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Microsoft Weekly: ZeniMax Media joins XGS, Ignite 2020, and the October 2020 Update
by Florin Bodnarescu
This week, perhaps more so than others, has been a big one in terms of Microsoft news. A massive acquisition on the gaming side, a whole bunch of Ignite 2020 announcements, and even an alleged source code leak for Windows XP, all happened in the last seven days. You can find info about that, as well as much more below, in your Microsoft digest for the week of September 19 - 25.
ZeniMax Media joins XGS
In a move that came pretty much out of nowhere, Microsoft announced on Monday the second largest acquisition in gaming, behind only Tencent’s $8.6B Supercell (Clash of Clans) buyout.
Penned by Xbox head Phil Spencer, the post published at the top of the week outlined the fact that Microsoft has entered into an agreement to buy ZeniMax Media, parent company of ZeniMax Online Studios, publisher Bethesda Softworks, Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, Arkane, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Roundhouse Studios, and Alpha Dog for a cool $7.5 billion dollars.
As a result of this, the Xbox Game Studios first-party organization has grown pretty much overnight from 15 to 23 studios, and Microsoft now has the rights to IPs like Dishonored, Wolfenstein, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Doom, Starfield, The Evil Within, Prey, Rune, and many more.
Following up on the news, all of the ZeniMax games will be coming to Game Pass day one, which is sure to boost the subscription’s newly announced 15 million subscriber milestone. To put this into perspective, the service was launched in 2017 and grew to 10 million by April of this year. In a little under five months, another five million subscribers have joined. In case you were doubtful that the Game Pass launch would be the case, Doom Eternal is set to be made available on the subscription starting October 1.
More gaming news was also present this week, with the Xbox beta mobile app launching on Android, the new Microsoft Store for Xbox being made available for everyone, a new Xbox Wireless Controller edition being shown, and Deals with Gold bringing in Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, and more.
Circling back to app launches, the Xbox app is also available in beta on iOS, with the Xbox Family Settings app hitting GA on both iOS and Android.
For folks eager to get their hands on next-gen consoles, this was a big week too, as both the Xbox Series S and Series X went up for pre-order and soon were sold out. Microsoft did promise to have more units at launch on November 10. If you pre-ordered from Amazon, you might’ve gotten an email about your pre-orders being delayed due to demand. Lastly, if you’re curious just how much the 1TB SSD expansion card for the next-gen Microsoft consoles is going to cost, it has showed up for pre-order online priced at $220.
While you wait for next-gen, here are the best Xbox One games launched this week. Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention Halo 3: ODST PC – check out our review for more details about the port -, the fact that the next Halo: MCC flight will test cross-play and input-based matchmaking, or that Flight Simulator has gotten an SDK update and new Marketplace products, along with the announcement of a Japan map update as its first content drop.
To wrap up this section, be sure to check out our five reasons to buy the Xbox Series consoles, our top five reasons to buy the PlayStation 5, then go ahead and give your two cents in regards to what the future of gaming looks like.
This week was also host to the first of Microsoft’s two planned Ignite events – the second being held in March next year -, where the company unveiled a number of cloud and platform updates.
First and foremost, the software giant plans to become water positive (meaning that it will replenish more water than it uses by way of stressed basins) by the year 2030. Also in the field of general betterment, Microsoft announced that its Cloud for Healthcare will hit GA next month, and that the InnerEye Deep Learning Toolkit is now available. The latter’s release is to aid in the improvement of patient care.
While the company’s Azure business unit has indeed taken off in recent years, no part of it has done it quite like this before, as at Ignite it was announced that the cloud platform now includes Azure Orbital. This is a new managed service which provides access to physical satellite communication capabilities in order to process and analyze the data via Azure. This announcement also coincides with the reveal of the new Azure Communication Services, a new managed communication platform making its way to Microsoft’s cloud.
Continuing this same theme, low-code updates in Power Platform for both GitHub and Azure have now hit the preview stage, while Power BI for Teams and a Premium Per User tier have been announced too. If you’re curious about what exactly the Power Platform is, or what it offers, be sure to check out this interview with Microsoft’s Arun Ulag, by way of our very own Hamza Jawad.
In other service announcements, Dynamics 365 Customer Service now has a voice channel, while Dynamics 365 Project Operations has hit the general availability phase. In addition, the OS sandbox offering from the Redmond giant (Windows Virtual Desktop) has gotten a bunch of new capabilities, Microsoft 365 Defender and Azure Defender are now unified under Microsoft Defender, and HoloLens 2 availability has been expanded in light of demand due to COVID-19.
For the collaboration part of the announcements, Cortana has gained some new features, like the daily briefing email feature now being GA for Microsoft 365 Enterprise users, and Teams is set to increase the maximum number of team members you can have to 25,000 later this year. Changes are coming to Outlook and Microsoft 365 too, like a new UI in Bookings and Search getting integrated into Teams, with the Bot Framework Composer also being made available as an open-source tool.
Worthy of note is also the fact that LinkedIn’s site and mobile app are getting a massive redesign, Microsoft 365 is getting a next-gen Compliance Manager, Microsoft Forms is now available in the Office mobile app – with a Teams integration also being made accessible -, and that Microsoft is set to release a new perpetual license version of Office next year.
Rounding off this set of announcements is the arrival of the much-awaited dark theme for OneDrive on the web later this month (among other features), the arrival of App Assure to Windows on ARM, shared MSIX containers, and other Windows platform features coming soon, the GA of version 1.3 for Windows Terminal, and the fact that Microsoft has obtained an exclusive license to OpenAI’s GPT-3 language model.
The October 2020 Update
We finally get to some Windows update news too, as Microsoft has released build 20221 to the Dev channel, featuring a new Meet Now video conferencing feature. You can check out our overview here.
Beyond the new feature, there’s also a bunch of fixes and improvements to components like Windows Update itself, with the known issues list still being rather long. We’re talking about an Insider build here, after all.
And speaking of Insiders, those in the Beta and Release Preview channels were greeted with build 19042.541 of the 20H2 branch. Due to this being part of the very soon to be released October 2020 Update, it contains just fixes, as is to be expected. For an overview of what’s coming in 20H2, also known as the Windows 10 October 2020 Update, make sure to check out our guide here.
Swift has made its way to Windows 10, with toolchain images now being available. Google has brought Flutter to Windows in Alpha, UWP support to be added soon. The Surface Laptop 3 has gotten some firmware updates to address screen and keyboard issues. Microsoft’s Surface Pro X has recently benefitted from firmware updates too. Pre-orders for the long-awaited 85-inch Surface Hub 2S are now open, with the device shipping in January. Microsoft is allegedly working on a mid-range 12.5-inch Surface laptop, priced at $699. The Microsoft Launcher now has updated app icons, and improved performance, thanks to the newest update. Logging off
We end with some bad news for Microsoft, and some good news for the Linux community.
Starting with the bad, Microsoft’s leaks seem to have reached critical mass, with the source code for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 allegedly leaking online.
In addition to packages containing just XP and Server 2003, there are also ones containing a few of the previous leaks, plus MS-DOS 3.30, MS-DOS 6, Windows CE 3, 4, 5, and others. Though this may be an interesting set of files to dive into for our more inquisitive readers, it’s best you stay away from these, especially given the dubious source.
In better news, and altogether something you’re definitely going to benefit from being curious about, Microsoft has shared some more details about Edge’s upcoming Sleeping Tabs feature, and released Edge Dev 87.0.644.4 featuring dark theme support in sidebar search.
And last but not least, in a development that’s sure to please fans of the browser on Linux, Edge will be entering preview in October, with folks who are fans of that OS finally being able to get their hands on it.
Missed any of the previous columns? Be sure to have a look right here.
By Rich Woods
Dell XPS 17 (9700) review: The 17-inch laptop is back, and it's spectacular
by Rich Woods
Dell's XPS lineup has been among the best for years, and the company has gradually refined whatever pain points it did have, such as when it used to put the webcam below the screen. But this year, the lineup underwent a major redesign, with Dell chopping down the bezels even more, something that I wouldn't have guessed was possible.
The firm has long touted how small the footprint is on its laptops, always saying that the XPS 15 fits in the footprint of a 13-inch laptop, and that the XPS 13 fits into the footprint of an 11-inch laptop. With the XPS 15 fitting into an even smaller footprint this year, there was room for something bigger.
Dell announced the new XPS 17 in May, and it's the first new XPS 17 in around a decade. If you read my review of the latest XPS 15, then there are pretty much two things to know. The screen is bigger, and it's more powerful with Nvidia RTX graphics. In fact, it's the first XPS laptop ever with RTX graphics.
CPU Intel Core i7-10875H (16MB Cache, up to 5.1 GHz, 8 cores) GPU Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 6GB GDDR6 with Max-Q Display 17-inch 4K UHD+ (3840x2400) InfinityEdge touch display; HDR 400, 500-nit, 100% Adobe RGB minimum + 94% DCI-P3 typical, 1600:1 contrast ratio, anti-reflective, anti-smudge
All panels - Dolby Vision, 178° wide viewing angle +/- 89° / 89° / 89° / 89°, Eyesafe technology Body 374.45x248.05x19.5mm (14.74x9.76x0.77in), 2.51kg (5.53lbs) RAM 32GB DDR4 Dual Channel SDRAM at 2933MHz Storage 1TB PCIe 3 x4 SSD Audio Studio quality tuning with Waves MaxxAudio Pro and Waves Nx 3D audio
Quad-speaker design with 2.5W x2 woofers and 1.5W x2 tweeters = 8W total peak output
3.5mm headphone/microphone combo jack featuring Waves Nx 3D audio with headtracking
Dual microphone array optimized with Waves MaxxVoice supporting VoIP - Microsoft Cortana capable Battery 97Whr - 130W USB Type-C charger Ports (4) Thunderbolt 3 with power delivery & DisplayPort
(1) Full-size SD card reader v6.0
(1) 3.5mm headphone/microphone combo jack
Wedge-shaped lock slot Input Touch Display (optional)
2 Digital Array Microphones
Full size, backlit chiclet keyboard; 1.3mm travel
Glass surface Precision Touchpad
Windows Hello fingerprint reader in power button & HD (720p) Windows Hello camera in the upper bezel
Ambient Light Sensor for display backlight control Connectivity Killer Wi-Fi 6 AX1650 (2x2) built on Intel chipset + Bluetooth 5.1 Material CNC machined aluminum in platinum silver with carbon fiber composite palm rest in black
Edge-to-edge Corning Gorilla Glass 6 on the touch panel OS Windows 10 Home Price $2,999.99
Obviously, these specs are for the unit that Dell sent me. The base model starts at $1,399.99, although that one has integrated graphics, a Core i5-10300H, an FHD screen, and 8GB RAM.
While the XPS 17 was introduced alongside the XPS 15 redesign in May, this design was actually first shown in January at CES with the XPS 13. This design consists of a 16:10 display, narrow bezels on all four sides, and no USB Type-C ports. Indeed, if you put the XPS 13, 15, and 17 next to each other, they look nearly identical except for being different sizes.
The Dell XPS 17 is indeed the 17-inch laptop that can fit into the footprint of a 15-inch laptop. The most important thing that that means to me is that it can fit into a regular-sized bag. That's not always the case with 17-inch laptops; in fact, it's pretty rare. It's a bit heavy at five and a half pounds, but that's the kind of laptop that this is. It's got a lot of power under the hood, and it also fits into a small footprint. That combination makes the XPS 17 unique.
The top-down view is the one thing that looks the same. The chassis is made out of aluminum, and the laptop comes in a silver color with a chrome-colored Dell logo stamped in the lid.
The sides are silver-colored as well. This was a big change with the redesign since the sides have more traditionally been black. I think this gives it a much cleaner look. But as I mentioned, there are no USB Type-C ports, even on the 17-incher.
Instead, there are four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two of which are on each side. The bad news is that they're not full Thunderbolt 3 ports, so if you're like me and you work from a Thunderbolt 3 dock that has two 4K monitors attached to it, you won't be able to use the full resolution. My workaround was to disconnect one of the monitors from the dock and connect it directly to the laptop. Still, it's disappointing, considering how premium and powerful this PC is.
The cool thing about having two Thunderbolt 3 ports on each side is that you can charge the PC from either side. I know that this sounds like a small thing, but it's really nice, and it's a rarity in laptops.
Also on the right side, you'll find an SD card reader and a 3.5mm audio jack. I'm kind of surprised that the SD card reader is there with everything else being cut, but I guess it's nice that it's there.
Display and audio
The screen on the Dell XPS 17 is a flat 17 inches, compared to 17.3 inches on a traditional 17-inch laptop. The reason for that is because this has a 16:10 display, and to be clear, being that it's measured diagonally, this display is larger than a 17.3-inch 16:9 screen. It comes in your choice of 3840x2400 or 1920x1200 resolutions. Dell sent me the former, and it is absolutely beautiful.
It comes in at 500-nit brightness, so it works great in bright sunlight, and indoors, I only found myself using it at about 25% brightness. It also has 100% Adobe RGB, 94% DCI-P3, and a 1600:1 contrast ratio.
The colors are also nearly perfect, and that actually goes for whatever angle you're viewing the display from. Dell promises a 178-degree viewing angle, and it delivers. You can look at this thing from any angle and not see any visible distortions.
Plus, it's big. I'm not always a fan when companies make taller screens like this because it means that it's also narrower. But at 17 inches, there's plenty of screen real estate for everything.
The company also has something called Dell Cinema, which includes CinemaColor, CinemaSound, and CinemaStream. CinemaColor includes HDR technologies and more, and there's actually an included app that lets you apply different display settings such as movie, evening, sports, and animation.
The bezels are small, but that doesn't mean Dell removed the webcam, or moved it. It's shrunken down to fit into that tiny top bezel, and there's an IR camera for facial recognition as well. You're not making any sacrifices in that department like you would have been in the old days.
CinemaSound has to do with the Waves MaxxAudio Pro speakers. There's an app for that too, but this one is called MaxxAudio Pro instead of CinemaSound. The XPS 17 has large speakers on either side of the keyboard, and they sound fantastic. The dead giveaway is that it has both woofers and tweeters, a rarity on laptops.
Indeed, this has four speakers, two of which are 2.5W and two of which are 1.5W. Obviously, they're used for different frequencies. If you're looking for sound quality and volume in a laptop, you definitely came to the right place.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard found in the XPS 17 is the same as can be found in its other clamshell laptops. Dell does have a technology called MagLev that it uses in the XPS 13 2-in-1 and XPS 15 2-in-1, but perhaps surprisingly, the technology didn't make it into the smaller, redesigned clamshells.
Dell didn't add a numpad, which is a decision that I'm happy with. I'm not a fan of the numpad, and it's not even easy to ignore because it moves the regular keyboard to the left, leaving it off-centered. I'll take the quad-speaker setup instead.
Key depth is 1.3mm, which is pretty standard for a consumer laptop these days. It's quite comfortable to type on, and it's definitely one of the better keyboards in a consumer laptop. If we were talking about commercial laptops, that might be another story, but we're not talking about commercial laptops. I find that I make very few mistakes with this keyboard, something that I do appreciate after using some keyboards that I've had some issues with.
There's a power button in the keyboard, which doubles as a fingerprint sensor. Unfortunately, you do have to scan your fingerprint after the PC boots up, as opposed to how everyone else with a fingerprint sensor in the power button does it, scanning your finger before it boots up.
Dell considers this to be a security issue, assuming that you might walk away from your PC between when you press the button and when it boots up and someone might sit in front of it. I have a bit more faith in the user than Dell does, and I think you'd get to know your PC and whether or not you're safe to grab a cup of coffee while it's booting up.
My favorite feature of the XPS 15 is on the XPS 17, which is that the Precision trackpad is massive. Huge trackpads are something that Apple introduced on its MacBook Pro PCs a while back, and I've been waiting for a Windows OEM to follow suit. If the real estate on the keyboard deck is there, I say use it. The large, clickable trackpad feels great, and it makes drag-and-drop operations a breeze.
Performance and battery life
Both performance and battery life are excellent on the XPS 17. This thing is great for anything. I used it for things from gaming with Forza Horizon 4 and Halo: Reach to 4K video editing to general work. Sure, there was the occasional bump in the road, particularly when it came to gaming, but it absolutely handled anything that I threw at it.
After all, this thing has top-end hardware for its class. It has an Intel Core i7-10875H processor, which has eight cores, 16 threads, and a 45W TDP. It's the better Core i7 from the H-series, the other one being the hexa-core Core i7-10750H. It's only bested by the Core i9-10885H, which is available in the XPS 17.
For graphics, it comes with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q with 6GB GDDR6. With RTX graphics, it supports things like real-time ray tracing and deep learning super sampling (DLSS). RTX graphics was how I knew it would support some solid gaming. You can get it with integrated graphics if you don't want the power at all, or you can get it with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti.
Keep in mind that this is a creator laptop, not a gaming laptop. It uses a 130W charger, while most gaming laptops are closer to the 230W range, and it doesn't have the thermals for it. This is primarily a work machine, but I'm here to let you know that it does have the power to play as well.
Even more impressive is battery life. I often say that you have to choose between power and battery life, and with the UHD+ display, you can bet that this uses a lot of power. I used it with the power slider one notch above the battery saver, and with the screen at around 25% brightness. I can tell you that you can easily get six hours out of this, and in many cases, you can take it further than that. With general work, I was able to get up to eight hours.
Of course, the touchscreen model comes with a 97Whr battery. In other words, this has one of the biggest batteries that you'll find in any laptop (much larger and you can't take it on a plane). The non-touch model comes with a 56Whr battery.
For benchmarks, I used PCMark 8, PCMark 10, 3DMark, VRMark, Geekbench, and Cinebench.
PCMark 8: Home PCMark 8: Creative
PCMark 8: Work PCMark 10
3DMark: Time Spy VRMark: Orange Room
Geekbench 5 Cinebench
If you're not the type to go through benchmark scores, all you need to know is that this is a powerful machine.
My biggest complaint about the Dell XPS 17 is that it doesn't have full Thunderbolt 3 ports, which would have been able to handle two 4K displays on a single port. If that bothers you too, just wait for the next one. Intel's next generation of CPUs is going to support Thunderbolt 4, which is really just the full Thunderbolt 3 that I'm describing. My other gripe is that there's no cellular model. I realize that it's something of a rare feature on more powerful laptops, probably because it uses battery, but I don't care. It's 2020 and I should be able to work from anywhere.
Let's be clear that this is an absolutely incredible laptop that's nearly perfect. It's an absolute pleasure to use, no matter what you're using it for. If you're playing games, it can do that. If you're streaming movies, it's got a killer HDR display and stunning speakers. If you want to edit video, it's got the power for that as well.
All of it comes in a beautiful chassis and yes, a small footprint. The fact that this thing has a 17-inch display and can fit in a regular bag is a feat of engineering. Honestly, the Dell XPS 17 is in a class all its own, and I can't think of anything like it. If you're looking for a laptop that can do everything, this is it.
If you want to check it out on Dell.com, you can find it here.
By Usama Jawad96
Top 5 reasons you should buy an Xbox Series X, S console
by Usama Jawad
Microsoft's next-generation consoles, the Xbox Series X and the Series S, are just around the corner. While the consoles officially launch on November 10 across the globe, they were made available for pre-order a few days ago and sold out quite quickly at most storefronts. For those who could not get their hands on the consoles, Microsoft says that it will have more units available for purchase on launch day.
However, if you're still on the fence about whether you should lighten your wallet on either or both of Microsoft's next-generation consoles, we have listed down top 5 reasons why you should consider the company's offering, which will hopefully make it easier for you to reach a decision. Note that this list is not in order of importance.
Xbox Game Pass
With the next-generation of console gaming, Microsoft is relying quite heavily on pulling gamers into its ecosystem using Xbox Game Pass. For those unaware, the service gives you instant access to over 100 games at $9.99/month. First-party titles such as the upcoming AAA Halo: Infinite become available on launch day, with high-quality titles from third-party publishers available in the catalog as well. Microsoft recently partnered with Electronic Arts to bring EA Play to Game Pass, offering access to all games on the EA service at no additional cost too.
The company also provides a $14.99/month price tier for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate which offers all of the above on both consoles and PC, cloud gaming on smartphones (currently in beta), and Xbox Live Gold - which gives a handful of games to subscribers for free every month.
Microsoft recently announced that Game Pass now has over 15 million subscribers, with the service growing at a rapid rate. Simply put, the value of Xbox Game Pass is too good to be ignored.
Affordable Console for those on a Budget
Microsoft turned quite a few heads when news about the Xbox Series S leaked. While its more powerful sibling priced at $499 is targeted at 4K gaming with up to 120fps, the $299 Series S is aimed at delivering the same experience at 1440p resolution. While there is obviously a difference in specifications based on the power they are supposed to deliver, both consoles offer powerful internals and the same capabilities such as Quick Resume, ray-tracing, and more.
All in all, it's great to have an low-priced entry point into the next-generation for those on a budget or people who currently don't own 4K-capable hardware, and don't plan to in the near-future either. Similarly, it's also an attractive price point for people who don't purchase physical games, as the Series S is all-digital.
Only time will tell if the difference between the output of the two consoles is solely resolution, but it's definitely an enticing option to have.
Xbox All Access
Xbox All Access is Microsoft's leasing program that allows you to purchase the company's consoles with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate at a low single monthly fee. For $24.99/month, you can purchase an Xbox Series S coupled with the subscription. For $34.99/month, you get similar treatment but with the more powerful Xbox Series X.
Once again, this is incredible value, especially for those who cannot afford to shell out several hundred bucks at once. This year, the leasing program will be available in 12 countries around the world, and here's to hoping that Microsoft offers it in more countries in the years to come.
Backward Compatibility on its next-generation consoles is yet again another feature that Microsoft is touting heavily. Both the Xbox Series X and Series S are compatible with over 1000 Xbox games spanning across four generations.
But it's not just the fact that these consoles will be able to run older games, it's also that some older games will run and look better on them. The Series X will offer HDR reconstruction for backward compatible games - automatically adding HDR to them -, with some titles getting boosted framerates up to 60 and 120fps as well. Meanwhile, the less powerful Series S will run backward compatible games in Xbox One S mode with improvements such as HDR reconstruction added on top.
With Sony not offering backward compatibility to PlayStation 1, 2, and 3 games on PlayStation 5, Microsoft is banking on the possibility that the nostalgia factor will pull in some gamers into its ecosystem in this generation.
Microsoft's Acquisition of ZeniMax Media
Last but definitely not the least is news that Microsoft is acquiring ZeniMax Media for $7.5 billion, with the deal expected to be completed in 2021. With this acquisition, the company brings a number of high-profile studios under its umbrella such as Bethesda, Arkane, id Software, and more.
As can be seen in the graphic above, this ropes in numerous AAA franchises featuring highly-anticipated titles such as Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI into Microsoft's first-party offerings in the upcoming generation, also bringing these games to Game Pass on launch day. While the company has stated that it will be examining and determining multi-platform availability - that is, launch on PlayStation 5 - on a "case by case" basis, it's almost a given that these offerings will be exclusive to Microsoft platforms on consoles, which means that fans of these franchises need to consider Xbox Series X and S if they want to play these titles on consoles.
What are your top reasons to purchase or consider purchasing Xbox Series X and S consoles? Let us know in the comments section below!
Microsoft Launcher gets updated app icons and improved performance in the latest update
by Anmol Mehrotra
Microsoft has released a new update for Microsoft Launcher for Android users. The new update brings improvements to app folder layout and gesture support as well as updates the app icons and the font. Here is the full changelog for the update:
Microsoft has been actively developing Microsoft Launcher for Android devices and has pre-installed it on Microsoft's new Surface Duo as well. The company recently released the version 6 update for Android devices which brought Personalized news, Customizable icons, Landscape mode and more. Microsoft has also added dark mode support to Microsoft Launcher beta last year and it was rolled out to Android users earlier this year along with the version 6 update.
If you haven't tried Microsoft Launcher yet then you can download it from the Google Play Store. The latest Launcher update bumps the app to version 6.2.200706.89878 and is available for download on the Play Store.
Halo 3: ODST PC Review: A remarkable campaign that oozes atmosphere
by Pulasthi Ariyasinghe
When Halo: The Master Chief Collection was first announced for PC, I do not believe I saw many fans in discussion threads excitedly talking about or specifically wanting to get their hands on Halo 3: ODST. Obviously, much of the hype was surrounding Halo 3, with the rest of the hype-pie being shared by the fan clubs of Reach and the Anniversary-enhanced original duo. You would think Halo 3: ODST was unpopular at launch or something, but as par for the course for the Bungie entries, it sold exceedingly well on the Xbox 360 in 2009. I feel like this strangely unknown nature of the product was also felt during its testing phases on PC. 343 Industries said the flighting sessions for Halo 3: ODST suffered from "lower than average participation" compared to previous releases.
My Halo journey had only included Combat Evolved and Halo 2 before the Master Chief Collection party finally rode to PC town last year, and the general lack of excitement surrounding ODST made me go into this adventure not expecting much, and boy am I glad I did that. The main course of Halo 3: ODST is its campaign, as a dedicated multiplayer portion was never attached to the project, and that would have been the only item on the menu if it weren't for 343 Industries bringing the missing cooperative Firefight horde mode back from the Xbox 360 version's depths.
My thoughts in full regarding this enhanced re-release of Halo 3: ODST and the current state of the Halo: The Master Chief Collection follows from here.
Gone are the colorful vistas of Halo 3, with imposing skyscrapers of a dead city and gloomy skies littering the landscape, all held together with an astounding soundtrack that radiates atmosphere. Even though this game has Halo 3 attached to its name, the campaign takes place during the events of Halo 2. Specifically, in the city of New Mombasa right after a Covenant ship hightails it out of the system through a Slipspace portal, taking out much of the nearby concrete scenery in the process. The post-evacuation alien-infested landscape is our home for the entirety of the story. This is a departure from all the previous games in the Collection so far, where the escapades took us to exotic locations, and frankly, this is a contained storyline focused on a group of very regular humans that doesn't need the grand road trips or shocking revelations of ancient ruins.
Right off the bat, it is clear Bungie wanted to go in a different direction with the campaign. The story is presented in a unique multi-perspective structure, jumping between the various members of our colorful ODST squad - I should mention here that I did not expect to see Nathan Fillion - who became separated during their entry into the city. Mjolnir armor-wearing superheroes that can survive being punched by a planet are nowhere to be seen here. The game's name comes from the special military force that we take control of in the game, the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, which are human soldiers with only their training and minimal armor to help them stay alive. As their name implies, these soldiers - or Helljumpers as they are affectionately called - simply drop out of the sky from orbiting frigates, riding tiny capsules straight into alien-infested grievous situations, quite literally out of the frying pan and into the fire. To sidetrack a little, this mechanic is just asking to be used as a battle royale entry method if Halo ever goes that route. But back to the matter at hand.
A significant portion of the story does not rely on the series' usual linear mission structure, where set-pieces guide you from arena to arena. While those 'go from A to B while killing everything' missions still exist, and offer wildly enjoyable over-the-top ordeals, Halo 3: ODST actually presents multiple scenarios where it opens up the city so you can utilize it in your own way as you journey towards objectives. Starting off, you take the role of Rookie, the newest member of your ODST squad, and since you drew the lucky straw to wake up hours later than everyone else, it's your job to go around the city to try and piece together the events of the day surrounding your missing squadmates. Whenever you come across a clue, a flashback pulls you into the shoes of that squadmate and their journey.
This is not an open-world game by any means, but there are usually at least a couple of main roads you can use to reach missions when roaming around the city. There are even building interiors just waiting to be employed as shortcuts through blocks. The game also rewards exploration in the form of audio logs you can find that tell the riveting tale of a civilian during the evacuation of the city. Interestingly enough, if it weren't for the special visor we are equipped with that enhances darkened areas and enemies, I could easily see Halo 3: ODST turning into more of a horror title. Some of the alleyways and building interiors can get creepy when sneaking through. Yes, surprisingly enough, stealth is an actual option. You can utilize the map and roaming patterns of Covenant forces to simply avoid fights during these open levels. This becomes neater when you realize that even Grunts can pose a threat to ODSTs depending on the difficulty level. The late-night trips are absolutely brilliant and atmospheric, carrying you across New Mombasa-like sightseeing tours that connect every squad member's unfortunate entrance into the city.
As you might have noticed, I mentioned a map. Taking things even further away from a traditional Halo game, there is a 3D city map you can pull up to orient yourself in the city sandbox. This addition lets you find objectives, track enemies - since the series staple motion sensor is missing here -, put waypoints, and locate alternate pathways. I've never needed a map in a Halo game before, since who actually has time to read maps when there are aliens to kill, so it was surprising to me how well it just fit in and elevated the experience. The implementation reminded me quite a lot of what we saw in the recent Halo Infinite gameplay demo, which also seems to be going for a more hub-like approach similar to ODST, but on a much grander scale.
ODSTs aren't wearing power armor like Spartans, so we are much more vulnerable and less powerful in every department. Simply dropping from a small height brings down health, and capabilities like dual-wielding or shrugging off alien hammers have been deemed impossible. Old school fans will be happy to know that the health bar is back from Combat Evolved. This pool goes down very quickly after your stamina (which is what your shield is called here) is depleted, and the only way to get it back is by finding health packs like in the history books. At the start of the game, the semi-transparent overlay emulating the helmet seemed very distracting, covering large portions of the screen at the top and bottom - no wonder the UNSC suffers massive losses against the Covenant, their soldiers are half-blind. But seriously, I failed to notice it bothering me when engaging in combat or drinking in the views, making it a throwaway concern.
As you might have gathered from my thoughts, I really enjoyed this campaign, and at the end of it I was wishing to return to the New Mombasa city streets to uncover more of its secrets. This campaign also falls onto the growing mountain that has formed out of Halo storylines you should not miss out on.
If you were around for the Halo: Reach launch, you should know that Firefight is Halo's take on the horde mode, and Halo 3: ODST delivered the first iteration of this venture back in the day. However, when the Xbox One Master Chief Collection version of the game came strolling through, it lacked the cooperative mode, which is what 343 Industries has finally dragged back from the depths. This is not just a PC-exclusive addition either, as the Xbox One version also received the mode as a free update.
With the implementation, you can now matchmake into surviving against Covenant waves alongside random ODSTs or pull up the friend lists across Xbox Live and Steam to invite up to three friends. Apart from the cookie-cutter matchmaking options, you can also apply custom rules to a Firefight match if you host your own game after selecting one of the available 10 maps. The variants, options, and skulls can give you rounds that range from hard as nails to mindless fun. Obviously, the campaign is the main draw of the package, but don't sleep on Firefight too much if you got some time to kill between multiplayer antics.
Graphics, Music, and Performance
No Halo conversation is complete without mentioning the soundtrack, and nobody will be surprised to hear that the soundtrack here is phenomenal. Electric guitars, tribal drum beats, and piano solos spice up everything they touch; however, it wasn't very Halo-like at various points, and the changeup really added to the game. The wave of saxophone-ridden jazz that mixes in thoroughly with the murky and wet atmosphere of New Mombasa is just perfection.
The graphics are truly the only weak point of this release. While the art, lighting, and the atmosphere I keep harping about keep the highpoints at a high, just like on Halo 3, it's the human models that drag the image down and make you remember this is still an 11 year old game that was designed for a console two generations old.
The performance of these classics on modern hardware hasn't let me down yet, and continuing the streak, 343 Industries and its development partners have delivered another experience that is smooth as butter from start to finish. Support for high-resolution displays, ultra-wide monitors, as well as field-of-view sliders, completely customizable controls on a per-game basis, and more come in to make PC users' lives better.
My cooperative play journey continued through Halo 3: ODST as well. I went through the entire campaign in two-player co-op, though up to four players are supported. Just like in the previous releases, while the implementation works fine without any instances of weirdness, crashes, or glitches, one thing I will say is that having good ping to each other is highly recommended for a lag-free session. At one point, a routing issue bumped up the latency to my co-op partner to around 200, and the peer to peer connection could not handle that very well, adding movement hitches and cutscene audio syncing issues that ruined the moment.
Master Chief Collection
343 Industries continues its expansion of the Halo: The Master Chief Collection, but that does not mean it's all about adding new chapters of Halo. You could say that all the previously released games are still in active development, as game-specific features, bug fixes, alongside Master Chief Collection-wide changes are still being worked on in the background.
Alongside Halo 3: ODST's release came through another suite of updates and upgrades to the evolving collection. If you felt like the hit registration was off in Halo 3 at launch, this is probably the update you want to check out as the developer has made some big changes to how your bullets reach the noggin of others. I didn't really suffer from the issue previously, though, and thankfully, post-patch shooting feels just as good.
Halo 3 enhancements do not stop there, as the silenced weapons of ODST are now available for use in multiplayer for the first time. Moreover, customization has been turned up a notch to include weapon skins and visor colors. Fans of the classic that don't like seeing bright and colorful weapons on the battlefield can disable these skins entirely through a setting in the options menu, just like it was possible for the Halo: Combat Evolved cosmetics. This is simply an excellent option to have. A new season of cosmetic items to unlock using your hard-earned level up points or as challenge completion rewards has arrived too alongside Halo 2: Anniversary per-piece armor customization.
These are great and all, but it's the planned updates to the Master Chief Collection that excite me the most. The Halo playerbase in the Asian region has not been very healthy for a while, so the upcoming region selection, custom server browser, and cross-play features will be very useful for players like me who don't live near the most active territories.
Compared to all the injections of Halo that have appeared through the Master Chief Collection on PC, Halo 3: ODST certainly looks like a rather small and skippable update from the outside as it does not seem to carry a large presence in the fanbase and lacks its own multiplayer companion. Obviously, this is a miscalculation that even I made as a fresh player. It is also a fine farewell to Bungie as this will be the final Halo title from the original studio to reach PC.
Halo 3: ODST is a campaign that easily stands among the greats. The isolated entry presents its own unique story in a unique way without ever even mentioning the hero of the saga, all the while building up a new cast of characters that you instantly get attached to. This is like a pocket universe of Halo goodness that can easily go under the radar due to other stories having such huge followings attached to them. Sparks of brilliance like Reach, ODST, and even the Halo Wars games, that deliver saga enriching standalone storylines just leaves me wanting for even more spin-offs and side stories.
You can purchase Halo 3: ODST on PC through the Microsoft Store and Steam for $4.99. The Halo: The Master Chief Collection is also available for $39.99 from the Microsoft Store and Steam if you want access to all the games. The Collection is a part of the Xbox Game Pass for PC library as well.
This review was conducted using a Steam copy of Halo: The Master Chief Collection provided by Microsoft.