Few franchises in the history of video games are as polarizing as Halo. The original game was the marquee title that launched the original Xbox and showed the world that competitive multiplayer shooters were possible on more than just the PC. There have been numerous entries in the series over the past decade, each of which has drawn millions of fans and sales. It is arguable that they have drawn equally as many critics. People either love it or they hate it, but nobody can deny both the success of the series and its importance to the modern era of gaming.
The last game, Halo Reach
, brought not only raving critical reviews, but also the end of an era as it was the final title developed by the studio that created it. Bungie handed off the reigns to Microsoft, who formed a special studio charged specifically with carrying the torch: 343 Industries. The new developer has done a fine job handling the remake of the original game (Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary) and the various map packs for Reach, but could they handle a full, original Halo title? That is the question that has been at the forefront of fans’ minds since Bungie announced they were letting go. The debate is officially over. Halo 4 is here and everyone can stop worrying: this is a classic Halo title through and through.
After branching out into the rest of the Halo universe over the past two games (ODST and Reach), Halo 4 brings things back to everyone’s favorite UNSC soldier, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, or, as he is more commonly known, Master Chief. If you recall, at the end of Halo 3, Cortana and Master Chief were stranded in deep space following the collapse of a slipspace portal. They set off a distress beacon and hoped for the best. Knowing that it could be years until someone found them, Master Chief allowed Cortana to put him into a cryonic sleep chamber with the final instructions to wake him if she needs him. Four years later, Cortana frantically awakens him as she realizes something is drastically wrong with her as they near an undisclosed Forerunner planet.
Being an artificial intelligence modeled from Master Chief’s creator, Cortana is only rated for seven years of service; it has been eight since she joined up with Master Chief. As Cortana fights the effects of rapid deterioration in terms of her capabilities and mental faculties (referred to as "rampancy"), Master Chief must race to get back to Earth for even the slightest chance at restoring and saving her. The problem is that we aren’t talking about a clear cut path to their end goal. Recent events in the galaxy stand in their way as Master Chief struggles to not only save his reliable AI (and only true friend), but also fulfill his duties as a UNSC marine and respond to the rise of the Forerunners as a threat to mankind.
I am not going to spoil any of the details of the actual story, both out of respect to fans and at Microsoft’s request, but know that this is a much more personal story than we have seen in the past. As a fan of the series since the start, I didn’t really care for the last two installments; I enjoy the journey of Master Chief and Cortana and couldn’t wait to get back to their story; I was very relieved to see a story that focuses heavily on these two and that builds a lot on their interaction with one another. The way the tale ties into the rest of the universe, as a means of the backdrop, is a bit deep for casual fans in terms of its references to the Halo-universe. It relies on some knowledge and information detailed in the various Halo novels published over the past couple of years. That may throw some people off, but then again, if you are a die-hard fan then you have possibly read those books and will be very familiar with everything talked about.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable ten-chapter story with very heavy pacing from start to finish. Even when it is done, there is an strong draw to go back and play again, seeking out hidden terminal locations as well as playing with up to three friends. I will say that if you haven’t fallen for the series before now, there isn’t anything here that is going to suck you in; this is a fan service style-story aimed at pleasing those who have been dedicated to the series over the past decade.
Story-schmory, what really matters is the gameplay, and Halo 4 nails it right on the head; in fact, it builds upon it immensely. Right from the start, fans will feel right at home. The game plays, control-wise, exactly like Halo Reach. You still have the traditional two-weapon design, multiple grenade options, and a variety of equipment items that can be triggered using the left bumper. In a smart move, nobody tries to fix what isn’t broken and that will work to 343‘s benefit in the long run; it is evident that they recognize what has worked in the series and they aren’t afraid to embrace the groundwork laid before them by Bungie.
The one area that 343 really stepped up to the plate is with weapon variety; there are a ton of new weapons featured in the game plus a monster new vehicle (the Mantis). Not only do you have an entirely new class of weapons thanks to the addition of the Forerunners to the game (the Promethean weapons class), but there are a couple of new weapons added to the UNSC and Covenant weapons classes as well. The game doesn’t waste any time throwing them into the mix either as new guns are put in your hands right out of the gate. Surely fans will find a couple of new favorites across all of the classes, including things like the UNSC SAW and Sticky Detonator, redesigned Covenant weapons across the board, and Promethean variants like the Scattershot, Binary, Incineration Cannon, and one of my personal favorites, the Boltshot.
The Promethian weapons in particular are a treat, especially in terms of visuals. While some are more effective in battle than others, they just look cool. Promethian technology forms to your body, encompassing your arms, and more or less becoming a part of you. Even many of the reloading animations reflect this and look stylish; they are as visually satisfying now as they were when I started playing 30 hours ago. The same level of detail is present in the UNSC Mantis, the new vehicle mentioned earlier. While other vehicles are simple hop-on-and-go, the Mantis requires a bit of scaling and maneuverability (animation wise) to get into the cockpit; this not only looks cool, but also leaves players vulnerable for a short period of time. Long story short, there is a bit of risk involved with the reward that comes with it, which is nice.
The level designs aren't as linear as they have been in the past; there are moments that remind me of the original Halo, allowing you to do a bit of exploration between battles. There is a great variety in the scenery, as you battle in spaces ranging from ancient Forerunner tombs to wide open landscapes; they all look great. That is because the visuals powering this game are among the best seen on the Xbox 360 to date. This game looks awesome and, at times, amazing. There are some pre-rendered cutscenes, especially in the beginning, that I thought were live actors rather than rendered figures. That visual quality never falters during the entire adventure.
On the audible side of things, Neil Davidge has worked magic with the game’s soundtrack. Halo 4 is perfectly scored every step of the way. Each track fits the given scenario and enhances the overall experience. Unfortunately, the sound effects themselves aren’t up to the same standards; I was underwhelmed at the weapon sounds compared to other shooters nowadays. Very few guns give off the audible sense of power they purportedly hold, except for the UNSC sniper rifles which sound amazing and deadly (which they are). Even the shotgun class of weapons for both the UNSC and the Prometheans sound weak compared to the destruction they bring.
There are some technical issues and they are all things that we have dealt with in Halo games of the past. The two bugs in particular that I am referring to are the non-working checkpoint system and the triggering of specific scenarios in the campaign. The checkpoint system just doesn’t work: selecting the “resume game” option from the main menu will not take you to the point that you last left off, but usually the beginning of your most recent chapter. If you want to get back to your most recent location in the campaign, you are going to have to go into the chapter selection and choose the latest sub-chapter you experienced. This is annoying and something that should have been fixed after a decade of the series; I have experienced this issue in every Halo game I have ever played.
Scene triggering also seems wonky, for lack of a better term. There were many occasions during the campaign when I wandered around endlessly just waiting for something to happen. All of the enemies in the area had been wiped out, everything destroyed, and a particular door wouldn't unlock or a scene wouldn't happen. On all of these occasions, I would either kill myself by jumping off of a ledge or reload the previous checkpoint and replay the scene. Every time, it was clear that there was simply an issue with the game triggering the next segment as the replays led right into the new scenarios. Once again, this is something I have experienced more times than I can count in this series and something that really should have been fixed by now.
We have barely scratched the surface, because the bulk of the Halo 4 experience is the multiplayer component. 343 made it their goal to inject more of the Halo universe into the multiplayer options, and that is exactly what they have done. Everything that has to do with multiple players, be it cooperative or competitive play, is now housed within the confines of the UNSC Infinity, home of the Spartan IV program. Basically, multiplayer is presented as if it is a training program for up and coming Spartan soldiers, which makes perfect sense. Everything that Halo fans know and love returns in Halo 4 on the multiplayer level. You have matchmaking, endless customization options, theater and recording options, and a revamped and more accessible Forge mode. On top of these familiar features, there are also a ton of new bells and whistles added to the mix.
The foundation was laid in Halo Reach for customization and experience-based gameplay, and that continues here. As you play through various multiplayer modes, you earn experience points which are used to unlock armor customization options and new weapons and abilities. You can create your own custom loadouts of your favorite weapons and abilities to select prior to matches and customize your Spartan to reflect your own style and personality. The means by which you earn experience points, however, has been overhauled dramatically and to great success.
Everything you do in the game world rewards you in some manner, ensuring that players who aren’t topping the scoreboard still advance. In addition to earning points for kills and flag scores, you are rewarded for assists, completing difficult shots and long-range grenade hits, and a variety of other objectives and tasks thrown at you. The best part is that it helps you become a better player in the long run while still progressing you towards earning bigger and better equipment, even if you aren’t leading your team in performance.
In addition to all of the classic modes fans know and love, there are a few new ones. On the competitive level, there is the new Dominion mode. This brings large-scale multiplayer warfare to the Halo universe. We’re talking lots of players, tons of vehicles, and large maps with static bases, all of which create epic battles. I can see myself spending a lot of Friday nights here; this could be the go-to mode for Clans to battle for superiority.
The Infinity also has a new mode for cooperative play in the form of Spartan Ops. This mode brings a heavy Halo-themed narrative to the online world, setting players off in scenarios based on the Halo universe. These are missions with purpose that follow a distinct storyline that will play out over the course of the game’s lifespan. At launch, the game has a single Spartan Ops episode, which contains five distinct chapters, or missions. Some of them are basic “eliminate all enemies” scenarios, while others may be escort or capture the flag-style missions. 343 will roll these out in the form of new seasons after launche. Is this an original idea? No, Call of Duty has been doing it for a few years now, but it is a great addition to Halo multiplayer. It is a nice option for you and your friends when you don’t want to play against the world and have already beaten the campaign cooperatively time and time again.
Is Halo 4 the be-all and end-all of the video games of 2012? No. Is it a solid title that will keep fans of the series happy for the next couple of years? Without a doubt. 343 proves they have what it takes to carry the series into the next generation. This is a true Halo title through and through, which is both good and bad depending on your feelings on the series. There are some small quirks, but the multiplayer continues to be one of the most robust and addicting suites in the industry. Fans and gamers alike will be playing this one for a long, long time.
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