Halo Wars 2: If We Fought Aliens For Real, We’d Be Stuffed

Halo Wars 2 is the kind of game that stands out on consoles: rather than handing players a weapon and thrusting them headfirst into combat, it takes a step back and observes the action from afar. That’s unusual in and of itself. Real-time strategies like this (including Command and Conquer or Age of Empires) are a rarity anywhere other than the PC. Equally, its focus on the nitty-gritty of battlefield tactics is a departure for Halo. Microsoft’s biggest exclusive usually focuses on one man’s struggle, but this concerns itself with an army.

That approach brings to mind the nightmare it’d be to fight aliens in ‘real life’. As obvious as it sounds, anything from another world is going to be wildly unfamiliar: their culture, armaments, vehicles and tactics would feel unrecognisable in the most terrifying way. Consequently, neither side would know what they’re up against or how to respond. You can’t prepare for the unknown, so the result would probably be a blood-bath. While it had its share of flaws, Tom Cruise’s War of the Worlds handled this well.

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The Covenant have been tearing humanity apart for years – concept art for Halo Wars 2

We often assume that extra-terrestrials will conform to our rules. Halo’s Covenant still use guns and tanks, for instance. Yet to do so is naïve. Even if they were humanoid as some experts suggest – thanks to a scientific theory called ‘convergent evolution’, wherein life develops similar traits because it’s just sensible – we’d still be out of our depth. There’s little to no common-ground if your enemy comes from another planet, especially when their cultural touchstones are entirely removed from our own. Who’s to say they’d even use ballistics or the equivalent of jet fighters? We might find our ability to respond rendered moot.

That sense of skating on thin ice is where Halo shines. It’s why Halo: Reach in particular was so effective: taking place early in the story and a short time after humanity makes first contact, the Covenant are a total enigma. We can’t even understand them at this point, never mind beat them. As a result, the heroes face a losing battle right from the start.

Halo 3: ODST had a similar vibe with its ground-level grunts muddling on as best they can against superior forces. The brilliant live-action trailer (which singlehandedly convinced me to buy the game, no less) showcases just what an uphill fight it’d be.

From a commander’s standpoint – as with Halo Wars 2 – this is a horrific situation to find yourself in. What do you do against an enemy who can’t be predicted? It’s a case of forgetting everything you know and working on instinct. That’s far from ideal when lives, not to mention your way of life itself, hang in the balance.

Because of this, I really wouldn’t envy those in charge during the Halo Wars spin-off. If the key to war is understanding your enemy, good luck to them with a foe who is literally from another damn world. We’d be stuffed.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

 

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Luke Cage is Right – Secret Identities Don’t Work

Netflix’s Marvel shows put a bullet in the head of daydreams; they underline how becoming a paragon of truth, justice and the American way can’t possibly end well. You’re more likely to end up in a hospital ward than the front page.

Unlike his Hell's Kitchen counterpart Daredevil, Luke Cage doesn't bother with masks - concept art and poster by Marvel
Unlike his Hell’s Kitchen counterpart Daredevil, Luke Cage doesn’t bother with masks – concept art and poster by Marvel

Being beaten to a pulp would be the least of our worries, though. Keeping your secret identity that way is probably nigh-on impossible in the modern age. Perhaps Luke Cage has the right idea. The eponymous hero – currently living in Harlem – doesn’t bother hiding who he is. Biologically altered until practically nothing can hurt him, he’s an everyman who looks out for the average Joe. No masks are required when bullets bounce off your oh-so buff chest.

It’s probably for the best. Even if it can halt a 10mm slug, unbreakable skin can’t stop cameras. That’s a very real possibility nowadays. Appearing on CCTV is more of a certainty than a what-if thanks to recent surges in public surveillance. Although you could argue society’s better for it, the last few decades have seen us dragged into something of an Orwellian nightmare. Today’s world is one of scrutiny, electronic tracking, traceable e-commerce and phone tapping. According to the NY Daily News, cities such as New York boast around 17,000 CCTV cameras. In the meantime, London has ‘roughly half-million’ at its disposal. Good luck trying to avoid those when you need to pull on your cape and tights.

I appreciate that this is the equivalent of stamping on a child’s favourite toy, but the straightforward romance of twentieth century comic books is a thing of the past. From the medium’s golden age to its 1960s resurgance, closed-circuit cameras were a rarity. It wasn’t until 1968 that they started appearing on major US streets, so disappearing into an alleyway to change was still plausible. Now’s a very different story. As the UK reality series Hunted demonstrates, escaping detection is difficult when someone with time and a whole team of staff wants you found.

The programme’s elevator pitch is a stroke of genius; how long can a handful of average people last when they go on the run? Following both fugitives and pursuers, it’s terrifying to see how much info Big Brother has at its disposal. Unless you’re well-trained, obsessively paranoid or exceptionally lucky, you’re almost guaranteed to be tagged by someone’s surveillance system. Moreover, they’d track down most unsubtle disturbers of the peace – e.g. your average superhero – in ten seconds flat. The only characters I can see avoiding this are the likes of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman. One can travel or change at superspeed, another literally dons his costume on the side of skyscrapers and the last has enough cash to make suitably cool tech that’ll cover his tracks.

Unfortunately for them, security cameras aren’t the only way to keep track of someone. Besides email and browser history, the long arm of the law can track your buying habits as well. When you’ve got no powers to rely on and need down-to-earth gear keeping you safe it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Police can trace that kind of purchase if they’ve got a warrant to do so (and know what they’re looking for, of course).

Amazon’s therefore out of the question, leaving under-the-counter cash transactions or an outfit you’ve put together yourself. And if that’s the case, why are you in the superhero business anyway? You could make a killing selling cosplay costumes.

In essence, escaping the fuzz would be difficult should you take the law into your own hands. They’d have a lot of reason for wanting you found, good intentions or not; you’d be a vigilante who leaves assault and property damage in their wake. I dread to think what the legal ramifications of that could be. Just imagine a thug suing you for breaking his arm.

Not having a secret identity might save you a lot of hassle in this regard, but – as anyone who’s ever seen a superhero story knows – this won’t end well. You’ll make enemies, and if they know where to find you they’ll hold every card.

With that in mind, working with the authorities or receiving proper training isn’t the worst idea going. That’s the crux of Iron Man’s argument in Captain America: Civil War, and in a real-world context it doesn’t seem so unreasonable. 

I wonder if Luke Cage’s decision to fly solo without protecting his identity will come back to bite him. Judging by his stablemates Daredevil and Jessica Jones, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

We’re More Like Guardians of the Catwalk than Humanity in Destiny: Rise of Iron

Myths have an unhealthy obsession with larger-than-life heroes; they’re jammed full of legendary figures who crusade their way past gruelling odds and save the metaphorical princess while they’re at it. Destiny‘s Iron Lords are no different. When humanity was at its lowest, these impossibly noble warriors stepped forward to shield us from harm. Now we’re following in their footsteps and protecting what’s left of our species. It’s all very inspiring.

The Last City on Earth - a final bastion of hope, light and who knows what else. Concept art by Bungie.
The Last City on Earth – a final bastion of hope, light and who knows what else. Concept art by Bungie.

Yet Destiny never dwells on the people we’re supposed to be looking out for. We know next to nothing about those who live in Earth’s Last City. Don’t get me wrong: putting the spotlight on Guardians is beyond sensible. They’re where the action is. Brought back from the dead to protect what’s left of humanity, they can usually be found saving the world from a millennia-old threat or engaging in spaghetti western shootouts. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about those they’re fighting for, though. This takes the wind out of our sails somewhat. Mel Gibson could screech about freedom for his kin in Braveheart, but the best we can probably manage is ‘loot’.

I wonder what they – the average Joe – think about all this. It’s a rough deal. Aliens, demons and space wizards are a part of their everyday vocabulary. The planet isn’t ours anymore. Very little is. Capping things off is a godly orb (known as the Traveler) that hangs above after giving its life in their defence. I’d pay good money to see what can surprise them these days.

It’s not like we’re going to find out any time soon, however. The only bog-standard humans we meet can be seen mooching around our HQ, the blandly-named Tower. It’s a depressing thought. Humanity beat the odds to create wonders like reconstructive facial surgery and the Hobnob biscuit, but now they’re reduced to sweeping floors.

Their homes aren’t exactly glamorous either. Peering over the Tower’s edge reveals what I’d guess are slums stretching into the distance. Stacked atop one another like cardboard boxes, the conditions down there must be fairly naff. With tight, winding streets and no kind of order to speak of, it’s not dissimilar to the favelas of modern Brazil.

If it’s comparable in more than looks, Destiny’s equivalent probably has minimal sanitation despite running water and electricity. According to a BBC article from 2014, Rio de Janeiro’s biggest shanty town has sewage that ‘flows down a large channel in the middle of houses’.

It’s a stark contrast to the tower-blocks lying just a few miles down the road. A gaping class divide is obvious in Destiny as well. You simply need to look at the skyline. While the foreground is dominated by ugly shacks, the far distance features high rises and skyscrapers. It’s a marriage of insane wealth and crippling poverty.

Predictably, the richest districts lie slap-bang under the Traveler and the ‘shield’ it casts over the city. In a world where suicide and a walk in the countryside are synonymous, it’s easy to see why that’d be a very desirable position. I’d imagine those with power and influence strong-armed their way there. Everyone else had to make do.

Then there’s the infamous criminal element to contend with. Hiding out amongst back alleys and muddled neighbourhoods, gangs run many of those Brazilian streets. I wonder if the Last City is any different. You’d assume these drug lords couldn’t exist under the watch of practically immortal Guardians, but from what I can tell they rarely go down into the urban jungle anyway. There aren’t many reports of them interacting with the population unless civil war or a siege is looming.

As the defenders of a dying race with generations of knowledge at their disposal, you’d expect them to send aid or medical treatment at the very least. What about cobbling together more than a shack for the poorest in Destiny’s society? We’re informed that a subsect of Guardians built great walls surrounding the City, so I’m sure they could manage a four bed semi.

The fact they don’t suggests apathy on their part or a busted society. In Rio there are always stories about police who don’t dare enter certain favelas for fear of gang retribution, and it was only a few years ago that the government set up a ‘police pacification unit’ to force out the criminal element.

This is why visiting the City would be at the top of my Destiny wishlist instead of Neptune or Jupiter. It sounds fascinating (if absurdly dangerous). If nothing else, the game’s fascination with fantasy would make it particularly eye-catching. Beyond sci-fi tropes like neon advertising and glass tower-blocks, drawing on sword-and-sorcery lets you dabble in guilds and dingy inns with grottier patrons. Concept art has hinted at this via cloaked knights and flowing banners, but seeing it brought to life on-screen would add a very different flavour to the game’s already diverse environments.

Seeing it in person would help soothe my conscience, too. Come on: we’ve spent two years ignoring the man on the street in favour of searching for sassy space boots. We’re more like Guardians of the catwalk than humanity.

What do you think? Scribble your thoughts in the comments below and come back every Friday for more. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @thewordyben

We Really Need to Talk About Destiny: Rise of Iron’s Traveler

There’s something about Destiny’s ping-pong ball from space that gives me the heebie-jeebies. It may sound like I’m putting on a tin foil hat by saying so, but something doesn’t add up about the Traveler. What’s more, veteran developer Bungie (whose résumé includes Halo one through three) have spent the last two years convincing players that our greatest ally is sugar, spice and everything nice. In a nutshell, it’s too good to be true.

If this thing turns out to be evil, the Last City is screwed. Concept art by Bungie.
If this thing turns out to be evil, the Last City is screwed. Concept art by Bungie.

A godlike being with immeasurable power, the Traveler’s spent eons bestowing knowledge and prosperity upon any race it encounters. Earth was just the latest in a long line of hosts. Unfortunately for us, an ancient enemy named ‘the Darkness’ pursued it here and proceeded to beat the snot out of humanity. The Traveler went on to save our bacon at the expense of its own life. As a result of this thoroughly noble sacrifice, players have been putting it back together since Destiny launched in 2014.

A theory that’s been kicking around since then would suggest we’ve got the wrong end of the stick, however. There’s a surprising amount of evidence to suggest that the Traveler isn’t what it makes itself out to be. In fact, we’ve got reason to believe it and the Darkness may be one and the same.

This is an intriguing prospect (if a bit over-dramatic). Doing away with assumptions about the Traveler’s benevolence wouldn’t just napalm everything we’ve learnt up to this point; it’d reinvigorate the game’s story by virtue of being unexpected. Though enjoyable, Destiny’s plot has been a straightforward example of archetypes until now. Performing a heel-turn such as this would catapult it out of clichéd territory and into something else entirely.

Eagle-eyed gamers with a nose for conspiracy have unearthed convincing proof. For a start, some have noted that the Fallen – those four-armed scavengers who wander Russia and the moon – call us ‘the Darkness’ when approached. Secondly, one pointed out that our classes bear traditionally villainous names. Titans were bad news in Greek mythology, Warlocks tend to rely on dark magic and Hunters need no explanation (you can check out the full write-up on Kotaku).

More presciently, we’re an army of the undead. I mean, come on. Every player character (or ‘Guardian’) is a long-dead individual raised to protect humanity. They have no memory of what came before and now serve the Traveler blindly. If this reminds anyone else of Night of the Living Dead, you’re not alone.

In a clever and unexpectedly Biblical move, Bungie may also be drawing inspiration from more than fantasy. As observed by Reddit user MrFlibblesVeryCross, the name Lucifer can be translated as ‘Bringer of Light’ or ‘the Morning Star’. Moreover, the devil is usually portrayed as a being who tempts us by offering great wealth. This sounds familiar.

Unfortunately for Lucifer’s victims, such pleasantries hide something much less palatable. I’m not suggesting the Traveler is Satan, but it’s an interesting comparison nonetheless. As MrFlibbles notes, maybe the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making us think we were the good guys.

With this in mind, perhaps the fall of humanity was self inflicted. What if it got kick-started when we learned of the Traveler’s duplicity? The game suggests that Rasputin – an age-old super-computer tasked with protecting us – shut itself down due to facing a no-win situation. This would make sense if the Traveler turned against us. Its technology was deeply integrated into our society by then, giving the enemy access to every facet of our culture.

That would explain the robotic race of Exos, too. All we know about their past is that they were forged to fight an unknown war. Could they have been commisioned to battle the Traveler itself? That would explain the necessity for a creation so dangerous.

To summarise, it’s very believable scaremongering. This conspiracy isn’t foolproof though. The theory’s Achille’s Heel are snippets of in-game lore. Rasputin went offline because it detected something approaching ‘outside the solar system’, while the monstrous Hive have records of the Traveler assisting other races before ours. This would suggest that it and the Darkness are two separate entities, supported by a character’s comments about the Traveler having a ‘dark twin’. While you could explain it away with misdirection on Bungie’s part (we’re told the Traveler ran off just prior to and returned during our hour of need, leaving this hypothesis intact), I’ve got an alternative. What if the Traveler was a vanguard for the Darkness? It’d infiltrate our society and ensure its development along a pre-determined route. Then it’d call in backup. That’s the road Mass Effect settled on with its villainous Reapers. I can see the same trick working for Destiny 

Because a ‘the Traveler’s evil’ twist is simply too juicy to pass up. Challenging everything we’ve come to know since launch is a masterstroke. It pumps new life into the narrative by distorting what we always took for granted. Furthermore, it echoes Bioshock’s ‘would you kindly’ revelation. You don’t see it coming, but once the penny drops you won’t notice anything else.

All the setup that’s been left hanging since 2014 puts a final nail in this coffin. We’re told how Osiris (whose disciples run a hard-as-nails multiplayer competition) was banished for asking too many questions about the Traveler. Similarly, a spy network called The Hidden have been toiling away in the shadows for reasons unknown – but it’s related to Osiris. I’m willing to bet they’re unraveling the truth.

Adding fuel to this fire is the fact that three-eyed Eris Morn is counted amongst the Hidden’s number. The Queen of what are essentially space elves suggested she and Eris were working toward some common, mysterious goal during The Taken King expansion.

And while we’re on the subject of the loopy Ms. Morn, she’s not the only sketchy Guardian out there. Something’s clearly up with the Speaker, designated mouthpiece of the Traveler and voiced by Bill Nighy. When he’s not muttering creepy promises he’s insisting we go out and murder every alien in sight. There’s no explanation given for this killing spree; we’re just supposed to take it at face value that these creatures deserve to be wiped out. Although they give as good as they get, we’re being asked to commit genocide one minion at a time.

There’s also the rumour of cut storylines, of course. Shortly after the game launched, reports surfaced about a demo version of Destiny that revealed the Traveler’s evil much sooner. The game’s final stage – dubbed the Black Garden – would have probably taken place within the Traveler itself. There are still traces of this plot out in the ether if you’ve got time to find them; trailers exist where you can see familiar faces in very different roles. This includes the elf-queen’s brother, a man who once helped players fight the Traveler before he was repurposed in the end product.

To wrap up, you can see why Bungie would change its mind on the speed of this reveal. Ignore the fact that there are a good eight years of Destiny yet to come. It’s too intriguing a story to rush through. Because something unpleasant is clearly on its way, no matter the Traveler’s role; all we can do now is wait for the other foot to drop.

Want Captain America: Civil War’s Spider-Man To Stand Out? Make Him a Star

It didn’t matter that his name was in the title: I struggled to give two hoots about Captain America going into Civil War. It’s all Spider-Man’s fault. The character’s been dragged headfirst through one too many duff movies recently, so seeing him back on form (and integrated into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe) was nerd nirvana. Better yet, nobody felt the need to dredge up his origin again. He’s a kid who can stick to walls, shoot webbing and generally flout the laws of common sense . We get it.

Going back to basics - concept art by Ryan Meinerding
Going back to basics – concept art by Ryan Meinerding

Still – and I hate to admit it – diving right into the action does have one snag. It closes doors. Although I’m loathe to rehash old ground (nobody needs to see Uncle Ben bite the dust for a third time), starting later in Spidey’s career makes it tricky to explore some of his best material. There’s only so much you can do with the flashbacks I’m sure we’ll get during Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Back when he hit the stands in 1962, superheroes were flawless champions of a vanilla variety. By contrast, Spidey was flawed before and after gaining his powers. Rather than beginning as a crime-fighting do-gooder, Peter Parker stumbled on the idea by accident; in fact, he was more interested in making a quick buck. After winning the wrestling match we saw in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Peter became an overnight celebrity. His stunts would sell out auditoriums and he was featured on TV talk-shows. Then Ben’s murder came knocking. Unsurprisingly, the fun was sucked out of stardom. Being Spider-Man wasn’t just a reminder of Peter’s biggest mistake. It personified the arrogance that’d caused his uncle’s death in the first place. The only reason he kept appearing on stage was to pay for the bills his family couldn’t afford, not to mention his Aunt May’s medical care.

Things got steadily worse from there. When an accident left him barred from performing again, Peter answered the call for photos of a wanted felon – Vulture, who’s due to make his debut in Homecoming – and ended up stopping him as a happy by-product. This became a regular occurrence with supervillains such as Sandman and Electro until the wise-cracking boy-scout we have today was born. It’s a shame we won’t get to see that on the big screen. At least, not all of it. For me, Peter’s reluctant heroism is a crucial part of what makes him stand out.

All the same, there’s evidence to suggest Spider-Man has already been through this trial by fire before we meet him in Civil War. A quick browse of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wiki would suggest he’s already causing a stir amongst journalists when Ant-Man takes place. Remember the reference to folk who can swing or cling to walls? Considering how soon after being bitten by the radioactive/genetically altered spider this must be, Peter’s clearly been showing off. In a world of thunder gods and green rage monsters, he’d have to if he wanted to get their attention. I love the idea of him making waves on a programme like America’s Got Talent. It modernises a classic comic arc and leaves room for the hero worship that made him so unpopular with media outlets (enter J. Jonah Jameson and The Daily Bugle. Dan Slott’s excellent Learning to Crawl explored this idea a couple of years ago. Inspired by Spidey’s exploits, another high-schooler followed Peter’s example and tried to play at superheroes. He then took things too far and became his idol’s first enemy.

Even if future films skip that plot, this version seems to take inspiration from another we didn’t see enough of in the last two iterations. Indeed, Peter seems every bit as hard-up for cash as his comic equivalent. Besides a cobbled-together 90s computer and his habit of raiding dumpsters for kit like a cheap-as-chips DVD player, his first concern when meeting Tony Stark was the money he could bring to the table. This suggests he and Aunt May aren’t so well off as her catwalk-worthy fashion sense and their swanky flat would suggest. Are they struggling to keep up with the rent now Ben’s gone? Could May be pulling extra shifts to compensate as with The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Perhaps this is why Peter’s concerned about her ‘freaking out’; the demands of her job might be stretching her too thin. If Marvel wanted to emulate the comics, this might even be chipping away at her health. If you want to go down the rabbit hole further still, maybe she’s got something like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that makes working difficult for her. I know how much of a pain in the tush that can be.

Anyway, we’ll probably get answers as to what Spidey’s been up to next year when Homecoming comes out. But for now? I’ve got my fingers crossed it’ll explore this side of the character. It’s what makes him who he is in my eyes, and it’s also what makes him different. Not just from the competition; from prior versions as well.

Enjoy this post? Come back every Friday for more! In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @thewordyben