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Halo 4 Play Event, Bryant Park Hotel, 25 April 2012

"We're hosting a thing next week in NY - do you want to come down and try out Halo 4?"

I mean, really. What kind of question is that? No, thanks, I think I'll stay home and watch Castle. YES OF COURSE I'LL COME SAVE ME A SEAT

The event info said festivities would run from 7pm-midnight. A quick look at the train schedule showed me a train that got in at 6:47 - or I could go one earlier, and arrive at 6:17. Grand Central is about 5 blocks from the Bryant Park Hotel... so I took the earlier train, not wanting to miss a minute of the action.

This, of course, meant that I arrived a little after 6:30, while setup was still underway. The only people there at the time were PR folks and support staff - but they let me grab a beer and jump in for a game, anyway. A bit after 7, Frank O'Connor rolled in and asked if I'd be interested in seeing the campaign demo - again, what kind of question is that?

It was a pretty short demo. It kicked off with John waking up to Cortana's urgent plea - apparently, there were Covenant outside the Forward Unto Dawn, and they were pretty hostile. Chief's given a new mission: get the power online, so the ship can protect itself.

Graphics are pretty amazing - and what I was looking at was far from done. (Cortana was much more solid than she's been in the past... part of the reason is to help us 'connect' to her, but another part was simply because the transparency shader wasn't finished. Even as a work in progress, though, she was gorgeous.)

The demo was pretty good at showing off some of the new engine's capabilities - lighting, enemy overhauls, and the like. The climax was a scene very reminiscent of the Cairo Station docking bays (Phantoms even had accordioned tubes for dropping off enemies, just like the ships that attacked the Halo 2 defense platform - weird), and if the person playing was fast enough, you even got to see a new weapon. One of the Elites dropped some sort of energy-based rifle - sort of a giant plasma repeater. (The demo ended very soon after this pickup, so there wasn't much chance to see it in action. Frank refused to answer questions about it.)

The campaign demo, however, was not what this evening was about. The evening was about getting a taste of Halo 4's multiplayer. (Well, and mingling with top-tier NFL draft choices...)

Gameplay took place on two maps - the same two maps that have been shown elsewhere. They're currently known as Wraparound and Warhorse, though both names have been changed, internally, at this point. Wraparound is a two-level ring with some bridging material in the center - there are stairs and mancannons to help you get around. Warhorse is more of a big square, with action-filled passages that connect the outside corners with the inner courtyard.

There were two gametypes that were cycled through - 4v4 slayer, and an 8-person FFA. (Objective gametypes in the build were 'broken', according to Frank.) Controls were similar enough to Reach's controls that switching was pretty easy - this may be trivial for younger players, but for ancient folks like me, this is huge. (The only new thing I had to get used to was that Sprint, an always-available armor ability, was mapped to the button that used to hold Crouch, while Crouch had been moved to my 'Switch Grenades' button. (I'm embarrassed to say I'm not sure where the Switch Grenades button went in the new controls.) I didn't explore control schemes very deeply, beyond noticing a BOATLOAD more choices than we've ever had before - you don't have control of individual buttons, but it's close. Most players should be able to customize the setup to something that feels comfortable for them.)

We were offered 5 loadouts - each contained a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a grenade type, and an armor ability. (So far, this is pretty identical to Reach.) There were two extra slots in Halo 4, however - these were filled with small enhancements. (I'm not sure what to call them; I hate the idea of calling them 'perks', because that immediately makes people think of them as Call of Duty-style bonuses. I don't think this is a very accurate representation.) The ones we saw seemed to give some subtle increases to existing features - one allowed your health to regenerate just a bit faster than the default, for example, and another gave you an extra ammo clip on spawn. One gives you an extra grenade. And so on.

For people worried that the 'loadout' system will pit them against players with better weapons or more advanced gear... rest easy. The two primary loadouts in the games we played had either a BR or a DMR in the main slot. (And while one of the loadouts had a plasma pistol in the secondary slot... remember that these were custom games; you will almost certainly NOT have to worry that everyone on the opposing team in a Matchmaking battle will have the ability to noob-combo you on spawn.) The expanded loadout system seemed to provide the opportunity to deepen your particular playstyle; you can fill the additional slots with things that make YOUR game more of what you like.

We saw only two Armor Abilities - Promethean Vision and Hologram. Hologram seems to operate almost identically to its Reach counterpart. Promethean Vision gives you a short glimpse of a local heatmap, showing you where enemies are in relation to you. It's not all-powerful; it has a pretty limited range, architectural details disappear when you turn it on, and the color scheme can get in your way if you're in the middle of a firefight. It's pretty handy, though, in nailing down campers. (A slayer match I played last night on Hang 'em High still stings in my memory.)

The build we played was about a month old - but according to Frank, most of what was inside is a couple of months older than that, so it wasn't particularly revealing in terms of how far along the game is right now. They travel with it because it's stable, and that's important when showing it to outsiders. Assets were a mix of new, old, and placeholder. The Plasma Pistol sound, for example, is all-new; it's BEASTLY. Some UI features are still holdovers from Reach (the loading screen, for example), and some things are clearly placeholders. (The multiplayer announcements ("Double Kill!" "Ten Seconds Remaining!") were voiced by someone from the studio - Jeff Steitzer is coming back, thank goodness.) This makes it hard to answer questions about how much better (or different) a particular feature is - clearly, much is still in flux.

Many people scorned the text describing your actions that appeared on the middle of the screen during a recent clip (the gameplay shown during the Conan O'Brien show) - some of that is still there, but it's no longer smack-dab in the center of the screen (I don't think). I remember noticing it only once during the evening - so it's clearly quite a bit less obtrusive.

I spent most of my time using the BR/Plasma Pistol loadout; I'd like to apologize for not having the foresight to experiment for reporting purposes. I DID try out the DMR in a couple of games; I found it to be more accurate at distance (and it's currently coupled with a sound that makes it feel like a monster), but harder to handle up close. When I kept away from my targets, I could easily beat a BR-wielder, but as we got closer together, the BR became more and more dangerous. (I found myself being cleaned up a lot by enemies with DMRs; Warhorse has a platform that's far enough out of the normal flow of battle that the only people up there were folks picking off wounded combatants.)

Grenades seemed much weaker than their Reach counterparts. Part of this might be audio - one thing I learned during the course of the evening was how important audio can be, especially when it's not there. I'm pretty sure, however, that they've simply been toned down. This is great from the 'grenade spam' standpoint, but makes life a little tougher for folks who rely on grenades because their gun skills aren't quite up to par.

Radar has been simplified; no more brighter/dimmer dots for folks above/below you. Now, altitude is obvious: if your enemies are on your level, they're dots. If they're above you, they're small arrows pointing up. If they're below you, they're downward-pointing arrows. It felt almost crude at the beginning of the evening, compared to the subtlety of Reach's altitude display... but that feeling went away quickly, and the utility was highly appreciated by the time we wrapped it up.

I had a little bit of experience with the ordnance drop system. Before talking about what I saw, I'd like to say that I have NO idea how things were set up, and I have NO idea how the overal system works. I only know what I saw. That said: I saw two different ordnance drops. The first was called by someone on the other team; I was running on the lower level of Wraparound, and suddenly saw a green indicator on my HUD, showing me that a Rocket Launcher was available up ahead and to my left. I headed that way immediately. I ran right into a trap. Three members of the other team were standing at the top of the ramp above the RL pod... I was turned to hamburger before I could even pick up the tube. Perfect example of a honey trap... and I fell for it. The second drop was mine - at some point during the game, I was confronted with a representation of my D-Pad, with three weapons attached to three of the four buttons. I hit D-Pad Left, which was linked to a Spartan Laser, and the image disappeared. Soon after, I saw that the Laser had dropped. (It was nowhere near me - clearly, as players learn more about the maps, this sort of thing won't happen as often.) Again - I have no clue what GENERATED the drops; Frank suggested that there are multiple types of drops, and in the games we were playing, these were PERSONAL drops... but I saw that they could be used to supplement your armory (you know about the drop before the other team, and can get to the drop location first), or used to set up traps for the other team (put yourself in position to ambush folks coming to a drop, then give them a reason to walk in). I'll be keeping my eyes open for more details on how these systems work.

When I started playing, I found it difficult to get into the groove; it almost felt like I was 'swimming'. I realized after a little bit, however, that this was due to two things: the first was that I'd been playing with almost no sound (I was wearing headphones, and volume was turned almost off), and I hadn't gotten the hang of Sprint being in a new place. Once I turned up the sound, and became accustomed to clicking for Sprint, things became much snappier - Halo 4 feels faster than Reach.

As a fan, I've been seeing small clips, listening to explanations, and voraciously gobbling up any tidbit 343 has released. Like many other fans, I've been a little apprehensive that all of the changes I've heard described would turn this game into something I wasn't ready for. After playing it for a few hours, though, I have to say - it still feels like Halo. Yes, there are new bits. Yes, there are changes. But 343 seems to be doing a fine job of keeping that 'Halo feel' in the game... I'm looking forward to my next chance to jump back in.

Other Resources

On Thursday morning, right after the event, I posted some initial impressions, and answered some direct questions - links are below.

I also posted a few notes on Halo Waypoint's forums, but at the time of this writing, their forums are down, so I cannot provide links.