Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

REVIEW: Halo 2: Anniversary

Halo 2 Anniversary cover

I came to the Halo franchise very late. I played the original game for the first time nearly two decades after its release, and now the sequel sixteen years after it came out in 2004. The advantage of leaving it so long is that my introduction has been through the updated anniversary editions that form part of the Master Chief Collection that was released for the Xbox One.

I was absolutely not a player of shooters until I met Bioware. Prior to picking up the first Mass Effect game, the only FPS I’d played was the admittedly great-for-the-time N64 Goldeneye game. One of the things I’ve come to terms with over the last year is that my taste in games has changed greatly from when I got my first console a little under two decades ago. I used to be big on platforming (weren’t we all?) and couldn’t stand first-person shooters. I didn’t really like ranged attacks at all. Now, however, platformers feel like a chore, and not a bearable one – think scrubbing the shower grouting, rather than taking the recycling out. Shooters, though, have become much more enjoyable to me, and the Halo games have been my introduction to the straightforward kind of FPS, as opposed to the heightened atmosphere and coolness of the Bioshock games.

While I like shooters now, I still don’t fall into the true target audience of the Halo games. There’s a definite sense in the first two games that we’re meant to use the characterless Master Chief as an avatar for our own hero fantasies, and my hero fantasies have never involved being a dude with no personality who goes around shooting aliens. (As a comparison—and me being me, of course it’s a Dragon Age 2 comparison—I would give almost anything to be as cool as Garrett Hawke.) I wish there was an opportunity to either learn more about who the Master Chief is, or else to define that for yourself. Because of this, I really appreciated the introduction of the Arbiter as a playable character in Halo 2. While I struggled with some gameplay aspects connected to this (from a distance, there’s no way of knowing who’s an enemy and who’s an ally), the Arbiter is definitely a more interesting protagonist than the faceless Master Chief.

As far as the other characters go, well, the storyline is a little cumbersome at times, but both Miranda Keyes and Johnson are likeable and well-portrayed by their voice actors, Julie Benz and David Scully. (Keith David does a good job as the Arbiter as well.) In the Anniversary edition, all of the characters look great, too. The humans are quite realistic (and Miranda actually looks like a commander instead of a cam girl) and all of the aliens have benefited from their HD glow-up. The scenery looks much prettier, too, although switching between the original and remastered versions reveals that sometimes this comes at the expense of atmosphere. The improved sound is excellent, demonstrated particularly well when the soundtrack heightens during several of the mass fight scenes.

I had two key issues with Halo 2. The first is quite straightforward: it’s very repetitive. If the game were as long as many modern games are, I would have struggled to finish it without pausing to play something else in between Halo sessions. Generally, a mission involves moving through an area filled with enemies and either killing all those enemies or else getting past them without being killed yourself. Obviously, that’s the basic outline of many games, but I don’t think Halo really goes beyond that outline. The cutscenes are mostly just at the beginning and end of each mission, and there’s not a lot of real variation between one mission and the next.

The second key problem is that it’s not always clear where you need to go and what you need to do. This game would benefit so much from a map function, or at least some kind of indicator on the radar of where you’re supposed to head next. A lot of my game time was spent wandering in circles trying to find a way out of a particular area. There’s also the fact that it’s a rare thing for the game to indicate whether you’re in a kill-everything area or a these-things-will-respawn-until-eternity area. For people who are playing for the sheer enjoyment of shooting stuff, this probably isn’t a big issue, but I’m more goal-driven in games, and I’d have really appreciated knowing when I could move on without going full Armageddon on everything first.

I personally enjoy gaming as a solitary pursuit, so I can’t speak at all about the multiplayer maps or experience in Halo 2. I do, however, appreciate that a game that has such a focus on the multiplayer aspect also has a strong single player campaign mode.

All up, I am enjoying finally getting to experience such an important gaming franchise, and I think it’s been a good primer on FPS gaming for me. I think a lot of my criticisms of both this game and the original relate a lot to who I am as a gamer, rather than to the quality of the game as a whole. And, ultimately, none of them stopped me playing, nor enjoying, Halo 2—they just meant that it won’t ever be a favourite, and that’s fine. I have enough games I play once a year as it is.

The Ghost of You

Black Telephone magazine

A slightly belated announcement that the second issue of Black Telephone Magazine has launched, containing my piece “The Ghost of You”—a dark sci-fi piece about love and loss, with a fantasy aesthetic.

You can find my piece here, but please check out the rest of the great content as well!

Review: Princess Amy (Melinda Pollowitz)

Melinda Pollowitz, Princess Amy (Bantam, 1981)

Category: Young Adult Fiction > Romance

Series: Sweet Dreams, #4

Setting: 1980s Michigan, USA

Locations: Mackinac Island, Petoskey

Key Words: Love triangle, class, family, snobbery, LARP, holiday, romance, cousin

In Brief: The biggest issue with this book is that we’re supposed to believe that Amy is torn between Pete and Guy when Guy is just plain awful. We’re told repeatedly that he’s really hot, and that’s why Amy can’t stay away despite him being a prat, but she finds Pete attractive too, so it doesn’t make any sense. The dialogue’s often clunky, too.

Huh?: The Chad-like Guy and all his super snobby friends apparently play a LARP version of D&D. Not likely.

Protagonist: Amy Painter (16 years old, female, white, American, middle class, slim, able-bodied, neurotypical)

Diverse Key Characters: Pete Demarest (working class)

Content Warning: Unhealthy weight loss discussion and behaviour. (Amy’s aunt and cousin diet constantly and want Amy to do the same. Initially she says she doesn’t need to, because she’s not overweight, but by the end of the book she’s crowing about her stomach shrinking and she’s dropped a dress size in three weeks.)

Author: Melinda Pollowitz (American)

Review: Jessica Gets Spooked (Francine Pascal)

Francine Pascal, Jessica Gets Spooked (Bantam, 1993)

Category: Junior Fiction > Contemporary

Series: Sweet Valley Kids, #43

Setting: 1990s California, USA

Key Words: Twins, Bullying, School Trips, Pranks, Crushes

In Brief: Not one of the better Kids books. As happens far to often in these, bullying isn’t dealt with at all well, made even worse in this one by the inclusion of the terrible concept of boys harassing and assaulting girls because they “like” them. Telling kids that this is a thing—and an acceptable thing, what’s more—sets them up for a lifetime of toxic gendered behaviour. Uncool.

Protagonist: Jessica (7 years old, female, white, American, middle class)

Other Key Characters: Elizabeth (7 years old, female, white, American, middle class)

Content Warning: Toxic gendered behaviour

Review: Jessica’s Monster Nightmare (Francine Pascal)

Francine Pascal, Jessica’s Monster Nightmare (Bantam, 1993)

Category: Junior Fiction > Contemporary

Series: Sweet Valley Kids, #42

Setting: 1990s California, USA

Key Words: Nightmares, Twins, Fears

In Brief: An entertaining and realistic story that would be genuinely helpful to readers who had nightmare monsters of their own. I particularly appreciated the fact that the nightmares were depicted as being truly scary and not just something Jess could conquer through courage alone.

Protagonist: Jessica (7 years old, female, white, American, middle class)

Other Key Characters: Elizabeth (7 years old, female, white, American, middle class)

Author: Molly Mia Stewart (ghost writer, presumably American)

Creator: Francine Pascal (American)

Illustrator: Ying-Hwa Hu (Taiwanese American)

Review: The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

The Fault in Our Stars book cover
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, 2012).

Category: Young Adult Fiction: Contemporary

Setting: 2010s Indianapolis, USA

Key Words: Cancer, Romance, First Love

In Brief: A book that initially is more about life than imminent death, but which succumbs to many of the usual tropes by the end.

The Plot: A terminally ill girl meets a boy in her cancer support group and they fall in love.

The Protagonist: Hazel, a sixteen-year-old girl whose terminal cancer has been paused by a new drug.

The Love Interest: Augustus, seventeen years old and in remission for fourteen months at the start of the novel.

Other Female Characters: The only main one is Hazel’s mother, who is more complex than it initially seems. Hazel has kept one school friend, but their friendship is surface level compared with her friendships with Augustus and Isaac.

Diverse Characters: The three teenage characters are disabled / chronically ill.

The Worst Bit: Three words: Anne, Frank, applause.

(content warnings under the cut)

Review: The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gitat book cover

Details: The Bhagavad Gita, trans. Juan Mascaró (Penguin, 1962). Original date c. 500 B.C.

Category: Religion: Hinduism; Philosophy: Ancient India

Setting: Ancient India

Key Words: Philosophy, Religion, Poetry

In Brief: Reviewing a work that is a sacred text for a lot of people is a complicated endeavour. Here, I am discussing it entirely as a piece of literature, and as that alone it didn’t really work for me. In this particular translation, I didn’t find a lot of beauty in the language, and the content was repetitive. I am not a philosophy person, and The Bhagavad Gita didn’t change that fact.

Review: The Fog (James Herbert)

The Fog book cover
James Herbert, The Fog (New English Library, 1975)

Category: Adult Fiction: Horror: Non-Supernatural

Setting: 1970s  South England and London

Keywords: Biological Weaponry; Epidemics; Madness

In Brief: A fast-paced and entertaining read, with high stakes and high-level violence obscuring a rather bland cast of characters.

Plot: A fog causes a mass outbreak of extreme violence.

Protagonist: Male, lower-middle-aged public servant, surprisingly adept in the action hero role.

Female Characters: Very few. Only two continuing characters, neither much more than an outline of “naïve young love interest” or “doctor”. Apart from the doctor, everyone doing anything remotely useful in here is male.

Diverse Characters: A gay man and a lesbian are in here briefly; homosexuality is not depicted well. Cast is almost entirely white.

(content warnings beneath the cut)

Review: “The Popularity Plan” by Rosemary Vernon (Bantam, 1981)

The Popularity Plan book cover

Series: Sweet Dreams, #2

Genre: YA Romance

Setting: Contemporary USA

Quotable: “Don’t worry, Dad. Mom’s not going to let them make me into a wanton woman.”

The Good:

  • The protagonist, Frannie, has a realistic reaction to her newfound popularity, but ultimately she understands it for how performative it is.
  • Frannie’s parents are present and active in her well-being.
  • The writing is engaging and the book is a swift read.

The Bad:

  • Frannie’s friends are horrible bullies, and yet she’s always the one apologising to them.
  • Ronnie isn’t very well developed as a love interest

The Unbelievable:

  • Frannie arranges dates with five different boys in a week and that just earns her a reputation as a girl who doesn’t want to settle down yet. In 90s Australia, that would’ve earned her a much worse reputation than that. (Unfairly, of course, but still.)

Review: The Dark

Title: The Dark

Author: James Herbert

Read: 10th – 15th June, 2020

Published: 1980

Setting: London, England / the near future

Key Words:

  • good vs evil
  • science vs paranormal
  • philosophical
  • extreme violence
  • human nature
  • life after death

Thoughts:

  • strong building tension
  • genuine high stakes
  • interesting concept
  • forgettable characters
  • abrupt ending

(content warnings under the cut)

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