By Conrad Reyners
During the Microsoft Press Conference at this year's E3, gamers were treated to a teaser trailer of the upcoming Halo 4. Developed by 343 Industries, it quickly became clear that the iconic series is going to get a fresh new perspective when Halo 4 releases this Christmas.
At Microsoft's Xbox booth, I had the chance to go behind closed doors and play through some of the game. I also was able to sit down with 343's Lead Producer Kiki Wolfkill (yes, that actually is her awesome name), and Creative Director Josh Holmes.
343's vision for Halo 4 is to set it up as the lead for a new generation of Halo titles. It is set five years after the events of Halo 3, and once again features the adventures of that epic hero of the Halo experience: Master Chief.
The details about the story are a little thin on the ground, but we do know that central to the game is the new planet of Requiem. This planet is revered by the Covenant, as it is where many Forerunner shrines and artifacts are located. The Covenant worship the Forerunner as gods, and aren't too happy to see Master Chief and the UNSC stomping all over their hallowed ground.
Since the events of Halo 3, and the subjugation of the Covenant, a degree of peace has fallen on the galaxy. So, the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) did what every victorious, peace-loving force does; they went and built a massive, powerful battlecruiser. This new ship - the Infinity - plays a key role in the game.
In the teaser trailer shown at E3, the Infinity is ravaged by a large floating ball that sends it crashing down to Requiem: a lush, jungle world with a range of alien environments, spanning from steamy misty jungles to harsh rocky volcanic plateaus. As the trailer showed, this world is rendered extremely well, and up close on a TV screen it oozes with fidelity.
The Covenant are already on Requiem, but they are joined there by the Forerunner; an alien race already known to the Halo universe, but now actually shown for the first time. During my eyes-on with Kiki and Josh, I was shown three different Forerunner classes; the Knight, the Watcher; and the Crawler.
The Knight is the commander of the Forerunner battlefield - he is quick, agile, and very powerful. Not only is he very dangerous in single combat, but he also has the ability to spawn a support unit called a Watcher. These secondary units appear to be innocuous, but when combined with the Knight they pack a mighty punch. They can catch grenades and throw them back at players, provide supporting fire, and even resurrect Knights that you thought you'd sent six feet under.
Crawlers are a different foe to be reckoned with. Fast, dog-like creatures, they race around nipping at Master Chief's heels. One on one they aint no thang to deal with, but in packs they are deadly. Kiki also mentioned that these charming alien puppies also have the ability to jump incredibly high, walk on walls, and climb up trees. Add the classic Covenant forces that we are otherwise familiar with to the mix and already there is a pretty sophisticated battlefield taking shape.
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The new perspective brought by 343 is not solely directed at the singleplayer side of the game. In fact, from what I've seen and had the chance to play through, more innovation has been directed at the multiplayer experience.
Josh Holmes described how in Halo 4 the multiplayer would be centered around the UNSC Infinity, which would be a base for your Spartan characters. This is in an attempt to create a much more integrated experience than that seen in any other Halo title.
The first, and most obvious, example of this is the new "SPARTAN Ops" mode. Here, 343 will be releasing four to five new missions each week for players to slog through, either by themselves or with up to four players cooperatively. These missions would push forward the Halo 4 story, and would be based around short CG cutscenes that 343 are planning on releasing along with the mission packs. Each mission could be played through in 10 to 15 minutes, but could go longer depending on the level of difficulty and the number of players involved. As far as we know, this content will begin to be available to players from Halo 4's release date.
My first impression of this new mode was that it was pulling Halo 4 in a rather strange direction. Continuous missions, grinding through storylines, and regularly updated content sounds more like an MMO subscription service than a first person shooter. So I quizzed Josh Holmes on exactly how far SPARTAN ops was going to go. His answers reassured me - there is no leveling here, and the missions will not increase in complexity or difficulty as each week progresses.
Holmes said that the experience is being intentionally designed so that players can opt in and opt out at any time, and not be given any advantage or disadvantage by their progression through other parts of the additional narrative. Kiki did chime in, however, and point out that this doesn't mean the experience will be rote. Apparently there will be a range of mission styles with different focuses - ranging from infantry combat to vehicle battles. I also quizzed Josh about how balancing would work in co-op. The answer was that it wouldn't - having more or less payers will not have an impact on the difficulty of your experience.
The second mode that 343 were showing off was named "Wargames". This was much more like the classic Halo deathmatch experience fans will be familiar with. The action here was fast-paced and brutal. New enhancements have been added - such as the addition of "ordinance drops": perks that players can utilize as rewards for kill streaks. Forerunner weapons can also be located around the map, and can be game changers in the hands of an experienced player; they also look damn cool when they construct themselves into shape on pickup.
The Wargames multiplayer mode is likely to be the most played and the most competitive, and my first impression during my hands on was that 343's fresh perspective has retained all of what made previous installments great, while also adding extra spit and polish.
One such tweak has been the merging of the various different multiplayer modes into one narrative experience. Like SPARTAN Ops, there is also a narrative around Wargames. Its deathmatch gameplay is intended to replicate a training simulator for Spartans on Infinity. Josh and Kiki explained that, as the two modes were connected through story, there would also be a crossover in experience points, customization, and characters. This is an interesting development, and goes some way to support 343's claim that Halo 4's storytelling focus is paramount, and to ensure that, Halo 4 will be the most integrated experience yet.
After seven earlier iterations, the Halo experience was getting a little tired. There was only so much mileage that Microsoft was going to get out of this aging horse. But with a new rider holding the reins, Halo 4 does shimmer with a new shine. The return to Master Chief and the focus on an integrated single and multiplayer experience is very encouraging for the series. Halo 4 is set to be released on November 6th this year, and we will be following it closely to see if 343's new vision finds favour with fans of this iconic Xbox story.
Halo 4 is set for release in New Zealand exclusively on the Xbox 360 November 6.