Previews

Halo 4: Hands-on with a true Halo sequel

Microsoft's stageshow barely touches on Halo 4's real gameplay

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As the Infinity soaks up damage in orbit, the Spartan squad land on the surface - actually the inside of a huge metallic sphere. From the surface the sky is lit by an artificial sun which paints the world is shades of orange. If Bungie's Halo was blue and green then 343's Halo is orange and black - environments bathed in orange light with deep, black shadows; and enemies glowing bright orange beneath glossy black armour.

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PROMETHEANS
The Forerunners are 343's answer to a decade of Covenant over-exposure. When you shoot an Elite he'll duck behind cover; kill him and his Grunt entourage will scatter - you've seen how they work and you know how to fight them, but the first time a Promethean dematerialises and pops up elsewhere, your entire gameplan collapses. The first few areas in The Cauldron - wide spaces in traditional Forerunner shapes - are populated by Covenant zealots but halfway in the Forerunners unleash an army of charging four-legged panther-like creatures and their heavily-armoured Promethean super-soldiers.

Standing around nine feet tall, the Prometheans deploy shield-generating drones and can teleport to safety when cornered. Toss a grenade and the drone will catch it and fire it straight back, but a carefully-aimed shot will explode the grenade, the drone, and leave the Promethean vulnerable.

343 showed as much in their on-stage demo, but here in The Cauldron the combat wasn't scripted. Our grenades missed their mark and our shots bounced harmlessly off the Prometheans' shields. Ten years of fighting the Covenant has made us soft and new enemies required new tactics. Fighting a Promethean isn't about chasing them, but about predicting where they'll go next and lining up enough firepower to catch them as they rematerialise.

Nope, 343's stageshow wasn't Halo, but it's not a reason to be scared, either. In every interview 343's Frank O'Connor and Kiki Wolfkill have given over the past twelve months they've said the same thing - 343 are in love with Halo's sandbox and they're committed to bringing it to life. The proof is there in The Cauldron - a series of bowl-shaped sandbox spaces where four players have room to attack from any angle they choose.

This, more than any other E3, was home to the safest scripted demos the show has ever seen. Every game got the same whizz-bang-pop explode-o-matic on-rails trailer designed to make Spike TV viewers douse their drawers and make everyone else rock back and forth with their head in their hands lamenting the death of videogames. It's the E3 where what you saw on stage has nothing to do with the game you'll play - Resident Evil's survival horror campaign was demonstrated by the world's toughest chopper bouncing off skyscrapers like a pinball, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is filled with shadow stealth missions but the stage demo was set in blinding sunshine, and Halo 4 came off like an intergalactic Call of Duty.

A kind of blindness and deafness sets in at E3 and the major publishers aren't helping. If everything looks the same from where you're sitting it's because developers didn't dare show their real hands until they got behind closed doors. Sit down with Halo 4 and pick up the controller and it feels new, but crucially, it feels like Halo - no rails, no scripting, no quicktime events, and no need to worry. 343 might just know what they're doing after all.

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