Halo 4 is probably the biggest challenge for the Halo series so far, at least if you ignore Halo Wars, the series’ RTS spin-off and odd step child that no-one really talks about any more. Even then it was made clear that Halo Wars wasn’t part of the core story of the series, and it was easy to put to the side.
Now though we have Halo 4, a game that marks a new chapter in the Halo universe and, more importantly, the first game from the new shepherd for the franchise, 343 Industries. Sure, 343 had some involvement in last year’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, but this is their first new game and their first real challenge as custodians of the Halo universe.
Unsurprisingly it was the multiplayer component that was playable at this year’s EGX, although with the seemingly huge queues the game generated it took me until Sunday to actually get around to trying it out. In reality I was only queuing for around 15 minutes, a very pleasant surprise.
My own inadequacies aside, the game actually played very well, feeling pretty similar to Reach’s multiplayer. Loadouts are still there, although there are new Armor Abilities present. I got to try the Thurster Pack, essentially a jetpack that pushes you forwards rather than upwards, and the Hardlight Shield, an energy shield that looks almost exactly like the riot shield from games like Counter-Strike.
Both abilities proved useful, although even with Armor Abilities returning from Halo: Reach it’s quite easy to forget you’ve got them initially. The Hardlight Shield proves most useful when you’re in a one on one situation, and can give you a few moments to regroup. The Thruster Pack on the other hand seems like it will open up some interesting tactical avenues for good players, although it doesn’t seem that useful for someone at my skill level.
Of course, there’s one Armor Ability that’s been dropped; sprinting. Halo has become almost infamous for its lack of sprinting, something that always seemed peculiar in a game starring genetically engineered super soldiers. In Halo 4 you finally have the ability to sprint, although there’s not really that much I can say about it. It acts like it does in just about every other FPS, with the screen jogging about a little as you run.
At its core Halo 4’s multiplayer did seem similar to Halo games of old. Yes, there’s new elements and it builds well on what was going on in Reach, a multiplayer that I enjoyed a reasonable amount due to the presence of jetpacks, but it’s still red team versus blue team and, at a casual glance, could easily be mistaken for Halo 3 (newer graphics and sprinting aside).
The single player, however, seems to be a different kettle of fish. Whilst this sadly wasn’t available to play, 343’s Frank O’Connor was demoing it in a developer session on the first day and showed off a nice chunk of an early level.[drop]From the demo given it does seem that Halo 4’s single player is where 343 have put the majority of their efforts in terms of differentiating themselves from what Bungie achieved with the series. Of course it’s a new trilogy and they’ve got new characters to play with, something that does make their task undeniably easier, but what they’ve done looks very different.
For example there seems to be a little more focus on vehicles this time around. That’s not to say that vehicles haven’t always been a big part of Halo’s gameplay, that would be simply untrue, but they just seem to be getting more focus here.
Part of that is the feeling of scale that the demo gave. Halo’s always been big, it’s part of the sandbox combat that the series has become known for. However, 343 seem to have knocked things up a level, and the demo level looked huge, making the vehicles a necessity. It’s also worth noting that the movement and handling of the Covenant vehicles that featured seemed a little smoother than in earlier games, but it’s hard to say without actually playing with them.
The conflict has been sufficiently scaled up as well, with this now being a war with three sides. You’ve of course got humanity in the form of the UNSC, and although it may disappoint some, the Covenant are still there. Don’t worry though, Frank O’Connor made it very clear that the Covenant’s presence makes complete sense in universe.
The third side, as you may have seen during the E3 demo, is the Prometheans, the highest warrior caste in the Forerunner hierarchy. What’s interesting is that, at least in what was shown at EGX, neither the Prometheans nor the Covenant are actually coming after the Master Chief. Instead they’ve got their own conflict and you just occasionally get in the way. You still, obviously, have your own objectives, so you have to navigate the conflict and try not to piss anyone off too much.[videoyoutube]The Prometheans, though, make the Covenant look like startlingly less of a threat. You’ll almost find yourself wondering how they caused you so much trouble in earlier games, because the Prometheans really seem to take things up to another level.
The most obvious way this comes across is in their technology, which is far beyond anything the UNSC or the Covenant have at their disposal. This is perhaps most prominent in their weaponry, which looks unassailably cool, but they’ve also got the ability to teleport around the battlefield when under fire, something that you’ll need to adjust your tactics to account for. Even their deaths look more high tech, with their body dissolving into a wash of yellow particles.
That brings me, rather neatly, onto the game’s look. With areas looking like they’ve been scaled up size wise you’d perhaps not expect too much of a boost graphically, but it’s clear that this is above and beyond what we’ve seen in Halo so far. It’s still very much in the Halo style, although there’s less purple than before, but everything just looks a lot richer.
With the graphical styling Halo uses it’s hard to say whether it outperforms giants like Uncharted 3, but it’s certainly no slouch. In particular 343 have really fleshed out the level of detail in the scenery, with a lot more plant life inhabiting the world. Perhaps the best way to put it is it looks like there’s a lot of depth in the game’s graphics, with the environments looking like they’ve had a lot more life breathed into them.
It would have been easy for 343 to have played it safe with Halo 4, to give a good experience that builds on Bungie’s legacy but didn’t push the boundaries too far. From what I’ve seen so far it looks like they really haven’t gone that route, instead they’ve put their own mark onto the Halo universe and have built something that I’m eager to get my hands on.