Halo 4 Hands-on Preview -- Welcome Back ChiefBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Sep 21, 2012
As you’d expect, 343 has put quite a bit of emphasis on the idea of reunion in all aspects of Halo 4; and rightfully so. Not only does it mark the studio’s first original Halo effort, but it also marks the return of Master Chief. You might recall at the end of Halo 3, Chief and his VR companion Cortana were hurtling through space aboard half of the Forward Unto Dawn. Chief put himself into stasis, telling Cortana to wake him when he was needed again. He would remain resting for almost five years, pulled back into action by a very confused (and quite scantily clad) Cortana after a bizarre energy blast tears through the ship, bringing its systems back online.
Playing off of the far less spooky structure of Halo's opening mission, 343 reintroduces players to Chief and Cortana in very much the same style in Halo 4’s first mission, entitled “Dawn.” Once Cortana comes back online, her first order of business is to defrost Chief. Once Chief’s systems are reactivated, the perspective shifts to Chief in his defrosting pod. Knowing that players will immediately question why Chief’s HUD is different than when Chief went to sleep, Cortana promptly explains that she updated your suit’s firmware while you were out.
A nice touch in this “rebirth” moment has Chief bracing his hands against the frozen glass door as he comes to. It doesn’t seem like much, but it emphasizes the way 343 has approached presentation for Halo 4, especially in terms of how Chief expresses himself and behaves when players are behind his visor. As 343 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill explained, “It was an important goal for us with ‘Dawn’ to sort of express our storytelling intent…it’s really about setting some tone for the rest of the campaign.”
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Before Cortana lets you out of your pod, you must, as always, prove that you can move your head in some fashion, and while Cortana doesn’t make you look at four markers like you were forced to in the original game, you do have to target over an overhead marker, which is oddly a piece of the pod engraved with a big “X” on it, killing two birds with one look as this also serves to teach you that X is the action button. Again, the whole sequence is designed to feel eerily familiar while setting the darker, weightier tone 343 is bringing to the entire campaign.
Once Chief is up and running, he downloads Cortana and proceeds to explore the derelict ship for any signs of what pulled he and Cortana from their slumber. The majority of the game’s first 15 minutes or so has a clear sci-fi/horror vibe to it, as you skulk from moodily lit hallways flanked with fiery debris and blasted out walls to abandoned storage areas and the like.
At one point, Chief, in another of those “reiterating his physicality” moments, finds himself climbing up an elevator shaft. As you climb, debris starts raining down, so you’re jumping between ledges as you climb, until eventually you reach a safe area to pull yourself up. However, just as you do, a Covenant elite--in keeping with the whole survival-horror theme--lunges at you, thrusting his razor sharp teeth-lined quad-jaws in your face, giving you the perfect opportunity to learn/relearn that the RB button dishes out your melee attack.
Eventually, you get the chance to deliver some classic Chief brutality on some familiar faces, namely the Covenant, and boy, are they plentiful and still none too happy to see you. I won’t ruin any of the big reveals, but when the Covenant do show up, they do so in force. But as has been the case in previous Halo games, the Covenant are only half of the problem.
The other half are the Prometheans, aka the Forerunners, aka the mysterious Halo-building race that has long since been a classic McGuffin in the Halo games but is now getting its moment to shine its terrifying and badass shine (and by that I’m only partially referring to the vibrant orange lava energy kind of shine they have pulsing across their bodies and weapons).
Being able to finally bring the Forerunners to life, and to take players to their home world for the first time, has been a huge point of pride for 343, but with it brings the perfect opportunity to make a significant stamp on the Halo legacy, the kind of stamp a team comprised of diehard Halo fans would kill to make. Luckily, no one had to die for them to get the chance.
I got my first in-game look at the Prometheans during the game’s third mission, “Forerunner.” Chief and Cortana find themselves on the Promethean planet of Requiem. The planet itself stands in stark contrast to the lush, vibrant, and even heavily urbanized settings seen in previous games, with its red rock mountains and desert plains. When mixed with the sort of aboriginal musical themes and sound effects (there is even a sort of didgeridoo-esque hum that sort of floats in and out of the score), the level has an Australian outback sort of feel, which creates a nice juxtaposition with the Prometheans supremely advanced technology.
In addition to having an entirely unique look and feel compared to the Covenant, the Prometheans also have different combat strategies that completely change how you approach battles. It also doesn’t help matters that some of the lower level troops are deadlier than Elite Covenants. In other words, prepare to bring your A-kicking game.
While there are obviously plenty of higher tier enemies we have yet to see, the ones we did see were no joke. The Promethean grunt, aka Crawler, is this sort of wild dog creature that hunts in packs. They can scale walls, and are extremely quick. The Promethean Knight is the Covenant Elite-ish class, but with one supremely mean twist: they can sprout a drone called a Watcher that not only shoots freaking laser beams but can also heal the Knight, which forces you to change your tactics since you have to decide if you want to try and take down the hard-to-target drone or the Knight before they can be healed.
The Prometheans themselves are gnarly creatures for sure, but their weapons happen to be rather badass as well. You’ve no doubt seen some of them in action in various trailers and dev diaries as they are rather hard to miss on account of the orange energy that pulsates through them and some actually piece themselves together when you equip them. There’s a nice variety to the weapon types, from a pistol (i.e. Boltshot) that sports an overcharge function that unleashes a devastating shotgun-caliber blast to deadly accurate pulse rifles and more.
Mission 3 ends with a massive reveal that I can’t spoil, and a classic Halo-y cinematic escape sequence that sees Chief hauling ass through explosive caverns on a Ghost. In terms of getting across Halo 4’s ambitious scope, Mission 3 is a doozy. It also sets the stage for the rest of the campaign and establishes some clear tonal and presentational elements that will no doubt have huge implications later on in the story.
Halo 4’s competitive multiplayer is now housed under the banner War Games, as multiplayer now takes place on the UNSC ship Infinity with Spartan cadets competing against one another in virtual training simulators. We got to try out a new team-based mode call Dominion, which tasks two teams with capturing, fortifying, and resupplying three bases scattered across the map. Once the base is captured, players can install turrets and other defenses to keep it protected. To win, one team has to resupply and hold all three bases and kill any opposing forces left on the battlefield.
It’s sort of a mix between King of the Hill and Territories with a sprinkling of Horde mode on top. As such, there’s plenty of tug-of-war going on, so no lead is safe for long. And because you’re constantly scrambling from base to base to keep them secure, the matches are especially frantic and lively as vehicles and players crisscross the map to get to the next position.
We played on the new snow-covered map entitled Longbow, which suit the mode perfectly since it’s just big enough to make vehicles useful but not so massive that you can’t traverse the relevant areas on foot. Plus, one of the bases is elevated and built into a mountain side, and is across from one base and overlooking the other, so it’s a great way to quickly travel between bases without having to worry about a Warthog running you over. I’m a sucker for objective-based multiplayer modes, so naturally I had a blast with Dominion, and can’t wait to see it in its final form in a couple months.
It’s certainly no enviable task to take over one of the most beloved franchises in all of gaming and be tasked with trying to make it feel both familiar and new while also telling the most epic story in the series to date. But from what I saw and played during my time with the game, 343 is well on track to meeting the incredibly intimidating goal it set out for itself. But we’ll have to wait until November 6, 2012 to see if that lofty goal is met.