Review: Halo 4 will make you hail the new Chief
At a Glance
It's rare that an entertainment franchise built under the vision of one entity thrives in the hands of another, but Halo 4 is proof that 343 Industries shares the passion and singular vision of Bungie while innovating on the Halo gameplay formula to set themselves apart. Just because this is more Halo doesn’t mean that it’s more of the same Halo; Halo 4 innovates in the right places and gives the series the much needed improvements that most modern shooters take for granted.
A worthy successor
Halo 4 continues the venerable Halo series storyline, and thus I will be referencing some very early plot developments as part of this review. It's nothing you couldn't learn from watching a Halo 4 trailer, but spoilerphobes should prepare accordingly. The game picks up where the Legendary ending of Halo 3 left us, with Master Chief entering cryosleep aboard the Forward Unto Dawn frigate as it drifted through space. We wake up to find it’s torn in half, the Covenant are attacking, and we're all being pulled down towards a Forerunner planet. Chief and Cortana encounter the Prometheans, an exciting new enemy, which means that they’re facing a war on two fronts. The Prometheans pose new challenges for Chief, affording series veterans a fresh foe to fight without changing Halo's classic combat mechanics.
The gameplay is where things shift pretty dramatically for Halo 4. The Halo games have never kept pace with modern military shooters, avoiding an emphasis on cover and iron sight aiming in favor of open battlefields and clever AI enemies. Yet first-person combat games have changed significantly since the release of Halo 3 (and even Halo: Reach), and thus it's easy for traditional Halo mechanics to feel dated. Halo 4 concedes this issue by allowing Chief to sprint at will without needing to equip a special ability (a la Halo: Reach), and it's a small but welcome addition.
While Chief's newfound celerity in the face of a fresh enemy encourages you to blast through Halo 4, the beautiful world you're battling for makes you want to stop and stare. Everything is colorful and vibrant without feeling overly stylized, a rare feat in fast-paced action games. With as much ambient light and bloom going on it’s surprising that the environments of Halo 4 don't look washed out, though the bright color palette might be a bit much for some players. Up close, texture quality has always been an issue in past Halo games; thankfully, that’s no longer an issue, as the weapons, environments and enemies look just as great up close as they do far away (the rocks are especially beautiful, oddly enough). It's a great way to wind down the Xbox 360 generation, because Halo 4 has some of the best textures I’ve seen on a console title.
Gear worth fighting for
The new gear is great too; I haven't had this much fun mastering and experimenting with new weaponry since Halo 2. Not only did 343 Industries rebalance the Needler (giving it a much-needed power boost) and other armaments, but there’s an entire new line of Promethean tech to play with. While Promethean weapons generally fulfill the same roles as standard Earth firearms(there's an analogue for the pistol, SMG, sniper rifle, etc) in combat, their new designs and alternate destructive properties help separate them from the classic Halo arsenal.
As an example, I found the Boltshot and the Lightrifle (the Promethean pistol and assault rifle, respectively) to be really useful throughout the campaign, though the Boltshot’s alternate fire option (which allows you to charge up a shot for a more powerful blast if you time it right) did take some getting used to.
Halo multiplayer has a new story to tell
On the multiplayer front, the Spartan Ops series of cooperative missions is 343 Industries' flagship addition to the Halo franchise, and it seems awfully promising. Each week (for at least the next ten weeks) 343 will release four missions and a CGI short that provides narrative context for the missions. The missions themselves are rather short, taking less than twenty minutes each, but they’re replayable and good for short cooperative bursts of Halo action. I did find them to be a bit easy though, even with four players on Legendary, which is a bit odd when you consider how difficult playing the campaign in four-player Legendary coop can be. Factor in the infinite respawns and Spartan Ops doesn't provide much of a challenge in this first set of missions.
Diehard Halo fans should know that War Games multiplayer has changed drastically by improving upon the armor abilities and loadouts we saw in Halo: Reach without diluting what makes Halo multiplayer great: well-balanced combat. When you first start Halo 4 multiplayer you’ll be given a few different preset loadouts, but they’re all pretty basic. As you progress through the multiplayer and level up, you’ll unlock certain weapons and abilities that you must then purchase with credits that are also earned from leveling up. It’s a bit of a two-step process, but it makes your choices more meaningful because you have to reach a certain level of prowess to unlock options, then choose whether or not to dump your precious points into it as well. The unlockable abilities in Halo 4 are well-balanced and work better than the random armor abilities from Reach, with a wider variety of active and passive abilities that help players customize their combat strategy.
The maps are more focused this time around too, with less emphasis on big vehicle battles (though there are still maps that allow for them) and more focus on direct player-vs-player combat. Exile is a notable favorite, as it has corridors and tons of room for player interaction, but also houses a Scorpion tank and a Banshee on top of the usual multiplayer vehicles. However, large open maps like Ragnarok (a remake of Valhalla from Halo 3) allow for combat on a grander scale, especially with the addition of the Mantis, a new player-controlled mech unit. It can be a real force on the battlefield with both rockets and a machine turret, but doesn’t feel overpowered, as it remains vulnerable to a well-placed Spartan Laser shot.
Ordinance Drops are another huge change to the multiplayer dynamic. Instead of relying solely on weapons spawning in preset locations, drop pods will deploy ordinances throughout the map. Most of these are automatic and contain power weapons and random power-ups, and while their main purpose is to randomize the weapon distribution they also prevent weapon camping in War Games matches. They can be called in manually too if a player is doing well enough, but they aren’t all big winners; sometimes you'll get a pod full of grenades and random power-ups. Despite the randomness of it all, I believe ordinance drops fundamentally change Halo multiplayer for the better.
Halo 4 is a great game, but it's greatest achievement is capitalizing on the combat, controls and atmosphere that made Halo great without feeling like a tired rehash of previous Halo games. The new equipment, enemies and combat mechanics improve the game, and the campaign is one of the strongest in the series. With the addition of Spartan Ops and the expanded War Games, it all comes together to form a great package, one that I and many other players will gladly return to again and again. Halo is back; hail to the Chief.