The first product of Microsoft’s new dream team, 343 Industries, is Halo 4. They are the new caretakers of this beloved franchise and they have some large shoes to fill. The first Halo essentially launched the first-person genre into prominence on consoles. Halo 2 set the foundation for online multiplayer gaming on consoles. The subsequent Halos further evolved and pushed the boundaries of the genre. Even out of Bungie’s care, Halo set standards. For example, Ensemble Studio’s Halo Wars is still the best real-time strategy implementation on consoles. It is easy to see that Bungie has created a beloved universe, a fantastic series of games, and helped push the industry forward. Now its 343 Industries turn at the wheel. Can this new studio live up to the standard set by their forerunners or will this franchise stray from its potential.
The story picks up right where Halo 3 left, Master Chief and Cortana are floating adrift on the derelict half of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn. Cortana detects that something is amiss and wakes Master Chief. The Covenant have descended upon the ship and a mysterious Forerunner shield world is scanning it all. And despite this immediate threat, there is a larger one to deal with. Cortana is reaching the end of her life and is starting to show signs of rampancy. This set the tone for two combative stories through the game. You first have the threat of the Covenant and the Forerunner shield world of Requiem and its dangers within. And then you have the story of Cortana. The former story is decent but comes off as flat without viewing the terminal videos located in each level. I recommend just viewing the video online after completing the game. It’s almost upsetting that they didn’t integrate the information in those videos better within the game as it gives the characters and the main threat a lot more depth. The second story is much more personal with Cortana. Each moment that the game gives to her and Master Chief is amazing. There is a lot of emotion packed into these moments and they are pulled off beautifully. Despite these two dueling stories and the promise that this is the start of a new trilogy, the game ends on a solid conclusion. There will not be a “finish the fight” scene here. The pacing up to the conclusion is fantastic too. Once you get the ball rolling, it’s a fantastic ride to the end. While the story may be flat in some areas, 343 Industries got a lot right.
Long after the single-player has concluded, the online keeps going on and in Halo 4, this doesn’t mean the story stops either. In a new mode called Spartan Ops, which replaces the traditional Firefight mode, you essentially play a television show. Each week a new episode is released and it is prefaced by a several minute CGI introduction to the events unfolding that week and then you are tasked to complete 5 missions. The story takes place 6 months after the conclusion of the events of Halo 4. You’re part of a group of Spartans on the ship Infinity, exploring the unique shield world of Requiem that you found at the beginning of the main game. The missions will take place on locations out of single player and multiplayer which could disappoint some wanting completely unique content. Some maps can even be reused within the same episode. The other issue is getting a good connection between players. Even with matchmaking (which is limited to only the current week’s episode) getting into a good solid game can be hit or miss. A decent percentage of the time you’ll be marred by lag and/or small freezes while the game attempts to resynchronize everyone. So while it’s a cool bonus and I am curious as to where the story will unfold in this season and the ones to come, the actual gameplay experience can suffer at times. This problem seemed more prevalent around the release of the game and as weeks have gone on, the issue of lag has largely disappeared. Overall the story appears to be unfolding nicely but the missions follow the same arch where they always boil down to a typical firefight mission but without the challenge. You get infinite respawns so while a random individual can’t ruin the game; you’re almost guaranteed to finish every mission. It’s just a matter of how many deaths you’ll go through. If you look at it as a replacement of Firefight, you’ll probably be disappointed. If you look at it as more single-player, you’ll be somewhat entertained but most of what makes it great are the videos and not the actual gameplay.
The competitive multiplayer in Halo 4 is once again full-featured. It follows the evolution arch we have been seeing in the prior titles. This time there are more perks and armor customizations to unlock. New weapons and perks can be unlocked via tokens you earn through leveling up and new armors and emblems can be unlocked by simply leveling up or completing specific challenges. You can remix all these options into different builds that you can use during matches. It feels very Call of Duty but that is where the industry is heading.
You’ll have several playlists to choose from just like before but they are more specific now. Instead of a couple being a collection of gametypes, they are all focused on one now. This is a little disappointing since before there were simply objective playlist that comprised many gametypes to keep things fresh. For the hardcore gamers, SWAT is back and is as brutal as ever. For the casual, all the traditional gametypes are back too. The big new gametype is Infinity. Under this gametype, you can call in ordinance drops which can give you a nice advantage. Speaking of that, 343 has done something really cool overall with how weapons spawn. The weapons all have spawn points but they are now random. In addition to this, the weapons are tagged on your screen so you won’t have to memorize when and where the rocket launcher drops. Everyone will know when it does and it leads to some interesting gameplay.
The gameplay overall is a bit quicker and more brutal than before. If you’re not watching, you can get dropped quickly. This continues the progression towards a more hardcore style of gameplay that we’ve been seeing but this completes a lot of the transition. There is no longer enough time to plasma pistol people and switch to another gun for a headshot so instead of being quite a versatile weapon in prior games; it’s mostly just useful for taking down vehicles. On the positive side though, the gameplay feels really solid. Where the core loadout weapons don’t add much variety, the armor abilities and perks definitely do. The one ability that makes a fantastic comeback is the decoy. It works incredibly well at distracting enemies. Other abilities like the promethean vision easily combats camping and the jetpack can open up different avenues. So if you are cool with the game becoming faster paced and more deadly, then Halo 4’s multiplayer can offer a gamer a lot of fun.
In single player, you don’t pick from different loadouts but you will get to use the armor abilities. You can also find them on the battlefield to switch them out. This adds some variation to the combat. Just like in multiplayer, sprint is always available. This allows you to be more agile and quick. The vehicles feel solid with one exception; the Warthog is a tad too bouncy. Small pieces of debris can easily send it flying and flipping over. The other issue with the sandbox is that the weapons of your foes disappear far too quickly for comfort. This means that if you run out of ammo and want to run back to pick up a new gun, chances are it might not be there which can make Legendary playthroughs incredibly annoying. Along with the Covenant, you will have a couple new enemy types. Unfortunately, the main new enemy type called the Promethean Knight, are not too much fun to fight. They feel more like bullet sponges than anything else and most will prefer to fight the traditional Covenant enemy types. The other new enemy types are not that bad though. There is one type that runs around like a pack of dogs which are easy one-on-one but if you get caught in a pack, they can pull a lot of hurt. The third new enemy type is a support class. It can revive Promethean Knights and even throw your grenades back at you but can be a little annoying when they run away. Overall, the traditional Halo combat is still here and still a lot of fun but the new enemy types don’t add much to the mix.
As a first-party title for Microsoft, one of the things that Halo did was show what the console systems could do and Halo 4 is no exception. This title looks simply fantastic. Whereas previous titles struggled with faces, Halo 4 looks incredible. The animation and detail is unbelievable. Same with the guns, picking up one of the new forerunner weapons you are treated to an awesome animation of it being constituted into your hands. Another small touch is that your view through your helmet is more simulated now. It makes you feel like you’re in the shoes of Master Chief much more. One of the big focuses seemed to be on the lighting of the world and that aspect is simply fantastic as well. The cinematics have also taken a large step forward and look fantastic. Once again, you’ll be amazed by the detail and animations. The levels look great as well but despite the technical graphics, the prior Halos do have some more iconic vistas. But overall, Halo 4 is the best looking titles on the Xbox 360. As we look back on the prior generation and think about how much of a leap that Splinter Cell Chaos Theory was, we’ll similarly look back on Halo 4 for this generation and think the same. It truly embodies what we believed the next generation would bring, but it’s here today on a seven year old system.
A large issue fans of the series will notice is that there have been a lot of changes. Some of these changes are in the sound department. For example, the Warthog vehicle has a much different noise that will initially throw you off. It’s easy to get a sense that this is 343’s vision of the universe but it is not necessarily a worse vision. The sound design is quite good and fully realized. If anything, it takes a much cinematic turn. This is no better realized than the dynamic between Cortana and Master Chief. The voice actors from the original games are back and better than ever. The emotions conveyed in the scenes are amazing and absolutely steal the show. The other voice actors play their parts great as well. The one aspect that doesn’t stand up to par is the soundtrack. Now, to preface, it is a good solid soundtrack. If it was any other title, there would be no issue but this is Halo. Since its inception, Halo’s soundtrack was done by Marty O’Donnell and he is one of the best composers in the entertainment industry. Without him, Halo wouldn’t be what it is today. Therefore, the soundtrack is solid but it’s simply not Halo caliber. It is more subdued and there is no central theme throughout it. There are some very good tracks but there usage in the game is limited. Perhaps this is done as to not try to compete with the prior games soundtrack and it’s probably for the best but I can’t deny that I miss the old music.
343 Industries had some big shoes to fill and they did quite well on their first outing. They played it safe as far as features but they truly pushed the graphics to an entirely new level. The main story can feel flat sometimes but the dynamic between Master Chief and Cortana is amazing. The emotion conveyed in those scenes between the graphics, framing, and voice acting combine to make some very strong moments. And as for the start of a new trilogy, the story concludes quite well. Spartan Ops is a nice new addition and the story is developing quite well but the videos that accompany the episodes are more entertaining than the gameplay contained within. The graphics as said above are absolutely amazing. Just when you thought you’ve seen the final ounce of graphical fidelity squeezed out of the Xbox 360, you’re proven wrong. This is the strongest aspect of the title. The sound design is quite solid as well. Some may notice differences but at its heart it is still Halo. The voice actor for Cortana gives an amazing performance. The amount of emotion conveyed in her voice is amazing. Overall, the Halo franchise is in good hands. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll feel comfortable with where Halo is heading after playing this title. If you are new, welcome to the ride.
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