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The Quiet Before the Storm, Halo 4 Cometh

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Many are looking on with baited breath as 343 Industries pick up the hallowed Halo franchise from the series' paternal developer Bungie. Halo 4 is named correctly as the fourth game in the series, with Reach and ODST essentially being tangential to the main Master Chief touting story.

At a recent London event I got to try the first couple of chapters of the campaign. Although many will focus their attentions on the multi-player modes, it's the story element of the franchise that has always held my attention longest.

The simple titular monolithic structure - the Halo - was enough to draw me in originally, and more recently it's been the Master Chief's journey of salvation and sacrifice that has kept me locked there.

We pick up with him in Halo 4 as he awakes from hyper-sleep several years after our last rendezvous in Halo 3. While some may skip past the various computer consoles on board there is plenty to mull over as the computer voice sketches out the minutiae of the military pieces already in play.

Cortana returns as well, but we find her in semi coherent (and semi-dressed) state and soon realise she is not totally compos mentis. This creeping insanity, along with yet another long fall into the horrors of war give Halo 4, and Master Chief's ever gruff persona, a sobering and slightly forlorn feel.

As you progress into the story it's not long before you encounter the much touted new enemies and weapons. This may not sound like all that big of a deal, as most other games play fast a loose with their foes and armoury, but in Halo's restrained and finely balanced world these are hugely risky (and exciting) developments.

The Prometheans offer a significantly different enemy and behave as such. They take the form of the holographic Knight, scurrying canine Crawlers and jobbing soldier Watchers. These enemies are a challenge not just because they fly and teleport, but because they put these abilities to use against you in very different ways.

Believable artificial intelligence has always been a mainstay of Halo and it's good to see that 343 Industries have lavished time and money on getting this right. The new enemies have that feel of being real adversaries, and I often found myself forgetting they were AI controlled.

Killing one of these foes grants access to new weapons and technology.

Each of these offer fresh ways to engage in Halo combat, and demand that players learn new tactics to make the most of them. My favourite in the session was the shotgun with bullets that bounced off architecture enabling me to effectively shoot round corners.

While I need to leave a more detailed look at the story until the game is released, suffice to say there was enough here to engage my emotions as well as my head and trigger finger. Not least the relationship between the two main protagonists often played to the sort of themes that are more common in movies and TV series than video-games. As an older player, I appreciated this.
This engagement with a broader audience was highlighted during my interview with Frank O'Connor (included below). Along with a more episodic approach to delivering game-play there is a short TV-style series called Forward Unto Dawn that will air on Machinima and offer players a live action background to the events of the game.

As O'Connor neatly put it, "the best way to connect people to ideas is through other people." Halo 4 certainly has the potential to welcome a new (older?) cohort of players to the fray.


FGTV Interview with Frank O'Connor, Halo 4's Franchise Development Director

Those who hanker for multi-player thrills, as I know the bulk of Halo players do, there is plenty to look forward to as well. Slayer and Capture the Flag return along with a new Dominion mode where two teams rush to hold three bases.

The new mode is frenetic and fraught and lots of fun. It's the flexibility of each of these modes that best celebrates just how ingeniously robust the Halo engine really is. You soon find yourself improvising in a way that reminded me as much of imaginatively charged childhood playground games as it did the more monotone Call of Duty experience.

Add to this a fresh new look for the game and a soundtrack from Neil Davidge (Clash of the Titans) and you have an appetising proposition. Time will tell whether this all stands up to the rigours of hard-nosed Halo fans, or its efforts to win over the disinterested older audience. However, it would be hard to see how 343 Industries could have done more to put the right pieces in play. We'll find out how they fall on November 6.