Well it has finally happened, Microsoft Studios and 343 Industries have finished the next phase of the Halo saga. Halo 4 has been a long time coming and many fans of the Halo universe have been waiting to see how this next chapter in the storied franchise would pan out. When Bungie Studios announced in 2007 they would be leaving Microsoft to move on to other things, there was concern amongst the Halo faithful as to how the franchise would be handled. Well, I have to say after playing through the full single player campaign of Halo 4, and tooling around in the multiplayer suite, the franchise as been left in good hands.
Halo 4 represents a “new beginning” in franchise, given that this is the start of a new storyline called the Reclaimer Saga. The story takes place almost five years after the ending of Halo 3. Master Chief and his companion AI Cortana are back as they face an all-new adventure, new and familiar enemies, and of course a boatload of new challenges and environments.
If it sounds like I am being somewhat general, I am, as we signed a very strict NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) regarding what we can and cannot talk about. At first I was like, damn, I can’t say too much about the story; however, after playing through it I have to say that I am glad we can’t say too much about it, as it something you just have to experience. The narrative that 343 Industries has crafted is incredible, plain and simple. It is a story I found myself hanging on to, watching, and wondering what would happen next. You are introduced to so many familiar concepts from the Halo universe while being led down a path of things new and unfamiliar. It is a nice balance and at no time did I ever feel I was being introduced to something for the sake of just adding to the plot.
What I can say is that Halo 4 starts out right where you left off in Halo 3, frozen in the wreckage of the UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn and near a Forerunner planet called Requiem. Along this journey you will face a new enemy, the Prometheans, who the Forerunners once used in battle. These foes are technically advanced with new weapons that you’ve never faced before in new areas you’ve never been. As you make your way through the story you will learn more about these deadly foes, and why you are fighting against the Covenant once again. Along the way you’ll be introduced to new allies within the UNSC including one or two who you just may recognize from the web series “Forward Unto Dawn”.
As I played the single player campaign there was one thing that struck me, and it was that this was indeed a Halo game. It was familiar feeling but yet it wasn’t just a retread of the franchise from past. Control is easy to get into, and the gameplay is very much reminiscent of past Halo games. It is a weird feeling to try to convey in writing, but the best way I can explain it is that “what is old is new and what is new is old”. I don’t mean this in a bad way either as in the end the game just feels right, at least in my opinion.
Control of the on-screen action is simple for those that have FPS experience. For those just getting into the genre, or Halo games as a whole, you will also have no problem firing weapons, meleeing enemies, throwing grenades, and jumping when needed. Something I noted during my play through was there were more instances where you were in control of opening doors, activating platforms or elevators, and activating defense systems. Although simple in concept, as you only need to hold the ‘x’ button, it is one more small step in bringing you into the action that takes place.
The enemy AI in Halo 4 seems improved. I played the game on normal in an effort to get through the whole story to see what was being offered in this area, so the AI was not overly tough, but they didn’t roll over easy either. What I did find was that the Prometheans you battle offer up quite a challenge especially when first facing them, and as you learn their battle tactics you learn to change up your strategy. Given that the Prometheans use Forerunner technology they have some neat tricks up their sleeves. Promethean Knights have the ability to teleport during battle. You are given a bit of warning on where they will end up, as a glowing white orb appears before hand, but regardless this tactic adds a new flavor to your battles to say the least.
As noted, you will be facing off against the Covenant once again, and they too have seemed to step up their game a bit. The Grunts are still cannon fodder, but the Elites are a little smarter as they duck and cover a bit more, and even run away from you when you charge at them. I also noted that the Hunters I faced were not as apt to just run at you all the time as they seemed to try to force you out of cover or to come at them. When they did charge the didn’t seem to go that far past me and they seemed to make a more concerted effort to keep their backs (their weak spot) turned away from you. All in all I got into some heated battles and it could get quite chaotic on the battlefield.
During your adventure you will find a few instances of COD like quick time events. These are not found very often, but when you do there is an eerie resemblance to how some of the events in past COD games, control wise, play out. From specific button presses to moving your analog stick in various directions to have the scene play out in front of you, it is something that I can’t really remember happening in previous Halo games.
343 have made an effort to add gameplay where there is not only running and gunning. There are more then a few areas where you take control of other things, like vehicles or weapons. You’ll use a Covenant Ghost in a frantic scene to “get out of dodge”, ride in a troop mover called a Mammoth and man the guns, pilot a Covenant Banshee or UNSC Pelican, clean house in a Scorpion Tank, and you’ll even step into the Mantis, an armored suit, used to fend of Covenant forces. I enjoyed these segments, as I was not just running around the various levels trying to kill everything while on foot. The mix of vehicle use helps change up the gameplay somewhat and should be appreciated by those who play.
If I had any complaint about the gameplay mechanics of Halo 4 it would be that its familiarity does not bring anything new to the table. In the end it is an FPS, and this latest version does not bring anything ground breaking in the area of the mechanics of playing. Although I am sure this will ruffle some feathers, how about adding something like a “peek around corner button” or hard cover similar to that in Rainbow Six Vegas, or how about destructible cover. I am sure people may find that this is nitpicking, but it was something that was in the back of my head as I played. Hopefully as this franchise progresses to Halo 5 and Halo 6, we will see some new gameplay mechanics that continue to push the franchise forward.
As I mentioned earlier, I played through the game on the normal skill setting. This allowed me to face a bit of a challenge while experiencing the story and gameplay that is offered. It took me just about 6 hours to finish the game from beginning to end and that includes watching all the cutscenes. This seems on par with other FPS games out on the market. I should also note that I did not spend as much time as I could have looking for the game’s terminals that are hidden throughout each level. Should you crank up the skill level I predict the game could take you longer as the AI will put up more of a fight. That being said, as a whole the game goes by pretty quick given how deep the story is, how engrossed you get in it, and how you just want to soak up the experience of playing as Master Chief. As with past Halo games you can also play through the Single Player campaign cooperatively with friends as well.
Given that this is a Halo game there is a lot more then just sitting down by yourself and playing through the story mode, as Halo 4 continues the franchise’s legacy and offers up a bevy of multiplayer options. This starts with Spartan: Infinity which is the ship seen in the gameplay that debuted at E3 earlier this year. This is your online hub so to speak. Here you will customize your Spartan Soldier (e.g. armor, colour, insignia, etc.) and put your own stamp on your multiplayer character. You can then head out and experience all the online options that Halo 4 offers.
One of the biggest features in this area is the new Spartan Ops mode. Here there are weekly releases of cinematic episodes that follow the events after the end of Halo 4. These episodes focus on the UNSC Infinity crew and a new team of Spartan soldiers called Majestic Squad. The cinematics you watch provide you with a backdrop to weekly Spartan Ops gameplay missions that you can play in single player and multi-player co-op. The first season includes 10 episodes and a total of 50 missions. It is included with the purchase of the game. I didn’t get a chance to play these during my time with my review copy, as every time I went to the Spartan Ops menu the gameplay was not available. I did get a chance to play some of them at E3 though and after playing those brief missions, and playing through the Halo 4 story, I have to say that I am looking forward to continuing the journey in Spartan Ops and so should you.
War Games is the competitive multiplayer aspect of Halo 4, and there is lots to do. Although the press material notes that there are 10 maps available at launch, when I went into the custom games menu and went through the maps available for play, I counted 13 maps. Regardless, there is at least a minimum of 10 maps and all are quite diverse and very Halo-esque. There is your traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch game types, along with King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, Flood (Infection), Oddball and the Halo specific Griffball. Of course if you play a custom match you can change up many of each play types parameters. You’ll find many hours of enjoyment here, and given that three map packs have been announced, there will be added maps for you to enjoy. Like my attempts with Spartan Ops, I didn’t find too many matches, if any, and maybe this had to do with bad timing. What little I played is classic Halo though, and I can see myself partying up with a good group of friends online and having fun.
Halo 4 sees the return of “Armor Abilities”, and you will find eight to choose from. You can use active camo, Promethean vision, to a jet pack or thruster pack to name a few. It really helps you tailor your gameplay. New to Halo 4 is the introduction of “Armor Mods” which come in Tactical Packages or Support Upgrades. These mods allow for incremental improvements in such things as speed, mobility, ammo capacity or durability. Again, it is just another way to help you fine-tune your Spartan to match the way you play online. After you level your Spartan up to SR-50, you are given the chance to enlist in a Specialization. This allows you to follow a specific path for your Spartan and rewards you with very specific armor set, emblems, visor colours, weapons, armor skins and “Armor Mods”. Such paths as Wetwork, Pioneer, Engineer and Pathfinder will be at your disposal (there are a total of eight). It was noted that only two Specializations will be made available at launch (Wetwork and Pioneer) while the rest will be rolled out in the months to come. Those who buy the Limited Edition though will get early access to them. There is no doubt that all these features allow for some great customizability of your Spartan to match the style of online play you enjoy and there is something for everyone.
Forge returns to Halo 4. Here you can create your own multiplayer levels with a huge suite of creation tools. There are three map templates to start on and from there it’s all up to you and your imagination. The game even lets you modify physics and effects in specific zones of the map. I can’t wait to see what the Halo community comes up with.
Visually I have to say that I was quite impressed with Halo 4. Everything has a more realistic look to it, well, as realistic as one would imagine the universe of Halo would look like. Right from the first moments of gameplay, when you are looking around the section of starship that you ended Halo 3 in, you know this is a Halo game that has been visually amped up. From the textures of the ship, the lighting used, to your first encounter with the familiar Covenant, all of these look different then those in the past, and much improved. And after you manage to get off the ship and explore each level you will see that they too all manage to have a very refined look to them. The lighting and animations are pretty darn good and I have to say that I was somewhat taken back by how the whole game looked. Pundits can put their worries aside as every level, enemy, ship, vehicle, weapon and everything else on screen looks great.
As for the game’s cutscenes, they are good too. There is a heightened level of detail in them and they are great to watch. They don’t seem to use the in-game engine, so you know when you are watching them, as they look slightly different then the actual gameplay. This was not an issue for me, but those looking for consistency in this area may complain a bit given that there is a difference to be noted.
If there is any complaint in this area, it is that you may find some strange death animations now and then, and some of the movements of your enemies, especially the Covenant, look strangely like they were pulled out from past games. I also found that when piloting the Banshee I could get hung up on things in the level, and this was reminiscent of Halo games I have played before. All this being said, I guess this is to be expected though as Halo 4 is built on the “backbone” of past Halo graphic engines and it explains some of these issues.
In regards to the audio, this is yet another strong aspect of the game. First and foremost is the game’s soundtrack. Halo games have always had strong music and Halo 4 is no different. What is new though is that Marty O’Donnell, who has handled music duties for the previous games, has left and a new lead composer by the name of Neil Davidge take the reigns as 343 wanted to start fresh. I have to say that I am duly impressed with what Mr. Davidge has accomplished in this area, as the music is amazing. Each track suits the gameplay action to a tee and on many occasions I found myself reaching for my remote to turn it up loud, it was that good. It amps up in just the right sections and calms down when it needs too. I have downloaded the soundtrack to my computer so I can listen to it as I work. Bravo to Mr. Davidge for what he has done here.
The voice acting in Halo 4 is fairly well done too. Back are Steve Downes and Jen Taylor as they reprise their roles as Master Chief and Cortana. The dialogs these two engage in during the game is great and helps move the story along. You’ll also come across new UNSC personnel, new allies, and some new enemy characters in the game that I cannot speak about in this review. Regardless, the voice acting for all of them is great and plays out well during key moments of the game. Of course there is also banter during battle too, from the sound of your UNSC support to those of the Covenant. What was notable here is that none of the Covenant speak English this time, so you won’t hear a grunt state “He is here” as he runs away. They speak in what I assume is their native Covenant tongue this time around.
Wrapping up the audio is the game’s sound effects. Right off the hop I noted that the all the weapons, from UNSC based to Covenant based, sound different from past games. From the Assault Rifle to the Battle Rifle to the Needler and Plasma Pistol, all sound very different. The new sounds associated with these existing weapons are great. Wait until the first time you fire the UNSC Sniper Rifle or the Covenant equivalent Beam Rifle. It is pretty darn cool. New in this area are Forerunner weapons, and the first time you pick one up and it assembles in your hands is neat, and the sound is just as good as all the other weapons. We cannot forget about all the other sounds either, such as grenade explosions, the sound of Master Chief as he walks or runs, to the sound of all the game’s different environments or meleeing an enemy up close, they are all good and all help the gameplay experience. Should you be playing this game on a home theater like sound system, make sure to have your remote close at hand so you can turn it up and enjoy the surround sound effects that take place.
Halo 4 is a game that has been a long time coming, and with a new developer in control many were worried. I can honestly say that these worries should be tossed aside. This latest entry into the world of the Halo universe offers up solid visuals, great sound, and some very addictive gameplay, both offline and online. The narrative that is put forth is simply amazing as it provides a new beginning with the Reclaimer Saga and the addition of the new Spartan Ops mode is simply brilliant as it adds even more story to an already great tale. Sure, some may complain the familiarity of the gameplay is a bad thing, but in the end, even though you do get a recognizable feeling when playing, the overall experience that Halo 4 provides is very enjoyable and one that you should not miss. Welcome back Master Chief, the wait has been far too long.