I don’t know how useful impressions are anymore just three days out, but hey, I’ll get it out of the way now rather than later. For those worried about spoilers, the talk here will be very general in nature; I’m certainly not in the business of ruining the experience of others.
Jumping into Campaign first was the obvious course of action. Let me get this out of the way first: people who say Normal is the new Heroic are crazy. Halo 4′s Heroic is fairly easy, certainly not anywhere near any previous Legendary level of challenge as some have said. To keep the difficulty talk together, I did play the first couple of levels on Legendary, and it was no problem. The difficulty has been overblown pretty significantly (The two campaign challenges this week are completing the first level on Legendary, and completing a mission on Heroic or harder with Thunderstorm on; I combined the two and I died twice on the first level. Take that as you will.). Heroic took me roughly six and a half or seven hours of actual gameplay, which is in line with previous Halo games for me. I found several terminals, though I did not unlock the achievement for finding all of them, so there must have been some places I missed.
A review was posted in Vire’s Review Thread (which publication it was eludes me at the moment) that stated that Halo 4 is to Halo 3 as Halo 2 is to Halo 1. I wholeheartedly agree with this as far as the campaign goes. Those expecting large, Ark-style vehicular arena sections should keep their expectations in check–the vehicle sections in the game are more restricted in nature, though still a good time. As with the campaign in Halo 2, the game largely focuses on strong interior combat, or at least small-scale infantry battles. If you were expecting big vehicle sections, Spartan Ops has you covered–the first chapter of episode 1 is a massive vehicle sequence. That’s not to say there isn’t any fun to be had in vehicles in the campaign or anything, just that it’s not of the scale that some are expecting. The vehicles, by the way, control fantastically. The Warthog is heavy again–it is heavy like the Halo 2 Warthog, tending to land on its wheels and slam down to the ground, but retains the “ability” to be affected by physics impulses like grenades, the concussion rifle, etc. Focusing on smaller scale encounters has its own set of benefits, though. The core infantry combat is as good in Halo 4 as it has ever been in the series. The former Covenant species still fight with a fantastic mix of styles, and that dynamic is alive and well. Everybody knows the feeling of popping an Elite’s shield, having him duck away, and being forced to pursue and finish what you started. It was great. It is still great.
But what about the Prometheans? 343′s new enemies bring some unique flavor to the combat, flavor that meshes very well with the core Halo mechanics. Here is their combat loop, in a nutshell: Kill the Watcher. Kill the Watcher, because he’s a dick. Kill the Watcher, and everything else is cake. Pop the Crawlers with a single headshot, that’s enough to put all variants of them down. Then hammer on the Knights until their shields burst, reload, and hit their heads. I know that sounds simplistic and reductive, but it’s a loop that is engaging, and more importantly, fun through and through. There is a little less room for improvisation in this enemy set than the Covenant, though. The Watcher’s death is of vital importance, if only because his Archvile-style enemy resurrection is equal parts annoying, panic-inducing, and terrifying. There has been some talk about whether or not the lack of variety hurts the replayability of the Promethean-heavy levels, but I don’t necessarily think it does. Look at it like this: better a few well-designed enemy classes than meaningless overlap of function like the Halo 2 Brutes or the Drone/Skirmisher role conflict. The AI for both enemy factions is still best-in-class, with Knights teleporting to safety as their shields pop, Watchers folding their wings to make their profile smaller as they take fire, Elites ducking behind cover when they’ve been compromised, and Grunts occasionally deciding to enable the Martyrdom perk. Protip: Kill the Needler guys first, because if there are more than a couple of them you’re going to die. Friendly AI is most certainly not best-in-class. Following a well-known Halo tradition, UNSC forces are morons. They will hesitate before firing the chaingun, they’ll target the Ghost behind the hill instead the Wraith that is boosting into you (which by the way, will explode your Warthog now), they’ll even fire at corpses for a good second before moving onto a new target. Someday I hope a game releases with decent friendly AI, but this aint it. Armor abilities in the campaign are often fairly perfunctory, with three of them (jetpack, Promethean Vision, and thruster) being used in what I would consider a tailored fashion, with them being perfect for the scenarios in which they are placed. Before moving on to very, very loose story talk, I should mention (given previous articles) that damage and weapon feedback is overall nearly as good as it was in Reach, and that is the case for both Campaign and War Games. The Prometheans have subtler signs of damage that I don’t know I have entirely figured out, but a shield burst effect on the Knights is still readily apparent, and their susceptibility to headshots is indicated by their bright skulls being revealed to the player. They have significant other feedback issues, but that will have to wait until screenshots are available on Waypoint.
Edit: I’ve removed the story section to be as courteous as possible to the readers. There wasn’t much here, and certainly nothing specific, but I figure nothing is better than something in this case.
I’ll quickly mention Spartan Ops by saying that it seems like it has the potential to be totally awesome. Each of the five chapters of Episode 1 took me about 15 minutes, solo Heroic. Those 15 minutes consist of one or two encounters with a few narrative hooks in the form of comm audio. Over an hour of what is essentially campaign content each week (the quality bar is often up there with the campaign gameplay) sounds like a great promise. At the time of this post I haven’t viewed the the CG episode that accompanies the missions, since at the time my playtime was limited. I’ll get around to it and try to update this with impressions of that as well. Challenges for Spartan Ops are weekly, and I would assume that each episode has that week’s challenges tailored towards it (I was able to complete all of the Spartan Ops challenges in one playthrough plus replays of two missions). One of those replays was in coop over Live, after waiting a significant amount of time to find a match for the second mission. Some bad news: coop netcode is still awful. I wasn’t lucky enough to be chosen as host, so I was instead bestowed with a full second of input lag. I don’t know where my teammate was located, it’s entirely possible he was European, so maybe it wasn’t an ideal scenario in the first place. I did notice that the enemy encounters were not tailored for player count, so solo players will have a more difficult time than those who play with 3 friends (hopefully on LAN), just as is the case for former campaign playthroughs.
There are some fantastic encounters in the two PvE components of this game. There will be some amazing stories that players will want to tell. That’s why I hope 343 stays true to the hints they recently gave about patching in campaign theater. I guess I’ll say that a part of me thinks that the panorama/campaign screenshot community will have a little less joy if it does come back, because the incredibly high-resolution skyboxes and vast 3D backdrops with amazing draw distance that past Halos have done so well are almost entirely gone. They have, unfortunately, been replaced with relatively low-resolution 2D skyboxes. I spend a lot of time in Halo games zooming in with an assault rifle and staring into the distance. This now results in an obviously compressed jpeg appearing in my view The game looks fantastic otherwise, so I suppose some corners did have to be cut in order to achieve that. Not a huge deal, but worth mentioning.
I’ve spent between 7 and 9 hours in multiplayer as well, and I’ve reached SR-25 in that time. The process is accelerated to such a degree that at one point, between SR-8 and SR-13, I had earned five levels in three Infinity Slayer games. Granted, I was going +25 or more in each, but still. The challenge rewards for campaign and Spartan Ops are such that gaining enough XP to begin crafting a loadout will be much less arduous than I had anticipated (spending the last three months as a Nova in Reach has made me jaded). I currently have three custom loadouts, each using either the DMR or Light Rifle, and either Jetpack or Promethean Vision, all of which use Mobility and Dexterity. It’s not that I don’t like the Battle Rifle–I do, but I’ve had such great success with the DMR that the BR will find a place somewhere in my fourth loadout at SR-29 (I believe that’s the number, at least). I want to put something to rest: Promethean Vision is not useless because of the inclusion of the radar. Promethean Vision is ridiculously powerful. You can see from end to end on Haven with it, easily. You can see the enemy team spawning on their end of Solace from your base with it. I’ll get into this when I talk about my time in CTF, but PV is essential for at least one member of each team. And I abuse it readily while simultaneously being disdainful of its existence. I alternate it and jetpack as my needs shift from match to match. Take all of this and the following with a grain of salt (anybody who makes a salt joke in their head while reading this is going to be slapped), as none of the MP stuff is even capable of being properly judged until sometime next month when people have figured out the intricacies of each system overlaid above the basic mechanics.
I think this is a good spot to inject a bit of positivity before I go on. Mechanically, as far as the weapons, player movement, etc. go, Halo 4 is a fantastic game. Everything feels powerful, I feel like I’m in control of my ability to murder internet men, I can make jumps with ease. That’s what everybody has said at various events that’s played the game and I agree. If the structure of the matches hearkened back to old Halo games, I’d be hard pressed to find a better Halo multiplayer experience. Having said that, the overarching structure, mostly involving Global Ordnance, starts to diminish that euphoria.
The “Searching for Games” screen is super weird now. It has player cards that extend off the screen that say either “Looking for Player” or “Incoming.” You can’t scroll across them as people start to come in, so you have to rely on a small bit of text that says something to the effect of “Players Found – X/Total.” It’s just a weird change to throw out the classic Halo lobby/matchmaking system and replace it with this. The lobbies themselves are fine in terms of layout, if not necessarily in function. I don’t love the player cards (they don’t animate very smoothly), but it gets the job done. I’d prefer Active Roster, but maybe next time (By the way, the chicken emblem is called Active Rooster. That shit is hilarious.). The voting lobby in matchmaking is the same as the custom game lobby that we’ve all seen, but the top section just contains three voting options. Once you vote, it pulls up the player cards and you can not scroll back up and change your vote. Two things that bother me: The service record is still buried, and there is no indicator of who is in a party with who. I loved that the Active Roster let you know when a team of Inheritors was going to dump on you so I could prepare myself for Banshee abuse. No longer. Patch it in!
I can now say that I hate Join in Progress and be able to back it up. I’ve been matched up with people and gone into a voting screen like classic Halo maybe ten or fifteen times out of thirtyish games. The rest have all been JIP games, and most of them have been in situations where one team was dramatically outscoring the team I was joining. I joined a BTB IS game where the score was 700-250. They had thirty kills left until the end of the game and were 45 kills ahead of my team. They were a full party, with matching emblems and clan tags. I was a random on a team of randoms. There was no way I was going to stay in there after the match was over to get a fresh match with a voting screen, because it would just result in me being put with a bunch of people who very obviously couldn’t keep up with the enemy team. Welcome to Join in Progress if you don’t have a team to play with. There is no toggle for JIP when searching that I could find. Patch it in!
I began in Infinity Slayer, after seeing its population of 400 while other playlists, including CTF and Dominion, sat at a sad, lonely 30ish players. A vision of the future, folks. I was pleased to see that starting ordnance is static. The Sticky Detonator always spawns on the top right side (looking from the blue spawn) of Haven. The incineration cannon always spawns bottom mid on Solace. Opening rushes are alive and well in Halo 4 multiplayer. Beyond that, I had no idea what was spawning when or where, and it was frustrating. The initial ordnance spots do not necessarily seem to dictate where future ordnance will spawn, so a Railgun may appear below my team’s snipe ledge on Solace, or a totally different weapon might spawn on their side in a totally different location. Call me unwilling to change, call me closed-minded, but Infinity Slayer is structurally so different to the classic Halo Slayer match that I was becoming more than slightly annoyed when I would see a poof of smoke on their side of the map and then a bright blue railgun round flying towards my face. All of the above is Global Ordnance. Personal Ordnance on top of that just kind of solidifies IS’s place as a semi-wacky fun time gametype rather than a Squad Slayer sort of semi-serious experience. For me, Halo matches are interesting to me because of the circuits created as players push to weapon locations before they spawn because they have the knowledge to do so. They can predict, with a relative degree of certainty, what it means when the enemy is at a certain location at a certain time and then (this is key) they can adjust their tactics to compensate. There is still adjustment of tactics in Halo 4 IS, don’t get me wrong. The difference is that it occurs after the event has taken place, not before. That prediction element is impossible. Maybe I’ll grow to love it (though I do currently like it), but it doesn’t leave a wonderful first impression when the alternative is a hyper-stripped-down experience with Slayer Pro. I like radar, call me crazy. I like having all the armor abilities and loadout options available to me. I just don’t like the change in match structure that randomizing drops brings to the table.
After a while, as more people started to get the game, Dominion’s population rose and I was able to get a few matches in. I’ll start off by saying that I really like the idea of Dominion. I like evolving the Territories concept by making the individual territory important to maintain control of instead of being able to shrug and go for another one to replace it. The escalating resupplies certainly achieve that. But here’s the thing. I hate Heavies, I really do. It has ruined 2 iterations of Big Team Battle for me. Dominion, as it escalates, basically becomes Heavies, or the third phase of Invasion. At one point I had a Binary Rifle, there were two other Binary Rifles untouched below the middle base on Vortex, and there were two Incineration Cannons waiting to be picked up at the A base. On top of that, there were two Wraiths waiting to be spawned. I love the idea of Dominion, I really do. But it turns into Heavies pretty quickly, and that will preclude me from getting very involved in it.
There was a challenge to win two King of the Hill games, so I spent a bit of time in there as well. King remains largely unchanged, with a few small but important differences. The spawning is still Crazy King style, as far as I could tell, but the hill does not have a visible constantly ticking timer until it moves. Instead, each hill has 25 seconds of time that only deplete when someone controls the hill. When that count starts to get low, a new hill marker labeled UPCOMING appears and that’s where the new hill will appear. It takes some of the guesswork out of KOTH, and is a great change. I believe there still is an invisible timer where it can change on its own, though. This is as good a place as any to mention this. I played King on Ragnarok. It’s a 5v5 playlist. Ten people, two mantises, two banshees, two ghosts, two warthogs, four mongeese. It’s kind of ridiculous. I was hoping that the vehicle count we had seen was just the BTB variant, but I guess not.
I finally got a few CTF games in. I’ve talked about the changes to CTF to death, on this very site no less. I’ll say this, and hopefully not ramble on too long. Stealth in CTF is dead. The games I played all had PV users hanging around their base pulsing it regularly, and I was caught every time I tried to sneak in. There is no way to sneak in to get the flag (due to PV), or sneak out with it (due to the waypoint). I desperately hope that something is done about this, because stealthing was my favorite part of Halo CTF. It was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most important and defining strategies for the gametype. Let me be clear: New CTF is still fun. But it’s the high fructose corn syrup Coke to classic CTF’s cane sugar Coke. I don’t know why I use Coke as an analogy for fun. Coke is not fun, kids.
Aside from some time spent in Big Team Slayer (which I desperately hope gets some objective gametypes soon), that’s the menu I’ve been ordering from the last few days.
Halo 4, judging the base gameplay from a mechanical standpoint, is a great game. I won’t do the ranking each game in the series thing, because it’s totally dumb, but it has potential to sit near the top of the list that I’m not going to write down ever, largely depending on how they support multiplayer and how well the PvE holds up on replays. And it manages to get that spot on the not-list in large part because whatever its problems, it’s just a damn fun game when everything is working properly. On a very basic mechanical level, it feels right. I can lament some of the key changes all I want, and I certainly will continue to do so because I think there’s some definite, tangible improvements (even if some of them are recessions to previous gametype iterations) to be made, but at the end of the day I just want to keep playing. I should be able to get a few more hours in on that Xbox before the game launches, and I’m excited to do it all over again on my own profile, in my own chair, with a full team helping me actually see a voting screen.