Halo 4 Review
343 Industries has taken Halo in a new direction and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, this new direction suits the universe perfectly (arguably better than Bungie’s slightly cartoony and colourful previous games), but it’s clear 343 is also attempting to please two audiences with Halo 4. Those that have always loved Halo and those that are looking for a fresh take on a well-established universe.
The last time we spoke to 343 during Halo 4’s development, creative director Josh Holmes described this new approach to design as ‘sophisticated’. An intelligent, adult and, dare we say it, darker Halo than what we’ve seen before. 343 understands that gamers want something they haven’t seen and is attempting to bridge the gap between Halo, multiplayer and episodic content, but, has it managed to pull these disparate threads together, all while maintaining Halo’s famous ‘30 seconds of fun’?
For the most part it has, but that hasn’t also stopped Halo 4 becoming an intriguing mix of old and new. 343’s new vision for Halo, and it’s strongly maintained that this new game is setting up the next ten years of the franchise, is crystal clear. Like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus the design of Halo’s environment and characters is laced with a sci-fi believability and logic that helps ground the more fantastical elements. But, it also sets itself apart from the existing franchise.
Bungie may have begun to take steps in this direction with Halo: Reach’s solemn scenes of sacrifice and death, but Halo 4 wants you to take its world and characters seriously. It’s one of the reasons 343 has spent so much time employing respected sci-fi writers such as Greg Bear to flesh out the Forerunner’s back-story (in books like Cryptum) and it’s one of the reasons Halo 4 begins by focusing on its two lead characters – the Master Chief and Cortana.
With 343 delivering a cohesive narrative package across the board with Infinity, War Games and Spartan Ops all coming under the same banner, story is most obviously king in Halo’s new world. With the Chief (now largely referred to as John) waking up to find rouge Covenant troops boarding his decrepit ship moments before it plunges towards a mysterious Forerunner planet, 343 wastes no time kick-starting Halo 4’s campaign.
Halo 4’s story is a lot more serious than previous games.
Events proceed quickly and 343 does a fantastic job gradually introducing the new Promethean threat. Huge sandbox environments lend Halo 4 the expected sense of grandeur, but it’s also promising to see that the revamped engine, musical score and most importantly of all, gameplay all feel familiar. There’s no mistaking Halo’s weapon balancing, responsive controls and complex AI.
343 experiments with the set-up, too. Easing you in until it reveals the big new Forerunner threat – the Didact. A military-minded Forerunner, he’s experienced in fighting humanity (or at least a pre-Flood society version of humanity – read Cryptym) and he is not happy.
For Halo to create a new credible threat, one that can justify a hero such as the Master Chief, 343 turn to humanity and their ‘ascendancy’ or, simply surpassing Forerunners as the top species in the universe. It’s a simpler threat that 343 confuses with the usual Halo intricacies, but despite Halo 4 engaging in some of the biggest and most impressive set pieces ever seen in a Halo game, the main campaign feels like it wastes much of the introduction of the Forerunners and the Didact.
It feels like 343 is constantly fighting how much it should change the traditional Halo formula. With the bulk of the gameplay made up of the expected gunplay, Halo 4 introduces the new Promethean weaponry and the enemies to use them on. It’s a subtle tweak to the gunplay that never over powers what we’ve seen before, but the Prometheans themselves prove to be the most exciting addition to the Halo canon.
Knights, Crawlers and Watchers all combine to produce an enemy hierarchy that’s far harder to combat than the Covenant ever were. And, when Halo 4 pushes all three factions together, the results are explosive. But, and this is where Halo 4’s campaign sticks too closely to the established conventions of Halo’s gameplay, Halo 4’s familiar set pieces out weigh the new.
There are some lovely vistas throughout Halo 4’s campaign that push the 360’s hardware to the limit.
For every incredibly impressive new section of gameplay (and lets be absolutely clear, Halo 4 has its fair share) there is the customary Firefight-aping sections where you’ll have to fend off waves of enemies. Or, even entire runs of levels that feel very familiar. Perhaps it’s the focus on the Forerunner architecture or the need to overtly appease Halo’s longstanding fans, but Halo 4 at times feels over encumbered by its need to ‘feel’ like Halo, while simultaneously presenting something new.
Mostly, the new gets pushed to the background in favour of the old. Halo’s gameplay and set pieces have always experimented with sandbox and forced players to think on their feet, but it can at times appear like 343 is holding back its true innovations. The introduction of the Prometheans goes a long way to making Halo 4 feel like it’s moving in a new direction, though.
With the Master Chief spending his time taking on the Didact, ensuring Cortana doesn’t descend too far into rampancy and trying to convince the Infinity of the dangers that lie ahead, Halo 4’s plot proceeds at a speed with its pace occasionally hampered by an erratic checkpoint system.
Beautiful locations whip by the Chief’s visor and 343’s work with the tweaked version of the Halo: Reach engine should really be commended. Visually, Halo 4 is easily the best looking Halo game to date and it could be argued it’s one of the most technically impressive games of the year. Halo 4 finds a balance between presenting visually rich textures, impressive explosions and detailed character models (all while maintaining a solid framerate) far more successfully than many of its peers.
Whether it’s in the jungles, deserts or Forerunner structures of Requiem or the dirty metallic interiors of UNSC ships and bases, Halo 4’s visuals are dense with detail. We’re always told that the latest game is pushing the 360 to the ‘limits’, but 343 manages to push beyond what we expected while evolving the core strengths of the series. It really is a beautiful world to look at.
Halo 4’s main campaign flits back and forth between total reinvention and homage, but ultimately goes out on a whimper rather than the heroic bang many might have expected. Its story and character beats are certainly more daring than any that have been attempted in Halo before (and we’ll not spoil them for you here), but the game’s end fails to capture the same excitement seen in previous Halos.
The new Promethean enemies are really tough and take a lot of skill to defeat.
Though it’s clear 343 has the technical, story and development clout to take Halo to new and exciting places in the future, you’ll only ever see glimpses of that in Halo 4. The Master Chief’s return and 343’s first game was always going to be tricky, but Halo 4 plays it safe reminding what’s so great about the series while presenting nuggets of what the future might hold.
But, Halo 4’s main campaign, though leaning too heavily on previous games’ greatest hits, is still an incredibly polished and genuinely excellent FPS experience. Worries that Bungie’s absence would negatively affect development disappear within seconds of the Chief waking up and Halo 4’s new tone and designs cement this as a more sophisticated sci-fi shooter.
In many ways Halo 4 is proof that Bungie’s series needed reinvention. It needed 343 to take it in new directions and ignoring the technical and gameplay expertise that’s obviously on display, Halo 4’s greatest criticism is that it doesn’t take things far enough – but, that’s only in the campaign.
Halo is more than just its main story, and that’s true of 343’s new game. With the UNSC Infinity, Spartan Ops and War Games (multiplayer), Halo 4 is making some exciting innovations. It’s here that the changes really shine. Spartan Ops’ weekly episodic content, new characters and open level design pull together to deliver something we’ve never seen before. (Read our full breakdown of Spartan Ops)
The same high quality, attention to detail and knowing little tweaks can also be seen in Halo 4’s multiplayer. It’s a faster, more aggressive space with matches that ebb and flow in the traditional Halo manner, but with Ordinance Drops, highly customisable loadouts, streamlined match types (not forgetting Forge) multiplayer maintains its eminent position. (Read our full Halo 4 multiplayer breakdown)
Like with most of Halo 4, 343’s multiplayer is a mixture of old and new with a slight bias towards what we’ve already seen. This is still an extremely accomplished and well put together package that prides itself on giving the Chief a new creative voice and though Spartan Ops represents the boldest (and most important) change, 343 should be proud that it has managed to successfully re-invent Halo. What it does next with it will be really interesting.