Things were still frantic at Microsoft’s 343 Industries studio in Kirkland, formerly home to Bungie. Although key members of the development team had set aside the day to give select media the first hands-on experience with campaign gameplay and new Spartan Ops and War Games missions and maps, the rest of the 200 developers were in crunch mode as the November 9 global launch loomed.
“It’s been a long haul,” said Kiki Wolfkill, executive producer of Halo 4. “It’s been three years since we started developing the project and we’re now in the final stretch. This is an amazing time for us. Crunch time is always an emotionally intense time. We’re trying to make hard trade-off decisions and letting the feet off the gas. There’s a lot of excitement and anxiety to finally get the game out there with campaign and multiplayer first hands-on.”
Wolfill and the rest of her team have nothing to worry about. Halo 4, at least from the two campaign missions, two Spartan Ops missions, and half-day of War Games combat I played, delivers the patented blockbuster sci-fi experience that gamers have been waiting for. Passing the baton from Bungie to 343 Industries has been seamless from a gameplay perspective. With their involvement in the development of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary along with Saber Interactive and Certain Affinity, the team is keeping what fans love about the Halo franchise and pushing into new territory with Halo 4.
In Mission 1, “Dawn,” Master Chief is awakened by Cortana when a Covenant ship attacks. The action takes place in 2557, which is exactly 4 years, 7 months, and 10 days after Master Chief settled into cryo sleep at the end of Halo 3. Once awakened, the player needs to fight through the ship, which is being swarmed by Covenant soldiers. The big action set piece at the end of this level takes place outside in partial gravity with enemy ships coming in and Elites, Grunts, and Jackals engaging from every direction.
This level serves as an appetizer for Halo 4. In fact, the game’s logo doesn’t appear until after you’ve survived this exodus. It eases players back into the Halo gameplay and brings newbies up to speed on what’s going on in the Halo universe. Things are both familiar and fun.
The game’s third mission, “Forerunner,” introduces the Prometheans to the mix. It changes everything. Master Chief and Cortana are trapped on the planet Requium, and are tracking a signal that’s from the UNSC Infinity. This level introduces all-new gameplay mechanics for contending with the Premethean threats. And all three are formidable challenges. They’re as different from the Covenant enemies as you can get. And with the latter part of the mission, players will actually be taking on both Covenant and Promethean enemies at the same time. (Luckily, they also are fighting each other when not engaging with Master Chief.)
There are three major enemies that players will be fighting from this new alien race — Knights, Watchers, and Crawlers. Any combination of them requires a different strategy. Knights can phase in and out of time, Crawlers can walk on walls and ceilings and they can attack like a pack of feral dogs. Watchers are a support class. They can regenerate Knights and actually fit inside Knights to protect them. The Prometheans will coordinate their efforts, which makes battling them extremely challenging.
“We want the Prometheans to feel like the most advanced enemies in the world,” said Brad Welch, lead multiplayer designer, Halo 4. “The Prometheans introduce a half-dozen new weapons which are a cross between being human-designed and these crazy and futuristic designs. It was important to be able to identify that a shotgun is a shotgun. Each weapon comes together and forms in your hand when you pick it up, and there’s a glowing energy stream that runs through the barrel to give the weapons a sense of life.”
As challenging as the Prometheans are to fight, it’s imperative to find their discarded weapons in taking the battle back. Once you get a hold of these weapons you might not want to go back to UNSC or Covenant arms (unless you’re forced to). Each weapon has dual fire modes like the bolt pistol, which has a shotgun blast that when you hold and charge it up can perform a one-hit kill. I also like their grenades, which can be used strategically to take out a large number of enemies. These enemies are very smart.
Not that you’ll have much time to take in the scenery, but watching these Prometheans die is always a unique experience. That’s because an enemy will de-res from the location of your kill shot. Perform a headshot kill (which is really the only way to get these enemies efficiently), and watch their bodies slowly and colorfully evaporate. Fire off a ton of rounds at a Crawler and watch as that last leg shot serves as the origin for the final seconds of its life. It’s this type of cool little detail that shows how far 343 has gone in crafting a living, breathing world that you’ll want to lose yourself in.
“Spartan Ops is our new episodic cooperative gameplay that’s part of our Halo Infinity multiplayer experience,” said Wolfkill. “There’s War Games, which is our competitive multiplayer game experience and there’s Spartan Ops, which is our cooperative episodic experience. Every week you’ll get a story episode with five missions. We have an amazing story arc planned out. It’s like a TV show that you get to play with your friends featuring some characters from the campaign.”
I was able to team up with three others and play through a pair of new Spartan Ops missions — Land Grab and Sniper Alley. It was my first time playing this new four-player co-op. And I highly recommend that gamers enter Halo 4 through this cool new mode. Even replaying the missions was fun because of the open sandbox gameplay and the four unique players taking out Covenants in a desert landscape always played out differently. The ability to play with big toys like the new Gauss Warthog and Covenant vehicles in Land Grab adds another dimension to gameplay. While there was more on-foot action in Sniper Alley and a different feel to the pacing.
Before jumping into a mission, players are able to gear up their soldier from head to toe. The amount of customization is amazing. You can customize up to five load outs. There are primary weapons, secondary weapon, grenades, armor capabilities, tactical packages and upgrades. Everything will be unlockable in the game, including all of those cool new Promethean weapons. How you equip your Spartan will impact your success in a mission, as will how good your teammates are. Playing together is important. This mode is something I see people jumping back into and playing again and again just for fun.
343 unveiled a brand new Dominion mode for War Games and a new “Solace” map, inspired by a Promethean environment. Dominion is a six-on-six game that’s on two teams and three bases. And things get really crazy really fast.
“These three teams are fighting over these three bases and, as a team, you’re charged with capturing bases, fortifying them, and resupplying them,” said Welch. “That’s how your team gets points. When you capture a base — you can take it from either the beginning of the match or you can steal it from an enemy team — it becomes allegiant to you. It will drop weapons for you. The turrets will only shoot at your enemies. The shield doors come online. And that’s all through the fortification phase. Once it’s fortified, the base just gets larger and all sorts of weapons come up, shield doors, turrets. Vehicle pads start charging and then once the base starts resupplying, your team is going to earn more points and weapons will start dropping on the base. That’s how you get lots of power weapons — either by attacking the other bases or defending your own base.”
This mode changes the strategies involved in team-based play. And with teams constantly trying to arm and disarm bases – outside of the normal killing everything in an opposing colored uniform – there’s a constant ebb and flow in battles. It makes for a fast and fun experience that makes you want to keep coming back for more. There will be four maps at launch, and I was able to play two of them – “Longbow” and “Exile.”
“Longbow has three really well-defined bases that are entrenched in hills in very strategic locations,” said Welch. “There’s a base on the high ground that spawns flying vehicles and the low ground bases spawn the ground vehicles. That was our first prototype map for the mode and it’s really evolved.”
In “Exile” there’s a base inside a crashed ship that’s in the center of the map and the others are in the military encampments that are from the survivors of the crashed ship around the other side of the map. The turrets are positioned in a way that they defend the base if someone is coming at them, but they’re not so overpowering that you don’t just run and die when you run at them. They force you to take a different road towards the base or they help a player defend it.
I was also able to play other maps. There’s the new “Solace” map, which features two bases laid out in symmetrical fashion and has a Promethean environment. Welch said it’s best for five-on-five Capture the Flag, or four-on-four Team Slayer. It has similarities to “Narrows” from Halo 3, but it holds its own as a very unique map. 343 also showed off “Haven,” which is a small, really hyper-competitive Forerunner map, and “Adrift,” which is set up like an abandoned UNSC mining vessel.
Multiplayer, clearly a focus for the team at 343, is shaping up to be an experience that will evolve over time and keep things fresh for those who want to continue their immersion in this massive new saga. The gameplay stands out, much like the campaign levels, as being both familiar, yet new. That’s a tough balance to keep. But with so much anticipation and the bar raised so high for Halo 4, it’s looking like 343 will deliver on all levels.