The competitive multiplayer elements of Halo 4 should stand out because of three things: character customization, new weapons and the Dominion game type.
We've all read about the Specialization feature that will allow players to select from a certain collection of armor and upgrades that enhances their preferred style of play once their Spartan reaches level 50. I was one of the first folks to read this as Halo's long awaited dabble into class-based multiplayer games. You have to earn it but Spartan customization is a clear dabble in the right direction.
Giving a team of eight dudes specialized ways of playing is supposed to encourage teamwork and cooperation. Team Fortress 2 is a current popular example of game that goes all out in specialization where a well coordinated team of fast guys, big guys, snipers, medics and others can be unstoppable against a team that doesn't have that variety or a high level of cooperation.
Halo, for all of its success, traditionally has let individuals have the same abilities and similar styles of play except for temporary boosts that come from things like the jet pack or a detached turret or a Spartan Laser or a big spiky motorcycle. Spending 10 minutes trying to get that super weapon/vehicle/upgrade only to get blasted as soon as you get it makes for a great risk/reward proposition. But being able to influence the battlefield just by showing up with your unique armor abilities is a great strategic wrinkle that will affect entire teams. Armor customizations that can make your guy good at driving vehicles or super stealthy for the entire match should be a welcome addition to the franchise.
You're picking a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a grenade type, an armor option and a tactical option for your Spartan. The armor and tactical slots are where you'll be doing most of your experimenting to create a Spartan that plays the way you like. This is where you'll pick the upgrade that helps you run faster or that makes your guy flinch less while being shot. Separate from these upgrades you'll also be able to customize the look of your Spartan as well. We counted 70 types of helmets, 70 types of chest plates and 50 or so options each for shoulders, forearms and legs. Then on top of this you can customize the colors, accents and, in the case of helmets, the visor colors of each element.
The Battle rifle is sure to be a favorite once again in this Halo game and that's not to speak ill of the new weapons included in the game. The Promethean scatter shot has been much discussed as the shotgun of the future in Halo 4, but I found it to be more difficult to use than the traditional human street sweeper. It doesn't seem to hit with the impact or cause the damage you'd expect at close range but that might be because I kept using it on super tough Promethean Knights during my Halo 4 playthrough. The ability to bank shots off of hard surfaces hasn't impressed me yet either because lining up a direct shot is hard enough without trying to read proper angles for banking shots like it's a dangerous game of billiards.
The Sticky Detonator, however, might end up being a favorite of mine as it comes with tremendous humiliation potential if you know what you're doing. The pistol style gun shoots a grenade that can stick to pretty much anything including opposing players. Imagine a direct fire sticky grenade that goes right where you aim it instead of you having to judge a proper lob throw. But the trick is the grenade only goes off when you choose to detonate it and you can only detonate it when you go to reload the Sticky Detonator for your second shot. Until you detonate it a radar screen on the Sticky Detonator itself will show you what enemies are around your stuck grenade. Think about what that means. I'll wait.
You can shoot an enemy with one of those sticky grenades, wait for him to get around his buddies or near an objective or just as he's reaching your flag and kablooey. You can stick a grenade on a flag base or a super powered weapon or a certain choke point and leave it there all game long until it's time to ruin somebody's day. You'll be able to see enemies come into the grenades blast radius using the radar screen on the gun. Sure you're vulnerable the entire time you have a stuck grenade out there in the world because you can't switch weapons or do anything else, but you're a deadly Spartan as well. Combining this weapon with some of the armor customizations that will be available --I'm thinking something stealthy-- will make for some great experimenting.
Dominion is a game type that I grew to love almost immediately. You have "bases" that have areas within them --like a basement maybe-- that have to be occupied for a few seconds so that your team can take possession of it. Maintaining possession of it for longer will then fortify that base. Fortification means turrets, forcefields, vehicles and other defenses pop up in predetermined areas so that your team will suddenly have the means to better defend that base and attack other ones. Keeping possession once you've already fortified a base means you can constantly re-generate and repair all of those turrets and Warthogs and whatnot as they're used and destroyed in battle. This will make for some drawn out extended battle if you ever get two organized teams going at it. The forcefields that pop up within the base were the most interesting because they help create choke points. Enemies won't be able to just rush in the backdoor once that backdoor has a shield on it. Defenders in and around the base will then know that there's only way to get into that important basement/capture area.
The importance of capping and the fortifying a base makes everything rushed and frantic as both sides will have to organize to keep their defense and attack well balanced and coordinated. Turtling up in a base will keep the bad guys out but controlling more bases is how you gain more points. Going for the shock and awe approach and thinking you're going to just constantly assault every base at once and go for volume seems like a good strategy. Until you realize that this isn't that kind of game and you have to spend some time in a base to get those all important defenses up. Having large teams will make this game type sing. Having well organized large teams will make it a whole new experience for Halo.
War Games is the catch all term Halo 4 is using for all of its traditional head to head multiplayer games, yet there's a ton of innovation going on here that proves this franchise has plenty of life left.