Published on November 14th, 2012 | by Dave Burroughs0
Review: Halo 4
Master Chief and Cortana are back under new management, and 343 Industries do a sterling job showing us that the fight is far from finished.
Minor spoilers ahead.
The carcase of the Forward Unto Dawn drifts lifelessly through space. The vessel which saved John 117 from the events of 2007’s Halo 3 now floats in orbit of the Forerunner world Requiem. However, Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana are not the only ones to have found this metal planet, and John is in for a rude awakening at the hands of the old enemy, the Covenant.
Before too long both the Dawn and Covenant ships are pulled within Requiem at the behest of an unseen force. Trapped within the planet, enemies old and new put the Chief to the test, but there is more to this fight than just gun fights with alien adversaries. The AI Cortana, now at the ripe old age of 8, is slipping into Rampancy. As Chief’s only friend succumbs to her degenerative condition, the true story of Halo proves to be one of an old soldier and his trusted travelling companion.
Loyal fans of the Halo canon will feel right at home when the core story picks up pace, however, gamers who did not approach Halo 3 and Halo: Anniversary Edition with a neurotic completionist agenda may feel a little lost. The central story of Prometheans and Forerunners draws from across the Halo fiction, and foreknowledge of anime Halo Legends and the novels is useful. Understanding of the backstory is by no means a barrier to entry, but without it confusion may set in towards the middle of the narrative.
All-in-all the story concerning the Forerunner planet is forgettable – a successful attempt to introduce a new enemy and expand the Halo universe a little further, but it will not stay with you as one gaming’s science fiction greats.
What might linger for a few moments longer are the tender moments shared between Cortana and Master Chief. Entrusted to John while fleeing the planet Reach back in Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana has been with John throughout the Halo series. Setting waypoints and fleshing out the objectives, she has also proven to be the humanity often lacking from the faceless protagonist of Master Chief. Sly comments here, the occasional joke there, and Cortana has become the personality which John often lacks.
The campaign’s story at its heart a simple comparison: the AI girl wishing to cling on to a life which she doesn’t really have, and the awkward loner who is thoroughly disconnected from the people he has sworn to protect. The narrative cleverly draws from the trope of the featureless, every-man protagonist to question John’s existence. Is he more machine than man?
The curse of Call of Duty has left its mark on shooters forever it seems, and while Halo 4 manages to cling on to much of what identified it as a trend-setting shooter, it has succumbed to some of the gameplay devices which plague that modern shooter’s narrative.
Prompts commanding the player to use left stick to climb or crawl, and the occasional quick-time-event button-bashing moment feel out of place in a shooter which didn’t need them. They do not detract from the experience but at the same time add nothing to the game.
At its core though Halo 4 proves to be a Halo game through and through. Chief awakens from his cryo-pod, Assault rifle in hand, and before too long you have slipped back into the habit of gunning down foes and finishing them off with a quick tap of the melee button.
Most weapons have undergone an aesthetic overhaul, and the Covenant plasma weapons, while wholly unrecognisable, prove as enjoyable a counterbalance to the UNSC projectile weapons as ever. Sadly the Promethean weapons, while magnificent when first picked up and form around the player, prove unimaginative. A combination of the human and alien weapon’s abilities, they lack identity beyond the superficial.
Vehicles have been stripped back since Halo 3. The Brutes, who were fundamentally tied to the second and third instalments in the franchise, have gone, and they have taken their weapons and transportation with them. Wraiths, Ghosts and Banshees make a return on the Covenant side, as do the human Warthogs, Mongoose quads, and Scorpion tanks.
Humanity do have a new weapon to hand in the form of the Mantis mech walker – slow but heavily armed, the Mantis feels a strange addition to a game where much of the vehicle combat has been fast paced, but after a few minutes with it you realise it has it’s uses. Several pesky flying sections emerge towards the closing chapter which can prove annoying, but they are short-lived and do finally allow players a chance to fly the iconic Pelican drop-ship – a fair trade off.
While the Covenant ranks have been thinned now that the Brutes have left, the Promethean horde proves to be far more interesting an enemy than Bungie’s bullet-sponge bears. Teleportation and regeneration make the Knights a formidable foe, while the smaller dog-like Crawlers force you to look to the ground one minute and to the walls the next. The Prometheans are light on their feet and manoeuvre around the terrain with great efficiency. You have to keep your wits about you or before you know it you are surrounded, taking fire from the walls beside you, the sky above you, and the Knight’s all around you.
Sadly, fresh to the world of top-tier first-person-shooters, 343 Industries seem unsure of how to best create a compelling 10 hour campaign. It feels uneasily lengthened by the constant repetitive tasks. Aside from the occasional vehicle missions which see you take to the road in a Warthog or to the skies in a Pelican, much of what you will be doing is pressing button after button, often in patterns of three. The Forerunners must have been a highly evolved species because doing anything on Requiem requires mind-boggling levels of coordination just to turn anything on and off.
Nevertheless, what they may lack in campaign construction they more than make up for in homage to the franchise which they now hold the reins too. The Pelican mission in particular will remind fans of the early Arbiter missions in Halo 2. One section on Requiem stands out in this regard: navigating through gleaming Forerunner corridors, the Chief spots several Forerunner sentinels. Avid Halo followers will naturally ready their assault rifle in anticipation of the beam weapons to come, but none do. Cortana mutters in your ear, warning you that it might be a trap, but you already knew that.
343 Industries have made a Halo campaign which lacks an engaging structure, but more than makes up for it by feeling familiar with a touch of the unknown. It plays it safe, but given that it is the studio’s first title which was forced through production quickly, it is far better than it could have been.
Art and Sound
The Halo series has always been conflicted in the tone it hopes to set. On the one hand they have always been colourful to the point of garish, with Grunts making annoying squeaky comments and Elites blasting out commands in comically booming voices. Meanwhile the marketing campaign has always presented the series as a somber tale of war and loss. The ODST trailer depicting a military funeral, and the old soldiers discussing their memories of war for Halo 3’s launch, have never sat well with the realities of the game.
Halo 4 takes a step in the right direction in this respect, taking a note from Halo Reach and discarding the squeaking aliens and the overly-vivacious colour scheme for a more apt tone throughout. Pastel colours and matte surfaces feel more realistic and substantial when compared to the plastic hues of the previous Halo games. The lighting brings the game to life, picking out details in the environment and showing off how beautiful a game Halo 4 really is.
The sound design takes a step away from the bombastic overtures of the previous titles, choosing instead to stick with softer melodies which reinforce the narrative themes concerning Cortana and Chief. Suitably exhilarating music kicks in when it is called for, but for the most part the music is calm and contemplative. The ‘iconic’ Halo theme, which had arguably lived out its day in the sun after Halo 3, has gone the way of Bungie and disappeared from the franchise.
The weapons and vehicles have had new sound effects recorded for them, and every shot squeezed off from the human firearms sound fantastic. Occasional audio messages coming in from Cortana or Commander Lasky (the lead character of the Forward Unto Dawn miniseries) are lost in the barrage of sound, especially when driving around in the curiously loud Warthogs, but for the most part an appropriate balance is stuck.
Criticisms have been slung at the game for its lack of scale, and 343 have clearly had to make decisions regarding style over substance. Gone are the large battle arenas in which dozens of tanks and smaller vehicles would do battle, replaced instead by smaller areas with more close quarters combat. What remains works and plays perfectly, and while it may not approach the same levels as earlier games in the series, it makes a fair attempt.
As such the scale of the combat is most often addressed through the in-game cut scenes as the UNSC Infinity and the other vessels within Requiem fly overhead and do battle in the distance. They look fantastic, and the pre-rendered cutscenes are of a superb quality, moving the story forward in style. There is no questioning that an epic conflict is taking place – you just aren’t always in the thick of it.
A companion piece to Halo 4’s campaign, Spartan Ops promises to bolster the main story while providing bite-sized chunks of cooperative gameplay. Available in ‘episode’ form, bundled together into ‘seasons’, 343 promises that more content will become available over the coming months and expand upon the narrative.
Lasting approximately 20 minutes each, the Spartan Ops episodes place the players in a familiar Halo scenario. Whether it is destroying generator, driving around the terrain gunning down Covenant, or simply scouting about the environment with an assault rifle in hand, the mode offers you that little bit more for your buck.
Presented from the perspective of Crimson team, a Spartan squad stationed aboard the UNSDC Infinity under the command of fellow augmented soldier Sarah Palmer, you are tasked with performing various missions across the surface of Requiem half a year after the events of Halo 4. Covenant squatters and Promethean forces remain active across the planet and it is down to Crimson to help investigate the ancient Forerunner world.
Cutscenes book-end the episodes, and while story is present, it is by no means the main draw of Spartan Ops. The campaign offers up scenarios which cannot be replicated in competitive multiplayer, but a cooperative mode like Spartan Ops makes it possible for you to play through those experiences in a much more manageable chunk. No more scanning through the campaign mission chapters to find that one Warthog mission you loved so much – in theory, Spartan Ops will provide you with everything you need. Sadly you are limited in your choice of online cooperative play due to the episodic structure of the missions, with earlier episodes become relegated to single player and friends-only play once a new episode is released.
Featuring its own small cast of characters and simple enough mission objectives for you to feel engaged with the 20 minutes of gameplay, Spartan Ops gives the campaign legs, extending the Halo 4 narrative outside of the 10 hour story mode and giving you quick thrills with a little more meaning.
Competitive multiplayer, presented as war games held aboard the UNSC Infinity and linchpin of the Halo 4 experience, returns at full force to treat players to the gaming experience they all know and love.
Fans of the twitchy trigger finger gameplay from the Call of Duty franchise may feel a little lost – the Halo series has always offered a slightly more mellow approach to competitive first-person-shooters, but by no means does it let you sit back and rest on your laurels!
Emphasis has once again taken another step towards customisable load-outs and begs the player to experiment, allowing you to pick and choose everything from your weapons to your armour ability and even some perks, including increased ammo and infinite sprint.
Sadly with customisation options comes the painful grind of unlocking weapons and add-ons, and while leveling up can be achieved fairly quickly, the first few multiplayer games can feel a bit of a drag. Jumping into Spartan Ops offers the chance to bolster your XP pool and enter multiplayer with enough points to unlock a few extra weapons and upgrades. Die hard competitive multiplayer fans, however, may find their first few games a bit of a bore.
Once you have picked your load out and jump into the game a wave of nostalgia hits you. Do you dash for Warthog gunner seat, go it alone in a Ghost, or find that perfect spot to snipe from?
Presenting one of the strongest stories in the Halo universe to date, Halo 4 could potentially be the best entry in the franchise to date. Gone are the poorly constructed open arenas of Halo 3 and the atrocious story of Halo Reach, and in their place we find a beautiful, focused gameplay experience which expands on the grander themes ofHalo while also providing insight into the series’ characters.
343 Industries have done an amazing job. Given one of Microsoft’s most important franchises, and having never shipped a game before, they have outdone series creators Bungie and ensured a strong future for Halo.
Summary: A great FPS romp that has helped to expand on Master Cheif's story. Saving the universe is still as fun as ever!