Halo 4 is almost here, and 343i has finally pulled back the curtain on the changes to Microsoft's flagship.
In many respects, Halo 4's situation is the stuff of nightmares. 343 Industries is tasked with guiding one of the biggest franchises in video gaming history into the next generation of consoles, all while starting that relaunch on the current generation Xbox 360. They're assuming the reins of the de facto face of Microsoft's gaming division after the departure of Bungie Studios, who created the series in 2001. They're releasing the first true sequel in the series post-Call of Duty paradigm shift.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Kirkland, Washington, home to 343i's gigantic studio space. At 9am, it was still quiet. Most employees had only been gone for a few hours or so. Above the studio floor was a countdown timer that had crossed its threshold. I asked Bonnie Ross, studio head of 343i, what it was for. She explained that it was their Zero Bug Release deadline. The studio had actually overshot their projected deadline by a bit, but had reached ZBR. At least for a few hours. It's one of the final stages of development, what you might call the penultimate "oh shit" moment before a game is submitted for certification.
Halo 4 is almost here. Microsoft, Halo fans, and general audiences all have their own set of massive, possibly conflicting expectations for the game. Cliches like "tall order" are inadequate. The situation 343i has walked into with Halo 4 is better described as just shy of "fucking impossible." But after three years of development, 343i finally gave me a chance to play a significant portion of the singleplayer campaign, along with some of Halo 4's War Games and Spartan Ops multiplayer modes. And 343i just might pull it off.
The combat loop
Combat in Halo is oriented around the interaction of semi-predictable elements to produce emergent situations - this is the Halo combat loop. There's a logic behind the unspooling madness of a Halo firefight, and enemies and their tools exist to establish different combat dynamics. My introduction to the Promethean forces and their technologies in the third chapter ofHalo 4, "Forerunner," brought a new host of opportunities for mayhem.
This starts with the weapons the Promethean forces drop. In a marked change from the Halo weapon status quo, most Promethean weapons have alternate modes of fire. The Boltshot occupies the pistol-like skirmishing role well enough, allowing decent accuracy at a distance. But holding the right trigger charges up a shotgun-like blast that can take out most enemies in a single shot up close.
The Boltshot also demonstrates an additional Promethean wrinkle, as the charged shot can't be held forever. I was forced to gauge how much distance I could cover while charging it in order to properly wield it in close quarters, which is unique toHalo 4. Other weapons have similar trade-offs. The Light Rifle burns through ammo three rounds at a time when fired from the hip, but chambers single round blasts while zoomed in.
Not everything is a trade-off though. The Promethean Scattergun is an alien shotgun, sure, but it also ricochets off of walls and other surfaces, allowing for the same kind of angled tactical fire of grenades and grenade launchers. The point doesn't necessarily seem to be one of limitations, so much as Halo 4's new weapons encourage a new kind of consideration.
Promethean ordinance also lends distinctive visual touches toHalo 4. Their kills don't drop dead, so much as they "de-rez" a la Tron, of all things. There's a very clear sense of alien unfamiliarity that's been missing since Halo CE - after 11 years, Covenant weapons feel comfortable.
I didn't have enough time with the Promethean weapons to determine where they sit in relation to their effectiveness on shields vs flesh (though Promethean Knights do have shields), one of the more important balancing factors in the growing Halo armory. But other gameplay design decisions were readily apparent. The Prometheans don't fight like the Covenant do. They tend to be more aggressive, more strident in their movement toward the Chief. This is especially true with the Knights, who are able to intimidate from a distance or up close, but are also able to teleport away at the hint of trouble.
More interestingly, the Promethean forces demonstrate a more interconnected series of strategies and tactics than the Covenant. Knights spawn Watchers, which hover over the battlefield and offer support via shields, healing, and a tractor beam that can catch incoming grenades and toss them back. Crawlers work in packs and attack asymmetrically from walls and will often flank unconventionally.
Flanking isn't new, but the speed and ferocity of the Promethean onslaught makes Covenant attack patterns look almost lumbering in comparison. When all three of the Promethean enemy types I encountered were on screen at once, they coordinated rapidly, and demanded prioritization that inverted the standard Halo loop.
In previous Halo titles, it often paid to take out all Grunts or all Elites first. In Halo 4, Watchers were always my default target. The few times I didn't address them quickly, they'd come back to haunt me once I had knocked a Knight's shield down and moved in for the kill, and that's assuming the Watchers didn't just drop a shield down in front of the Knights to stop me cold.
Later in "Forerunner," I had the chance to watch the revamped Covenant forces engage the Prometheans. Reminiscent of the massive emergent battles between the Flood and the Covenant in previous Halo games, there was nevertheless a different sort of back and forth here. The Prometheans proved more than capable of smart, direct assaults on Covenant positions, though they were never able to roll the Elite-led forces. While other players seemed eager to mix it up in these fights, I enjoyed the equally valid tactic of sneaking by.
This underscored an experience toward the end of "Dawn,"Halo 4's opening mission, where I needed to manually trigger the ruined Forward Unto Dawn's weapons systems - on the outside of the ship. Amidst a full Covenant assault in low gravity, I was murdered by beam rifles, covenant carbines, and plasma fire. I died again and again trying to formulate a plan to make it to the control point. My solution - I drew fire on one side of the map and then retreated to a series of trenches on the hull, sneaking around the other side to an access point to assault the undefended snipers remaining - felt organic. It felt exhilarating and tactical.
343I HAS TO MAKE SURE THINGS ARE CHALLENGING, NOT INFURIATING
It felt like Halo. The ability to deduce and execute on new unconventional attack strategies practically defines the series, and it was everywhere in the parts of Halo 4 I played.
Even amidst the Covenant's makeover - more vicious, more violent, and more militaristic than before - there's something almost comfortable about swinging behind the controls of a Covenant Ghost and splattering Elites and Knights alike on the windshield. But there are little changes, like the slower turning speed of a Banshee. Covenant weapons have also seen something of an upgrade, their anti personnel capabilities boosted. And the Battle Rifle and scoped Magnum are what you expect.
343i's additions bring their own challenges, however. The Promethean Knight's teleportation trick has the potential to frustrate. While I played through Halo 4's opening chapter on Heroic - and died, often - time constraints made normal my only option for my time with the Prometheans in "Forerunner." Given that, it's hard for me to gauge just how aggressively the Knights will capitalize on their mobility to make the Chief's life miserable when players go through Halo 4 on Heroic or Legendary difficulties, which have always been labeled "the way to play Halo."
As it was, Watchers were also a pain in the ass as they tucked their wings back and sped away, weaving in and out of structures, and Crawlers required quick reflexes to avoid getting swarmed. Even on Normal, I died more than once. 343i has a juggling act on their hands to make sure things are challenging, not infuriating.
343I'S ADDITIONS BRING THEIR OWN CHALLENGES
I'll also be curious to see how 343i deals with increasing number of weapons and pieces of equipment they're introducing in Halo 4. The equipment/armor ability concept has been modified somewhat, at least from what I played.
A new light shield similar to the barrier Watcher's project in front of Knights was reasonably useful, but the "mini-watcher," which fired off a sort of drone from the Chief's back, didn't seem to have much effect in firefights. The Promethean Knight's Pulse Grenade - which creates an area of effect that damages enemies within it - also didn't seem to fill any specific combat niche in my time with Halo 4, though its proper use could become clear later in the game.
As much as 343i has added to the combat sandbox, it's the presentational aspects that are particularly apparent.
The two levels I was allowed to play demonstrated this in different ways. Halo 4's opening on the crypt-like halls of the Forward Unto Dawn set a different tone than the series has managed to strike in anything other than 2009's Halo: ODST. But the environmental storytelling in Halo 4 doesn't seem as ambient, for lack of a better term.
The first chapter caused me some consternation, in fact. For the first half or so, it seemed much more linear than I've come to expect from Halo games, and as the opening salvo in 343i's vision of Halo 4, I was concerned. The game has quicktime sequences, a first for the series that I can recall. Granted, they really are quick - not the extended mini-movies of more cinematic action games - but they're there. And the first time I saw one, I wondered what the hell 343i was doing.
Over the course of my 90 minutes or so with Halo 4's campaign, I came around. These moments were joined by other moments, like a climb up a shaft on the Foward Unto Dawn as the ship is torn apart by Requiem's inexorable pull, but they didn't dominate, and they served to move things forward in a more dynamic way than a cutscene or first person segment would have. And they all looked pretty fantastic.
Halo 4's visual overhaul was consistently impressive in my time with the game. The screens and video that 343i have released aren't cherry-picking the "good parts," they're indicative of a game that will in all likelihood come to define the end of the Xbox 360's life-cycle, visually speaking.
More importantly, the bits of character performance I saw were improved in such a way as build characters with clearer motivations than I think a Halo game has seen before. It's difficult to talk about without spoiling some minor and major plot points, but 343i's performance capture strategy, using techniques similar to Naughty Dog's work with the Uncharted series, are paying subtle but deep dividends thus far.
I am left with questions regarding the kinds of compromise required to wring the kinds of graphical performance Halo 4 is demonstrating out of almost seven year old hardware. Previous Halo titles made graphical sacrifices for different reasons - Halo 3 famously ran at a sub-720p screen resolution to accommodate the game's scale and Bungie's aggressive high dynamic range lighting solution. Halo: Reach dialed back the HDR, but still ran below 720p.
Halo 4 is running in an actual, honest-to-goodness HD resolution, a first for the series on consoles, and the visual complexity is signficantly increased from previous titles. What I haven't seen is a level with a similar sense of scale to Halo 3'stwin Scarab battle, or Reach's various aerial-oriented missions. As much as I would like to believe that 343i's dream team of Microsoft graphics tech and engineering all-stars have reinvented the wheel (and the engine, and the fuel injectors), I can't help but feel a bit of skepticism. Granted, this hasn't been proven one way or the other. Two chapters isn't enough to know for sure.
As I wrapped up my time with Halo 4, I looked around at some of the 343i staffers milling around the event. They looked tired. But they also looked excited at the reactions they'd seen from a day of press spending time with a game that has been kept almost completely under wraps for three years. As coming out parties go, this one seemed to go better than most.
After a few hours with Halo 4, I still have more questions than answers. I have no idea how the Chief and Cortana's relationship will develop and yield the kind of drama that 343i has promised. I don't know if the new engine will pull off the same sense of scale that previous Halo games have achieved amidst its graphical overhaul. I don't know how the Forerunners will tie into the Halo's already established canon. But I do know that I'm excited to learn the answers to the unanswered questions. And 343i seemscapable of delivering on all of these promises.
We'll see if they do later this year. Halo 4 arrives on Xbox 360 on November 6th.
Make sure you don't miss our interview with 343i development director Frank O'Connorand details on Halo 4's new Dominion mode.