Halo 4 has been a known quantity for some time now. The burning question now has more to do with the developer than the game. Can Microsoft-owned 343 Industries match or exceed Bungie, the creators of the Halo series? At this year's E3, Microsoft drew back the curtain on the multiplayer modes in Halo 4, and we were there to check it out.
After playing both competitive and co-operative Spartan Ops, we know the answer to that burning question. The answer is unequivocal. It is yes.
"But how does it feel", they crowed. The answer is going to be the same across the board. It's intonation that matters here. Some will shrug and say, "It feels like Halo." Others will grin and exclaim, "It feels like Halo!" The difference is important. While Halo isn't a divisive game, there is a bit of an enthusiasm gap between the series' casual and hardcore fans. It's likely that you already know which side of the gap you fall on. Keep that in mind as we move on.
That Same Great Halo Taste
Co-op has been a focus in Halo since the beginning and here I played a Spartan Ops cooperative mission with three other journalists. The objective: unhand a Forerunner artifact from a Covenant search party.
Before the shooting began, we were given the opportunity to customize and optimize our Spartans. Customization is a buzz word if there ever was one in this industry, and it shows big time in Halo 4. There appeared to be oodles of aesthetic choices for armor. The list appeared to be even more exhaustive than the large range of choices in Halo: Reach.
However, the more interesting part of this process was optimization. Players are given the option to choose a primary weapon, secondary weapon, grenade type and perk. For example, as a primary weapon I took the Battle Rifle — the three-round burst, medium-range rifle that debuted in Halo 2 — and paired it with a perk that provides no tangible benefit, but allows the player to start with two primary weapons and ditch the usual sidearm. I filled my second primary slot with the brand new Storm Rifle. The weapon is Covenant in origin, and replaces the Plasma Rifle from older Halo games. To round things out, I took frag grenades instead of the series' sticky plasma.
The four of us were dumped into the level. The setting was a series of Forerunner fortifications that were littered with Covenant defenses and supplies. My teammates cut through the Covies like butter. The movement, the pacing, and the methodical rhythm of the Battle Rifle were all instantly familiar. Oh! Every Spartan now comes standard with a sprint function, no perk needed. Who knew these super cyborgs could run?
I experimented with the new Storm Rifle but was unimpressed. It seemed comparatively weak to the human Assault Rifle. In short, it continues the long tradition of generally underwhelming Covenant standard issue weaponry. I can report, however, that many returning weapons feel great. The plasma sword is as fun as ever, but the lunge functionality has been toned down considerably.
My favorite part of my hands-on time with Halo 4 though, was the Scatter Gun. It is the new shotgun in Halo 4. While I'm sure the human variant will make it into the game, the new design is credited to the Forerunners. The Scatter Gun discharges fluorescent orange pellets that will pierce enemies and bounce off floors and walls. The first time I picked it up, I immediately scored a double kill. The sound the gun makes is a cross between a traditional shotgun blast and a roaring vacuum cleaner. The gun kicks in a way that makes the player feel drunk with power. After I scored those initial kills I noticed that I was biting my lip.
In short, the gameplay is right. The developer switch has not changed what makes Halo great. 343 riffs on Halo, spins its own version, but the magic is intact.
Small Changes to A Winning Formula
A similar nostalgic feeling pervades competitive multiplayer in Halo 4. New twists abound, though. Players are given points in groups of fives, 10s or 15s rather than one point for each kill like previous Halo games. It's obvious that the new scoring system is taking cues from Call of Duty, but the way that it ties into the new mode called Regicide justifies the shameless poaching.
In Regicide, the player with the most points becomes the king. He is highlighted on the HUD for every opposing player to see, and when killed he gives a bonus of five points to his killer. Additionally, for every kill the king scores, five points are added to his bounty. The traditional free-for-all mode is turned on its head by the Regicide rules. Players race to 250 points, and the finish was a nail-biter each time. (Though I did win both games that I played — huzzah!)
In the downtime between sessions, I had a chance to speak with Halo 4 Lead Designer Kevin Franklin. He shared that split-screen co-operative gameplay will return to Halo 4's campaign, but that 343 is not yet sure if it will be playable for more than two players on one television. There has been no decision yet on whether Spartan Ops will be playable in split-screen. Adversarial multiplayer will allow local split-screen, and will let you to take friends online in split-screen as well. Similarly to campaign co-op, a player count has yet to be finalized. Either way, it's good to know that yet another Halo staple will remain a part of Halo 4.
Ladies and gentleman, it feels like Halo!