Considering 343 Industries' inherited love of numerology, it's only fitting that we take a look back at Halo 4 now that we've had seven days to immerse ourselves in its campaign, co-op, Spartan Ops and War Games suite.
Now that the multiplayer community is up and running (and the first major update is live), we can get stuck into the myriad changes that 343 have made to the formula, both large and subtle. Everything old is new again, and despite my early reservations, almost everything new is a change for the better. Almost everything. Indeed, it provides us with a new a weekly event that will soon become a permanent calendar fixture.
Once you've browsed through Matt's 9/10 Halo 4 review, allow us to expand on how 343 Industries have delivered a nigh-complete package that corrals cooperation, competition, fan service and innovation that allows it to overcome what could have been a fairly disappointing campaign.
Campaign Second Opinion: Great & Narrow
Halo 4's campaign is a beast of major extremes. The gorgeous visuals, expansive skyboxes and the beautifully-realised world of Requiem all promise huge scale and scope, but the maps themselves end up being disappointingly narrow. Halo has always been a corridor crawl, but here, the corridor never opens up into the massive freeform playgrounds that defined Halo 1 and 3. The best moments of the campaign are scripted and linear, such as the Mantis and Scorpion battles, meaning that what should have been 'water cooler' moments become compulsory for all. There's no real choice, little in the way of unique emergent gameplay opportunities to boast about to other players.
At about six hours long on Heroic difficulty, lacking the infinitely replayable pitched battles of its predecessors (Two Betrayals, The Ark and Delta Halo spring to mind), I daresay that many players emerged from the campaign feeling slightly underwhelmed.
However, the outstanding moment-to-moment Halo gameplay is still intact and as fresh as ever, carried by vastly improved sound design. The Magnum snaps and clicks, while the once-limp Covenant Plasma pistol now snarls and roars as it rips ferocious bursts of neon energy out of its battery. Everything feels potent and powerful, not least the Master Chief himself, who is now firmly rooted in the world as a dominating presence. Everything from the newly-designed visor HUD to the first level, that sees you powerfully hauling up a sheer surface in one of the only good QTEs in gaming history, makes you feel like an eight foot tall cyborg warrior. The storyline is also exceptional (and surprisingly moving), especially if you go out of your way to locate the heartfelt and thought-provoking terminals.
Though it's not quite as wide as we'd have liked, Halo 4's campaign is still a great start for 343i, and a promising harbinger of things to come. That said, it'll likely be sidelined by many in favour of one of the most competent console multiplayer suites on the market.
War Games: Get Set To Come Out Swinging!
Halo 4 multiplayer is still a ridiculous and satisfying endeavour that's uniquely accessible and empowering for newcomers, but provides the perfect canvas for the most hardcore players. Splattering unwary foes by driving a Mongoose onto a Man Cannon, hijacking Banshees in mid-air and killing a foe only to realise that he's stuck a grenade to your arm? That could only be Halo, and 343 have preserved it in amber (clad?).
Except that they've changed everything.
Tiny tweaks make huge ripples in the formula, the most radical of which are the ordnance drops and customisable loadouts. By allowing players to pick and choose from a wide selection of perfectly-balanced weapons and perks, player skill has become the only variable. Remembering power weapon spawns won't help whatsoever, instead, you'll be awarded with devastating tech and powerups mid match because you've earned it. Put simply, Halo's multiplayer is in the best shape of its life. Purists can still rely on the Slayer Pro mode, which removes many of these new features as well as the motion scanner.
Halo 4's netcode has received a subtle improvement, finally allowing players to join matches mid-game. However, it's still slightly quirky, as evidenced by plenty of simultaneous melee deaths and the occasional bizarre outcome of a pitched firefight. Since the servers calculate and update the action approximately fifteen times per second, what happens between these moments tends to be a fudged guesstimation.
In terms of gametypes, the main meat is to be found in the Infinity Slayer (4v4) and Big Team (8v8) modes. Much like Goldilocks' porridge, both modes feel 'just right,' taking place in well-designed maps littered with a range of multiple routes, elevations, long range engagements and tight quarters. Each map has its fair share of vehicles to bicker over, hijack or blow up with a well-placed Plasma Grenade. Piloting a Mantis mech will make you feel like a consummate badass, that is, until someone runs up behind you and pops a grenade under the hood. In all honesty, I'd rather be playing Big Team on Ragnarok rather than typing this sentence. I will likely be late for work again tomorrow.
Regicide acts as the only traditional 'free for all' deathmatch, which initially came as a bit of a disappointment due to its relatively small player size. However, it's probably the best and most refined form the mode has taken since the original Blood Gulch splitscreen. Whereas skilled players could use their knowledge of power weapon spawns to dominate in previous games, the leader's location is now pinpointed on the HUD, leading to dynamically-changing choke points and opportunities for players lagging behind to leapfrog into the lead due to the increasing bounty points system. It's dense and intense, a beautifully chaotic and intimate new take on classic free for all gameplay.
Infection returns as Flood, which remains broadly unchanged save for three preset loadouts. Playing as the flood is always consistently thrilling, though the scoreboards still struggle to cope with the complex multi-round structure. Oddball, CTF and King Of The Hill all make a welcome return, and function much the same as you remember (i.e. Oddball is manic, Capture The Flag requires tight communication and King Of The Hill is certifiably insane). The Promethean Pulse Grenade also gets its day in the sun when there's a key area to defend or deny.
The unbelievably brilliant SWAT gametype has also stormed into matchmaking rotation via a small update yesterday. Without shields or motion tracker, only the fastest and most ornery Spartans will survive more than a few seconds. This was by far our favourite mode from Halo Reach, and we can't wait to get thoroughly humiliated once again.
The most interesting objective mode comes in the form of Dominion, a new addition to the Halo multiplayer stable. Like Domination, victory still involves around securing control points, except that this time control points fight back. Holding these bases for long enough creates shields, turrets and vehicle spawn points, while securing all three begins a desperate fight to the last man standing for the losing team. Fronts continually shift over a tense few minutes, with new flashpoints erupting all over the map. Cracking stuff.
Ultimately, Halo 4's multiplayer suite just needs more. More maps. More modes. More classic modes added to matchmaking rotation, including multi-team and rocket race. More armour permutations. More commendations. More Scorpions. More players. More cowbell. More. More!
Please sir, I want some more. With three map packs on the way for starters, I'll soon be getting my wish.
Spartan Ops: A Weekly Epic... Starring Us?
Spartan Ops replaces Firefight as the cooperative-yet-competitive destination for more sociable players, and the potential is absolutely astounding at this early stage. Unlike traditional Horde modes, Spartan Ops delivers a story and makes players feel like they're participating something worthwhile: a plotline delivered on a weekly basis with new challenges to overcome and opportunities for outrageous water cooler stories that were missing from the campaign. We've already established that Matt and I are appalling at killing Watchers, Carl loves nothing more than to shoot us with a Wraith's cannon while we're messing about in a Warthog and I... well. I used my optical camo to steal their kills and 'found' a Red vs Blue secret after being flung off a bridge by a well-thrown grenade. I hit it with my face. I so totally meant to do that - trick shot?
Brilliantly, you can use your custom loadouts and armour, allowing to put yourself directly into the action via a Noble Six-style cipher. In many ways, Spartan Ops is the next logical evolution of a compelling TV show that you spend all week looking forward to... but you can play it with your mates. A series starring you.
With three seasons confirmed, there's room for Spartan Ops to become one of the Xbox 360's most captivating unique draws.
But there's room for improvement as well as growth. It's a crying shame that 343 didn't re-introduce score and kill tracking during matches, since raw killcounts aren't a representative way of judging each player's worth at the end of each battle. In Halo Reach (both in campaign co-op and Firefight), we were judged on the value of each kill and could review every single accomplishment we made, allowing us to instantly settle up the "who killed what?" arguments that inevitably follow a concluded session. The lack of theatre functionality is also a disappointing omission, though 343 notes that this could well be added in future updates.
It's worth noting that, as far as we can tell, Spartan Ops maps aren't really new maps. Instead, they're small parts of massive pre-created maps included on the disc (read: campaign levels), and you'll download sets of different player/ enemy spawn locations and appropriate dialogue triggers each week. There's nothing wrong with this system in theory, but 343 will have to work hard to keep things fresh.