For the past couple days, I have been attempting to master the multiplayer work-of-art that is Halo 4. And though I cannot yet call myself "Lord of all that is Halo" I'm fairly confident I can explain to all of you why it is 'oh-so-good' and why you should spend 60 dollars RIGHT NOW to come and play it with me.
(Disclaimer) Because Team Slayer (and it's variants) are still the most competitive mode Halo 4 has to offer, I'll be focusing on that for the bulk of this review.
Halo 4 has masterfully united two of the archetypical types of multiplayer in a way that has, until now, remained absent in console gaming.
1) The “twitch” skill based gameplay found in games like Counterstrike for the PC
2) The approachability, innovations and conveniences of modern console shooters, such as the Call of Duty franchise.
What you end up with, is a game that's easy to learn, but very difficult to master. In the words of Inigo Montoya - “lemme' explain...no there is too much. Lemme' sum up.”
Traditional shooters, such as CS 1.6 remain highly played because at it's core, your score at the end of the game is a reflection of how well you have mastered the game. Gamers invest hundreds of hours in finding the loadout that suits them, learning the maps, and replicating the same steps that lead to perfect flawless victory. It requires a substantial (very substantial) time investment that most people just don't have or aren't willing to spend. In a way, it goes from a game to a science. As a result, you have many newbies turned off by these games, which otherwise might be fun.
Games like CoD, however, suffer from a similar problem in reverse. Most people complain that the game has zero skill involved – it's run and gun, and hope your bullets or call-ins save you. In some ways this is very true. Two years ago, I bought the original Black Ops – and after about a day or so, I felt I had a sufficient understanding of how to “Win” at the game. There weren't that many multifaceted strategies involved past unlocking all your call ins and smartly targeting where your next cruise missile would score you a multi-kill.
Halo 4, however, combines these two elements in ways I haven't ever seen in a console multiplayer game.
We can ignore the fact that the game looks and sounds great. Instead, let's skip to what it plays like - the real 'meat-and-potatoes' of it all. For one, the controls are tight, responsive and well laid out. Everything is right where you want it to be. And, though that may seem like a given, shooters can be easily ruined by bad control layouts (Remember how difficult aiming in Goldeneye was? Who even used those yellow C-keys?)
Secondly, the weapons are VERY well crafted. You gain access to more weapons as you progress in ranks, but all remain well balanced against each other. For example, the assault-rifle can unload a lot of bullets very fast, but be prepared to switch weapons quickly if you don't land every single shot. The battle-rifle, on the other hand, fires controlled bursts and is great for mid range combat. The DMR packs a wallop at range and only fires single shots, but comes with a great scope. Don't expect to beat an assault-rifle up close if you aren't a crack-shot with the DMR. Likewise, don't expect to have the same precision with an assault rifle at range, that you would with the DMR.
Balance aside, Halo remains, as it always had, a twitch-shooter. Things happen very quickly, and if you can't keep up, you'll find yourself very dead, very often. That being said, it's not quite as fast paced as some other shooters out there, such as the semi-new Tribes: Ascend.
For people who haven't played Halo before, it goes like this: You have a shield – which recharges. Your health, more or less, does not (there's not even a bar.) Once your shield is gone, it only take a solid hit from even the weakest weapon, or a well placed melee attack to take you down. In slayer mode (the default team deathmatch, or TDM – keep up with me,) the game starts and you and your team spawn in a loosely predefined area.
You can cart around two weapons; you start each respawn with a primary and secondary weapon, though you can swap either for any weapon you find lying on the ground. It may go without saying, but you kill people by filling them with bullets, stabbing them with pointy objects, bludgeoning them with the butt of your rifle, slicing them up with energy swords, burning them to a crisp with plasma, splattering them with vehicles, or any other way you can conjure up.
Basics aside, the mechanics are fairly simple. Most matches are “respawn matches” meaning you keep coming back after death until the tallied total of your teams kills meets a certain goal. Each kill is worth ten kill-points – and the first team to 600 kill-points (for slayer mode) wins. Every player has radar that detects enemies running or walking in a certain distance, and their elevation relative to you. However, there is no map view. It's up to you to be aware of what might or might not be around the corner, and also how familiar you have to be with the map you're playing on.
It's a tried and tested formula. And it works pretty well. But what's so cool about it? WELL I'M GLAD YOU ASKED.
Anyone who's ever played any recent Call of Duty games knows what a call-in is, and how ridiculously game-changing it can be. CoD games suffer from overpowered call-ins, such as helicopters, MiG flyovers, nuclear bombs, etc etc. You get the idea – a significant advantage to the players involved.
Call-ins in Halo 4 are much more subdued. When you gain enough points (which you earn in a number of ways, that don't always include killing) you can call in one of three randomly determined items. Usually it gives you the choice of a weapon, a grenade and a powerup, but these options change every time. Needlers, machine guns, swords and snipers are just a small number of the call-in weapons at your disposal. Make no mistake: these are game-changers, typically more powerful than a starting weapon, but are balanced by the fact that they are usually more difficult to use AND can be picked up by someone else when you die. So your boon can quickly become your bane if you aren't careful.
Like the last installment of Halo (Halo: Reach) the game offers certain “Armor Abilities.” These include abilities like “Promethean Vision” which allows you, for a brief time, to see enemies through walls or across the map. Other abilities, such as Jetpacks or Thruster Jets allow you a bit more maneuverability and agility. These abilities are cool-down based, meaning they can't be spammed and are significantly less intrusive than they were in Reach. I don't feel that any one trumps the other, and they all seem to have a place in the game, without changing the way the game plays as a whole. However, they unlock with levels, so don't expect them to be available from the get-go. If they aren't you flavor and you still prefer the raw skill-based version of Slayer, the game offers Slayer-Pro mode, which is sans abilities, call-ins and radar.
Vehicles are another thing that sets it apart from games like Call of Duty and Counterstrike. While it doesn't have any overpowered call-ins, it does have vehicles which can significantly change the way the game is played. Vehicles offer mobility, firepower and defense. Vehicles include the nimble Ghost hovercycle, to the gun-toting Mantis mech suit, the unarmed Mongoose ATV, or the classic Warthog assault vehicle. They offer firepower and sustainability, but also make you a big target. And not everyone will get a vehicle either, meaning they are, in economic terms, a scarce resource. Also, destroying them means the loss of a valuable tool (they take a little while to respawn) so using and losing them should be seen as an investment. Aside from the glaringly obvious example of the Scorpion and Wraith tanks (which are understandably tough) I haven't found a single vehicle that frustrated me to the point of a rage quit. Each offers it's own booms and busts – and learning to combat them is just another skill to master.
Did I mention map variety? The game sports ten maps currently, all of varying shapes and sizes. They are, in my humble opinion, very well balanced; symmetrical without appearing symmetrical, beautifuly detailed and diverse in scenery. Maps are voted on at the onset of a game by all the players, so be prepared to play crowd favorites such as Haven and Ragnarok. As it stands, there is unfortunately, a depressing lack of old Halo maps, or even maps from the other installments (only two appearing to be based off maps from previous games.) However, for ten maps and a multitude of game modes, there is more than enough here - for now. 343 has already released the announcement that DLC is on the way, and with it (hopefully) Battle/Beaver Creek.
Aside from the core elements, Halo 4's multiplayer offers a lot of little things for the achievement hoarders, and those who like customization. The game offers persistent character progression, meaning as you level you unlock items to customize the look and feel of your character. Helmets, boots, chest pieces, emblems, colors and everything else can really be changed to make your Spartan look the way you want him/her to look. Aside from basic aesthetics, you unlock perks which give you small bonuses; how fast your weapons change or reload, how long you can sprint, or altering how fast your Armor Abilities take to cool down are a few examples.
And that's just one game mode. Halo 4 offers a bunch of other really cool, competitive and classic game modes that games like Call of Duty completely omit (or charge you more for later.) Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Oddball, Infection (or in this case 'Flood'), Big Slayer, Co-Op campaign, Spartan-Ops, and a bunch of others are all on the multiplayer buffet table. I could spend days tell you all about how much fun classic CTF is, but it wouldn't do it justice until you picked it up and played it for yourself.
Overall (if you couldn't tell) I'm rather enjoying my Halo 4 multiplayer experience. And, if you're looking a new, fun and fresh multiplayer experience, and you're tired of the same rehashed CoD year after year, maybe it's time to give the Halo franchise another try. If you were disappointed by Reach, but loved classic Halo, the titular fourth installment of the game may just be the next great multiplayer solution you're looking for.