Halo 4 is easily the most anticipated Xbox 360 game of the year. It's also quite possibly the last mega exclusive the console will see before the next generation kicks off. To compound all of that it's also the first full Halo game developed by the franchises new overlords, 343 Industries. With these huge expectations heaped upon it could the game even hope to live up to the hype? Read on to find out.
A Tale Of Two… Robots?
The ending of Halo 3 saw Master Chief and Cortana stranded on the UNSC ship Forward Unto Dawn. Presumed dead by the rest of Humanity the Chief stepped into his stasis tube and uttered the now famous line "wake me, when you need me". Halo 4 kicks off with Cortana doing just that and waking the Chief just as the shit is really starting to hit the fan. Their ship is crashing toward an ancient Forerunner planet, and to top it all off our old friends The Covenant have decided to stick their multi jawed faces into the proceedings as well.
After a decidedly epic opening mission our heroes are dumped on the aforementioned Forerunner planet, named Requiem, and left to fend for themselves. I don't want to get too far into spoiler territory here but it is quickly revealed that something is not quite right on Requiem. Master Chief unwittingly releases an ancient evil, and a human ship by the name of Infinity gets dragged into the conflict. Cue world saving antics from our hero in green and his glowing blue companion. No I'm not talking about Link and Navi, silly.
In the lead up to Halo 4's release 343 placed a lot of importance on their development of Master Chief as a character. They wanted to explore what made him who he was, why he did the things he did. For the first half of the game I wasn't really feeling this, he was the same stoic hero that he's always been, but as the story progresses things start to change. The Chiefs relationship with Cortana is put under more stress than usual, and he's presented with a situation that he can do nothing about. There are much darker events here than in any of the previous games. This is bookended by fantastic prologue and epilogue scenes which directly question Chiefs humanity. Is he fundamentally broken? Is he more machine than man? Is this why he succeeds?
There are no definitive answers to these questions, but the connection Cortana and Chief share hints that there is more to him than meets the eye. This could even be used as a metaphor for the whole story. The characters introduced here are much more interesting and three dimensional than those of previous games. If you watched the mini series 'Forward Unto Dawn' then you already know the backstory of Lasky, and I'd be surprised if we didn't see more from Dr Halsey. This is also the only real problem with Halo 4's story, if you haven't engaged in extracurricular lore research then things can be a touch confusing. The terminals scattered throughout the game go a long way to relieving this, but viewing them requires you to exit the game and use Halo Waypoint.
Despite this minor slip up Halo 4's story is fantastic, and it provides a perfect jumping off point for the planned 'Reclaimer Trilogy'. Major events have been set in motion, new characters have been introduced, and many questions remain unanswered. If Halo 5 can be the 'Empire' to Halo 4's 'New Hope' then we're in for something truly spectacular.
Back in 2001 Halo: Combat Evolved changed the way we played FPS games on consoles. Pretty much every modern FPS owes a debt to that game. Halo 4 manages to instantly feel like it's predecessors while making some important evolutions to the formula. The first thing you'll notice is that the guns have changed just a little bit. The biggest change is to the Assault Rifle, which actually feels like a worthwhile weapon now. To reflect this the Covenant Plasma Rifle has been dropped entirely and replaced by the Storm Rifle. These two weapons now feel very similar, but because enemies retain their weaknesses to certain ammo types there's still a good reason to switch things up.
This balancing act can also be seen in the new Promethean weapons; The Boltshot is the equivalent of the Magnum, the Scattershot is the Shotgun, the Binary Rifle is the Sniper Rifle and so on and so forth. My personal favourite is the Light Rifle, which acts like a DMR when zoomed in and a Battle Rifle when fired from the hip.
When discussing the development of the Halo series, Bungie was famously quoted as saying that it all came down to 30 seconds of fun repeated over and over. You can build the most believable world and most involving story, but if you don't have those 30 seconds you're game's no good. 343 have taken this to heart with Halo 4 and it shows. Whether fleeing a crashing ship, cruising in the Warthog, fighting to control a jamming tower, or taking on two Hunters in a game of deadly cat and mouse, Halo 4 is just plain fun. And I mean that in the most basic sense, the controls are so tight that the simple act of navigating the world is a joy unto itself.
If that doesn't sound challenging enough then you could always crank up the difficulty to Heroic or Legendary. While other games simply throw larger amounts of tougher enemies at you and provide less health in their harder modes, Halo has always made you think. Legendary mode has been described as a combat puzzle and that description couldn't be more apt here. Memorisation of level layout and enemy placement is key, and the various resistances that enemies poses make weapon selection vital.
This combination of solid gameplay, well balanced weapons, and a difficulty level to suit all play styles truly makes Halo 4 a joy to play. The campaign is a touch on the short side - I clocked in at just under 8 hours on normal difficulty - but there's plenty of replay value here and a legendary play through is a must for any fan of the series.
I Say Halo, It Is What I Playo
The exceedingly solid gameplay carries right over into the multiplayer as well. There's just so much content, so many different things to do, it feels so substantial that you could pick it up and chew on it. Before you even get into a game this becomes abundantly clear through the robust matchmaking system. All the modes you'd expect to find are here plus a few new twists on old classics. Regicide adds an extra dimension to the standard free for all mode. The player in first is 'king' and receives a big ol' marker right over their head so everyone knows exactly where they are, kill the king and you receive bonus points. Flood is the new version of infection, but this time the infected actually play as Flood forms. It's only a cosmetic flourish but it's little touches like this that make the game feel so complete.
Also new to the table are Loadouts. In a not so subtle nod to another popular FPS franchise *cough* Call of Duty *cough* you now pick the equipment that your Spartan starts a match with. This also includes 343's version of perks - Armour Ability, Tactical Package, and Support Package - and kill streaks - Ordinance Drops. Fear not Halo fans, weapons still spawn in maps and this still feels very Halo, it's just taken a few cues from Call of Duty and integrated them in it's own way.
The armour abilities and tactical/support packages offer subtle bonuses that are geared towards complementing specific play styles and/or game types, they are not game changing ultra abilities. In the same vein, Ordinance Drops are in no way overpowered. You gain points not just for getting kills but for contributing to the performance of your team through assists, distractions, flag captures, defends etc. Once you have enough points you can use your Ordinance Drop to get either a weapon or a power-up, such as the Rocket Launcher or an Overshield. When you die your power-up will be lost or your weapon dropped for anyone else to pick up. Rather than rewarding the players who need it most, a la Call of Duty, this system rewards good team play and adds an extra incentive to the already fun multiplayer.
In a final nod to CoD players that reach the maximum multiplayer rank of 50 can choose a Specialisation, think prestige. Rather than reseting your level you simply progress through the ten levels of your chosen specialisation, unlocking aesthetic bonuses such as armour and weapon skins along the way. It's another small touch that goes a long way and it'll keep you coming back for more months after the rest of the game is complete.
The final new addition to multiplayer is Spartan Ops. This takes the place of Firefight as Halo 4's co-op mission based mode. There are five chapters each broken down into five missions, each week a new chapter will be released until we have all five, at which point I assume the playlist will keep rotating through the previous chapters. Missions take between ten and fifteen minutes to complete depending on difficulty and number of players, with each chapter unraveling a bit more of the ongoing story. So far Spartan Ops has been solid but ultimately underwhelming, it's not bad by any measure, but when the rest of the game is so good it feels a little irrelevant. To be fair though only the first two chapters are currently available so it could improve with time. It's also a lot more fun if you're playing with three other people you know, rather than just random people through the matchmaking system.
Overall Halo 4's multiplayer is the best the series has given us to date. The game types are more varied than ever, the weapon balance is spot on, the new reward system encourages good play, maps are varied and well designed, and the levelling system will keep you coming back for more. And despite all these new features and additions it still feels like the Halo you know and love.
All The Colours Of The Rainbow
Lets be honest, Halo hasn't been a graphically groundbreaking series for years, but what 343 have done with the now seven year old Xbox 360 is astounding. This is easily one of the best looking console games money can buy. Everything has an incredibly solid feel to it, and while the game certainly uses a realist style there's just enough stylisation in the design to make it stand out as its own unique world. Having said that, I can definitely see echoes of Metroid Prime in the design of Requiem, and some of the Forerunner architecture is reminiscent of Blizzards chunky art style. But it still stands very much on its own two feet, and since when has taking cues from some of the best developers in the industry been a bad thing?
The colour pallet is more muted than we've come to expect from Halo, but don't expect the grey brown mess that we see in other military shooters. The covenant still ride around in big purple ships and shoot green and blue plasma out of their guns, it's just been knocked down a couple of notches. This works well with the darker tone of the game's story and also makes you feel more involved in the world. Everything's just that bit more believable. It's almost as if the Halo of old's been passed through a Ridley Scotts Alien filter and than had some JJ Abrams Star Trek lens flare bolted on for good measure. If that doesn't sound appealing, trust me it looks fantastic.
Sound design is every bit the equal of the gorgeous artwork. Master Chief finally sounds as heavy and imposing as he looks, weapons bellow a much more aggressive note than ever before, and Covenant actually sound alien again. Environmental sounds really put you in the moment, ships creek and echo during eerie silences between battles before bullets and plasma rounds start whizzing and exploding all around you. The only let down are the engine sounds of the Warthog and the Mongoose, they're just too high pitched and feeble, it's an annoying blemish on an otherwise perfect report.
The departure of long time series composer Martin O'donnel no doubt had some fans wringing their hands in anguish. Luckily there was no need for this, as composer Neil Davidge exceeds expectations with a score that is both rousing and beautifully haunting. As with Marty's scores in the previous games Davidge's work here is very cinematic, influences from Hans Zimmer's Gladiator and Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings ring true in some of the best moments.
The audio design on offer in Halo 4 is nothing short of spectacular, the orchestral score punctuates the most exciting and emotional moments in the story, while the environmental design keeps you in the world. You owe it to yourself to play this game with either a great set of headphones or a monstrous sound system. You will not be disappointed.
Should You Buy It?
Short answer yes, yes you absolutely should and you probably already have. Halo 4 has some minor shortcomings but they really are so small you could step on them without even noticing. 343 had a monumental task ahead of them when they took over from Bungie, and of course Microsoft would throw money at them to make sure the game would be at least good, but what they've delivered is the quintessential Halo game. The best story, the best graphics, the most complete multiplayer, the best audio design. The. Best. Halo. Yet.
It's not perfect, though. You'll need to find all the terminals and hit the Halo wiki to get the most out of the story, while Spartan Ops hasn't lived up to its promise just yet. Think of these slight flaws as wasps attracted to your delicious Halo picnic, they might sting but they bloody well won't spoil the day. Unless you're allergic to wasps, you're not allergic to wasps are you?
All the little changes have added up to something great, something that still feels like Halo, but a slicker and more refined Halo, ready for a fresh start not just as the premiere Xbox exclusive but as one of the greatest series in modern gaming. You did good kid, you did real good.