Halo 5 Multiplayer: A Taste of Things to Come

I preordered my copy of Halo: The Master Chief Collection for two reasons. First, I love Halo more than any other shooter, and second, I would get a crack at the multiplayer beta. It is this second reason that I put fingers to keys over the holidays, and found myself checking out the world of Halo 5.

The beta suffers from some of the normal issues expected in early release tests, long lobby wait times, occasional server issues, and wary apprehension to new mechanics. When I got in, I was expecting bedlam, visuals not up to scratch, balance issues, and frustration. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong in my expectations.

The two maps that are available are small arena types in the “Slayer” game mode. “Empire” is a traditional arena map designed to mix long range sniping as well as close quarters battle. “Truth” is almost a reskin and updating of the old Halo 2 map “Midship,” with 3 levels, and lots of cover promoting mobile combat styles and close up fighting rather than sniping. They are both really fun maps, well designed to keep players moving and fighting rather than find a bolt hole to camp in. Like in previous Halo multiplayer maps, guns are scattered throughout the map for players to pick up. A change comes in the form of power weapons, specific to each map. In “Empire”, sniper rifles will spawn, with the in game announcer letting players know in timed increments when they will appear. The power weapon for “Truth” is the covenant energy sword. The power weapons are there to help a team dominate their opponents, but are not overpowered in any way so there is no unfair advantage. (Clearly, you’ve never seen me with an energy sword. – Ed)

This beta also introduces a new mechanic to the game called “smart-link”. In previous Halo games, players could not look down the sights with specific weapons like the assault rifle, SMG, the Magnum, and the Covenant plasma pistol/rifle/needler. With the current UNSC weapons unveiled in the beta, it appears all weapons have some kind of sight system via “smart link”. This function is causes a new target reticle or scope image to appear in the heads up display. Upon being shot, a player is knocked out of this view (traditional to halo). However this “flinch” mechanic is supposedly being removed. I find that I like the new application of smart-linking weapons. It allows greater accuracy and control with automatic weapons as well as semi-auto weapons. It also brings Halo into line with other fps titles that allow players to aim down the sights with any weapon.

Players will be pleasantly surprised to find that there are few balance issues when it comes to available weapons. With the smart-link system, accuracy is generally improved across the board, though will deteriorate as range changes. I have noticed that the magnum pistol in this game is still quite powerful, and quite capable at killing from a distance with only smart-linked “iron sights.” There is a new weapon introduced in the beta called the MLRS. It is a six round rotary grenade launcher that fires homing rockets at targets. Two targeted rockets can generally kill a given Spartan with full shields. This is an equivalent to the Covenant Plasma Launcher.

A new mode had been introduced to Halo, called Breakout. Breakout is played on an Spartan training facility in space, on a map reminiscent of the Halo 3 map called “The Pit”. This arena changes digitally from game to game, providing different sight line and cover points. Available weapons are highly limited on this map, with only one extra gun per side available for pick up, usually a battle rifle or assault rifle. Players start with the submachine gun, pistol, and a single grenade. Each player has one life, and once eliminated is out for the duration of the round. Teams are made of four players, similar to that of slayer. You have to win the best of seven rounds, but if no clear victor is decided after seven, then an elimination round is played.

343 industries have also changed how players are tracked throughout their online experience. Before, like other games, players were tracked by level with badge displays according to UNSC military ranks. Now players are ranked via the skill they portray in playlists as they play online. This new ranking system takes the data generated in matches (k/d ratio, accuracy, melee kills, medals earned) and then generates points to be added. Ranks are not calculated until a player plays 10 matches in a given playlist, and all previous data is then applied to the rank after 10 matches. In my case, I jumped right up to the silver rank lvl 1, though I have no quantifiable idea what this means. Players also gain experience for each match they play, which goes towards increasing their Spartan rank. As one increases their Spartan Rank, new cosmetic gear is unlocked to be worn in matches. This consists of visors, armor, and helmets.

If this Beta is an indication of what is to come, I am quite excited for the next full iteration of Halo. My hope is that 343 Industries will take the time required to release this game with few bugs (unlike the bug ridden multiplayer portions of Halo: The Master Chief Collection). Going forward, I hope that 343 will release at least one more map and some of the Covenant weapons to play with and get a feel for. If that happens, I will gladly post an update to keep you guys up to date!

David Losey is an actor, writer and stagehand living and working in the Bay Area.
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Four Elemental Reasons why you should be watching Avatar: the Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra is not a very controversial show, at least among Avatar fans. It is neither disappointing to these fans as a departure from Avatar: The Last Airbender, nor so well received that it experiences the evangelical zeal the first series inspired. But what it is is solid. The show is a solid sequel, a solid kid’s show, just solid television in general. Few people think Legend of Korra as better than The Last Airbender, and I typically think of these two shows as different expressions of the same narrative, with their unique strengths and weaknesses. While I cannot barely scratch the details that should be considered to rate one of these shows above the other, I did just see the newest episode of LoK and I have good news for anyone whose attention is straying. If you have not yet seen this new episode, or are a season or two behind, keep watching. Here is why…..

 

     Fire: The Emotional Complexity in the characters

Korra has always been a slightly more adult take on the word of Avatar. Not that its predecessor should be sneered at for being “a kid’s show.” TLA was both a kid’s show and an adult’s show, and that was wonderful. But Korra is more mature and complex, and that fits the characters just fine.

Korra is a character defined by her status, not through arrogance, but in that she is extremely hard on herself. She is exceedingly physically capable, perhaps the most physically capable person in her society, but continuously pushes herself to be better, to better meet the expectations of the Avatar. She is not one dimensional as some other physical characters from animated TV, her drive is based on her caring for people and emotional intensity. She feels deeply, and she holds her physical success to the high standard set by her desires. Neither is she without her ingenuity, in fact, I would say that her lack of intellectual focus makes her struggles and triumphs in the worlds of words and spirit all the more interesting and cheer-inducing. Korra is also very self aware. She knows how much she does not know, and humility here has sometimes been her asset. When Korra defeats an enemy by acting outside of her normally-physical methods, the audience can appreciate her growth and development.

….especially in her self esteem, but no spoilers.

Korra is not the only character with emotional depth on the show. Mako could have been pushed to the side as a romantic interest, but instead fills a larger role and develops emotionally with his brother Bolin and other characters. Likewise, Asami could have been dismissed as a non-bender, but her own story develops around the main plot, as she emotionally connects with Mako and Korra, as well as regains control of her traitorous father’s corporation. And perhaps the most emotionally complex story, at least last season, went to one of the “mentor” figures, Lin Beifong, who’s wrestling with her inner demons formed some of the most compelling story arcs.

     Air: Gender and feminist themes

The show is noteworthy, I think, for how it depicts gender. The show features a physical female character who is deeper than the “strong female character” trope normally provides. Korra is not masculine in her strength, flawless in her heroic endeavors, unemotional, or angry. Korra is much more complex than that.  Korra and Asami’s friendship is unusual for television in that it is not based around their relationship/desire for a man or other romantic partner, and the two of them work together in relative harmony, despite Korra’s Avatar status.

Additionally, the show depicts a world in which women are treated more equal to men, just by waving the hand and declaring it so. Bending is an equal opportunity magic and women are given the same opportunities as men to use their bending. But it was not always like this. In Avatar: the Last Airbender, the Northern Water Tribe refused to teach Katara based solely on her gender, but relented when her character and mastery was proven. The Legend of Korra builds on that change, at times showing Katara as an old woman still battling, and winning against, the prejudice that once robbed her of respect. Korra also is saddled with a sense of the prejudice – there are multiple male mentor figures trying to tell Korra what to do. In these situations, Korra’s blind following of their (and anyone’s) advice leads her into deeper trouble. It is only when she is able to listen to her instincts, intelligence, and experience that she truly overcomes the situation that these male mentors were trying to tell her how to solve.

The show does not slack on the men, either. Male characters do not relate to Korra through traditionally romantic plots, and when they do, those romances have neither endured nor destroyed the friendship. When Bolin was heartbroken by a kiss shared between Korra and his brother Mako, his heartbroken sorrow gives way to wisdom. Bolin admits that he had no reason to be angry at anyone, and Korra should not feel guilty at all. He takes responsibility for his own feelings, and they are friends again. Later, Bolin is taken in by his status as a Celebrity and takes an opportunity to kiss a fellow (and possible romantically interested) actress, who is tied down at the time (gross). He later admits that the status went to his head and stops pursuing that actress. While this wasn’t the hack up from that kiss I wanted, I appreciated that the show did not glorify the kiss – the entire set of behaviors on Bolin’s part is shown to be a failing for which he humbly apologizes. In The Legend of Korra, men and women can indeed be healthy friends and male characters are more than their machismo.

     Water: Writing, especially in political complexity

The show’s writing is excellent, and I enjoy its complexity.  Instead of simple conflicts that represent complex moral truths, as in TLA, this show features complex conflicts that represent simple moral truths. When the disenfranchised protest, they are never shown to be one dimensional antagonists, even when they oppose the main characters. A recent complex family grudge breaks down in to a simple message of perspective and personal humility. The antagonist’s philosophies are usually compelling, or at least not far from valid. The show depicts Korra battling these ideologies only in that she keeps their zealots from harming others and brings such wrong doers to justice. Her conflict with these ideologies are usually entirely internal.

However, I am continually struck by the way different political beliefs and forces are depicted in the show. Even when the leader of a social justice movement is shown to be morally despicable, he is removed and distanced from the concerns of the movement, as if the shows writers did not want to taint their message by having them perfectly aligned with the villain. Additionally, the way that the political bodies and democratic process attempts to deal with the supernatural plots and events in TLoK is very compelling and valid.  At times, Korra has been in the wrong when she tries to overstep the democratic process. Unlike other shows that attempt to depict a simple force for good bogged down when political forces are applied, those political forces are not depicted as necessarily evil, stupid, or purely obstructionist. They are more realistic than that.

As just a taste, I want to tell you how excited I am that this newest episodes features a plot seed for a political situation that mirrors China’s historical development. The complexity they show in this plot does not paint an obvious evil, and I hope the situation will remain complex. In any case, the specific forces bringing this plot about are very true to life. You’ll have to watch to know more.

     Earth: Martial Arts and Visual Beauty

A major driving force in the show’s momentum, I’d say, is the progression of the depiction of martial arts (both in bending fights and in the katas and forms themselves). TLoK has heavily developed the techniques as shown in TLA; there are more specialized benders, special bending is more prevalent, the long lost Airbending has grown far deeper than what we ever saw Aang perform. The entire arc helps me believe that I am watching a living world, and that the main effective form of violence, bending, has evolved as the world has evolved.

The beautiful vistas and interesting scene locals are in no short supply either. TLA made a name for itself by being visually unique and enchanting, and Korra has succeeded in carrying that emphasis forward. Look out for the spirit world and Spirits, modernized technology and architecture, natural vistas, and especially the costumes. The Legend of Korra is a cosplayer’s delight.

This show is incredible, and I can’t promote it enough. I truly feel that the spirit of original has been carried forward. The series is an equal to, in my opinion, the last (ahem) one and has moved beyond it, to create a unique show. Both are set in an intriguing, culturally Asian, evolving, beautiful world. However, while Airbender was an epic fantasy, much like The Hero’s Journey, The Legend of Korra is a Superhero show. Probably my favorite current Superhero show.

The Legend of Korra Book 4 premiered online at Nick.com last Friday. The three previous seasons are available on Nick.com as well.

Jarys teaches in Alameda, where they live with their Partner, two cats, and not quite enough books. Jarys will be running a LARP at the upcoming Big Bad Con. Please stop by and say “hello”.

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