When I heard the news about Halo 4, I was unsurprisingly skeptical about its potential, but at the same time very excited. Having greatly enjoyed the original trilogy of Halo titles, I can firmly count myself among the ranks of Halo fanatics, but my interest in the series dwindled with the low caliber output of their more recent titles: Halo wars, Halo 3 ODST and Halo Reach. There are countless arguments in defense and prosecution of these titles which span countless more pages and pages of internet upheaval, but this division of Halo fans can (hopefully) finally be forgotten.
343 Industries, the new developing team behind the Halo series having acquired it from Bungie Studios, have stepped forward and offered us a new beacon of light for a once frontline series of top-tier games, and many of us have already scratched and clawed to follow that beacon, but as can be expected many of us will still be uncertain. Let me first say, Halo 4 is not only Halo in name, but in experience. That’s right, Halo is back!
343 have managed to retain the exquisite first-person shooter action all Halo fans have come to expect, but have pushed the boundaries of Halo’s storytelling technique and treat us with an expansion of the deep bond between the iconic Master Chief and his AI counterpart, Cortana.
The story gracefully kicks off from where it left off in Halo 3, set 4 years after those events, as we find ourselves back at the helm and in control of the Master Chief. Pulling himself from his stasis pod, he is rejoined with his AI companion, Cortana, who reveals the first of our new major plot points: that she is undergoing rampancy, a condition likened to old age in AI units, and one that will ultimately lead to her demise. This back and forth between these two believable and loveable characters evolves from Halo 4’s predecessors, and truly makes the entire campaign a real treat. Cortana is far easier to relate to emotionally in this title, while the master chief retains his detached hardcore soldier mentality which we’ve all come to love.
The campaign consists of eight missions, and we kick things off in an attempt to escape the Forward unto Dawn and to defend ourselves once more against the Covenant forces. Apparently that truce didn’t last too long! It isn’t long before we find ourselves on a planet crammed with Forerunner technology, as well as an army of Covenant and a crashed human ship. There isn’t really anything new in this dynamic, and the missions tend to follow the tried and tested “go here, go there”. While this has the potential to hold the game back, along with the creeping Call of Duty style influences, it is ultimately forgotten thanks to its excellent storytelling, the focus on Cortana’s struggle with her condition, and the new Promethean enemies which add some new interest into what we’re actually killing.
These new Promethean enemies are on a whole new level to the very familiar Covenant forces, with smaller enemies working in packs and larger humanoid versions able to deploy drones to heal themselves. With the ability to fly, teleport or resurrect fellow Prometheans, they really do stand out from the Covenant and provide a very interesting new foe which will keep us all on our toes. It doesn’t take long to work out their tactics and form your strategy, but they are a very threatening foe and provide something new and satisfying to go up against.
What we are gifted with is a cornucopia of weapons and vehicles to aid us in our campaign. Instantly, I was won over by the combat system and the added realism of the weapons which are at the Chief’s disposal. The rounds fired are so fluid and the response of these weapons just feels right. It is a decided improvement from past titles and adds something very special to the Halo experience. With that in mind, some of the fan-favourite weapons from days past make a welcome return, albeit with an excellent upgraded feel, and fantastic new weapons are up for grabs, too, bringing new ways of disposing of enemies and that awesome feeling of finding your new favourite toy.
Perhaps the most interesting weaponry in the game is carried by the Prometheans, and as expected these can be used against them, but don’t really offer much in the way of turning the tide of battles. Snapping together like Lego blocks, they are the sci-fi equivalents of human weaponry, so are not as new and devastating as one might imagine, but they are beautifully crafted and fun to use, in any case.
Vehicles! You can look forward to reliving the days where you drove rampantly through stages like a maniac, sending Covenant forces flying in a crash of metal on flesh, or blasting away foes with the weaponry provided on these vehicles of doom. It doesn’t take long to come across the familiar warthogs, as well as the Covenant assault vehicles. 343 have obviously put a lot of work and care into these vehicles as they feel smoother and look cooler than ever.
An excellent addition to the game is found in the new armour abilities which are collected throughout the campaign and are an indispensible resource in your fight for survival. Halo: Reach offered us such abilities, and these have been incorporated into the Halo 4 experience in a way that blends perfectly with the combat system. These abilities include the popular stealth system, jump-pack accessories which allow us to reach hidden spots whether for exploration or defence, and the ability to gun down the opposition with a floating turret. What’s not to love!
Immediately we are treated to some excellent nostalgic throwbacks to earlier Halo titles, as well as an array of mouth watering graphics and eye watering scenery. 343 have done an outstanding job in creating such beautiful environments throughout certain the campaign, but it has to be noted that they continue to overly rely on the all-too-familiar shrubbery to spruce up their outdoor environments. Nevertheless, whether venturing through the foliage of a fervent jungle to the fantastic zero-G effects on the exterior of the Forward unto Dawn, 343 have worked hard to deliver an extremely immersive environment to explore, and it truly adds to the excellent quality of the title.
From the get-go, the live-action sequences look true to life, and their movements and expressions are so realistic that I almost forgot I was playing a game and not watching a movie. While today’s gamers are no strangers to this standard of quality in current video games, it’s nice to see Halo 4 raise the bar a little further and once again become a staple of current generation console gaming.
It is simply amazing to listen to the back and forth dialogue in Halo 4 and it definitely helps the player to connect more deeply with the characters and become further captivated by the story and events. Many recent gaming titles have focused so much on furthering the look of games that this element has been forgotten and often neglected, and it brings to me a warm feeling as I become a part of the events and live the story, rather than just play the game with no thought about or relation to the characters.
While the main campaign can be played through in co-op mode with up to three others plays (all of whom play as freaky clones of the Master Chief), perhaps the defining addition in this regard is the new Spartan Ops mode. This is essentially a separate story campaign which can be played alone or in your co-op team. Replacing the Firefight survival mode, it takes on a more story driven nature and thus brings a lot of interest to the game mode and a new portion of the story to indulge ourselves in. It has been revealed that 343 will release five new missions per week, for the next weeks. That’s 50 new missions and will certainly add longevity to the title.
The maps may just be reworked scenes from the main campaign, but it makes for an interesting new extension of what has already been promised in Halo 4, and at 15 minutes per mission, there is a lot of new experience to be had, ensuring that Halo 4 doesn’t simply end with the campaign story.
This is where the Call of Duty influences can be seen at their strongest. Weapons, equipment and new decals can all be unlocked by playing through the online experience and earning experience and increasing your ranking. On top of this, as well as the already mentioned armour abilities, the online mode brings Call of Duty style perks to the table. In one of the game modes we are even presented with the ability to earn a kill streak.
Aside from its influenced style, there is nothing truly new or groundbreaking to be found in the online mode. There’s no denying it is a truly addictive outlet for the inner-Spartan we all contend with, and it brings with it all the beauty and awe that is to be expected in the main campaign storyline. This online mode provides endless amounts of enjoyment for the online gaming community, and offers everything that the online community has come to expect.
343 Industries have emerged with a powerful title in their attempt to bring life back to the stalled Halo series, and it is looking very promising so far. This first step in their new trilogy is also a step in the right direction. Man vs. machine is a popular yet tricky avenue for any science fiction title, but Halo 4 has cleanly pulled off a victory as the questions have begun to roll in and we need some answers. Is Cortana more human than machine? Is the Master Chief simply a mindless killing machine? What more will we learn about the Forerunners and the Prometheans. This game is pure artistic ambivalence beautifully blended together with superb storytelling, a new enemy and new weapons galore. I can’t wait for the rest of this trilogy to unfold!