by Luv Mehta
Well, it's been a full month since the CoVID lockdown started, and a year of me working from home. Not sure how I feel about that, honestly, so let's distract ourselves from the fact that this month was LOADED, with a whole bunch of great games I played and replayed.
Just in case you're new to this series, I generally write an article every month recording the new (and old) stuff I’m watching, playing or listening to, and I’m doing it in a series of monthly articles. I’ll write some quick notes about the old stuff I went back to in the first section (Repeat Value), before getting into the new stuff (...The New Stuff).
It's all games this month, because I'm still going through that goshdarned mental block. Hopefully I can turn that around sometime in April.
Halo: Combat Evolved
I've been subscribed to Xbox Game Pass for a while, and I've had my eye on Halo: The Master Chief Collection ever since it started being released around eight years ago.
The Halo series is a long-running, highly acclaimed series of first person shooters, and for a very long time, only the first two games were available for the PC, with the rest being Xbox console exclusives. It was only at the end of 2019 that people were able to play the other games, when The Master Chief Collection started to be ported over, one game at a time, until the end of 2020. The first two games have been released as Anniversary editions, being remastered with overhauled visuals and a rerecorded soundtrack, and the games give you the option to switch between the old classic experience and the new remastered experience anytime. I've got all the games installed right now, and I played Halo: Combat Evolved for what's probably the 20th time or so.
The first Halo game was a childhood favourite of mine, and I've played it countless times. With fantastic gunplay, the regenerating shield system that felt so fresh at the time (a feature that became incredibly commonplace as a result of its influence), and great atmosphere and environment design, it stuck with me for a very long while. I have to give special mention to that last bit, actually - Halo: Combat Evolved does a great job evoking a sense of awe and wonder in the player, with beautiful architecture and environments that are just alien enough that they feel both advanced and ancient, and the game wisely gives you enough moments of calm so you can absorb the atmosphere even more. The effect is distinctive enough that its absence in Halo 2 frustrated me to no end - but more on that later.
Halo: Combat Evolved is an incredibly popular game and is already considered a classic, but if you've managed to avoid it so far, here's the premise - it's the far-off future, and humanity's embroiled in a war with an alien force called the Covenant. During a battle, some of their capital ships stumble upon a strange artificial ring-world, which the Covenant immediately seem to recognize as some sort of holy weapon, and both sides battle it out in an attempt to seize control of the ring - but all is not what it seems to be. You play the Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced supersoldier, trying to gain control of the ring as you get to learn about its true nature.
It feels a bit weird to leave this space spoiler-free, what with it being a twenty year old game by now, but that's alright.
I played it throughout with the new graphics turned on, and while I still had fun, the visual overhaul seems to have missed the point of a lot of the game. Dark, foreboding corridors are now brightly lit; rooms bathed in ominous purple lighting now have the entire colour scheme changed to bright blues and greens, and a lot of the alien structures seem to be overdesigned, adding stereotypical sci-fi tubelights to blank walls and bottomless pits. The effect isn't great, honestly, and I'd rather just use the classic graphics next time.
This is the second time I've played this game, and it's been an extremely surprising experience.
Halo 2 was a highly anticipated sequel when it came out in 2004, and it eventually became the highest selling game on the platform. It was also a game marred by clear production issues, with narrative risks that threw people off for quite a while, and a sudden cliffhanger ending that people widely hated. Personally, I'd only beaten Halo 2 once, and the weird shift in the focus of the game from excitement and wonder to pure pulse-pounding action disappointed me.
I've just beaten it for the second time, and my opinion on it has done a complete 180.
The premise, for those who don't know - after the destruction of the Halo ringworld in the first game, the Covenant travel to Earth, whose location had been carefully kept secret to protect humanity's homeworld, and immediately get to invading a city in Africa, to the confusion of everyone involved - it seems that the Covenant didn't expect humanity's presence at all. As humanity and the alien forces battle it out again, we keep shifting to a different perspective - the leader of the Covenant forces in the first game becomes a playable character called the Arbiter, as we see that the Covenant is literally a covenant of different alien species held together by religious fundamentalism and a belief in the ringworlds leading them to salvation.
There's MUCH more worldbuilding this time when it comes to the Covenant, and the human protagonist's brightly lit swashbuckling adventure levels contrast with the alien protagonist's moodier levels with their strange vistas. When I played the game for the first time, the focus shift alienated me, because I wanted something that felt like the first game. As I've grown older (and hopefully a little wiser), I've changed my stance on sequels enough to realize that the game I should have played, if I wanted something that felt like Halo: Combat Evolved, was Halo: Combat Evolved. Halo 2 is trying to show a very different experience, and honestly? I now think it's incredibly successful, and even the rushed ending doesn't bother me much.
The gameplay has also aged extremely well - Halo 2 introduces a whole bunch of weapons and dual wielding, and all of it feels fantastic to play with. In the first game, I generally stuck to a few weapons for dispatching different types of enemies, while in this one, I keep switching weapons to try new things and play differently, and nearly all of them are fun to use.
Halo 2 has also received the same Anniversary treatment, and the new designs are substantially more well conceived than the first game. The art style and colour schemes are all respected well, with modern textures spicing up a lot of areas and characters that were previously very low-quality, and massively improved lighting and models that make a lot of levels feel even more atmospheric. This also improved level design for me - levels that were formerly visually repetitive now feel much better to play through, and the music levels are much more audible and add a lot to the experience for me.
Before this, if anyone said Halo 2 was one of their favourite games of all time, I used to be quietly dismissive. Now, I'm finding myself agreeing with them, and wondering if I actually like this better than the first game, which was already one of my favourite games ever.
The New Stuff
Neoverse is a Slay The Spire-like card rouguelike - I've described Slay The Spire here, and I've played other StS-like games before too. Slay The Spire has become an immensely successful game archetype, and plenty of games have adopted its approach to gameplay in a lot of different settings. It was only a while before an immensely anime-as-hell version was made and released.
Neoverse is a fun action game set in a vague future where humanity is under attack, and you go through different universes and different time periods (some futuristic, some vaguely medieval) to defeat a whole bunch of monsters. It's got good visuals and character design, and a trio of attractive "waifus" (women designed to be attractive to a hetero male audience) as player characters - that last part is very clearly the USP of the game, to the point where it's even got costume pack DLCs to dress them up in revealing clothes.
The gameplay is alright, it's suitably fun and varied with the types of enemies and cards you can play. There isn't much I can say about it, I played it a bit off-and-on because it was on Xbox Game Pass.
3. Halo 3
I remember when the Xbox 360 came out and I wanted it so badly, and a huge part of that was Halo 3. I went to Gamefaqs and read the whole script, I read a million online reviews that were near-unanimous with their praise, and I kept hoping to play it someday. And finally, after thirteen years, I've finally gotten to play it for the first time, and I can finally experience what all those other people had played all those years ago, and I finally get to say...
Yeah, it's pretty good. Bit short though.
Halo 3's premise is this - the Covenant and humanity are engaged in war over Earth, and the alien protagonist's species has allied with humans. Barring a few extra complications towards the end... Yeah, that's pretty much it. Most of the game focuses on finishing the fight (which was literally an advertising tagline for this game), and the focus is spent on giving the player a bunch of large levels with a lot of strong enemies, a bunch of tools you can use to fight them, and giving you the freedom to do whatever you want to do.
While I was a bit disappointed coming in from Halo 2, I did admire the sheer focus of the game's design, which easily lends itself to the presence of some of the best gameplay sections in the series so far. In fact, while the level quality has been a bit hit-or-miss in previous games, nearly all the levels here (with the exception of the second last level) range from good to brilliant.
I am at a bit of a loss for words, though - all these years since I've wanted to play it, and I've just had an immense reversal of my opinion on its predecessor, and in the end, Halo 3 just ends up feeling like a very good game. Like, I'd be open to replaying some of the levels sometime, but there's no radically new addition to the series that makes me interested enough to write about - in the single-player campaign, at least, since Halo 2 and 3 are some of the most popular multiplayer games of all time, and while I'm not really interested in these games beyond their single-player story campaigns, it would be unfair if I didn't mention that Halo 3's popular innovations were all entirely on the multiplayer side, with map creators people could design on their console and play through.
Anyway, yeah, it's pretty good. Bit short though.
2. Nier: Automata
I was debating whether to put this in the number one position, and it was an immensely difficult decision. You'll understand why when you see the top pick of the month.
Nier: Automata is a genre-blending action-adventure game set in a small open-world map, in the far-off post-apocalyptic future, where you play an android soldier serving humanity, trying to defeat machines that serve alien invaders that have already held the earth for millennia. Or, at least, that's what it starts off as.
The first time you play it all the way through to the end credits, Nier: Automata is a good game with some enjoyable bosses, some interesting themes that don't really get explored all that much, and some intriguing worldbuilding. Once you finish it, a post-credits message asks you to play it again to experience "different endings".
Start a second playthrough, and the experience completely changes. The story is the same, but the framing and perspectives start being shuffled around to explore the underlying themes even more, with new revelations about the plot and more focus on the difference and similarities between the androids and the machines.
Start a third playthrough, and the experience changes even more drastically - a lot of online playthroughs mention that the real Nier: Automata experience starts here, which isn't inaccurate, with storylines and themes getting fully resolved, often to devastating effect.
The music is beautiful and unique too, complemented by a great art style to create a fantastic package. The gameplay is just alright, though - Nier: Automata tries out a mix of different genres for its moment-to-moment action, and even though it's not necessarily difficult, I didn't really have much fun with it.
One side-note - just like Neoverse, Nier: Automata is also a very horny game when it comes to its character designs, with the creator openly admitting that he's made the primary female android characters attractive because he likes attractive women (which, I dunno if it's a great reason, but it's honest at the very least, unlike Hideo Kojima's infamous reasoning for a similar case). A lot of people online complain about how Nier: Automata's merits get overshadowed by the internet's slobbering over 2B's character design, which isn't really fair, since the game itself chooses to have her dressed in a battle one-piece that exposes her butt (poorly covered up with with a destructible skirt), and camera movement that focuses on upskirt shots when you climb certain ladders. There's no story reason for such sexualization, either, it's basic fanservice - which, depending on you and your preferences, you either might be into, tolerate, or find it a turn-off.
That being said, this is still a brilliantly written and conceived game otherwise, and at the end of the day, I do feel comfortable considering adding it to my list of favourites.
I've finally gotten to play a very different type of rouguelike for once, after all those StS-like rouguelikes recently.
Hades is a hack-and-slash roguelike with a Greek mythology setting, where you play Zagreus, the sole son of Hades, god and king of the underworld, who's had enough of staying there and decides to escape and make his way to the gods in Olympus. Each run is an escape attempt, and the game does a fantastic job of making sure each run feels substantial in terms of progress, and has lots and lots of story content that keeps continuing after every run.
As an indie game from the makers of Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, Hades is a pretty nice success story, receiving critical and audience acclaim ever since it was officially released last year, and even winning a BAFTA award for best game a few weeks ago. It isn't hard to see why - the game feels amazing to control and play, and it keeps rewarding you for going through new runs, even if you fail, either mechanically or with new story beats. You keep getting motivated to push past each failure and continue onwards, and it doesn't feel repetitive despite the inherent nature of roguelikes.
Great dialogue, great character interactions, and the narrative and gameplay come together to provide an addictive feeling, where you constantly start more runs to keep finding new playstyles, perfect your favourite builds, and find out more about the people you encounter.
A small tangent, though - I've been seeking short games to play, because I tend to get worn out after spending so much time with a single game, like Hollow Knight, which I played last month and was eventually burnt out from. Hades took me even to get to the end-credits, taking a little under 60 hours to finish the main story, and I did feel burnt out by the end, but it was still addictive enough to make me want to start another run and try some new gameplay styles. The weird thing is, sites like HowLongToBeat.com mention that the average time to finish the main story is around 40 hours, and I see a lot of comments talking about how players finished the game within 30-40 runs - so either I took too much time experimenting and failing, or lots of people are lying online, or they enabled God Mode, a prominent accessibility setting that reduces the damage you take after each death you face.
Either way, maybe I'm not as good at games as I thought I was, but I'm still proud of beating the game without having to lower the difficulty.
And that’s it for this month! Hope you have a great month ahead, and check back next month for more!