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Halo 4:' multiplayer review

November 15, 2012
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Restructuring Bungie's online battlefield

In games as in movies, sequels are a delicate thing. You have to simultaneously protect everything that made the first game great while adding more features and polishing the whole experience. In the case of 343 Industries, they've had to take on the role of torch-bearers and bridge-burners. To bring 'Halo 4' up to speed with improvements that other first-person-shooters have made in the past few years while keeping the 'Halo feel' is no small task. Stepping into 'Halo 4's' multiplayer, longtime fans have to ask, is this budding developer up to the task?

Short answer: yes, and very yes. However, the long answer is bit more complex than that.

One of the biggest challenges 343 had was keeping 'Halo's' famously balanced gameplay while offering more flexibility for individual playstyles, and they've done this through the vastly improved loadout options brought over from 'Halo: Reach.' Instead of having five set-in-stone options for your weapon/armor abilities, you now have the option to customize your loadouts through different upgrades purchased through the experience you gain over the course of time.

Many fan-favorite armor abilities return from 'Reach,' including the Jet Pack, Hologram, Regeneration Field and Active Camouflage. They are joined by newcomers Promethean Vision, Hardlight Shield, Thruster Pack and Autosentry. Promethean Vision allows you an X-ray view of your opponents above and below you, giving you an advantage in situational awareness. The Hardlight Shield throws up a glowing wall of protection in front of you, while the Thruster Pack gives you a quick boost of speed to catch up to enemies or duck behind cover. Finally, the Autosentry places a tiny floating cannon wherever you place it, offering a bit of local firepower. While Promethean Vision is incredibly useful in almost all situations, the rest of the new abilities are far more niche in use, good for offering distraction and point defense, but not much else.

In addition to armor abilities, tactical packages and support upgrades provide an enormous amount of variety in setting up your preferred loadout. Want to be able to watch your back while engrossed in your sniper scope? Grab the Awareness upgrade, and keep an eye on sneaky punks that wish to intrude on your camping. Want to have a mobile edge? Use the Mobility tactical package and sprint to your heart's content. Mixing and matching these two give you a tactile feel for what you're capable of in any firefight, whether you're going to wait in silence for your prey, or charge into the open and hope your speed and ferocity win the day.

Gone is the traditional map control, with veteran players timing spawns of power weapons. After an initial spawn of traditionally placed weapons (which are periodically spawned throughout the game) you begin to rely on Ordinance Drop for all your heavy gunning needs. When you reach a certain amount of points (garnered from assists, rescuing teammates, assassinations, kills, etc.), you gain the ability to call in an ordinance drop. You have three randomized selections, made up of a choice between one of two power weapons or a temporary boost to speed, shields, or damage.

With all of these nuances in place, has the core 'Halo' experience of guns/grenades/melee managed to hold true? Quite remarkably, yes. While at times it can feel like your shields are made of paper and that campers with DMRs rule the day, for the most part, that core 'Halo' experience is in place in a huge way. You'll still be able to pull off your favorite grenade-to-headshot maneuvers, you'll still end up in desperate punch-offs at close range, and you'll still curse those gorram snipers holed up on the end of the map. Despite the massive amounts of changes and tweaks, this is still very much the 'Halo' you know and love. It's as if 'Halo 2' and 'Halo: Reach' had a beautiful little baby, and then invited 'Battlefield' and 'Call of Duty' to the christening.

There are a few growing pains along the way. Most matches are dominated by the use of the incredible accurate DMR. There's a painful lack of maps at this point (to be rectified in the next few months). The join-in-progress feature of matchmaking is woefully inept at times, dumping you in a game with less than a few points or seconds to go. There's almost no survivability when faced with multiple opponents, and while I appreciate the emphasis on teamwork, I'd at least like a tiny chance of escape or even a counter-attack or two.

As a whole, my quibbles with multiplayer pale in comparison to my love for how 343 has stepped up to the challenge of both taking care of and restructuring a beloved series. Promising frequent matchmaking playlist updates (SWAT returns next week, woohoo!) and title updates as needed, I believe 343 has its finger on the pulse of fans that have been enjoying 'Halo' games for over a decade now, and with some careful tweaking and application of feedback, this is going to be a game I'm going to be playing for a long time to come. 

Aaron Waite would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Ben Johnson III, a fellow geek who made working in the Wal-Mart electronics section an enjoyable experience. The world is a lesser place in your absence.

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