Sunday, September 26, 2010

Halo: Reach Completed for the Second Time

Earlier today, I completed my second playthrough of Halo: Reach, my first go on Heroic Difficulty. Overall, a very solid and enjoyable experience. Except for the checkpoint-only save system. Why console developers rely on this archaic frustration of a save system is beyond me.

Anyway, I was very impressed with the enemy AI, as just like in previous titles, it ramps up on the harder settings. The Elites in Halo: Reach are thus far the toughest non-uber powered enemies in a shooter I've ever faced. What I'm less impressed with though is the ridiculous durability of some enemies. The higher level Elites, for example, can survive a direct hit from a Spartan Laser.

This is the weapon that can blow up tanks! How does that make sense? Surprisingly, the Shotgun is ridiculously effective against them at close range, which is a nice change of pace since that weapon has stunk since Halo 3. Halo: Reach tends to keep most battles at a further distance than the previous games in the franchise though, so the Designated Marksman Rifle, Needle Rifle, and Magnum where still my fallbacks.

What I'm really not impressed with is the friendly AI. Really, they're dumb as -BLAM- and near useless. Admittedly they do kill things, but it takes them a long time, and they'll often just hang back doing nothing while you do all the work. I'm not even just talking about the soldiers, I'm also referring to your fellow Spartans. Emile has a Shotgun, for example, so you'd think he'd rush in to take on enemies up close. Right. He usually hangs out in the back. Or maybe he's making googly faces at the Brutes behind his custom scratched EVA helmet. Sorry Emile, that's not helping.

I'm happy to say that I didn't mind the story at all this time, since I've reconciled a lot of the retcon thanks to Halsey's journal included with my Limited Edition of the game.

I also had a good time earning "If They Came to Hear Me Beg." It took me 27 attempts over the span of about 10 minutes. In two of those attempts, I landed right on the Elite, killing both of us. In one of those two attempts, a Grunt panicked after the Elite and I died and suicided itself on our corpses. In another attempt, I Meleed the Elite (the Assassination didn't kick in for some reason), killed him, and survived the fall.

Did I mention I really, really hate checkpoint-only save systems? Seriously, there were several points in Halo: Reach in which the game just didn't want to checkpoint at all, causing me to have to repeat 10 minutes of various battles over and over again. My total playtime this game was probably close to 12 hours. A few of those hours were thanks to the -BLAM- checkpoint save system.

In fact, I got so frustrated at one point, that I punched my Controller. Not once, not twice, but thrice! And kudos to the crafty engineers at Microsoft, it still works flawlessly!

One interesting thing though is, with the exception of a few sections, I actually found the game easier on Heroic than I did on Normal. The parts that I found really challenging:

- The very end of Chapter VI, as I didn't equip myself with the best weapons prior to the final battle.
- The very end of Chapter VII, which is where I abused my Controller three times in a row.
- Most of Chapter X, especially the beginning, after the caves, a middle section (I'm now officially scared of Hunters), and the next-to-very-end battle. The earlier sections were hard due to, again, the checkpoint save system not wanting to kick in, causing me to repeat 10 minutes of play over and over again. I learned to take deep breaths though and not hurt my Controller anymore.

Next up is Legendary, and we'll see if I can go through it solo. Or if I molest my Controller again. My poor, poor Controller.

BioShock: Infinite Gameplay Video

Irrational Games has released the full Gameplay video for BioShock: Infinite, and you can view it below.

Very cinematic, but undoubtedly with a BioShock feel. Note that the video does use a good bit of scripted sequences and has a faster pace than what will be overall represented in-game. We're being told that BioShock: Infinite will feature a pace very similar to the original game, which is a great thing.

Gears of War: Anvil Gate Review

Hoffman. For those of you who've played Gears of War 2 with me, you know that I always play as Victor Hoffman though you may not know why. Honestly, it's all because of Karen Traviss. Over the last few years, she's taken the sparse story of the Gears of War franchise and injected it with actual plot, detail, and most importantly of all, character.

Her third and latest offering in the series is Gears of War: Anvil Gate, and like her previous two books, it follows the structure of telling things from the present day and flashing back to key and contrasting moments from a situation in the past.

The Coalition of Ordered Governments has retreated to an island stronghold far from the mainland, and there they've set up the last bastion of civilized humanity. The Locust Horde is seemingly defeated, and in either case, the COG is now beyond their reach. The original settlers of this island, citizens of the COG who have held it in trust since before the original Hammer of Dawn strike, allow the refugees from Jacinto to reorganize the island and make it their home, but the island is also inhabited by Stranded gangs, lawless humans who want the island for themselves. While fighting the rag tag band of Stranded another old enemy appears, though this time offering peace. The Gorasani, one of the Independent countries whom the COG was once at war with, seeks protection from the COG in exchange for imulsion, fuel, but can they really be trusted?

In each novel, Traviss picks a few characters to truly focus on, to really flesh out and develop in ways that just weren't possible in the games, and this time around, the chosen are Hoffman and Baird.

Hoffman is a character that Traviss has developed greatly before, but now she goes that extra step. The siege of Anvil Gate is something that was mentioned previously but never elaborated on, and now we get to read about that difficult siege during the Pendulum Wars and what Hoffman and his Gears and Pesang troops had to do to survive there. I personally find Hoffman to be a very strong, morale, and pragmatic character whom I admire, and it fascinates me to see what makes the man tick. The things he's done and the burdens he carries are ones that Traviss expands on in each novel, peeling away layer after layer of this intriguing character. Thatnks to Traviss, Hoffman has my respect and is my favourite character in the Gears of War universe.

Back to the present day, of course the other members of Delta squad are all present. Marcus is his usual sullen self, Dom is still struggling with but starting to come to grips with the loose of his wife, and Cole is as optimistic and the team player that he always was. Baird though, he's the Delta focus of this novel. Traviss really gets into his head, explains his thinking, his reasoning, and his general genius, and provides more insight as to why he's a cocky smart mouthed jerk to any and all. Baird's character isn't revolutionary, I found much of him predictable (mainly due to her past novels), but it's certainly nice to read.

Novel-only character Bernie Mataki returns, and for those unaware, she'll not only be featured in Gears of War 3 but will also be playable. We're also introduced to Sam Byrne, another female Gear in the upcoming game. Anya rounds out the trio of female Gears, and proves that she is able to hold her own in a soldier's capacity.

All of these characters and enemies need to set aside their differences and come together in the face of a new threat: The Lambent. Traviss pays key attention to politics and character dynamics between the different branches of the COG, the Indies, and Stranded, and she slowly but surly introduces the Lambent who are set to make a major appearance in the upcoming game and who's true menace is only glimpsed at in the novel's conflict.

Gears of War: Anvil Gate successfully builds what Traviss has laid down before, providing a solid and enjoyable read for any Gears fan, and crucial backstory for the next game which launches this coming Spring. While I'm sure much of these key events will be summarized or mentioned in Gears of War 3, there's nothing like reading the depth and character first hand, traits Traviss is a master of writing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Halo: Reach Limited Edition (Xbox 360) Review

The Halo franchise is many things to different people. Some people play the games for good old multiplayer carnage, some play for the Campaign and military sci-fi story, and others play simply because they like to blow stuff up no matter what they're doing. Enter Halo: Reach, Bungie's latest, and last, addition to the franchise. For nearly a decade now, Bungie has been entertaining gamers of all tastes with the Halo franchise's versatile gameplay, fast past action, and stylish humour. So does their final entry in the franchise measure up to what's come before?

Anyone who's followed the Halo storyline knows about Reach, the UNSC's primary military world and the home of the Spartan-II project. They also know that Reach was glassed by an overwhelming Covenant force just prior to Halo: Combat Evolved and that the majority of the Spartans fell defending the world. All of this is detailed in Halo: The Fall of Reach, the prequel novel published in 2001 and re-released in 2010. Yet despite Reach's importance and many references throughout the games, we've never actually seen the planet in-game outside of a brief Halo 2 flashback. In Halo: Reach, we get to witness the fall of Reach firsthand, though not through the eyes of John-117.

Like the last few Halo titles before it, Halo: Reach incorporates a significant amount of the expanded universe into the games, something hardcore Halo universe fans will be most pleased about. The thing they may not be overjoyed with in Halo: Reach is the significant amount of retcon that Bungie has placed upon this well established back story, but I'll get into that in a moment.

Players take on the role of Spartan-B312, or Noble Six, as he's more commonly known by his call sign. Six is the newest member of Noble Team, a group of six special operations Spartans (five are Spartan-III's, making their first in-game appearance) who are currently stationed on Reach. Six reports in right as Noble Team is being tasked with a new mission: to investigate a down comm relay. It was believed the relay may have been sabotaged by insurgent forces and an army group was sent to investigate. When they were never heard from again, command decided to send in Spartans, and Noble Team encounters what the UNSC feared most: Covenant. The Covenant are on Reach, and though this seems to be an advance party, worse is sure to come.

This all takes place beginning on July 24th, 2552, over a month before Reach falls. The rest of the story progresses slowly as Noble Team is tasked with increasingly difficult missions as the Covenant battles for control of the planet, and honestly, a lot of it just doesn't make sense when put next to the established canon of the Halo universe. While the Campaign's layout and gameplay is superbly done, smacking of the high quality polish we've come to expect from Bungie, I've always been a huge fan of the franchise's story and all of these revisions really bothered me. It bugged me so much so that I found myself enjoying the Campaign less and less as the game went on. Dr. Halsey, the mind behind the Spartan-II program and Project Mjolnir, also makes her first in-game appearance, and she knows about the Spartan-III's, something she wasn't supposed to learn about until two months later. Another plot hole for me to grumble about. Admittedly though, the Campaign really picked up about halfway through, much like Halo 3's, and despite the story inconsistencies with the rest of the established canon, I started having a great time and enjoyed myself up to the end.

The other major issue I had with the game's story was with Noble Team themselves. After putting together such great and memorable characters in Halo 3: ODST, a squad that I came to care about by game's end, I'm quite surprised that Noble Team is both boring and forgettable. Half the squad's voice acting is rather poor. Carter-A259 is completely uninspiring as squad leader, and he really could take a lesson or two from Sgt. Buck. Kat-B320 seems to be a fan favourite, but I honestly couldn't understand half of what she was saying with her thick accent, and if she was talking to me over the radio, forget it, couldn't understand a thing. I tried turning subtitles on, but sadly, not everything appears to be subtitled. At least Jorge-052, the squad's heavy weapon specialist and the Spartan-II of the group, had character and personality. Noble Team lacked soul and squad cohesion, and if it wasn't for an article on the web a few months back, I wouldn't have any clue about these characters back stories, as they certainly aren't fleshed out in-game. I will say I'm also glad to hear that Six actually talks now and again, much like John-117. I was worried Bungie would have made him a mute character lead, and I'm sorry to any Valve fanboys reading this, but mute leads don't work for strong storytelling. It's the truth, deal with it.

As I mentioned though, gameplay wise, the Campaign is solid. There's a wide variety of mission types through the Campaign, from search and destroy, to vehicle confrontations, to sieges; all the Halo flare is here and in spades. Elites make their grand return to the series and being a prequel, they're enemies and very challenging ones at that. As per my tradition, my first Campaign playthrough was on Normal difficulty, and even here, the Elites were challenging. They can absorb and dish out a fair deal of punishment, and they're excellent at dodging. The other new addition to the Covenant bestiary are Skirmishers, a very agile form of Jackal that forgoes their trademark Energy Gauntlet for speed and fancy maneuvers. Skirmishers are annoying, and you'll relish placing as many head shots through them as possible.

And head shots are harder to pull of this time around. It seems that Bungie has toned down auto-aiming, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's still quite possible, don't get me wrong, but precision shooting takes a little more finesse and skill than it used to. While enemy AI has been improved to extremely impressive levels, it's honestly the best enemy AI I've seen in a shooter period, friendly AI has taken a regrettable turn in the stupid direction. Not only are friendlies still horrible drivers, they're now poor gunners as well. Fun! If I had a dollar for every time my AI gunner, be it infantryman or Spartan, blew us up in our own Rocket Warthog, well, I'd nearly be able to buy my copy of Halo: Reach all over again! Not only is the friendly AI a poor shot, but on foot, they have a tendency to go charging ahead before I was ready, triggering the next enemy encounters too soon. This gets rather frustrating at times, especially when you're exploring.

For weapons, your tried and true staples are mostly back, save they may be the Army variants since Halo: Reach features the UNSC Army instead of the Marines for the first time in-game. The Battle Rifle has been replaced by the Designated Marksman Rifle, for example, which is a single shot, 15 clip weapon that does great damage; it was my fallback weapon throughout the entire Campaign. New UNSC toys include a Grenade Launcher and the Target Locator, used to call in air strikes. Very handy when available. The Covenant gets the Plasma Repeater, their version of an Assault Rifle, the Needle Rifle replaces the Carbine, and the Concussion Rifle is a new energy-based version of the Brute Shot. The Beam Rifle has also been replaced by the Focus Rifle, which functions like a sniping Sentinel Beam from previous games. Very deadly on enemies with no nearby cover!

Equipment is also right out, and Armour Abilities are in. Instead of carrying one single-use item at a time, you now get to pick up a regenerating armour ability that you can use again and again. These abilities can range from something simple like Sprint (an ability that's long overdue to the franchise, if you ask me!), to Active Camouflage, to Drop Shield, which is a combination of Halo 3's Bubble Shield and Regenerator.

While Halo: Reach innovates the franchise with these cool new abilities, Bungie hasn't forgotten the franchise's roots, which is rather fitting for the game as it is a prequel. The number of grenade types has been reduced back to the basic Frag and Plasma Grenades, doing away with the other non-essential Grenades introduced in Halo 3. Dual-wielding is also out, and the core mechanic of guns, grenades, and melee is once again at the forefront of the gameplay. Melee attacks have also been improved with the introduction of Assassinations. Hold Melee while behind an opponent, and watch as Six dispatches them in a fancy third person animation! Careful though, as performing an Assassination leaves you vulnerable for a few crucial seconds. Your Shields recharge like always, but your Health has limited regen, and you'll need to find and use Medkits to patch yourself up fully, just like in Halo: Combat Evolved.

Brutes may be back, but in old-school tradition, their vehicles are out. Makes sense as they're not a dominate Covenant military force yet. You'll see Ghosts aplenty again, as well as Wraiths and Banshees, and the new Revenant, a cross between a Ghost and a Wraith. Very fast, very deadly. The UNSC has a new Rocket Warthog as previously mentioned, as well as a chopper, the Falcon. Not only is it used as a troop transport, but the Falcon also has a gunner on each side, making it a rather formidable aircraft. For the first time in franchise history, players also get to partake in space combat! The UNSC Sabre is a prototype fighter that players will briefly be able to use against Seraph fighters and space Banshees as they attempt to halt the Covenant fleet. A very welcome change of pace.

Of course, the Campaign isn't all that's on offer. Bungie wanted to make sure that Halo: Reach was the complete package, the best Halo title to date, and the Multiplayer component certainly lives up to this goal. Matchmaking has been refined, and the standard game types of Slayer, Oddball, Capture the Flag, etc. are all here and better than ever! The new game types that were all the rage in the beta, like the Spartan vs. Elite objective based Invasion and the skull hording free for all Headhunter are here and they're loads of fun. What I'm most pleased with, however, is that Firefight is back, and not only is the classic style available, but there are several other Firefight gametypes available as well as a full host of customizable options! You can control the number of waves, types of enemies in each wave, your health and damage and so on and so forth. Seriously, the list of customizations in Firefight is gigantic, and it's all most welcome. You know what else would make Firefight all manner of awesome? Matchmaking. You know what? They did it! None of your Friends online? Fear not! Unlike Halo 3: ODST, you can now search for a game and start popping those Grunt's skulls ASAP!

As you play through the game, both Campaign and Multiplayer, you earn Credits which increases your Multiplayer ranking. You can then spend credits on different items in the Armoury, cosmetic changes that allow you to customize the look of your Noble Six. What's even cooler is that your Noble Six is the one who appears in the Campaign, cutscenes and all! The game seemed to remember the colours I used during the beta, as my Noble Six defaulted to my Canadian Brick and White colour scheme, and that was fine by me! I didn't bother buying anything from the Armoury at first though, save for Buck's voice in Firefight. Everything in life is better if Nathan Fillion's involved.

Oh, and Forge is back to. I'm not much of a mapmaker, but I hear it's a whole lot more intuitive this time around, and there's a huge playground to drop tanks on friends in. Good stuff.

Visually, Halo: Reach is a beautiful game. While not Unreal Engine beautiful, the game is breathtaking and even features excellent looking human character models, something Bungie is not known for. Colourful locations and gorgeous backdrops all await you on Reach, and it's quite pleasant to see a Halo title pushing the Xbox 360's limits with every kind of character, weapon, and vehicle seeing a graphic makeover. Audio wise, aside from the sub-par Noble Team voice acting, Bungie has done it again. Other voice actors, sound effects, and most certainly the music all help to not only flesh out the Halo: Reach experience, but to give it energy and life that many games just can't match.

Now, I purchased the Halo: Reach Limited Edition, which is advertised as a black box recovered from Reach containing Dr. Halsey's personal Journal and some fancy Elite downloadable armour. The ONI black box, which is a bit larger than five DVD cases on top of one another, is huge! There's a handle at the top that lets you pull the box out of its exterior case, and you'll find yourself looking at your copy of Halo: Reach in a black DVD case, not green; a nice little touch. Inside is the Elite armour downloadable token, the Spartan Recon Helmet downloadable token (available with all retail copies of the game in its initial run), the manual, and of course the game itself. I couldn't help but notice the lack of a journal, however, and that's when I realized that the game's case was actually sitting in a removable tray.

Removing that tray revealed the true treasure of the Halo: Reach Limited Edition, and I simply stared in awe for well over two minutes completely dumbstruck. If you're reading this review, you no doubt own various collector's editions of something, and you know that they all contain cool items or extras from whatever game or movie they're for. What I was looking at under this tray was a black bubble wrapped package with an official ONI seal, with a handwritten note on top. It was then that I realized I was in for something very, very special. Not only was this collector's edition going to present me with cool stuff, but it was going to be done in such a way, with such care and attention to detail, that Microsoft Game Studios and Bungie wanted me to believe that I was holding a very piece of the Halo universe.

And that's what this package contains: authenticity. The handwritten note explains that this is all that remains of Halsey's documents, with a list of contents on the back. The back of the black bubble wrap has a sign-out label with instructions on it. Once I carefully pealed back the ONI logo, there it was, Halsey's journal, full of handwritten information spanning decades and sketches made by the good doctor herself, all in this hand bound, magnetic clipped book thicker than some novels! Not only that, but the journal contains newspaper clippings of specific events, photos, medical records, a Spartan-II badge, Halsey's ID card, a map of Reach, and more. It truly is such a detailed package, that a deep fan of Halo fiction like myself approached it all with a great deal of reverence, and it's clear to me now that the marketing of the Limited Edition didn't due it justice by a long shot.

The Journal and supplementary material took me about two hours to go through, there's so much substance, and I'm glad to say, much of my issues with the story and continuity are resolved here. The journal does contain spoilers, so if you have it I recommend playing the Campaign first, but I can tell you I'll be viewing my next Campaign playthrough with a different perspective. It's not perfect, but the journal really helps set a lot of the events in perspective and nicely works it into the established fiction.

And here we have it, Bungie's swan song to the Halo universe. Halo: Reach is not just an excellent addition to the franchise, but a ridiculously well polished shooter that also happens to come in the single greatest collector's edition I've ever held in my hands. The Campaign's story isn't perfect, and Noble Team leaves much to be desired, but the gameplay and soul of the franchise are present in spades and the multiplayer component and all the trimmings are visibly the culmination of ten years of hard work and dedication by one developer.

Bungie, thank you for entertaining us for so many years, thank you for raising the bar on what we should expect from a quality shooter, and thank you for Halo. One last thing: Every Halo game always has something after the credits, so make sure you stick around. This is one very unique post-credit sequence you won't want to miss, and you'll want to keep your Controller handy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fallout 3 Completed for the Second Time

Earlier today, I finally completed Fallout 3's main Quest for the second time. As some of you may recall, last Fall during a stroke of genius I accidentally deleted all of my Xbox 360 save games, including my then current Bad Karma female Fallout 3 character, my second playthrough at the time.

I gave up at that point, and started playing through Fallout 3 again this past winter when I was able to download all the DLC on Xbox LIVE's Boxing Day sale for 50% off.

So this playthrough, a Level 30 Good Karma male, took me about 95 hours to complete. This includes the main Quest, all the DLC (except for Fallout 3: Broken Steel), and about half a dozen side Quests.

The items from Fallout 3: Operation - Anchorage really came in handy. The Gauss Rifle was my primary weapon throughout this playthrough, and I made great use of the Winterized T-51B Power Armour later on in the game. I also had a lot of fun with the Chinese Stealth Armour earlier on.

Reaching Level 30 occurred right towards the end of the main Quest, but I was rather disappointed at how bloody powerful you turn out. Level 30 allows you to truly max almost every single Skill, so there's very little you can't do by the end. This removes a great deal of challenge, I'm afraid, and lowers replay value as well since there's less to come back and do.

The odd bugs introduced in Fallout 3: Broken Steel, such as encountering Enclave Soldiers in the Wasteland long before they're supposed to appear, and hearing Three Dog go on about activating Project Purity before I had even found the place, put a slight damper on the game's story-flow, but it was cool to encounter more challenging enemies, such as Super Mutant Overlords, Enclave Soldiers wearing Hellfire armour, and even the dreaded Feral Ghoul Reavers, during the regular parts of the game.

What an experience, and now it is time to finally playthrough Fallout 3: Broken Steel for the first time, earn the last three Achievements in the game, and then hang up my Power Armoured gloves.

I'm all Fallout-ed out! If you add up all my time in the Xbox 360 version of the game, I've played a grand total of about 175 hours! That's a lot of time spent in the Capital Wasteland over the last two years, but it's certainly been time well spent. Except for that 30 hour playthrough of my Bad Karma character I deleted. That was just stupidity on my own part.

Halo: Reach Multiplayer Preview

Today via Xbox LIVE, a new video for Halo: Reach entitled "Multiplayer Preview" has been released. Featuring commentary by Bungie's Multiplayer designers, you can find out all about Forge World and the creation of "Cage" below.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Halo: Reach Campaign and Firefight Previews

With Halo: Reach only a few days away, Bungie has released two videos in which various developers on the project take us through a small section of the Campaign and Firefight respectfully.

The first video, showing the beginning of the Chapter "Tip of the Spear," shows Co-Op Campaign and obviously, some minor spoilers.

The second video shows Firefight and some rather nasty Jackal sniper positions.

Sadly, the first thing I noticed about the Campaign video is that it's dated August 12, 2552 when Reach isn't supposed to be invaded until Aug. 30, 2552. Curse you retcon!

Diablo III Health System

It appears Blizzard Entertainment is taking a departure from the norm with its Health system in Diablo III. Like previous titles, your Health is still represented by the red orb, and there are still healing spells and Health Potions, but Potions now come with a cooldown and healing spells may have other restrictions or drawbacks.

So what option do you have now if jamming on "4" is no longer the "Oh my God I'm going to die key!"? Health Globes.

Diablo III is going the Orb route found in other games, and when you kill an enemy, there's a chance they'll drop a Health Globe which you can run over to pick up and gain some Health back. There's also different kinds of Health Globes that can drop, Weak Health Globes, Medium Health Globes, etc.

The reason for this change? Blizzard Entertainment wants players thinking more tactically instead of just rushing into a swarm of enemies and chugging Potion after Potion as they massacre through them.

To check out the full details, head on over to Blizzard's article here.

Halo: Reach "Deliver Hope" Extended Cut

Earlier this week, the extended cut of the live action Halo: Reach trailer, "Deliver Hope," was released. Weighing it at 2:31, you can view it here or below.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Halo: Reach Control Point Defence Toronto Event

The city of Toronto was turned into a war zone yesterday as hundreds of fans descended upon the corner of Queen and Soho, where a typically nondescript parking lot was turned into the site of a Covenant invasion. Officially beginning at 4:00 pm, fans lined up for hours in advance in one of two separate lines: the regular line, and the VIP line for those who solved the challenges of the recent Halo: Reach viral marketing campaign. The objective: to enlist in the UNSC and help drive back the Covenant's forces!

Halo: Reach launches in about 9 days, and eager fans not only got to partake in a game of laser tag at this event, but they also got to sample a sneak peak at Halo: Reach's Firefight game type!

Having arrived about an hour and a half early, I muscled my way through the VIP line to where my buddies were already waiting (sorry to anyone I pushed past!), and we all chatted and caught up while awaiting the start time. With clouds and scattered showers coming and going, many of us were forced to deploy our umbrell... er, Bubble Shields, to stay dry, but luckily the weather mainly held out and soon enough the event began (and to the random kid with the katana-hilted umbrella, we weren't pointing at and making fun of you, we were going on about how cool your umbrella actually was!).

Paired into groups of six at a time, we were filed into a tent for registration using touch screen monitors. As a drill instructor yelled at us to hurry up, my touch screen apparently didn't like the way I was touching it and would require several attempts to properly register any character, so this classified me as a "grandma" in our drill instructors eyes. Even though she gave us our snazzy Halo: Reach T-shirts, I can tell you I'm not baking her cookies any time soon!

After registration we were ushered into another tent to meet our commander and to receive our orders. After a mission briefing in which the commander gave us a "You-can-do-it" speech pretty much ripped from Troy, we were ushered out to await the dispersal of our kit.

After being yelled at by a few more instructors and watching one unlucky recruit do push-ups, we were given our UNSC issue laser tag vests and guns and prepared for deployment. We were also told to name our guns, and I called mine Vera; my very favourite gun. After quickly getting acquainted with Vera, we were deployed to the field under our new captain, who instructed us to watch out for Covenant infantry in the nearby sniper tower and behind cover.

Now, our vests had a sensor on the chest and shoulder and there was one in our guns as well. We could take 5 "hits" before being "killed," but a medic at the back lines could respawn us. Our guns had about 20 shots before needing to press a button to reload, and you could toggle between full auto and single shot.

The battlefield was a collection of crates and other debris that allowed us to take cover and slowly make our advance towards our goal: The UNSC Tower, now a generator, that was placed there a few weeks prior. To win, we had to incapacitate any Covenant (guys in purple T-shirts) that were gunning for us and to reactivate the generator by touching a sensor on it.

Unlike the last time I played laser tag, this was actually fun, and in an outdoor arena to boot. The game was paced well, with our captain telling us when to advance and when to take cover and our team picking off Covenant whenever we could. I needed to respawn once, but after an advance, retreat, and then a final push, theBruce was able to reach the generator and the game was won. The match was set up so that we couldn't lose, of course, but it was a good time.

After we got our pic taken and returned our kit (Bye Vera, I'll always love you!), we were given a lanyard with an official Halo: Reach pass which permitted us to be in the tent that had Halo: Reach itself. Several TV's were set up so people could play Firefight, and after a short wait, I got my hands on a Controller and give it a whirl (and one of the new Xbox 360 S console Controllers to boot with its black sticks and chrome Guide button). The game only lasted for about 10 minutes and the Controller was mapped out to the Halo 3-style, but it was fun. I picked the Medic Load Out, but didn't end up trying out my new ability at all. Instead, I found and drove around the new rocket Warthog, which of course splatters stuff good but also allowed one of my teammates to blow stuff up in style with its twin rocket turret. The physics did feel a bit odd though, but that could have been just me, as I'm not used to playing on such a large screen and standing so close to it.

Also in this tent was a display case featuring the Xbox 360 Limited Edition Halo: Reach bundle, the new Xbox 360 Halo: Reach Controller, and the statue of Noble Team included with the Legendary Edition of the game. Very, very cool. TV's were also set up showing various trailers of the game, and there were posters all over showing the different members of Noble Team.

Like all these events however, the best thing is not the game, not the loot, but the community. Not only did I have the pleasure of chatting with several new friends, but of course such prominent community members as Mister Switch, KowZ, theBruce, and DJDatz were in attendance. JunkInTheTrunk and JadeLive were also there for Xbox Canada, and it's always good to catch up with them!

So all in all, a good public event! Laser tag was fun, and while the promotional staff's military acting wasn't exactly spectacular, you could tell the younger kids in attendance were really getting a kick out of the whole event, as they should have been. The quick sampling of Halo: Reach was great, and actually getting to check out the limited edition items was sweet!

Thanks to Xbox Canada and their marketing partners for planning this event, and for those who did make it out, I hope you had as good a time as I did!

Update: Thanks to theBruce for the heads up that Gameshark has posted a video of the event. KowZ, theBruce, and myself all appear in it. You can check out the vid below.

Pictured below:

- Halo: Reach T-shirt ("Remember Reach" on the back)
- Halo: Reach lanyard and guest pass
- UNSC dog tag (from viral marketing campaign)
- Halo: Reach sticker (from viral marketing campaign)

Templar Trilogy - Order in Chaos Review

With the release of Order in Chaos, Jack Whyte's Templar Trilogy is finally brought to a close. Never one to buy hardcover novels (they tend not to fit in my satchel bag), I finally had the pleasure of reading his latest masterpiece last month, having had to wait anxiously this past year to get my hands on a paperback edition.

Set about 115 years after Standard of Honour, the Templars are a well established order recognized throughout all of Christendom (Europe). Not only are they warrior monks of renown, they also hold great amounts of real estate, have established one of the world's first modern banking systems, and still hold no allegiance to any temporal monarch. On Oct. 13th, 1307, all of this changed as the greedy King Philip of France, with the blessings of Pope Clement, arrested every Templar in France in an effort to seize their wealth.

Having had advance warning of this coup, Grand Master Jacques de Molay dispatches Sir William St. Clair to La Rochelle and the Temple Commandery there with instructions to prepare for the worst, and more importantly, to safeguard the treasure of the Temple. For St. Clair, this did not just mean the Temple's wealth, but also the Temple's true treasure long held secret to but a few: the scrolls recovered by the original Temple Knights; proof of all the secret Order of Scion believes and the falsehood of Christianity and the church itself.

As that fateful morning arrives, St. Clair and the Templars of La Rochelle sail away to safety and after a few stops, arrive in Scotland seeking refuge where they eventually become embroiled in the affairs of non-other than Robert the Bruce himself.

Jack Whyte himself never fails to both educate as well as entertain with his historical fiction. I certainly did not expect a tale of the Templars to end up in Scotland, and it provided a wonderful backdrop for Whyte to tell me about the Scotish Wars for Independence, and the struggles those people were truly facing against their English oppressors. What a troubled and desperate time that country faced, truly fascinating, and highlighted by Whyte's dramatic and colourful characters.

Like all his novels, Whyte excels at depth of character, keeping his heroes human. Whether it's St. Clair himself coming to grips with the loss of all that he knew, the fiery Jessie Randolph challenging his principles at every turn, or the practical and loyal Sergeant Tam St. Clair providing support and sound reason, Whyte's characters are fallible, passionate, and identifiable. The wonderful backdrop and setting may provide the fantasy, but it's his characters that provide the wonder and keep the reader turning page after page after page.

And after you finish turning the last page, the tale is over and the Templars pass in to legend and glory. For nearly 200 years, the Order stood strong and in the breath of a day, it was all undone by politics and lust for power. A fascinating story, and one that Whyte has explored with great detail throughout his trilogy, from one generation to the next until only a handful of Templars remained. I applaud Whyte once again, and thank him for writing such a thorough epic, one that both entertains and enlightens.

Halo 3: ODST Completed for the 4th Time

In preparation for "A Monument to All Your Sins," the Halo: Reach Achievement that requires you to complete the Campaign on Legendary solo, I decided to give Halo 3: ODST another go, my 4th time playing through the Campaign and my first on Legendary. I still needed the "Campaign Complete: Legendary" Achievement, and figured what the heck, it's worth a shot.

To date, I've never been able to complete a Halo shooter's Campaign on solo Legendary, and I'm quite pleased to say that this time, I've done so.

Like all Halo shooters, the game was quite hard on Legendary, but unlike previous titles, you're often paired up with invulnerable AI allies that can not be knocked unconscious. Couple that with their infinite ammo and once you give them something like a Rocket Launcher, stuff starts to die while you just hang back. Not exactly the bravest way to tackle a Campaign, but it got results.

Of course there are several points where you find yourself solo, and this requires you to play slow, cautious, and careful, particularly in the flashback sequences. Exploring the city at night as the Rookie was actually surprisingly simple. Once you got to Dare's helmet to trigger the first sequence as Buck, it actually counts all of your exploration done, so there was no need to navigate at night from beacon to beacon and you could just load each individual mission from the Main Menu. Saved time and frustration.

That's not to say their wasn't some frustration, as it took a whole heap of swearing and menacing Controller waving to get through this Campaign. Like Buck's first battle with those two Hunters (after about 15 attempts or so, I figured out that you could just run past them), or holding the ONI building as Dutch (note to self, Micky sucks with the Spartan Laser), and lastly, giving Buck a Fuel Rod Gun at the end while racing down the highway (turns out he won't mount a Warthog's turret if he's equipped with one of those, and he's not a big fan of always shooting it to, you know, kill things).

But what an Achievement, and I'm right now classing this as one of the toughest and most satisfying Achievements I've ever earned. Overall, I've really enjoyed Halo 3: ODST's Campaign, and while it might not have been as long as previous entries, it is of higher quality and provides sufficient variety to be more enjoyable, at least to me, than Halo 3's. In a week and a half, we'll see how Halo: Reach's Campaign holds up.

Halo: Reach Boardwalk and Countdown Videos

In this past week's Weekly Update, Bungie showcasing two more Halo: Reach multiplayer maps, Boardwalk and Countdown.

Boardwalk is the backdrop for a game of Headhunter, and Countdown showcases SWAT.

You can check them out below.

Gears of War 2 25x XP Labour Day Event

Going on right now is the Gears of War 2 25x XP Labour Day event. That's right, fire up your copy of Gears of War 2, and you'll earn 25x XP in both Versus and Horde.

As an added bonus, all players can access the gold plated versions of the Lancer and Hammerburst! Not only that, but all enemy rifles are replaced with Torque Bows, meaning you'll have plenty of ammo to make stuff go splatter!

The event runs until September 7th, and you can check out the official announcement right here.

Six New Fallout: New Vegas Screenshots

Bethseda is hosting six new Fallout: New Vegas screenshots on the main page, and you can view them right here.

Not bad, though I'm still going to wait for a Game of the Year edition which will include all of the inevitable DLC. That is, assuming I'm still not all Fallout-ed out by the time it releases and there's nothing else to play.

Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker

Also launching this Tuesday, the next Mass Effect 2 DLC, "Lair of the Shadow Broker," hits the PC and Xbox 360. You can check out it's trailer below.

I still figured this would have been a storyline reserved for Mass Effect 3. If you play through it, let me know what you think (spoiler free please).

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions Launch Trailer

Launching this Tuesday, the launch trailer for Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions can be viewed below.

Looks promising, but with Halo: Reach right around the corner, I'll hold off and likely rent this game some months down the road.

Batman: Arkham City Screenshots

Joystiq is hosting several screenshots of Batman: Arkham City, the first screens released for the game as far as I know.

These screenshots are not official as Joystiq does not know where they originated from (read their article), but I agree with them that they look legit; so much so that I'm posting this as actual news.

Get your first look at Catwoman, Two Face, new gadgets, etc. Day one purchase for me!