Halo 4 campaign hands-on preview: That old, familiar feeling

halo 4 single player preview

At some point, Master Chief is going to pull a Murtaugh. He’ll load up his rifle, recharge his shields, face down an encroaching horde of Covenant grunts and mutter, “I’m getting too old for this sh*t.” Then again, giant, biomechanically engineered super soldiers don’t have a whole lot of career options. What’s Spartan John-117 going to do? Just sleep in stasis forever? Sign autographs at Comic Con every year? Become an accountant? Taking on new extraterrestrial threats is pretty much all he’s got going on.

halo 4 preview master chief heads out on an alien world that feels all too familiar 2

Who is getting too old for this sh*t, however, is Cortana. In sitting down with Halo 4’s single player campaign at a recent Microsoft event, a 343 Industries representative talked up the sequel’s story-centric development. This approach is common in the masses of Halo comics, novels, and tie-ins but not in Bungie’s original game trilogy. At the start of the game’s third mission—the campaign has 10 chapters from what I could see in selection screen—Cortana’s mission for Master Chief this time out is personal. She’s dying, on “year 8 of 7” as it was described to me. She’s anxious for Chief to explore the Forerunner (those crazy cats responsible for the Halo doomsday weapon) planet Requiem before she goes completely insane from AI degradation.

A brief cutscene on the steely interior of the planet—Requiem is an artificial world—gives way to chief being warped to the surface in a rocky canyon area. It looks good, a nice visual upgrade over even 2010’s Halo: Reach, but it’s also overwhelmingly familiar. Master Chief has fought his way through many a canyon floor with an alien night sky above him, so this sample portion of Halo 4 doesn’t exactly excite with new vistas.

halo 4 campaign length

The Forerunner enemies are a bit different though. This demo sported some of the usual “it’s too quiet” suspense that the series has always traded in, but the bad guys that surprise you here are nasty techno-organic wolves rather than lizard soldiers. When they first attack, they surround Master Chief, bounding around him in a tight circle. It’s not an uncommon scenario in video games, but it does at least suggest that 343 is reconsidering how encounters work in Halo. After five games of Covenant enemies, vehicular combat, fights with heavies, giant tanks, and Flood plant monster blitzes, it’s nice to see a change, however small it might be.

halo 4 campaign previewSpeaking of the Flood, the new “hardlight” Forerunner guns that make up Halo 4’s expanded arsenal were apparently created to kill the Flood way back before Master Chief wiped them out. As gameplay elements though, they’re an unknown quantity. In the demo, they just seemed like the same old variety of ranged and short burst firearms, only with orange and blue lights coming out of them rather than the pink lights of  Covenant guns. Those blue and orange lights apparently say a lot about the Forerunner enemies themselves, who emit the same colors. 343 refused to elaborate on the colors’ meaning, but since it’s suggested in the demo that the Forerunners are an artificial intelligence civilization that uses other species’ bodies, the colors may indicate factions or sub-species within their culture. Seems like a good bet based on the Cortana/AI tale woven so far.

As I said after spending time with Halo 4’s multiplayer modes at E3 2012, 343’s game feels very much the same as its Bungie made predecessors albeit with subtly significant changes. We won’t know until November whether those changes equate to a revitalized franchise or not. Even if it isn’t a revolution though, another adventure with Chief shooting some aliens in a canyon sounds a-okay.

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