The fight is never finished. At least with Halo it seems, because you’d have to be positively crazy to retire this license to print cash. After three core games, a foray into hell-jumping and a front row seat for the fall of Reach, Halo developer Bungie parted ways with Microsoft, leaving the door open for a new rookie studio to take over the signature Xbox franchise. But can 343 Industries put their own stamp on the Halo Universe, or is the darkest day for the series?
Set almost five years after the events of the third game, Halo 4 has players once again assuming the role of Master Chief, as a quick wake-up from his cryo-nap has him picking a new fight with The Covenant and some new antagonists, with the bulk of the action taking place on the planet Requiem, a Forerunner world that holds a few secrets of its own.
Also, the word ‘Reclaimer’ is thrown around a lot, but y’know, SPOILERS!
And that’s not the only thing on the plate for Master Chief, as he also has to deal with his chatterbox AI Cortana, who after several years of service, is starting to show signs of rampancy, a condition wherein she’ll think herself to oblivion.
That’s one positive aspect that Halo 4 nails from the start, because as engaging as previous stories were in the franchise, this time, there’s a deeper level of characterisation present. Cortana is more vulnerable than ever before as she starts slowly succumbing to her condition, while Master Chief, as succinct as always, finally starts to evolve a spine to become more than just a genetic powerhouse with a battle rifle.
Add a brewing intergalactic conflict into the mix, an interesting support cast and a few revelatory titbits, and you’ve got yourself one heckuva story, as the Chief prepares to fight on and ensure the survival of mankind.
But it’s gameplay that really matters here, and it can be summed up perfectly with one line: It’s Halo. Suffice to say, if you haven’t enjoyed any of the Halo games so far, then this latest entry ain’t going to change your mind about that.
Forget iron sights aiming, realistic jumping heights and carrying around enough weapons to fit up your arsenal. Halo 4 is pretty much the exact same game that the entire franchise has been built on, but with enough necessary tweaks to keep critics from moaning too heavily.
The armour abilities from Halo Reach are now a part of the core mechanics, with Master Chief able to pick up jet-packs, optical camouflage and energy shields for use during battle, while sprinting itself is now an integrated function on it’s own. They’ve still got cooldown meters and limited use, but knowing when it use what exactly, still makes a massive difference here.
Alongside the returning favourites are a few new ideas, such as the Prothean vision that was pinched from Metroid; a regeneration field with which to get some quick healin’ done and an auto-sentry, perfect for those players who want a guardian angel on their shoulders that fire high calibre rounds at opponents.
And you’ll need those tools as well, because some of the new enemy variants in Halo 4 are pretty damn crafty. While little has changed in the AI department for the Covenant forces, the Prometheans a re a whole different ball game.
Made of three primary forces, the Prometheans consist of Knights, Watchers and Crawlers. Crawlers play it safe with a numbers game, as their dog-like physiques allow them to close in and fire their rounds at players, while the Knights themselves are the cream of the crop. Tough, clever and equipped with long and short-range weaponry, it’d be bad enough to face them like that, but toss in a teleport ability, the ability to throw your grenades back at you and defensive support from Watchers, and you have one deadly package.
They are bastards on the harder difficulties!
But what good would a Halo game be without some decent guns at your side? All the old favourites are present, from the ever reliable assault rifle, Magnum, sniper guns and the Covenant array of weaponry, through to the new purdy as a pig Promethean projectile-throwers.
They’re essentially re-skinned versions of familiar weapons, such as an assault rifle, pistol, sniper rifle and whatnot, but with enough of a physical oomph and slight alterations to make them worth pursuing in the heat of battle.
And that’s one thing that hasn’t changed either about Halo, as the limits set on carrying guns around forces players to constantly scavenge and experiment with new weapons, never relying too much on one specific gun because ammo may not be present for it further down the level. One other adjustment to the formula, is that zoomeable weapons no longer have that mind-boggingly stupid idea to kick players out of that field of vision every time a shot is fired, something that snipers will no doubt love.
In addition to those new weapons in the game, are vehicles. Series staples like the Pelican and USNC tanks are back with a bang, while the mecha-inspired Mantis being a guilty pleasure with which Master Chief can rain down missiles, hellfire and giant robot feet.
All in all, it’s undeniably Halo on the single-player side of things. The campaign is a brisk experience that will be over in around 8 hours on normal difficulty settings, while you can rope your buddies in form some co-op. And playing that game on Legendary with three other victims friends is one fun exercise in swearing, screaming and triumph.
But sweet Forerunner rings, does the game look fantastic. Credit where credit is due, as character models help sell emotional aspects of the story, especially Cortana herself, while the lighting effects are phenomenal. Visually speaking, this just might be the pinnacle of the current generation of games, and with an inspired art design that captures the alien aspect of other worlds, and a stirring soundtrack that gives the Gregorian monks a break, it’s a well rounded presentation.
Overall, I’ll say it again, it’s undeniably Halo. It’s so Haloey in fact, you’d never guess that this wasn’t Bungie working on the game at all. And that’s both a plus and a negative for Halo 4, as 343 Industries is obviously the right choice to take care of the franchise, but at the same time, play a little too safe at times.
There’s no real attempt to really break out of the mould that Bungie created, to take risks and really tweak the formula. Of course, this would no doubt have hardcore fans fuming, but it would have been warmly welcomed to see at least a small attempt to break away from the ordinary in the process.
But that’s the single-player side of things, something that only makes up a small side of modern day Halo, because combat has evolved to become a substantial multiplayer game instead. Heading on over to the Infinity gives players a plethora of new gameplay options, from vanilla team death-matches, through to capture the flag variants that leaves players with ludicrously overpowered Flagnum, Flood and the Spartan Ops missions.
Spartan Ops is a decent idea at keeping the series running past the initial excitement of launch day, as new weekly episodes gives gamers episodic missions with which to explore Requiem and shoot many things in the process.
It’s a nice, free incentive, and it’s something that fans will no doubt appreciate for the next ten weeks, especially those looking for a four-man challenge to kill an hour with, in missions that are essentially wave-based replacements for Firefight from previous Halo titles. 343 obviously has something more up their sleeve for this kind of content, and it has the potential to really shape the landscape of the game if implemented properly.
Moving back to multiplayer, the more noticeable changes to the standard formula is loadout screens, with five options available to players to customise with Spartan points earned from levelling up and so on.
It all goes towards customising your Spartan, something that is really driven home by cosmetically tweaking your character, while outfitting your soldier with the necessary weapons to fight on. It’s a massive slog though, and the options only start to get interesting from around lvl 12, leaving new players at the mercy of veterans with honed skills.
Tactical packages also make their presence known in Halo 4, similar in style to a certain other Duteous shooter and it’s perks. Tactical packages are more tailored towards boosting your Spartan however, with options ranging from extra weapons, through to unlimited sprinting and damage boosts, assists that can help turn the tide of battle. There’s a lot on offer here, and only over time will the full impact of these options really be accurately detailed, in order to create a soldier that has some clever options available.
Infinity Slayer changes the formula even more though, with ordinance drops. Kill enough players without dying, and your meter will fill up, allowing you to call in some new weapons on the field, so that you can help your team reach that 60 kills threshold to win a game.
343 has really, crammed a ton of content into Halo 4 multiplayer, and even if the map selection does little to persuade you to carry on playing, the user-friendly Forge option will then allow you to build your own maps, with which to settle a few scores.
Match net code has also received a welcome tweak, with players able to drop into matches, instead of having to wait for new ones to open up. So is Halo 4 worth the cash then? As a single-player game, with gorgeous new visuals, art direction and an intriguing story, it still feels a tad shallow, and far too short at times.
But as an online shooter with which to duke it out, the game is superb. There is simply a galaxy of content awaiting players, with extra support coming through in the form of weekly Spartan Ops episodes, Waypoint support to reflect on your stats and a growing meta-game of creating powerful characters for play.
As energetic as those matches are, working as a team and planning your next moves will help you out at the end of the day, keeping the game ethos in line with the original motto of “Combat Evolved”.
Halo 4 was reviewed by Darryn Bonthuys on a Xbox 360