Ghaleon’s Halo 4 PAX Impressions
The caveat that this was an unfinished game set up for public exhibition played under often less than ideal circumstances. But I got in enough games – a half dozen or so – that I think I have a feel for Halo 4.
The first thing I did when the game started was strafe, as player weight/inertia remains one of the biggest problems in Reach. It’s largely removed from the game; I’ll need to go back to past Halo games to compare, but it felt comparable to Halo 3. I could move where I wanted to move with enough responsiveness to survive situations. Night and day difference with Reach. Jumps and base speed also feel similar to Halo 3, so if you thought that game was too slow, you’ll feel that way about the base speed here. But again, coming from Reach, the improvement was immediate.
And yet…it still felt pretty slow, at first. I started clumping around the level and was surprised at how different it was from what I was expecting after seeing videos. But after a few games, I stopped thinking about it; I guess I adapted. The gunplay is so immediate and movement responsive enough that I never felt like I died because my movement options were restricted. That, right there, makes this a better game than Reach.
“Does it feel like Halo?”
I mentioned this briefly the other day, but no. But not in the way the question is usually asked. Halo 4 “feels” entirely unique to the series, in that there’s been a great emphasis on making the player feel like they are inhabiting a hulking suit of armor. Everything from the sound design to subtle HUD shifts when you move to the way the screen bobs a bit as you sprint emphasize that you’re a dude (or dudette, I think) in a suit in a way the rest of the series has not.
What it does successfully is make you feel heavy and massive, without actually slowing you down; you feel like an agile tank. Now, this actually took some getting used to, because I had a hard time separating what the audio/visual inputs were telling me from what the gameplay was. I realize that might sound confusing, but you move as agile as in Halo 3, but feel much heavier than in Reach.
I think the game achieves through less intrusive ways what Reach was going for; rather than have weight slow us down and limit movement, they’ve found other ways to convey it. The audio is a big part of it, and I’ll over that in the next post.
I picked the Battle Rifle for my first load out, and stuck with it for a while. It feels good to use, and while it may just be my perception of it playing for the first time at a public event, the spread feels a bit less than Halo 3. I felt like I was headshotting folks at somewhat longer range than in Halo 3, with all shots landing. Very solid mid to close range gun.
But I switched to the DMR when I could. I’m not sure if it’s because it was more effective, or because it sounds like a goddamn hand canon (probably the latter), but I just found it more fun to use. On the first map I played (Forerunner aesthetic, Haven?) it proved an advantage down the long sight lines.
I toyed with a few other weapons. On the new map, in between Gauss Hog deaths, I picked up a lucky nearby ordnance drop. I thought it was the Promethean Light Rifle. As the Warthog drove by I scoped in real quick on the driver and blew the whole thing sky high, landing a double kill. I see people have since figured out what that is. I have no idea how it’s balanced, but sure was a surprising result.
The pistol feels like Halo 3’s, but only a touch more accurate as Reach’s. I stripped a lot of shields with it, but am pretty sure I never landed a headshot. It seems to serve the same role as the pistol did in Halo 3: it was tuned so the CTF carrier has something to use, sort of like the VIP mode in Halo 3. It won’t be something people select for MP. I forgot to try the Assault Rifle. Sorry, Dax.
I only got a few melee smacks in, but I didn’t whiff the way I still manage to with Reach. I can’t put my finger on why, but as others have observed there’s a definite emphasis on gunplay in Halo 4; melee combat was more rare than in Reach, despite everyone having sprint. I’ll need more time with the game to figure out what’s driving it, but Halo 4 is does emphasize gunplay more than Reach.
With each new Halo game, there’s an adjustment period for grenade throwing, since the arc gets fiddled with each game. I didn’t have to adjust this time around; I was just parking grenades where I wanted them to go. I think that means they throw similar to Reach, since that’s what I’m used to.
Plasma grenades are still plasma grenades, and seem to take just a touch longer to blow than in Reach. That is a good thing. Frags are returned to their role in Halo 3: strip shields. I got tagged by them a few times when I had a couple shots on me, and they just took my shields down rather than killing me instantly. Far fewer grenade deaths (and also, fewer grenades piling up, since players don’t seem to drop them unless you have that perk selected).
I had one odd moment with a frag grenade. I put two shots with the DMR on someone at close range, and then bounced a grenade down at his feet while stepping back around a corner. As the frag went off, I come back for the kill and find he’s like, 15 feet up in the air; I think he did an accidental grenade jump. I land another couple shots but he finishes me since his head is out of my range. I suspect people will grenade jump like crazy in this game.
Short version: I think 343 more or less nailed the core gameplay. Certainly, they’ve nailed it in ways Reach simply didn’t. Aside from the pistol – which seems to have been designed as something to give the flag carrier – I never missed shots when I thought I should have hit them. I never died and then cursed my limited mobility. I didn’t take two shots and despair as a frag grenade tinked around the corner. The audio (more on that later) and stuff they’re doing with HUD and overall emphasis on the armor you inhabit means it all feels quite different from the previous games, but the core is quite familiar.
It doesn’t feel like Halo, but it plays like it.
Armour Abilities and Mods
One of the first things I did was build a custom load out based on what I knew about how I liked to play: fast. So that load out had the Thruster Pack for AA, Mobility for one perk, and Agility (I think? it’s the reload/weapon swap speed boost) for the other.
I had intended at the outset to experiment, but instead I decided I liked the load out and went with it for nearly all my games. So that sorta limits what I can cover. Whoops. :lol
Finding a play style that clicks with you is what 343 is trying to do with the customization suite, so I suppose that meant it worked.
The Thruster Pack is pretty fun to use, and more limited than I thought it would be; that’s a good thing. Firing a ~1 second burst you move about as far as a single roll of Evade sends you in Reach, after which there’s a long cool down. No zigging and zagging back and forth, and since you don’t roll into a ball to do it, you remain a sizable target while moving as well. So on those counts it clips the biggest problems with Evade.
Over the course of several games I used it in a few ways. 1) A sudden, rapid strafe during shootouts to throw the other player off, and was successful a few times at finishing players as a result. 2) Leaping to platforms or over gaps I couldn’t clear with a simple jump; this feels pretty great. 3) As a way to escape encounters – just zipping around a corner. And finally, to get four kills with the sword in a single game by watching the radar, seeing them get close, and stepping around the corner and boosting up to their face, and stabbing them in it.
Aside from boosting over chasms, it plays a similar role as Evade does, but you have to be much more selective in how to use it. So it avoids some of the problems that Evade created, but not all of them.
The 3rd person zoom out / zoom in is too rapid. For an ability that lasts ~2 seconds from start to finish, a 3rd person view is needlessly disorienting. It would be better to keep it in 3rd person and prevent us from shooting, as when sprinting.
I used the Mobility armor mod the entire time as well. Unlimited sprint, and it did prove a large advantage at times; when escaping fights, when chasing down ordnance or chasing other players whose sprint will run out. I found it most useful for regrouping with my team. On Adrift (the human themed small map, I think?) we were trying to work closely as a squad, so I always looked to regroup with them. With Mobility that generally took ~10 seconds, even from the other side of the map.
I liked being able to sprint the entire time, but I’m not sure how balanced it is; I felt it tipped too many situations to my advantage. It certainly helped get me back into the action very quickly.
You do get slowed down when sprinting and taking fire; during my sword spree, I had to use the Thruster Pack because if you sprint at someone, and they’re shooting you, you’re not going to close the gap. This really mitigates the problem with sprint/sword.
One of the reasons I picked Mobility and went sword hunting was to test the unlimited sprint/sword combo. I got exactly one kill with it, and died a few times trying. If you’re taking fire while sprinting – that dude is backing up shooting you – you’ll slow down to what feels like almost normal speed, and they can land a headshot first.
My worries about unlimited sprint with sword more or less evaporated. You can still abuse sword/thruster pack, but not nearly to the same degree as evade thanks to the single use, short range, long cool down effect (and the disorienting zoom to 3rd person). It will be less common and more circumstantial.
The Agility (I think?) mod sped up reloading and weapon swapping – a LOT. It felt like reload time was cut down by 50-75%. It was so fast that in the build we played, the animation was faster than the reloading sounds: I’d reload and start shooting, and the snick-snick reload sounds would still be finishing up. I assume this is still being worked on.
It cut down time to a ~1 second break between ammo clips. It was especially advantageous for long range shootouts; the other player would pause to reload and I’d be firing well before they did. I ran into a few situations where I drained my primary and was able to pull out the secondary with barely a break in firing cadence.
Again, it definitely helped push an advantage my way in several encounters. The pitch with armor mods has been that 1) they push you toward your preferred style of play, but 2) are not an absolute advantage and 3) help to self-balance by virtue of forgoing other mods for the ones you select. I didn’t tinker too much, but I did settle into a very rapid play style using this combination. And it definitely helped me come out ahead of several firefights. I can’t speak to most of the other stuff, but I thought they were as fun as they are worrying.
Now, take those kind of moments, and multiply them for everyone, and you can get a feel for how they will probably work. In every game, a fight or two will be nudged your way because of an option you picked at spawn. And everyone will likely have that happen, at least a couple of times, which will be enough to make them feel rewarded for unlocking their mod and using it, but not overpowering the match.
Maybe the fun will rule the day and all the hand wringing will be for naught, but I still came away from many fights feeling almost apologetic. Sorry dude, I picked the right mod! For that moment, anyway. They were not overpowering, but I’m still uncomfortable with this line having been crossed. Time will tell.
The New UI
Halo 4 throws a LOT of new information at you. Others have noticed this from the videos, but it really sinks in when you play. Many new context-specific waypoint markers, new details on the radar, tons of new medals (the medals themselves didn’t pop in our build), text in the middle of the screen, and a lot more chatter from the announcer.
In a game of Regicide the announcer was not only telling me about specific events, but telling me the leader was…still leading. Sometimes that he was leading by even more than in the last time I was told he was leading. (Which is another way to tell me I’m losing by even more.)
When combined with the larger share of medals that get announced rather than simply pop, it was too much chatter. Medals like Headcase and Comeback Kill (which I think means you started a fight with less health than your opponent, but won) get announced. But so do things like Distraction, which is a really…odd medal. I got it many times, simply by getting shot at. Often I’d start to get shot at, turn around, and see someone on my team kill the guy. And then I’d get a medal for it, the dude yelling “Distraction!”, as if trying to distract me.
I dubbed it the Pinata medal: guys will get medals and points for just getting shot now.
Against this increase in visual and audio chatter comes greater clarity in what waypoint markers mean. One example is in the flag UI. Rather than show a waypoint for the flag, and show a meter for how long it takes to return it, and then flash the flag meter as it’s close they just…put a timer on the flag icon so we know how long it takes to reset. It’s an elegant solution that cuts down on some of the visuals required to convey information. There were several other such touches that helped things read faster, but that’s the one I can remember right now.
The menus are different, but clear and quick and work well.
But all in all, there’s a LOT more going on in the game, with all the new text and indicators. And those things kind of collide with…
I haven’t seen a video that yet does justice to what was cranked into my skull during the games. Hand canon is an appropriate term for most UNSC weapon sounds – they really have impact. Part of the feeling of being an agile tank comes from the sound design and implementation. When you melee or reload, you often hear your suit rustling as you do. Footsteps are heavier – clump clump clump – and melee blows hit harder.
All that is good. But all of the sound effects also sound…processed. Like every sound went through the same sci-fi filter and came out altered in the same way; there’s a more narrow range that all the various audio effects span. Gunfire and movement and weapon fire and vehicles all have this same dulled sound to them on the edges that I am struggling to verbalize, but it makes most effects sound artificial. I hear a gun shot, and think – wow, someone came up with a neat effect for that gun, rather than, that gun sounds awesome. Some weapons, especially the Forerunner weapons, really lack punch. Think Halo 2 SMG.
More troubling, there’s a lot more sound going on. So our suit rustles and our foot steps are clump clumping more loudly – and so does everyone else. So the hand canons are cannoning and there’s thump thump footsteps everywhere and rustling and explosions and the announcer won’t be quiet for a moment (“Distraction! Ordinance Ready! The Enemy Has Your Flag and You Should Go and Kill the Guy That Picked It Up! Distraction!”) and it becomes a lot harder to pick up the sound of a grenade bouncing, or a plasma landing, or a guy walking up behind you. The audio landscape is now as cluttered as all the new UI elements.
So between the impact and layers to the sound design, atop all the new UI (new game type icons and way points, ordinance, new medals, text in middle of screen), I found the game to be cranking out information overload at times. No one individual element was too much; the text in the middle of the screen never bothered me, the ordnance markers were clear, and so on. But in total, it was just too much. Some elements need to be dialed back. Halo was combat evolved; at times, Halo 4 feels like combat, cluttered.
Again, the core game is fantastic. But I felt at times like it was sagging a bit under too many layers atop it, like a delicious moist cake with too much frosting and toppings. The frosting is tasty and the toppings sweet, but you can have too much.
I got to play CTF a couple times, but as I mentioned, they were all on Exile and I spent my time respawning thanks to the Gauss Hog and Scorpion. So I can’t speak to the flag carrier traits and how it affects the game directly.
On the one hand, the instant pick up solves a problem with objective games since Halo 1: there’s a pile of weapons on the flag – or a Warthog lovingly parked there – and you can’t pick it up on first go. I often cycle through AR’s and Plasma Pistols before grabbing the flag, and that eats into critical time as the defending team converges.
So that’s one situation where auto pick up will help. But there will be situations where you’re fighting against defenders in the flag room, and strafe into the flag by accident – and are doomed for doing so. I hope the flag pick up zone is about the size of the flag pole to minimize these kinds of accidents.
Which leaves the decision to eliminate dropping the flag (giving players a magnum is probably closely related to this one). There will surely be situations where you grab the flag and round a corner to find three guys there, and you’d really like to drop it. Or you have the flag but want to drop it for a piece of heavy ordnance nearby, and so on. It also eliminates play such as tossing the flag to a lower level and covering your teammate from your position.
I’ve heard three reasons for the decision. The first is to eliminate flag juggling, which seems drastic considering the other options available (as with Reach’s cool down). Another is that is speeds up gameplay, which could probably be accomplished through other means as well. The last is that it pushes players into dedicated roles: you’re the flag carrier, and you’ll behave differently once you are. This one seems the most compelling to me, an I’m interested to play it and see how it alters the game.
I wish I had a chance to play CTF more and get a feel for how it worked out. On paper, I can’t say I like these changes, but I’ll refrain from judging it to see how it plays out. On balance, the changes will make for a somewhat simpler game, and it eliminates a suite of coordinated flag movement options (juggling, tossing) that will make the mode more newcomer friendly. Which, combined with the added clarity to the HUD and announcer lines, is probably part of the goal. To the extent that it helps make CTF games more popular and thus voted in more often, I applaud the effort.
On one of those games on Exile where I was getting camped, I spawned and then had a piece of ordnance drop next to me. I grabbed it, scoped, and toasted the marauding Warthog with whatever Forerunner death ray I scooped up. Fun outcome. But it’s a moment that’s troubled me ever since, because I keep thinking about the implications.
The last time I played Halo 3 matchmaking was last fall, with a bunch of GAFers. We had an amazing game of Slayer on Avalanche. Our team fell behind as the other guys accumulated an advantage, toasting a few of our vehicles and pinning us down. We were behind by over a dozen kills. A plan formed, targeting specific vehicles. Rockets and power drains were acquired, players were positioned, and we executed a plan that eliminated their vehicles and we began to fight back. We ended up winning by seven kills.
This kind of comeback was made possible because of the fixed weapon placements and spawns. We knew where the tools were, and about when they would appear.
In Halo 4, we likely would have lost that game, because we could not have anticipated what ordnance would drop, or where. If we got lucky, it might have been anti-vehicle weapons, and if we were really lucky, they might have dropped near us. But the ability to put together a plan to combat a team that has a tactical advantage – be it map control or vehicle control or both – is dependent on knowing what tools you have available at your disposal. The ordnance system in Halo 4 injects a heavy dose of luck into the equation, and I predict the result is fewer come from behind victories.
The flip side is, now and then a player will get some goodies land next to them, and they’ll feel like they won the jackpot. Against a superior team with solid map control, the other team will still be able to have some goodies delivered to them by sheer luck, as the opposing team can’t predict where stuff lands. As with the CTF updates, this sounds like something to make the game more accessible; randoms getting mauled by a team will still get thrown a bone from time to time, probably not turning the tide of the game but letting them get a few kills they otherwise would not. (And the reverse: a team with excellent map control and coordination will still get toasted by ordnance they can’t control.)
The ordnance system in War Games, as I understand it, sounds like a very bad idea. It removes a lot of the strategy from multiplayer games, and injects a healthy dose of random luck, which runs counter to the competitive nature of the game. As I said, I think there will be fewer come from behind victories as a result, which is unfortunate.
Music in War Games
Just a quick note here. There’s music in most (all?) modes now, usually coming in at the end to ratchet up the tension. I liked it; it felt like a natural evolution from the music in Invasion and Firefight. My only worry is that it will start playing say, at the end of a CTF match. And then the game will go on for a very long time – what happens to the music then? Are we stuck with it?
At any rate, this is another departure to the series that I find quite welcome. It worked.
Games like Halo take time to judge properly, and it’s doubly hard at public events like PAX to do so. But the game made a strong first impression on me, and I don’t think that is likely to turn around after it ships. My immediate reaction to Reach was pretty negative, and looking back, it was for all the same reasons it remains so.
Halo 4 plays like Halo, with changes around the edges but not to the core of combat (which is what Reach did). The gunplay is extremely strong, and there’s an emphasis on it that prevents the game from degenerating into a melee and grenade spam fest. I’m very worried about a number of elements – map set ups, ordnance, armor mods, cluttered UI and sound design – but even with all these things in the mix, the game was simply fun to play, and it played, for the most part, like Halo should; in the end, that’s what really matters.
Much appreciation to the 343 folks, who put on a great show at PAX and who were great to talk with. Their passion for the game was on full display, and I think they’ve got a game to be proud of.