An aptly named multiplayer mode, alluding to both the gigantic UNSC ship on which multiplayer matches take place within the Halo Universe and to the amount of time you’ll spend fragging your fellow compatriots until the next iteration of Halo graces us with its presence. This is your destination once you’ve completed Halo 4’s emotionally gripping and intimate campaign (Read our Halo 4 Campaign review here). Halo’s multiplayer suite has been the driving force for the series, and in the beginning, was a key driving force in the success of Xbox Live. It’s the game that successfully bridged the gap between PC and console FPS multiplayer experiences. It wasn’t until Halo that I really began enjoying FPSs on the console. After Halo, I didn’t want to go back to play FPSs on the PC. While aiming is typically more difficult on a game pad, doing almost every other action is much easier (e.g. running, jumping, throwing grenades, crouching, etc.), but I digress. After spending considerable time with Halo 4’s Infinity Multiplayer in the past month – much to the chagrin of my girlfriend – it’s clear that 343 industries did well to preserve the essence of Halo that fans have enjoyed for the past decade, while staying current with some of the innovations we’ve seen in more current, online FPS titles (e.g. Modern Warfare, Black Ops). The result is a more complete Halo Mulitplayer experience that incentivizes overall player performance across mulitplayer modes, allows players more personalization both tactically and aesthetically, and provides context for the mulitplayer mode’s existence within the Halo Universe.
It All Means Something
Unlike Halo multiplayer in past titles, Infinity Mulitplayer has ties directly to both the campaign and to the Halo Universe as a whole. War Games, the more competitive side to Infinity Multiplayer, take place on simulated environments on the UNSC Infinity, and represent training exercises for the Spartan IV’s stationed on the ship. Think of it as the Danger Room from the X-Men Universe or the simulation deck on USS Enterprise in Star Trek. The multiplayer no longer has an arbitrary existence in the game, adding contextual depth to the whole experience. Ok, but why all the training? For us gamers, well, it just serves as another distraction for our daily lives. For the Spartan IVs we’re controlling, they serve as exercises to keep them in optimum condition for future missions. These missions come in the form of Spartan Ops, the more cooperative piece to Infinity Multiplayer and a continuation of events following the campaign. I’ll go into Spartan Ops a little later, but these missions focus in and around Requiem, the Forerunner shield world on which the events of the campaign take place. It seems 343 has found a clever way to breathe life into a mode that once held little relevance, giving each mode an existence and continuity within the Halo Universe.
An Acquired Taste
What I find to be a distinguishing characteristic about Halo Multiplayer is its more methodical approach to kills. Newcomers to the series will need to show more patience in Halo 4 than in almost any other shooter out there, and some will come to hate how much longer and more difficult it can take to finish off a Spartan. Unlike more twitch first-person shooters like Black Ops and Modern Warfare, kills are a bit more difficult to come by. However, this makes for encounters that are quite exhilarating. Halo 4 maintains that spirit albeit with gameplay and movement that feels just a bit faster than its predecessors. There is something to be said about these mid-to-long range rifle exchanges that are quite unique to Halo. They’re nearly unavoidable, test your aiming prowess and patience, and really up the tension. It is during these moments where you’ll find different strategies emerge. Since Spartans are hardier foes, initial shots you take in a gunfight won’t typically kill you, allowing for a large repertoire of offensive and defensive strategies. Baiting other Spartans into grenade traps, or pretending to be oblivious enemies are among some of my favorite strategies, but would be less effective if I couldn’t survive more a couple of rounds to the chest.
Naturally, shield management is key to success in the game, so knowing when and where to make a hasty retreat is vital. Naturally, most of your kills are hard fought and earned, making them all the more satisfying. The inclusion of a sprint button in Halo 4, while not exactly a current FPS innovation but rather something we’ve come to expect in FPS titles, is certainly a welcome addition, making the game feel faster and giving your Spartan that important second gear when getting to cover or finding an escape becomes a priority. As a result, crossing open areas and moving from cover to cover takes a bit less time, making you less helpless when you spawn in an open area.
The addition of customizable loadouts is a breath of fresh air to the series, allowing you to be adequately equipped for battle without the need to spend those precious initial seconds finding the right weapon at the start of the match or between respawns. Sure, you can’t customize a loadout to include a sniper rifle and a sword (for obvious balancing issues), but you do have a collection of different weapons, including three different mid-range rifles to choose from, providing something for almost anyone. In addition to your choice of weaponry, including grenade type, primary, and secondary weapon, you also get to choose from three different “perks.” Armor Abilities, Tactical Packages, and Support Upgrades are three additional ways to personalize your Spartan to suit your particular playstyle
Armor abilities should be familiar to Halo Reach fans; the jet pack, hologram, and active camo make their return with some new additions such as Promethean vision (the ability to temporarily see through walls), an Auto Sentry (the ability to summon an auto-turret), and the Hardlight Shield (a light shield that’s used similarly to that of a riot shield in Call of Duty). Tactical Packages and Support Upgrades are additional options that can further enhance your Spartan abilities. For instance, Dexterity allows you to reload faster and switch weapons quicker, Mobility allow for unlimited sprinting, Awareness allow you to maintain your motion tracker on screen while scoped, and Grenadier allows you to carry more grenades. Yes, this sounds very familiar – Call of Duty familiar – but the game plays so differently that its implementation will feel far from similar. What’s interesting is that while loadouts are new, they don’t feel out of place or arbitrary, nor do they feel over-bearing or intrusive to the multiplayer experience. In fact, although I’ve unlocked all five available loadouts, I really only use two. But that’s because I typically play slayer matches. Where these loadouts become really interesting are during objective based matches like oddball or capture the flag, where players can customize loadouts to accommodate particular roles (e.g. flag carrier, defender, attacker, etc.)
Spartan Specializations in Halo 4 are also new to the series. In the context of the greater Halo Universe, specializations are different career paths that Spartan IVs can choose should they have an affinity towards a particular role within the UNSC. Think of them like the service ratings you find in the Navy (e.g. Machinist’s Mate, Master-at-Arms, Quartermaster), except much more exciting. In the context of the game’s Infinity multiplayer mode, progression through the specialization paths unlocks additional aesthetic options for your Spartans. In addition, completion of a particular specialization will unlock one additional Tactical Package or Support Upgrade specific to that specialization, allowing access to it for any of your loadouts.
Access to these specializations doesn’t occur until you reach level 50. Once reached, you can choose one of eight specializations (two unlocked at launch, the rest unlocked at a later date, unless you snagged the Limited edition, which unlocks them all) and once chosen, you’re required to compete the 10 levels within that specialization before moving on to the next. Once complete, you unlock the “perk” associated with the specialization. These “perks” are not necessarily superior to the existing Tactical Packages and Support Upgrades available to everyone, but they can definitely give an edge to players with particular playstyles, especially in objective based matches. For those who were worried that these specializations would have a more significant effect on multiplayer like the class systems seen in other games, worry not: These serve simply as a way to enhance the experience without making players feel the need to unlock these specializations just to compete adequately against those who have.
Once More Into the Fray
The gametypes you’ve grown accustomed to make their return, including the addition of a few new modes. Matchtypes fall into two categories: slayer-based matches and objective based matches. New to the former category is Regicide, which comes in free-for-all and team-based flavors. The Spartan with the most points is crowned king, making them visible to every other Spartan on the map. For team matches, each team has a king. Extra points are awarded for killing kings. Naturally, the flow of these matches tend to gravitate towards the location of these kings. Infection, once a just a slayer variant, has been given a new name – Flood – and a bit more aesthetic attention, with the “zombies” resembling flood-infected Spartans, with claws instead of swords.
For objective-based matches, Dominion and Extraction are the new kids on the block. Dominion is a territories gametype that places three different areas on the map where Spartans teams fight for control of these areas to net the most amount of points. On paper, this sounds much like Domination from the Call of Duty series; however it really isn’t for two main reasons. Unlike Domination, once a territory is captured, occupying it will allow a team to reinforce the territory over time, activating turrets, shield barriers, and weaponry. Also, once all territories have been captured, the losing team goes into sudden death, denying them respawns until they recapture a territory. This is one of my favorite gametypes, that caters to all types of Halo players, lone wolves and collaborators alike. Extraction is another territories variant, with different assets placed around the map and teams tasked with placing beacons on these assets and defending them until they are extracted. This gametype has yet to be placed in the matchmaking rotation so my exposure to it has been minimal, but it is promising.
Some tweaks have been made to matchmaking and to some of the existing gametypes. No longer is there a distinction between player and ranked matches, with points earned in each mode contributing to your overall XP. Also, players can join mid-match, which helps to ensure that teams remain balanced throughout matches. Regarding gametypes, in capture the flag matches, you can no longer toss the flag, which, I admit, was fun in past titles, leading to some interesting captures. However, in exchange, they’ve empowered the flag carrier with the ability to carry the flag in one hand, and a pistol in the other. This does give the flag carrier some attack range and better chance of surviving when racing back for a capture. Also, oddball has changed a bit as well, allowing carriers to toss the oddball around, allowing for a more rugby/hockey-like experience, and making the grifball variant much more enjoyable.
As far as weapon arsenal, most of the UNSC weapons we’ve seen in past games make their return, especially the much anticipated return of the battle rifle. It feels great to have the BR back, though I’m not particularly fond of the “chirp-like” sound effect it makes (I wish a friend of mine didn’t point this out otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed as much. Thanks Jesse). Conversely, the DMR sounds and feels much beefier and remains my rifle of choice. Covenant weapons like the carbine, needler and plasma pistol are back, including a new version of the plasma rifle (called the “storm rifle”) that performs more like the UNSC assault rifle. With the advent of a new forerunner adversary in the campaign comes the corresponding forerunner weaponry. The Binary rifle and Incinerator cannon are two power weapons that more than live up to that moniker. The light rifle is a mid-to-long range forerunner alternative to the UNSC’s BR and DMR, and performs quite well especially when zoomed in. While the covenant weapon technology generally leaves something to be desired, the Forerunner weapon technology is a welcome addition to the game. New to Halo are the random weapon drops throughout the map. No longer do weapons have a static existence, with weapons showing up in various locations at various times. This leads to a more dynamic flow to battles throughout a map, punishing complacency and ensuring that players remain on their toes. In addition, as you continue to gain points from kills, assists, captures, etc. during a match, you can eventually unlock an ordinance drop, allowing you to call in a “care package” where players can choose one of three random items. These items include weapons, power-ups (e.g. overshield, damage boost) and grenades, rewarding players who perform well during a match. Vehicles also make a return (no Forerunner vehicles), with the addition the Mantis. This bipedal, “Metal Gear-like” mech found on larger maps boasts rockets and machine guns and can easily turn the tide of any battle. It’s easily my, and everyone else’s favorite vehicle in the game. Ten maps are included with the game, with the promise of nine more between now and April 2013. Haven and Exile are the standouts here. Haven is a medium-sized, symmetrical, map with great verticality and multiple routes around the map. It has great flow and works well for slayer-based gametypes. Exile is an asymmetrical, large-sized map, with a great balance of open-areas, cover, and corridors not to mention great aesthetic character. It’s well-suited for for objective-based gametypes and is the best map for Dominion matches. I’m not particularly fond of Vortex, a large, asymmetrical map used typically for bigger-team matches. While the map appears pretty open, vehicle usage can feel confined due to large rocks littered throughout the map. Also, the map lacks a consistent flow and encounters can get ridiculously chaotic, making it hard to organize strategies. I’m also not particularly fond with the general darkness of the map.
When I first heard about Spartan Ops, a new cooperative mode with the promise of weekly, episodic content in the form of new story missions revolving around the exploits of the Spartan IVs aboard the UNSC Infinity, it was difficult not to get excited. It promised additional story content with new cutscenes, was completely free, and would provide something for Halo fans to look forward each week. The concept is sound and in theory can extend the shelf life of a title well after launch. After completing the five episodes of the first season, the overall experiece has been a bit underwhelming and my feelings about Spartan Ops are mixed, though I lean just a bit more towards the positive.
The gameplay itself is fun (I mean, it’s still Halo) and the structure of each chapter feels a little like firefight and little like the campaign. Unfortunately, the unlimited respawning dampens the intensity a bit and provides little consequence to over-zealous players trying to take on four hunters with a pistol and a couple of grenades. The in-game voice communications from Palmer, Roland, and others supporting cast members bring character to the experience and at times, it sort of feels like Halo: Reach’s campaign. However, it does lack the overall pacing and structure that makes the Halo campaign so special. In addition, some enviroments are recycled quite often throughout the 25 chapters of this first season. While I don’t mind some familiarity, I’d much prefer to visit a larger variety of locales. 343 Industries does promise a variety of new environments when Spartan Ops returns in January 2013.
For a co-op experience, Spartan ops has an inherent competitiveness to it where a more collaborative nature would have been more welcome. I think carrying over the point system from the multiplayer would have served it better since assists and distractions net “supportive” points and foster teamwork. While I believe the point system is still at work to some degree since having the most kills doesn’t necessarily mean you get first place (substantial kills, like Promethean Knights vs grunts count more), I think the focus on the kill/death ratio in Spartan Ops makes it simply a race to get in the most kills as possible, without much regard for your fellow Spartan. In addition, having a limited amount of respawns would further encourage teamwork and bring back that intensity from firefight.
All that aside, playing through Halo 4’s “mini campaign” in Spartan ops has provided additional depth to the already rich Halo Universe, allowing us to see the world beyond the perspective of Master Chief and Cortana. Seeing the Spartan IVs banter back and forth, observing their interactions, breathes more life into the world and the people that inhabit it. Roland has become my favorite UNSC AI not named Cortana; Sarah Palmer, Tom Lasky and Catherine Halsey are characters I can’t wait to see more of. Despite its faults, I love that 343i did this; it gave me something “Halo” to look forward to each week. While it’s far from perfect, the concept is sound, and will prove to serve fans well once implemented more deftly in the future.
A Return to Form
Infinity multiplayer will remain the primary reason to return to the Halo 4 universe. 343 has honored the Halo series with gameplay, customization options, and level design that improves on the already solid multiplayer foundation built by its predecessors. For those who missed the feel of Halo 3’s multiplayer, enjoyed the addition of armor abilities in Halo: Reach, and wished for more individual customization as seen in games like Modern Warfare or black ops, you’ll find something to love. Even if you can only relate to one of these things, you’ll still find something to enjoy. For those interested in creating levels, Forge makes its return, with more customization options and more environments to manipulate than in previous titles. Spartan Ops, while ambitious, has been a bit underwhelming, but I remain cautiously optimistic about its return in January. However, it is all still Halo, and as such, will not win over those who never liked the game in the first place. Despite some minor faults, Infinity multiplayer is a return to form, an experience that will keep Halo fans busy well into the new year.