begins sowed the seeds of new Batman, moving away from Schumacher day-glo pyrotechnics to a version more grounded in the real. TDK then took this formula and dared to cast some young actor from A Knight’s Tale to continue Jack Nicholson’s Joker legacy. Do you remember the furore surrounding Health Ledger’s casting? I’m sure I even contributed to it. All the whining stopped immediately when the second film finally released. But was it just Ledger holding it together? No. Nolan’s a director who can bring out the best from all his actors (a reaction by Al Pacino in Insomnia is still the greatest piece of acting I’ve ever seen on film) so Ledger’s star turn is not a singular lynchpin. The script, slow and steady and full of malice. The characters, so well-rounded and interesting. The movie fit together as an intricate Chinese puzzle box. You left the theatre feeling like you’ve been exposed to what happens when the best are allowed to work together.

Conversely, DKR felt like I’d just read the readers’ questions section in Cosmopolitan.

The story is bad

I’m not going to list all the problems with this script and plotline (pro tip: Google them), but suffice to say they have more holes than an infinite golf course.


Disappointment is an understatement, then. An altogether dreary and unsatisfying ending to one of the most invigorating superhero reboots in cinema history.

Honourable mentions:

Cabin In The Woods – Great premise, wonderful execution, terrible ending that negated the actions of the previous fifty minutes. Shame.

Promethius – Went in with low expectations, found the end result to be even lower. Very beautiful but ruined by a terrible script with some of the worst space scientists I’ve ever seen.

Halo 4Halo is all about story for me. Note to 343 Industries -“story” does not mean “go here, do this set of three things, repeat”.


Top 3 I haven’t seen/played:

Cloud Atlas – I’m reading the book at the moment – and it’s entirely wonderful – so I’ve delayed watching the movie as I don’t want my imagination forced to picture Halle Berry instead of my own Luisa Rey. Really curious to see how on earth anyone could ever think they could make a movie of this book. Adored Run, Lola, Run, so it’ll be a visual feast if nothing else.

Smashed – I’ve been saying for a long time that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is one of the best young actors working at the moment, and this seems to the film that finally supports this claim. It only had a limited run here, so looking forward to catching it before the Oscars so I can throw some support behind it.

Tokyo Jungle – The PSN title that lets you play as a Pomeranian, trying to survive post-human Tokyo amidst hyenas and lions. It sounds like an utterly unique gaming experience that could only have emerged from Japan.



Happy New Year!