Completion Log – Summer 2021

(You can listen to this article in audio form below)

Welcome to another edition of Completion Log, an article series where I regurgitate my thoughts on games I’ve played, without the frills of a full review. As always, these thoughts will be spoiler-free unless otherwise noted. Let’s get started.

The Halo Series

My brother Andrew and I, in anticipation of Halo Infinite, played through the entire Halo main series together this past summer. Ashamedly, I had only played Halo: CE and Halo 2 – two of my favorite games ever – and had yet to even play Halo 3. We played through on the Master Chief Collection’s remastered versions of the games. MCC, Halo 4, and Halo 5 are all available on Game Pass. Here are my brief thoughts on each. Note, my impressions of Halo 4 and Halo 5 are based purely on the story experience – I understand many enjoyed the multiplayer aspects of those games so keep that in mind.

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Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)–Though I’m sure nostalgia was a strong factor, I thought CE held up quite well today. There are a lot of memorable missions (the opening mission, the first outdoor ‘Halo’ mission, the Silent Cartographer, the nighttime level, the snow level, the final level, etc.) and only a few clunkers (namely the infamous Library). The music, characters, and streamlined narrative are just as epic as they were in 2001 and the shooting mechanics themselves hold up very well. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the art style used for the remastered version – it feels like it went too far away from the original’s look. I’ve played the game before, but I’d still give it the following rating.

Score: 98
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Halo 2 (2004) – Although Halo 2’s campaign was cut short due to well-known development issues, it still shaped up as an incredible sequel. Duel-wielding is a mechanic I miss in Halo games today and I remember the game looked astounding for its time. Like CE, the gameplay, narrative, and characters hold up great today as well. Switching back and forth between Chief and the Arbiter was a great innovation. Another absolute classic.

Score: 97
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Halo 3 (2007) – I still can’t believe I did not play this game upon release (partially because I didn’t own an Xbox 360 for a few years afterwards), but there’s a reason it’s so highly acclaimed. Halo 3 is an absolute blast and a fantastic capstone to the trilogy. There are numerous sweeping epic moments, great vehicle sections, and the final warthog run is truly legendary. The gameplay easily holds up today and it’s aged like a fine wine.

Score: 95
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Halo ODST (2009) – The first game in the series where you don’t play as Chief, with some significant gameplay twists. I have to admit I didn’t get a proper experience of this game. The MCC co-op does not handle save-points properly, to the point where your progress in the campaign gets erased unless you complete the entire thing in one shot. As a result, my brother and I played a bit of the ‘overworld’ section, then switched to just playing each mission sequentially (which does save properly). I know that’s pretty much missing the whole point of ODST’s innovations – I would like to play it again solo. Nevertheless, I have to say I wasn’t all that impressed with the mission design or the bit of the overworld section I did play, though the core mechanics are still rock-solid.

Score: 78
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Halo Reach (2010)– The last Bungie-made Halo game also may not feature Master Chief, but unlike ODST, I enjoyed it front-to-back. The new powers felt innovative without being too foreign, and the camaraderie between your squad makes for a solid narrative. More importantly, the gunplay feels like it has received an even further tune-up, making shoot-outs crisp and fun. It may not reach the standards of the original trilogy, but these pros plus good mission design made Reach an unexpected favorite for me.

Score: 88
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Halo 4 (2012) – While I was impressed by the technical prowess of this 2012 Xbox 360 game, and the guns felt fun to shoot (including the new Forerunner weapons), I was ultimately pretty disappointed by Halo 4. I felt the story and 343’s re-imagining of Master Chief’s personality got way out of hand and, especially narrative-wise, far too complex. There’s one cutscene in particular with such a huge lore dump that it was difficult for me – an excessively nerdy RPG enthusiast – to grasp what was being said. Additionally, the new Forerunner enemies were just unbearably unfun to fight against in general. There were moments of inspiration, but Halo 4 overall landed relatively poorly for me.

Score: 73
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Halo 5: Guardians (2015) – Halo 5 seems to be the most widely hated by the fanbase, and I do see eye-to-eye with a number of their complaints. I did however enjoy several gameplay innovations the game brought, such as more modern aim-down-sight, and greater movement options. The gunplay overall feels very smooth. Additionally, 343 provided much better enemy design compared to 4 in my opinion, and the missions generally provide a nice variety. I also like the mech sections where you just blow everything up. It’s the simple things sometimes.

In addition, the game looks quite nice graphically, however on the other side of the visual coin, the general art style and direction was rather terrible in my opinion. It’s honestly hard to see what’s going on a lot of the time, and very difficult to make out enemies against similarly colored backgrounds – something that should have been a huge red flag in testing. The in-between missions where you just walk around was an effort I respected, but ultimately fell flat. The worst part of the game for me was the overall narrative, pacing, and structure of the game. Playing so little as Master Chief feels bad given the lack of character the other squad has, and the tone shift 343 started in Halo 4 continued with poor results in Halo 5. The characters are not very likeable, and the plot generally raises more questions than it answers. In the end, this left a sour taste in my mouth, despite solid core mechanics.

Score: 78

Although I’m only partway through Infinite’s campaign as of this writing, thus far I think 343 has a done a great job taking many of the improvements from their more recent games and combining it with the good level and enemy design – along with a more understandable narrative – from the original trilogy. Keep an eye out for my complete Infinite thoughts soon.

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Metroid Zero Mission

Release: Feb 9, 2004 – Dev: Nintendo – Platforms: GBA, Wii U (VC)
Genre: Metroidvania – Price: $7.99
Played: Summer 2021, Wii U (story complete ~5 hrs)
Recommended Review: Eurogamer (Rob Fahey)

With the announcement of Metroid Dread I went into a bit of a Metroid frenzy and at least managed to complete Zero Mission before Dread’s release, having never played the game before. Zero Mission is a remake of Metroid 1 on GBA, and it is a great one at that. Keep in mind, my only 2D Metroid game up to this point was Super Metroid. Yet Zero Mission, despite being a bit more linear and providing the player a bit more guidance than Super, feels like it hits a great balance between the two styles. The fighting and exploration are equally enjoyable, and with that bit of guidance you never really feel lost. The music, though held back by the GBA’s sound chip, is a mix of great arrangements.

The only part of Zero Mission that did not click with me was a stealth section at the end featuring a powerless Samus. I really hated it – though I think I’m at odds with the general community about this section. It does feel great to later wreck shop in that same area after recovering your equipment, but nevertheless the section still just felt cheap and the stealth system was poorly implemented. Despite this endgame-hiccup, Zero Mission is still a great Metroid game and holds up very well today.

Score: 85
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Crusader Kings III

Release: Sep 1, 2020 – Dev: Paradox – Platforms: PC
Genre: 4X Strategy – Price: $50 (Steam)
Played: Summer 2021, PC (played campaign 70+ hrs)
Recommended Review: PC Gamer (Fraser Brown)

I may not be the most hardcore of the genre, but I do enjoy a good strategy game – especially turn-based / 4X games. The Total War series has been my jam, but I’ve also enjoyed Endless Space, some Civ, and other such games. After hearing quite a bit about Crusader Kings III, I picked up the game last year on a sale, and devoted a bit of time to it. Well, a bit turned into 70+ hours and I wasn’t nearly finished with my campaign! This game (and series) is infamously complicated and sucks up time like few others do.

For the uninitiated, CK3 is a 4X, turn-based strategy game set in medieval times that focuses more on individual characters and interpersonal politics. This political set-up is filled with dozens of complex mechanics from raising and rearing children, to espionage, sabotage, and intrigue, to the deep and important claims system. It took me dozens of hours to even begin to really understand the mechanics, and I’m sure I’m still missing a lot. That being said, the way every element weaves together is very satisfying, and each new piece of land and progress for your character feels earned. One of the most fun parts is that your campaign continues when you die as long as you have an heir, and each child you have can be raised to focus on different gameplay styles. In this way I went from a war-focused king to start, followed by a knowledge-focused son, and lastly to a more diplomatic grandson (where I finally decided I needed to pause playing to dedicate time to some other games).

CK3 is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you’re looking for a deep and interesting strategy game with a different spin look no further – it’s an absolute blast.

Score: 88
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Forza Horizon 4

Release: Sep 28, 2018 – Dev: Playground Games – Platforms: PC/X1/XS
Genre: Open-world racing – Price: Game Pass, $60 (Deku Deals)
Played: Summer 2021, X1X (story complete 15-20 hrs)
Recommended Review: IGN (Luke Reilly)

I sat on Forza Horizon 3 for several years despite it coming pre-installed on the Xbox One S I originally purchased. When I finally took it for a spin, I fell in love with a racing game for the first time. Some time after beating FH3, I finally sat down to play its sequel, Forza Horizon 4 on Game Pass, and I found an even more spectacular looking game that was just as, if not more, fun than FH3. FH4, taking place in Great Britain, featured a new seasonal system where you got to see the beautiful landscape in spring, summer, fall, and winter. It provided great variety to the game both visually and gameplay-wise. Roads that were clear during the warmer months were covered in snow in winter, and likewise for rainy springs or dry summers.

The game had even more of a sandboxy feel than Forza Horizon 3 as ‘festivals’ (in-game event hubs) were not progressively locked in quite the same way. In the end, the game was an absolute blast – it didn’t hugely innovate from its predecessor but didn’t need to. It also ran like a dream on Xbox One X hardware, a preview for its later sequel.

Score: 89
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Release: Sep 7, 2018 – Dev: Insomniac – Platforms: PS4, PS5 (remastered)
Genre: Open-world action-adventure – Price: $40 (Deku Deals)
Played: Fall 2020 / Summer 2021, PS5 (story complete 20-25 hrs)
Recommended Review: IGN (Jonathon Dornbush)

Spider-man was one of the first games I picked up after finally buying a PS4 back in 2020, but I didn’t get around to finishing it until last year. There’s not much more to be said about the game than has already been said in most reviews, honestly. The web-swinging traversal is amazing. The combat is punchy (pun intended) and challenging. The game has an S-tier presentation – great voice acting, excellent visuals and graphics, a good narrative, interesting characters – it really draws you in. The open world is fun to roam around in and everything you do feels like you’re progressing Spider-man into a more and more badass hero. Especially worthy of a shout-out are the array of awesome costumes available (one of my favorite parts of the old-school Spider-man PS1 game) that smartly can be combined with any associated ability for maximum flexibility.

After doing a good amount of side-activities, I can’t say the open-world does anything too innovative in that arena, so if you’re already pretty bored with that aspect of the genre then you can safely skip a bunch of the side-content. Nevertheless, the presentation and main story alone is enough to make a satisfying – nay, excellent – action-adventure game and the best game Spider-man has ever appeared in. Hats off to Insomniac on this one!

Score: 89
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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD

Release: Jul 16, 2021 – Dev: Nintendo – Platforms: Switch
Genre: Action-adventure – Price: $60 (Deku Deals)
Played: July 2021, Switch (story complete 30-35 hrs)
Recommended Review: God is a Geek (Adam Cook)

My relationship with Skyward Sword since its launch has been quite rocky. At the time of its release in 2011 I had spent practically the entire year getting excited for brand-new open world game, Skyrim. Despite my love for Zelda, Skyrim overshadowed the release of Skyward Sword, partially because I was frustrated that Nintendo was not taking Zelda itself into a new phase of open world games (that wouldn’t happen for six years). Despite having been very interested in the idea of a 1:1 motion-control Zelda game since the Wii’s announcement, at the time I turned away from SS and didn’t even give it a shot.

A few years down the road, I did try it out, and enjoyed the half that I played. But it never really clicked with me, and a large part of that was that for me – someone who loves exploration, freedom, and feeling respected as a player – Skyward Sword tried to get me to stop playing every moment it could. The egregious hand-holding, the slow text speed, the incessant chiming of your companion Fi every five seconds, the extremely linear levels and constant guidance – all of this was a major turn-off for me, something I couldn’t get over to see the game’s many strengths – which I readily admitted. Enter Skyward Sword HD.

SSHD, in my opinion, solves every quality-of-life and tangential issue holding so many back from investing in the original title. Fi is not nearly as obnoxious, and I got to actually appreciate her as a character this time around. Text speed is gloriously fast, and “new item” pop-ups are never repeated (something I also hated in Twilight Princess). Skyward Sword may still be a linear adventure focused on 1:1 motion controls, but those aspects were never the core issue for me, nor I think, was it for many others. It was all of those other little issues that made the game a slog. With fixes for those nuisances in place, I think the game truly is able to shine and takes it spot as another great Zelda title. And for those who dislike the motion controls, the button controls for sword combat are quite competent as well.

SS may be linear, but it makes the most of its focused approach. Not to mention, linear adventures are having a bit of a renaissance in this era of boring Ubisoft worlds. The game’s excellent dungeons, fun and gripping combat, cute characters, and beautiful art style running at a smooth sixty frames is fantastic in its modern, remastered form, and shouldn’t be missed for Switch owners.

Score: 93
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Hollow Knight
Release: Jun 12, 2018 – Dev: Team Cherry – Platforms: PC/X1/PS4/NS
Genre: Metroidvania – Price: Game Pass, $15 (Deku Deals)
Played: 2020/Summer 2021, Switch (story complete ~35 hrs)
Recommended Review: IGN (Tom Marks)

Hollow Knight is a pretty legendary game in the wider gaming community at this point, and I’m happy to say I finally finished it last year after playing it on and off for some time. I can safely say it’s the most difficult game I’ve ever beaten (I’m not very good at games in general) and it’s that difficulty that generally kept me prompted me to take breaks between sessions. However, the combat itself is fantastic and with enough persistence and pattern recognition you will be able to get through the required boss fights, which are MANY and varied.

The best part of the game is the atmosphere and exploration. Hollownest is absolutely dripping with inspiration, variety, beauty, and mood. You truly feel like you are exploring a long-dead kingdom with all sorts of subtle lore and environmental storytelling. One of my favorite parts is how rooms adjoining two different biomes will feature visual elements from both biomes – like a thicket of grass and bushes covering the entrance to Greenpath in an otherwise sterile cave. In terms of exploration, a short way through the game, Hollow Knight absolutely flings the doors open to the world, and allows the player to access almost any point on the map from a multitude of directions. Despite the lack of guidance, I never really felt lost because if I hit a seemingly dead-end, I could find somewhere else to go that was relevant. Even if you temporarily ‘miss’ important power-ups, the game usually provides unorthodox methods to get around various obstacles that you will discover with enough poking around.

The visuals and music are essential aspects of Hollow Knight’s presentation as well, and they are simply incredible. The 2D artwork is sublime and the music fits every mood perfectly. There’s always something interesting behind every corner of HK’s world, and few games display such a level of affection and passion poured into them as this one. If you can withstand some difficult battles, and deal with the occasional annoyance in backtracking or returning to your corpse dark-souls style (something I’m not a big fan of), you will undoubtedly love this game. If I wasn’t such a scrub I probably would have rated the game even higher. Definitely try it out.

Score: 94

Thanks for reading, and check back soon on even more of my 2021 gaming thoughts! – Brandon

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