Restart the fight.
Halo has had a pretty incredible journey at the hands of Bungie, and while there were games which I felt were down points in the series, there was never a game I felt was actually bad. Now, having bought themselves back from Microsoft, Bungie is off starting a new franchise for Activision, and the Mantle has been passed to 343 Industries, a studio assembled by Microsoft specifically for this eventuality. Luckily, 343 knows what to keep and what to change. Indeed, in many ways this isn’t Bungie’s Halo, but it is Halo nonetheless. Buyer beware; you probably already know whether you should give this game a try or not.
When Halo 4 was first announced, 343 promised a more emotional, personal story for the new Reclaimer Trilogy, which humanized Master Chief. What they didn’t talk about much was how different his relationship with Cortana would be, and indeed this relationship is the stand-out point of the narrative. With Cortana undergoing the process of rampancy, her traditional role as Chief’s guide is far less stable. Much of the interaction between the two leads is spent with Chief promising, reassuring Cortana that everything will be okay. He will protect her. He will save her. He can take care of her. Both characters go from fairly bland to impressively gripping in this first entry in the new trilogy, and their interaction makes for a great emotional roller coaster.
Outside of this more personal relationship is a plot similar to what you have come to expect from Halo. Without spoiling anything you haven’t seen already, Chief is stranded on a Forerunner planet and must find a way to escape, meanwhile fighting the Covenant and new Forerunner AI troops. This sounds pretty standard for Halo, but 343’s flare has beefed up this overarching plot as well; Halo 4 makes heavy use of the franchise’s rich and largely unexplored (in video games) lore. You may even have trouble following some of the plot nuances if you’ve only played Halo games and never read the books or seen some of the expanded fiction. It's also recommended that you watch Forward Unto Dawn before playing. Newcomers need not apply; the story will make no sense to you if you don’t already have a decent knowledge of the Halo universe.
Naturally, the plot wasn’t the greatest concern in 343’s first outing in the franchise; the gameplay was. This is where 343 have tended to play things a bit safe. If you’ve never played a Halo game before, it’s all about an arcadey variety of specialized weapons for specialized situations. In the campaign this involves a very old-school gameplay style of reading and understanding enemy cues and actions and forming an attack strategy based on that specific foe. Halo 4 understands this unique appeal well; the new Forerunner opponents are challenging but follow patterns which you can learn and exploit to your advantage, whilst old Covenant familiars behave as you’ve already learned they do from past experiences. The game’s strategic arcade-style combat is at its best in large encounters with both Covenant and Forerunners.
On a pure mechanics level this boils down to “more” rather than necessarily “better,” but many of the encounters are among the best in the franchise. You’ll stick to a similar style of game here; lots of on-foot missions broken up with the occasional vehicle segment. Pacing in the campaign is, in general, excellent . . . . after the first two hours. Halo 4 is divided into 8 chapters, and for the first two you may find yourself wishing Bungie were back. As Chapter 3 advances, things pick up quickly, and by the end of it you’re certainly locked in to one of the best campaigns Halo has ever displayed. It’s not new, but it is an old formula done very well.
The new Forerunners certainly feel challenging, and the weapons – oh those weapons! Halo 4 is a culmination of almost every favourite Halo weapon in the franchise's history united into one game, plus new weapons for the Covenant and Humans and of course the Forerunners’ own unique weapon set. Overall the arsenal clocks in at around double that of Reach, and it’s hard not to love it. In the campaign this means no shortage of a variety of tools for any situation. Many of the new weapons are rare “heavy” weapons, and finding one gives you little butterflies of joy just to imagine the impending carnage.
Chief controls similarly to previous entries, with the new addition of sprinting without an armor power. armor powers themselves return, with some old and many new, and they continue to enhance the gameplay as they did in Reach. Sadly, their use and variety in singleplayer is limited, but you’ll get plenty of time to play with them in multiplayer, as they are equipped as part of your loadout.
All-in-all, the singleplayer campaign is certainly worthy of the Halo name, but what about the multiplayer? As more features for Halo 4 were revealed, fears were quickly seeded that this was not Halo, but Call of Duty: Covenant Warfare. Indeed many of 343’s multiplayer editions were ripped straight out of its much-higher-selling competitor. You now construct loadouts for your Spartan IV, as well as unlock new abilities, weapons, and aesthetic armor pieces as you play. Within matches you can even earn kill streaks, the culmination of which is an ordinance drop. While this may sound out of place and shoehorned in to try to nab some of Call of Duty’s long-term multiplayer success, I assure you it only improves the situation.
While weapon unlocks scare people into thinking there will be balance issues, none of the weapons are massively better than the others, thanks to Halo’s already pretty solid weapon balance. These also happen very rapidly. In one or two matches you’ll already have the chance to swap your default Assault Rifle for a Battle Rifle or DMR. I never felt cheated by weapon unlocks. The addition of kill streak ordinance drops feels right at home as well. Now all more powerful weapons are dropped on the map as ordnance, which eliminates any camping for weapons and increase the insanity as people dash for powerful ones. Halo is an arcade-style game by nature, and the addition of more arcade-like features only brings out the wildness and madness of its multiplayer.
Speaking of madness, Halo 4 has a variety of game modes to keep you entertained. Of course the series standards of Slayer, Capture the Flag, Oddball, and King of the Hill return, whilst Halo: Reach favourite Infection is also back, now called Flood, and with more effort put into it (the “zombies” now have a unique design, vision, speed, and weapon). New modes include Extraction (an objective-based game where you extract objects), Dominion (capture and defend bases, a'la Battlefield), and Regicide (one player is selected as king and you get double or triple points for killing him). The game also comes equipped with a decent-sized 13 competitive maps. While none of these instantly jumped out at me as long-term classics, all were fun and well-balanced.
Oh, and the multiplayer is canon now. Weird, right? Halo 4’s singleplayer campaign centers in large part around a massive UNSC ship called the UNSC Infinity. The Infinity is the launching point for the newly trained Spartan IV super-soldiers. The multiplayer? A simulated war game that you play to train your Spartan. This means all those ranks and levels you get are supposed to be for a real Spartan who is part of the actual Halo universe. This point is hammered home a bit more when you begin the first Spartan Ops mission, and see that your Spartan’s story is a connected continuation of the campaign. This is sort of an evolution of the idea of Noble Six from Halo: Reach.
Spartan Ops is a singleplayer or co-operative episodic series of missions which develop the plot of the Spartan IVs after the campaign of Halo 4. While many immediately took it as a Spec-Ops clone, its similarities are fewer than its differences. Spartan Ops will consist of 10 episodes, each with its own story advancement and five missions within the episode. These episodes will be delivered weekly over the next ten weeks; a great extension to the life of Halo 4. Sadly there’s little reason to replay the missions themselves, as there are no leaderboards or scores worth tracking. That said, completing them does help level up your Spartan, and ultimately advances an interesting story about the future of Humanity’s super-soldiers. Sadly, this mode came that the expense of the enjoyable and much more replayable Firefight mode.
If all this wasn’t enough content for you, Forge mode returns in Halo 4. Forge is similar to previous entries, but there are a lot of impressive new features. You have 3 Forge maps built in, and can edit any multiplayer map in Forge mode. New user-friendly features like highlighting selected items, magnet-snapping pieces together, quick deleting, and quick duplicating smooth up the process quite a bit. You can even change lighting and gravity traits in specific areas, giving you more control than ever. The mode is also much prettier than previous iterations, with Forge maps now easily constructible on a level of detail and beauty similar to the pre-made maps.
While all this sounds massive, Halo 4 does represent a slight drop in value compared to Reach. The campaign is shorter, clocking in at 8 hours (or less if you play on something lower than Heroic or Legendary, which you shouldn’t because that severely lowers the fun-factor). Spartan Ops, while fun and exciting with the promise of 10 weeks worth of missions, it’s not going to have the evergreen fun of Firefight. Of course you may be able to get more time out of the competitive multiplayer before getting bored, thanks to the lack of set spawn points for power weapons resolving the issue of jerks who memorize and camp them.
On the presentation side, Halo 4 is the unquestioned series champion. The game is both beautiful to look at and listen to. Graphically this is easily one of the most impressive games on the Xbox 360, and it’s both technically detailed and artistically gorgeous. Facial animation is outstanding, with small micro-expressions coming through clear as day; this is some of the best facial animation you’ll ever see outside of LA Noire. The outstanding voice chat only complements this and really brings out the drama and intrigue of Halo 4’s much more operatic narrative. Composer Neil Davidge has delivered a great soundtrack, with at least a few stand-out songs and lots of series-appropriate ambience tunes.
Halo 4 is in many ways the Halo I’ve been waiting for. I love the lore, and I’m glad to see it used better. It is pleasing to see the campaign go back to the “exploring an alien world” roots of Combat Evolved. The addition of random ordnance drops of power weapons instead of set spawn points takes away the camping and cheapness whilst ramping up the chaos (in a good way). There are certainly some stumbles here, however. The removal of Firefight is disappointing, and the first two hours of the campaign are irritatingly unambitious, but ultimately Halo 4 is an emotional journey the likes of which the series has never seen, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next. It’s a new era for Halo, and 343 have shown themselves to be an excellent captain at the helm of this iconic franchise.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of Halo 4, provided by the publisher.