The annual blockbusters of the gaming world are upon us. Troy Rawhiti-Forbes compares calibres.
Hollywood has the summer blockbuster season, and gaming has the October-November release window. That doesn't sound nearly as sexy, but it's the time of year gamers wait for, because it's when the biggest and best titles hit the shelves.
Two of the biggest are in direct competition. They're both massively successful first-person shooters, and they've got you in their sights.
Some observers say they're more or less the same thing, while others say they couldn't be further apart. How do they compare? Here is TimeOut's double-barrelled guide to the season's big guns, Halo and Call of Duty.
Halo first arrived in 2001 as a sci-fi shooter for the original Xbox, after some time in development as a real-time strategy game for Apple's home computers. Set in the 26th century, Halo: Combat Evolved pitted the enhanced supersoldier Master Chief against the Covenant, an interplanetary alliance of aliens bent on earning favour from their gods by wiping out humanity.
Halo blends elements of sci-fi, military history, interpersonal drama - even some romance - into its canon, which has been explored in a range of games, novels, comic books and short features.
Call of Duty
Call of Duty launched as a classic war shooter for PCs in 2003, debuting on consoles with CoD 2 in 2005. The original game gave the player control of individual soldiers from the US, Britain and Soviet armies near the end of World War II. The theme of switching viewpoints, even across borders, would become a trademark of the series.
In recent times, CoD has diversified into two distinct storylines: the contemporary Modern Warfare, and the semi-historic Black Ops. Both propel the series' spirit of realistic warfare and deep consequences.
THE NEW TITLES
Halo 4 launched worldwide on Xbox 360 this week, and it is the first title in an all-new trilogy. It features the Master Chief, and involves the Forerunners, an ancient yet technologically advanced race that is worshipped by the Covenant.
This version of Halo is actually closer to CoD than ever before in terms of gameplay, with a heavier emphasis on cover-based shooting and tactics. Like its rival and other shooters, Halo 4 uses a click of the left thumbstick for sprinting, and a proximity icon tells players where enemies' grenades have landed.
The multiplayer modes are incredibly deep, with enhancements to existing deathmatch and objective games taking Halo 4 through the roof. A new story-based multiplayer mode, Spartan Ops, will run in a series of episodes that aim to keep the drama going even after the main campaign has been completed.
The game rated 5/5 at nzherald.co.nz last week.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Black Ops II will continue the storyline established by World at War and Black Ops, with the end stages of the Cold War driving much of the game. CoD gamers will be able to experience futuristic play for the first time, with some missions to be set in 2025 on the brink of a new Cold War between the US and China. An early demonstration reel shown in Los Angeles demonstrated a devastating full-scale attack happening, rather eerily, outside a rendering of the very hall I was viewing it in.
Preceding titles have been praised and criticised for their mature content and levels of graphic violence. The branching storylines of Black Ops 2 may see the boundaries pushed like never before. It is set to launch on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on November 13, with a Wii U version to follow on November 30.
The one criticism sticking to both franchises is the charge of unoriginality. Halo 4 is the sixth first-person shooter in the series, and the gameplay fundamentals have remained almost virtually the same since 2001: Shoot the Covenant, recharge your shields, go to multiplayer and try to get the sniper rifle or shotgun first.
Aside from all that, critics say it's a sci-fi game and that kind of carry-on is for kids. As one user on the IGN online message boards put it: "I used to be a pro at Halo, until puberty hit me like a train."
Proving the axe swings both ways, CoD has received its share of stick for keeping it real. In a Black Ops II preview, Ben Wilson of Britain's Official PlayStation Magazine told the CVG website the series had "done authenticity until we're all bored of it" and that the time was right for "insanity".
The introduction of gameplay elements made famous by CoD and its ilk has done a major favour for Halo 4, and it's probable that adding some futuristic fantasy to the grit and politics of CoD may be the key to the series' growth as it prepares to enter its second decade on the market.
Summer is approaching, and it'd be nice if we could play every game that took our fancy, while still having time to taste icecream on the beach and smash a cricket ball around at the park. If you want a rush of blood to the head, pick up a Call of Duty title. Your warriors aren't superpowered cyborgs with 26th century armour, and the tension of the multiplayer deathmatches rises as a result, turning your vulnerability into motivation to play well and stay alive.
Halo has done its best to emulate this over the years with armour-free SWAT modes, but it's the superhuman stuff that players gravitate to.
You can take a few bullets to the face before your shields flicker off, and use abilities like jetpacks and holographic doppelgangers to seriously alter the course of combat in ways that a reality-based shooter cannot do.
Great games depend on solid solo play, and they grow because of great online competition. Halo and CoD don't miss either and whichever you choose, you are unlikely to lose. Happy hunting.