Game: Halo 4
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Available On: Xbox 360 Only
Halo and Bungie are two names that are almost related to one another. Having crafted a video game series that is popular the world over, with fiction that has captured the imagination of those very same fans. When Bungie stepped back from the Halo series, there was always the thought that Microsoft wouldn’t let this huge franchise slip away, but the worry was always that it’d fall in to disrepute and not be treated with the love and affection that Bungie always showed; no matter the game.
However, in 343 Industries, Microsoft have something special. A studio so committed to, and in love with the Halo series that you’d be forgiven for not noticing that Bungie weren’t involved with this first instalment of the Reclaimer Trilogy at all. Yes, Halo 4 is that good.
STORY: Taking place years after the final moments of Halo 3, Master Chief is awoken by Cortana on the drifting Unto Dawn spacecraft because the ship is under attack. Both John and Cortana are as confused as one another that the Covenant appear to be boarding the ship after a truce was agreed, but are even more surprised to find an entire fleet outside the ship, attempting to board. The reunion between Chief and the Covenant (and Chief and Cortana, actually) is interrupted by the ship falling apart, requiring a quick exit, as our hero loses consciousness and awakens on a strange planet.
Aside from Cortana’s rampancy (which threatens to destroy her, as she has reached the end of her natural life cycle) that’s as far as it would be fair to go with the story. 343 and Microsoft have been incredibly cautious with Halo 4’s story, and it’d be grossly unfair to spoil it here. However, it’s an emotionally engaging tale and, despite being part of a brand new trilogy, 343 have resisted the urge to insert huge cliffhangers, thus the player is never annoyed, nor confused.
GRAPHICS: Halo 4 is easily the best looking title in the series to date. From the moment you start Master Chief’s new adventure, the facial animations in cut-scenes as well as the lip-syncing is top of the class. The textures look better than ever before, and when you awake on the mysterious planet, the visuals that greet you are on par with any other top-tier title out there. Even the most staunch fan of the series would surely confess that previous games have looked serviceable, but never out of this world; Halo 4 is a fantastic looking game.
From gorgeous forest locations to dark, dimly lit corridors that are pierced with gunfire and neon explosions, there’s a lot to like about Halo 4’s visuals, and anyone who has previously shied away from the series due to the visuals will be more than satisfied with everything they see. The facial animations are a real high-point, especially when it comes to Cortana and the pain etched upon her face at times. Speaking of Cortana, it’s impossible to ignore her new appearance, but, despite thoughts that it’s an attempt at making an A.I. seem sexy, it feels more like an attempt to humanise her, and in that respect it works to an excellent degree.
SOUND: As you’d expect, the audio is stellar too. Sweeping orchestral movements score the scenes, as pounding weaponry smash the soundscape to pieces. Obviously the voice acting talent of the major players have returned and although Chief is pretty much what we’ve heard before, Cortana comes across as more than just an A.I.; she feels human, which is as much in thanks to the realistic visuals as it is the voice acting. The sounds of gunfire are hugely varied as there’s just so much to play with, and experienced with a decent gaming headset, Halo 4 is an audio wonder.
GAMEPLAY: The highest possible compliment that you can pay to 343 with their debut Halo title is that the game feels incredibly similar to previous Halo titles. The excitement that every battle exudes is palpable, the frantic, over the top space action is as magnificent as ever. Having access to the libraries of data has meant that 343 have been able to tweak small things, change others, yet have created a Halo game that feels like, well, Halo.
Video game design has moved on though, and 343 have kept up. Sprinting is no longer a bonus skill, it is simply mapped to the left stick. Regenerating shields replace health packs from some of the Halo titles, but the weapons that return feel as close to the previous titles as you could expect. The Magnum is still incredibly satisfying, and it’s through the weaponry that Halo 4’s moment to moment gameplay shines.
Variety is the spice of life and Halo has always excelled with how many weapons you can use to destroy your enemy. The classics return; indeed you’ll start with the Assault Rifle (that has somehow never gotten boring to use) which allows you to spray the enemy quickly. Soon you’ll find the Magnum, the Battle Rifle, then you’ll move on to trying out Covenant weapons (my favourite has always been the Needler). They all feel so good, and before long you’ll be slipping back into old habits. You could argue 343 should have done more, but they’ve been very careful to not change things too much, you’ll still fire with the right trigger and the left trigger remains the grenade button. It’s been too long since I threw a sticky grenade onto a prancing Covenant grunt, Halo 4 scratches that itch perfectly.
However, it goes one further, with the new weapons that are revealed to the player as they progress, offering yet more variety, which also includes the enemy types. Some genuinely interesting enemy attack patterns mean that even veteran players will think twice about the way they play. On higher difficulties, Halo 4 presents a venerable challenge, as you’d expect.
Vehicular sections never outstay their welcome, so some players may find themselves jumping in any of the traditional Halo vehicles for an advantage, but there’s new vehicles too which are a lot of fun to play around with. And fun is the order of the day whenever the player boots up Halo 4. The game has been designed at every nook and cranny to appeal to the player. It almost sounds silly, but play-testing is important and you can tell that Halo 4 has been tweaked at every turn to make every single second enjoyable for the consumer.
MULTIPLAYER: Players can group together as a four piece and attack the story campaign, or can invest time into the new “Infinity” mode, which is a fancy name for Multiplayer. Here, the player can create their own Spartan IV super-soldier and use that character across every mode in the game. Spartan Ops is a new mission based mode, which allows you to go it alone through episodic missions, and whilst there is a story, it’s not of the same quality as the main campaign. The missions do have cut-scenes you can watch, they just aren’t the Master Chief, so your mileage may vary.
Like with most First Person multiplayer titles, you will rank up your Spartan with every action you complete. A constant barrage of on-screen tickers will let you know how far along each particular area you are, and there’s a lot of them, as well as 343’s own challenges to meet for bonus XP. You can create custom load-outs too, which actually strongly resemble the efforts of Activision’s shooters, with armour bonuses that unlock at certain levels, by spending points on them. It’s good to see 343 change up the multiplayer in Halo, but hopefully this won’t create an uneven battlefield for players who just like to dip in and out occasionally, but there’s no question that time and skill are rewarded in Halo 4.
Of course, the Forge also returns, as do the plethora of cosmetic unlockables throughout the multiplayer component of Halo 4, and it all links in to the previously released Halo Waypoint, allowing the player to track stats as per the norm. It would be nice if Waypoint was a part of Halo 4 instead of a standalone app for the Xbox 360, but loading from within Halo still boots the app up, causing you to exit the game proper. If Halo 4 had no story campaign to play through, the multiplayer alone would be hard to argue with as a retail product. Bungie have laid the groundwork for the stellar multiplayer offering, but 343 have brought fresh and unique ideas to the table, offering something truly unique, with the only real omission appearing to be the horde-based Firefight mode. Although it sounds a cop-out to say it, there are numerous other titles offering that kind of mode, so with the over-abundance of options already available to players, it doesn’t feel like a big miss.
LONGEVITY: Halo games have never had particularly long single player campaigns, but the addition of co-op and the higher difficulties have always led to great replayability, and Halo 4 is no exception here. Get together with your friends, up the difficulty to Legendary – maybe throw some skulls in for good measure – and enjoy the gameplay. Of course, like most shooters, Halo 4 has its extensive multiplayer to keep people playing for a long time, and the huge community of Halo players will no doubt be playing this for some time to come; all that’s before you even consider the weekly updates for Spartan Ops.
VERDICT: Sure, 343 Industries had the solid backbone of Bungie’s engine to work from, but Halo 4 is an incredible achievement for any studio to release. Filled to the brim with not only a lot of content, but content aimed at all styles of player, no fan of the genre should be without this title. It is compelling from the first moment, to the last, and there’s absolutely no filler in this package.
Halo 4 has been painstakingly put together by a studio that you can tell have nothing but admiration and adoration for the franchise they have found themselves shepherding into a brand new trilogy, I can’t wait to see what they do with the next instalment.