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Halo 4 Hands-on [PAX Prime 2012]

Microsoft has a tendency to drop the ball when it comes to PAX. Their booth is hardly ever the largest, or most impressive at the show… Though an argument can be made in the favor due to the titles that they tend to have. This year’s showing offered up game-play time with sequels to two of their biggest franchises: Halo and Gears of War. I wound up getting play time with both, but it was Halo 4 that caught my attention…

Unfortunately, in this situation, ‘caught my attention’ isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s been a lot of speculation regarding what would happen with the Halo franchise, now that Bungie is no longer helming the process, but Microsoft has boldly made claim that Halo would continue driving forwards as the unstoppable juggernaut/exclusive franchise/flagship it has always been… And in some ways they’re right, regardless of my persona opinions, or of those that felt the same as I did after playing the game at PAX Prime this year, it’s probably not going to have any problems selling.

The problem that I, personally, had with the game is that is manages to not only feel derivative, but loses some of the charm that Bungie had established in the series all with one swift blow. How is that accomplished? Well… boiled down to the basest of terms, and after a brief period of self-reflection, I think this is the problem that Halo 4 is going to have: A new team stepped up, and tried to replicate the formula someone else owns patent on. The end result is something similar, but not quite as good. The comparison I’m going to wind up using is to New Coke. It’s got the same branding, and there’s still that hint of what it was… but it’s very clear that things have changed.

The gameplay continues to lean heavily on the trinity of melee, guns and grenades, but the feel of the game is just that bit off that you might not even ever put your finger on fully, but it’s there, and it’s gnawing.

Probably the best example I can provide is in the feel of the BTR (Battle Rifle). Fans of the series know what that gun feels like. It’s a bridge between the assault rifles’ full auto spray-and-pray and the precision and power of the sniper rifle. It’s semi-auto, meaning you can fire as fast as you can pull the trigger, and deals a middling amount of damage, increased drastically with the use of headshots. In Halo 4’s multiplayer however, the gun feels a lot ‘heavier’. It seems to fire slower, and it seems to be a bit more potent making it a lot closer to ‘sniper rifle jr.’ than ‘bridge between assault and sniper’.

That story is repeated through-out; everything is similar… but just enough off that it’s noticeable, and for long-time fans of the series, it’s enough that it can get annoying. Even with my short play-time, one round of Capture the Flag, I found myself getting the ‘no feeling’ from the BTR and moving away from it to test out some other weapons, because I couldn’t quite grasp what it was for anymore…

Of course there’s plenty of time for 343 to advance the game, and there’s hope still that they can provide as an appealing experience that Bungie provided with their series… but based on the current version on display at PAX, I get the immediate vibe that there will be a lot of Bungie fanboys calling shenanigans on Microsoft pushing the series through another studio rather than leaving the series alone once Bungie was through with it.