The Halo 4 That Changes Itself: How 343 Industries Reinvented The Ecosystem

It's almost too easy to thoughtlessly criticise Halo. It's popular for one thing, and (largely) a console shooter — in itself a rear-end bullseye for gamers who prefer using a mouse and keyboard to shooting things.

And, in a mechanical sense, Halo is relatively simple. It doesn't burden its single player campaign with RPG mechanics, or leveling systems. It doesn't require that artificial depth. And then there's the burden of imitation. Halo has been plagiarised into oblivion and plenty are still picking at the bones, diluting the impact of what was once an original and dazzling first impression.

Halo is the definitive Space Marine experience in a world that's moved on from Space Marines to regular ol' earth Marines. That's been damaging in the long term.

Despite this, Halo 4 will sell millions — we know this. But how many millions? For a franchise of Halo's scale, the answer to this question is important. Is the series still relevant in a world that prefers rapidly snapping iron sights to strategy, or raw linear spectacle to something grander in scope?

I certainly hope so.

————

Halo 4's Creative Director tells me Halo 4 is about adding choice, more choice. But what does that mean exactly?

Because, in a sense, Halo has always been about choice. In a genre that's mostly about funnelling players through a series of cleverly obscured corridors, that's been Halo's calling card. Encounters are unique, and figuring out how to manage each individual encounter, in a split second, is part of the fun.

A wild Elite and a squadron of Grunts appears. You use grenade; it's super effective. Grunts run away, you pop off a few pistol shots to clear up the stragglers. A well aimed Plasma pistol bolt removes the lone elite of his shield, one more quick head shot and you're done and dusted. That's Halo — a series of sexy snap decisions.

But here's the issue: in Halo we've made those same decisions so many times, across various different games, that the 'decision' part has been made redundant. We now play instinctually. The enemy eco-system of Halo is so familiar that we no longer have to think our way through endless variations of the same theme, we just act.

That's why throwing a whole new set of enemies into the mix makes so much sense.

Halo 4 is all about the Forerunners, that's been established. But the way in which their presence changes the whole system of Halo and how it's played has not. Previous Halos have allowed us to build up a repertoire of behaviours, but Halo 4 subverts these behaviours, and that's why it's fun. And confusing.

To begin with, at least.

————

"I recommend trying normal," says Josh, as he catches me flicking the difficulty across to Heroic. Heroic has always been my default setting for Halo because I've played other games in the series so extensively.

He is recommending Normal because he knows I don't really know what to expect. Halo 4 provides players with a different weapons set. The weapons do different things. More importantly, your enemies do different things.

For example, my first encounter in Halo 4 goes like this: a see a horde of 'Crawlers', easy to shoot enemies that I assume are the Forerunner equivalent of grunts. They're accompanied by a larger chap who looks a bit more humanoid, the 'Knight'. I assume he is the forerunner equivalent of an Elite.

I sort of ignore the flying thing roaming around. Later I discover they're called 'Watchers'. And they're super important.

I do what any Halo player would do in this situation, I pick off a few Crawlers to reduce the sheer amount of fire coming in my direction. This give me the space I need to take out the Knight. Makes sense, right? Concentrate my fire on the major threats first.

But first you have to correctly identify the major threat. That was my first mistake.

Here's what I didn't realise:

— The Watcher, AKA 'the flying thing' roaming around that I totally ignored, has the ability to respawn and heal the Knight. — The Watcher can spawn more crawlers — The Watch can provide active defence for the Knight during combat

I spent most of my time firing from cover, struggling to hit things, wondering why things just wouldn't die. My strategy wasn't working that well. I was getting through, barely, but I was wasting a whole lot of ammo without really understanding why.

————

Here's the thing: Halo 4 has a different eco-system. The Forerunners interact in different ways compared to the Covenant, which means that — for the first time in years — you truly have to engage and think before you shoot at things in Halo.

Here's what I think I should have done: taken out the Watcher from distance, or at least tried to. I should have knocked out some of the Crawlers early if the pressure was too tight, and attacked the Knight after I blasted the Watcher out of the sky.

But you know, I'm not completely sure yet — because I'm not totally across the intricacies of Halo 4's combat. I have a rough idea of the behaviours, but not a full understanding. It has literally been years since I could honestly, truly say that about a Halo game.

I played Halo 4 on normal difficulty. I did so because the Creative Director Josh Holmes told me to and I had a feeling he knew what he was talking about. Despite having no real idea of how to attack or take out Halo 4's various new enemy types, I blundered through like a clumsy, musclebound bully. Because I know how to shoot a gun in a video game, and I have a vague idea of how the different weapons worked.

This is not how I normally like to do things.

———— Is Halo still relevant? As long as people still care about meaningful choices in a video game then, of course, the answer is yes. And with Halo 4 343 Industries is making a pretty strong case.

Here's what I'm looking forward to: refinement. Shedding my bulk and becoming lean. I'm looking forward to mastering Halo 4. To having a complete understanding of how it works — how to attack, when to attack, who I should be attacking at specific times. I'm looking forward to the moment I can play Halo 4 on Legendary and glide through the campaign on a combination of technique and smarts.

Because if Halo 4 is anything like previous games in the series, that will be possible.

And it will be awesome.


Comments

    I found those floating things incredibly annoying in previous games. They just aren't fun, and I'm not sure why exactly

      The watchers in this halo will be incredibly more annoying for you then as they are not the same as the previous games floating thingys (sentinels?) lol. Those ones just lasered you these ones can do just about anything including catch your nade and throw it back at you :-P

    Sounds good. I'll pick it up for ~$40 when I can because the local multiplayer looks as useless as Reach's thanks to loadouts.

      Why would you not want to pre order halo 4? That's like not looking forward to half-life 3 except that you can do something about this situation. The Watchers act much differently than the Sentinels and Engineers. And if you didn't know what the Permiathians were then you need help. Halo Waypoint. Go there. Halo 4's loud out system is everything we love from Cods classes without the balance issues. However, buying Halo 4 next year will be like shooting yourself in the foot every respawn. The system is balance but if you come in that late you will lose you first couple if match making games. Unless you are so cheap you don't even have gold LIVE. If that's the case, Get A Job.

        > New enemies in campaign - Cool, but no rush to buy it.
        > Promethians - Yup, again, cool, but no rush. I mean, it's been played by people for like a month now, and I've still dodged the spoilers, so I'm good :)
        > Loadouts - I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree, because loadouts make local multiplayer worse (ie: people who don't normally play Halo are even more screwed because I get cooler toys than they do)
        > Balance is out if you don't get in at launch - I think this is a significant game design issue, but as I don't play online, it's unlikely to affect me.

        So thanks, friend, for your enthusiasm, but I'm afraid you should direct it elsewhere.

    A mix-up of the combat and enemy variety is definitely a good thing. From the sounds of things, 343 are taking the responsibility of Halo very seriously and I really hope they can pull it off.
    I've lost interest in Halo over the last couple of years, and despite that fact, I'm kind of intrigued to give this a go.
    It's giving me the impression of a "reboot" entry in a long-standing franchise - and sometimes a fresh take on a familiar context is all it takes to fall in love again. Nolan's Batman, anyone?

    Good writeup, and as a fan of Halo I have to admit that I never really noticed this aspect of it that you're talking about - particularly how it applies in multiplayer.

    After awhile, especially if you invested as many hours into the multiplayer as I did, some behaviours are so ingrained that you don't even know you're making choices. You're just 'aware' of your armaments, your grenade count, what your likely opposition is, lines of sight, where snipers tend to act from, and these things guide you.

    Over time you begin to learn that the other players are using this information to their advantage and try to take advantage of their behaviours. The multiplayer has been as much about out thinking the other guy as it is about shooting at them. Retreating around a corner from a gunfight not going in my way, but just knowing the other guy's situation. Whether he would need to reload even as I was sliding in another clip, how his shield/health situation was, the probability of him having a backup weapon - did I see a powerful secondary peeking of his shoulder from it's back mounted position or was he likely packing something lighter than the BR? How long he'd likely wait before following me around that corner and me making sure a grenade was waiting at his feet before we continued the fight, while making sure no backup was flanking me from the other direction, and making sure I had another escape. What equipment do I have? What equipment is on this map and where does it spawn? Did he pick up a power drainer on his way to me that he didn't use five seconds ago, or is it simply not there? Is there an environmental advantage fir either of us and how do I use/avoid it? Are my teammates nearby? A dozen thoughts in the space of 2-3 seconds that would determine which buttons my fingers would fly to and what actions would result from them, a constant turnover of thoughts as options are presented, assessed and discarded. A fifteen minute match can feel like a campaign of epic proportions.

    For some reason Halo Reach's multiplayer, while fun, never quite gripped me the same as Halo 3. I hope Halo 4 recaptures it - though I'm concerned that the evolution of the gameplay has moved more towards twitch shooting. I'm not saying that the range of options and instinctive play aren't still there, I am just concerned that it won't feel right. I think the Halo community doesn't really know what's best for it and ever since 343 have taken over the multiplayer for Reach they've have tried very hard to please that community by taking their suggestions to heart - which is great, but at the end of the day, we have to remember that there's a large number of people playing Halo and very few of them have any idea what they're talking about when it comes to game design.

    I accept my ignorance and I rely on the developer to decide through their design, their trial and error, testing, and redesigns, that they've provided the most optimised experience.

      Pretty much exactly how I feel. Played so much multiplayer for Halo 3, and while I loved Reach, I found that I didn't love it as much as 3, in ways that I still find difficult to define. Mostly because Armour Lock is broken, though.
      Hoping Halo 4 captures me again - I know I'll play heaps of it, but just how much is up to 343 knowing their stuff.

      Also, I love the Halo campaigns as well. The story is so much fun, and the books really help create an exciting universe. Pleased that Karen Traviss was picked up as the author for the most recent books.

        I'm kinda going to 'third' this. On all technical levels I think Reach multiplayer was better. But I didn't come close to playing the same amount of Reach. I really have no way of explaining why. I think it's because I had close friends I played Halo 3 with, and competed with. The pro scene was huge at that point as well.

        With Reach it seemed like less people cared, less people played. It felt less relevant. Don't know why.

    'That’s Halo — a series of sexy snap decisions.'
    ^_^

    I can imagine Zap Branigan saying "a series of decisions ... SEXY decisions"

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