343 Industries have an incredible amount of pressure resting on their shoulders. Bungie pioneered a multi-billion dollar franchise with Halo and left a legacy that will stand the test of time in the video-games industry. However, with them moving over to Activision to work on a brand new AAA franchise, 343 are left to pick up the pieces
Is it even possible for a debut studio to make a game befitting of such a rich heritage, regardless of an infinite budget and a wealth of enthusiasm? Is one of the world’s most revered franchises truly in the right hands?
Guess it’s time to find out…
The Reclaimer Trilogy sees the return of Master Chief after three years of cryo-sleep. Cortana, his familiar A.I. assistant, awakens the Chief, pleading with him for help. The pair have been floating in space upon the Forward Unto Dawn frigate but as they near a forerunner planet, they’re suddenly invaded by the Covenant.
This is the catalyst for a series of unexpected twists and turns, including the debut of a brand new enemy, the Prometheans. I shall say no more for fear of entering spoiler territory. What I will say is that 343 feel very comfortable behind the wheel and it definitely shows.
To Infinity and beyond
It’s important to note that Halo 4 feels like a natural follow-on from Halo 3 in almost every sense of the word, but instead of ignoring the existence of Reach, it actually fully embraces and embeds many of the core pillars that clearly defined it.
This is a darker, more sinister Halo. The almost cartooney style that Bungie spearheaded has gotten much sharper around the edges. The resulting atmosphere and style makes this distinctly 343 , but very respectful and appreciative of Bungie’s near-decade with the series.
Potentially, some people could see that as Halo 4′s biggest weakness, in that it has tried to stay true to the roots of its forefathers, but remains afraid to truly experiment and let itself off the leash. That 343, while they have clearly put their own stamp on this franchise, have kept their ambitions in check, and opted to just make a great Halo game.
Yet the fact remains, with Halo 4, we have an engaging end-product that will still shock, surprise, and most importantly, entertain.
While a true sequel, Halo 4 is very clearly inspired by Reach, allowing players to use jetpacks and decoys to bedazzle their enemies. Additionally, they’ll get to deflect incoming fire with the new hardlight shield, and use a thruster to add some speed to their step.
Sprint is also a permanent option for Chief this time around, although you’ll almost wish it wasn’t. 343 have compromised having its permanent inclusion into the Haloverse, forcing Chief to stop dead every three seconds. This means you’ll have to keep pressing the button in after the pause to keep making a steady, stunted traverse through the levels. It’s just plain annoying, although only an issue in the campaign, as it’s an upgradeable skill in Multiplayer. It’s almost as if 343 were like ‘should we/shouldn’t we’ have this in our game, and then settled somewhere in the middle. The result is somewhat cumbersome and ugly, crying out to be patched.
Strangely, the vehicle physics seem much more active and dynamic. Warthogs handle well, though are inclined to cartwheel more vicariously than ever. Ghosts whip around the map with a grace and elegance like no previous instalment. On the other hand, Banshees feel heavier and are more of an effort than ever to control. By the time you get airborne, you’ll have been hounded and likely blown out of the sky.
In addition to old favorites, there are some jaw-dropping, awe-striking vehicular surprises in Halo 4 I won’t spoil here. What I will say is that 343 have certainly adopted the Combat Evolved mantra, prominent from the start of the franchise.
As a campaign, it’s not the largest you’ll play this year. Yet, it tells its story well and never outstays its welcome. Despite being the beginning of a trilogy, the game ends at an appropriate point, bringing sufficient resolution to the Halo 4 story, but raising some interesting questions for 5 and 6.
As for the Prometheans, well, you will need to adjust your strategy, though perhaps not as significantly as 343 and Microsoft would like you to think. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a whole different beast when compared with kamikaze grunts, rock solid brutes and overwhelming hordes of the Flood, but they still go down quite quickly once you’ve adapted to their frequent teleporting, additional enemy spawning and various shapes and sizes. That being said, harder difficulties will punish unmercifully and are definitely not for the faint-hearted. These new bad-guys won’t give you much chance to catch a breather and recharge your shield behind a conveniently placed rockface, that’s for sure.
A little old. A little new
The graphics in Halo 4 are a real source of contention for me. I drastically switch between adoring them and disliking them. It’s the most peculiar position I’ve been in as a reviewer for quite some time.
The text boxes, live displays and additions to the HUD seem jagged and disproportionate from the beautifully crafted environments, which are among the most elegantly designed I’ve seen on the 360. They never detract from the experience per say, but something does seem ‘off’ and ill-edited when both elements merge on-screen.
The Prometheans are a menacing lot. Their zeal for conquest is totally apparent on their hardened faces, their lust for battle depicted by battle-torn, well-armed bodies. They don’t want to make friends. That’s clear as day when first introduced to them. Learning more about their race, their intentions and their complete disregard for other lifeforms adds a whole other dimension to a well-recognized universe, making for a fascinating, insightful and intrepid new experience, whilst taking full advantage of familiar and unfamiliar territory.
As for Cortana, well, to say she’s had a few adjustments and enhancements would be a bit of an understatement.
This is war
By now, many of you will have had the opportunity to sample the absolutely beautiful soundtrack in Halo 4. If you haven’t, rectify that immediately. I’m happy to say that every track is embedded so perfectly that to say it merely helps the experience stand out, would still be dulling down its impact and doing it a disservice.
For me, this is as emotionally entangling as Jesper Kidd’s Darksiders 2, and Clint Mansell’s Mass Effect 3. Without doubt, 2012 has given us some of the best gaming soundtracks on any generation of systems, and Halo 4′s beauty and grace are as truly absorbing as anything that’s oozed into my ear drum. All without the familiar, Da, da, da, duummm choir-piece that Bungie made such a series staple for many years.
Steve Downes returns as the voice of Master Chief and Jen Taylor as Cortana. Their chemistry and interaction manages to feel fresh, despite their ongoing relationship; having them steer the narration will be both a draw for Halo players new and old.
This fight ain’t finished
For many, this will be the most important part of the review, and rightfully so. Halo is renowned for offering a solid sci-fi adventure, but its Slayer and other frantic modes that have made this series one of the greatest ever.
I’m happy to say that with Halo 4, 343 have not only managed to bottle the sheer brilliance and replayability of Halo 3, but they’ve also created a synergy with the deeper, more tactical multiplayer layer of Halo Reach.
Halo 4 ships with two discs, the second needing to be installed to the hard drive before you can even boot up multiplayer. This helps to make multiplayer quicker and more responsive locally, but also to display some of the high-res textures, streaming them as succinctly as possible. A welcome addition.
The multiplayer element is treated as a separate hub to the campaign, known as Infinity. Infinity is a ship that serves as a training ground for potential Spartans, allowing them to take part in an event called War Games. War Games offer various mode types, such as Team Slayer, Free-For-All, Domination and Regicide. Your performance in each war game is measured by medals accumulated, as well as the challenges completed, both adding to an overall XP bar, allowing your Spartan’s experience to grow and develop. As your spartan gains levels and completes challenges, they will unlock new armor and weapon types, as well as unlock further loadout boxes and achieve overall competency in the field.
The customization choices are limited to start with, but you’ll be able to change everything from the color of armor, to motto, logo, and even a pose viewable on the waiting screen while map selection is taking place and the game is being set up.
For the most part, the maps in Halo 4 are immensely replayable, none of them feeling like a chore or unwanted tack-ons to tick a box or meet a quota. All of them have their typical sweet spots where players conglomerate, but there are at least 2-3 points to each one, so there is definitely diversity and opportunity to adapt tactics.
As you can imagine, Halo 4′s weapon arsenal is now massive. Not only are you able to wield all your favorite UNSC weapons, but also the Covenant and now Promethean/Forerunner technology. Based on my time with the game, it was quite interesting to see people stick with old favorites like the plasma pistol and the Needler. However, many were also making great use of new weapons such as the Sticky Detonator and Suppressor, as well as the armor attributes. Decoy, in particular, was being used to distract an enemy, while they were assaulted from behind by the real Spartan.
Being brutally honest, I don’t think any of the new weapon additions will ever reach the dizzy heights of other firm faves, even though some are truly fun to wield. Unlike the Needler and Spartan Rifle, there’s no truly unique defining characteristic in any of the new weapons. Many of them feel as if they’re borrowing something from another weapon or from another game entirely.
That’s not a bad thing, of course, and I do believe that the implementation of these weapons will make Halo more accessible to a wider FPS audience than ever. That said, with such a vast arsenal, balancing issues will definitely be difficult to maintain. Once the servers are full and people become acclimatized to the new additions, it will be fascinating to see if any exploits are instantly discoverable and if a weapon is punching out a higher damage ratio than perhaps it should.
Of course, Infinity is just one element of multiplayer. New to Halo 4 is Spartan Ops; an episodic, action-packed skirmish, open for up to four players to get together and take on small sub-story missions that tie in with the Halo 4 campaign. Spartan Ops is intended to be updated regularly by 343, but for the purposes of review, I only got to sample the entirety of episode one.
Spartan Ops usually boils down to a horde-mode type scenario. Set objectives tend to involve the collection of an item, or the discovery of a pivotal point on the map, then once you’ve accomplished, see the player run back to a pick up point, while fighting off a swarm of enemies as the air vessel comes in to land.
Without question, this mode is designed for multiple players and it should go without saying that playing alone isn’t half as much fun. From my experience, Spartan-Ops is a good reason to keep returning to Halo 4 with the same group of friends (or perfect strangers) to get through the regular content. The test here, obviously, depends on if 343 will keep it up and continue to truly make this the ‘second campaign’ they’ve pitched to us since the very beginning. So far, they’re definitely on track.
In summary? The multiplayer is a charm. Really and truly. It completely proves that 343 understand the Halo franchise, and they’re as proficient at working on it as Bungie were on their best day. When I’m not playing Halo 4 multiplayer, I’m thinking about Halo 4 multiplayer. When I am playing it, I’m completely entrenched and sucked in. I can honestly say that no online FPS has done that to me since Halo 3.
The Master of Chiefs
Many have deemed 2012 a bit of a dud year for Microsoft. A filler year that is paving the way for a new console and a new library of titles. After playing Halo 4, it’s glaring to see what a great console the 360 still is, and how damn good Microsoft’s first-party efforts are when they’re done right.
Halo 4 is arguably the finest first-party title Microsoft have published for the 360 since Halo 3. The campaign, while a little short, weaves a thought-provoking, emotionally charged, yarn. Spartan Ops has replaced the unpopular and unplayed Firefight and, providing the support remains true, could well become one of the most popular additions to the Haloverse in years. Most importantly, the multiplayer is back on form, no longer hampered by complications. Instead giving depth and substance to the play-style we all know and love, while still managing to create expert synergy with the fancy bells-and-whistles Reach incorporated.
I’ve already lost an insane amount of hours to Halo 4, and I can categorically state that after this review, and way past launch, I will still be deep in play. 343 have silenced their critics. Halo 4 is exactly what it needs, wants and deserves to be. It may stick to what Halo fans know best, but it sure creates some exciting, immense possibilities for their future while doing it.
Welcome back, Chief. You’ve been gone far too long.
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