Halo 4 is an interesting game to review for several reasons. For starters, it marks the return of Master Chief for the first time in five years, after two games starring other characters in between. Secondly, this Xbox 360 title completes the hand-off from Bungie to 343 Industries, and I can’t think of a bigger franchise that has changed hands from one developer to another. Lastly, there is a tremendous list of sometimes contradictory items that fans and critics will be scrutinizing and checking off to see if this remains true to the Halo that everyone yearns for. Many will be asking if it offers something new, while others will be demanding that it remains true to Halo’s well-honed formula. That makes for a narrow line that 343 Industries has to walk, but the studio manages to walk it with aplomb, minus a few toe stubs.
Wake Up John
The beginning of Halo 4 drops players back onto the derelict UNSC Forward Unto Dawn where we left the Master Chief and Cortana five years ago. In a confluence of coincidences, they’ve drifted near the Forerunner shield world of Requiem just as a religious splinter faction of the Covenant finds the relic in an attempt to find a certain Forerunner they consider a god to destroy humanity. The opening level was a pure eye-opening rush as the sumptuous graphics, textures, and character models sank into my eyeballs with some of the best first-person shooter visuals of this generation.
The campaign continues from one eye-popping vista or arena to the next once you arrive on Requiem. 343 Industries went all out on the production values and it shows –– graphics, soundtrack, weapon and environment sounds, and character and voice acting are all superb. In addition, the more believable character interactions come as a result of using the same motion-capture techniques as James Cameron’s Avatar.
Halo dialogue has largely been limited to snappy one-liners and instructions on where to go to achieve the next objective. However, it turns out that despite his heroism and saving the galaxy, Master Chief is a fundamentally broken and anti-social individual. His and Cortana’s relationship has been speculated at since the beginning, but it turns out that they both act as each other’s lifeline to humanity. In Halo 4, Cortana has exceeded the end of her anticipated lifespan of seven years and is descending into rampancy. In artificial intelligence terms, she has absorbed so much information that she is fragmenting and thinking herself to death, and Master Chief’s interactions with her reflect the difficulty he has coping with this development. Yes, the snappy one-liners and instructional dialogue remain, but a more personal element is added to the Chief that has largely been missing in previous games.
Welcome (back) to the sandbox
Halo 4 returns the mix of linear and sandbox levels that the series is famous for. In one mission you’ll be creeping through corridors or a forest, in the next, you’ll be dropped into an open area with different weapons, armor abilities, or vehicles. How you proceed is up to you as you discover what works best in a given situation. It’s one of the hallmarks that makes Halo stand out from other shooters and 343 Industries finesses it brilliantly. For example, I played the Mammoth mission by myself the first time and took my time picking off enemies from afar using a sniper rifle, battle rifle, and jetpack. In my second playthrough with my son, we barreled in with a Warthog. Was one way easier than the other? No. It was a blast to play both ways.
The Prometheans are welcome replacements for the Flood and surpass the Covenant in some ways. The Knight is a more challenging opponent than the Elite, the Crawler is deadlier fodder and the Watcher…Well, you should always shoot the the Watcher first. Jackals, Grunts and Hunters are a familiar enough exercise that facing them is still challenging, but less problematic than before. The Prometheans introduce new challenges, especially at Heroic and Legendary difficulty levels, that bring a new feel to the well-established gameplay.
If there are any stumbles in the campaign, they come from the introduction of quick-time events and the tendency to stick a little too heartily to certain established gameplay elements. There are only a couple of quick-time events, but one of them comes at a critical juncture, producing a cinematic moment that left me thinking, “this isn’t Halo.” Meanwhile, providing different objectives during missions was 343 Industries’ chance to evolve the series, but there is still too many “go here to press this button” and “race over here to destroy these objects” moments. Again, choosing to do something different while still providing the familiar is a fine line to walk, but in the end it feels like the studio zigged when they should have zagged.
Welcome Spartan IV
Halo 4’s Infinity multiplayer pulls War Games, Spartan Ops and Forge into the fictional universe. War Games are where Spartan IVs (Master Chief’s young replacements) train in various matches of Team Slayer, Capture the Flag, and new modes such as Dominion and Regicide. Meanwhile, Spartan Ops sends these new recruits out on weekly missions TV series-style to clear the Covenant and Prometheans out of Requiem six months after the end of the campaign. This makes for an exciting evolution in the series but other changes feel like more of a step sideways than forward.
343 Industries ripped the standard and predictable weapon spawn location system out of Halo 4 and replaced it with randomized ordnance drops. This takes away the ability to time and/or camp power weapons like the rocket launcher. Instead, players are presented with random weapon drops at semi-random locations across the various maps and the ability to call in additional ordnance at your location once you’ve filled a power meter to a certain level. This doesn’t introduce new strategies as much as new chaos, since now more players are likely to have their hands on power weapons at any given moment.
The addition of Service Ranks (levels to be gained with experience) and Spartan Ops are evolutions that borrow from other games. As you rank up, you earn Spartan Points and earn access to new weapons, armor abilities, tactical packages, support upgrades and armor customizations. Different combinations allow you to tune your play style, but I’ve noticed one combination starring the Battle Rifle being predominantly used currently.
While I lament the loss of Firefight, Spartan Ops moves co-operative play forward by offering something different from other shooters. Story-driven missions delivered as an episodic weekly series is a bold step, and it largely works, up to the point that it is hamstrung by some of the same “press this button,” “destroy this object” gameplay.
Armor abilities are primarily carried over from Halo: Reach, with the infamous Armor Lock thankfully dropped and replaced with the more palpable Hardlight Shield. The jet pack has been tweaked too, so that it doesn’t hover as long. Promethean Vision is likely the most controversial, with its ability to see through walls, but it’s balanced with audio and HUD visual cues to warn opponents. Love them or hate them, these armor abilities are a vast improvement over Reach.
Of the new modes, Dominion is the most interesting. Its mix of domination gameplay with three bases and the addition of base-building makes capturing bases even tougher and engaging. It’s definitely one mode I would like to see become a mainstay alongside Team Slayer and Capture the Flag.
Requiem for a wrap-up
This may be the most inconsequential reviews ever written, and let me explain why: those that love the Halo series will love Halo 4 because it is essentially more Halo. Those that hate the Halo series will hate Halo 4 because it is essentially more Halo. Everyone in between will find different things to love or hate based on their previous experiences. For me, Halo 4 is the sequel to the original that I have been waiting for for the last decade. It delivers a visual and auditory punch while staying true to the core gameplay mechanics and moving the series forward in interesting ways both thematically and in multiplayer.
- Release date: November 6, 2012
- Genre: First-person shooter
- Platform: Xbox 360
- Developer: 343 Industries
- Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
- Rating: M
- MSRP: $59.99