Halo 4 preview: Hands-on with campaign, Spartan Ops and more
27th Sep 2012 | 12:59
When you take a look at the roster of 343 Industries, it reads like a Voltron of videogames development. Star players snapped together in a formidable combined creative force aimed at delivering the Xbox 360's Christmas killer app. It makes perfect business sense.
Whether you love it, hate it or are completely indifferent to it, the Halo franchise is to Microsoft's gaming platform as the Big Mac is to McDonalds; it's the tasty cornerstone USP of a world-conquering IP, and as such it can't be tinkered with too much, lest its manufacturer lose audience numbers.
This may explain, then, why
The interface retains its peccadilloes (left trigger is still grenade, rather than iron-sights and LB is still your melee attack). And Master Chief still handles like a steroid enhanced bruiser wearing magical Nike Air boots - lithe, agile and light as feather, but capable of delivering a gun butt to the face with enough force to shatter bulletproof glass.
The first level of the game even functions as some sort of warped homage to the first entry in the series. Master Chief is awakened from cold storage on a broken starship by Cortana, who notes that a Covenant fleet has just homed into view. After a brief window in which players have the option of inverting their interface (and why would you do that!), Master Chief is hurtling through the space cruiser's clanking corridors, blasting his way through Covenant ground troops as Cortana's dulcet tones issue a play-by-play.
That having been said, 343 have placed a subtle stamp on Halo. Right from the opening moments of Dawn, franchise fans will note that Master Chief's environment seems to have a sharper edges than it did in Bungie's hands. Covenant troops no longer sound like cute little Jawas; instead they hiss and gurgle threateningly and spew out globules of alien claret when Chief peppers them with bullets - all the while moving in pre-set animations from earlier games.
Weapons feel heavier and altogether more meaty; reload sound effects snap sharply on the audio track and firearms - even those that fire laser beams - give a satisfying kick when you pull the trigger. The feel of Halo 4 is more immediate and downright gritty.
Then there's obviously the new villains 343 have chucked into the mix: The Prometheans. In a level tagged 'Forerunners' Master Chief and Cortana blaze their way through a shield-generating base as Promethean and Covenant forces shoot it out around them. The Prometheans we encountered in our play through were predominantly of the Crawler and Knight variety.
Crawlers are silver-clad quadrupeds who fire streams of bullets at a distance and rake with steel claws up close. Knights come on like the illegitimate children of the aliens from Independence Day and Judge Death. It takes around six or seven rounds to put one of these suckers down and before you do, it's worth taking out the small beings that hover around them, offering damage repairs and deployable shields.
The Promethean weapons are suitably brutal. Machine guns can dump rounds at a fair rate, but become less accurate the longer you hold down the trigger, while shotguns are only really useful up close.
The Promethean sniper rifle soon becomes a personal favourite as its scope slots the player in firing range long before they have to worry about any sustained damage from a Promethean holding any short range weapons. When players collect a Promethean gun for the first time, its component parts hover in the air for a second and then snap themselves together in a rather neat-looking animation.
There was no sign of The Flood in the levels we played, although apparently, they're still on the cards. There's also a four-player co-op series of missions available in Spartan Ops. In the brief time at the game's controls we weren't able to glean any pertinent plot details, but we can report that the structure of the missions seems objective based, and that the overall feel of the missions is chaotically rambunctious.
In the Spartan Ops mission we played with four other hacks, we were tasked we blowing up several Covenant positions in a sand-blasted rocky environment. We had access to a range of established human and covenant weapons and pretty much every vehicle the Halo series is known for - Warthogs, Wraiths, Ghosts and Scorpion tanks were all present and correct. The mission itself felt like a war of attrition; there was no significant penalty for dying and you usually respawned right next to a vehicle.
The PVP multiplayer - or War Games as its now known - is where the game's lifeblood seems to exist beyond the campaign. According to dev interviews up to this stage, there's a rather layered and detailed RPG element to it and a narrative that explains the Blue vs Red Spartan civil war, although in the half an hour we had with it, there wasn't much chance to explore this.
The two matches we were able to take part in were a Team Deathmatch and a match which involved retaining control of three different bases on the map. Once a base had been captured, players could then fortify it, activating the structure's AI guns and making it harder to take.
Overall, though, the lasting impression 343 Industries' new offering leaves is... well... it's Halo. On the evidence here it's the game Halo fans have been waiting for, yet it doesn't seem that it'll cast a wider net than previous entries. Then again, it doesn't really need to.
The Xbox 360's core base was built on this franchise and Halo 4's brief is satisfy the fans that constitute this group before trying anything new. You could argue that this sacrifices innovation for the sake of maintaining audience numbers, but then, can 43 million fans really be wrong?