Halo. It is a single word that can strike up a conversation amongst gamers on both sides of the argument. There is no denying that Microsoft’s juggernaut franchise is one of the biggest of the last couple generations, and Master Chief is almost as recognizable as Mario at this point. When Bungie announced they were leaving the MS stable, gamers were left wondering what would happen to the series. In steps 343 Industries, a group of developers comprised of immense talent, to take over the reigns. Halo 4 was a massive step for MS and The Halo franchise. In the end I can safely say that it is definitely in good hands.
The last proper Halo game ended in a way that could have been left the series to die, or be resurrected. I imagine that was a purposeful decision on Bungie’s part. Master Chief and Cortana are stranded on the ship known as Forward Unto Dawn, with Chief frozen solid awaiting the call to return to action. As you can imagine, this happens in the opening minutes of the game, and events are set into motion for the next trilogy in the Halo universe. The question is, does 343i tell a compelling story to keep fans invested?
The story of Halo 4 focuses on two things. First, the humanity of John. We will always know him as the Chief; that rugged, armor-covered soldier who always seems to be the centerpiece of saving the galaxy. The second is Cortana. These tie together as John shows his human side in constantly trying to save Cortana, who has pretty much reached her age limit. As an AI she only has seven years before she enters what is known as rampancy. Basically this means she will think herself to death. Watching John defend and do whatever it takes pushes both of these narratives forward to create a compelling story.
There are eight missions throughout the campaign, and each one offers up a nice variety of gameplay. They also offer up a checklist of Halo components that we have all come to know so well. There is a tank level, a vehicle escape level and the cut scenes ‘letterbox’ at just the right time to let you know you are about to press the ultimate switch in your rotation. This is Halo by-the-numbers, and I don’t fault it for that. The mission structures feel familiar, as do the encounters, but it always feels like Halo. I guess I am a little disappointed that 343i didn’t make a larger stride to make the game their own. I know this is their first outing, and they need to appease the Halo faithful, but at the same time this is the perfect opportunity to give the series a swift updated kick to the rear.
From the start, you are fighting Covenant once again; at least for the first few missions. Then we are finally introduced to the new Promethean enemies. While really cool in design, these new entries to the series don’t feel fleshed out at all. There are only a handful of types, and their weapons are simply re-skinned versions of other weapons. Then, not long after these new enemies are introduced we are back to fighting Covenant once again. Don’t worry it is explained why, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am simply tired of fighting the same enemies, which is what we get. The same Elites, Grunts, Jackals and Hunters are here for your disposing pleasure.
Thankfully, disposing of said enemies is still Halo’s strongest ally. The shooting mechanics and overall gameplay are exceptional. I like to think of Halo as a combat sandbox at times. Each encounter requires you to assess the situation, and plan it accordingly. Even playing on Normal, you will die more often than not if you run into battle guns blazing. You can, of course, tackle the game in co-op with friends, which is where the real fun begins. Skulls are opened from the beginning, so you can modify it from the outset. Also, playing on Legendary with four of your closest friends is still the epitome of the series. Don’t deny yourself this treat.
In addition to the campaign, you also get Spartan Ops. It’s an episodic-based collection of missions designed to be played, once again, cooperatively. This new mode allows players to once again partner up (which I highly recommend, as these levels are designed for more than one player) to grab a side piece of the narrative. I truly love the way 343i has integrated every facet of the game into the story. Even the multiplayer, now dubbed War Games, is set in a particular part of the universe.
Speaking of which, what Halo game is complete without talking about the online portion? Halo 4 continues the tradition of excellent online experiences. This is where parties and big team skirmishes were born. Halo 4 once again sets a bar for the online arena that few games can even dream of coming close to. Hearing the familiar countdown beeps before a match solidified for me; Halo is back, and it is better than ever.
The online multiplayer follows the story of a Spartan training ground aboard the UNSC Infinity ship. In traditional Halo fashion the game ships with 10 standard maps, all of which are expertly designed for their game types. For example, larger maps like Exile are great for larger matches such as Capture the Flag, while smaller maps like Abandon are great for close quarters combat, with plenty of opportunities for some shotty action. The game also comes with three pre-constructed Forge maps and, of course, the Forge editor for players to create their own. Halo has always been known for its map design, and this entry is no different.
Matchmaking once again shines in traditional fashion. I was in and out of games quickly, and being able to see who I was playing with is great thanks to the player cards shown before each match. These also showcase custom armor and other attributes. There is plenty here to keep you busy, and the new XP system feels more akin to a certain other shooter, than traditional Halo. You now have ordinances that you can drop after filling up a meter. These are random items that can range from weapons to items for use in battle. You also have an XP meter directly at the bottom of the screen to keep track of things. It all feels like Halo, simply with a new twist.
As I mentioned, Forge also returns pretty much untouched. The new magnet feature helps, but I was never a map-making fiend, so it was certainly serviceable as it was. The custom game types and social settings also return now allowing you to sync up your stats with Waypoint and even view them on Smartglass if you have a tablet handy during battle. The presentation goes all-out in Halo 4. Spartan Ops, as I mentioned, is fun and will end up consisting of 10 chapters by its end. The first is available at launch, and each one includes a sweet CGI cut scene that tells even more of the story. It is worth noting that these will all be free to Gold members of Xbox Live, while the upcoming Map Packs can be obtained with MSP, or by purchasing the season pass.
Now with so much praise I want to quickly push my issues out of the way. First off, the narrative, while stellar in execution, feels predicated on your knowledge of the universe. For example, the main villain is literally introduced early on without any context. Come to find out they are relatively well-known if you read the books. I love the Halo universe, but not to that extent. My knowledge begins and ends with the game. Also, the campaign feels much shorter than previous outings. I plowed through it in less than eight hours solo. Sure it will ramp up with friends in co-op on Legendary, but past games have run well over 10 hours in length.
Visually, Halo 4 is stunning. I have already mentioned the gorgeous CGI cut scenes, but the game itself also shines. Rarely missing a beat in the frame rate department, Halo 4 features some of the most robust areas in the series to date. Lush jungle environments mixed with the quintessential ship corridors add variety, while the bright desert serves as a nice palette cleanser midway through the game. This is probably the best looking Xbox 360 game to date, and easily one of the best looking games this generation. I am amazed at what 343i got out of the console.
Music has always been a huge part of the series as well. Halo 4 comes up a little short in this category for obvious reasons. We have a new composer at the helm taking over for the illustrious Martin O’Donnell. Neil Davidge’s take on the Halo universe is different in almost every way. Gone are the chants you’ve come to know, and even the famed piano theme only makes a minor appearance. It isn’t terrible by any means, but O’Donnell is a tough act to follow. It is also jarring to not hear the familiar themes raging throughout the campaign. Sound design on the other hand is spectacular. Every shot fired rings through your setup with profound dominance. The voice work is second-to-none, and everything sounds fantastic coming through a proper setup. The sound team has done an excellent job of bringing the universe to life.
Halo 4 is a great return to form for the series. I truly hope 343i takes the success they have with this game and truly flesh out the sequels, and make them their own. I love Master Chief and Cortana, but I feel like we need some fresh ideas in the universe. Please find a new enemy that dominates instead of falling back on the Covenant again. Still, as it stands I doubt I will play any other multiplayer game more this year, and that is the testament of great design. Halo 4 is a marquee title in the series, if for nothing more than bringing such a popular brand into a new development house. I expect to see Chief and company again on the next Xbox console, but for now Halo 4 stands as the best shooter on the console to date.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.