It is unprecedented. Never before has this industry seen a franchise so huge handed to an untested, inexperienced developer. Can 343industries escape Bungie’s looming, omnipresent shadow? Let’s find out.
The campaign opens with a rousing monologue from a familiar face, it sets the tone and reaches a level of intensity sorely lacking throughout Halo: Reach. As you probably know, the gameplay begins aboard the good ship Forward Unto Dawn drifting through space toward a mysterious alien world. Master Chief is awoken from his cryosleep by a distressed Cortana when some unwelcome, yet familiar visitors board the ship. "Familiar" is probably the best word to describe Halo 4, at least in its opening missions.
The phrase “feels like Halo” has been trotted out so often in recent months that it’s beginning to lose meaning. It’s easy to forget just how much of an achievement it is to make a game that feels like Halo. There have been dozens of developers who have tried and failed to build a game worthy of that mantle. For the first couple of hours Halo 4 feels exactly like the Halo you know and love, you’re popping Grunts’ heads, you’re doing the two-shot take down of shielded Jackals and you’re taking an Elite’s shields with a plasma weapon before switching to your BR for the headshot. The game gives you the tools, scenarios and enemies to put you right smack-bang in your comfort zone. And it feels good.
After a few hours you learn exactly why 343i had been making you feel so comfortable, when they yank that rug from under you with the Prometheans. It wasn’t until playing Halo 4 that I realised just how predictable the Covenant have become, we know their tricks now, we know what they’re going to do, and how to handle them and there's something comforting in that. What we don’t know, is how to handle the slew of new enemies that show up when Chief blows open Pandora’s Box 2 hours into Campaign.
It’s been a very long time since a Halo game has challenged you like this, since it has thrown an enemy in your face and challenged you to work out how to deal with it. It’s a fantastic feeling and one that I didn’t even realise was missing until now. The Prometheans are a fearsome bunch and you’ll die a lot in those early encounters when you’re still learning their visual indicators and gestural tells. But it's all a learning experience, and learning is good.
The Prometheans are split into three races: Knights, Crawlers and Watchers, with each of those being broken down further with Snipers, CQB, Assault variants and so on. On top of the abilities and traits of the individual Prometheans you also have to deal with how they’ll operate together. Watchers can revive fallen Knights and spawn in new Crawlers, but sniper variants of Knights and Crawlers can take you out in one shot, on top of that a CQB Knight who initially seems at a safe distance can teleport to your side at any moment. There is a lot you're going to need to learn. If that wasn't enough for you to worry about, consider the fact that the Prometheans are a much more proficient team than the Covenant ever were, and even on Heroic you’re going to need to scope out each encounter and think about how you’re going to tackle it, which threat you neutralise first, where your cover is, what weapons you have, what weapons you could get and any number of other factors. Your combat scenarios are so much more varied than in any of the previous games and it's a great feeling when a well planned sortie plays out as intended.
Halo's narrative delivery has seen a substantial change compared to previous games. In the past, much of Halo's story was delivered through incidental lines of dialogue from Cortana. It was a great way to deliver narrative without taking the player out of the action, but meant that if you weren't paying attention it was easy to miss key plot points. Halo 4 gets around these issues in a couple of ways, firstly through the use of top drawer cut scenes, the animations and facial work are as good as it gets, the dialogue is excellent and story pacing faultless. Outside of the cut-scenes much of the story is still delivered by Cortana whispering in your ear, but now Master Chief talks back while you’re in control of him – a first for the series – this means that what would have been a single line from Cortana is now a short exchange between her and Chief, in terms of keeping up with the story, this is a welcome change.
Perhaps it's because I'm so used to Chief being silent, but I did occasionally find it a little jarring when he speaks while I'm in control, I do wonder if this is only because, in the back of my mind, I know that this is something Bungie would never have done. This is perhaps 343i’s biggest challenge; every time they do something that Bungie wouldn’t have done, it will be brought into sharp focus and analysed. It's the same with the Quick Time Events, Bungie would never have had me tap X to open a door. There’s nothing game breaking in these two examples, the QTEs are few and far between and Master Chief being a little more chatty does no harm at all. I only really mention them as they represent such a break from tradition.
Graphically and artistically Halo 4 is the best looking console game I’ve played, it looks every bit as good as the screenshots on this page and seeing some of the concept art we’ve been drooling over for months realised in game is truly breathtaking. There are times where you can do nothing but stop and stare, it really is that beautiful. The early moments exploring Requiem are a sublime piece of experiential videogame design and one that will be difficult for 343i (or anyone) to ever recapture.
Unfortunately, this beauty comes at a cost. Campaign Theatre is gone, so while you can gaze upon the incredible sights and dizzying scale of the environments, you cannot take pictures and share them, removing a legacy feature dating back to Halo 3. Whilst people will be glad to hear that the soft kill-zones of Reach are mostly removed, they will be disappointed to hear that they have been replaced with invisible walls. The environments are enormous and there is so much to find if you go exploring - more than just Terminals and weapons cachés - but by hiding things and encouraging you to explore they are increasing the chances of you hitting an invisible wall, and there’s no two ways about it.. it’s annoying.
So that I can stop talking about the bad I’ll just mention that there is a vehicle section, about a third of the way through the campaign which is genuinely one of the worst sections of gameplay in the series. Falling scenery which causes instant death, getting out of the vehicle causes instant death, boring environment, ground collapsing beneath you. It really did leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Fortunately it only lasts a few minutes.
As a complete package, despite a few minor complaints, the campaign is fantastic. It’s an incredible journey with some epic battles and genuine twists and turns in the story that will catch you by surprise. There is great fan service and nods to the expanded universe all over the place. It is a story of saving Humanity and fighting evil, a story about alien worlds and ancient civilisations, but more than that it is a story about a man. 343i have talked about exploring Master Chief's humanity and it is handled superbly. I know a lot of people were concerned about what this would mean, but all 343i have really done is brought his character in the game in line with his character in the expanded universe. Which is a great decision.
I should state that I haven’t been able to get into a co-op game of Spartan Ops so these thoughts are based purely on me playing solo.
Each week, Spartan Ops delivers a CG episode to explain the story so far before dropping you into five unique missions. The CG episodes are fantastic, they have a visual fidelity and quality of acting as good as anything you’ll have seen in any game, they are the perfect appetiser to get you in the mood for your new missions. The five missions I’ve been able to play from week one give a good example of the variety of different types of combat available in Halo 4; there's a vehicle mission, a storm the base mission, a defensive mission. Difficulty wise I didn't really have any trouble playing through on solo Heroic. An interesting point is that it plays a little differently to campaign as instead of resetting to a checkpoint when you die, it respawns you, so if you take out an enemy but die in the process, you’ll respawn with the enemy still dead. This is an interesting dynamic and means that it never really becomes overwhelming as you’re able to chip away at enemy numbers over the course of a few lives.
On Legendary it really starts to feel like it was designed for a team, having to take on three or four Wraith tanks on your own can become a bit troublesome. It’s very unusual for the campaign to throw more than two Elites or Promethean Knights at you at any time, but Spartan Ops does it constantly, so when playing alone you really miss having a firing partner with you.
The missions I played felt a little disjointed as each one moved to a new location fighting a different enemy. I have a feeling that this is because week one wanted to show a good variety of content to make sure people are coming back on subsequent weeks. The content of each mission was great, with massive environments and several varied objectives. With the quality bar as high as this then I'm sure people will be chomping at the bit to get stuck in to week two.
Spartan Ops does have matchmaking so if you don’t have a group to regularly play with you can jump into someone else's team, I didn't get to do this due to the low population pre-launch, but it appears to have the exact same setup as War Games matchmaking. Unfortunately, like Campaign, Spartan Ops does not allow you to take pictures and videos in the Theatre which is a real shame as there is some great scenery and encounters crying out to be snapped and shared.
In no uncertain terms, Spartan Ops has the potential to change the way we play and consume videogames forever. For the last decade industry mouth pieces have talked about the benefits episodic content can have for both players and developers, but no-one has ever delivered on it. 343industries, in their first full game have delivered a polished episodic game that feels like it could justify the retail price of Halo 4 on its own.
Ordnance drops have an interesting impact on the flow of matches, players no longer hold areas of the map waiting for their weapon of choice to appear. This encourages players to move around more leading to a higher frequency of encounters. Time will tell what long-term impact this will have on the play dynamics at the top level, but early impressions are very good.
The changes to CTF have been well publicised: players can no longer drop the flag, you now have a pistol when carrying the flag and flag carriers will have a waypoint over their head for all other players to see. These are significant changes to one of Halo's staple game modes, changes that filled me with apprehension that my favourite gametype would be changed beyond recognition. And that's partly true, it isn't the same game any more. CTF is now much more team orientated. As the flag carrier can now shoot, it means that he only needs one escort and the two of them should be capable of dispatching any lone assailants they happen upon on their trip back to the score point. I like this, I like that team work and communication are encouraged. That's the way it should be. In the games I played there did seem to be a hesitation amongst team mates to pick up the flag, but in a weird way that can work as a positive. If they're near the flag, but not picking it up, when you arrive to run it back, you have a team mate right there with you.
343i didn't stop at simply rejuvenating existing game modes, they've also added Dominion, Regicide and Extraction to the suite of available modes. Dominion is a capture & defend gametype where holding bases for a length of time upgrades it: adding turrets, shield doors, weapon drops and defensive barriers. To capture a base you have to press a button hidden inside the base and then stay there while a capture timer depletes. Holding bases for your team adds points to your team's score. You win by either hitting the points threshold or by securing all three bases simultaneously, triggering sudden death. The team without a base all get overshields and will be eliminated if they die, in order to stay in the match they need to secure a base before the sudden death timer is up or the other team wipes them out.
With evenly matched teams Dominion is fantastic, there's an ebb and flow to matches and it can be incredibly tense. When the teams aren't even, particularly when there is a numerical advantage, games are over before they've even begun, it's all too easy for the team with greater numbers to lock down the three bases and wipe out the inferior team. Fortunately, another new feature of Halo 4 is drop-in matchmaking. At present there are only a few dozen people online, but even with a population that small, matches were still being populated in progress, which is very reassuring.
Extraction is similar to Territories from Halo 3, there are capture targets around the map and more appear during the match. You capture a target by placing an extraction bot on it and guarding it for 30 seconds, the first team to secure five extractions wins. Regicide is a Slayer variant in which the leading player has a bounty on their head, this is represented by a literal marker on their head and also by the fact that you get extra points for killing him. Regicide is the only free-for-all gametype in matchmaking at launch.
Halo 4 has an experience based ranking system, there has been discussion about adding a skill based ranking in alongside it, but this isn't in the game at present. Ranking up is pleasingly brisk, in fact, I was at Rank 5 before even going into matchmaking thanks to completing a couple of Challenges in Campaign before trying my hand at War Games. The speedy ranking means you're always very close to your next set of toys to play with, this also means you're always compelled to have one more game – this is in stark contrast to Reach where it very quickly hits a point where you're needing to play dozens of games or more to rank up and the pay-off when you do so is negligible.
Many features have seen improvements since Reach. Challenges are now split into daily, weekly & monthly and they're split over Campaign, Spartan Ops, War Games and Waypoint. The payouts are substantial and can really help speed along your rank progress. File share has improved now offering 25 slots or 1GB (whichever comes first), I wasn't able to try out the content sharing or searching, but I am assured it is much improved since Reach.
Halo 4 is a fantastic game, there are some concessions along the way, but as a package, as a complete game, this is better than I'd ever imagined 343i could deliver. It feels as though 343i have done the impossible, they've created a Halo game that not only rivals Bungie's games, but in some ways, many ways, exceeds them. Halo 4 is a testament to the hard work and efforts of everyone at 343industries. This is just their first step, imagine what they'll deliver once they hit a full sprint.
- Cowboy Out.