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Halo 4 preview: Hands-on with campaign, Spartan Ops and more

343 covers familiar ground - but it's still left its mark

When you take a look at the roster of 343 Industries, it reads like a Voltron of videogames development. Star players snapped together in a formidable combined creative force aimed at delivering the Xbox 360's Christmas killer app. It makes perfect business sense.

Whether you love it, hate it or are completely indifferent to it, the Halo franchise is to Microsoft's gaming platform as the Big Mac is to McDonalds; it's the tasty cornerstone USP of a world-conquering IP, and as such it can't be tinkered with too much, lest its manufacturer lose audience numbers.

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This may explain, then, why Halo 4 looks and feels so comfortingly familiar. From the moment the campaign kicks off in a level tagged 'Dawn', Halo veterans will feel right at home. The surroundings mix gun-metal grey with bursts of vibrant colour.

The interface retains its peccadilloes (left trigger is still grenade, rather than iron-sights and LB is still your melee attack). And Master Chief still handles like a steroid enhanced bruiser wearing magical Nike Air boots - lithe, agile and light as feather, but capable of delivering a gun butt to the face with enough force to shatter bulletproof glass.

The first level of the game even functions as some sort of warped homage to the first entry in the series. Master Chief is awakened from cold storage on a broken starship by Cortana, who notes that a Covenant fleet has just homed into view. After a brief window in which players have the option of inverting their interface (and why would you do that!), Master Chief is hurtling through the space cruiser's clanking corridors, blasting his way through Covenant ground troops as Cortana's dulcet tones issue a play-by-play.

That having been said, 343 have placed a subtle stamp on Halo. Right from the opening moments of Dawn, franchise fans will note that Master Chief's environment seems to have a sharper edges than it did in Bungie's hands. Covenant troops no longer sound like cute little Jawas; instead they hiss and gurgle threateningly and spew out globules of alien claret when Chief peppers them with bullets - all the while moving in pre-set animations from earlier games.

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Weapons feel heavier and altogether more meaty; reload sound effects snap sharply on the audio track and firearms - even those that fire laser beams - give a satisfying kick when you pull the trigger. The feel of Halo 4 is more immediate and downright gritty.

Then there's obviously the new villains 343 have chucked into the mix: The Prometheans. In a level tagged 'Forerunners' Master Chief and Cortana blaze their way through a shield-generating base as Promethean and Covenant forces shoot it out around them. The Prometheans we encountered in our play through were predominantly of the Crawler and Knight variety.

Crawlers are silver-clad quadrupeds who fire streams of bullets at a distance and rake with steel claws up close. Knights come on like the illegitimate children of the aliens from Independence Day and Judge Death. It takes around six or seven rounds to put one of these suckers down and before you do, it's worth taking out the small beings that hover around them, offering damage repairs and deployable shields.

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