Halo 4 Multiplayer Review
Cart: Halo 4
Cab: Xbox 360
Coin: 343 Industries
Early gaming was, for me, a rather mixed affair.
There was always fascination with the medium, without doubt, but it took some time for me to become completely convinced by and absorbed in this other world; this second place.
The genre that finally cracked the nut is one that has since fallen from mainstream favour to leftfield niche market to one, quite simply, that’s for uber-geeks only: the humble flight simulator.
These days even we gamers seem to associate flight-sims with only the most anorak-hardened of our species. Those of us descended from train-spotters; those of us addicted to ham radio; those of us who build 7¼ gauge steam engines; those of us in need of a good, long, hard, RPG.
Now I know that I’m tarring a lot of people with the same brush here (and sincerest apologies to those of you that do partake in the above and still manage to couple it with a love of hardcore, Swedish death metal) but regardless of any offence I may be causing, I think we can all agree that there’s still a fair amount of weight to the point, no?
You see, back in the day, flight simulators were seriously cool beans. They were, quite simply, the first ‘wow’ factor in home gaming: Red Baron, Chocks Away, Gunship, Flight Simulator and the seminal Elite. Wireframe graphics and real-time 3D environments completely blew our minds and it’s perhaps no surprise that the first thing we were drawn to re-enacting was man’s enduring love affair with flight. Icarus would be proud.
Aside from the sheer, unadulterated joy of experiencing real-time flight (with an actual joystick, one might add – the peripheral of choice at this most fledgling of gaming junctures) and of seeing just how close you could get to that bridge and those building without clipping your wings; the real fun to be had was dogfighting.
Now dogfighting is an acquired taste. It’s no brief love affair where the winner is usually the one that sees the other first; this is more akin to a slow burning labour of love. Sure, the element of surprise is still important enough (attacking enemies with the sun at your back worked for good reason in WW1&2) but a highly skilled pilot can, in almost any given scenario, adapt, survive and turn a situation to their favour. And even if your fate is sealed you at least stand a good chance of inflicting enough damage to make your opponent think twice about their next encounter. Even when going down in a blaze of glory, you had the smug satisfaction that you’d at least served up a compatriot a relatively easy kill.
Now whilst flight-simulators may have been consigned to the deepest, darkest corners of our gaming culture (along, sadly, with the beloved joystick) the thrill of combat remains strong, albeit in a fundamentally different genre: FPS.
There are ostensibly two types of FPS combat: twitch and dogfight. Twitch FPS, such as COD, depends primarily on a silky smooth frame rate and, one could argue, a mouse and keyboard. You see there was, dear reader, once a time when yours truly was ranked in the top five percent in the world at one of the great forefathers of twitch FPS: Unreal Tournament. And this was at the game’s height, I might add. so believe me when I say that I know all about the love affair to be had with such a game. Twitch was king whilst one’s adrenal glands were left whimpering somewhere in the corner of one’s body. On a daily basis.
But times changed. My gaming habits moved from the office chair and monitor to the couch and TV and with it my taste in FPS evolved (no doubt fuelled, in part, by my ageing mind and slowing reflexes). Now don’t get me wrong: I can completely see the appeal in COD (even on console) and doff my hat to its corporate success but as someone weaned on the twitch battlefield with a mouse and keyboard the console experience has always felt rather like Guitar Hero: seeing as I’m already a good guitarist, I’ll just stick with the ‘proper’ interface to the experience thank you very much.
For me, this is where Halo’s genius lays. It embraces the console medium in its entirety and dovetails itself neatly an intelligently into its warm, couch-like bosom. You see in a dogfight FPS such as Halo, it’s not about who sees who first; it’s about who’s smarter.
Let’s set the way-back-machine to late 2007:
Halo 3’s ‘High Ground’. A perfect Halo map in every sense of the word: asymmetric, vehicular, medium-sized, clear strategic points to fight for control of so as to guide the combat like a canyon guides a river and yet cleverly placed weapon spawns that could tip the balance at any given moment. Team play is essential but a lone wolf still has enough room to move without losing touch with the heart of the battle. Campers need not apply – although the sniper rifle is still a useful weapon in the right hands.
In a word: genius.
Our story begins with my four-man slayer team in control of the high ground. I’m rooting around the bottom floor of the base for ammo and it suddenly becomes painfully clear from the sounds around me and the blips on the motion sensor that we’ve been routed from all sides. Time to fall back, save my skin, not give them another kill (a philosophy many Halo players fail to embrace: success is not about how many times you kill; it’s how many times you don’t get killed). So I abandon my scavenging hunt and flee towards a flight of stairs to move up and out of the base. Maybe a quick dash down to the beach where my fallen comrades are probably now re-spawning. One flight up, a turn, then another flight back on myself and then there’s a slim chance, a really slim chance, of a clean slate. In the middle of this thought process, I’m suddenly peppered from behind by assault rifle fire. A quick glance to the radar and it’s clear that a two-man death squad has me zeroed. I’m hitting the stairs now but the shields are all but gone and the warning sound is screaming through the TV. I can feel their smiles, their smugness, the imminence of the kill.
But they’ve underestimated the situation. They’ve underestimated me.
I quickly switch to standard grenades and throw one at the wall facing me as I hit the top of the first flight. It makes a reassuring ‘clink’ and falls the floor as more assault rifle fire paints the wall. I turn and jump, crouching in the air to ensure a safe landing on the floor that’s above and behind me. As I narrowly make the leap, I turn once more to look down on the staircase that I’ve just traversed like a child waiting for Santa to arrive. The arrogance of their attack has made them oblivious to the grenade. They both walk right on top of it as they move in to finish me off. Both players’ shields disintegrate in the perfectly timed explosion without a single shot being fired on my part. Good job too: there’s one shell left in my shotgun.
I’m starring down at complete disarray. Clearly stunned, panic sets it. One player tries to back-track down the stairs facing the wrong way. I drop from the ledge above and a swift pistol-whip to the head later, he’s dispatched. Still only one shell left. Either enraged just plain dumb and relentless, the other player’s carried on up the stairs in search of me only to realise that I’m now behind him. A single shotgun blast with my final shell is the last thing that he hears.
Adrenaline courses through my veins. My head is thumping. Victory is sweet. And just when I think that things couldn’t get any better, I turn to my right to see another hapless fool in the kill zone. Seeing as I’d been coy enough to snag the rocket launcher earlier and had patiently held on to the last tube, he’s dispatched from across the room before he’s even had time to get a single round off.
Triple kill: one of gaming golden moments.
And that, dear readers, that is the genius of Halo. Right there in one dogfight. That memory has stuck with me more so than any other gaming memory and I’ve got a quarter of a century’s worth to draw upon. Every move, every reaction, every decision, all played out in glorious slow motion. I don’t even recall if we one the match but I do remember every second of that brief encounter well enough to be able to savour it for hours should the mood take me.
This is the real thrill of combat: the sense of the unknown, the sense that you almost always stand a chance. The knowledge that even when you have the upper hand, your prey still stands a chance.
And so I take my leave now, dear reader.
Apologies: I know that you were expecting a Halo 4 Multiplayer Review but you see I’m overdue another golden gaming moment and it’s Spartan-hunting season.
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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.