We always knew that one day Bungie would leave the nest that is Microsoft studios. The Halo franchise would either be left in the dust with no way back, or someone would take over the duties of making the games. Unsurprisingly, the Microsoft machine opted to keep its cash cow going by giving the series to 343 Industries. While Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition last year was a great port, it wasn’t anything new. Halo 4 on the other hand is the team’s first project that they’ve had the creative helm of. Can they put the series back on top?
John 117, otherwise known as Master Chief, wakes up aboard the desolate Forward Unto Dawn space cruiser after a four-year period in stasis. Cortana, his AI, has detected a disturbance on the vessel, which turns out to be a Covenant fleet. Eventually they crash on a planet that is revealed to be a Forerunner World known as Requiem. While the majority of the campaign expands on the Halo universe, it is how the emotional bond between Cortana and Master Chief is tested that really shines. Right up to the end, it keeps you guessing. The only setback is that a lot of detail will be lost upon anyone who only played the games and not bothered reading the books linked to the series.
Balance between encounters in many campaigns is important and the eight mission battle across many locations is perhaps the most evenly balanced seen in years. No mission feels like it goes on too long, despite being huge, and the set pieces feel grand in scale. Having a mixture of the classic Covenant foes with the new intimidating force of the Promethean guards that inhabit the Forerunner world working in equilibrium grants a flexible and varied challenge. While in normal difficulty things occasionally get overwhelming, the danger is ramped up as you increase it all the way to Legendary. Taking on the task with a few friends adds variety to a campaign that despite being wonderful in design is over a little too quickly as one more mission would have rounded things off nicely. Terminals found in missions help alleviate some of the context, but to varying levels of resolution.
The core gameplay hasn’t really changed, as you are still wielding two weapons at a time, scavenging more on the battlefield and using various abilities that were introduced in Halo: Reach. Shooting still feels solid, with the new foes creating a variety of strategies to shake things up. While Crawlers have fairly straightforward goals in mind, the relationship between Watchers and Knights creates a new dynamic as Watchers can spawn from Knights, while Knights can be resurrected by Watchers. Old adversaries such as the Elites, Grunts and Jackals act in much the same way as they always have, meaning that there is a familiar edge to what could easily have been a deviation for the series.
Of course, the majority of the fans will take to the online mode quicker than you can say ‘Slayer”. Taking place on the UNSC Infinity, you can join the simulated War Games that act as the traditional player versus player multiplayer. The list of modes vary from the traditional Team Slayer variants to more objective based game types like King of the Hill and Capture the Flag. Some such as Dominion and Regicide provide fresher takes on modes we’ve seen before. Flood on the other hand is eerily similar to the Zombie game types of previous Halo games, but with a more fitting flavourful design. Each map, either rehashed from previous titles or brand new makes clever use of choke points and landmarks to enable coordinated teams to quickly get the upper hand. Some game types can only be played in Custom matches however, such as the highly popular Grifball and the new Extraction mode, which could hint at rotations. Overall the list of options isn’t as vast as it was with Halo: Reach, but it does a fine job in a smaller capacity. Forge is still there to enable you to create your own maps, though the lack of a big Sandbox like map to play around with is disappointing. Being able to look back on games for screenshots and video clips is still there, but only for the previous game played, meaning lots of backing out would be required to capture that games’ footage before it is wiped. It’s inconvenient at best.
In many ways, 343 Industries have not only met the expectations, they have surpassed them.
On the other hand though, you could team up with friends to take on the episodic Spartan Ops mode. Here you are presented with a mini-campaign, with chapters that require you to open doors, take down shields and clear rooms of enemies. On the surface this might not seem much, but taking it on with a friend or three makes it just as fun as playing through the campaign, but less of an assault on time. With the potential for weekly updates, this could become one of the more important features of the game in terms of staying power. At the time of writing though, I’ve seen two episodes that have rehashed maps, which could be seen as a little lazy.
Evolution in multiplayer comes with a combination of perks and a ranking system that feels more meaningful than ever before, and ordnance drops that are reminiscent of Call of Duty kill streaks. These ordinance drops feel more balanced as you could take them for yourselves or allow a teammate to pick them up instead, meaning it’s up to you how they are used. Specialisations are eventually unlocked after ranking up to a significant milestone which allows players to gain more perks, though the magnitude of this feature has yet to be seen at this time. Unlocking new pieces of armour as you rank up actively tries to keep you engaged with the multiplayer, while challenges set daily, weekly and monthly respectively give you targets to achieve. One small issue is with regards to Parties being split unexpectedly in certain games online, but this is something that will probably be fixed down the road.
Halo has always looked stunning on the Microsoft hardware, but Halo 4 has the edge in that the gameplay is smooth and fluid. The frame rate is a lot faster than fans are used to; having more in common with the frame rate achieved in Call of Duty, and the result is a sleek game that looks fantastic. War Games are a fast paced and frenzied affair, while still retaining the series’ core style. Each locale you explore in any of the modes is designed to be unfamiliar in its layout and presentation. You never see the same place twice! Most of the character models look great in the newly updated engine, but the Grunts and Jackals have seen a design change that could divide opinions.
The real star here though is something that only the ears will enjoy – the soundtrack. Despite it lacking the Gregorian chanting that the signature tune of the series uses; the soundtrack paints a more sombre tone fitting of the campaign. It’s dramatic in all the right places and is in itself a work of art. Voiceovers are still great, though the revelations of the campaign give one or two characters a little more to work with than others. In a way, how Halo 4 sounds is important in both conveying the familiar and the unknown, with it exceeding expectations in both.
Many would have doubted the ability of 343 Industries to pull off something spectacular, but in many ways they have not only met the expectations, they have surpassed them. Halo 4 not only gives players the best single player campaign in terms of balance and enjoyment since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but also a multiplayer mode that keeps you hooked in whatever endeavours you undertake. There is also a bit to discover, even when you are heavily experienced in the multiplayer, so it also wins points for creating ways to keep you engaged. It’s still Halo however, so the uninitiated may find the lore a bit of a mouthful, but this is probably the first shooter I’ve played in years that has had me in big smiles. Master Chief has indeed returned in full force and he’s looking to get his throne back; judging from the arsenal he’s packing, he might just get it.