At an after-hours event at the Microsoft Xbox E3 booth, I was allowed in with a group of others to take a look at Halo 4 and play a match of the revamped multiplayer. The presentation was cool; and similar versions of it are available via YouTube. If you haven’t seen those however, it features the UNSC Infinity, which has been decommissioned and is off on some sort of Star Trek-ian “seek out new worlds and civilisations” voyage, and runs afoul of some bad voodoo.

I probably shouldn’t have found it surprising, but nevertheless, my eyebrow shot up when the first enemies encountered turned out to be covenant grunts and an elite. That doesn’t last though, as the elite in the group is vaporised by an unknown, off-screen, enemy. Master Chief soon find himself confronted by a group of crawlers, who look like dark dog-sized quadrupeds with glowing, crystalline heads. The explanation of them is that of the most generic low-level video game enemies you can find: They’re weak, but they can be overwhelming by their sheer numbers. They fire off a few shots of energy blasts, from their faces, I guess, and then appear to jump in for melee attacks. Unsurprisingly, they don’t pose much threat even in their numbers.

It’s not long before more significant foes come along though, and MC finds himself up against an armed biped and a hovering companion. The companion has the ability to catch grenades in some sort of gravitational field and then toss them back. The biped has an energy shield; not completely unlike the ones the jackals use, but definitely larger and squarer. After destroying him, the flying companion bugs out leaving the player to pick up a new weapon from the fallen enemy. It’s of forerunner design, and seems to automatically reconfigure itself to suit the race that wields it. With a mid-range scope and semi automatic fire, it’s an assault rifle, though the beam it shoots out looks to pack a heavy punch. Catching up with the flying droid enemy, MC tosses a grenade, which it catches, but then promptly drops on it’s allies that it has joined up with, as it is destroyed with one shot of the new weapon. The demo goes on to show the forerunner designed shotgun equivalent and the forerunner vision, however we were then treated to a multiplayer setup which would give us first-hand experience with these.

I was grouped with friend of ButtonMasher, Chris Legget, and GamePlanet associate Matt. We had a harrowing battle which led to a heart breaking defeat by 10 points; which by the new Halo 4 scoring system equates to a single kill. The deflation of the loss notwithstanding, this close match served to entirely renew my interest in Halo multiplayer and assuage any doubts I had regarding the passing of the torch from Bungie to 343 Industries.

Once upon a time shooters were going out of their way to become like Halo, generally by way of the adoption of the control scheme, nowadays Call Of Duty has become more of a trend-setter, and it seems that even Halo has succumbed, with the inclusion of the sprint ability as a basic function (it was available in Halo: Reach but only as an optional armour ability). Developers claimed that the ability didn’t really fit in with the other armour abilities, and they wanted to give the player that option regardless of their armour load out. The result was that I never felt like I was too far away from cover if things got hairy, and the age old problem of “where the hell is all the action?” was solved by sprinting through the lifeless areas of the map until someone started shooting at me.

One match is hardly enough time to get a solid impression of all the weapons available, but I did my best to pick up whatever random thing I could. The Assault Rifle, Battle Rifle, and the DMR were available in the default load outs, and they both feel appropriate for a Halo game. The Needler works as one would expect (I don’t want to draw assumptions based off a single kill, but maybe the projectiles are faster?). The sword also isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind. One fun weapon I did manage to find, however, was the M363 or “Sticky Detonator”. It’s a pistol sized weapon that fires a single grenades type projectile, which beeps and sticks to surfaces. One pull of the right trigger after the projectile is in play and it detonates quite spectacularly. The beeping and glow that it puts out means that players won’t fall for it much more than once, if that, but that’s doesn’t stop it from being a whole lot of fun to use. I also managed to get some time with the Forerunner Scattershot. If you’ve played an Unreal game, it’s a lot like a Flak Canon. Which I love. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s like a shotgun where the projectiles are quite visible and will actually ricochet off walls and still be damaging. The spread is such that it has better range than a standard shotgun, and clever aiming with the ricochets can help keep the spread down.

The Scattershot didn’t come to me randomly on the weapon spawn points, but rather through another aspect that’s another example of the CODification of Halo. Instead of measuring by simple kills, matches go by points. In this particular match, there was little too distinguish it, but after enough points were earned by a single player, the option to call down ordinance becomes available. By tapping on the D-pad, players can call down a weapon, or maybe something like an overshield. I always opted for the Scattershot, and it didn’t just appear in my hands. A drop pod appeared in the position I marked, and potentially anyone could have killed me and claimed it for themselves in the short time it took to arrive.

Armour abilities are returning, and the ones available were the Promethean Vision, Thruster Pack, Hardlight Shield, and the Hologram. I was too busy hunting for weapons to really get into these, but I did make sure to switch on the Promethean Vision. It highlights enemy positions even through walls in dark red whilst everything else appears blue. In this mode the spatial information of your surroundings becomes harder to discern, so it’s best used for a brief period to draw a bead on your enemies or detecting some cheeky monkey with optic camo. The hardlight shields and holograms being used by other players certainly made things interesting. Holograms function much like their Reach originals, but the Hardlight Shield manages to be pretty impenetrable, requiring some flanking strategies to get around it, grenades, or simply waiting for it to run out of juice.

It was an extremely positive experience, and though I’m sure some of it is attributable to relatively closely matched teams making for an exhilarating match (it seems unlikely that the typical Xbox Live opponents, just like any Halo game, will be that unskilled), but it managed to completely wipe clean whatever misgivings I had about Bungie parting ways, and shot Halo 4 up near the top of my E3 experiences. The multiplayer, for all the relatively subtle iterative changes, finally feels as close to the original fun I had with Halo 1 than I can ever remember.

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