The Infinite Zenith

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World of Warcraft: Setting Foot in Northrend and Exploring Wrath of the Lich King’s Coldest Frontier

“I came through and I shall return.” –General Douglas MacArthur

The end of my vacation was approaching: I was sitting on a bench at Taikoo Shing’s City Plaza mall and waiting at our rendezvous point for everyone to gather so that we could take a bus over to the airport for the flight back home. This had been a particularly memorable trip, during which I had the chance to check out Beijin’s Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, Hangzhou’s West Lake, Suzhou’s legendary canals, and Shanghai’s world-famous Pudong skyline. At the end of two weeks, I was quite happy, but also quite ready to go back home. I stretched my feet, brought out my iPod and put the music on shuffle. Moments later, Howling Fjord began playing. I watched the crowds pass by while listening to the song’s Nyckelharpa, and my thoughts strayed back to a time a year earlier, when my friend’s private server was still running. It was not lost on me that while my friend had upgraded the server to support Wrath of the Lich King, I never ended up travelling to Northrend, since I’d been busy exploring Azeroth and Outland. The music of Northrend had been very enjoyable, making use of a variety of Scandinavian instruments to convey the sort of beauty associated with northern landscapes of boreal forests, striking fjords and snowy mountains. However, with my friend’s private server now offline, I imagined that the time to finish exploring the whole of Wrath of the Lich King had passed. I shook those thoughts out of my head and returned to the present, ready to board the half-day flight back over the Pacific, certain that I’d never have the chance to visit Northrend for myself. Eleven years later, I ended up putting together my own private server together; after growing salty at some overly serious players who saw fit to kick me from a dungeon, I decided to get my own Wrath of the Lich King server set up. Since then, I’d finished exploring Azeroth, built back my old mage and warlock, and finally got the chance to check out all of the major regions in Outland. With the old goals done, it occurred to me that here was the opportunity I’d been longing for. I thus spun up the server and boarded a boat that brought me over to the Howling Fjord.

As I began exploring more of Northrend, it became clear that, far from the dark, cold and frozen wastelands of the Arctic I had imagined it to be, Northrend possessed a variety of biomes, from thermal hot springs in tundra plains, to steep fjords, boreal forests and glacier-capped mountains. The world design in Northrend speaks to the improvement in period hardware: Northrend is bigger and bolder in design than any of Azeroth or Outland’s locations, featuring dizzyingly high peaks and tremendously deep ravines. In particular, Storm Peaks’ terrain is such that one must have a flying mount to even consider traversing some of Northrend’s most gorgeous vistas. It becomes apparent that Northrend was designed to accommodate the players’ ability to fly, and unlike Outland, vertical movement has been integrated seamlessly into map design to encourage players to get to a point where they can have access to cold-weather flight. Beyond the scope and scale of these new maps, one area in Northrend I absolutely was not expecting was Sholazar Basin, a tropical paradise surrounded by massive cliffs whose magic kept out both evil forces and the frigid weather. This was such an unexpected surprise: to find anything approaching the tropic in the far north would be a fool’s hope at best in reality. Stories of tropical valleys tucked away in the deep in the mountains of the Nahanni dominate the myths about some of Canada’s most remote regions, as adventurers of old imagined that geothermal springs of the Nahanni would create fantastical landscapes. Today, advances in cartography corresponds with the understanding that anything resembling hidden tropical gardens that far north would be implausible in reality, but in the virtual world that games like World of Warcraft provides, it would appear that these constraints are no concern. Thus, I took some time to check out the lush, verdant tropical forests in the Sholazar basin before concluding my journey at Dalaran, finally having done something I’d figured was impossible twelve years earlier.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • During the Heritage Long Weekend this year, temperatures were actually even hotter than they had been last year (33ºC to last year’s 28ºC). However, unlike last year, I had the presence of mind not to spend six hours doing dungeons; instead, I visited the Grizzly Hills for the first time. I found myself in a region of evergreen forests, rolling hills and swift rivers, and decided to take on a few quests to familiarise myself with the area.

  • Besides towering conifers, fields of violet also adorn the hillsides. Grizzly Hills is a decidedly beautiful area, and the background music has a very Nordic feel to it. However, unlike my earlier experiences, the monsters here are closer to me in level; they now take a few spells to kill, a world apart from when I was slaughtering everything trivially with my wand. In World of Warcraft‘s latest expansion, the game has been updated with what’s called a level squish, allowing new players to reach the endgame faster and get to the activities that most come for.

  • For me, raids and dungeons aren’t my objective – I’ve gotten my share of grinding for loot through games like The Division, and there, the game had been sufficiently well-designed such that one could solo the levelling experience and then still work towards unlocking a working loadout for endgame activities solo if they felt so inclined. In The Division, I used matchmaking to periodically party with others to complete legendary missions, while in The Division 2, I ended up finishing the entire game solo.

  • For me, being able to complete things solo is a vital part of a game, and when a game with a large group component accommodates this play style, I end up with nothing but respect for the game. Solo players are often at a disadvantage, fighting off larger numbers of enemies, and rewards are typically better with groups, but I find that being able to do things like collect most of a game’s most powerful items alone is an immensely satisfying experience.

  • I’ve now entered back into the Howling Fjord, capitalising on my cold weather flying to travel more swiftly over the northern continent. While Wrath of the Lich King‘s aurora might not be as stellar as those of Skyrim‘s, they look solid and fit Northrend’s aesthetic well. The aurora can be seen from almost everywhere up here, and they certainly liven up the long flights around: while Northrend is quite large, flights up here do not feel anywhere as lengthy as those of Outland’s.

  • I understand that I’m playing through Wrath of the Lich King in the most unconventional manner: this is something that is afforded by the game master (GM) powers my account has access to. In general, GMs are staff who oversee the game and will enter the game with an avatar to help players out (for instance, if they’re stuck somewhere or lose an item of importance), as well as to enforce policies. To allow GMs to carry out their duties, their accounts have access to powerful commands that allow them to become invisible, invincible, spawn items at will and teleport players.

  • On my friend’s private server, the GM powers were used to quickly gather all of the players for evening parties, as well as kit everyone out with a fully-levelled character so that we could take on some of the end-game content. During the server’s last week, I was given access to a GM account so I could build a level 80 character capable of travelling around Azeroth and explore without worry about being wiped. I utilised my abilities to create an Ashbringer, too – such actions would’ve certainly defeated the purpose of playing the game with friends, but at that point, since the server was about to shut down, my friend didn’t see any harm in giving me a chance to really play around.

  • While the role of GM was highly coveted back then (several of my friends had requested GM accounts for the purpose of spawning powerful items instantly), the role of GM is an actual role. A quick glance around shows that the average GM makes around 56000 CAD a year pre-tax, which goes out to 43000 CAD a year after deductions. Having access to a host of commands and being a virtual god is nice, as is the feeling of being able to help players in need and punish those who seek to degrade the experience for others, but it’s not an occupation I could see myself doing. Consequently, I’ll stick to acting the role of GM on my private private server.

  • With this being said, the exploration in Northrend has been quite unlike anything I’d previously seen on Azeroth and in Outland. Some of Northrend’s best sights are truly spectacular, and here, I find myself overlooking the seaport of Valgarde, which consists of a small town cut into the fjord’s narrow cliffs. Everything seen here can be visited, and while folks rocking a flying mount have it easier, the level designers fortunately had the foresight to create footpaths for players to walk down there, as well: it isn’t until level 77 where one can unlock flight for Northrend.

  • I’ve long had a fondness for watching sunsets from different places in World of Warcraft: the combination of mostly playing the game after finishing the day’s assignments and busy weekends meant that a large majority of my World of Warcraft memories are set during the evenings. I had previously mentioned that I would like to try and visit some spots in World of Warcraft by night, and wondered if changing sunset times might impact the times where night sets in. However, I never got around to trying that out last year, since I’d been wrapped up in Halo.

  • This year, with Battlefield 2042 and Halo: Infinite on the horizon, things are looking mighty busy, so time will tell as to whether or not I get around to testing my theories out. The Howling Fjord’s got areas that appear exactly as I imagined Northrend to appear, and with a flying mount, exploring becomes considerably easier: Northrend is very much walkable, and there are plenty of flight paths, but nothing beats having one’s own flying mount when it comes to pure exploration. Flight paths are only a bit faster, but they don’t always take the most efficient way to one’s destination.

  • Here, I’ve managed to fly out over to the Boreal Tundra’s Valiance Keep. This is the first place players would see of Northrend if travelling from Stormwind: the decision to have two starting areas in Northrend, as opposed to Outland’s one, was a consequence of The Burning Crusade suffering from capacity issues when all players congregated in Outland’s Hellfire Peninsula. The idea was that having two starting areas would lighten loads on different parts of the game world. Here, I look in on the city, having flown in over from Dragonblight.

  • While the Boreal Tundra isn’t too exciting of an area compared to the Grizzly Hills, directly north of the Boreal Tundra is the Sholazar Basin. This tropical area caught me completely off guard, and within moments of landing here, Sholazar Basin swiftly became one of my favourite areas in Northrend, mainly because it was so unexpected to see a tropical area so far north. Previously, I’d only heard of such a concept in tales about the Northwest Territories: prospectors in search of gold would return with tales of fantastical travels, and it was rumoured that tropical forests existed in the Nahanni National Park area.

  • Today, it is accepted that those travellers probably encountered geothermal springs in the Nahanni, and imagined that on the other side of the mountain, it might’ve been so warm that thermal energy was seeping through the crevices in the rocks to reach them. Such tales, while fanciful, are still fun, although the Nahanni is also known for being the home of many mysteries, including the macabre “Headless Valley”, so named for the compelling forces that produced a pile of decapitated corpses from visitors who were brave enough to venture into territories unmarked.

  • Nahanni National Park is a tempting place to visit: tales of tropical valleys and an unknown force aside, the area is home to some of Canada’s most striking scenery, such as Virginia Falls (twice as tall as Niagara Falls), Ram Plateau (a series of plateaus that rise 1800 metres above the rivers below) and Cirque of the Unclaimables that have no equal anywhere else in Canada. For now, the Nahanni is an area that is a little above my skill to reach (the drive is 1500 kilometres north of Edmonton), so I’ll settle for exploring spots within my grasp (and checking out more fanciful spots in games like World of Warcraft).

  • In the end, I spent an hour completing quests here in the Sholazar Basin and sought out the flight master here so that I could fly here more readily if the need required it: Sholazar Basin is a spot I’d definitely be interested to revisit in the future.

  • Dragonblight was the next region on my list; it’s a quest hub for players looking to level up, and its western edge is covered in forests. The eastern edge is more barren and home to a massive tower known as the Wyrmrest Temple. Wyrmrest can be seen from a great distance away, and it dominates the landscape. While the tower is marked as being a meeting place for Dragons, the area was quite quiet by the time I reached it. Exploring Northrend, I experienced the slightest bit of melancholy; this was something I’d wished to do twelve years earlier.

  • I occasionally wonder if the group of us on my friend’s private server would’ve stood any chance at all against the dungeons and raids of Northrend: save for one of our friends, the remainder of us were complete novices on setting up characters properly for end-game content and utilising our abilities in a party setting. I’ve seen for myself that players can become very serious about raids and dungeons, to the point of kicking people from a party for doing five percent less damage than is optimal. I’d never quite gotten over that, and this is why I have a private server to begin with.

  • If memory serves, I used the Dungeon Finder to join a group at Shadowfang Keep, but my level 20 frost mage was not equipped with the best possible gear for that level, so my spells weren’t dealing much damage. After clearing the first room, the party kicked me, sending me all the way back to the Stonetalon Mountains. I’ve heard that this is actually a more common experience than I’d initially thought, and veteran players note that this sort of behaviour comes from people power tripping; it’s something players learn to ignore. However, since I’m only a novice in World of Warcraft, and since my goal is exploration, I determined it’d be easier to explore on my own server.

  • During the past weekend, I had a few errands to tend to, and these sent me downtown. Since I had some additional time before my appointment, I decided to walk on over to the building where my seminar with World Vision was held some thirteen years earlier. I’d driven by every day last year returning home from work, and seeing this building reminded me of the Stonetalon Mountains, in turn lighting in me a wish to return to World of Warcraft. The World of Warcraft today is radically different than the one I remember, and while the game has seen numerous improvements, there is a charm about Wrath of the Lich King.

  • Here, I set foot on the Storm Peaks, a mountainous and gusty area covered in snow and ice. The foes here are closer to me in level, and while I can still engage elite enemies my level, it is clear that were I to be surrounded by enemies, I’d be finished in the blink of an eye – my most powerful spells can do a reasonable amount of damage, and with the Hot Streak talent, I can potentially have an instant-cast Pyroblast. Pyroblast is the most powerful single-target spell fire mages have available to them, but also has an extremely slow cast time.

  • For most fights, I open with Pyroblast owing to its high damage, and then follow up with a Fireball and Fire Blast where appropriate. Because fire spells also deal damage over time, I can whittle down individual enemies very quickly before they can get within melee range. Besides these utility spells, mages also gain access to the Frostfire bolt, which is essentially a best-of-both-worlds type spell: the spell takes a slightly longer time to cast, but will hit the enemy for whichever element they have less resistance against, making it a versatile spell to utilise.

  • The Storm Peaks’ greatest sight has to be Ulduar, a massive temple built by ancient beings known as the Titans. Nothing in Wrath of the Lich King quite matches it in scale, and its labyrinthine interior is home to a raid dungeon. Upon exploring Ulduar’s exterior, I was absolutely blown away by how large everything was, but it was a little surprising to see it so quiet outside. In retrospect, this is quite similar to how Blackrock Mountain had been deserted on the outside.

  • With Ulduar done, I changed course and prepared to fly on over to the Crystalsong Forest. Here, I pass back over more ordinary terrain in the Storm Peaks – it appears that it’s always night here, allowing the aurora to be seen in greater clarity. It hits me that a large number of places in World of Warcraft have the suffix -song as a part of their names, although I don’t have any background on what the origins of this are within the lore.

  • After arriving in the Crystalsong Forest, I was greeted with groves of golden-yellow aspen as far as the eye could see. Running through these forests, a very peculiar sight soon greeted me: violet-white trees composed entirely of crystal, which gives the region its name. According to lore, dragons fought here, turning the once-normal trees into crystal when they died and released their magic in to the landscape, transforming trees into glowing, purple structures.

  • We are at the end of August now, and truth be told, I’ve been pushing my blogging to the limits this month, averaging a post every 2.2 days. With September fast approaching, the Labour Day Long Weekend will offer some time for me to write out a few posts I’ve had in the wings for a while. September is actually looking quite relaxed – I have six posts planned out for the month so far, which leaves me with a bit of extra time for anything unforeseen that comes up. I’ll kick off the September posts come Saturday, and in the meantime, focus on making a progress on the drafts that I already have.

  • Here, I’ve reached the heart of one of the crystallised forests – it looks like a photo negative of sorts, although my character and HUD still have normal colouration. World of Warcraft‘s locations have always been fun, and while the starting areas are pretty ordinary in design, levelling up would really allow one to check out the more exotic-looking places. This was what I’d missed out on with my friend’s private server, and now, having set foot in all of the places of World of Warcraft up to 3.3.5, I wonder if it’d be worthwhile to create a post-Cataclysm server. On one hand, a newer server would have newer features available, most notably, transmogrification and the ability to fly in Azeroth, which had previously been a no-fly zone.

  • The tradeoff is that the old maps have seen considerable changes, and in Mists of Pandaria and later, the spells and talents have been completely overhauled to the point where I’m not too sure how everything fits together. Returning to Wrath of the Lich King, the overall effect in Crystalsong Forest is quite pleasing: in some places, the ground has cracked, releasing an eerie blue light into the air. After I concluded with the exploration, I ended up flying up into Dalaran: the city has a no-fly zone; although players were allowed to fly up (as of Patch 3.3.5), once in the city, flying mounts would be disabled.

  • The last destination on my list was the sanctuary city of Dalaran. As it turns out, there’s a crystal in the Crystalsong Forest that can be used. Of course, being a mage, I could’ve created a portal here without any additional cost to myself, but I preferred to do things the old-fashioned way. Upon arriving, I found myself in a very peaceful and well-kept city floating high in the sky. I ended up finishing a few quests here for the mage quarter, before reading through a quest that led to a raid (and then turning it down, since I don’t have the ability to solo raids on my own).

  • With this, I’ve now finished checking out Northrend’s more peaceable regions. I did fly over Icecrown, home of Arthas the Lich King – a glance at the area finds it swarming with the undead, and they are numerous enough to completely overwhelm individual players. In fact, Horde and Alliance forces alike use airships to observe the area, so I’m thinking that flying here is necessary to reach Icecrown Citadel; the aesthetic in Icecrown is basically a frozen, icy version of Sauron’s Mordor. I doubt I’ll be taking on Arthas myself – even in later expansions, where players become powerful enough to to solo entire raids on their own, the fight against him requires a group to handle the mechanics, so this is one thing I won’t be checking out for myself.

Having now explored Northrend, I’ve checked out all of the regions in World of Warcraft that would’ve been available to me back when Wrath of the Lich King was the newest expansion, fulfilling an twelve-year-old wish. I am aware that as a solo player, a great deal of Wrath of the Lich King‘s best content is simply not available to me; even the Molten Core was much more challenging than what I could handle on my own, and this was with level sixty enemies. It is evident that 25-person raids featuring level-appropriate enemies would be impossible for the solo player to attempt, and for this reason, I won’t be able to waltz into Northrend’s raids and slaughter my way to victory, the same way I’ve done in DOOM Eternal. This is one of the hazards about the most private of servers: without other players, much of World of Warcraft‘s most iconic experiences (gathering a party together and smashing up raids over the course of a few hours for the game’s best equipment) remains unknown to me. Having a private server means missing out on much of this experience. However, my interest in a private server wasn’t to experience the end-game content on my own; my original mission had simply been to revisit some of the experiences I had back as a secondary student, as well as try out some of the things that I never had an opportunity to. In this area, the private server has absolutely fulfilled its intended function, and I’m happy to have brought such an old experience back to life. With Northrend’s more scenic location now in the books, my mind turns to whether or not I’d like to try putting a Mists of Pandaria server together, or if I should take an even further trip down memory lane and get my old private Ragnarok Online server back up and running. There are stories behind both decisions, and both stories offer a bit to talk about, so I’ll recount them in more detail in their appropriate posts, at the appropriate time.

Yui Needs A Weapon: Revisiting the K-On! Mod for Left 4 Dead 2 with Halo Weapons

“I need a weapon.” –Spartan John-117, Halo 2

Having now finished the original two Left 4 Dead campaigns, the only thing that was Cold Stream and The Last Stand, two community missions that rounded out the game. Cold Stream sees the Left 4 Dead 2 survivors fighting through a forest in the mountains to reach a helicopter to evacuate them before a forest fire catches up with them, while The Last Stand represents an alternate interpretation of what had happened in Death Toll had the survivors gone a different route. After abandoning their truck at a roadblock, the survivors make their way into a junkyard and eventually reach a lighthouse. Here, the survivors signal for rescue from a boat, fending off hordes of Infected while awaiting the boat. These community missions are quite unrelated to the stories portrayed in the regular campaigns, providing players with a remote forest setting to explore. At this point in time, the mechanics and objectives were simple enough: having beaten the last two campaigns (and fighting with the community workshop directory, which had been giving me some trouble with the character name plates), getting back into Left 4 Dead 2 to finish off the single player experience was not particularly tricky, and I ended up wrapping up both of the community campaigns with time to spare. As noted in my previous posts, the K-On! mod for Left 4 Dead 2 had been remarkably entertaining, completely altering the aesthetic and mood in Left 4 Dead 2. However, this time around, I’ve decided to further increase the mods introduced into the game: as amusing as it had been to run Left 4 Dead 2 with Houkago Tea Time characters, even new models and sound files can get old to write about. As such, I decided to introduce an additional set of mods into the game which would modify the experience somewhat without conflicting with the K-On! mods.

This mod takes the form of Halo weapon skins to replace the original weapons. While the weapons still function identically to their original forms, the weapons look and sound different. The end result is simple: I am now running with the automatics, pistols, shotguns and long-range rifles from Halo, rather than more familiar weapons. In addition to a new, highly-detailed skin, the Halo weapons also have new firing sounds. Altogether, these new weapons feel considerably more powerful and reliable than any of the classic weapons. Every shot fired feels powerful. The base pistols and Tier 1 weapons, which had felt diminished in power compared to the Tier 2 weapons in their original form, suddenly gave the impression of being viable, lethal tools that could hold their own against the hordes of Infected. The suppressed MAC-10 felt inadequate against special infected, but when replaced with the M7/C submachine gun, players suddenly appear to have a better fighting chance. The hunting rifle is replaced by the DMR, firing rounds with a slow but reliable outcome. The Tier 2 weapons themselves feel even more effective, and when the mods are properly applied, even the introductory pistol becomes a more entertaining weapon to use. I’d first heard about the Halo weapon mods from a friend who’d been interested in asking about why the modders had removed a particularly unique skin from the marketplace. I’d speculated it might’ve simply been because the mod needed more work and suggested said friend get in touch with the modders to inquire about it. After checking out the modders’ workshop, I became intrigued, and subsequently resolved to try the weapons out for myself. The end result was highly entertaining, and after ensuring that the new mods did not conflict with or modify the way my previous mods worked, I set about finishing off Left 4 Dead 2‘s remaining missions.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I figure it would be appropriate to open with the dual M6H pistols: the original pistols felt quite weak despite being useful weapons in practise, but upgrading them to the pistols seen in Halo completely changes the impact they have. In this post, not only do I have Halo weapons, but I have Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Tsumugi wielding Halo weapons. I imagine that with this mod, once Google properly indexes my content, I’ll have the first result whenever one does a search for “K-On! Halo” or similar. All of the Halo weapon mods in this post are supplied by Adorabirb!, whose done a phenomenal job of rendering the weapons and ensuring they sound identical to their Halo counterparts.

  • The suppressed MAC-10 is replaced by the M7S suppressed submachine gun seen in Halo 3: ODST. While one cannot use the reflex sights, and the weapon handles otherwise identically to the MAC-10 in Left 4 Dead 2, there’s something incredibly reassuring about using the M7S against hordes of Infected. The Uzi is similarly replaced by the M7/C with the right mods, and with the Halo submachine guns, I suddenly feel a lot more optimistic about fighting Infected. There’s a psychological boost that results from using cool-looking and cool-sounding weapons.

  • Cold Stream was a particularly fun campaign mission – despite being non-canon, its setting makes it the next best thing to being out in the mountains for myself. It’s now been over a year since I’ve taken a hike in the mountains and had any poutine from the best poutine shop this side of the country, and I do miss it greatly. While games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Skyrim do allow me to visit the mountains and their beautiful forested trails, there is no substitution for a full day spent hiking the mountains for real, followed by a hearty Montreal Smoked Meat poutine and spruce soda afterwards.

  • My yearning to return to the mountains means that I have recently returned to Skyrim with the aim of finishing the main story off: a year ago, while writing about KonoSuba, I mentioned an interest in playing Skyrim again, and it is only now that I’ve managed to do so. Returning to Skyrim, I am impressed with how immersive and detailed the game is. I will be sharing a full post on my experiences once I am finished: at the time of writing, I am pursuing Alduin through Sovngarde, and expect that in a few weeks or so, I should be done with things.

  • Before then, however, I determined it would be best if I wrapped up my thoughts on Left 4 Dead 2 with K-On! and Halo mods first. Here, I’ve picked up the DMR: it replaces the Hunting Rifle, a weapon that I typically did not play with much on my old play-throughs on account of its poor firing rate and small magazine size. Again, the psychological changes brought on by a Halo skin were profound – the DMR’s firing rate feels faster than that of the Hunting Rifle even though the weapon stats remained unchanged, and I had a blast using it to pick off distant foes.

  • The fact a simple re-skin completely changed up the way Left 4 Dead 2 feels, despite having no actual impact on gameplay, speaks volumes to how something as simple as changing up a weapon’s appearance and sound could completely refresh an experience to the extent where Left 4 Dead 2 could feel like an entirely new game. Prior to switching out the Hunting Rifle for the DMR, I’d never used the weapon simply because its low rate of fire and limited situations where a long-range weapon made it less useful to have. However, in Halo: Reach and Halo 4, the DMR is intended more of a precision weapon filling the range between the sniper rifles and Battle rifle.

  • I ended up swapping out the FN SCAR-L for the Battle Rifle: the Combat Rifle in Left 4 Dead 2 fires in three round bursts, and while dealing less damage per shot than the other assault rifles, it compensates for this with a good accuracy. With this in mind, given how often engagements were close quarters, I generally preferred the AK-47 or M-16 where available. The Battle Rifle I ran with is the Halo 2 variant, which is my favourite iteration of the Battle Rifle in any Halo game. The mod lacks the original’s heavy-hitting sound: besides performance, the Halo 2 Battle Rifle feels solid and sounds lethal.

  • The one weapon I was most impressed with in the mod was the SRS99-AM sniper rifle, which is seen in Halo 3. This weapon excels at long range combat, and equips an advanced optic for sighting distant foes. I chose the weapon to replace the semi-automatic sniper rifle in Left 4 Dead 2, with the end result that what was originally an anti-materiel rifle with a four-round box magazine now could hold thirty rounds. The weapon sounds powerful and looks even better: the optics will depict the same view, just as the sniper rifle in Halo 3 did.

  • One of the things I needed to get used to was the fact that I’m technically still using the semi-automatic sniper rifle in Left 4 Dead 2, which behaves more similarly to the DMR than the Halo sniper rifle. If I were to go purely for accuracy, the Hunting Rifle would be better represented by the Halo sniper rifle, and the semi-automatic rifle would be replaced by the DMR skin. This would allow the mods to be more faithful to their original weapon’s roles.

  • While crossing the bridge, I ended up picking up a grenade launcher: the M319 grenade launcher is a single-shot break-action grenade launcher that functions identically to its real-world equivalent, the M79. In fact, aside from a superior construction and digital display, the weapon is more or less a M79: the M79 is the original weapon in Left 4 Dead 2, and this Vietnam-era grenade launcher was intended to give platoons additional firepower. The M79 proved effective and reliable, but being a single-shot weapon left operators at a disadvantage, limiting how much firepower they could put out downrange.

  • Moreover, carrying a dedicated launcher meant grenadiers were limited to their sidearms as a ranged weapon. In Left 4 Dead 2, this is definitely to one’s detriment, unless they were carrying dual pistols, as well. While fantastic for clearing out hordes of Infected and even making short work of the Special Infected, the grenade launcher’s utility is quite limited, and the weapon itself is also quite rare: I only encountered the grenade launcher a handful of times while playing through the original campaign.

  • Conversely, the M60 (replaced by Halo 4‘s M739 SAW) is an excellent special weapon, and when outfitted with a laser sight, becomes the ultimate weapon for taking on common and special Infected alike. Halo 4‘s SAW features a 72-round drum magazine and, while firing the same calibre rounds as the assault rifle, had a higher rate of fire and accuracy, on top of a larger ammunition capacity, making it a straight upgrade to the assault rifle. Spartan Ops missions went more smoothly the instant I picked one up. In Left 4 Dead 2, the M60 is similarly powerful, limited only by the fact that its belt cannot be replenished.

  • At the time of writing, the mod did not replace the weapon icons for the M16 or AK-47. The M16 is replaced by the MA5C assault rifle, which was featured in Halo 3 and for the first time, felt like a proper assault rifle. While the MA5C’s skin does not accurately reflect on the actual amount of ammunition remaining, the modders have taken the effort of ensuring that the digital display uses an emissive texture: in dark environments, the display will glow in the dark, which is a nice touch.

  • Towards the end of the final chapter, I picked up an M90 shotgun with a reflex sight, which replaces the SPAS-12. However, since the final part of the mission entailed pushing through a horde, the shotgun proved inadequate and I ended up dropping it for any faster-firing weapon. Shotguns have always had a limited utility in Left 4 Dead 2, and in Halo, I found them more useful against the Flood rather than the Covenant. With this being said, shotguns have always been fun to wield against the Elites, and my strategy in Halo games has always been to use the battle rifles, assault rifles and marksman rifles against weaker foes, saving shotguns or other powerful weapons for swiftly putting away groups of tougher enemies.

  • The last segments of Cold Stream requires that players reach a tall tower for extraction, and unfortunately, during my run, I ended up losing Tsumugi to the Infected. In spite of this, I still finished the mission in a reasonably efficient manner, earning myself a nifty achievement for my troubles. My best friend has indicated that there is an elegant and simple way to get the toughest achievements in Left 4 Dead 2 without breaking a sweat. I’m not sure if this is something I’ll seek to be doing in the foreseeable future just yet.

  • The last of the community missions, The Last Stand, returns perspective to Azusa, Ui, Jun and Nadoka’s perspective, as well as the grim and foreboding dark of a coastal forest. This mission starts players off with the Uzi, which the mod switches out for a M7/C Submachine gun. Insofar, I’ve referred to the Halo weapons mod in singular, but it’s actually a collection of mods one can download. Like the M7S, the M7/C feels distinctly better than the Uzi, even though the damage model remains completely unaffected.

  • It’s reassuring to know that the modder behind the K-On! mod made certain that the smaller details were properly rendered – I half expected the character models to clip or be hollow underneath, but thankfully, this is not the case. When I first played the K-On! mods, I’d heard that the modders even took into account the special attributes surrounding Mio, and while I’d never had the characters walk up onto a higher surface in campaigns with Yui and the others, I have played as Mio before. Being ensnared by a smoker demonstrated that those rumours surrounding Mio were true, and this level of attention to detail is commendable.

  • The darkness of The Last Stand meant that unlike Cold Stream, the weapons I pick up won’t be in sharp relief for everyone to check out. With this being said, having seen the M7S’ model, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince readers that the M7/C is equally as well-designed as the M7S. Besides the same report when fired, the modder had also ensured that the submachine guns’ reloading sounds are identical to their Halo counterparts.

  • Somewhere along the way, I decided to swap out my dual pistols for the Tactical Magnum. In any real cooperative matches, such an action would be unthinkable: dual pistols offer firepower and accuracy nearly equivalent to that of an assault rifle, and so, players will hang onto dual pistols for the duration of a match if they can find them. However, since this isn’t a match with other players, I am able to switch things up for the sake of discussion.

  • I replaced the basic pump action shotgun with the M45D Tactical Shotgun. This weapon, I’ve never actually seen in a Halo game for myself before, but it’s supposed to be a straight upgrade to the shotguns seen in earlier Halo titles. I’ve heard that it is unlikely that Halo 5 will ever come to PC: of the Halo games, Halo 5 had suffered greatly from a series of decisions that dramatically altered the campaign, and this in turn led the game to receive poor reception. 343 Industries’ decision to leave Halo 5 without a PC port was likely a consequence of knowing that Halo 5 wouldn’t sell very well if brought to the PC, and instead, it appears 343 chose to focus their efforts into Halo: Infinite.

  • Because shotguns aren’t really my jam, I ended up switching it out for the MA5D with the reflex sight. Informally referred to as the recon assault rifle, this weapon differs only from the M16’s replacement in that it has a reflex sight. I’ve always wondered how Halo weapons would look with contemporary weapon attachments: in Halo, the presence of smart-link scopes means that soldiers don’t really need dedicated attachments to aim with, as a computerised system would do the work for them. Of course, with Halo 5, when the Battle Rifle was given a reflex sight, people took to complaining about it loudly online.

  • In Left 4 Dead 2, since there’s no aiming down sights for weapons without a magnifying optic, the presence of a reflex sight is purely cosmetic, and I chose this rifle purely to differentiate it from the MA5C replacing the M-16. Like the MA5C, the digital ammunition counter doesn’t actually reflect the amount of rounds one has left to them, but in the dark of The Last Stand, the glowing display is rather more visible: here, I make my way through a burning forest with Ui, Azu-nyan and Jun after fighting my way out of a junkyard to reach the safehouse.

  • The Last Stand was so-named because the original mode was about the survivors fending off wave after wave of Infected, at least until ammunition and supplies ran out entirely, leaving them to be overwhelmed. Conversely, in the campaign, players actually can escape successfully after reaching the lighthouse. Here, after exiting the safehouse, I came across a warden’s outpost.

  • Curiosity soon led me to ascend the watchtower, and I picked up another machine gun for my trouble. Whenever holding a special weapon, I’ve always found that having the dual pistols is most effective, giving me enough firepower to deal with the horde. This leaves me free to save the special weapon for the situations that demand it the most. Of the special weapons, the M60 (SAW in my case) is my favourite: possessing the same accuracy as the AK-47 and dealing the same damage as the magnum pistol per shot, the M60’s 150 round capacity eliminates the need to reload.

  • I wasn’t able to do so in The Last Stand, but locating a laser sight and equipping special ammunition dramatically increases the M60’s accuracy and damage further, to the point where it can destroy tanks and witches in the blink of an eye. On my play-through, I wound up saving the SAW for the final confrontation, anticipating that I would need its firepower.

  • This turned out to be a good decision, since a few tanks did crash my party, and with the damage the SAW deals, they were quickly eliminated. Looking around, I’ve noticed that there are also weapon mods for the melee weapons, but because I’d been interested in keeping Yui’s Les Paul Gibson, I chose not to install anything that could conflict with them. The challenge about running a large number of mods at once is that conflicts could be introduced, and it’s up to the players to choose which mod they’d prefer.

  • The mod prioritisation function in Left 4 Dead 2 is actually pretty well-written in this area: if a conflict is detected, the game will automatically load the one that’s higher up on the list, but if this doesn’t produce the desired result, one can always go into the mods menu and deactivate the ones that one isn’t interested in running. There is one more nuance about running the K-On! mod: by default, the game won’t always show the modded names correctly. Online, people suggest moving the mod .vpk files out of the workshop directory into the addons directory, which prevents Steam from automatically fetching newer versions, but also allowing all of the data to be read.

  • I’ve actually found that this doesn’t work: if one is subscribed to a mod, the game will automatically query the server for updates every time it loads. This means that every time I started up Left 4 Dead 2, a fresh copy of the mod .vpk would be downloaded into the workshop directory. Instead, to preserve my settings, one only needs to subscribe to the mod to download it, then move the .vpk out, and unsubscribe. This method is a bit cumbersome, but it does allow me to keep my settings as I like them.

  • Of course, having now completed every campaign and bonus set of levels in Left 4 Dead 2, I’m not too sure if I’ll be returning in the near future: while it could be fun to get those special achievements my friend mentioned and also re-run the game with Halo weapons, there’s quite a bit on my plate, and I’m just glad to have finally gotten the game done. Towards the end of my run, after depleting the SAW’s ammunition, I returned to the trusty BR-55 rifle to round things out.

  • Unlike my Cold Stream run, this time around, I managed to escape with everyone. Having brought back K-On! into my life in a big way, I am inclined to write one more K-On! related post before the month’s out. Once that post is done, I’ll enter May with a clean slate, ready to go through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered and Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War: while perhaps a bit pricier with respect to how much time I get out of them, I’ve always had a blast going through them.

While Left 4 Dead 2 is very much a squad-based game that is best played with friends, mods like K-On! and Halo weapons transform the way the game feels, while simultaneously leaving the central mechanics intact. This seemingly minor set of changes alters enough of the look and feel such that Left 4 Dead 2 appears as a completely different game. Admittedly, the base Left 4 Dead 2 never really appealed to me in terms of its aesthetic, and I’d only picked it up because the sale price was excellent: my friend is very big on Valve games for their ease-of-modding, and I imagined that we’d spend more time messing around as a two-person team once I’d picked the game up. While we did spend a few fun-filled hours blasting zombies, the base game never really excited me to the same extent as I imagined. However, with things like the K-On! mod, Left 4 Dead 2 became considerably more entertaining, to the point where I can say with confidence that it would be worth buying Left 4 Dead 2 solely for the K-On! mod alone. At that point, the variety of mods available in the Workshop means that, were one so inclined, they could completely transform the way Left 4 Dead 2 handles: particularly well-done and extensive mods allow players to replace the existing Infected with Halo‘s Flood, and similarly, the very same techniques for using K-On! characters as character models allow for one to run with Spartans. Such mods even provide a means of changing up the HUD to closely resemble the Mjolnir armour system, customised for Left 4 Dead 2‘s inventory system. There is no ceiling on what is possible with the mods in Left 4 Dead 2, and while Valve currently has no plans for a continuation, the ability to change the experience via mods has meant that Left 4 Dead 2 has proven unexpectedly fun: what had initially been little more than a curiosity became a full-fledged, meaningful experience that was well worth the price of admissions. Thanks to mods, I’ve now finally completed Left 4 Dead 2‘s single-player experience in full, and while my friend and I are unlikely to co-op in Left 4 Dead 2 with any frequency owing to our schedule, knowing that I’ll be able to retain a highly customised setup should we take this up means that I’d be happy to co-op if the opportunity presents itself in the future.

007 Agent Under Fire Review and Reflection

“Well, I like to do some things the old-fashioned way.” –James Bond, Skyfall

When operator Zoe Nightshade is captured by Identicon Corporation while investigating allegations of weapons smuggling, James Bond infiltrates their Hong Kong facility to rescue her and recovers a courier case. While eluding Nigel Bloch, head of Identicon, in a vehicle chase, Nightshade is killed and the vials are retrieved. However, Bond manages to catch up to them and recovers the vials, which are found to contain blood samples of world leaders and that of ambassador Reginald Griffin, who is working in the British embassy in Bucharest, Romania. Bond discovers that the vials are related to Malprave Industries in Switzerland and arranges to visit their facility. Upon realising he and CEO Adrian Malprave had previously met in Bucharest, Bond attempts to escape the facility, obtaining photographs of Malprave’s plans. He learns that Dr. Natalya Damescu had left Malprave Industries and is under the protection of the British embassy, as she possesses knowledge of their plans. Returning to the embassy, Bond fends off the terrorist attack, including their leader, and picks up a data chip pointing to Poseidon. Bond next travels to an oil rig in the South China sea in pursuit of Bloch and follows up to an underwater cloning facility. After destroying the lab, Bond escapes and encounters the real Zoe Nightshade: the Nightshade at the Identicon facility had actually been a clone. The two board a British aircraft carrier and discover Malprave’s plan to clone the world leaders and replace their originals in a bid to take over the world. Returning to Malprave’s facilities in the Swiss Alps, Bond rescues the world leaders and defeats Bloch in a showdown before escaping with Nightshade, while Malprave dies when her base self-destructs. This is 007: Agent Under Fire, a 2001 first person shooter that was the first James Bond game for sixth generation consoles that featured an all-new story and return to the style that GoldenEye had pioneered.

Agent Under Fire never quite hit the same heights as GoldenEye did, being criticised for flimsy AI and short missions by period critics. Indeed, the game hasn’t aged as gracefully as its successor, Nightfire: Agent Under Fire holds the players’ hands throughout all of the campaign missions, and there’s very little room for exploration and discovery. Moreover, the storyline is, for the lack of a better word, tacky. The notion of creating clones of world leaders as a proxy by which to rule the world is roundabout and ill-conceived: the same outcome would be better achieved by manipulating the media (Tomorrow Never Dies), controlling fuel transport (The World is Not Enough) or investing in super-weapons to challenge the world’s militaries (Die Another Day). Similarly, use of clones opens the floor to deaths that suddenly lack impact or shock, and brings about storytelling clichés that diminish the weight of Bond’s actions. However, where the story is lacking, Agent Under Fire excels with its gameplay. In particular, the integration of gunplay and using Q Branch’s sophisticated gadgetry to advance was particularly smooth, and one could go from hijacking crane signals to destroy an entire group of guards back to sniping distant foes at the press of a button. GoldenEye had a comparatively unwieldy gadget system, but capitalising on the controller’s D-pad to cycle between weapons and gadgets, as well as mapping different buttons to weapon and gadget use simplified things considerably. Moreover, while Agent Under Fire is a first person shooter, the game also features driving segments that allow players to get behind the wheel of Bond’s gadget-laden super cars. Racing around modestly open maps to complete objectives offers a pleasant change of pace from the on-foot combat, and altogether, while Agent Under Fire‘s story might not win any Newbury awards, the game completely succeeded in demonstrating what was possible from a James Bond game on the most advanced consoles of the time.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Agent Under Fire opens in Hong Kong harbour, on a facility that looks like something straight out of a science fiction novel. Set under a golden sunset, the mission would come to set the expectation of what sort of atmospherics would accompany a James Bond game, and here, I equip the P2K, which I’ve unlocked the golden version of for scoring well on this mission. The P2K is modelled on the Smith and Wesson SW99, but unlike its real-world equivalent, the P2K is limited to a six-round magazine (and the real version accepts 10, 15 and 20 round box magazines).

  • As the evening light casts the Identicon facility’s interior in orange-yellows, I fight my way through guards en route to the submarine pen. Along the way, I pick up the infamous Koffler and Stock KS7 (Heckler and Koch MP5), which was a bit of a joke amongst players of the time. In FAQs dating back to 2001 and 2002, the KS7 is described as the worst gun in the game, whose inaccuracy and weak damage meant that it would often take an entire magazine to take out one enemy. Agent Under Fire has a wide range of weapons, and throughout campaign missions, Bond will have access to all of the weapons featured in the game.

  • Unsurprisingly, the most powerful and versatile weapons are found towards the end of the game. As I near the last segments of the first mission, I find an SSR-4000, which is based on the SIG-Sauer SSG 3000. On a per-shot basis, the SSR-4000 is the most powerful and accurate weapon in Agent Under Fire, being a bolt-action rifle with two zoom levels. The weapon’s slow firing rate and small magazine is typical of a bolt-action rifle’s, being balanced to favour long range combat. In the campaign, enemies equipped with the SSR-4000 also have a laser sight, allowing players to quickly work out where they’re aiming and return fire or get to cover as appropriate.

  • Agent Under Fire has a disproportionately large number rail-shooter missions, in which the game automatically drives a player around, and the only aim is to fend off enemies. While the concept of rail-shooters have been maligned owing to titles like Call of Duty, back when they were introduced, they did represent a fun way to have a high speed shootout where players could focus purely on shooting. In Agent Under Fire, the rail shooter missions follow the same approach: Bond is equipped with an RPK, modified SPAS-12 and occasionally, an anti-vehicle option.

  • While Agent Under Fire fails to account for the fact that Hong Kong has left-hand traffic, the game otherwise does a phenomenal job of capturing the Hong Kong aesthetic. Roads are perhaps a bit wider, and traffic is considerably lighter than things are in real life, but the apartment buildings and neon signs are spot on. As Bond beats an escape, droves of Bloch’s men follow in pursuit, making use of cars and limousines alike in a bid to head off Bond. Rail shooting missions feature an impressive ammunition pool, and unless one were to keep their finger on the trigger for the whole of a mission, it is unlikely that one will run out.

  • The CH-6 rocket launcher is named for the fact that it can fire six shots before reloading, and it is immensely effective against vehicles. Owing to its power, it is only available in the second mission, and here, I’ve got the Golden CH-6, which has a bottomless reserve of rockets. With this unlocked, one can pretty much just stick to the CH-6 and decimate all vehicles on the road.

  • Bond subsequently picks up his own vehicle, the BMW Z8: this vehicle was first seen in The World is Not Enough, and its presence in Agent Under Fire speaks to the fact that the game was originally meant to be PS2 and PC versions of the Nintendo 64’s The World is Not Enough, but midway through development, the PC version was scrapped, and the PS2 version was changed into Agent Under Fire. In Agent Under Fire, the Z8 is equipped with two forward-facing machine guns, unguided rockets and homing missiles. Thanks to an unlock, I have unlimited missiles, which renders the mission considerably easier.

  • Racing through the streets of Hong Kong in a weapon and gadget laden BMW proved quite fun: once Bond re-enters the city, likely Central, the main objective will show up: a special van carrying the stolen vials will appear, and Bond must use an EMP pulse to disable it without destroying the samples. The Q-pulse is instrumental for this, and players must drive up beside the van in order to use the Q-pulse, which has a short range. More points are scored if players can disable the van sooner, although care should be taken not to fire the EMP when one is out of range: the EMPs are in short supply and must be picked up by driving around the level.

  • The fourth mission is a strictly non-lethal mission, and the only time where Bond uses a dart gun. Regardless of difficulty, the darts will knock out guards with a single shot, and in the quiet of the British embassy in Bucharest, the aim is to sneak in, figure out what happened to Reginald Griffin, and get out. Stealth missions in swanky locations always remind me of Christmas – back in the day, one of my relatives always hosted the annual Christmas parties, and my cousin, would invite us to spend the evening playing Agent Under Fire‘s multiplayer after dinner wrapped up while the adults conversed. My cousin favoured cooperative play, and we would challenge ourselves by fighting the bots on maximum difficulty and aggression.

  • In subsequent years, I would come to own a GameCube of my own and beat Agent Under Fire‘s campaign for myself. I occasionally still partake in the multiplayer with maxed-out bots for old time’s sake, and nothing gives more hilarity than squaring off against the Griffin clone on Town. Back in the campaign, I enter Griffin’s office to find him dead, and confront the Griffin Clone, who requires a full magazine of dart gun rounds to take out. Once Bond collects information from Griffin’s computer, it’s time to leave the embassy by taking the elevator back to the main floor and simply walk out the front door.

  • The mission at Malprave’s Swiss headquarters sees Bond pose as a journalist, but his cover is blown shortly after, and he is sealed in the reception area. The mission’s title, “Cold Reception”, is a play on words: the reception is unfriendly, and the setting is chilly, so this becomes a bit of a double entendre of sorts, which the James Bond franchise is known for. Once Bond is sealed in, hitting a switch on the desks will open a side passage that allows the mission to progress. The key here is to hit the switch on the desk to the right of Malprave’s portrait: the others will sound an alarm. Time is limited, so players should keep an eye on the clock.

  • After the classic espionage manoeuvre of photographing classified blueprints, Bond sneaks into a server room and downloads Malprave’s data for analysis before escaping. Agent Under Fire‘s game mechanics haven’t really changed: twenty years later, games like The Division still have similar objectives, and while the modes have changed (ISAC replaces the Q-decryptor and Q-remote), the end results are the same. Here, I’ve picked up the SPAS-12, the Frenesi in-game. It’s a pump-action shotgun that excels in close quarters, although it is limited by a low firing rate. The multiplayer incarnation has an alternate fire mode that allows it to fire in a semi-automatic fashion, sacrificing damage for the ability to make quick follow-up shots.

  • At Agent Under Fire‘s halfway point, Bond fends off terrorists attacking the British Embassy in Bucharest. This mission was provided in the demo version of Agent Under Fire back at the local toy stores back in the day, and I vividly remember dying after walking into the path of a sniper’s laser sights every time a controller freed up. This mission has the same aesthetic as that of Nightfire‘s second mission, requiring that players fight their way through a relatively classy setting. With the P2K, I ended up using manual fire to carefully place my shots and aim for the head: headshots are a one-hit-kill, and allow one to pick off enemies with relative ease. Body shots are highly ineffectual even on low difficulties, and although the manual aim (the precursor to today’s ADS mechanics) was tricky, when things connect, it allows one to save on ammunition.

  • I’ve never been much of a marksman on the console, and so, when the opportunity presented itself, I immediately picked a KS-57 off a terrorist. The KS-57 (AK-47) is an iconic assault rifle, but in Agent Under Fire, it’s a relatively weak weapon with improved accuracy and stopping power compared to the submachine guns, but is otherwise eclipsed by other assault rifles. Here, I enter a bathroom with a suggestive hologram, concealing a secret entrance that opens into the next area. Fanservice has never really been a thing in the games that I prefer playing, and having seen what contemporary graphics are capable of now, moments such as these are absolutely tame compared to what’s possible nowadays.

  • After reaching the rooftops, Bond rappels over into the next building with the Q-claw, rescues the embassy’s staff from the terrorists and enters the building’s basement, where he confronts the Jackal. The first time I fought the Jackal, I was unaware of how the game’s mechanics worked and died instantly. Later, I realised that the Jackal doesn’t actually take damage, but instead, retreats on the catwalk to a different position after taking enough fire, and eventually will fall after trying to fire on Bond from above a ventilation fan. The Jackal is armed with the Windsor FSU-4 (basically the Colt M16A2 with the M203 under-barrel grenade launcher), and in the mission, the Windsor Viper (Colt Anaconda) can be used, as well.

  • With the Jackal defeated, the last step of the mission is to destroy an AH-64 attack helicopter. Agent Under Fire makes it easy for Bond to do so: there’s four mounted machine guns on the roof, and while their ammunition is limited, empty the boxes on two of those guns will do significant damage to the attack helicopter, to the point where a few magazines’ worth of fire from the FSU-4 will destroy it. For folks looking for a shoulder-fired solution, there’s also an MRL-22 rocket launcher and extra rockets lying around. It goes without saying that one should give plenty of space between themselves and the attack helicopter if opting for the MRL-22 approach: the splash damage is very much lethal to Bond.

  • While the Jackal had been carrying a data chip, the terrorists manage to extract it, and Bond heads off in hot pursuit in his iconic DB5. The DB5 is equipped with the same capabilities and equipment as the Z8, so operating it is no problem. Like Hong Kong, Bucharest’s streets offer players with a degree of freedom in how they wish to go about reaching their target, and these segments of the game handled very smoothly. With my unlimited missiles, I had no trouble recovering the data chip, but after the DB5 is totalled following a daring jump over a canal, Bond switches over to a tank in a manner reminiscent of GoldenEye.

  • The tank segment of the mission is a rail shooter, which makes no sense considering that Bond is also the one operating the tank: this tank resembles the Russian T-90, and in-game, is equipped with a MGF-34 main cannon, as well as a minigun. I imagine the weapons were named and chosen purely for cool factor: the real T-90 is armed with the 2A46 120mm smoothbore cannon and a 12.7 mm Kord HMG, whereas here, it looks like it’s got an M134, which is an American weapon and therefore would not be equipped on a Russian tank. While the mission itself isn’t logical, it’s also a fun ride through Bucharest as Bond tears apart hordes of Malprave’s forces.

  • In 2001 and 2002 FAQs, writers wondered why the splash damage from the tank’s main cannon was so minimal despite the weapon working well against vehicles. Per my remarks in Rogue Agent, since it’s been two decades since then, I doubt that reaching out to the FAQ writers would be effectual, but the answer is simple: the MGF-34 is firing kinetic penetrators rather than HE rounds. I understand that at the time, gamers assumed that tanks would always fire high explosive shells owing to how developers intended tanks to really be used in single-player campaigns and therefore, didn’t need balance. In today’s games, things have become rather more sophisticated, and different rounds are implemented to have different functions.

  • The data chip that Bond finds takes him to an oil drilling platform in the South China Sea as he pursues Bloch. Agent Under Fire marks the first time I’ve fought on an oil rig, and I admit that this mission was masterfully designed: Bond has the option of charging in loud, using a side passage to stealthily reach a mounted 50 calibre gun, or sneak closer to the side railing and take out the sniper, then seize the sniper for himself. I went the route of the mounted gun, and after decimating everything, including an attack helicopter, I proceeded across the now-quiet deck with the Calypso submachine gun in hand. The Calypso P750 is based off the Calico M960, whose unique helical magazine allows for a very high ammunition capacity. In-game, its high RPM makes it an excellent close quarters weapon.

  • The second half of the mission entails climbing progressively higher in the oil rig. Bond begins in the pump room and must use the Q-jet, as well as a pumpjack, to escape. Enemies begin dropping the FSU-4, and while it’s been fun to use the Calypso, the FSU-4 is better suited for long range combat. A few snipers can also be found, and they’ll whittle players down very quickly if not dealt with. Climbing the ladders to higher platforms, Bond can use the Q-remote to drop enemy snipers without trouble, and an MRL-22 rocket launcher can be found, allowing one to drive off the attack helicopter that shows up, if need be.

  • Forbidden Depths is the last of the rail shooting missions, and Bond is equipped with both the pump action shotgun and RPK. Beginning with an absurd amount of RPK ammunition means that players shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with the enemy forces. The mission is one lengthy tram ride through the tunnels to Malprave’s underwater cloning lab: Agent Under Fire really took the idea of an elaborate lair to new heights, and the cloning lab is an example where the designers were really free to build levels as they appeared in their imaginations.

  • The only other Bond game with such imaginative environments was 2004’s GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, which took things even further. While racing through the underwater tunnels, Bloch eventually joins Bond and drops mines that must be shot at to avoid damage. The trams will eventually reach a terminal that begins sinking into the lava below, necessitating use of a camera-guided rocket launcher to stop. With this rollercoaster-like mission over, Bond’s finally reached the underwater base. This is the only mission where players will have a chance to use the PS100 and the UGW.

  • The exotic components in Malprave’s cloning lab has a distinctly sci-fi feel to it: simpler graphics back in the day meant that increasingly creative means were used to convey a high-tech asthetic, and games have come a very long way since then. Today, games like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and even Division 2 do a more realistic presentation of what ultra-sophisticated labs would look like. Here, as I fight through the research labs, I wield the PS100, a personal defense weapon modelled on the P90. The PS100 is the best weapon in the submachine gun category: while sporting a smaller magazine than the Calypso, it is more accurate and makes short work of enemies.

  • Once Bond’s through sabotaging Malprave’s cloning facility, it’s time to beat a hasty exit: Bond’s deactivate pressure stablisation and tempreature regulators, causing the base to go critical. I’ve picked up the UGW here: this assault rifle is the second best in the game, dealing reasonable damage and mounting zoom optics that allow for medium range combat. The UGW is based on the Steyr AUG A1 with the Swarovski optic, and here, I fight my way through the submarine pen en route to my exfil. Blowing up enemy lairs has long been a staple of James Bond movies and games alike, and in this area, Agent Under Fire delivers.

  • Once the underwater cloning lab is destroyed, Bond returns to a British carrier on the Mediterranean Sea and clears it of Malprave’s forces: it is here that Bond learns what Malprave’s plans were. While it’s fun to fight on an aircraft carrier (I would not do so again until 2010’s Crysis), the story in Agent Under Fire definitely left something to be desired, resembling a hastily-written Bond fanfiction whose goal was to incorporate as many iconic Bond experiences as possible at the expense of coherence. Malprave’s plot is implausible as it is ludicrous. Nightfire completely improves on things, sporting a superior, cohesive and engaging (if still familiar) story that made every mission’s contribution to the campaign more obvious.

  • After reaching the deck and reluctantly freeing a member of the crew, Bond heads off to rescue Nightshade again. This final segment requires caution, since she’s surrounded by depth charges that will explode should anything hit them, sending players back to the last checkpoint. Agent Under Fire utilises a lives system: players have only have two attempts to clear a mission before running out of lives, after which they would need to start over from the beginning. In the end, Bond is able to save Nightshade and stop the clones of the world leader from getting out by shooting down a helicoper they’re in. The British carrier has 50-calibre machine guns on deck, and unlike the 7.62 mm mounted guns, the 50-calibre guns do not run out of ammunition.

  • As evening sets over the Swiss Alps, I begin the final mission, dubbed “Evil Summit”. The biggest challenge about the first area are the snipers, and fortunately, off in a storage room, players can grab their own SSR-4000 for some counter-sniping. After acquiring the program to unlock the access way, hordes of Malprave’s soldiers will flood the platform. They’re armed with the Koffler and Stock D17, which is based on the Heckler and Koch G11 caseless rifle. The D17 is the single best weapon in the game, with a high RPM, accuracy and magazine capacity.

  • Upon picking up the D17, there’s no real reason to use any other weapon. Having the D17 makes this last segment mangeable: the goal is to rescue all of the captured world leaders. After clearing the central control room, Bond must enter four missile silos and rescue the remaining leaders, who will see themselves out. Once this is done, all that’s left is to fight Nigel Bloch. While Bond appeared to have killed him in an earlier mission, it turns out this was his clone. The fight against Bloch plays out similarly to the fight against the Jackal: Bloch is technically invincible and upon taknig enough fire, will simply move to a next area.

  • After pursuing Bloch through a ventilation system, Bond picks up a spare MRL-22 and uses this to defeat Bloch in a scripted sequence, bringing the game to an end. Because of how boss fights are written in Agent Under Fire, I found them to be quite unsatisfying. However, for the most part, Agent Under Fire is a solid game that demonstrated what was possible on a sixth generation console, and the sequel, Nightfire, would return as a refined, polished version of Agent Under Fire.

Indeed, Agent Under Fire would receive a sequel not a year later in Nightfire: using polished concepts from Agent Under Fire, Nightfire proved to be an improvement over its predecessor in every way. The balance of gadget usage and sure aim was further polished, and the game retained a balance of on-foot missions and vehicular segments. However, the story was superbly-written, this time around, and the Nightfire even had James Bond with Pierce Brosnan’s likeness. The learnings of Agent Under Fire were evidently applied to Nightfire, and in this way, Agent Under Fire might be seen as a proof-of-concept, using the Id Tech 3 engine to explore different mechanics. The mish-mash of concepts, while feeling distinctly disjointed in Agent Under Fire, still worked very smoothly. The gunplay remains impressive, and alternate fire modes allow some weapons to be more versatile. Vehicular segments handled well. With gameplay concepts proven to be viable, Nightfire was therefore able to incorporate a better written story, superior visuals, stronger voice acting and a more iconic soundtrack into its experience. Consequently, while perhaps not the most imaginative or memorable James Bond title, Agent Under Fire nonetheless remains an enjoyable experience for its gameplay and aesthetics: the story doesn’t really make much sense, but it does give players a chance to visit a wide range of locales, from Hong Kong and Bucharest, to a classic underwater lair and the Swiss Alps, all the while doing classic James Bond stuff. Furthermore, while the campaign is quite short, Agent Under Fire features one of the best multiplayers ever to grace a James Bond game, and replaying the campaign missions for high scores will allow players to unlock improved gear, as well as more multiplayer options. Agent Under Fire‘s multiplayer is a work of art, worthy of a separate discussion, and even now, provided one has a few extra controllers available, one can still invite some mates over for some classic, 2001-style TDM hailing back to a time where games didn’t need an internet connection or lootboxes for fun to be had.

World of Warcraft: A Blood Elf Warlock’s Journey of Silvermoon Forest and The Ghostlands

“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.” –Arthur M. Schlesinger

In retrospect, I should’ve applied for a position at the Chapters Indigo branch downtown that summer. Instead, I ended up spending my summer vacation of secondary school in World of Warcraft and biking around the quadrant of my city. I feel that the extra work experience could’ve done me some good, but what’s done is done. What ended up happening was that one of my friends, who’d rolled a Night Elf rogue, decided to roll an Undead character, and was looking to party up to explore Horde areas in World of Warcraft. Since my days were quite idle, I decided to take up this suggestion, rolling a Blood Elf warlock as a result. The warlock class is a caster focuses purely on dealing damage: lore paints warlocks as using dark magic to inflict destruction and control dæmons for their own ends, contrasting mages, who use magic in a wide range of support roles alongside damage. In practise, this means that warlocks are a specialised caster that focuses purely on damage and survivability, whereas mages provide more support for their party, and having played only a mage up until that point, I was curious to see how a pure damage class would handle. As it turns out, the warlock is great for solo experiences, having a range of effective spells to blast enemies, and at the same time, also allow the player to heal back up after fights (whereas with the mage, one is more dependent on potions or food if playing solo). The warlock class also provide a free mount, taking the form of the Felsteed and Dreadsteed, allowing one to travel around areas much more quickly than a mage could at lower levels. As I soon discovered, the warlock levelling experience proved rather more enjoyable than it had been for mages: this was in part owing to the spells and abilities available to warlocks, as well as the unique appearance of the Blood Elves’ starting areas, the Eversong Woods and Ghostlands.

While period reviews felt the new starting areas were more isolated than other starting areas, they also found that the areas were better designed, allowing players to progress much more smoothly: the need to travel extensively was reduced, and each of the quests offer a much deeper insight into each species’ lore and background compared to the original World of Warcraft‘s. The end result was a more polished experience that encouraged players to still explore, but made it possible to level up more efficiently and push players on the path towards the endgame. As a Gnome mage, I found that levelling was quite tedious on account of the travelling I needed to do, and the vast expanse of the territory that Elwynn Forest, Westfall, Red Ridge Mountains and Duskwood covered meant that there was a lot of running around between areas. By comparison, Eversong Woods and the Ghostlands are much more focused. There’s a smaller emphasis on travel, but the areas are still well-designed, allowing players to really focus on getting up to speed with their new character and lore while enjoying what the new areas have to offer. Eversong Woods’ distinct Blood Elf architecture and vegetation create a sense of melancholy, of a once-great civilisation now on the brink, and similarly, the Ghostlands accentuate how much damage the Blood Elves’ home had sustained after the Scourge’s attempts to conquer their capital, Silvermoon City. The entire land is awash in an eerie blue light even during midday, but frequent Blood Elf outposts and settlements show that this land has not been lost. The unique combination of aesthetic and map design made it especially enjoyable to level up here, and as the summer drew to a close, I had a Blood Elf warlock that was ready to explore Azeroth with my friend.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I begin my warlock journey fully powered up: the intent of this revisit isn’t to re-live the old levelling experience as I’d known it all those summers ago, but rather, to re-tread old places. As such, I’ve wielded my GM powers to whip up a warlock that, while not optimised for end-game PvE or PvP content, allows me to explore these starting areas without worrying about anything.

  • Here, I travel along the Dead Scar, a track of charred, dead land bisecting both the Eversong Woods and the Ghostlands. In this scorched land, undead and spirits roam free, and early on, players will need to take on these monsters for various quests. The Scourge’s march here eons ago corrupted the soil such that nothing could grow, and for beginning players, crossing the Dead Scar can be a challenge, as there are enough undead to pose a challenge. There are a few paths one can use to make this crossing, making things easier.

  • The Eversong Woods stood out to me for its eternal twilight colours and peaceful scenery, golden-orange foliage and the area’s distinct ambient music, which makes use of choir, harp, piano and cello to capture the Blood Elves’ mystical background. Until Pandaria was introduced, Eversong Woods was my absolute favourite of the starting areas, although owing to its remoteness, it doesn’t have anywhere near the foot traffic of Elwynn Forest in the retail game.

  • The Tranquil Shore lives up to its name: located further west than the West Sanctum, this beach is home to the Murlocs, an amphibious species that prefer to swarm their enemies with overwhelming numbers. Murlocs can be found almost everywhere in Azeroth, and I do remember incurring their wrath as a lower-level adventurer back in the day. Of course, when one steers clear of Murloc settlements, which I count an eyesore, the coastal areas of Azeroth are quite beautiful, and here, I stop to admire a sunset.

  • I’m actually not too sure how my friend altered the realm time such that it differs from the server time via the configurations: one of the things I’ve longed to do since getting my own server up was to explore Azeroth at different times of day. However, owing to my schedule, on weeknights, I’m typically available between 1900 and 2030 local time, during which sunset and twilight occurs on Azeroth. The end result is that most of my screenshots happen closer to evening. While some areas look their best during this time (such as Westfall), I would be curious to see what Azeroth looks like during mid-day or night.

  • I think that the only solution I have for the present will be to change my system clock before starting the server, which should do the trick: if this is the way to do it, I could see myself returning in the future with a set of night screenshots. For now, I am content to explore Azeroth by evening hours: the Eversong Woods look consistent during the different times of day, so this never really impacted my ability to take solid-looking screenshots.

  • After I created my warlock, my first goal was to get a hundred percent quest completion in the Eversong Woods and Ghostlands. Strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to complete all quests in an area to level up. While finishing all quests is a fantastic way to explore the lore, completing major quest lines will provide one with the experience needed to level up. I’ve found that it’s easiest to have as many quests active at once as possible, since this makes every encounter more likely to yield something relevant to that quest.

  • Since my goal wasn’t to get to the mid-game, this time around, I was able to explore the northeastern edges of Eversong Woods, home to the Duskwither Spire. This floating spire can only be reached by means of teleportation, and one of the quest lines here was to deactivate magic crystals here after experiments ran amok, leading to calamity. A recurring theme is that with their addiction to magic, after the destruction of the Sunwell, the Blood Elves sought an alternate power source with often devastating results.

  • Warlocks have access to three talent trees: destruction is about dealing direct damage, affliction is for dealing damage over time, and dæmonolgy enables warlocks to summon dæmons to fight on their behalf and provide assistance or support in combat. As a warlock, my favourite spells are all destruction-oriented: destruction warlocks handle most similarly to mages, and as a solo player on a private server, my goal was simply to deal the most amount of damage in the least amount of time. Of the spells available to me, I use Incinerate and Searing Pain the most as my primary direct damage sources.

  • Because my warlock is unoptimised, using Shadow Bolt, the mainstay direct damage spell for affliction and dæmonolgy warlocks consumes a large amount of mana. With the right equipment and skills, however, mana regeneration was enough so that this stopped being an impediment. For one reason or another, I never learned the Incinerate technique and instead, stuck with Shadow Bolt. Immolate became my primary fire spell at the time. However, after playing World of Warcraft‘s retail version, I found that Wrath of the Lich King did indeed have Incinerate, providing me with another good damage dealing spell.

  • For my journey, I ran with the Staff of Endless Winter, a rather powerful-looking staff that confers an intelligence, stamina and spirit boost. Normally, it is acquired by defeating Hodir in Northerend’s Ulduar instance; a special cache will drop if Hodir is beaten in under three minutes, containing this staff. For my part, having a private server and the corresponding lack of players to party with means that raids are out of my reach. Later World of Warcraft expansions make it such that as players levelled up to 120, they became powerful enough to trivially solo the original game’s raids without difficulty.

  • As I am only twenty levels higher right now, while I am able to blast my way through level sixty dungeons without any difficulty, my damage is nowhere near enough for me to take on raids on my own. I’m not sure if I’ll change up my server and client for a more recent version for the time being; as tempting as it is to get a newer server and client, my original goal had simply been to explore the World of Warcraft I knew as a student, and after Cataclysm, Azeroth is completely different, being sundered by Deathwing, whose arrival destroys a dimensional barrier that adversely changes the face of Azeroth.

  • This is probably one of my favourite places in the whole of the Eversong Woods, where a river flows over a waterfall, surrounded by trees of crimson and gold. After the events of Cataclysm, familiar areas of Azeroth are completely altered. Having said this, newer World of Warcraft expansions offer more options and places to explore, so it could be worth exploring the setup of a newer server in the future. For now, I am content to stick with my current server, as there still remains quite a bit of turf in the pre-Cataclysm Azeroth that I’ve not yet explored.

  • After finishing the massive list of quests I had from Eversong Woods, and exploring all of the corners of this starting area, I next turned my attention to the Ghostlands. This was where levelling my warlock had really become fun, as the game began introducing new challenges to me. Back then, I didn’t have a mount, so getting around between the different quest areas always took an inordinate amount of time; if memory serves, I spent about two-fifths of my time travelling between quest-givers and the areas where the quest-related objectives were.

  • By comparison, I spent almost three-fifths of my time travelling when I was levelling my mage in the Elwynn Forest and area. The difference meant that I was able to level up faster and hit 20 in a much shorter time, but even this had taken me much of the summer. This is one of the reasons why I never got into World of Warcraft for real: the time commitment was something that I simply didn’t have. For my revisit, I was able to have a much easier time of things: unlocking a Dreadsteed and increasing my land movement speed made it much easier to get around.

  • In order to have the most complete Ghostlands experience, I thus decided to take on every quest possible. While I had a Dreadsteed and fully-levelled spells, the key aspect that made questing efficient this time around was the fact that I’d accepted everything, and so, I could travel to quest-relevant areas, complete the assigned task, move onto the next, and repeat until all of my quests were completed. Turning them in all at once made for much less travelling, and would also allows me to pick up the next set of quests.

  • Knucklerot and Luzran are two elite abominations wandering the Ghostlands. They represent some of the toughest enemies players can fight early in the game, and their massive, grotesque profile makes them quite memorable, but players with familiarity with their classes and the right setup can still fight them. For me, when I encountered them for a quest, I ended up using my Voidwalker to tank the damage and aggro while I watched from afar. It was a bit of a lengthy process, but I was able to solo them. I imagine on a live server, other players may occasionally step in.

  • As a destruction warlock, my favourite spell is Rain of Fire, which calls down a hail of hellfire that burns all enemies in an area. Area of Effect (AoE) spells are effective for knocking down groups of enemies, and the Rain of Fire, like Blizzard, can be used to target specific areas. Hellfire is another AoE spell I have, being a channeled spell that deals fire damage to all enemies within 10 yards of the player, but at the same time, also damages the player. Most effective in a party, where one has a priest on hand for healing, I’ve not found this spell to be too effective while soloing.

  • On the western edge of the Ghostlands is the Windrunner Village and Wind Runner Spire, a haunted area not unlike the graveyards and farms of Duskwood. I passed through the Windrunner Village en route to the Plagued Coast, where unsurprisingly, the quest had been to retrieve spines from Morlocs. Quests done in the Ghostlands give considerable reputation towards Tranquillien, the only village and hub in the area,

  • For my warlock, I ended up going with herbalism and alchemy, gathering herbs to create potions, elixirs and other reagents that bolster performance: the choice was motivated by a wish to see what the other professions entailed, since as a mage, I went with tailoring and enchanting. As an alchemist, I admit that being able to craft mana potions and keep topped off during my travels was a major part of my interest to check things out. At some point, I am also curious to roll a hunter with mining and engineering.

  • Because I am fully levelled, one thing I do enjoy doing is the practise of pulling large groups of enemies around me before slaying them all with a single spell. This practise is definitely not advisable at lower levels, where large groups of level-appropriate enemies will promptly wipe the players out if they are playing solo. While fighting Morlocs, my thoughts strayed to a conversation I had with a classmate years earlier, to a time before I started playing World of Warcraft: said classmate had been trying to get me into World of Warcraft and warned that Morlocs were the one foe I’d come to malign at lower levels.

  • When I began my own journey on my friend’s private server, the classmate’s warnings turned out to be true. This classmate had been a big-time gamer back then, and it was through him a bunch of us were introduced to Half-Life 2. However, this classmate didn’t really appear to have a plan for the future, and while we’d hung out during my first year of university, he eventually started chilling with a bunch of students in the computer labs who were always there irrespective of the time of day or week, gaming away on their laptops or watching anime.

  • I never did get these particular students: regardless of whether it was early morning, after I handed in an assignment before heading off to the health science campus, or late afternoon, prior to my organic chemistry labs, the same people would always be there, playing World of WarcraftLeague of Legends or Planetside 2. Because my classmate spent more time here with these students, we eventually drifted apart. At present, I have no idea how he’s doing. In general, how such students operate is beyond me: we go to university to learn and pick up the skills that act as a stepping stone for what lies ahead, and it is very wasteful to throw that time away on things like games.

  • With this being said, I always set aside Friday evenings for games, but otherwise, I did my utmost to keep up with my coursework. In retrospect, I do not regret my decisions: for eight months of the year, I studied hard to ensure I could maintain satisfactory standing during my undergrad, and by graduate school, I had enough time to maintain my GPA, advance my thesis project and squeeze in gaming. In the years subsequent, I noticed that the part of the computer science lab the gamers frequented were replaced by new students, who were using the space legitimately (whether it was working on assignments or studying), and so, I cannot help but wonder how those gamers are faring today.

  • In my haste to reach Tranquillen, I ended up skipping over a fair number of early quests along the Dead Scar, but would go back to complete them. Here, I return to the Plagued Coast early in the evening, a few hours before sunset. The colours in this still neatly summarise why the Ghostlands were one of my favourite areas in World of Warcraft: there’s a hauntingly beautiful character about the deep blue colours of the Ghostlands sky.

  • Just south of Lake Elrendar is the Farstrider Enclave, host to a Blood Elf group that watch over the Ghostlands’ eastern territories. It is comparatively remote and takes a ways to reach, so when I did my quests here, I simply accepted them all at once, finished them in accordance with whatever I encountered first, and then this way, I only needed to make a single trip back to the Farstrider Enclave. As it turns out, this time around, there were a bunch of quests I never completed, including one that involved defeating spirits that inhabit the lake itself.

  • The Shadowpine Trolls inhabit the eastern edge of the Ghostlands, and players are sent here to slay a certain number, as well as collect their weapons. Lore states that the forest trolls and elves have been longtime enemies, and while the elves traditionally had the advantage, the destruction of the Sunwell had allowed the trolls to seize the initiative. The players are thus called upon to help hold the fort against this enemy, and here, I use Rain of Fire to destroy a group of unaware trolls.

  • Over the course of three hours or so, I ended up finishing all of the different quests in the Ghostlands, and at last, was finally ready to take on The Traitor’s Destruction. At level twenty, this quest recommends a party of five: Dar’Khan Drathir is covered by several minons, and as he has access to Fear, he can cause enemies to run away for four seconds. Players who’ve done this suggest taking a party and silencing him, and on my original run, I ended up using my ability to silence while a friend then helped me to clear the other minions away, turning a tricky fight into a simpler one.

  • Located at the southern end of the Ghostlands, Deatholme is a fortress belonging the the Scourge. I ended up saving all of the quests for Deatholme, deciding to do them all in one stroke. Thus, I ended up clearing away Dar’Kan’s undead lieutenants, freed the captive Blood Elves and squared off against Dar’Kan himself in the same run. Armed with a maxed out character, I ended up beating Dar’Kan and his minions with a single AoE spell, speaking to how dramatic the power differences are between level appropriate characters and characters at the level cap.

  • Finishing all the quests in the Ghostlands meant that I became exhalted with Tranquillen, and I set off for Silvermoon City, ready to continue on with my journey. It turns out that I’d also completed a hundred quests. With this, my latest World of Warcraft post comes to an end: as of now, I’ve finished revisiting all of the areas I’d travelled through years earlier, and the next time I return to write about World of Warcraft will be when I set foot on Northerend, which will mark the first time I’d ever done so. While my friend had a Wrath of the Lich King server back in the day, we shut down before I had a chance to visit.

By the time I had hit level twenty, my friend decided to help me finish off the last of the quests in the Ghostlands: this marked the first time I needed a group to help me out, and for good reason. The quest, The Traitor’s Destruction, requires that players neutralise Dar’Khan Drathir, a former Blood Elf magister who joined forces with Arthas. After fighting our way through Deathome, we finally reached his lair. While the game recommends a minimum level of 15, at level 20, the two of us were enough to beat the quest, and for my troubles, I unlocked the Staff of the Sun, a rare staff that conferred some nifty bonuses for level 20 players. By this point, term started, and my other friend, who had been running the server, decided to level everyone to the cap so we could do a dungeon together. I never did explore more of the Horde regions. More recently, I was able to return to the Eversong Woods and Ghostlands on my private server. In my adventures, I ended up clearing all of the quests in the area over the course of a few hours, and returning brought back memories of that summer years earlier. This time around, owing to the fact it’s my server, I was able to finish everything off on short order, making use of a fully-levelled character to explore with impunity. It was a journey down memory lane to a much simpler time; this time around, I had a bit more time to check out areas that I’d originally missed. I found myself surprised that despite it being a ways over a decade since I last tread the Eversong Woods and Ghostlands, the locations of everything still came quite naturally to me. In no time at all, I’d wrapped up all of the quests in the Ghostlands and became exalted with Tranquillien. Having now revisited another one of my old World of Warcraft experiences, I set my sights on hitherto unexplored territory next: Northerend. My friend’s private server was updated to include the Wrath of the Lich King expansion back in the day, and it remained live for a few months before finally shutting down. I had been busy exploring the remainder of Azeroth at the time and never got around to visiting Northerend at the time, but with my own private server now, I think the time has come to rectify this.

Halo 4: Spartan Ops, A Reflection On Part Two

“Spartans, looks like there’s one more quick job before you get to come home.” –Sarah Palmer

After being captured by Jul’Mdama’s forces, Fireteam Crimson manages to escape and seize a Phantom, using it to infiltrate Covenant operations and search for another Spartan team, encountering a Harvester machine. Crimson quickly discovers that the Covenant managed to acquire UNSC HAVOK missiles and begin launching an assault on the UNSC Infinity. After clearing the lower decks of Covenant, the AI Roland reboots the Infinity’s systems and secure the engine room, deactivating the nuclear warheads in the process. Dr. Halsey is captured, and Crimson is first sent to close the portal system. Crimson learn that Jul’Mdama’s forces managed to salvage a Pelican and had been using it to listen in on UNSC communications. After the Pelican is destroyed, the UNSC test their ability to read a Forerunner map with an operation, and prepare an operation to recover Halsey before the Covenant can learn anything of value. However, despite being unable to locate Halsey, Crimson determine that the Covenant have been using another Forerunner artifact to anchor the Infinity to Requiem; Jul’Mdama orders Requiem’s self-destruct to activate, but once the UNSC determine that the artifact is controlled by several anchors, they destroy this, allowing the Infinity to leave Requiem moments before Requiem’s collision with its star causes a supernova. Halsey, meanwhile, agrees to help Jul’Mdama’s Covenant. This is where Spartan Ops‘ second part ends, and the story is continued in Halo: Escalation, which covers the events between Halo 4 and Halo 5. Spartan Ops ultimately ends up being a loosely-written campaign that bridges the gap between the two Halo games, expanding the lore of Halo while simultaneously providing more for players to do outside of the campaign and multiplayer. On the whole, Spartan Ops is a reasonably enjoyable, if time-consuming experience.

More so than the first half, Spartan Ops‘ second half strikes a wonderful balance between gameplay and humour: firefights are punctuated by the hilarious exchanges between Spartan Miller and the UNSC’s internal AI, Roland. Halo had remained very serious and focused throughout its campaign, and humour has never really been what I’ve known Halo for. However, with Roland’s wit and enjoyment to show off his capabilities, his dialogue with Spartan Miller adds a considerable amount of light-hearted banter into otherwise serious communications chatter. This gives the Halo universe a new dimensionality; marking the first time that players can openly laugh about something while fighting off Covenant and Promethean forces, the humour in the second partof Spartan Ops was meant to show that humanity has now reached a point where there are things to laugh at again. While the Covenant and Forerunner forces remain a threat, that humour is present suggests that humanity is capable of holding their own, and that dealing with superior forces has become enough of a routine such that we can laugh at unrelated things during combat with said forces. The end result is that the second half of Spartan Ops, while ending with a much grimmer outcome, comes across as being very similar to Portal 2 in style, striking that balance between light-hearted comedy and events that have a much larger implication on events in future games, creating intrigue for what was to come. Of course, Halo 5 proved to be a disappointment in its story, but having what was essentially a second campaign in Halo 4 to set the stage did represent a bold new idea at the time.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • For the second half of Spartan Ops, I largely ran with dexterity and shielding, plus the jet pack: suicide plasma grunts are always a challenge to deal with, but the bonus shielding conferred by this setup meant that I was able to often survive such suicide attacks with still ten percent of my shields remaining, allowing me to remain in the fight longer. Of course, being stuck by a plasma grenade is still instant death, but I found that overall, improved survivability made a great deal of difference in many solo firefights. The jet pack simply makes it easier to get places more quickly, and I find it an indispensable armour ability that made missions much easier.

  • In the absence of a Spartan Laser, rocket launcher, Incineration Cannon or Fuel Rod Gun, Hunters can be a nightmare to take out. Spartan Ops does not provide dedicated heavy weapons when Hunters are encountered in pairs, and my usual strategy is to get close and attack its unarmoured back until it goes down. I’ve found that the energy sword can actually work well against Hunters; a single lunge will bring one down very quickly. Similarly, using the Scattershot on a Hunter is also quite effective if one can hit the exposed orange areas.

  • The episode to clear Covenant off the UNSC Infinity was easily my absolute favourite of the Spartan Ops assignments, feeling like a mix between Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2‘s first missions. Fighting through the hangars and corridors of the Infinity, backed by UNSC marines and soldiers was great, and UNSC weapons were always plentiful. For Spartan Ops, I run what’s called the “n00b combo”: the battle rifle is my primary weapon, and I equip the plasma pistol as my secondary. Most enemies can be felled by a three-round burst, while Elites and Knights die after hitting them with the plasma pistol’s overcharge and then following up with a headshot.

  • The plasma pistol is probably the most valuable of the sidearms in Halo 4: while the weapon is the weakest weapon in the game on a per-shot basis, the fact that its overcharge can completely strip away shields and even stop vehicles briefly makes it incredibly valuable. In a pinch, the battle rifle-plasma pistol is enough to get one through almost any situation in Halo. In a standout episode, the most exceptional chapter comes when Fireteam Crimson must sweep the engine room for nukes: while the Covenant are using cloaking devices to conceal them, once Roland figures things out, they’re conveniently marked on one’s HUD for deactivation.

  • The cavernous space is very conducive towards sniping, and there’s a rack of sniper rifles close to the Infinity’s central reactor. In practise, while the sniper rifles are excellent weapons, there’s hardly any chance to snipe in Spartan Ops, so having the space and positioning to do so here was a welcome experience. The UNSC sniper rifle remains my favourite of the sniper rifles: it has the greatest capacity of the long range weapons and allows for making follow-up shots. The Binary Rifle, the Promethean equivalent, hits the hardest per shot and vapourises enemies on a kill, but is balanced by a low capacity and rate of fire.

  • Ever since Halo 3 brought back the single Needler, being able to pump enemies full of needles for that super-combine explosion is once again a reality. The Needler has limited homing capability and is surprisingly effective against Elites: the needles seem to ignore shielding. To offset its power, Needlers wielded by enemy forces can also super-combine: rushing carelessly into a firefight and being hit with seven needles will be enough to instantly kill players. While quite unrelated, here, I note that today marks the one year anniversary to the day that Toukairin was banned from AnimeSuki – his political commentary ventured into the realm of extremism and drowned out more moderate perspectives. I took no joy in orchestrating his ban; it was an unfortunate but necessary action, and if given a choice, I wouldn’t do it again.

  • The consolation was that after Toukairin was banned, political discussions became more civil and less frequent, less likely to agree with radical standpoints; the AnimeSuki community has become better for this, which is a win in my books. Back in Spartan Ops, after bringing the Infinity’s guns back online, players can watch as a Covenant cruiser explodes from sustained fire: it’s great to see that the UNSC can now fight Covenant ships head-on, and this was something about Halo 4 I’ve long been fond of – when Halo began its journey, humanity had been on the back-foot. Lore told a one-sided story where humanity often needed to fall upon exotic strategies or employ an entire fleet’s resources to beat back a single Covenant cruiser, and even then, at a heavy cost to themselves. By the events of Halo 4, however, considerable advances have allowed humanity to put up a considerable fight in fleet combat.

  • I continued pushing the fight against the Covenant: having run dry on my battle rifle, I’ve swapped over to the Covenant Carbine, which, while lacking the same damage per shot as the DMR, makes up for it by being exceptionally accurate. I generally prefer the battle rifle for ranges where the Carbine is effective, though: despite being quite accurate, I’ve found that the three-round burst on the BR is generally more consistent. Of course, these are merely my preferences, and different players find success with different setups.

  • Here, I managed to board a Wraith: Wraiths are occasionally seen in Spartan Ops, and while it appears that they can only be destroyed (boarding to kill the pilot causes the entire thing to explode and be rendered unusable), it turns out that the best way to commandeer one is to immoblise it using a plasma pistol, and then kill the gunner. This causes the driver to get out, leaving the Wraith free for players. In possession of a Wraith and its plasma mortar, everything up to and including other Wraiths can be easily destroyed. During co-op, things get even better, as one player can operate the plasma turret while the other drives: when my friend and I figured this out, we likened it to stealing a Gundam, turning the Wraith’s firepower against the Covenant to great effect.

  • While I’ve devised a strategy against Watchers since starting Spartan Ops, this doesn’t make them any less bothersome to deal with. Spartan Ops spawns entire flocks of them, and while individually weak, Watchers are able to move in erratic ways that allow them to dodge gunfire. They’re surprisingly durable and take a few bursts from the battle rifle to silence, as well: coupled with the fact they can fly off to regenerate, and even a group of five Watchers becomes a serious threat. I found that getting up close and personal with automatic weapons tended to work best.

  • On my own, having a Scorpion Tank meant being able to use the 90 mm cannon to devastate enemy forces. With a friend playing alongside me, it means either being able to have a gunner in an anti-personnel role or fulfill this role myself. However, when Spartan Ops gives us two tanks to work with, it means being able to absolutely demolish whatever challenges stood in our path: sustained fire from Scorpions is enough to bring down the Phantoms, and speaking to how long I’ve been around Halo for, I remember a time when Phantoms were simply vehicles that showed up during scripted events.

  • If it were not apparent, the co-op aspect of Spartan Ops was one I enjoyed greatly. My friend and I are rocking older computers without microphones, but even without voice communications, we were perfectly in sync: his DMR and assault rifle loadout complemented my battle rifle and plasma pistol loadout, and we generally had no trouble clearing out areas that had individually taken us longer. Having said this, that Spartan Ops can be completed solo attests to the fact that Halo 4 allows players to play in the manner of their choosing.

  • This, coupled with the loadouts and armour customisation options available in Halo 4, makes the game a textbook example of what video games in general should be like. Many games today place an undue emphasis on lootboxes at the expense of gameplay, hoping to make a quick buck, but back in the Halo days, Bungie placed a particular emphasis on world-building and immersion. I’ve always held the belief that if a game developer needed microtransactions to sustain themselves, then their games were never worth playing to begin with: a good game will compel players to successfully recommend that their friends pick the game up for themselves, and this is what Halo did.

  • Having spent most of my youth playing Halo with friends at LAN party, it speaks volumes to the series’ staying power that I picked up The Master Chief Collection as soon as it became available. To be honest, The Master Chief is easily worth 160 CAD, and the fact we got all six Halo titles for a mere 50 CAD is nothing short of excellent value. Beyond having some of the most consistent and balanced gameplay mechanics, The Master Chief Collection also properly demonstrates how to handle cosmetics in a video game.

  • For instance, here, I’m rocking a golden assault rifle, and for good measure, I’ve also got the gold skins for my magnum, battle rifle, DMR, plasma pistol, the Storm Rifle, Covenant Carbine, Light Rifle, Boltshot and Suppressor. These skins are unlocked simply by playing the game and completing weekly assignments, which yield experience points and season points that are used to unlock various cosmetics, from weapon skins to armour variations. All of this stuff is earned without any trouble, and never impacts gameplay: players rocking the basic recruit armour and weapon skins are just as effective as the blinged-out players with a Mjolnir helmet that resembles the RX-0 Unicorn’s head.

  • I’ve been running a golden gun in my games simply for the cool factor, and here, fight my way to the top of Lockout in order to unlock a map for analysis. A combination of Covenant Elites and Promethean Knights were my enemy, but since there was a stockpile of Scattershots here, I capitalised on their presence to great effect, vapourising Elites and Knights alike while waiting for the map to fully activate. The lighting in Halo 4 is interesting, and there have been cases where the bloom has been overwhelming, especially with the golden gun skins.

  • Liches make a return in Spartan Ops, but unlike their fearsome reputation in lore, can easily be destroyed by boarding and destroying or removing their power supply. The final set of missions in Spartan Ops involves calling out a Lich and stealing its power supply for the derelict Harvester, which had been disabled a few episodes earlier. The verdant vegetation and azure skies of Apex made it one of my favourite of the maps in Spartan Ops‘ second half.

  • Having a Mantis against the Prometheans turned an annoying enemy into something that was completely fun to play: as soon as one boards the Mantis, hordes of Watchers and Prowlers swarm the player, but armed with the Mantis and its high RPM cannon, Watchers are swatted out of the sky without effort. It was an excellent choice on 343 Industries’ part, to give players a chance to finally take it out on the Watchers. The goal here is to destroy several power supplies, which force the doors to the next area to open, and one of the things I did notice in Spartan Ops‘ second half was that sometimes, the waypoints for these generators did not line up exactly, making them hard to find. Fortunately, they’re visually distinct, so for scenarios where following waypoints didn’t work, it was a matter of finding these floating spheres.

  • The last mission in Spartan Ops involves reactivating the Covenant Harvester to punch a hole into a cavern where a Forerunner artifact is held. Countless Prometheans are here, but now, experience allowed me to make short work of them, and in the process, I found that the Promethean Scattershot is actually a superbly enjoyable weapon to use in very specific scenarios (at extreme close range, when all of the beams connect): if one can get behind a Hunter and hit the vulnerable areas with all of the beams, the Hunter will be vapourised. After deactivating the Forerunner artifact, it’s time to beat a hasty exit, fight through a group of elites, and wrap up this last mission. With this done, I’ve totally finished Spartan Ops: I’ll also be looking to write about my experiences as a Blood Elf warlock in World of Warcraft and a solid mod for Left 4 Dead 2 that made things even more amusing than I’d thought possible.

  • Beyond this, I am looking to venture back into Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in the very near future to pick up a journey I’d put on hold since 2013. I’m also considering picking up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered. My decision to do so will be determined largely by how much progress I make through Skyrim Finally, with most of my winter anime done, the only series I have left to write about is World Witches Take Off!. I’m still finalising the list of anime I’ll be watching over the spring season. Yakunara Mug Cup Mo and Super Cub are high on my list, and Hige wo Soru. Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru Churutto! and Soshite Joshikousei wo Hirou are also of note, so I’ll be checking those out to see where they go. This list is subject to changing, but three series and one short seems pretty reasonable for my current schedule.

With full-fledged cut-scenes and visuals, plus unique voice acting, Spartan Ops ultimately proved to be a tricky thing for 343 Industries to continue implementing: Spartan Ops had been a full-fledged campaign in its own right, and 343 Industries only ever released one full season, choosing to instead focus development on Halo 5 rather than expanding these side-stories further. However, even though only one season was produced, it added nearly ten extra hours of content to Halo 4‘s single player and co-op experience, and this was furthered by the fact that I did go through the Spartan Ops missions twice: once on my own, and once with a friend. In the latter, missions that had given me some trouble became much easier to handle. Between the two of us, we could carry different weapons for handling combat at different ranges, and we could cover one another. Having an extra player meant being able to fill the gunner seat of a vehicle, allowing vehicles to provide anti-personnel functions more effectively. Altogether, while Spartan Ops has its limitations (most notably, overwhelming enemy numbers and segments that require waiting, both of which pad out game time), the overall gameplay never grew stale, and there was always a fun opportunity to fight both Covenant and Promethean enemies across a wide range of locales. While Requiem’s rocky deserts were recycled, other locations (Lockup, Apex and Warrens) proved immensely fun to fight through: some maps may have been adapted from multiplayer maps, but many were purpose-made for Spartan Ops, possessing vivid details and rich skyboxes that make them distinct, unique locations. This experience was greatly augmented by the fact that I was able to co-op with a friend, and some of the biggest highlights include using a pair of Mantises to crush Covenant forces, rolling on enemy positions with twice the firepower thanks to having two Scorpions, saving one another from certain doom during firefights, and my personal favourite, hijacking Wraiths from the Covenant to grant ourselves additional firepower on missions that called for it.