As 343 attempts to create a new Halo (while simultaneously assuring us that it, rather confusingly, will stay the same) it’s the promise of the unknown that has us staring into Halo 4’s concept art in the vain hope we’ll be able glean something, anything, from the mysteries of Requiem.
Even now, as John-117 stomps his way across the green landscape with classic piercing blue skies, the familiar enigmatic Forerunner relics littering the landscape, Halo 4 is battling between completely reinventing itself and reminding players exactly why they fell in love with Bungie’s Spartan in the first place.
Somewhere between these two contrasting states, 343 is making the most dramatic changes to the series that have ever been attempted. And it’s only when you see the culmination of these in gameplay form that it dawns on you just how ambitious 343’s game really is.
A cinematic focus, that the series has always attempted to balance with overt colourful gameplay, sees itself at the heart of Halo’s re-imagining. Here a more adult tone is characterised through muted art design and a focus on character. Placing players inside John-117’s visor and seeing the world as he does gives us a uniquely fresh way of immersing ourselves in Halo’s world.
It’s here, in the rather Metroid Prime-inspired view of Requiem, that the Master Chief’s reinvention appears complete. The HUD and helmet have found a much more comfortable balance between gameplay practicality and its visual reality, aiding in the immersion factor. Stepping forward to take in the huge vistas in front of us, it’s easy to see why 343 would want to ground the player in the environment around them. When the world in front of you looks as impressive as this, it’s easy to get lost in the dense foliage of Requiem’s jungles and rediscover the wonder in the world. It’s always been part of Halo’s charm, but not since stepping out onto the famous ring world has Halo’s environment instilled such mystery and beauty.
343 has done an incredible job of building on Halo’s mythology and game technology. It’s without a doubt the most gorgeous game in the series, and with the reinvention that’s clearly fuelled the new studio’s approach tackling every touchstone of the series, it’s only when Cortana and John round a corner to see one of the new enemies that this new ethos becomes clear. It’s not clear if the huge, orange-tinted, multi-limbed alien in front of us is a Forerunner, but the massive spherical Cryptum that just shot overhead seems to confirm that this could be a Forerunner AI, or at the very least, one of its lesser numbers.
What is obvious, though, is how this new alien species is making John’s life much harder. As we fire into its huge frame it releases a small flying drone from its back that hovers above it providing extra fire. Chucking a grenade at them in the usual Halo fashion doesn’t quite have the desired effect, as two seconds later we find it heading straight back, having been caught by the drone. Taking it out with the butt of John’s trusty Assault Rifle and acquiring its shape-shifting weapon makes fighting off its friends a little easier. Taking them on in the dense jungle makes for quick and violent firefights, with enemies disintegrating into tiny pieces after taking a hit. It’s new, but despite Bungie’s absence, it’s still thankfully very much a Halo game.
And it’s more exciting than any Halo sequel we’ve seen to date. Halo: Reach was a last hoorah for Bungie, but it was a baby step for the series technically speaking. Halo 4, clearly, is so much more than that, offering a scale to the world and events around the Chief that are truly exciting. With so many shooters attempting to get the attention of their audience with bigger and better explosions, it’s perhaps encouraging to see that 343 is also trying to tempt players with unique experiences like Spartan Ops, which should keep people returning for months after release.
Black Ops II might be making a few changes to its DNA with Strike Force, but Halo 4 is bordering on complete reboot territory. And that’s really what’s making 343’s game a risk, but such a wonderful unknown at the same time. The UNSC Infinity is an entirely new way of looking at multiplayer, not just for Halo, but for big-budget blockbuster games, too. It’s a narrative framing that brings Halo’s universe into one cohesive whole, presenting a world that never breaks at the seams. If 343 can ensure that Halo 4 doesn’t lose the fabled ‘30 seconds of fun’, there’s every reason to believe that the risks taken here will make Black Ops II’s innovations appear like lazy additions.
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