Since it was announced at E3 in June 2010 there has been a huge amount of interest in Halo 4, not just because it finally marks the return of the Master Chief, but also because it signifies the first time a Halo game proper hasn’t been developed by franchise originator Bungie Studios. New developers 343 Industries have already shown that they’re more than capable of carrying the torch following their well handled HD upgrade of the original Halo title last year, but without an established script and design to go on, it remained to be seen whether or not they were going to be up to the task of satisfying the millions of Halo fans across the globe.
As you no doubt known, Halo 4 is the first part in a brand new Halo trilogy, known as the Reclaimer Saga, so it was always going to be hugely important that 343 could get off to a great stat, both winning over long time fans and converting those who had abandoned the good ship Halo to get their multiplayer kicks from the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield. Before we get to the multiplayer side of things, however, we’re going to take a look at the campaign, given that it forms a huge part of the franchise’s future development.
Stowed away in cryo-stasis since the somewhat ambiguous ending to Halo 3, Chief is awoken by Cortana when their vessel, the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn, is subject to a breach and a substantial amount of damage. Despite being under for more than four years, it doesn’t take long before Chief is back to his former self, doling out ample death bringing rounds from his trusty assault rifle, sending the unwelcome Covenant intruders to their inevitable demise.
343 wastes absolutely no time in bringing the joys of the Halo universe back to the world in Halo 4’s campaign. Within moments of thawing out, you’re faced with a small army of Covenant to dispatch before we learn that our ship is being pulled towards a huge Forerunner shield planet. We have to be careful here to ensure that we don’t spoil anything for you, but once on the planet, known as Requiem, you’ll encounter an all new race of enemies; the Prometheans. These mysterious sentries are the guardians of a deadline secret locked away on the planet, and they’re not about to let you uncover it without a battle.
While the Covenant has always been synonymous with the franchise, the addition of the Prometheans is definitely a welcome addition. There’s not quite as much variety among them as we would have liked, but they represent a much sterner challenge than the endless waves of grunts and Elites that the Covenant spawn. In addition to the new enemy types comes a new range of weaponry for Chief to get to grips with.
We admire how restrained 343 has been in terms of ensuring that the Promethean weaponry isn’t overpowered when compared with that of the Covenant or UNSC, and they’ve done a remarkable job in balancing everything out. From the Light Rifle to the Scattershot to the Suppressor, there’s going to be something here to suit all preferences (we found ourselves particularly fond of the Light Rifle), but there’s definitely a great deal of thought gone into just how effective each one is, and against what type of foe.
Likewise the Prometheans themselves avoid being too difficult, but still call for unique tactics in order to dispatch them. For example, Promethean Knights are often accompanied by Watchers, flying tech capable of reviving destroyed Knights and providing protection for them while they reinvigorate their health. If you’re unfortunate to come up against multiple Knights and Watchers at the same time, you’ll first need to take out the latter one by one, ensuring that your hard work isn’t undone in the blink of an eye by revived Knights. It’s something that works impressively well, and ensures that the player is always kept thinking about their next step.
While the Covenant and Prometheans are seen engaging in battle with each other in the earlier parts of the game, by the time you hit about a third of the way through, they’ve joined forces, making your life an awful lot more difficult. We won’t go into too much detail about the reasons behind the shift in allegiance, but it’s something that proves to be integral to the game’s overall storyline.
Halo 4’s level design, while not quite as open ended as we had been led to believe when speaking to various bods from 343 in the run up to release, is far more varied than you’ll have seen in previous titles, and even in the majority of other console shooters. There tends to be a certain degree of linearity in how each of the levels unfolds, but you’ll be afforded a reasonable amount of freedom in terms of how you approach each objective. Players who like to get stuck in can just go straight for the jugular, while those who like a more reasoned and sensible approach will almost always be able to find some alternative tactics to ensure progress without a dozen restarts.
All of this comes together to form an incredibly solid backbone for Halo 4, supplemented by the fact that 343 hasn’t opted to fiddle too much with the game’s core mechanics. Anyone who has played a previous Halo title will have no issue feeling right at home within minutes here, while newcomers should be able to pick things up relatively issue free. The gunplay is pretty much identical to the titles that have come before, which isn’t’\t a bad thing in our opinion. The satisfying heft and recoil of each weapon is still a mainstay in the way each weapon handles here, while the increased variety means that you’ll always be able to find a new tactic or approach that allows you to best your enemies when your previous method has been found wanting.
It’s this lack of desire to meddle in the very core of the Halo franchise that ensures 343 has been able to deliver a title that’ll genuinely appeal to long term fans, while minimizing potential fanboy backlash. Some may see that as the coward’s way out, but given the fact that there was little wrong with the original trilogy, we see no reason for 343 to start hacking things apart in order to make the game feel like their own. And to be quite honest, they’ve managed to do that anyway, albeit in other ways.
The most noticeable of these has been the humanization of the Chief for the first time in the series. Not only do we get to hear him speak more than he did in the first three games combined (probably), but we get to peer inside his relationship with Cortana and, for the first time, begin to realize that Spartan or not, there’s a man underneath that battle armour.
It’s this relationship with Cortana that underpins much of the game, in a peripheral manner initially and then in quite a major way. During the time that Chief was frozen in stasis, Cortana has passed her sell-by date, literally, and an AI affliction known as Rampancy has begun to take hold. At first, there’s little to worry about; Cortana seems perfectly functional. But as the game progresses, she becomes increasingly volatile, leading us to wonder whether or not she’s still trustworthy, and that doubt adds quite a bit of tension to the story as it plays out.
Ultimately, Halo 4’s single player campaign comfortably achieves what it set out to do. Our hero is back with a bang, the potentially tricky introduction of an all-new enemy has been gracefully handled, and there’s a strong story there that will leave players eager to get their hands on Halo 5. As single player shooters go, we’re struggling to think of anything that we’ve enjoyed quite as much in the past four years. From all the usual FPS staples to vehicular based combat, including some particularly fun mech sections, there’s a wealth of variety on offer to players.
Whatever your skill level, you should be able to find a difficulty that provides you with enough challenge as to make you feel satisfied with your accomplishments, and your level of interest in the Halo universe will dictate how much time you spend exploring for terminals to expand upon your knowledge of the mythology surrounding the franchise, but no matter how much or how little you put into it, the single player campaign in Halo 4 really is a thing of beauty. Linear beauty, yes, but it’s still phenomenally enjoyable from start to finish, and it sets things up beautifully for the next part of the franchise.
Of course, the game’s single player campaign is only scratching the surface of what’s actually offered in the entirety of the Halo 4 package; there’s a veritable wealth of additional features to be had for online players through the Infinity option on the game’s title menu. From here, you’ll enter the online hub, where you can choose to take part in War Games, containing the more familiar online competitive and cooperative modes, Spartan Ops, the title’s brand new episodic cooperative and solo modes which act as supplementary material to the game’s campaign, and Forge, a welcome return from previous titles which allows you to create your very own Halo 4 multiplayer maps.
We’ll start by taking a look at Spartan Ops, since that’s where the bulk of our pre-release anticipation lay. You can tackle Spartan Ops alone or cooperatively, with new episodes to be released regularly well beyond the launch window of the title. While players will no doubt wan to jump straight in to see what all the fuss is about, we recommend playing through the campaign first, as the action in Spartan Ops takes place approximately six months following the campaign’s end, so unless you want to spoil things for yourself, you’re better off playing chronologically.
Since the game is brand new, there’s only a single episode available so far, comprising of five different chapters. Each chapter comprises of a number of objectives, and as you play through them you’ll rack up experience points and stats which will count to your overall online ranking. While playing on your own is fun, it’s a much rewarding experience jumping into battle with another player, as you’ll really begin to see the strength of the map design and set pieces on offer. In addition to the actual gameplay itself, you’ll also be able to view an accompanying video which expands upon the universe further, following Fire Team Majestic and its arrival on Requiem.
Obviously though, the bulk of players will be more keen on getting to grips with some old school online competitive multiplayer action, and that’s really where Halo 4 excels. Already it’s proving to be a much sterner challenge than the likes of Call of Duty, with more than a nod to the glory days of the franchise. It you’re looking for fast yet tactical play, then Halo 4 surpasses pretty much everything else on the market right now.
There are plenty of game modes for you to try out, such as the 4v4 Infinity Slayer mode, Big Team Infinity Slayer mode (8v8), Dominion (6v6), Regicide (single player teams up to 4 players max), Flood (10 player free for all), Capture the Flag (teams up to 5 players), Oddball (teams up to 5), King of the Hill (5v5) and Team Slayer Pro (4v4). We’ve spent the bulk of our review time engaging in Infinity Slayer, and we’ve been quite impressed with the standard on show so far.
There’s little by way of camping or negative play, with players instead adopting a far more action oriented approach. The game’s maps are fantastically thought out, with no safe haven from the crosshairs of the enemy team. Perhaps it’s a little too open, but that’s going to come down to personal preference.
Depending on the game mode you opt for, vastly different tactics are required, so players may find that their approach is much better suited to certain modes than others; we just recommend you give them all enough of a try to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.
As is now expected from first person shooters, the more you play and the better you do, the more options become available to you in terms of loadouts, abilities and customization options. You start with a single loadout, comprising of your trusty assault rifle, magnum and frag grenade. While this certainly cuts it in the single player campaign, it’s very quickly found wanting online, so you’ll need to get yourself leveled up relatively quickly if you want to be able to keep up with the more experienced players. Fortunately, you shouldn’t take too long before things start to open up, and you’re adding Covenant and Promethean weaponry to your armory.
Unlike other titles in the genre, you don’t just need to unlock these weapons, oh no, instead you’ve also got to by them using the SP you’ve gained in the game. While this is a bit of a nuisance at first, it ensures that you get out of the game what you put in, and rather than simply spending a day working on unlocks, you need to spend your points wisely to unlock weapons that are going to be of actual use to you. Like the rest of the game, it’s a balancing act that works surprisingly well, ensuring that players are able to build a completely unique Spartan with which to compete in the Halo 4 universe.
And just like the rest of the game, the multiplayer side of Halo 4 is incredibly polished. We’ve now spent the guts of the last 4 days engaging in battle online, and we’ve yet to encounter a single issue. Of course, we’re playing on servers almost exclusively populated by our fellow journalists, and so there’s nothing like the volume of players that we can expect when the game actually goes on sale, but so far things are looking promising, and there’s nothing at all that we’ve seen from the game so far to suggest that 343 is capable of messing up something quite so critical to the game’s potential success.
So, with all that’s right with Halo 4, what’s wrong with it? That depends entirely on how you like to play your shooters. The first hour or so of the campaign is a touch mindless. We’ve got flickers of story and direction here and there, but for the most part it’s just about shooting Covenant in the face, which there’s nothing wrong with, but we fear it might put some players off. Fear not though, if you can soldier past those moments, there are plenty of great narrative moments awaiting you.
There are also times when things get a little samey, extinguishing wave after wave of enemy as you wait for Cortana to unlock a door, for example, but the action plays out at such a frenetic pace that you’ll barely have a chance to register your frustration as you try your damnedest to stay alive.
Neither of these things are in any way major issues, and if you’re simply in it for the joy of blowing things up, then they’re not going to be of any concern at all. One thing that will grate, however, is the fact that some of the vehicles are still a touch flaky in their handling, most notably the Warthog (which still sounds like an underpowered moped, by the way) and the Banshee. The Scorpion and Mantis, on the other hand, are all kinds of joyful, while the Pelican is surprisingly nimble, offering a well timed break from regular gameplay.
For a game with so much expectation placed upon it right from the start, we’re stunned by how well 343 has done in making Halo its own. Obviously it’s a touch too early to say that they’ve completely outdone the great work from Bungie, but we’re very comfortably with saying that this is undoubtedly the best Halo game to date, both in terms of story and gameplay. If things can continue in this vein with the next two titles in the series, the sky really is the limit. One thing is for sure, though, if Halo 5 is a launch title for the next generation of Xbox, this game has just ensured the system will get a hell of a reception from gamers.
Best Halo title ever made? Definitely. Best shooter of the year? Positively. Halo 4 is not only a return to form for a series that had threatened to run out of ideas, but it’s also a beacon of hope for the future. Bravo 343. Bravo.