The tempo has changed in the battle of the blockbuster shooters. Those big launch weekends still matter, of course - if only for the large, context-free figures they generate which can in turn be fed into the PR machine to generate yet more sales from gamers unwilling to miss out.
With retail sales drooping and digital on the rise, most are playing the long game, however. It's no longer simply about the number of players, it's about how long you can keep them playing - hence the steady evolution of downloadable add-ons from optional extra to ongoing service, with “seasons” of additional content you can sign up for in advance.
Halo 4 was clearly designed from the ground up to accommodate this trend. Despite being released just over one month ago, the game has already received five Spartan Ops co-operative “episodes”, and here's the first multiplayer map pack. Don't stop playing, pleads Microsoft. Never stop playing.
Will the Crimson Map Pack make that a promise worth keeping? It's a solid enough offering, with three good maps and one new game mode, but I'm not sure if competence is still enough to stay ahead of the pack in such a ruthlessly competitive market.
Harvest is the most compact of the three, set in and around an off-world agricultural centre. Two buildings dominate the map, offering several levels of verticality along with the expected ramps and corridors for close-quarters gunplay. Getting from one building to the other means making a dash and a running jump, exposing yourself to fire from players on the outside.
There's a small circumference of dusty land on the exterior where Warthogs can run a tight figure-of-eight circuit, mopping up the enemy. Short tunnels run underneath each building, while the central divide is where the action tends to congregate by nature. Even in the map's broadest areas, this is still very much an assault rifle environment, but those with the jet pack armour ability can reach a couple of sneaky sniper spots which offer decent vantage points.
Shatter is set on a ruined volcanic world and follows a similar structure to Harvest, with two symmetrical large buildings surrounded by open ground. It's both larger and more complex, though, with many more routes in, around and through the central construction and more cover options on the outside. There are cave tunnels and jagged shards of rock pierce the landscape, providing much needed respite for the weary foot soldier, while a smattering of smaller structures at the edge of the map offer smaller interior locations where capture points often appear in objective-based modes.
Shatter also offers far more in the way of hardware, with Ghosts on hand for weaving between the rocks and vaulting off ramps, and Mantis mech armour waiting at the side of the map for enterprising Spartans to commandeer. Mounted and detachable turrets make attacking the central building a tough task, but teleports mean that those on foot can get around quickly and quietly.
It's a large map, but one that never feels overwhelming as it's so densely packed with features. There are few truly exposed areas, so while it's a vehicle-heavy location, you'll need to be a skilled pilot to get around efficiently. Equally, infantry can get the drop on Ghosts by springing out from the numerous cover spots.
Wreckage is another large map, but one that spreads its challenges more horizontally. As the name suggests, the location is a crash site where an automated defence system has been bringing down vessels in an attempt to contain the Flood.
Interiors are inevitably limited, with only a few intact hull sections to poke around in. You'll spend far more time navigating the tangle of rocky gulleys and mesas, with Warthogs and Ghosts once again the transport of choice. A Man Cannon enables foot soldiers to cross the perilous terrain quickly and is also the key to some of the new achievements available as part of the Crimson add-on. Expect to see Gamerscore whores lining up to both kill and be killed while flying through the air.
All three maps are solid, if a little generic. Everything is classically Halo in both aesthetic and design, but none of the trio has a hook that makes it jump out as an instant favourite. You certainly won't complain when they roll up in a playlist, but nor will you be scrambling to vote for them.
Of course, there's much to be said for relying on good old-fashioned craftsmanship, and all three maps do a reliable job of serving both the deathmatch and objective crowds. Objective points are well chosen, placed at logical points on each map in order to funnel players through the more interesting environmental features and make them clash in the most satisfying ways. King of the Hill on Shatter proved to be my favourite combination, but they're all flexible enough to support a dozen alternatives.
Extraction, the new game mode, is the only real disappointment of the pack. It's not so much that there's anything terribly wrong with it, more that it doesn't really add anything of note to an already well-featured suite of gameplay options. Each team races to extract data from a series of locations, which are revealed in sequence. It's functionally not that different to King of the Hill, although you can leave one site extracting while heading off to tackle another at the risk of an enemy coming along and stealing the data.
It's fun, in a basic sort of way, but ultimately boils down to just another way of sending everyone scurrying to the same place. You can spice it up a bit in Forge, but the bland flavour is hard to overcome and it feels more than a little surplus to requirements. Unsurprisingly, the mode isn't proving massively popular in open playlists.
There's little here that is showy or ambitious, nor does it stray far from what Halo fans are comfortable with. In that regard, it's an appropriate addition to a game that feels somewhat tethered to the expectations of the past rather than striving towards the future. Reliable and workmanlike, the Crimson Map Pack gets the job done, but it'll take something more dramatic to keep players on the hook into 2013 and beyond.