HALO 2 — Preface: ‘The Heretic’


“When you first saw Halo, were you blinded by its majesty?”

—Ord Casto, the High Prophet of Truth

I’ve spent most of the night thinking about how I might best begin this book, and I just checked the clock on the kitchen stove to see it’s now 3:43 a.m., so that seems as good a sign as any.

I tend to keep pretty vampiric hours these days—one of the perks of being self-employed—but there comes a point of diminishing returns. Every predawn hour you spend grinding for loot in Destiny, or mourning your misspent youth and rewatching Guardians of the Galaxy or Fanboys or the first season of Chappelle’s Show on Xbox Video for the tenth time, winds up costing you a lot of the work you might have otherwise gotten done later that day. My dad used to call this “burning the candle at both ends,” and it’s a concept I’ve become increasingly familiar with as I navigate the beginnings of my so-called adulthood. Dad’s liable to show up throughout this book, though not because of his blue-collar, workaday wisdom: He’s the one I have to blame for my videogame habit.[1]

There’s a good chance, if you’re reading this, you’ve played Halo 2 at some point and know a bit about the game I’ll be discussing for the duration of this volume. But you needn’t have played or even enjoyed the game, if all goes well within these pages, for you to get something worthwhile out of a book that shares its name. I often find the best criticism is as much about the people who created a given body of work as it is about the art itself.

And if you get to the last chapter and decide I haven’t done my due diligence in critically evaluating Bungie’s seminal shooter, or that I haven’t done a fair job of convincing you it’s worth your time and money to actually get ahold of the game and play it, I hope you’ll at least enjoy the occasional tangent into autobiography; there’s simply no getting around the fact that I’ve spent most of my life playing videogames—and enjoying the hell out of them—solely because of the incredible people I’ve been fortunate enough to share them with.

Even the late Jim Kane, my paternal grandfather as well as the finest man I ever had the privilege of knowing, once spent a good six hours or so humoring me with a little friendly split-screen in Need for Speed: Underground.[2] Family and friends reading this may think I’m making it up, but it happened. When I asked him about hauling over my original Xbox (the newfangled “Xbox One” makes for a tedious rewriting of the past, doesn’t it?) in a backpack and hooking it up to the living-room television, he was quick to say yes. And I’m so grateful for the memory.

That ill-fated console and its replacement got hauled around a lot in that backpack, and even with a decade’s worth of hindsight, the memories I built with Microsoft’s unexpected Hail-Mary hardware remain some of the fondest in my twenty-five years.

Grandpa used to pay me thirty dollars to mow his lawn, back before I got my driver’s license and passed that particular torch on to my brother, Derek, so it took me roughly seven mowings—maybe four, five months?—to save up the cash for an Xbox in 2002, when the console got a timely price drop to match that of its competitor, Sony’s PlayStation 2. By that time, I’d already spent untold hours at a childhood friend’s house playing his Xbox, a system that arrived one day in November ’01 without much fanfare from where I was standing (outside of a brief mention in Scrye magazine, which ran a photo of the fittingly boxy console beside its bulky day-one controller; I’ll try to dig this issue out of storage, assuming it’s still at my folks’ place), along with an Xbox-exclusive launch game titled Halo: Combat Evolved.

I suppose I don’t need to go on at length about how much of an impact Bungie’s universe had on me, personally, given that I elected to pen the first book of my career on the subject. But the Chief, Cortana, and their war against the Covenant blew the doors of my imagination wide open from the instant I first picked up my friend’s controller and stormed the beach in the opening encounter of “The Silent Cartographer,” taxiing my marine detachment around in a Warthog, and the impression hasn’t left me since.

It’s that rare, trademark Bungie moment, when the alien NPCs do something completely unexpected, or when you finally manage to pull off the action-movie stunt you’ve been struggling to nail with the right combination of your MJOLNIR suit’s energy shields, careful timing, and explosives—that’s what keeps players coming back. And it’s been there right from the start: on the Pillar of Autumn; on Halo, the Niven habitat for which the game was ultimately named; on “Cairo Station” and “Regret” and “The Great Journey”; not to mention all the fun to be had in Halo 3, Halo 4, and the outstanding prequel to the original game, Halo: Reach, which served as Bungie’s swan song within the Haloverse.

After nearly fourteen years, I can still find new reasons to go back and revisit the Master Chief’s now-legendary saga. That’s why I’ve continued to hold on to both my original Xbox and the 360, not to mention most of my discs, strategy guides, and a bazillion issues of OXM.[3] And today, although it suffered some seriously embarrassing issues at launch, the very best vehicle for experiencing Halo and the rich tapestry of multimedia storytelling that surrounds it is Halo: The Master Chief Collection, released exclusively on Xbox One in November 2014 to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Halo 2’s original release.

It probably makes me a bona fide heretic to say so, but that four-game (or five-game, if you count the ODST “bonus” download as its own title, which it most assuredly is) anthology of flawed but tremendously beautiful Xbox One remasters is the finest software available on any next-gen console. I may have over eight hundred fifty hours logged in Bungie’s Destiny, at the time of this writing, and an impressive garage full of armored muscle cars and military hardware in the Xbox One version of Grand Theft Auto Online, but I’d take 343 Industries’ Halo 2: Anniversary as my game of choice any day of the week. Back in ’04, during a time when broadband Internet was not yet widely available in my hometown of Monmouth, Illinois, it played every bit as beautifully as it does now.

Even better, arguably: My first experiences with Xbox Live were also some of my best.

[1] Some fathers offer their kid a sip of beer that, though harmless at the time, eventually sows the seeds of teen alcoholism (or worse). Mine let me stay up late playing Super Mario Bros. 3.

[2] This was around the same time I convinced him to watch Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi with me in a single afternoon at his and Grandma’s place. Must have been 2004. His decades-long battle with the respiratory disease COPD was a real bitch, and it certainly didn’t do him any favors when it came to participating in family activities.

[3] Official Xbox Magazine, published by Future PLC from November 2001 until early 2014.

Champions of Aetaltis


DEXTER, MI – May 29th, 2015 – A dream team of fan-favorite authors have come together to write original heroic fantasy stories set in Aetaltis, a brand new shared world setting from Mechanical Muse. The author list includes a host of bestselling and award-winning writers, from Bill Willingham, the creator of the Eisner Award–winning Fables comic book series, to Michael A. Stackpole, author of the now legendary Star Wars: X-wing novels. The project is being funded by a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter, which is on track to succeed well before it ends.

“These authors are legends among fans of fantasy fiction, comics, and roleplaying games,” said Marc Tassin, founder of Mechanical Muse. “It’s an incredible honor to have all of these amazing talents in one book!”

Many of the seventeen authors are New York Times bestsellers, including David Farland (Runelords), Larry Correia (Monster Hunter), Elaine Cunningham (Star Wars: Dark Journey), and Ed Greenwood (creator of the Forgotten Realms for D&D). The anthology is edited by Hugo-nominated editor John Helfers.

“I’m thrilled to be part of this project,” said Helfers. “Aetaltis is an amazing fantasy setting, and the authors helping to bring it to life are some of the best in the business. It also helps that Marc and his fantastic team is putting out some of the best-looking published work I’ve ever seen.”

Bucking a recent trend in fantasy, Aetaltis doesn’t shy away from the elements that make the genre so beloved by fans. It weaves traditional elements of fantasy into a rich backstory filled with themes of lost homelands, heroism among common people, and hope in the face of rising evil.

“When I read the source material, I felt as if I’d stepped into a time when people played games and wrote stories in settings such as Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms (second edition),” said Elaine Cunningham. “This is traditional fantasy, presented with obvious affection and without a hint of apology.”

Ed Greenwood added, “The setting felt alive and breathing and was traditional fantasy, the way all too few settings initially strike me these days. This is going to be a fantastic new world.”

Fantasy fiction fans can find out more and back the Kickstarter by visiting http://kck.st/1JU5guj.

About Mechanical Muse

Mechanical Muse was founded by Marc Tassin to bring joy, excitement, and inspiration to everyone who daydreams of fantastic worlds beyond our own. Its fantasy world, Aetaltis, is the first world in an interconnected universe of immersive new settings that people can interact with and explore. For more information, visit http://www.aetaltis.com.

‘Halo 5: Guardians’ Team Slayer Beta


Impressions of 343i’s New Arena Multiplayer

I once had the rare pleasure of watching a rough, unfinished cut of a film I’d very much been looking forward to—Alexandre Aja’s 2013 adaptation of my favorite novel, Horns, by Joe Hill. This was on a television hooked up to the author’s laptop, which Hill and our writing workshop used to play the DVD that had been burned for his personal review. The disc, as it turned out, was scratched to the point that you had to skip certain scenes in order to watch it all the way to the end, and none of the medium-budget special effects had been painted in yet. The film that landed in theaters and video-on-demand services this past Halloween only partially resembles the unpolished movie I previewed two summers ago.

The Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta is a bit like that. But you’ve got to hand it to a studio that’s so willing to open their doors to longtime fans of the venerable Halo franchise and listen to their feedback, with enough time left between now and its fall 2015 release date to incorporate significant changes before the real fine-tuning and performance testing happens.

In the course of an hour spent playing the Halo 5: Guardians Slayer beta—roughly sixty minutes of realtime, not game-time—I had to manually quit the application two or three times and reinitialize in order to get matchmaking to function properly. It actually crashed, in a full and sudden cut-to-black, on me once, although the “Prerelease Software” disclosure at startup does warn players to expect these kinds of glitches from this early build of the game.

They’re not kidding. This is a zero draft: the rough cut.

But despite the jagged edges and bugginess, there is a lot to love about what we’ve seen so far from Halo 5. The DMR, for instance, was a weapon that I adored in the series’s last installment, but which never quite seemed to live up to its potential—in the Guardians Slayer mode, so far as I can tell, it is really going to shine. The Battle Rifle feels similarly powerful, its burst-fire speed as quick and merciless as ever. And the submachine-gun, or SMG, that first debuted in the now-legendary Halo 2 has been given an unexpected makeover both functional and cosmetic; in tight quarters, it’s a powerhouse, unexpected but welcome. The Sniper Rifle feels like capital-C “Classic Halo” to this week-one, ’01 fan, and is poised to become a harbinger of victory.

Other weapons, however, such as the iconic MA5D Assault Rifle and M6-series Magnum, feel criminally underwhelming—especially given that these comprise the universal starting loadout for all Spartans entering the Team Slayer arena. While I’m glad to see some of Halo 4’s Call of Duty-era changes scrapped for this new, back-to-basics approach to the game, I confess to seeing a lot more of Halo: Reach’s DNA in the beta than I’d expected.

For example, the thruster pack is a practical addition to the core Spartan armor, offered in lieu of past titles’ variety of preselected armor abilities, like Promethean vision and active camouflage. But the game’s clunky physics are going to require a lot of tweaking in order for dedicated Halo players to warm up to the variety of playstyles and running speeds this will introduce, given that it’s now the new standard.

Did somebody say “clunky”?

Oh, yeah. Let’s take a moment to discuss the new control scheme in Halo 5: Guardians, which comes hot on the heels of related first-person shooters like Destiny and the just-released Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which features an impressive control scheme labeled “Universal Default (Recon).” While Bungie’s Destiny—and its Crucible mode in particular—shares a common ancestry with all things Halo, I’m shocked to find that the current build of Guardians sports a controller layout that’s more akin to Destiny than 343i’s own Halo: MCC. This wouldn’t be such odd thing, except that most franchise diehards have recently spent untold hours revisiting the four classic Halo campaign modes, for which I found the new Universal Default scheme to be a smooth, superb blend of the familiar that never felt like a compromise.

Why couldn’t that same configuration have been imported into the Halo 5 beta? As it stands, the Guardians controls make it near-impossible to make proper use of either the melee or thruster-pack abilities, given how jarringly their positions have been reversed. And while I’m not entirely opposed to the sprint and crouch controls being located at the LS and RS buttons, respectively, I do think it makes for an awkward, clumsy transition to go from Destiny to The Master Chief Collection and finally to the Halo 5 multiplayer beta. Why no sense of haptic continuity, 343i?

I’m not sure whether it’s due to the oafish feel of the control scheme or the baseline physics of the standard-issue Spartan player object, but I could never shake the sense that I ought to be moving faster. This feeling never left me, even when coupled with the added momentum of the thruster pack. And using the once-named “Sword” common among Covenant Elites, now referred to in-game as the Prophets’ Bane, really, really suffers as a result. The clambering capability, by contrast, feels natural and unobtrusive when compared with other changes; it just seems like a natural extension of the sprint function. And the aim-down sights, especially given the tasteful use of futuristic augmented-reality sighting for guns that lack a proper scope, like the Assault Rifle or Magnum, add an upgraded, modern feel to Halo’s classic combat system—without cluttering too much of the player’s field of vision.

The gunplay remains, as ever, the crowning achievement of Halo’s arena-multiplayer experience. Timeless classics like the Battle Rifle and Sniper live up to their Combat Evolved and Halo 2 legacies, while a wholly reinvented SMG shakes up close-quarters combat in a way that feels fresh and kinetic despite the lack of agility dialed into the Spartans’ next-gen Mjolnir armor.

Given the right care and attention, and constructive community feedback like the impressions I’ve done my best to convey here, I see little reason why Halo 5: Guardians shouldn’t boast the finest multiplayer experience the series has delivered since Halo 2 shattered the console-gaming mold in ’04.

Sincerely, 343 Industries: Thank you for sharing the drawing board with us.

About the Author

Alex Kane lives in west-central Illinois, where he works as a freelancer, plays too many first-person shooters, and blogs about culture and technology in his spare time. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his stories have appeared in Omni, Spark, Digital Science Fiction, and the YA anthology Futuredaze, among other places. Follow him on Twitter @alexjkane.

Trailer Breakdown: ‘The Force Awakens’


We live in a cultural moment of extremes, with the West’s systemic lack of justice and empathy in all matters of race on one bloodied hand, and the obscene consumerism of faux-holidays like Black Friday emptying the other. There’s no comfort to be found in the kinds of conversations folks are having in America right now. It seems these days all we can do is work hard, speak up when we have something worthwhile to say, and enjoy great art. Even if we’d rather drink ourselves stupid and watch The Lord of the Rings or play Destiny, it’s more important than ever that we do our best to remain informed and not allow the media to quietly slit our throats.

Because we’re all bleeding, whether we want to see the truth of it or not. One minute, all art is a vessel for the grimdark doomsayers who see the previous century creeping forth for an encore; the next, we’re exposed to a lot of playful nonsense seemingly calibrated to numb us to whatever truths may have seeped through the fictions of our time and into the public consciousness.

In pop culture, and particularly in film, we see this jarring dichotomy manifest itself in competing properties like Interstellar and Big Hero 6. Perhaps a more obvious contrast can be seen between films like Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight (2008), also directed by Interstellar‘s Christopher Nolan, whose works I admire beyond measure but who is rightfully called out for being, at times, humorless.

Films like Guardians of the Galaxy, so masterfully executed by all involved parties, from the script by newcomer Nicole Perlman to James Gunn’s unabashed willingness to allow his audience a bit of escapist fun, present a creative middle ground from which to forge new narratives and a more balanced, humanistic tone for Western cinema. And I, for one, have long hoped that the Star Wars trilogy of tomorrow—helmed by J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, two very different but vital voices in 21st-century sf film—might bring a bit of similarly healing magic to the conversation of big-screen fantasy adventures.

So it’s my goal, then, to try and be as objective as possible in my discussion of the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). I want to avoid fannish sentimentality and all the more personal feelings that go along with this IP in relation to my life, my childhood, my dream of telling stories set on worlds other than our own. Can I succeed in this? Who knows. But let’s take a look at what we’ve seen of the new film so far: What does it tell us about the future of Lucasfilm’s flagship saga?

(This is where I paused to watch the trailer. Note the change in tone.)

Well, as I’ve mentioned to folks on Twitter, it’s pretty damned exciting and important to think about the fact that the next generation of children are going to see this film, in which the two key heroes are a young woman and a young racial minority. “The most un-Disneylike thing imaginable,” I added, “yet there it is.” John Boyega’s character is particularly interesting because he appears, as the teaser begins, to be running from someone while wearing (most of) an almost-classic Stormtrooper uniform. Who is he running from? I keep asking myself, but it seems obvious that his journey will be a pivotal part of this new trilogy. A fan online said, “I wonder if he’s a Jedi?” To which I ventured a reasonable guess: “I’m imagining that he begins as a Stormtrooper and becomes [one].”

Daisy Ridley’s character must have a similar arc, although she is ostensibly the more seemingly familiar Star Wars protagonist, bearing an obvious resemblance to the early concept paintings of a pre-Luke, female “Starkiller” hero who later became the Mark Hamill character we ended up seeing in the 1977 original. Despite her more traditional place among the Tatooine dunescapes, riding a hoverbike reminiscent of Skywalker’s landspeeder and wearing the kind of desert-dweller garb we saw so much of in The Phantom Menace (1999), I’m thrilled at the idea of having a young woman in the central role of this new era in the series.

Without getting into too many spoilers, it’s worth noting that there is little in the trailer to dispel the various plot rumors that have been floating around online for months. Oscar Isaac’s role is the most pleasantly surprising, based on initial speculation and assumptions I had; my mind immediately cast him as some sort of political figure—a member of the new Republic Senate analog, perhaps, essentially replacing the role filled in earlier films by Princess Leia, Mon Mothma, and General Jan Dodonna. (If you don’t recognize one or two of those names, you probably went on a lot more dates than I did in high school, whatever, it’s not important.)

Anyway, the new X-Wing looks good on him. Really good. Take in that wide shot where they’re skimming along the water, friends.

It also appears that the color palette is going to match The Empire Strikes Back somewhat—lots of darker sets and bluish camera filters, by the looks of it. I am perfectly okay with this. Empire is the best the franchise has to offer, at least until December of next year, and given the big names involved in the sequel trilogy’s production, it makes sense that Abrams and Kasdan would aim to hit the same kinds of notes.

As beautiful as the trailer is, it’s equally important to note what we’re not shown, I think. Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver, Gwendolyn Christie, and Max von Sydow are all absent. Unless you suspect—as I do, you betcha—that Driver is the lightsaber-wielding Sith glimpsed in the teaser. And where are the original cast members? What of Han and Leia’s uneasy romance? It seems important that we aren’t shown the folks who’re piloting the Falcoln, which looks freaking amazing to this geek’s myopic eyes. All of these things are Abrams-esque enough, calling to mind the minimalism of the marketing for films like Cloverfield and Super 8.

But: I’d advise staying away from rumor-mill sites declaring “spoiler alert,” like Making Star Wars, unless you really, honestly want to know the story, because so far everything their sources have alleged seems to be more or less confirmed by this early teaser trailer. Me? I’ll probably keep reading and then wonder which claims are true and which are false, because that’s half the fun of being a nerd in the age of the inescapable retweet.