Another year, another Halo - yawn. Except, that isn’t quite true. In this day and age it’s so easy to dismiss big blockbuster shooters and the yearly cycles they release in, bringing so little to the table with each iteration. Yes, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition title released last year, and the year before that we did see Bungie’s swansong, Halo: Reach, hit the shelves. But Anniversary was only there to bridge the gap and celebrate a classic. Now, two years after the series biggest release, Halo 4 has arrived and it’s the start of something that could be truly beautiful.
How foolish we all were to doubt the prowess of a new studio taking control of our precious franchise. Bungie wouldn’t have trusted their Xbox baby into the hands of just anyone, and seeing as the studio is fronted by Halo veteran Frank O’Connor we really didn’t need to doubt what could come. Now in the hands of 343 Industries, the Master Chief has never felt better, never looked better and – quite honestly – never been so much fun.
This isn’t to say this is the best Halo yet. For me it isn’t; it comes close, but it doesn’t contain the same sense of wonder that Halo had, nor the vulnerability Reach offered. However, it’s crammed with some absolutely fantastic set pieces, wonderful dialogue and ace gameplay. What lets it down is the resurgence of that same-old Halo gameplay. It’s clear that 343 were prepared to take risks with Halo 4, but they’ve also played it far too safe. New features have been implemented and new mechanics experimented with, but far too often that crutch of shooting a room of enemies before moving onto another room of enemies arises. Things just fall back into the well-worn slots of Bungie’s beast. This does still mean that combat is full of that signature brilliant action and clever AI, but not enough has changed to say that things have moved forward. What’s worse is that the return of Master Chief is a double-edged sword to the series after his hiatus.
After having been frozen in cryostasis on the destroyed Forward Unto Dawn at the end of Halo 3, it was pleasantly refreshing to no longer play with the tank of a man that was Master Chief. ODST placed you in the shoes of an incredibly vulnerable shock trooper, and Reach did similar by stripping your armour back to its earliest form. Now back in the skin of the Chief things all feel rather easy once more. On Heroic you’ll only encounter a few bottlenecks where progress slows due to overwhelming situations, but in general you feel like a super soldier once again – and that unfortunately makes things a little dull at times. Only a little though. For the most part it’s a riot to run through – made all the better thanks to the effort put into humanising the hulking Spartan.
Now largely referred to by his given name of John, the Chief begins to show his soft and squishy side when the realisation of him potentially losing his now bucktoothed AI partner, Cortana, is made apparent. While it may not be the nicest way to bring a character to life, Cortana’s rampancy – a period towards an AI’s lifespan where it literally ‘thinks itself to death’ – shows that John really does care about more than completing an objective and kicking alien butt. He may have been built entirely for war, granted war against civil unrest, but 343 have done an admirable job of showing that he is still human underneath that suit.
Mind you, all of this narrative is handled on the side, and isn’t even the main story arc on show. It’s all handled through cutscenes and in game dialogue as you’re plugging aliens with red hot lead. John is also the most talkative he’s ever been during these moments. Regardless of how strange it seems, the Chief’s actions and poise this time around has really done a good job of making me care about the man beneath the suit. Usually I don’t want to die during combat because I don’t want to restart a level, but in some moments I genuinely wanted to get to the end as I felt there was some impending sense of peril or urgency. A bit like the last level of Halo or Halo 3. There are set pieces that pepper this roller coaster adventure and bring a more Hollywood feel to events, more so than any other entry into the franchise. But unlike Call of Duty and Battlefield where we’re used to seeing explosions aplenty, Halo 4 uses these moments to peel back the armour and expose the Chief’s soft core. Mind you, it’s all a bit strange seeing it juxtaposed with all this shooting.
The restrictions all smell of Microsofts meddling rather than 343’s, ensuring that this entry isn’t so dissimilar that people are up in arms, yet fresh enough it excites them for what’s to come. Such rigidness does manage to slightly spoil the immersion. It’s also unnerving that some of the new additions this time around aren’t even explained very well. With such a story driven adventure, you’d think 343 would provide some sort of information why the Chief has brand new armour despite having been in cryo from the start. You’d think that they would also explain why there appear to be no Brutes or Drones as part of the Covenant – seeing as they explain why there is no longer a truce. Master Chief also doesn’t even a bat an eyelid at seeing new Spartans, despite the fact that – as far as he knows – they were all wiped out on Reach. It also never bothers to explain exactly who the Prometheans, Forerunners or Requiem is in any great depth. In fact, the only way you’ll know the answers to most of these issues is if you’ve been following the canonical novels that have been released alongside the series. In the end though, it doesn’t really matter as none of this stuff genuinely affects or sullies the rip-roaring fun that you’ll have playing through the campaign and coming across its hidden terminals and stellar moments.
Introducing the, surprisingly hard, Promethean enemies of Crawlers and Knights really switches up gameplay, especially when you have to juggle a third set of weapons – although they aren’t as extensive as the Covenant catalogue. It feels fresh coming into a skirmish just like it did the first time you encountered the Covenant and Flood in Halo. You have to think on your feet, continually weighing up which weapon works best against each foe, all while you still adjust to the potential of each. It’s even more interesting when you have to fight against both Covenant and Promethean in battle at the same time, quite honestly I’ve only found one weapon that works equally effectively on both – and that’s the Needler. The only real shame about the introduction of a new foe is that 343 don’t keep on with the three-way. Instead they chicken out around half way through and the Prometheans are absorbed to fill the gap that the Brutes and Drones had left behind in the Covenant forces.
If the campaign doesn’t do anything for you then don’t worry, there’s plenty of other opportunities for fun with an online multiplayer experience unlike any other in the series so far. Halo 4 looks at what Reach multiplayer offered you, looks at what the competition is offering and then melds it together in one beautiful marriage that produces a glorious multiplayer offspring full of countless hours of entertainment. Contained within the walls of Halo Infinity, you’ll be able to build maps once again in Forge and watch recorded videos in Theatre, but it’s War Room and Spartan Ops that are the two really interesting additions to the franchise.
Going into the nitty gritty of multiplayer could easily take up the entirety of a new article, let alone a couple of paragraphs. For all the stifled innovation found within the single-player, the multiplayer is really where 343 have outshone Bungie’s previous offerings. Introducing Call of Duty styled Ordinance Drops means that the larger your contribution to teamplay, the bigger your reward. Unlike CoD you’ll get the chance to pick a random weapon or enhancement when you kill a set amount of opponents, instead of gaining a killstreak. Nicely everybody can clearly see your drop arrive, which means they’ll know exactly where you are, and exactly what weapon you picked up – allowing them to plan accordingly. The loadouts are also really quite balanced, meaning that while you unlock better weapons, gadgets and enhancements, if you’re a solid enough player you can take someone on with ease even if you’re using an unmodified loadout. You don’t enhance or add things to weapons, you just have more choices you can make.
In terms of game modes most remain the same, although currently Big Team Battle has gone and been replaced by a simple Big Team Infinity Slayer. Hopefully it’ll come along later though. Infection has been fleshed out into a deeper mode known as Flood – which is just fantastic fun hearing players scream as they’re attacked. You’ll be looking at your motion sensor an awful lot, but unfortunately the mode can be spoilt by people holding up in near unreachable places until the time runs down. Another new addition is Regicide, which seems to replace Lone Wolf matches. Here battles are frantic and fast, with many ending with just five points between first and second place. Being in first place means you’ll have a bounty upon your head, and it’s a bounty that grows with each kill you make. Not only does this mean you’re literally fighting to keep first place, it also means that its both a curse and blessing to hold the position.
Spartan Ops, however, isn’t as fantastic as it first sounded. From my experience with the mode it’s generally horrendously laggy, which is surprising seeing as matchmaking works like a charm. What’s worse is that this online co-op campaign isn’t even that engaging in comparison to the main campaign, in fact you’d be better off playing through that co-op instead. Instead of offering small bites of challenges for friends to work though, each level seems to be wave upon wave of enemies while you open doors, press buttons, destroy terminals etc. Set out to tell a tale of the Spartans from Infinity, it’s a very disjointed experience. Perhaps things will change as episodes go forward – only two are currently out from the first season – but right now it feels immensely shallow. It is fun to play, though, but it’s just lacking the cohesion found in Master Chiefs journey. It also doesn’t seem too difficult when going at it on Legendary with one other in tow – which begs the question, does Halo 4‘s difficulty scale?
What 343 Industries has managed to do is commendable. They’ve squeezed in tons of new ideas around a well worn template and still managed to make it feel familiar to play. Not a single section feels overburdened or unoriginal – including a section that feels very reminiscent of Rogue Leader. Ultimately this is a brilliant start to a new trilogy for the series. It’s storytelling is the best of the bunch, and quite possibly the best of any modern out-and-out shooter. It may not move the series forward in massive leaps and bounds, but it shows that 343 is a developer that’s got grand ideas and knows where it wants to take us in the next-generation.
Audio/Visual – 5/5: Utterly fantastic and flawless soundtrack married with some of the best visuals you’ll ever see on a console. The guns sound damn sexy too.
Gameplay – 4/5: Mostly the same as always, but new enemies and new weapons really mix things up rather nicely. It’s Halo through and through, but with welcome additions.
Innovation – 4/5: Nice changes have been made in single player, but not enough to count it as truly revolutionary for the series. Online however things have really stepped up to bring, what has to be the best, online mode of the series yet.
Value – 5/5: With co-op play, online play, forge, map packs, and weekly Spartan Ops episodes there’s plenty to keep you busy with the purchase. Well worth the money if you’re playing online.
Final Score: 4.5/5