There are a certain two sentences that will always get bandied about with every release of a Halo game: “This is the best Halo yet” and “this is just Halo x with a few new guns and irrelevant gameplay gimmicks”.
Well it seems 343 Industries was listening to that last sentence. Despite being their first attempt at making a Halo game (no, Combat Evolved: Anniversary doesn’t count), Halo 4 is one of the most experimental Halo shooters since Combat Evolved, and that comes with both advantages and stumbles.
Halo 4 is set four and a half years after the events of Halo 3. Having been left drifting in space, John-117 (a.k.a: The Master Chief) wakes from his artificially induced slumber by his faithful A.I. companion Cortana and finds their ruined ship has come under attack by a rogue Covenant fleet. Before long however, Master Chief and Cortana find themselves dragged into a massive artificial planet called Requiem, built by the long-extinct creators of the Halo Rings - The Forerunners. It is here that Master Chief encounters a whole new antagonistic force to the Halo franchise: an army of semi-robotic Forerunner machines called Prometheans.
I could say more, but that would spoil the game for the three of you readers that haven’t played, finished and moved on from the game.
The inclusion of these new Forerunner enemies are a bold step forward for the Halo franchise, especially when said franchise’s story is so impenetrable that any new inclusions risks angering its dedicated fanbase. Perhaps this is why the Halo franchise has been so hesitant in its latest entries to add new enemies and gameplay additions. What the Promethean enemies provide is a new and refreshing gameplay experience - one that Halo has needed for a long time.
Unfortunately, a wealth of back-story information is required in order to flesh out these new enemies to the series’ already large mythos. Halo 4 attempts a form of trans-media approach to this by providing new information in both the Kilo-Five and Forerunner Saga trilogies of novels (written by Karen Travis and Greg Bear respectfully). This is thankfully not a requirement in order to understand the game, but as a result some key story details either get left out (I got several messages from friends asking me to explain why The Covenant were still at war with humanity) or elaborated on much too quickly (a lot of new information on The Forerunners is dropped on the player in a single five minute cinematic). Perhaps further novels or games will help elaborate upon this, but The Forerunner threat could have been better written somewhat: their reasons for going to war against the UNSC appears to merely be out of jealousy and spite – racism, for lack of a better term - rather than the well-established political motivations driving The Covenant’s hatred for humanity (though to be fair, this also required a book to understand, and was not elaborated on in the games themselves).
However, all of this is overshadowed by the deeply personal story between Master Chief and Cortana. Having aged well beyond the operational life cycle of conventional A.I., Cortana is beginning to malfunction and is perilously close to dying. Whilst Requiem and the Forerunner threat provide context and goals for the player to achieve, Halo 4’s focus is, arguably, centred on the now jeopardised relationship between these two pivotal characters. The result is some of the best writing seen in any of the Halo games, even if at the cost of some of Cortana’s well-loved personality, or the deeper literary allusion used in previous Halo instalments (Halo: Reach doesn’t count).
Halo’s recognisable gameplay is still present in Halo 4 alongside some much-needed additions to the formula. Alongside conventional Covenant enemies (who have been drastically cut down to their bare essentials) the new Promethean enemies add a new, variable and unpredictable threat. Prometheans come in three types: Crawlers (who act as cannon-fodder and suppression), Watchers (a support class who defend and bolster other enemies types) and Knights (who act as the primary attack force, and are further divided into classes depending on their respective weapons and abilities). Some players will love fighting these new enemies, and some will hate it: whilst Promethean enemies are generally tougher than Covenant enemies, Knights behave very similar to Elites in many ways. Furthermore, the Watcher class enemies seem to have way more health than is necessary (for me at least, others may disagree).
The new Promethean enemies also provide new weapons to play with. Visually, the Forerunner weapons are fantastic (forming themselves in your hands when picked up), and several weapons also provide multiple firing modes; the Light Rifle for example can either fire a three burst round when fired from the hip, or combine these into a single powerful shot, making it useful for either faster-paced gun duels or as a long range deterrent. Despite this, they also act essentially the same as their human or Covenant equivalents, and none of the Promethean weapons act any different than a conventional Assault Rifle or Rocket Launcher (etc.). Contrastingly, each of Halo: Reach’s weapons had different purposes and uses (e.g.: the conventional Sniper Rifle compared to the Covenant’s Focus Rifle, the latter of which could be used as a suppression weapon), and each felt unique enough that they could benefit various situations. Contrastingly, Halo 4 ‘s weapons feel only incidentally different others in a similar class.
This is in service of Halo 4’s new multiplayer system. Taking cues from the Call of Duty franchise (as every shooter game seems to do nowadays), Halo 4’s ‘Infinity’ multiplayer introduces a new load out system that provides several variations of the same basic weapon - with variations in range, fire rate, accuracy and power depending on player preference (e.g.: the Covenant Carbine provides superior fire rate to the DMR, but each shot is weaker and less accurate), and power weapons are rewarded in-game once a certain amount of points are accumulated. Furthermore, as players level up they gain access to unlockable weapons, passive abilities and powers. You’ll likely find that the first few hours of multiplayer are the most addictive as you purchase your preferred weapons and abilities, but it doesn’t take long to gain access to your favourite unlocks, and you may well find yourself with leftover points you won’t have anything to do with. Challenges and Commendations return from Halo: Reach, and players are rewarded multiplayer experience for completing each one.
Multiplayer also provides a new Specializations system: once players progress to level 50, they are given the option to choose a class that will subtly alter how your multiplayer SPARTAN plays. For example, the Wetwork class is used for Stealth oriented players, being able assassinate players faster and appear almost invisible to players using Promethean Vision (a version of X-ray vision), whereas Operator class players benefit from using vehicles, as they can recover from the effects of EMPs faster. A great idea in theory, but the Specializations may be unattainable by recreational players who only play online for an hour (or less) a day.
Purely cooperative multiplayer also returns in Halo 4, but not as expected. Instead of conventional Firefight, 343 Industries have introduced the new Spartan Ops mode. Combining elements from Campaign, competitive multiplayer and Firefight, players bring their customised characters into short story based missions set 6 months after the events of the Campaign. Spartan Ops Season 1 proves ten episodes (one per week), each with five playable levels and a five-minute cinematic, totalling fifty levels per Season. Because of the sheer amount of content required for this approach, Spartan Ops borrows level designs from campaign and multiplayer, and must reuse these levels regularly, thus becoming repetitive quickly. Additionally, the cinematics rarely connect with the gameplay content of an episode, save for a handful of dialogue lines. Whilst admirable, Spartan Ops’ repetitive gameplay and awkward storyline isn’t an adequate replacement for Halo’s popular Firefight mode.
Visually, Halo 4 looks fantastic, benefitting from cutting edge technology and superb motion captured performances. Characters are amazingly lifelike and articulate, and the attention to detain in the various environments is stunning. Unfortunately, this attention to detail becomes a hindrance when playing split-screen multiplayer, as even in HD textures must pop in and the detail can become blinding (especially during that final level). Despite this hiccup, Halo 4 proves that the Xbox 360 still has plenty of life in it yet.
Finally, Halo 4’s new musical composer, Neil Davidge, experiments with the well loved musical formula of the Halo franchise. Without sacrificing Halo’s unique musical heritage, Davidge adds a much stronger electronic influence and heavily edited songs. Recordings of military firearms are used to provide the various sounds of human weaponry, adding a satisfying – if not a little muted – sonic landscape to the battles in Halo 4. Voice acting is superb, and coupled with the motion captured performances of real-world actors, creates a fantastic looking and sounding Halo game.
Taking the reins from acclaimed developer Bungie, 343 Industries has experimented more with their first Halo game than any of its predecessors, and it both benefits and suffers because of this. Fans of the series will enjoy some of these changes, and likely condemn others. Halo 4 is a great start to the new trilogy of games, but more importantly proves that 343 Industries is more than worthy to take the reins of the Halo franchise.
The new Forerunner back-story can get confusing, but the story of Master Chief and Cortana steals the show. Meanwhile, Spartan Ops cinematics and gameplay barely intertwine.
New Promethean enemies add much needed variation to the Halo sandbox, even if their new weapons do not. Multiplayer takes cues from the Call of Duty franchise to refresh what has previously been a stagnant experience.
Amazing motion capture creates realistic and emotional characters, and stunning visuals prove the Xbox 360 still has some life in it. Unfortunately, the attention to detail can be blinding when playing split-screen co-op.
Neil Davidge’s new direction is unique without throwing out what makes Halo’s music loved. The guns sound fantastic, even if a little muted.
A lack of Firefight reduces the game’s lasting value, especially for offline audiences. The new loadout reward system strengthens the addictive experience of multiplayer, but the Specializations may be unattainable for the recreational player.
Final Score: 8.0/10.0