Hands On with Halo 4: Maybe New Blood Isn’t So Bad

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For Halo 4, change was inevitable.

Bungie, the studio that created the series, moved on to new projects after 2010’s Halo: Reach, leaving Microsoft directly in charge. And while Bungie had polished the Halo formula to a fine gloss over the last decade, with that finesse came a feeling that the series had lost its creative spark. Microsoft has to prove that it can handle Halo 4 with care, and won’t simply rehash old ideas into oblivion.

At an E3 event held by Microsoft, I played a few rounds of Halo 4‘s competitive multiplayer and one cooperative mission from a mode called “Spartan Ops.” Though the new Halo doesn’t feel much different than the ones I’ve wasted hours on in my living room, there’s definitely a sense that Microsoft’s 343 Industries has stretched its legs now that Bungie’s gone.

Where Halo was once untouched by outside influences, you can now see signs of Call of Duty and other shooters. Players can sprint now, not just as an optional ability, but as a permanent one invoked by pressing the left thumbstick down. In competitive multiplayer, players earn ordinance drops that provide special weapons on the spot. For other power weapons scattered around the arena, players will see markers that show the way, eliminating the need to memorize the map’s hotspots. Instead of simply choosing from preset weapon loadouts, players will be able to create their own.

Despite those changes, I didn’t feel like I was playing a different game. Halo 4 is no twitchier than it was before; the familiar dance of gunfire, melee attacks and grenades — exchanged between two players who suddenly discover each other–remains intact. Halo 4‘s Call of Duty-like trappings may streamline the game, but they don’t fundamentally change it.

The meta-game of leveling up and building a character is a different story.

With Halo 4, players will be able to unlock new abilities and customizations as they play — breaking with a Bungie tradition of keeping all characters equal. It’s still not clear exactly how this system works, or which abilities will be locked away from the start, but this progression system is a fundamental change for Halo, and it won’t go over well with purists.

Other changes to the multiplayer universe seem less contentious. The aforementioned “Spartan Ops” mode is a collection of online cooperative missions, to be released in bundles of five every week after Halo 4 launches. The first “season” of these missions will be free, and will pack roughly as much play time as the game’s main single-player campaign.

In a short demo, I got to face off against Covenant foes, along with the new Forerunners, who glow orange and use high-tech weapons, and though they’re cool to look at, I don’t yet have a sense of how they change the game’s mechanics.

Halo is a series that needs change, and Microsoft has shown that it isn’t afraid to slay some sacred cows to get there. The merits of this approach will be debated by fans from now until the game’s November 6 launch on the Xbox 360, but I’d rather see big shake-ups — even contentious ones — than more of the same.

MORE: Check out Techland’s coverage of E3 2012