When Halo: Reach launched, the future of the Halo games became rather uncertain. Sure, we knew that Microsoft had formed 343 Industries to shepherd the series now that Bungie was moving on from the games that made them famous, but there were still doubts as to whether 343i had the chops to take over. Their first video game effort didn’t come until 2011 with the re-release of Halo: Combat Evolved. While it was a nice update to this classic game, it was still just standing on the shoulders of giants.
Leading up to Halo 4 you could kind of sense the uncertainty surrounding it. An unproven studio with Microsoft’s most valuable franchise making a game that promised to uphold everything Halo stood for? 343i was in a tricky position, because if they played it too close to Bungie’s territory they’d be looked down on and if their Halo was wildly different, the backlash would have been immense. They needed to strike a balance between making a Halo game while at the same time moving it in an entirely new direction. Now that the game is finally out, have they become the Reclaimers to Bungie’s Forerunners?
The campaign in Halo 4 has the dubious task of kicking off a brand new trilogy and while I am not sure it succeeds at that ambitious task, it does have a compelling story to tell. The problem is that story is stashed away in hidden terminals, which when found will unlock a cinema detailing the origins and motivations of the antagonist. Even then you can’t watch them in-game, but on Halo Waypoint, either on your PC or 360, but outside of the actual game. A mind-numbing decision to be sure, but putting aside all that and focusing on the Chief and Cortana reveals a touching relationship that had me close to tears by the endgame. I’ve played all the Halo games and this is the first one that I actually gave a crap about the Chief and Cortana and for that, 343 deserves a salute.
Picking up four years after the end of Halo 3, we find the Chief where we left him, floating through space on the back half of the Forward Unto Dawn. The opening of Halo 4 makes a lot of callbacks to the introduction we get to the Chief in the very first Halo: climbing out of a cryopod, running through corridors and landing on an alien construct that we know nothing about. Halo 4 recaptures the sense of mystery and grandeur that the first game instilled in us when we drove a Warthog around the rolling hills of Halo 04 for the first time.
The new enemies in Halo 4, the Prometheans, are interesting to fight, especially on higher difficulties. The Crawlers pop with one easy headshot, but the Knights are the real trouble. They’re fast, strong, and have the tiniest headshot hitbox in the history of gaming. Couple that with the Watchers and their shielding and reviving abilities and these foes can cause you some trouble. There are new weapons in Halo 4, but they’re basically re-skins of the human arsenal. The grenades in Halo 4 have been tuned so that they’re almost useless for anything other than scattering foes as even a dead-on sticky will only injure an Elite on Legendary.
343 Industries put a lot of polish into the visual aspects of this game, as Halo 4 is easily the best the series has ever looked. From the opening cut-scene to the massive environments that you’re wandering around in, Halo 4 reeks of the hundreds of man hours it took to craft these vistas. The new soundtrack from Neil Davidge makes strides in a new direction, but it’s hard to get out of the shadow that Marty O’Donnell has cast over these games in this respect. In a nice homage, you do hear the Gregorian chant at one point during the campaign.
A lot has changed since Halo was king of the multiplayer hill. Call of Duty’s level-up system of progression has swept the industry and though Bungie viewed it as an anathema, 343 has jumped in with no remorse, but all the while making it feel like Halo. The new weapons add some variety without unbalancing the core mechanics and the new modes, such as Dominion, are a blast to play.
Instead of Firefight we get Spartan Ops, weekly story-based episodes that take place six months after the conclusion of the campaign. These are fun to play, but by the 5th episode, have begun to get stale. Repetitive maps, objectives and absolutely inane, boring story elements that border on anti-intellectual and anti-science all serve to leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste in this Spartan’s mouth. Rather than bother with level design, 343 is content to just throw waves and waves of enemies with overpowered weapons at you until the joy of combat is replaced by the tedium of repeated deaths. They are on hiatus until January and I hope they take that time to freshen things up and come back with some new ideas. I used to look forward to new episodes, but after Episode 5, my enthusiasm is somewhat dampened.
Right away the first thing you’ll notice is that Halo 4 is much faster than any of the Bungie games, but it feels like a natural progression for the series. Pressing “X” during the kill cam will get you back into the fight immediately, albeit further back from the action than simply waiting for the countdown timer to run out would place you. Accumulating enough kills during Infinity Slayer will net you an ordnance drop, which is a power weapon or a player modifier dropping in at your location. Much like the care packages in Call of Duty, these can be stolen by the opposing team, so take care where you call them in.
Player progression is the most fleshed out its been in Halo, with a huge variety of custom armor pieces to put on your Spartan IV. This system works great and doesn’t have the Warrant Officer leveling slog that Halo: Reach had, but in a strange move 343 Industries has decided to lock the emblems away from the player until they reach the appropriate rank. Hiding away armor pieces is fine, but keeping the emblems from players just looks like padding.
343 Industries has added a bunch of great new modes to multiplayer, but the player base mostly gravitates towards the Slayer gametypes. It’s a shame, really, because Dominion and Regicide are a ton of fun, especially since they added a Team option to Regicide. The maps in Halo 4 are really well made, but Haven seems to be the most popular map for the smaller game types, so much so that you’ll end up playing it almost every round whether you want to or not. That said, Halo 4’s multiplayer is an absolute blast and I can see it having a pair of very long legs.
343 Industries has done an incredible thing with Halo 4, striking a perfect balance between Bungie’s games and taking the series in a new direction. The game has polish to spare and is one of the best Halo campaigns to date. The story beats between Chief and Cortana keep you moving along even when the overarching plot will have you scratching your head and the multiplayer will have you coming back for more, especially with the rotating Challenges.
While Halo 4 seemed to be fighting a tide of hesitation pre-release, Microsoft and 343i should be proud of what they’ve thrown together. Even if the game does play it safe in some respects, most notably the weapons, the Reclaimer Trilogy is off to a grand start.
Anthony and Mitch’s Score
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