Review: Halo 4
By Paul Hunter
At the beginning of Halo 4 when Master Chief awakes from his nearly five year cryo-slumber, it might as well been symbolic of the entire Halo franchise waking up to what made the original title such a captivating experience. Not since Halo: Combat Evolved has a Halo game given us such a sweeping sense of scope and exploration of the unknown, alleviating all doubts that new developers 343 Industries can successfully helm the franchise.
From the opening cutscene it’s obvious how much work went into creating Halo 4. Not only is the context and dialogue pretty thick, the meticulously detailed character facial expressions will surprise most fans of the series. We knew that Halo 4 was the first entry in the new “Reclaimer Trilogy”, but we didn’t know how determined 343 Industries was to make it apparent that this isn’t a Bungie Halo.
If you’re expecting Halo 4 to begin on a high note, you can rest assured that it does. Perhaps paying homage to Halo: Combat Evolved, the game once again begins with our Master Chief on an UNSC spaceship, this time it’s the Forward Unto Dawn which we saw during the final moments of Halo 3. The adrift, derelict frigate is rapidly approaching an unknown planet when Master Chief is awoken by his AI companion Cortana and immediately is set into action. A more desperate and aggressive Covenant fleet has attacked the Forward Unto Dawn, and at once our hero is thrust into war.
Surprisingly though, this isn’t Master Chief’s story to be told, but a greater focus is placed on Cortana, who is suffering from “rampancy”, a condition that besets all UNSC artificial intelligence after seven years, where literally the vast collection of information they’ve acquired causes them to think themselves to death. The connection these two characters share is explored in a respectful and believable way, makes you wonder if perhaps Cortana is the more human of the two.
We later learn the mysterious planet is the artificial Forerunner home of Requiem, where the majority of the Halo 4 campaign takes place. Halo history buffs will finally have their chance to explore some of the background of this ancient race, which is only hinted at in previous Halo games. What’s more, on Requiem an ancient evil is revived, paving the way for the first real antagonist in the Halo franchise.
Halo: Reach set the bar high for graphics, so the expectation that Halo 4 would deliver an even higher standard must have been a daunting challenge for 343 Industries. In every way conceivable the team accomplished their goals, Halo 4 is simply gorgeous to behold with its breathless vistas and sprawling battlegrounds, all layered with the best textures and lighting seen in a Halo game yet.
Perhaps the best visual aspect of Halo 4 is the distinctness of each race (Human, Covenant, and Forerunner), from their architecture, weaponry and physical appearance. When you approach a Forerunner stronghold you’ll immediately recognize unique characteristics such as its neon blue and orange lighting, and tall perches for Promethean Knights, the race’s most loyal guards. In the same vein, entering a marshy swamp and seeing purple landing pods strewn about immediately alerts you to the presence of Covenant forces.
What has always set Halo apart is how unique and specialized each race’s weapons are, and how each serves a very specific purpose. This has never been more prevalent than in Halo 4, which introduces a whole new class of Forerunner weapons in addition to the vast selection of Covenant and UNSC weaponry. The Forerunner munitions are energy-based, mostly concentrated beams of orange light, and range from the new short-ranged Boltshot to the rapid-fire Suppressor and precision sniping LightRifle. The higher you increase the game’s difficulty, the more you have to rely on the unique characteristics of each weapon for survival, and more appreciation you get for how much thought went into their creation and placement in-game. For example, a quick spurt from a Covenant Needler can take out a dodgy Elite, however trying the same technique on a squad of Grunts will quickly result in catastrophe as the spikes all home in on a single Grunt, while the rest take you out. These same application of specific weapons to specific situations applies to all Forerunner weapons, as for example, Boltshots can effortlessly take out a group of Crawlers (the dog-like Forerunner pack hunters), but is practically useless against the larger Promethean Knights.
Long-time fans of the series will be happy to know that Halo 4 features the return of all the major Covenant forces, from the sniping Jackals to the hulking, armour-plated Hunters, only this time they all seem more intelligent and quite a bit more erratic. Elites will hoof it towards you with ruthless aggression, while Grunts will wait for you to walk by them unnoticed and ambush you silently. The same AI sophistication holds true for the new Forerunner forces, and it will take several campaign levels to fully understand the best fighting techniques to take each unit type out. Vehicles are also back, from the classic Warthog, Scorpion, Ghost and Banshee, along with new moveable behemoths such the ultra-heavy, 70-meter wide Mammoth anti-air tank, and the two-story Mantis mech equipped with a four-barrel machine gun on one arm and a multi-launch missile launcher on the other. Each vehicle has a least one spot in the 8 mission Campaign where its use is required, or at least strongly encouraged with its conspicuous placement or mention by Cortana.
343 Industries took a bold step by having Neil Davidge from Massive Attack fame compose the soundtrack for Halo 4, replacing the revered incumbent, Marty O’Donnell. Gone is the iconic monk chant that Halo is best known for, and the soundtrack this time around is decisively more atmospheric. Instead of the tension-raising tunes we’re used to in past Halo games, Halo 4’s soundtrack more often than not is additive to the ambient, extraterrestrial environments, instead of really heightening these moments. It’s a different story when it comes to sound effects, which all serve to heighten the mood, whether it’s the panic of bullets rattling Master Chief’s MJOLNIR armour, or the hilarity of watching Grunt’s screeching wildly as they flee.
It wouldn’t be a Halo without a robust online multiplayer component, and again Halo 4 shines. All the online modes are given context this time around, with players assuming the role of a new Spartan-IV enlistee (remember, Master Chief is a Spartan-II) aboard the UNSC spaceship Infinity. There’s an all-new ranking system where players are awarded skill points for finishing multiplayer matches, with additional points earned based on performance. As players rise in rank, new weapons, abilities and outfits unlock, allowing players to customize their Spartan to their liking. Furthermore, up to five loadouts (they unlock as you gain rank) can be customized, including your primary and secondary weapons, Grenade type, Armor Ability, and new Tactical Packages and Support Upgrades.
The amount of customization here is much more robust than ever before in a Halo game, meaning that no two games – or two characters – will be the same. If you prefer sniping, equipping a long-range DMR with the “Awareness” Support Ugrade, which allows use of your motion sensor when using a scope, will do the trick. Conversely, a Suppressor mixed with the “Active Camouflage” Armor Ability would be a better choice if you prefer close-quarters combat.
Competitive multiplayer takes on a new name, War Games, and is placed within context of the Halo universe – on the training deck of Infinity to be precise. A brand-new point system is used during online matches, with kills generally earning players 10 points, and other actions such as assisting a kill or distracting an enemy also awarded points. There are 9 game types including old favourites such as Capture the Flag, Oddball, King of the Hill, and classic Slayer, along with some exciting new game types such as Regicide, where additional points are awarded for killing the person in first place, and Dominion, a tactical mode where the goal is to occupy and resupply strategic bases. There are 10 maps to choose from, and vary from big-team maps like Exile loaded with vehicles, to small, symmetrical maps such as Haven that are best suited for close combat. While they range from average to excellent, I didn’t find a single map that evokes the kind of feeling that classics such as Halo 3’s The Pit, or Halo 2’s Zanzibar, can do.
In addition to new competitive multiplayer maps and game types, there’s a brand new cooperative mode called Spartan Ops that replaces Firefight mode seen in Halo: ODST and Halo: Reach. Spartan Ops is a new weekly episodic story-driven mode, complete with cinematics on par with the main campaign and cooperative multiplayer for up to four players. Season one of Spartan Ops is set to deliver five new objective-based missions every week for ten weeks, each with their own backstory and end goals. These levels are great if you enjoy bite-sized missions, as each one takes about 20 minutes (longer on Legendary difficulty), however it doesn’t have the staying power as Firefight mode did. With no point system, there’s very little reason to replay a Spartan’s Op mission upon completion, except perhaps to try at a higher difficulty. Still, Spartan Ops will have content equivalent to a second main campaign, and has potential for future episodic seasons.
As a complete package, Halo 4 is genre-defining in a way that Halo: Combat Evolved was genre defining way back in 2001. The Halo franchise did not suffer in any way during its transition from Bungie to 343 Industries, and long-time fans should celebrate this moment. Halo 4 is the pinnacle of the first-person shooter genre and will long be remembered as the best example of how to pass on a beloved gaming franchise to a new development studio. Best of all, with Halo 4 the beginning of a whole new trilogy, after you’ve poured hundreds of hours into this top-notch title, you can rest easy knowing that two more games from this top-tier team are in the works. This is Halo at its absolute finest.
Halo 4 is out now, exclusively on Xbox 360. The game was developed by 343 Industries and is published by Microsoft Studios.
The game is rated M for Mature (17+).
[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]