The Halo franchise has long been the killer app for Microsoft, shifting huge number of Xbox consoles as well as Xbox 360s not to mention selling millions and millions of copies of the numerous Bungie produced games over the last ten years. Halo 3 completed the original trilogy, ending our adventures with Master Chief so Bungie and the hoards of Halo fans moved on to other adventures, Reach being the standout. Every dog has its day and Bungie were always unlikely to work on the franchise forever and eventually when the announcement came that they would be handing over the reigns to 343 Industries it didn’t shock many. 343 Industries are a Microsoft studio and had worked previously on Halo map packs as well as the recent Halo Anniversary edition, reducing the risk of moving to another somewhat, however if you consider the franchise had managed to amass upwards of $3billion the pressure was almost certainly huge. Rest easy Halo lovers, 343 did just fine....
Master Chief is back for Halo 4 (fans rejoice) approximately five years after the end of Halo 3, embarking on a completely new trilogy to be known as the “reclaimer trilogy”. The poor chap has been tucked up asleep in a cryo chamber for the entire time, aboard a damaged ship with his stalwart AI partner Cortana slowly losing her marbles...now it is time to wake up. As our adventure begins, the Covenant are circling a wrecked Forward Unto Dawn, Cortana must awake our hero, together they could just get out of the hole they find themselves in...but there is a new threat, a new evil.
The game begins rather abruptly, especially for those not particularly close to the franchise - unfortunately no time is taken to provide any back story or context for the events and characters you as the player are about to spend many hours with. It’s an interesting one as something like Assassins Creed 3 has been criticised for its slow beginning but it is structured in a way that allows for people who have not played the previous titles to pick it up without a worry. Halo 4 does not afford new players such luxury and thrusts you into both the story and the action. This is a slight shame as the story in Halo 4 is by far and away the best of the Halo games to date, it therefore feels like a slight missed opportunity to not introduce new players to the universe a little.
The initial few missions of the main campaign set the tone for the game really well, mixing grand set pieces with small hectic firefights but in no time at all you realise that whilst there are Covenant looking to blast you to kingdom come, along with a brand new enemy, this adventure is actually 100% about Master Chief and Cortana. Their relationship is brought to the fore and we are treated to some fabulous performances from the voice actors, exploring the dark depths of this odd partnership. The voice acting is sensational by the two main leads, particularly Cortana and the support cast do a reasonable job of helping to create both atmosphere and a sense of danger when needed. Having an emotional connection in a Halo game is perhaps something that will seem alien to some but it works so well it arguably catapults the franchise forward, pushing forward the previously stale storytelling. The story is vastly more human and so much better for it - who would have thought that Halo would be more than just being an eight foot badass in a suit of armour.
The campaign whilst not particularly fresh gameplay wise does contain some rather nice new weaponry and a completely new batch of enemy types, the Prometheans. A much needed move for the franchise as it could be argued that every Halo game had become quite samey containing barely any innovation or change. The weaponry is all pretty much variations on existing themes but the animations when equipping and reloading are a fantastic touch and make you want to pick them up at every opportunity. There are some genuinely new weapon types in there to freshen things up a little and all are very satisfying to use.
The Prometheans themselves are really what Halo so badly needed, there are only so many game where you can spend forty pounds fighting grunts, even if you do have the skull that makes confetti fly out of them when hit with a headshot. The new enemy types range from the nimble dog like creature to the destruction-bringing Knights. Equipped with their own built in attack and repair drones these bad boys take some putting down on the higher difficulty levels, so much so there is an achievement for assassinating one of them. As a group the Prometheans, as well as the main new enemy are excellently drawn, animated and present a welcome new challenge for Halo gamers worldwide.
As good as the story and the voice acting are within the game, the visuals are better still - for the most part brilliant, in places simply jaw dropping. the love and attention showered upon this game by 343 is evident in every single graphical moment of the game. From the new armour, stunning new environments, perfectly animated new enemies or the beautiful way in which promethean weapons assemble themselves in your hand when picked up. The huge sprawling levels of the campaign are often a sight to behold, the only negative point being that the gameplay regularly funnels you down a single linear route to your objective - it looks gorgeous but often you don’t have the freedom to explore. Graphically, quite how some of Halo 4 is actually running on an Xbox 360 boggles the mind - excellent lighting effects litter the screen, draw distance is great, animations are smooth and within the six to seven hours it will take to complete the campaign it would be a surprise if you experienced any noticeable slow down.
The look of the game is matched, equally and in no small measure by the audio - never before will you feel so inclined to just leave the menu running so you can pump out the soundtrack. Again, kudos to the team at 343, it would have been very easy for them to grab the audio from Halo 3 and tweak but they didn’t; they went back to the beginning and created everything from scratch and the game is better for it. Guns have a real boombastic feel to them and are far less “pew pew pew” than in previous games, plus they appear to have swapped out the Warthogs engine for a twin turbo industrial lawnmower which sounds so badass and frankly ridiculous you will scramble to drive one at every opportunity.
As far as the actual gameplay goes...it’s Halo. 343 have gone back to the drawing board on everything except the gameplay, which is both a blessing and curse (to an extent). The core changes to the actual minute to minute play see heavy influences from Call of Duty but don’t introduce enough of a change to start labelling it as no longer being Halo. Sprinting is now standard, no longer an armour ability; promethean vision provides you with infrared vison, hardlight shield is predictably...a shield and auto sentry is a cool little turret which can be deployed (and usually quickly destroyed) to assist you in battle. Even though these new abilities are cool you will still experience old favourites such as jet packs, hologram and active camouflage.
Once you are done with the campaign you can move to multiplayer or the newly added replacement for Firefight mode...Spartan Ops. Spartan Ops is a solid replacement for Firefight, giving a team of up to four players iterative content released every week. Each week a new episode is released which is made up of five chapters with each episode having its own distinct narrative which includes a cinematic introduction. Going against the current DLC-tastic environment we find ourselves in, 343 will be releasing new content every week, for ten weeks completely free. So that is fifty chapters of Spartan Ops included in the price of the game itself - we can only hope that this catches on. The mode itself is a nice spin on the standard horde mode and when playing feels more like Mass Effect 3 multiplayer effort than anything else that is out there for comparison. It is still very much a horde like experience, move to point A, press a button and watch wave after wave come at you - that said with some good narrative, wide areas to traverse and lots of vehicular combat it adds just enough not to label it as the same old same old. One thing to note is that it is a complete doddle on normal so experienced Halo players should opt for legendary - upping the difficulty makes this mode a completely different experience and is much better for it.
Moving on to multiplayer, one could argue the strongest element of the entire package, you are greeted with ten maps which sport an awful lot of variety. Sitting alongside this wealth of maps (more to come through three DLC map packs) is a nice mixture of old and new modes. The classics are still there like oddball, capture the flag, SWAT and slayer (team and Infinity) along with a new batch of modes such as Dominion, Extraction, Flood and Regicide. The latter being a hell of a lot of fun as a free for all or team game where the person with the highest points is king and bonus points are awarded for killing the king. This often results in tense battles as the king is hunted by all, yet killing the king could in turn make you the king, focusing all eyes immediately back on you.
Weapons in multiplayer are no longer randomly scattered around the battlefield, in Halo 4 this is replaced with the ordinance system. This vast improvement over previous games sees random weapon drops occurring throughout a match, all clearly highlighted on your HUD. No longer will it just be the people in the know who sport a rocket launcher across the field of play. As well as tactical upgrades and support upgrades which add a distinct Call of Duty perks vibe to your loadout. Springing for longer, faster shield recharge and the ability to carry more grenades are but a few, luckily though you cannot equip everything so the danger of hardcore players being vastly overpowered from the get go isn’t a factor.
There are a lot of positives to take from Halo 4, not least of all the fact that 343 took a beloved franchise and didn't make a complete pig's ear of it. The campaign contains a proper grown up story with oodles of emotion and the introduction of new enemies and weaponry is exactly what the franchise needed. Spartan Ops is a fantastic idea, one which we should all be hoping quickly becomes the norm for co-op modes in the future. Multiplayer also sports a variety of tweaks and enhancements that make it more fun and more accessible to noobs.
That said though for all its new features and its fantastic production it is still the same Halo underneath and is highly unlikely to make non Halo fans drop everything to get involved. It’s good, you should buy it for sure but it is by no means the greatest game of all time. It all feels like 343 were acutely aware that they couldn’t mess this one up so did enough to keep it fresh but nothing so radical that it would alienate the core fan base. Kudos to them, but here’s hoping the cuffs come off for the next part of the trilogy.
Do 343 come up with the goods?