Halo 4’s multiplayer brings cohesion, depth, and a fresh feel to well-worn ideas
Note: Due to the number of changes made in Halo 4 from previous titles, both in campaign and multiplayer, our review has been split into two. This article focuses on War Games and Spartan Ops, the multiplayer modes of Halo 4. You can check out the Halo 4 campaign review here.
You chose armor color in the multiplayer for the first Halo game. In Halo 2 you could choose a primary and secondary color. In Halo 3 you could choose one of a dozen armor permutations to change your look, as well as the color scheme of your Spartan. Halo: Reach introduced loadouts and armor abilities while bumping up the number of armor permutations and tracking career stats via commendations.
Halo 4‘s additions to multiplayer eclipse the changes brought by earlier games by more than doubling the number of armor permutations, adding customizable loadouts, new game types, new rewards, new commendations, new ways of earning XP, and most important of all, story. Your character isn’t some immortal god, killing, dying, and respawning for all eternity anymore. Halo 4‘s multiplayer make sense, and brings with it a sense of wholeness.
A fragmented whole
There are two splinters of multiplayer in Halo 4: War Games and Spartan Ops. Both of these are found under “Infinity.” Halo 4 introduces that idea that MP takes place in a distinct location: the UNSC Infinity, the largest spaceship constructed by man. The Infinity is an exploration vessel, as well as training ground for the newest iteration of the Spartan super soldier program, the Spartan-IVs. This ship is what will carry you, as a player, from campaign to multiplayer.
Early in the story of Halo 4, the Infinity comes across the same Forerunner planet Master Chief and Cortana explore. Six months after the campaign’s story concludes, it returns to study and conquer the hostile landscape. This act will require force.
War Games are structured as training exercises onboard the Infinity. In this way, Spartan-IVs practice and hone their skills. They compete against fellow soldiers in a holodeck-style environment in modes such as deathmatch and capture the flag. And why do Spartan-IVs need to sharpen their skills?
That would be Halo 4‘s other multiplayer branch, Spartan Ops. While War Games are self-contained exercises, the Spartan Ops send your Spartan-IV to the surface of Requiem, where you complete objectives on relatively small maps to further progress Infinity’s mission. Everything that happens in Spartan Ops is tied to the larger narrative 343 Industries is crafting, complete with voice acting and cutscenes. Spartan Ops come in sets of 5, representing an episode. The first episode is included on the second disc of Halo 4, with a new episode releasing each week. There will eventually be 10, and all of season one is free.
It’s up to you which order you want to tackle each of Halo 4‘s modes, or if you want to skip out on some. You could just do War Games for your entire service career, or you could jump into Spartan Ops before you start the campaign, even though chronologically they happen after Master Chief’s adventure. Whichever route you pick, prepare to be rewarded.
Spartan-IVs offer the best in frequent fighter rewards
Practically every time you perform an action in Halo 4‘s multiplayer, you’ll be rewarded, either immediately with XP or down the line with accumulating commendations. A kill, for example, is worth 10 experience points, while an assist is worth 5. You also earn points for killing a flag carrier, capturing an objective, and plenty more. These accumulate at the end of a match and rise your rank, as was the case in Halo 3 and Halo: Reach.
But let’s say your kill was delivered while your target was reloading, which gives you a “Reload This!” medal; that counts as a Combat Opportunity category kill, and you get a tally in your service record for every Combat Opportunity kill you make. Your level within each of these categories is determined by the number of times you perform their associated actions, and they differ from category to category.
It might only take you five assassinations before you rise about the rank of Novice in the Assassin category, but it will take 25 melee kills for you to advance from Novice rank in the Close Quarters category. Each time you rank up you’re awarded bonus XP, and once you’ve reached the level of Master, you unlock the armor tied to that category to customize the look of your Spartan-IV.
It’s a cool system that rewards players for mixing up tactics and playing objective-based modes like capture the flag as they’re meant to be played, not alternate versions of team deathmatch. Some will focus only on melee kills or grenade kills or what-have-you, but many more will see that sweet helmet or chest piece they could have if only they focused on headshots for awhile, and they’ll be inspired to get better.
Called to duty
As your Spartan levels, you’ll also gain Spartan Points, which are used to unlock components for your custom loadouts. When you first start up Halo 4 multiplayer, you’ll have four loadouts: two pre-generated and two custom. Each loadout consists of slots for primary weapon, secondary weapon, grenade, armor ability, tactical package, and support package.
Primary weapons are your big guns like the assault rifle, DMR, and battle rifle, while your default secondary weapon is a pistol. It should be obvious what goes in the grenade slot, and you have three types to choose from in Halo 4: frag, plasma, and the new pulse grenade. Pulse grenades activate much quicker than others and create a sustained orb or energy that drains shields and eventually detonates, causing damage. They’re not very powerful, but used correctly they serve as great area denial weapons.
Only a few of the armor abilities from Halo: Reach have returned. You won’t see armor lock anywhere, nor sprint, and even the returning abilities like the jet pack or active camo have been tweaked. The jet pack, for example, doesn’t last nearly as long, making its use more conserved and strategic. There are shields created by light, thruster packs to give you a short boost, automated sentry turrets, and my personal favorite, Promethean vision.
Promethean vision lets you see through walls and across the map in a whole new way. Most of your screen will turn dark blue as the scan progresses outward, highlighting allies in green and enemies in red. It’s not as inherently offensive or defensive as other abilities, but once you start getting good with a medium or long-range precision weapon, you get extra time to line up your shot and pick people off. Its range isn’t limitless and it drains power quickly, so I don’t see it being abused by snipers, but it should work well for people who love the mid-range battles of the DMR or battle rifle.
The tactical and support packages are the most divergent in terms of the traditional Halo multiplayer structure, and some are going to claim it rips offCall of Duty‘s perk system. To be honest, yes, it does structure itself that way and it’s easy to draw that connection. The end result still “feels” like Halo, though.
There are nine tactical packages, which passively imbue your Spartan-IV with better performance. The Shield Package increases the rate at which your shields recharge, while the Firepower Package allows you to carry two primary weapons. Resupply allows you to pick up grenades from dead players, and AA Efficiency decreases the recharge time for armor abilities. Once you’ve unlocked these packages, you can swap through them, even in the middle of a match. I frequently mixed it up between Shield and AA Efficiency, depending on whether I needed to play defensively or could go more offensive.
The support category has things like Awareness, which allows use of radar while using a scope, and Ammo, which increases ammunition capacity for your weapons. I do best at mid-range with my trusty DMR, so I chose the Awareness Package. Nothing so handy as finding a great spot on the high ground and knowing when someone’s trying to sneak up behind you.
You’ll also be able to call in ordnance drops throughout some gametyoes. A meter on the side of your screen fills as the match progresses, and once it fills you’re given three options for your drop. The item then appears in a small container near your Spartan, but it’s not yours until you’ve picked it up. if you’re too greedy and call in an ordnance while in the middle of a fight and die, the enemy can just as easily turn your toys against you.
The drops add in small spikes of excitement and allow players to alter the flow of game play. In one match where my team was behind, I called in the Forerunner equivalent of a shotgun, the Scattershot. I played conservatively and held onto this bad boy until my second drop, which gave me a speed boost. Suddenly I was in the other team’s face with a powerful close-range weapon before they could react. Double kill! Triple kill! Killing spree!
Operations are a go
No matter how you outfit your loadouts, they’ll transfer across Spartan Ops and War Games. As mentioned before, Spartan Ops are a continuation of Halo 4‘s story which take place on the planet Requiem. Your Spartan will be deployed to the planet’s surface to clear out Covenant resistance at first, but will soon be introduced to new challenges and mysteries, culminating in the retrieval of a Forerunner artifact.
Each episode has five chapters, each chapter has a map. The first Spartan Op chapter has you start at the top of a desert hill and battle your way down, taking out turrets and Covenant defensive positions. You’ll reach the map’s first goal and destroy a power generator, then fight your way back out to extraction. Another chapter has you deactivating radio signal jammers at a Forerunner structure, and another has you escaping a Forerunner trap.
These chapters are short, usually taking just 10-15 minutes to complete, which is the only downside. I want to know more, see more, understand more. Jennifer Hale provides the voice of your commander, and she is damn effective at making you want to rise to the task. The first episode is all about exposition and getting to know the rival fire squad, which isn’t bad, but I hope future episodes will be more action-packed and interesting from a story point of view.
Spartan Ops can be played solo or with a group, though I’d definitely suggest the latter. It’s hard to tell, but my initial feeling is that Spartan-IVs aren’t as hardy as Spartan-IIs, so they seem to die a bit easier. Teammates will not just increase your rate of success, but likely bring more fun to the party. Plus, there’s no more firefight mode – Spartan Ops replaces that, and is the only player vs. computer co-op mode in the game, other than the campaign.
Let the games begin
Speaking of replaced modes, Invasion is also gone from Halo 4, which is a real shame, as it was one of the most intensely team-focused modes of Reach, full of heart-stopping moments where an enemy would die just before they could capture a location or deliver a core.
It’s been replaced by the new mode Dominion, which still has players capturing bases, but in a different way. Now, instead of standing in a designated area, you must run in, press X to begin capturing a base, and then wait as a timer counts down. During this time you can be killed, but opposing Spartans must still deactivate your capture if they want to take the base for themselves.
They will want to, by the way, and players should be prepared for Dominion to produce a high level of frantic urgency in the way they play. After a set amount of time, bases resupply with weapons, vehicles, even automated anti-personnel turrets and shields to limit access to the capture point. To win you need coordination. You can never be 100% sure that your bases are safe, so knowing which base needs you the most while keeping track of enemy movement is important.
The other new mode to Halo 4‘s multiplayer is Regicide. This is an interesting twist on Juggernaut, where the player with the most points doesn’t become more powerful, but instead becomes a bigger target. Here’s how it works: If you gain the lead, you become the king. Being the king places a bounty on your head and a marker on everyone’s HUD that shows exactly where you are. Kills normally net you 10 points, but killing the king will net you a bonus, depending on how many enemies the king has killed.
So for example, if the king kills two enemies, his bounty goes up to 20. Now if you kill the king, you’ll receive 20 points instead of the usual 10. The king’s bounty never goes ridiculously high; even though I saw a king get tons of kills in rapid succession, his bounty didn’t exceed 40 points. This means that going after other players is still a viable option, and the game doesn’t descend into “everyone dog-pile on the king.” Although that can be fun in its own way.
The game ships with 10 maps, and each I played on felt fair; the beautiful graphics of the game’s campaign carry over. You’ll be fighting on Forerunner ruins, through swampy jungles, and around UNSC military compounds, giving a nice variety to the structure and look of each game. Curiously, there are no heavily Covenant-themed levels in multiplayer. If you really like neon purples, greens, and blues, you’re out of luck.
Other modes return, with the focus on points instead of kills. This is nice because it helps you more easily visualize your progress while organically pushing players toward actions that benefit the gametype they’re in. Killing someone who’s stolen your flag has always been a good thing, but now you’ll get extra points, so even the kill-crazy players who don’t function well in a team end up being encouraged to do something that benefits everyone.
Matchmaking remains as smooth and simple as it ever was, and it’s easy to flip through post-game carnage reports or other players’ profiles and service records. If you see someone with a sweet set of armor, you can check it out and see exactly what they’ve earned.
Still Halo, still fun
Halo 4 and Call of Duty fans have not had the most amicable relationship. There’s been a long-standing feud of which game is supposedly better, and I have no doubt people will see some of the changes in Halo 4 - personalized loadouts, tactical and support packages, the fact that every Spartan now has a sprint function – as a little too inspired by Activision’s shooters. This still feels like Halo through and through. You still have a much more limited number of weapons, weapons still spawn on the map, and you’re still an armor-plated killing machine in space.
In fact, the biggest changes aren’t the ones that can be connected to Call of Duty. The biggest and best changes are the sense of cohesiveness and rewards 343 has added to the multiplayer experience. The subtle reminder that your Spartan-IV is a real person training their skills in war games before they set out to conquer an alien world is a powerful one, and the reassurance of points is a nice way for 343 to pat you on the back and let you know you’ve done something right. Your character is separated from the game’s world and story, it’s merely woven into it through different means.
There is a feeling of thankfulness in Halo 4‘s multiplayer – not from players to 343, but the other way around. It’s a game that’s glad to have you playing, and rewards you for sticking around. I’m happy to return the favor.
Besides, it’s really cool to assassinate someone while carrying the flag.