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PREVIEW

Halo 4: Spartan Ops Hands-On

It's got all the familiarity of home. But we're beyond the edge of the known galaxy.

Joining 343's second showing of its vision of Halo was the first playable code, in the form of two multiplayer modes.

Both these and the presentation that opened Microsoft's Media Briefing further emphasised that the studio's inaugural entry has the ring of Bungie's expertise, evoking a familiar but improved visual fidelity through the refined graphics engine, and the wildcard of new gameplay mechanics.

Think less reboot, more continued progression. It's surprising how little the new guardians of Master Chief have deviated from the establishment: perhaps it's more of a shock that we expected something wholly different than a mutation of Combat Evolved.

Halo 4
Part of the beautiful and seemingly abstract artwork for Halo 4: Forerunner facilities just got a whole lot prettier.

After a perfunctory announcement at Microsoft's Spring Showcase, 343 Industries went big at E3. It opened Microsoft's Media Briefing with the first campaign footage of Master Chief's return. Building-sized posters prominently adorned the exhibition center's corridors. The game swallowed a generous third of Microsoft's showfloor booth; a life-scale replica warthog wrestled for attention alongside beautiful yet seemingly abstract artwork. Again, Old mixed with new.

But you already know all the details about the campaign. We're here to talk about the other side of Halo 4.

A day after witnessing 343's vision for Master Chief's future, and two since we first saw those tantalising posters, I, and host of others, are rotating across multiple Halo 4 multiplayer sessions in a packed club in downtown L.A.

We fight, we die, we win. Then we queue to repeat the process. In both eight-strong competitive multiplayer and the four-squad Spartan Ops. The former alternates between Team Deathmatch and Regicide modes. The latter's a punchily short single mission tackling both Covenant and new enemy the Prometheans.

I strapped into Spartan Ops first, 343's biggest gamble - episodic missions bookended by full cinematics, released weekly post Halo 4 release - taking priority.

Spartan Ops

Halo 4
Reclaim a Promethean artefact's not going to be easy: terrain slopes everywhere, making grenade tosses a friendly fire nightmare.

The mode will form the majority of post-launch DLC, ongoing package drops eventually forming a full four-player campaign equal to yet wholly separate from the Master Chief's.

It's the realisation of the digital plan teased in the industry for several years, bolder than the seasons passes currently in vogue and completely fitting for the Halo series. Post-play, the developer explains how this is the continuation of Halo 4's story, set six months after the "incident" that Master Chief is involved in the main campaign. I ask whether the studio ever expects to have a break anytime soon. A laugh is the only response.

Whether players need story-driven excuses to pepper each other or aliens with bullet holes is rendered moot for the moment as placeholder art and audio ready my squad to drop into our mission.

The fifteen minute gameplay slice jumps between attacking and defending a base, fighting our way up the three-tier Covenant lines of Grunt, Jackal and Elite. Strategising on the fly against the new enemy types. Juggling new weapons and abilities, and easily winning through the mini-Firefight climax.

The reason for our presence is the interruption of a Covenant archaeological dig; suggestion that either not every fleet got the internal memo regarding the UNSC/Elite truce come Halo 3's conclusion, or like Master Chief, there are Covenant forces far beyond mapped space. Either way, struggle over ancient and all-powerful technology is still the epicentre to Halo's story.

A New Ugly: Promethean

Halo 4
Big they may be, the Knights still fall prey to the same tactics as the Brutes.

But this time the the bearers of said power are active on the battlefield, with the Prometheans replacing the Flood as Halo's third force. Much like first encounters with the zombified infection, initial engagements run similarly: quick weapon rotations to test potential weaknesses while we duck and weave as attack routines are studied and learnt.

They're seemingly cybernetic, advanced biped and quadruped offshoots of the Forerunner Sentinels encountered in the original trilogy. They're a lot more imposing though, and like the Flood freakish come first contact: exposure to the burning skull underneath a Knight's helmet unsettling due to its strangeness.

The Knight's one of three types we encounter. It's got fast teleporting abilities thankfully signposted by glowing lines extending from where it is to where it's going, granting some preplanned response. While it's got a huge hulking body and epic-sized shoulder pads, it still reacts the same as a Brute to a succession of close-range Scattershots - Prometheans' own shotgun variant - and like the muscle strength of the Covenant's organic tank, it requires quick reflexes to avoid being punched across the level.

It's backed by multiple AR Drone-style Watchers, zippy aerialists that hover and shift like man-sized dragonflies. But it's the Crawlers that are initially the worst; dog-types that hug the ground and move in packs.

Halo 4
Hard light shields can be adapted for Spartan armour - though their generation time is pretty limited.

Couple the sharp gradients of the level's Forerunner structures and natural hills with the creatures' loping runs and Crawlers have a penchant for springing unexpectedly into view. Movement too quick to pinpoint with Light Rifles, too easy to bring down to waste Scattershot ammo, and too deadly in number to wade in with melee, Crawlers fail to sit neatly Halo's pyramid-shaped combat stratagem - Requiem's deadlier version of Flood Parasite swarms.

Yet there's little of the fear which the Flood generated. Not that the unknown is daunting, it's just that our battle tactics are to well worn in: we've been on Halo's battlefields for eleven years. new threats are assimilated to the basics: what's the quickest way to a kill?

A similar appraisal is brought to Wargames: what's new, and what'll benefit me best?

Wargames: Tactically Evolved

Halo 4
Wargames! Might have been the Wraparound level, but there was a lot of colour washout/bloom going on in our matches.

Loadout customisation's expanded beyond dual-weapon and Armor Ability as eyes linger on pre-match screen texts detailing Tactical Packages, Support Upgrades.

On the field Promethean and UNSC tech are cocktailed together. Assault and Battle Rifles, DMRs, mix in with Light Rifles and Scattershots. Armour Abilities get new inclusions like Thrusters - essentially horizontal versions of jet-packs, granting speed boosts and extra jump distance for making wider platform gaps.

Snipers and Hologram-haters get the benefit of the heat-tracking Promethean Vision on Armor Ability, letting you pick up enemy - real enemy - locations across the map. Hard light Shields, seen wielded by Knights in Spartan Ops, yank the view to third-person and let you soak up damage; however your speed's reduced, and a bounced grenade is all it takes to get behind your defence.

TDM is TDM. all the flavour and variety of a bag of Skittles. You know what to expect, and everyone spends more time incorporating new abilities and weapons into pre-existing strategies. The final minute of the round's cued by Halo's new ambient electronica score; pulsing, oddly sinister. It's greeted with approval.

Onto Regicide, with top-scoring player becoming target for everyone else, proved fun, with the Wraparound's maps central platform becoming a deathbed for congregating Spartans. I come out of the wrong end of an assassination. The clock ticks down. I begin my night in 7th place, finish it in 3rd. Immediately the Vision Ability plus DMR become favourite, while Thrusters prove not a great evasion technique unless coupled with platform drops or dashes to jump pads.

Halo 4
343's off running when it comes to multiplayer map designs.

Each concluded game transitions into return of the XP post-match screen, XP earnings being spread across all modes in Halo 4, visual tinkering and those Package and Upgrade options offered as you build up the XP numbers.

Likely we'll be pouring them into Spartan Ops: story-driven multiplayer co-op will definitely be the game's pass into Xbox Live Most Played entry post-launch. If tonight's session is example, each mission will be easily digestible for anyone on a limited time slot during week evenings. Most previous Halo sessions turned into "Best Of" mission play-throughs anyway.

343 indicates there's a beginning, middle and end already in place for Spartan Ops, leaving players with two campaigns' worth of content, before even touching on what other modes are on the disc.

This second appearance proved a lot more confident and promising than the first. If 343's set out to prove it can expand the mythology without deviating dangerously from the game's core, it's succeeded.

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