[Opinion] Halo 4’s Underwhelming Multiplayer

The universal consensus has basically been that Halo 4 is at least a really good game, if not a genuinely great one. This is quite the achievement considering that it faced a truly lofty challenge in trying to meet the exacting expectations of excellence which die hard Halo fans had leveled against it since the game’s announcement. Post-release, to most, it has managed to meet these expectations and more.

Halo 4’s single player kicks off a new trilogy of Halo games in grand fashion. It admirably attempts to flip the paradigm of a Halo single player campaign on its head by introducing interesting refinements to the gameplay, a new category of weaponry, a whole new race of enemies to face, and the genesis of a captivating story arc that effectively diverges the action from what we’ve seen before. Halo 4’s campaign boldly steps out of the grandiose shadow cast by the comparative offerings of it’s predecessors and steadfastly plants its flag as a worthy follow-up to them.

Solely considering Halo 4’s single player accomplishments, this new trilogy has started much the same way that the previous one did. Though Halo: CE spawned a giant community of fans who would play LAN games against each other, its legacy is ultimately tilted ever so slightly more towards its single player, which is memorable for its supremely compelling atmosphere and fleshed out narrative, along with its innovative and endlessly fun gameplay.

So, juxtaposed against its single player, which expends such great effort to distinguish itself as original, why is it that Halo 4’s multiplayer seems so thoroughly predictable and conventional?

Don’t get me wrong, the multiplayer is very enjoyable, but it’s also very familiarly so. Having played Halo: Reach extensively, I jumped into competitive play in Halo 4 and felt right at home in really just about every way – and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As the similarities began to mount, it soon dawned on me that Halo 4’s multiplayer doesn’t even dare to stand on the shoulders of Halo: Reach’s giant, it’s merely content to meekly lay supine on them.

The first idea that sprang to my mind as to why the multiplayer remains so largely unchanged was the possibility that with all the differences the single player flaunts, perhaps 343 Industries sought to avoid alienating the hardcore fans by providing a peace offering of Halo: Reach multiplayer version 1.5 as a token of reverence to what came before. This theory is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it goes to show just how puzzling it is that Halo 4’s multiplayer played it so safe.

Halo 4’s multiplayer should have taken the opportunity provided by the new trilogy’s clean slate to wildly change things up, to really advance the incredible foundation that four previous FPS competitive multiplayer toting Halo games have given it.

Instead, a whole host of areas remain very much recognizable as direct descendants of Reach’s multiplayer. And so, the multiplayer gameplay fails to feature any truly substantive innovations or additions, which is a crying shame.

What struck me initially is that there seems to be little alteration to the existing range of game modes, and even an irreverent shirking of some of the more successful ones from games past. Halo: Reach gave us Headhunter and Stockpile, thrilling reinventions of Oddball and Capture the flag respectively. It gave us Invasion, which appropriated the Territories game mode into a multi-stage battle on huge maps. In contrast, Halo 4 offers up Regicide, a negligible variant of FFA which only serves to dilute the purity of that game type. Furthermore, it features Dominion, a half-heartedly defense focused variant of territories, and Extraction, which plays like a dumbed down version of Invasion, and Flood, a gratuitously superfluous re-skinning of the longstanding Infection game mode.

When I actually got down to playing, I was aghast to discover that the maps uniformly possess the same dull art style, and generally totally disregard any sort of flamboyant or intriguing visual style.

Thankfully, there are minor improvements to the matchmaking system here and there, but they’re all unexciting long overdue additions – drop-in and drop-out multiplayer is a principal culprit here.

Also catching up with a feature that has been standard in FPS multiplayer games for some time now, players are now able to choose their weapon loadouts and pick their armor abilities and, uh, perks (to not beat around the bush). This is admittedly a nice addition, because it helps remove the mad dash to weapon spawns that would happen whenever players spawned with Assault Rifles, but it’s also one that has simply been, at long last, lifted from the competition to catch up with them.

As for specializations, well, they feel like a glorified extension of the perk system and simply seem like a ploy to entirely unnecessarily extend the player’s leveling up system.

Reticle bloom has been made negligible for all intents and purposes, which will probably please more players than it frustrates. Personally, I quite liked the Reach reticle bloom, I thought shot pacing made DMR battles more fun than just lazily lining up the headshot and spamming the trigger as fast as possible. Now we’re back to spamming the trigger, whatever, I can live with it, especially after being forcibly converted by Reach’s post-TU gameplay.

Replacing reticle bloom as the feature that may potentially prove divisive for the hardcore fan base is the integration of ordnance drops, where power weapons and power-ups can be called down from the heavens to give you an advantage in combat. I think this is a mostly good addition, as it at least tries to eradicate the asinine practices of the initial rush for the power weapons and the watching of extraneous countdown timers to ascertain when they will re-spawn. The gameplay benefit provided is immediately obvious, and its ability to serve as an equalizer in perilous situations is rather welcome.

The modifications I’ve detailed may seem as though they might cumulatively add up to some sort of substantial gameplay change, but multiplayer games still feel very much like they did in Reach. I don’t mean to portray this as a catastrophic misstep on 343i’s part, but it’s certainly going to damage their efforts to distinguish this new series of games as a brand new trilogy.

Halo 5, then, needs to be the rectifying effort. It needs to be the Halo 2 of this new trilogy and push the multiplayer game to new heights in just about every way.

Let’s look back. Halo 2 was the original trilogy’s middle child. Its single player was fun but really fairly unmemorable besides the infuriating cliffhanger ending. Where Halo 2 excelled however, was its incredible multiplayer matchmaking and gameplay. Now, fair enough, Halo 2 did enjoy the benefit of being the flag bearer leading the charge for Xbox Live, but even without this, its multiplayer was so well-designed, so polished, so refined, that it would always have gone on to elicit a colossal maelstrom of dedicated fans to swarm to it and never want to let go, right up until Microsoft pried their clutching fingers off of it when they shut down the servers.

Such is the legacy of Halo 2’s multiplayer: it induced such admiration and adoration in its fan base that microsoft had to literally stop fans from playing it some six or so years after its release.

Halo 4’s multiplayer is undeniably competent, and fun to play. However, it’s also the closest any Halo game’s multiplayer has come to being relegated to simply a flavor of the month. I predict that in a year’s time the multiplayer player base will see a higher percentage of falloff than any previous Halo game. Needless to say, nobody will be playing Halo 4’s multiplayer six years from now.

And so, it‘s up to Halo 5 to pick up the fallen torch and become the multiplayer behemoth of the trilogy. It will be up to Halo 5 to present a radical new vision of Halo multiplayer, so that this trilogy isn’t just a series of consistently good single-player campaigns with uninspired, iterative multiplayer offerings that feature short shelf-lives. Halo is no longer the definitive front runner in the FPS multiplayer race, but it can vie for that lead once again if 343i step up and offer the multiplayer revolution that fans deserve.

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