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.