At this year's Microsoft Press Conference, gamers were treated to a teaser trailer of the new up and coming Halo 4. This time around, Halo 4 is being developed by 343 Industries, who have brought a fresh new perspective to this iconic title. At Microsoft's Xbox booth I had the chance to go behind closed doors and get a chance to play through some of the game. I also was able to sit down with 343's lead Producer Kiki Wolfkill (yes, that actually is her awesome name) and Josh Holmes, 343's Creative Director.
343's vision for Halo 4 is to set it up as the lead for a new generation of Halo titles. It is set five years after the events of Halo 3, and once again features the adventures of that epic hero of the Halo experience - Master Chief. The details about the story are a little thin on the ground, but we do know that central to the game is the new planet of Requiem. This planet is revered by the Covenant, as it is where many Forerunner shrines and artifacts are located. The Covenant worship them as gods, and aren't too happy to see Master Chief and the UNSC stomping all over their hallowed ground.
Since the events of Halo 3, and the subjugation of the Covenant, a degree of peace has fallen on the galaxy - so the United Nations Space Command did what ever peace loving victorious force does, they went and built a massive, powerful battlecruiser. This new ship - the Infinity - plays a key role in the game. But it is not without its own adventures, in the teaser trailer shown the Infinity is ravaged by a large floating ball that sends it crashing down to Requiem. This is a lush jungle world with a range of alien environments, spanning from steamy misty jungles to harsh rocky volcanic plateaus. As the trailer demonstrated, this world is rendered extremely well, and up close on a TV screen it oozes with fidelity.
The Covenant are already on Requiem, but they are joined there by the Forerunner - an alien race already known to the Halo universe, but now realised for the first time. During my eyes on with Kiki and Josh I was shown three different classes; the Knight, the Watcher; and the Crawler. The Knight is the commander of the Forerunner battlefield - he is quick, agile and very powerful. Not only is he very dangerous in single combat, but he also has the ability to spawn a support unit called a Watcher. These units appear to be innocuous, but when combined with the Knight they pack a punch. They can catch grenades and throw them back at players, provide supporting fire, and even resurrect Knight's that you thought you'd sent six feet under. Crawlers are a different foe to be reckoned with. Fast, dog like creatures, they race around nipping at Master Chief's heels. One on one they aint no thang to deal with, but in packs they are deadly. Kiki also mentioned that these charming alien puppies also have the ability to jump incredibly high, walk on walls and climb up trees. Add the classic Covenant forces that we are familiar with to the mix and already there is a pretty sophisticated combat mechanic taking shape.
But the new perspective brought by 343 is not directed solely at the single player experience. In fact, from what I've seen and had the chance to play through, more innovation has been directed at the multiplayer experience.
Josh Holmes described how in Halo 4 the multiplayer would be centered around the UNSC Infinity, which would be a base for your Spartan characters. This is in an attempt to create a much more integrated multiplayer experience than that seen in any other Halo title.
The first, and most obvious example of this is the new "SPARTAN Ops" mode. Here, 343 will be releasing 4 to 5 new missions each week for players to slog through, either by themselves or with up to 4 players cooperatively. These missions would push forward the Halo 4 story, and would be based around short 7 - 10 minute CG cut scenes that 343 are planning on releasing along with the mission packs. Each mission could be played through in 10 to 15 minutes, but could go longer depending on the level of difficulty and the number of players involved. As far as we known this content is not DLC, and will begin to be available to players on release date.
My first impression of this new mode was that it was pulling Halo 4 in a rather strange direction. Continuous missions, grinding through storylines and regularly updated content sounds more like an MMO subscription service than a first person shooter. So I quizzed Josh Holmes on exactly how far SPARTAN ops was going to go. His answers reassured me - there is no leveling here, and the missions will not increase in complexity or difficulty as each week progresses.
Holmes said that the experience is being intentionally designed so that players can opt in and opt out at any time, and not be advantaged or disadvantaged by their progression through the additional narrative. Kiki did chime in, however, and point out that this doesn't mean the experience will be rote. Apparently there will be a range of mission styles with different focuses - ranging from infantry combat to vehicle battles. I also quizzed Josh about how balancing would work in co-op. The answer was that it wouldn't - having more or less payers will not have an impact on the difficulty of your experience.
The second mode that 343 were showing off was named "Wargames". This was much more like the classic Halo deathmatch experience fans will be familiar with. The action was quick, fast paced and brutal. New enhancements have been added - such as the addition of ordinance drops", these are perks that players can utilize as rewards for kill streaks. Forerunner weapons can also be located around the map - they can be game changers in the hands of an experienced player - and they look damn cool when they construct themselves into shape on pickup.
The Wargames multiplayer mode is likely to be the most played and the most competitive, and my first impression during my hands on was that 343's fresh perspective has retained all of what made previous installments great, whilst also adding extra spit and polish.
One such tweak has been the merging of the various different multiplayer modes into one narrative experience. Like SPARTAN Ops there is also a narrative around Wargames. It's deathmatch gameplay is intended to replicate a training simulator for Spartan's on Infinity. Josh and Kiki explained that as the two modes were connected through story, there would also be a crossover in experience points, customization and characters. This is an interesting development, and goes some way to support 343's claim that Halo 4's storytelling focus is paramount, and to do that, Halo 4 will be the most integrated experience yet.
After 7 earlier iterations, the Halo experience was getting a little tired. There was only so much mileage that Microsoft was going to get out of this ageing horse. But with a new rider holding the reins Halo 4 does shimmer with a new shine. The return to Master Chief and the focus on an integrated single and multiplayer experience is very encouraging for the series. Halo 4 is set to be released on November 6 this year, and we will be following it closely to see if 343's new vision finds favour with fans of this iconic Xbox story.
NZGamer.com appears at E3 2012 thanks to Orcon Broadband.
The Good: A fresh new vision for an ageing horse
The Bad: Still questions to be asked about the multiplayer integration
The Ugly: The Forerunner Knight's 'Ghost Rider' impression