Preview: Halo 4

We've spent four years without a word from Master Chief - not that he said a whole lot to begin with - but the franchise's new keepers, 343 Industries, are just about done working on Halo 4.

NameSci-fi first-person shooter: Halo 4
Summary:So far, so good - 343 Industries seems to love Halo as much as fans do.
Games Info:Developer: 343 Industries; Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Classification:Not yet rated
Platform:Xbox 360
Test Platform:Xbox 360

Wake up, Chief. We need you.

We've spent four years without a word from Master Chief - not that he said a whole lot to begin with - but the franchise's new keepers, 343 Industries, are just about done working on Halo 4.

The series' creators, Bungie, let go of the reins after producing Halo: Reach, a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. Fans were initially concerned that 343 wouldn't 'get' Chief and the Halo universe. Since then, 343 has produced map packs for Reach, as well as an HD remake for Combat Evolved. But if you're still not convinced that the developer's got it under control, just wait until you get your first taste of Halo 4.

I played a couple of campaign levels, and a bit of competitive multiplayer (the game mode is called War Games) and some co-op missions (Spartan Ops). Full disclosure: I'm a huge fan of the series as a whole. But I could have so easily been disappointed - I was also a huge Final Fantasy fan, and look what happened to that. But what I saw of Halo 4 was far from disappointing.

In the campaign, Master Chief is a lot more talkative this time around. Long-time fans of the franchise may be shocked to hear that Chief uttered several sentences before killing anything. It seemed to be a reflection of his relationship with his friend the artificial intelligence, Cortana.

Cortana is nearing the end of her lifespan - AI in the Halo universe lives to around seven, and she's eight. Chief seems genuinely concerned about her as she spirals into something called 'rampancy', which presents in a similar way to human dementia. But Master Chief and Cortana have a new threat to face and the AI's descent into illness adds a sense of impending doom.

Promethean enemies

In the first level we played, Chief and Cortana make their way around a planet, called Requiem, inhabited by the new enemies, the Prometheans. Like the Covenant, there are several different types of Promethean enemies, but they seem even less human than the Covenant did.

Crawlers are more like wall-walking attack dogs than sentient creatures. They climb up cliffs and jump long distances to reach you. When I first faced a couple, I just popped them in the face with my pistol and then wondered whether I should up the difficulty. However, when these fiery little creatures attack in swarms, you quickly learn how to run away. You also have to watch your back: they can leap in behind you when you're not looking and it can be hard to tell that you're surrounded. The radar seems to make it a little less obvious and an enemy's red marker will quickly fade if they're not moving.

You'll also find the 'knights' among the ranks of the Prometheans. They're tougher enemies - probably equivalent in difficulty and frequency to Covenant Elites, if not a bit harder. On their own, knights require quite a few bullets but are otherwise not so hard to beat. But they're often accompanied by watchers, who heal and shield them. If that's not enough, both knights and watchers are very good at quickly moving into cover when hurt. It took practice before I was able to effectively dispatch both enemies.

New weapons and improvements to existing gear

With new enemies comes new weaponry - and what weaponry it is. The Promethean guns have an added effect that makes dead enemies essentially burn up into ash, leaving only their guns behind. Many of the guns are similar to existing weaponry, such as the shotgun-equivalent Scattershot, but that doesn't mean they feel the same - one-shotting your enemy into oblivion makes you feel ultra-badass.

In my preview, I most commonly encountered the Promethean Suppressor and Boltshot. The Suppressor is an automatic weapon that fires bolts of something called 'hardlight', which in practice looks a lot like bolts of fire or, well, light. There's a lot of bloom with the Suppressor, so it's not ideal for headshotting enemies, but it is good for the ol' spray-and-pray technique. The Boltshot is similar to the Magnum pistol, and can be fired as rapidly as you can pull the trigger.

You can pick up and play with all of these weapons - you'll have to, because ammo for Master Chief's standard weapons is pretty scarce when he's on a Forerunner planet. But you can also play with the weapons you know and love, and they feel new again. A lot of that is to do with the audio and controller vibration, but some of the less powerful weapons from previous games - like the pink spike shooting Needler - appear to have had a major upgrade.

During the campaign segment, we only really had a chance to try out one new armour ability, the hardlight shield. While the ability is active, Master Chief holds up a shield made of hardlight as if it were a riot shield, but he can't use any weapons. If you're red-lining, you can pop it up to give you time to get into cover, or you can use it to ward off sniper shots when you know they're coming.

Combo move

Things get really interesting when you run into both the Prometheans and Covenant forces together. The battlefield suddenly goes from one vs. many to one vs. many vs. many.

When I first walked into an area where there were both Covenant and Promethean armies, I stood back and watched them fight amongst each other for some time before I stepped in to clean up the remainder. But you can also charge in and kill them all while they're distracted fighting each other. It might sound as though these three-on-three battles make the game easier, but they don't - when you first encounter the two forces together, that's when the game starts to get difficult.

Beyond the campaign

The focus of Halo 4 is very much on story, and on working that story into all elements of the game.

That becomes especially clear when you play Spartan Ops. In Spartan Ops, you create and customise your own Spartan character, who is then sent on various missions. Each week, a new set of five missions - known as chapters - will be released, and when put together those missions tell another piece of the Halo story.

During the preview session, I played through a vehicle-based mission that involved speeding around in Warthogs, Wraiths and Ghosts, working as a team to take out enemies infiltrating an area. In another mission, I had to fight my way through an area with a not-insignificant number of sword-carrying Elites, trying to avoid getting sliced into stir-fry sized pieces.

Spartan Ops is co-op for up to four players, but at the end of a mission, your kills and deaths are tallied up and you're ranked to provide a competitive element.

Of course, the real competition comes when you play War Games. I played a game of Team Slayer on a remade Valhalla, which many Halo fans will be familiar with. This time, however, there's an unfamiliar twist: mechs placed at each end of the map. Mechs are incredibly powerful, and I made the mistake of picking up a rocket launcher early in the game but expending all my ammo, leaving me nothing to use against the Spartans in giant walking robot suits. Without some kind of vehicle or power weapon, mechs are virtually impossible to take down - it requires serious flanking and teamwork. When setting up to play online multiplayer, you can choose loadouts that include the Promethean weapons, and I wanted more time with the new guns so I was playing with the Boltshot and Suppressor. With the mechs in play, however, I quickly regretted not setting up a loadout that included a plasma pistol.

The remarkable thing about all of the game modes was the polish. Everything - graphics, art, audio, script - has been preened and cleaned, then tweaked and tested.

Halo 4 is the game you know and love, made new. I walked into the preview room excited but uncertain, and walked out wondering whether I could wait until 6 November without suffering from a little rampancy myself.

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Tags Microsoft343 IndustriesXboxbungieXBox 360halo 4halo

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Siobhan Keogh

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