I always felt like Microsoft's mega-hit Halo franchise let me travel, taking me to thrilling, never-before-seen vistas at crucial moments. Adventure-as-travel is a standard conceit within genre fiction but the imposing beauty of Combat Evolved's battlegrounds, the horror of various Flood-infested environments and shock of a ravaged, futuristic Earth stood out as high points on my video game passport.
Then came Halo: Reach. The mournful tour of that game's titular planet was a hell of a high note for developer Bungie to leave on, letting them wave goodbye in surprisingly poignant fashion as they left the fictional universe they created.
But that was two years ago, and while 2011's remastered Combat Evolved Anniversary was pretty, it was still a virtual place I'd been to before. I'm ready for Halo to take me to new places. And to show me new things. From what I saw of Halo 4 a few weeks ago, it seems like 343 Industries is ready to fulfill those desires.
Halo 4 isn't just giving you one world to explore in the continuation of Master Chief's saga. It's giving you a world within a world within a world. I saw parts of Halo 4's Forerunner level in my demo, which was played by 343 director Frank O'Connor. It's the third mission of the single-player campaign and it puts the iconic Spartan super-soldier starts near the core of a planet called Requiem. Concentric containment layers surround Requiem, O'Connor explained, like a smaller version of a Dyson sphere. My first thought as O'Connor spun the camera around was that 343 seems to be diving even deeper into the sci-fi aspect of the shooter series.
Requiem seems like a place that truly feels like you don't belong Soon after walking out onto the planet's surface, Master Chief was met by the Promethean Knights, one of the new enemy classes that players will facing up against in Halo 4. You've seen these guys before in various trailers for the game, but seeing them in action made them come across as really formidable. The Knights command packs of Crawlers, smaller antagonists that attack in swarms. They climb walls and try to flank you, forcing you to assess threats all over your point-of-view. Knights can also summon Watchers that support the Promethean enemies with shields, healing and tractor beams that intercept grenades. Watching all of this unfold made Halo 4's combat appear more strategically varied than that of its predecessors.
But Chief's old enemies show up, too, and 343 are going out of their way to make the Covenant seem more alien in this Halo by no longer having them speak in English. They'll be fighting the Prometheans, too, which puts Master Chief in the middle of a two-front war. The game's new weapons look like they're tuned to offer more tactical options. The Boltshot is a pistol/shotgun hybrid that lets you fire charged rounds for greater distance and impact or a scatter of projectiles that atomizes enemies in close range. Pulse grenades explode into a ranged effect that drains the health of enemies inside the blast radius. As evolved as the new armaments may be, O'Connor did say that at some point the enemy of my enemy might become your friend.
I've never found Master Chief to be the most compelling hero character. Yes, he's clearly in the mold of terse-&-tough protagonists like Dirty Harry where players never get to know terribly much about their internal make-up. While John-117 isn't going to be pouring his heart out in Halo 4, the relationship between he and Cortana takes center stage in the game. I could hear some tremors of concern and even trepidation—mostly from Cortana, to be honest—in the dialogue that passed between the two characters, which again drove home that they'd landed someplace they aren't supposed treading on.
The new engine vaults the series' visuals forward significantly, with impressive cinematic tech for the cutscenes. For all the improvements in Halo 4, 343 clearly holds a high level of reverence for Bungie's work on the Master Chief franchise. But they also realize that preserving the series' fiction or gameplay in amber isn't feasible. Requiem seems more alive than any Halo environment players have marched through so far in the series. You're not supposed to be here and it feels like you're going to have a hell of a time rooting out the cosmic mystery at the heart of the planet's existence. Since the demo wasn't hands-on, I don't know what the journey is going to feel like. But the postcards make me more interested in booking a ticket than I was before.