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Hands-On with Halo 4

After the announcement of Halo 4 at E3 2012, fans everywhere have been pining for more information and a deeper look at the upcoming sequel to the hugely popular Halo trilogy. Last week I was invited for some hands-on time with 343 Industries' first attempt at a true Halo game, and walked away more impressed than I had thought possible.

Dawn, the first campaign mission, picks up right after the ending of Halo 3. Cortana wakes the Chief as the ship is under attack; it isn't immediately clear what is attacking the ship, but she needs his help protecting it. This marks both the literal and figurative return of Master Chief, and that immediately comes across in the opening sequence. The Chief and Cortana reunite and he heads out to find out what's going on. Unfortunately, what they find isn't exactly comforting: they're right in the middle of a Covenant fleet in the orbit of a Forerunner planet, Requiem.

It wasn't all story reveals either though, as I was able to experience one of the coolest introductions for the Halo series in a while: first-person action sequences. Sure, technically the entire game is a first-person action sequence, but at one point the Chief must climb an elevator shaft while dodging falling metal. That might sound like a terribly generic game sequence, but it wasn't a quick-time event; I had full control the entire time. I even managed to run straight into a falling piece of metal, only to have the Chief fall before barely grabbing onto a ledge of the elevator shaft in time. It might be somewhat of a videogame cliche, but it's also an evolution of the classic Halo gameplay, something I don't think we would never see in the original trilogy, and that makes it noteworthy.

A good part of this level took place outside the ship in empty space, trying to fight off the Covenant and do other important space stuff in zero-gravity. It doesn't really matter what I was out there doing; what matters is that I felt like a badass the entire time. It didn't feel obnoxiously floaty either, presumably because the Chief's suit is heavy and somewhat magnetized, so he stuck to the ship and controlled very similarly to how he does in normal gravity. I ran out of ammunition while outside the ship, but thankfully there were plenty of weapons floating through space for me to grab.

After a certain amount of fighting, things turned bad real quick and we were sucked into the Forerunner planet. We weren't told what happens in the second chapter, but it's quite apparent that things aren't going well for the Chief and Cortana when they crash on Requiem. They aren't facing anything they can't handle, but they are about to encounter the Prometheans, and that's where the third chapter (Forerunner) picks up.

As they're beginning to explore the planet, new technology is all around them. At this point it's not quite clear how this technology works, but it isn't anything they've seen before, and neither are the enemies. The Prometheans aren't your typical videogame enemies, either; they're not just cannon fodder for you to kill as you make your way through the game. Well, they might be if you're a very skilled player, but at least they're a bit more challenging to kill than the Covenant have become over the course of the Halo series.

The Promethean design is wonderfully disturbing, too; their menacingly big body parts float, but don't connect, as if they have their own tiny gravitational field holding them together. The enemy types vary, so you have to find a different way to kill each one and it isn't just headshot after headshot. Promethean Watchers are probably the most interesting of the new enemies: they hover above the battle, deflecting grenades back at you and resurrecting fallen Promethean Knights.

The Promethean weapons carry the same style and visual flair as the new race, and they have the coolest reload animations of any game in recent memory. I could sit there getting shot all day, as long as I could see the way that the Promethean weapons break apart and form back together when reloading. My favorite of these new weapons was the Boltshot, essentially the Promethean pistol. Using it effectively required a charge period similar to the Spartan Laser; it took some getting used to during our demo, but I ended up loving it. Finally, our demo ended with a killer ghost chase sequence that really reminded me of the Warthog escape during the finale of Halo: Combat Evolved.

But that wasn't the end of our hands-on demo. I also got some time with Spartan Ops, the afore-mentioned weekly episodic cooperative mission series. So far they're guaranteed ten weeks of content, which is more than forty free missions and a free CGI movie. The best part? They are actually fun to play.

I jumped into Spartan Ops with three cooperative partners and started the first mission, Land Grab. This mission involved the four of us riding through a sandy level with a variety of vehicles taking out Covenant command posts. It was simple enough that it didn't require much stress on our parts, but once we bumped it up to Legendary, the difficulty quickly shot up. We had to communicate with each other to really plan things out in order to succeed. This is exactly what I've been wanting out of a Halo game for the longest time: a strong challenge that relied on teamwork to succeed, rather than figuring out a way to cheat the system.

The second mission, Sniper Alley, was essentially the same task, but located inside a narrow linear space that was lined with snipers. This showed the variety of the locales and objectives that 343 would present each week.

Finally, I got some time with War Games, which is the new name for Halo 4's competitive multiplayer. This was the thing that I wanted to get some time with the most, mainly because I didn't enjoy the multiplayer of Halo Reach as much as I was hoping. I didn't enjoy Reach because I think it didn't fit with the tone of the series and the loadouts felt like a poor, rushed reaction to Call of Duty's online success. Thankfully that's all been addressed in War Games, as they opt for weapon loadouts with Armor Mods and Support Upgrades, allowing you to reload faster and sprint for a longer period of time.

These are unlocked through the level progression system and provide players with different ways to customize their character based on the situation at hand. That means that you can have a loadout specifically for long range combat or one that is filled with mods that help your vehicle skills, perfect for Spartan Ops missions that have extensive vehicle sequences. This customization extends to your character's look as well, just as it has in previous Halo titles, though it feels slightly deeper and more fleshed out.

War Games mode is new too, though it's very similar to the domination-style mode in every other modern shooter, tasking players to fight over control of three bases on the map. That isn't meant to be a knock against it; War Games works extremely well with the style of play that Halo systems afford. There's a constant timer running in each base once captured that fortifies the base to further protect it from enemy takeover; the longer that you stay inside the base, the stronger it gets (to a certain degree.)

The constant back and forth works extremely well in Dominion and shows their effort to improve the multiplayer game-types, rather than just sticking with what has worked in the past. Capture the Flag has also changed around a bit, and while it's not much different from previous iterations, the addition of a second flag makes it feel like an entirely new mode. There isn't anymore fighting over a singular flag, but you're switching between protecting your flag carrier and watching out for the enemy's. It ends up working really well and makes enemy players feel like an objective when they get the flag, they become important and demand a shift in gameplay tactics.

I was somewhat skeptical at first about the need for another game in the franchise, but hands-on time with Halo 4's campaign as well as the Spartan Ops and War Games multiplayer modes reminded me just how great Halo can be when it's done right. I think Halo 4 is in the right hands at 343 Industries based on the solid gameplay and innovation, which reminds me why I love Halo in the first place. I think the team at 343 are all a bunch of huge Halo fans, and that comes through in every aspect of Halo 4.

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