Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the 2011 Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Washington and the HaloFest event running alongside it.
After securing a three-day badge and a plane ticket, I managed to find the cheapest hotel reasonably close to the convention center. This decrepit shack had an elevator that looked like it was installed during the Truman administration – a terrifying box that reluctantly carried me up to my tiny room. Mere blocks away, the convention center was packed with the latest in electronic entertainment, but aloft in that hotel tower there was no air-conditioning to be found and only eight grainy channels on the anachronistically placed television.
The toilet in the bathroom was conveniently located no more than four inches from the wall, leading to an awkward contortion of arms whenever an occupant finished reading tweets on his phone and started to complete the lavatorial business at hand.
While my survival skills were tested in those sweltering summer nights, nothing compared to the difficulty I faced earlier that week before leaving the East Coast: explaining to my coworkers and family that I was flying across the country “to play video games.” First-world problems here, people. Despite the minor hurdles that come with traveling to the other side of the continent, the five-day weekend I spent in Seattle turned out to be one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.
(If you want to skip the gameplay stuff and get right to the amusing anecdotes, I won’t be disappointed if you jump down to the “PAX Memories” section. Okay, maybe I’ll be just a little disappointed.)
Halo: Anniversary Gameplay Impressions
Somewhere between the photo-ops, line-waiting, and greasy food, I managed to actually sit down and try out the new multiplayer maps that come with Halo: Anniversary. And yes, I actually mean sit down. The HaloFest demo stations were wisely adorned with ample seating, allwoing me to rest my convention-weary legs.
Exploring new Halo environments has always been a cherished activity for me; I absolutely love wandering around inspecting the new art and geometry. After trying all of the maps HaloFest had to offer, I can confidently say that Halo: Anniversary’s multiplayer offering is positively gorgeous.
Ridgeline, the remake of the Halo PC map Timberland, showed great promise as a Big Team Battle map. It felt like a combination of the Halo 3 maps Valhalla and Standoff, offering long sightlines, steep hills, and plenty of room for vehicle play.
The changes made to Beaver Creek for the Battle Canyon variant worked surprisingly well and expanded the map by a comfortable amount. Moving the teleporters away from the bases made the middle of the map a more viable option for flag runners, but the new air lifts at the rear of the buildings helped offset the extra travel distance of the back route. The caves added to the ends of the creek provided the perfect spot to duck into for cover, making me feel less exposed as I moved near the titular waterway.
I can’t honestly post gameplay impressions of Solitary, the Reach variant of Prisoner, as I spent most of my time on the map staring out the various windows. The surrounding environment and skybox are stunningly beautiful, giving the arena a unique aesthetic that cleverly ties into the original map’s name. I will say that the new ramps and walkways helped to open up the top level of the map, making it a little more difficult to hold onto the height advantage the area provides. The verticality of the playspace tends to elevate the jetpack as the armor ability of choice, a fate similarly held by Penance, the Damnation remake. This will of course have no effect on the AA-less gameplay of the Anniversary Classic gametype.
Speaking of the gametypes on hand, I got a chance to play both Anniversary Slayer and Zero Bloom Slayer. The two modes felt like they had a much faster pace than Vanilla Reach and will be a delight to competitive players. The 3-shot kill of the CE pistol was a glory to behold, though I imagine I will be destroyed by others with it online. The bloomless DMR felt strange to use at first, but I quickly abandoned my old pacing habits and was soon cross-mapping players with rapid trigger pulls. While Zero Bloom Slayer was certainly fun, I see it as a more rare gametype to be played only for a change of pace (pun most definitely intended).
PAX East 2011 was my first gaming convention ever. I had no idea what panels to attend or how to plan my schedule, but I had a blast anyways. I was even fortunate enough to be invited to a small Halo Community dinner, where I made a ton of new friends from all corners of the Halo landscape. I had such a great time that I bought a ticket for PAX Prime as soon as they went on sale (before HaloFest was even announced).
This time, I was determined to carry out the preparation PAX deserved. I gathered a staggering list of community friends to meet, made plans for various breakfasts, and packed an extra cell phone charger. I wanted to be recognizable by my online avatar, so I decided to make a custom t-shirt and set of buttons.
Shortly after landing in Seattle I spotted someone wearing a Seven Seraphs shirt in the airport. It appeared to be a Bungie employee waiting for someone special to walk out of the terminal, so I left him be and merely grinned at seeing something that cool so early in my trip. Later on I managed to run into a guy wearing a Dead Orbit shirt at the Halo VIP party. He graciously let me take a picture, which I will include in my next Destiny update (coming soon, I promise).
Tim Dadabo (the voice of 343 Guilty Spark) recognized me on the street! It was the day after the hilarious Halo Universe panel and we ran across him at a coffee shop in downtown Seattle. He was incredibly friendly and excited for the Bungie panel that afternoon. All of the voice actors at HaloFest were a delight – such a wonderful group of people.
While chilling with HBO/HaloGAF friends in the theater lobby before the Halo 4 panel, the lovely Alison Stroll (Producer at 343 Industries) walked up to me with a camcorder and said, “If you had to tell the Halo 4 team one thing, what would it be?”
I froze. A million things were running through my head and I couldn’t find the words to explain any of them. I managed to squeak out “I… love you guys?” to which Alison laughed and replied, “Really? They haven’t released anything yet!”
I then started collecting myself and managed to spit out “Well, I will say to the multiplayer team: design maps with one gametype in mind, like Zanzibar focusing on 1-flag.” Alison could tell I was having trouble picking just one thing to say, so she smiled and I let her move on to someone else.
So if Halo 4 comes out to terrible reviews you can all blame me. (If it rocks and the maps are at Halo 2 levels of amazing, I’m taking all the credit.)
HBO and HaloGAF (as well as a few other Halo communities like GrifballHub) got priority seating for the Halo 4 panel. We all went up to the bottom edge of the balcony (best seats in the house, in my opinion) and hung out there before the panel started.
I noticed my seat was #115 and looked at the seat two spots over. The numbers reset after #116, so it was a disappointing seat #1.
At this point the respected HBO community veteran Miguel Chavez started searching for seat #117 on the row behind us, his head at knee level. The number plate he was looking for was blocked by a pair of legs – Leviathan’s girlfriend was sitting there. (The Leviathan that makes the excellent Fistful of Arrows comic.)
It was an unintentionally hilarious picture: Miguel making a spreading gesture in the air with his hands, silently asking Levi’s girlfriend to move her legs so he can see the number plate on the seat edge. It was truly an innocent situation, but I’m sure to a third party it looked… inappropriate. Especially with Miguel’s head at that elevation.
Thankfully, the girl quickly figured out what we were looking for and we all congratulated her on sitting in seat #117. (She likes Halo, but I don’t think she was as awed by the magical seat number as we were.)
Before the Halo Anniversary Campaign panel I had a great conversation about the game’s new Terminal videos with my HBO friend Kermit and Dan Ayoub, Executive Producer at 343 Industries. Dan was a great guy to talk to and I really enjoyed joking with him and Kermit. We teased Dan about people misinterpreting his comment at an earlier panel on Halo 3’s text-only Terminals. After our chat ended and the panel began, Dan made a point to mention the Terminals and clarify his comment. I’m sure he saw Kermit and I on the front row giving him a silent nod of approval.
I had another great conversation with a 343 star before the CEA Multiplayer panel: former Bungie employee/celebrity Chad “Shishka” Armstrong! It was very cool to hear his perspective on the Title Update, the changes that didn’t make the cut, and the experience of being the playlist manager for Halo 3. He and Jeremiah take a lot of flak from the forums and it was nice to talk with Chad in person and tell him that his work did not go unappreciated.
At one point I was interviewed by 343 Industries! Alison Stroll pulled me aside again and had me answer a few questions in front of some bright lights and a huge camera. You can see part of my response in this video. While I’m in a ton of the crowd shots I’m most easily spotted at 2:20.
Maybe it was the alcohol or the intoxicating atmosphere, but the cake at the HaloFest VIP party was DELICIOUS. It was an odd, but alluring feeling walking around the HaloFest floor knowing that all of the excited, happy people around me were fellow Halo fans.
That brings me to the most important advice I can give to anyone attending PAX in the future: don’t go just to “play videogames”, because you’ll only frustrate yourself at the long lines and the short demo times. Most of the games at PAX will release soon enough or have betas online anyways.
Instead, go to PAX to meet people. Whether you have a huge list of online friends to meet or you’re going in solo, you’re sure to meet a handful of like-minded people that will make the trip worth whatever expense it took to get you there. My own PAX experiences have taught me that all video games eventually become old and dated, but the friendships you forge and the memories you make will never fade. Especially if you have to wake up ridiculously early in the morning for a breakfast meetup. (Worth it.)
I haven’t made concrete plans yet, but I’m sure I will try to make it to PAX East 2012. HaloFest kept me pretty busy in Seattle, but hopefully I’ll be able to take more pictures and video next time; I’d like to provide better coverage of whatever presence Bungie Studios or 343 Industries has at PAX East. I love meeting old friends and making new ones at every convention I attend, I can’t wait to see what happens next!
See you then,