Halo – the flagship series of Microsoft’s entire gaming repertoire, and one of the most important gaming franchises in history. Yeah, you could imagine what 343i, the new studio formed by Microsoft to handle all Halo duties, had to live up to with Halo 4, the first game in the series since original creators Bungie left for greener pastures. But don’t be turned off by the new name stamped on the cover, because this is a true-to-form Halo game as crafted by a fresh set of eyes.
Halo 4 takes place 4 years after the events of Halo 3, which fans who completed the game on Legendary and received the extra cutscene, will have been anxiously anticipating since day dot. The story throws us back into the boots of Master Chief, awoken from cryogenic sleep by Cortana as Covenant are boarding their derelict ship, Forward Unto Dawn. Finding that they are now orbiting a huge Forerunner planet, the Chief and Cortana are thrust back into a fight bigger than anything they’ve done before.
The storyline in the game is utterly superb, in every aspect. It builds so much onto the personal demons of the Chief, and the deep relationship between he and Cortana, a factor which now evidently, remained largely unexplored previously. It also takes on an epic new scale, as an ancient evil is awoken, threatening all human existence once more. We’re taken into new levels of Halo lore here, and are given so much information that revived my love of the universe Bungie created all those years ago. This is a sci-fi story that won’t soon be forgotten once it’s done and dusted – the scale, intelligence and originality here all speak volumes about the dedication to the series, and its story, its creators have.
However, despite the actual story being well-crafted, I had some issue with its execution in this game. There was so much to be squeezed into the game, that even with its decent length (7-8 hours), it feels rushed. There were a lot of questions that needed answering, and the game chews through them as it raises more, essentially giving us little time to comprehend most of the plot points or story structure before it lays down another heavy layer of narrative. The new faces don’t have the screen time required to build their characters up, nor are the new enemies given the suspense and slow-burning introduction needed to create a deeper sense of mystery. In short, I think there was too much crammed into the story for the games length.
The Halo series is known for a somewhat unique gameplay formula, and one that 343i obviously didn’t want to mess with too much, for fear of changing just what makes the Halo games great. But what they have done here is taken the familiar feel of the games, and put a new spin on it. Overall it still feels like the Halo we all know, but with some very important changes, primarily that make the game have a more fast-paced and modern overtone. I really think this new direction was essential in creating a true identity for the new Halo trilogy – dubbed the Reclaimer Saga.
The core gameplay is highly polished, giving real satisfaction to simply playing the game. The new weaponry is decent, although not entirely exciting. It does, however, make all the guns on the field have obvious flaws and advantages that will have you relying on certain firearms for certain situations, and adjusting your play style accordingly. Just like older Halo titles, only now the differences are only very slight across the different weapon types – human, Covenant and Forerunner – meaning power weapons are much more important. However, this has made the gameplay extremely well balanced throughout multiplayer, or War Games as it’s now called.
Speaking of multiplayer, Halo 4 has made a few big changes, which some diehard fans may not appreciate. Players now build and make their own loadouts, similar to most other FPS games on the market. You only have a limited number of weapons to choose from, which works well when put into practice. Your loadout choices can’t overpower others, with only the basics being available to suit every players preferred style. Armor Abilities are also now more well-rounded than we seen in Reach, and topping it off are ‘perks’ of sorts which are used to complement the way you like to play. This system is entirely welcome by me as a necessary move forward for the series, and also a huge note to other developers as to how you should handle giving players choice of what they take to the battlefield. No ridiculously fruitful personalisation that can overshadow and overwhelm other choices – everything here is perfectly balanced. This is online multiplayer how it should be.
There are limited power weapons on the playing field, instead making players require to call in ‘Ordinance,’ which comes available to you after you get a certain amount of points or kills in-game, with the game choosing your possible drops for you. Another feature which works to balance the gameplay, creating a competitive and fair experience.
For 6 year old tech, im actually surprised by the quality that 343i were able to get out of the Xbox 360 for this game. Of course, with a title of this magnitude, you don’t expect it to be ugly, but this is one of the very best looking games ive seen. The character and environmental models are perfect, and the animation is highly detailed, both in game and cutscenes. Some of the more personal cutscene – the ones with more dialogue – have the characters showing some unreal emotion, the kind unseen in most games. While Chief is hidden behind his helmet, Cortana shows stunning amounts of believability in her movements and facial expressions, as do certain other plot-centric characters, who all work hand-in-hand to make the story as touching as it is.
Though unfortunately, the sheer quality of the detail has translated to the developers scaling down a lot of the battles. Long gone are the days of epic Scarab fights in huge arenas, or sprawling landscapes with tons of vehicles, weaponry and ways to overcome the enemy. The difference in delivery of the fighting has forced Chief into forerunner structures or ships for the majority of the game, meaning less stunning vistas which have always been a kind of staple for the series.
Scenery aside though, Halo 4 is a gorgeous game. The art styles of the new planet and race of enemies are top notch and fit in perfectly with the sci-fi settings of the previous games, only with even more alien architecture to wow you as you slaughter the opposition throughout the campaign.
Master Chief and Cortana thankfully both have their roles reprised by the original voice actors in Halo 4, and the new characters deliver the same superior voicing quality Halo is known for. But on the music side of things, I wasn’t entirely pleased with a lack of Martin O’Donnell as composer. The new musical score is equally brilliant in its own rights, but it doesn’t feature any of the unique flare the previous games have had, which made for strong orchestral tunes that stayed with the player long after the game had left the disc drive.
That said, the new music presents itself in a way fitting to the new story aspects and plot devices, which I think composer Neil Davidge handled very well. There’s a feeling of mystery within the music that comes from the great unknown that is the Forerunners, as well a touch of romance that pulls the heartstrings along at a pace relevant to Chief and Cortana’s relationship. There is undoubtedly strong emotion in the story, and that’s reflected so very well in the music and voice work the game delivers.
Some of the sound effects are quite weak though, mainly from the Covenant hardware, such as guns and vehicles. It doesn’t have the same ring or plasma we’re used to, and makes for lessened feeling of power when wielding them. Same can be said about the new Forerunner weapons, which while looking awesome, sound underpowered and unsatisfying.
- The Chief is back!
- Emotional and well developed storyline
- Well balanced multiplayer
- Incredibly gorgeous game
- Rushed story elements
- Some weak sound effects
Halo 4 is the first main game in the series not developed by Bungie. But the fresh set of eyes that are 343 Industries have just shown us that they are more than capable of handling the mammoth task that is a Halo game, delivering on every front and crafting a perfect mix of the old and new. Halo 4 see’s the franchise once again raise the bar for what is possible and should be expected from a First Person Shooter.