EGX 2015 – PlayStation VR, Kitchen Demo

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The Morning after the Fright Before

Picture the scene. You groggily come to, bleary-eyed, and find yourself in a dark, grimy kitchen. You try to get up and move, only to discover that your hands and legs are bound with rope to the chair you’re slumped in. The unblinking glassy eye of a camcorder stares back at you from atop a creaking tripod, recording your every wince and struggle against your restraints. A dishevelled man in a dirty suit lies sprawled out across the greasy tiles, and you can’t tell if he’s unconscious, dead or somewhere in-between the two sorry states. A typical morning after the night before in Huddersfield, you might say.

But no, this isn’t the morning after a particularly sordid night of bacchanal northern excess, or the opening to a new SAW film, but rather the opening to Kitchen, Capcom’s virtual reality horror demo for Sony’s PlayStation VR. While in Birmingham for EGX 2015, I got the chance to try out this sleek blue-tinged helmet to see what Sony is bringing to the virtual reality table…and find out what horrors were waiting for me in Capcom’s scary scullery.

Though I’m still yet to be truly swayed about VR gaming in general, from my hands-on with Kitchen I can safely say that there are some very cool things to be excited about if you’re even just the slightest bit interested in the marriage of horror and virtual reality. Particularly so if, like me, you’re also a cheery masochist who happens to enjoy having virtual sharp pointy objects thrust close to your virtual eyeballs from time to time, Dead Space style. Oh yes.

Before we get to the juicy bits though (quite literally in this instance) it’s time for a quick recap on Sony’s VR device itself. Initially revealed to the world at the 2014 Game Developers Conference as Project Morpheus (named after the Grecian God of dreams, and sadly not Lawrence Fishburne’s pill-popping pugilist), PlayStation VR is an in-development virtual reality visor designed for use in conjunction with the PS4 and due out in the first half of 2016. With a 1920×1080 display capable of running at speeds of 120fps, it’s a beefy piece of kit, and one that many of Sony’s first and second party studios are busy creating games and experiences for. There’s already a fair few decently fleshed out VR demos that are currently available to play on the device, many of which have been doing the rounds at previous events such as E3 and Gamescom. Sony followed suit with EGX in the UK, and so the usual suspects such as The London Heist and Battlezone were among the titles available for people to try out over the course of the event.

Sadly, due to the way the public appointments were scheduled, you couldn’t actually choose which demo you’d like to try in your PlayStation VR demo slot. Instead, it was simply down to the potluck of getting whatever demo just so happened to be free at the moment you strolled up for your allotted time. Luckily for me however, finding out that I’d be sampling Kitchen was pretty much the ideal personal scenario; after hearing Lucy O’Brien positively detailing her experience with the demo on the IGN AU Pubcast, I was keen to strap on a mental apron of bravery and check out this kinky kitchenette simulator for myself.

There’s an Onryo in My Kitchen, What am I Gonna Do?

Kitchen

Okay, so here’s how things played out. After an extensive wait in a Sony holding pen (seriously), I’m eventually collected, stripped, sheared, hosed down and deloused (not seriously) before finally being seated for my demo session. As my demo assistant carefully adjusted the PSVR unit for my noggin, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the PSVR headset is way less bulky and heavy than I expected. Although the only other hands-on experience I’ve had with VR tech was with the Oculus Rift earlier in the year at March’s Rezzed event, I can’t exactly remember an awful lot of how the Rift physically felt on my head, but that’s most likely because I was having a lot of fun running for my virtual life in the fantastic Monstrum at the time, but I digress. Having said that, the PSVR felt both lighter and comfier than the Rift from what I can remember. Of particular note is the fact that Sony’s headset has an adjustable slider to set the position of the internal cushioning around your nose and eyes, which is great if you’ve got a bit of a wonky ol’ konk like mine.

With eyes, ears and proboscis all sealed in my virtual sarcophagus of headset and headphones, it’s finally time for the fun to begin. A brief title screen appears, which is quickly replaced with the decrepit kitchen of my first paragraph. I’m told to hold my hands out, and shortly after I feel the warm clammy contours of a DualShock 4 placed in my palms – nice. I’m then instructed to keep hold of the controller with my hands loosely held together in my lap (to simulate being kinkily tied up), and to gesture forwards with it to begin the demo. I thrust my hands forward, clattering the camera tripod to the floor, and an unfortunate set of events are slowly set in motion.

So yeah, you’re sat in this grungy kitchen (think something along the aesthetic lines of The Evil Within‘s environments and you’re on the right track), and for a while, nothing happens – which is good, as this gives you ample time to have a good look around. Looking down at my virtual body, I see that yes, my hands (and also presumably my virtual feet) are trussed up, hence my current immobility.

However, unlike my virtual body, my physical one is under no such restrictions, so I can actually turn round in my seat and get a 360-degree view of the room. It’s hard to overstate just how impressive this basic motion is, even though it’s an extremely basic tenet of pretty much any VR experience, but it really is quite something. Even though it is sort of immersion breaking in this instance – surely if these bonds are loose enough for me to fully rotate around in my chair, I could wriggle out of them in no time right?

Another small point on the visuals was that while the overall fluidity of motion of PlayStation VR was very slick, the picture quality of the display did seem a tad grainy and fuzzier than what I had previously experienced in Oculus. This may well have just been a visual filter added for a gritty horror aesthetic in just the Kitchen demo itself, but it was hard to say for sure.

Anyway, I’m just nit picking here – time to go back to the demo. Eventually, the man on the floor slowly starts to get to his feet, looking dazed, confused and, perhaps most importantly, not hostile. In fact, he looks scared. No idea why though, as nothing has clearly gone wrong already, and surely nothing could continue to go wrong in a kitchen in such fine upkeep as this. Nonetheless, he picks up a rusty knife off the floor and gestures for me to hold out my hands – AKA the controller – that he can cut my bonds. Gulp.

As someone who gets a bit queasy thinking about things like wrists being in close proximity to rusty knives, this next section is a tad uncomfortable to say the least. Holding up the DualShock 4 doesn’t really feel like holding one’s bound hands together at all, yet somehow the sensation of holding the controller out in front of you whilst your eyes are simultaneously seeing your virtual hands held aloft in the visor is surprisingly immersive.

This immersion becomes even more effective when this dude starts hacking away at the messy tangle of rope lashed between your wrists. Seeing the blunt knife slip and slide through the thick ropey cords in quick jerky motions suddenly makes what you’re seeing feel all the more tangible and distressing. It’s easily one of the more uncomfortable bits of the demo, and it still makes me feel a bit queasy just thinking about it now as I write this. To make matters worse, with no warning at all, suddenly a ghostly Onryo woman raises up out of the floor behind your rescuer and shanks him up pretty badly before cutting off his head. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

From here on out, the final minutes of the demo involve this Hisako lookalike fiendishly toying with you in a number of dastardly ways, the most memorable of which happens in another uncomfortable section where this ghastly ghoul slowly points the business end of the knife closer and closer towards your eye. Even though it’s an ancient 3D film cliché at this point, it’s still effective and really unsettling to see something come within inches of your face. There’s a few more moments of her scuttling around the room while you rapidly try to locate her position, but eventually, a cold grey hand covers your eyes from behind, and it’s game over man. Game over.

Ghosts Versus Cockneys

VR Dude

The PlayStation VR unit in use by a bearded Zelda-loving chap (AKA not me), wielding a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, probably for The London Heist. Cockney rhyming slang not included.

So, what did I think to PlayStation VR and Kitchen? Overall, they’re both pretty neat. The PlayStation VR unit itself is an impressive (and surprisingly comfortable) piece of tech, and though it’s just a basic demo at this point, Kitchen certainly does make a compelling case for full-on VR horror experiences very nicely indeed. But…

Okay, so I’ve got a couple of issues here. First, there’s the classic problem of VR motion sickness. Just like with the Oculus, PlayStation VR it’s a device that seems to quite frequently make a significant number of its users feel sick, including yours truly. I started to feel pretty queasy only a few moments into the Kitchen experience – definitely from motion sickness I might add, and not the grimy aesthetic of the demo – and I continued to feel pretty grim for some time afterwards. Although Sony claim that the fast refresh rate (120Hz) of the PlayStation VR greatly reduces motion sickness in comparison to other VR headsets, I personally didn’t feel any noticeable difference on a user level and quickly found my stomach roiling with waves of nausea in no time at all. But hey, this technical wizardry is beyond my tiny little pea brain, and I’m sure this is the sort of the thing that will eventually be solved given the inevitable march of progress, technology and time.

Secondly on a software level, although Kitchen was a lot of daft fun, it wasn’t really what I’d consider an interactive experience by any stretch of the imagination. The only sort of interaction the game required of me as a player was to roughly gesture forwards with the controller on two occasions – that’s it. It’s immersive and visually impressive certainly, but Kitchen is basically just a short VR horror film. Not exactly the killer app you’re looking for in a new piece of gaming-specific hardware, right?

Perhaps if I’d got to try out Sony London’s The London Heist for example, my opinions here might be slightly different. In that game, I’d have needed to duck and crouch on the spot in reality in order to pop in and out of virtual cover in the game, and use PlayStation Move controllers to point and shoot weapons at incoming enemies. That’s while I’m also Benny Hill slapping burly Statham-like skinheads on their shiny domes, slurping down great salty bowlfuls of jellied eels and yelling “Cor blimey mate, get down them apples ‘n’ pears, faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaackin’ ‘ell!” between each briny mouthful of moray. Typical video game stuff, in other words.

Yeah, I know, it’s pretty standard faire to want to shoot endless hordes of goons in a video game, but at least The London Heist‘s gameplay actually requires a significant level of interaction from me as a player, as opposed having me sit still as a passive observer like in Kitchen. A VR experience like that with a few basic mechanics and gameplay elements in play might have sold me on the use of PlayStation VR as a serious gaming platform, and not just a fancy supplementary VR cinema contraption. The small vignette demos and experiences on the PlayStation VR right now are very cool and exciting, but personally I need to see something more involved, more interesting and way more interactive to seriously consider buying a finished retail unit in the future (I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky).

Speaking of which, there’s the cost issue. PlayStation VR is certainly a flash and exciting device for the PlayStation 4, and going forward we’re probably going to see Sony put a much greater emphasis on its VR headset as a premium way of enjoying its burgeoning catalogue of games. But damn, what a premium it’s going to be. The latest news on the pricing is that PlayStation VR will retail at somewhere around the $300-$400 mark, after Andrew House (President of Sony Computer Entertainment International) suggested to the press that the headset would have a price point comparative to the cost of a new next-gen console, and would be marketed as such. That’s one hell of a lot of money to spend on what’s essentially still just a console accessory, no matter how revolutionary it may be.

Obviously, developing this VR stuff is expensive – I’m an idiot (that’s a given) but I do understand that developing tech like this costs a lot of money. Hell, you could even say that the headset being priced at the equivalent of a new console is actually cheap considering how advanced this VR visor actually is. But the fact remains that $300-$400 for a secondary PS4 device is still a hefty price tag for the average consumer, no matter which way you cut it.

However, even with all those whiney concerns of mine, there’s still an awful lot to be excited about with PlayStation VR and the whole VR industry in general. If you’ve read this far (you poor misguided sod), you’ll have no doubt realised by this point that one of the inherent problems with trying to explain all this VR stuff lexically is that it’s a massive injustice to the whole concept. Particularly when it’s an idiot like me who’s the one typing all these lexemes out for you to read. VR is an experience which you really have to see for yourself in order to grasp it’s full potential – you have to get your head inside a VR unit and nearly have your eyes poked out by a knife-wielding wraith to see why it’s such an exciting concept. It’s way more fun than it actually sounds, trust me.

While I personally think a great game will draw in and immerse a player in its world regardless of whether they’re experiencing it with a VR headset on their cranium or not, I’m sure that one day VR will probably be the way most people experience and play video games. It’s a cool and exciting future, definitely, but I think for most of us, that future is still a way off from being a practical and affordable reality any time soon. In the meantime, I’m happy to be stabbed by ghosts and shot at by Cockneys in the place where I’ve always enjoyed those activities – on the TV. Now where did I put those jellied eels…

EGX 2015 – Halo 5: Guardians, Warzone Multiplayer

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Hands-on with Halo 5‘s Massive New Multiplayer Mode

Going to EGX is both an exciting and daunting proposition. On one hand, it’s a great opportunity for a regular punter like myself to be able to get hands-on access to the brand new shiny games shown off earlier at E3 and Gamescom. On the other, because you’re attending as Joe Public, what sounds like a fun-filled day of non-stop gaming action on paper is actually more like an eternity of queuing, pocketed by evanescent moments of virtual escapism. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an exciting place to be, but boy is it exhausting on the pins.

Aside from the expected physical aches and pains, operating as an individual blogger at an enormous expo like this can also be quite a mental strain as well. From the second you set foot inside, it’s easy to quickly feel way out of your depth; everywhere you look there are these big professional teams of hip, young trendy YouTube personalities going about with their own personal harem of cameramen, boom-wielding sound engineers and lighting technicians that document every second of their time there. It’s a bit intimidating to say the least, particularly when all you’ve got for company during your hours of queuing are a notebook, camera and a half-eaten tuna sandwich – oh joy.

EGX 2015

However, such is the life of a solitary blogger, and despite this whingey and pessimistic pre-amble, I actually had a very enjoyable few days of checking out all that’s new and exciting in the gaming realm. EGX 2015 was held at Birmingham’s NEC as opposed to last year’s venue London’s Earls Court (which sadly is due to be demolished like a set piece in a Call of Duty campaign), and although the NEC itself felt like a rather bland backdrop for a video game convention, the important thing is that a lot of the games on show were well worth the long queues to play.

One such game that is very worthy of your attention if you like sci-fi first-person shooters is 343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians. My verdict? To paraphrase the all-consuming Gravemind, “There is much talk, and I have listened, through rock and metal and time. Now I shall talk, and you shall listen”. In other words, get a cup of tea, get comfortable, and I shall regale ye rotten with my thoughts on Halo 5‘s multiplayer.

Or to cut a long story short, yeah it’s pretty good (does the Ocelot gun gesture).

The Art of War…Zone

Halo 5 Xbox One

Like many other Xbox owners around the world, my fetish for seeing men and women in bulky combat armour clank into each other on virtual battlefields only intensifies with each new release in the Halo series. So, to indulge my insatiable desire for steamy power armour on flesh action, I headed straight to the big green Microsoft stand after getting my entry wristband to join the already massive queue for their marquee title.

Three hours of queuing (and heavy excited breathing) later (all the while enduring the dopey antics of some of the most punchable dudebros I’ve ever come across), I was finally able to pick up a controller and get stuck in to a 20-25 minute Warzone match on the ‘Escape from A.R.C.’ map. Before we get into the nitty-gritty details however, let’s back up for a second and go over the basics.

As already indicated by the title of this post, the mode 343 had on offer for the Halo-hungry hordes attending EGX was Warzone. This is the new large-scale competitive multiplayer mode debuting with Halo 5 which pits two teams of twelve players in a head to head (or more appropriately, helmet to helmet) battle of attrition, but with the added twist of also fighting off malicious mobs of AI attackers. 343 have playfully dubbed the mode as ‘Player Vs. Player Vs. Everything’.

Warzone is basically a riff on the familiar Big Team Battle mode from the previous Halos mixed with the point capturing of Halo 4’s Dominion and some choice MOBA elements that put an interesting new spin on the series’ traditional multiplayer formula. If the use of the word MOBA makes your stomach churn in panic, don’t worry – Warzone’s objectives are simple. The first team to 1000 points wins; points are earned for killing enemy players, killing enemy AI characters and capturing and holding target zones on the map.

See, nice and easy right? Having said that, there is a very cool twist to Warzone, and it’s here that the MOBA influence comes into play (Don’t panic, this is straightforward too, I promise). If one team simultaneously controls all the zones on a map, then the opposing team’s power core will be exposed back at their base, leaving it wide open for an attack. If the power core is destroyed with, say, a cheeky proton torpedo or two (read: plasma grenades), then that counts as an instant win for the attacking team, irrelevant of the current points total – yippie-ki-yay motherfucker indeed. It takes a lot of hard work and close co-ordination with your teammates to pull off a successful core detonation, but the sweet reward of a decisive on-the-spot victory makes all those gallons of blood, sweat and tears worth it.

Laptop

The culmination of all these different gameplay ideas working together results in a multiplayer mode that feels consistently exhilarating, regardless of whether you’re trouncing the opposition, or being completely dominated. There’s always hope of a last-minute comeback victory for the losers, but also the ever-present danger of defeat for the winners at any moment, which serves to keep both teams on their toes right to the very last second of the match.

Okay, so that’s the theory of Warzone out of the way – let’s crack on with the practical.

Spring Cleaning

Big Halo Sign 1

At the start of a Warzone match, both teams have to first clear out the pesky AI Forerunner squatters that have taken up residence in their respective bases. With the stern yet dulcet tones of Jennifer Hale’s Sarah Palmer in my headphones, my Red team chums and I drop into our base via Pelican dropship and prepare to fuck up some ferrous Forerunner ass.

These starting enemies mainly comprise the canine-like Forerunner Crawlers first introduced in Halo 4, but there were a few of the new Armiger enemy types amongst their number too. Sadly I completely missed this early engagement with the Armigers as I had to readjust my settings to invert my aiming and look controls, so I can’t really say much about how these new enemies operate as they were all wiped out by the time I properly joined the fray. From what I could see though, the Armigers appear to operate as a sort of much-needed intermediary enemy in the Forerunner ranks – stronger than the Crawlers, but weaker than the Knights.

With our base secured and free from enslaved human robots, the next few minutes see our team slowly wander out into the map to butt heads with Blue team and try to capture zones along the way. It’s all pretty low-key stuff at this early stage in the game; snipers volley short-range pistol shots at each other across the glinting metal rooftops, run-and-gun attackers clutch assault rifles and zig-zag across the dusty open ground from cover to cover, and explosive indoor corridor jousts flare up wherever the two sides meet.

It’s at this point that Halo 5‘s Spartan abilities really come into play and give you some interesting new map traversal options to experiment with. In particular, the new Spartan Boost ability that transforms what previously would otherwise be a rather dull and tired part of the Halo multiplayer experience – commuting across the large distances on foot to get to the action – into a high-speed adrenaline rush. Take a running leap off a platform and hit your thrusters mid-air and your Spartan is temporarily soaring through the air round the map like a bird. An ungraceful man-sized metallic bird with an assault rifle in its hands (or should that be talons?), but a bird nonetheless. Used in conjunction with the also new wall-clambering ability and the capability to indefinitely sprint (finally), it’s easy to achieve moments of kinetic (no, not that kinetic) grace as you swoop and soar your way across the map’s sandy orange dunes.

Aisle Shot

As both teams settle into the to-and-fro rhythm of capturing and defending zones, the interior spaces of these structures inexorably play host to the most intense firefights of the match. It’s here where the true benefits of the Spartan abilities come to the fore, as players clash in a crackling blur of extinguished shields and smoky thruster trails, a lightning-fast ballet of quick fingers and even quicker wits. The ability to hover mid-air, clamber up ledges and deal out deadly ground pounds give players access to a whole new vertical library of punishment, transforming a basic indoor scrap into a ridiculously exciting pressure cooker of claustrophobic indoor chaos.

In particular, mastering the nuances of the Boost ability in a close-quarters combat situation proves essential to survival. Learning when to rocket forwards to rapidly close distances and deal out crunching melee hits, or backdash with a reverse boost to escape a hail of bullets or the thundering blast of a grenade are vital manoeuvres to commit to muscle memory. With regard to the latter point, it’s hard to get an accurate feel of just how Halo 5‘s pineapples are balanced in this current pre-release build of the game, but they seem to pack a bigger wallop compared to the frag grenades of old, presumably as a means to compensate for players’ increased manoeuvrability.

Interestingly, as a final point on the zone capturing, whenever you move in to capture an enemy-controlled structure, a small readout on the HUD appears to let you know how many enemies are still occupying the building. This small detail is fantastic, as it helps you to quickly make important snap decisions; is it better to fall back and get reinforcements, or keep pressing on and find where that last dirty little cloaked camper is and rip out his thro…ahem, sorry about that, got a bit carried away there (deep breaths).

 Where the Wild Things Aren’t

Big Halo Sign 1

One of the slight disappointments with Warzone is that despite the mode’s inclusion of AI enemies, the truth is that there really aren’t an awful lot of them to go around. In addition to the handful of standard enemies occupying the bases at the start of the match, there’s a few straggling outliers huddled near each of the zones, and…that’s about it. Whether the AI population is an ongoing balance issue that’s still being tweaked, or whether it’s simply the case that the Escape from A.R.C. map simply doesn’t have many standard AI enemies to hunt, I’m not sure. Perhaps I just went in with my expectations set too high, expecting to see swarms of enemies rushing both teams in numbers comparable to Halo: ODST‘s excellent Firefight mode, but thankfully it’s not a big deal. The exciting part of Warzone is, of course, taking the fight to the enemy human players à la Big Team Battle.

However, what the AI troops lack in number, they more than makes up for in might. As both teams are racking up kills and holding down zones, Palmer occasionally pipes up to announce that Covenant and Forerunner boss enemies have spawned into the map. Simply put, these things are fucking beasts. These bosses are essentially souped-up versions of the standard Covenant Elites and Forerunner Knights found in the campaign, but don’t let their appearances fool you. Though they might look like the typical enemies you’d encounter in a Halo campaign, they have significantly better shielding and health to draw on, and can pack a much heftier wallop compared to their story-based counterparts. I repeatedly tried to take down a big Elite commander lurking in an out of the way construction tunnel by myself, but after being melted one too many times by its plasma rifle, I quickly decided to focus my efforts on helping my team hold down zones instead. Teamwork is essential to taking these big baddies down, but for those who enjoy a bit of bounty hunting, there’s a hefty jackpot of bonus points to bag for felling these fierce foes.

Check Yourself Before You REQ Yourself

REQ Station

To even think about tackling the enemy AI bosses, you’re going to need some serious firepower, and this is where 343 have decided to mix things up a little. Warzone differs from the rest of Halo 5‘s multiplayer in that it utilises the new REQ system as the primary means for players to get their hands on better gear.

Unfamiliar with it? Let me bring you up to speed. REQ is a vehicle and weapon requisition (get it?) system that 343 have designed specially for Warzone as a sort of middle ground between traditional first-come first-served weapon and vehicle distribution of the older titles, and Halo 4‘s controversial loadout system. Players earn energy points in Warzone by killing enemy players, AI troopers, capturing and holding bases etc. which they can then cash in at REQ terminals in their base to get a shiny new weapon or vehicle to kick ass with. Each item you can order belongs to a specific tier, and these tiers gradually unlock over time according to their energy requirement; basic items with a low energy requirement (such as pistols and rifles) will unlock sooner, while the power weapons and big vehicles will unlock later on in the match. It’s a clever and elegant way of allowing the player to pick the weapons they want, whilst still keeping the competitive playing field fair for everyone else.

Come to think of it, why am I trying to explain the ins and outs of the REQ system, when I could have the sage-like Mister Chief do a much better job of it for me:

It’s a difficult equilibrium to achieve, but I think on the whole 343 have got the balance between player choice and competitive fairness pretty spot on (though I still have some major concerns, but I’ll get to these later). A lot of Halo traditionalists disliked 343’s first foray into personalised weapon distribution in Halo 4, as they felt it negatively impacted the classic map and power weapon struggles they adored in the older games. Others disagreed, and enjoyed the more flexible approach to basic weapon acquisition, seeing it (alongside the inclusion of a standardised sprint function) as a progressive and considerate step in contemporising the Halo franchise to its industry peers and bringing it up to speed with the expectations of the modern FPS player.

As one of the minority of players of Halo 4 who actually appreciated the ability to spawn in with your preferred low-tier weapon of choice ready to go in your hexagon-riddled gauntlets, I think the REQ system will satisfy both schools of Halo thought. The timed unlock tiers of the arsenal mean that players can’t just instantly spawn in with top-tier armaments and wipe the floor with everyone else, and the energy requirements encourage players to think wisely about their purchases. Should you cash out on a Covenant Carbine, or save your energy and splash out on a Spartan Laser a few spawns later on? Go for a Gungoose early on, or splurge on a Scorpion tank further down the line? The choice is up to you (and the contents of your sizzling green energy wallet).

 Unfortunately though, as my Warzone match progressed and piles of dead Spartans started to pile up in crumpled heaps around the map, it gradually became apparent that hardly any players were making use of the REQ system. This was probably due to the clownish oafs Microsoft employed to man the Halo booth being more interested in dancing to the tunes thumping out of the nearby Rockband 4 stand than, you know, actually telling people how to play their fucking game, but hey, that’s just my guess. For whatever reason, a lot of the players I encountered didn’t seem to know how to get hold of a new gun or vehicle – either that or they were perfectly content to just go running out into the map with nothing but the standard issue assault rifle and pistol combo. This was a shame, and as a result the match I played didn’t really have the same level of intensity and pandemonium that the pre-release trailers have hyped up to the max. I’m sure when the final game comes out and people are familiar with the new systems that things will quickly start to feel more jam-packed and manic, but my first Warzone match definitely felt weirdly quiet at times.

Fortunately for me then, the noticeable lack of other vehicles and power weapons on the field meant that when I took to the skies in a Forerunner Phaeton I met very little anti-air resistance (cue Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, and pull on a pair of tinted aviators).

Phaenting the Town Orange

Player Close-up

Being a long-time Halo wheelman, I knew instantly from the second I picked up the greasy display controller that I wanted to get behind the controls of Halo 5‘s coolest new vehicle ASAP. I made sure to frugally hold back enough energy points for one so I could deploy this new toy as soon as the time-restriction passed, and it was certainly well worth the wait.

Allow me to indulge in my obsession for this beauty. The Forerunner Phaeton is a beastly aircraft, and the first vehicle we’ve seen from the Didact’s Forerunner faction; it’s an angular gunmetal grey aircraft that combines the shape of a Harrier Jump Jet with the sleek contours of stealth bomber. It also has a lot of orange paint on it, because you know…Forerunners and stuff.

Mechanically speaking, it’s an interesting vehicle to get to grips with. Unlike its Human and Covenant peers, the Phaeton feels designed first and foremost for defence over offence. It manoeuvres and hovers in a similar fashion to the Hornet, though it’s increased size means that it handles more like a floating gun platform than nippy attack chopper, swapping speed for increased durability. It comes equipped with a beefy futuristic chaingun, which spits out a hail of hard light bullets at your target, which quickly turn enemy Spartans into fizzing puddles of Tango. These bullets are powerful, yes, but they’re also quite slow moving (compared to the fire rate of a Banshee’s primary projectiles for example), so learning to lead your shots just slightly in front of your target is essential to land hits.

The most unique feature of this flying Forerunner craft though has to be its ability to phase in and out of the air, meaning you can essentially juke out of the way of incoming projectiles. While I couldn’t figure out how to activate the dodge ability myself in this match, it’s definitely going to be a vital thing to be able to pull off in the heat of combat.

I spent the entirety of my time in the craft punching sizzling orange holes in ground-based infantry targets, so I didn’t get to see how the Phaeton holds up in an aerial dog fight, but I imagine the trick to taking on airborne vehicles will be to stand your ground and let your attacker come to you rather than give pursuit. While the Banshee and Hornet can probably outrun the Phaeton in terms of raw speed, the Phaeton’s phase ability gives it an unparalleled flexibility at short-distances; continually warping out of range of your attacker’s guns will be highly irritating, and also give you extra time to rake nasty orange bullet scars across their hull.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and ultimately my airborne killing spree was cut short when I was rudely blown out of the sky by a particularly determined rooftop defender. It was time to get back to the fray on foot for the final few minutes of the match, but my next thought was, to quote the mighty 117 himself, “I need a weapon”. Again. Although I’d been regularly plucking out basic ranged weapons throughout the course of the match, I didn’t really have a full perusal of all the goodies on offer until I’d had my fun with the Phaeton.

Warzone’s arsenal consists largely of Halo 4‘s returning armoury (sadly minus the sticky detonator) along with a few new additions such as the Hydra, a homing RPG weapon that debuted in the previous Arena multiplayer Beta. Though my natural tendency was to stick to familiar favourites when ordering weapons (nothing comes close to speed, accuracy and satisfying thunk-thunk-thunks of the Covenant Carbine at mid-range sniping in my opinion), I did make an effort to sample some of the new tools on offer. One such newbie is the Covenant Plasma Caster; this is a purple crossbow-like contraption first showcased in the Gamescom campaign demo which has both rapid fire and charge-shot capabilities. It basically functions as a sort of hybrid between the Concussion Rifle of and Reach‘s Plasma Launcher – I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to use, but sadly, due to a deadly mixture of impatience and unfamiliarity on my part, I couldn’t really get it to work for me in the short time the weapon was in my grasp.

Indoor Ghost

The final few minutes of the game were a busy blur of running between bases, capping fools and dodging those fearsome AI bosses. Though we had a solid lead points-wise, our team still had a bit of a shock when all of the zones bases were suddenly under blue control, and we had to quickly scramble to capture at least one back to shut them out of our core. We managed it by the skin of our teeth, and before long we had all three zones under our control – touché Blue team. I’d just leapt into the bulky cockpit of a Mantis and was thudding my way across the map to launch everything I had at their exposed core when Red team won with a 1000 point total anyway. Sighing with contented relief, I turned my Mantis towards the sun and thudded into the distance as the monitors faded to black. Mission complete.

Oh, Just One More Thing…

Yes I’m doing a Columbo here, and yes I know this piece is really dragging on by this point now, but this last bit is important, trust me. Remember how I alluded to some concerns about the REQ a few paragraphs ago? Despite the delightfully daft attempts of Frank O’Connor’s scribbled Spartan to harbour goodwill towards this new system, having tried REQ out first-hand, I’m still uneasy about how the system will work in the final game. Specifically, I’m apprehensive about how it’ll impact on one of the key aspects of Halo multiplayer – vehicle and power weapon acquisition.

You see unlike the build of the game I got to try, when the finished thing hits store shelves and the Xbone marketplace later this month, the REQ system will have an secondary layer of virtual currency added to it – REQ cards (Mister Chief outlines how they work in the video I posted earlier, but for the benefit of doubt I’ll explain them again here). REQ cards are digital trading cards that players will use as a secondary payment system (on top of the energy level costs) to acquire power weapons and vehicles in Warzone matches. In other words, in order to call in a specific power weapon/vehicle in the retail version of Halo 5‘s Warzone mode, three conditions have to be met:

  • The player has the sufficient level of energy required to spawn in their chosen power weapon/vehicle.
  • The REQ system has time-unlocked the tier that the player’s chosen power weapon/vehicle belongs to.
  • The player owns the corresponding REQ card for that power weapon/vehicle.

Upon first glance, these conditions seem pretty fair and straightforward. However, there’s a catch. A couple of catches actually. As an old-school Halo wheelman, the initial worry I have with this system is that unlike the game’s basic weapon cards (which I believe are classed as permanent, unlimited unlocks once earned), Halo 5‘s power weapon and vehicle cards are categorised in the REQ system as single use cards. This means that whenever you order up your chosen vehicle/power weapon of choice, it costs you a card each and every time you want to spawn that item into a match. To put it another way, no card = no vehicle/power weapon. Out of Warthog cards? Sorry Spartan, you’ll have to hoof it on foot. The much bigger worry I have is the fact that packs of REQ cards will be available for players to buy with real world money as microtransactions. Want that Rocket Launcher soldier? Drop and give me twenty…pence.

Yup, we’re finally at the point ladies and gents – the mighty triple-A Halo series is soliciting microtransactions in addition to asking for your £60 upfront. Before you roll your eyes, no, I don’t think microtransactions are an inherently evil concept. Like additional DLC content, microtransactions can be well designed and fairly implemented in a game, usually offering purely cosmetic items for sale, or they are implemented in such a way that they don’t negatively impact the core gameplay experience of you or other players. Free-to-play games like Killer Instinct and Planetside 2 are excellent examples of games that positively use microtransactions in non-invasive ways, and most importantly, they don’t reward the players that do spend their money with unfair advantages over those who don’t.

Microtransactions absolutely have no place in a boxed £60 retail game like Halo though, and their inclusion is just unacceptable in my opinion. We’ll have to see exactly how these REQ cards work in the finished product of course, but from everything 343 has told us so far, it looks like the microtransactions are purely there to act as a tertiary barrier to encourage players to open their digital wallets.

To momentarily play devil’s advocate on 343’s behalf, players are said to be able to earn REQ cards for doing pretty much anything in Halo 5‘s multiplayer modes. Although we haven’t been given any solid info on frequency and drop rates for these cards, for all intents and purposes it sounds like players will be earning them at a steady rate, so I’m pretty confident that they won’t be given out quite as randomly and inconsistently as the engram rewards that the infamously tight-fisted Cryptarch in Destiny doles out (the smug blue-faced cunt). But the fact remains that although 343 have said that players will be continually earning plenty of cards for everything they do in Halo 5, these cards are an intrinsically unreliable resource by design. You won’t be able to 100% guarantee that you’ll have the capability to spawn in a Mongoose for that vital last minute rush on the enemy’s core unless you’ve paid cold hard cash for it.

Not getting the sniper rifle or Wraith you wanted exactly when you wanted it in the previous Halos wasn’t a big deal, as all the weapons and vehicles spawned into the map at once and were available on a first-come first-served basis. Missed out on getting a Banshee? No worries, just keep playing and it’ll respawn back in later. Conversely, Halo 5‘s REQ cards turn the process of getting into vehicles and getting power weapons into a random lucky-dip bag, unless you spend extra money. Why make a system that’s deliberately built to be unreliable in one area otherwise? If players can order up basic weapons at any point without requiring additional consumable cards (providing they meet the energy and time requirements) why can’t we do the same with the vehicles and power weapons?

It just feels completely unnecessary and tacky. In the Warzone match I played, vehicles and power weapons were already rationed out fairly to players with the energy cost and staggered time-based unlock requirements of the REQ system. These are more than adequate safeguards already in place to stop people abusing the system, and it simply looks like the REQ cards have simply been introduced to add another level of unnecessary complexity to the system, and a means of nickel-and-diming desperate players for extra cash. I’ll happily have my concerns proven overly-cynical, ill-founded and wrong – nay, fuck it, I’ll go one further and say I desperately hope I’m proven wrong – but until we get the finished thing in our hands, I’m definitely more than a bit worried.

Anyway, I’m just chuntering at this point, so I’ll climb off my soapbox for now and call it a day. Warzone is very cool, I had a lot fun with it, and I’m looking forward to vegging out playing more when Halo 5 drops at the end of the month. See you on the battlefield Spartan…or something like that, yeah? Oh, you’ve gone. Sadface.