It can’t be an easy task to take over a long established franchise, yet that is the task at hand for 343 Industries and the “Halo” series. The developers at Bungie left a stellar track record with five “Halo” games dating back to the original in 2001, a game that jumpstarted the Xbox console. Eleven years later, 343 is expected to raise the FPS bar while appeasing purists and the eSports community. A mission this difficult is better suited for Master Chief rather than a team of developers. But based on the excellence of “Halo 4,” this is no ordinary team of developers.
I’d like to preface what I’m about to say by saying “Halo 4” wouldn’t be the game it is without its predecessors. Bungie laid the groundwork and created the standard, much like the forerunners of the Halo universe. Then 343 Industries examined the franchise and did what it took to surpass it and raise that standard. Yes, “Halo 4” is the best game of the series.
A story of a different kind
Every game in the series that features Master Chief as the protagonist has the basic theme of overcoming insurmountable odds. Chief is perpetually faced with endless hoards of Covenant forces in vehicles with fear-inducing names like “Wraith” or “Ghost.” He even takes down a gigantic Scarab at one point, which is leveling buildings up until John 117 shows up to save the day. No, it never matters what Earth’s personal savior is up against. As long as he has a shotgun in his hands and a rocket launcher on his back, Earth is safe.
“Halo 4” shifts the tone to the different and more thought-provoking angle of Master Chief’s psyche and, more specifically, his obscure relationship with his digital companion, Cortana. The story opens with Dr. Halsey being grilled by someone off-camera about the inhumane treatment of the humans used for the Spartan Project. He probes her mainly about John 117, implying that the only way he was able to complete his mission was because he was a broken soldier devoid of free will.
Following the events of “Halo 3,” Earth believes Chief and Cortana to be dead, but they have both been floating along in space; Chief being in cryo-sleep, and Cortana doing… well, whatever it is she does to pass the time. Something intercepts the ship, which causes Cortana to wake the Chief. The Covenant have invaded the ship, but something larger is at work. The ship is being pulled into the synthetic planet of Requiem. The Covenant is no longer the greatest threat to mankind. The fabled Forerunners have returned.
There are a lot of confusing scenes and dialogue with sci-fi lingo that will vex the majority of players who haven’t delved into “Halo’s” expanded universe of books, but the central focus is always on Chief and Cortana. We learn that the designated lifespan of an AI is six years, and Cortana has been active for seven. This protocol is in place due to AIs becoming “rampant,” a form of AI insanity. Cortana’s mental state slowly deteriorates, making the missions more panicked and urgent. “Halo 4” promotes an emotional attachment to the characters much more than any other game in the series.
A sequel that feels like a sequel
Not since “Halo 3” have the games in the series felt like genuine progression. “Halo 3: ODST” was a glorified expansion on “Halo 3,” and “Halo: Reach” never felt like the leap that it was touted as being. In “Halo 4,” that leap is evident. It feels new, yet familiar.
Aesthetically, this is the best looking “Halo” to date, and in the running for most gorgeous game on the Xbox 360. Lighting effects are unparalleled. Gun detail from the design to the reloads has never been better. The enemies look far more realistic, rather than the comedic style of the grunts in every “Halo” preceding this.
Every game in the series has had a soundtrack of its own style, and this one is no different. It’s also one of the best soundtracks of the year. It so aptly captures the tone of each scene, whether it’s a heartfelt exchange between Chief and Cortana or an awe-inspiring discovery of a Forerunner artifact. It’s certainly the most memorable collection of music since the original game.
The duo of voices, Steve Downs and Jen Taylor, reprises their roles respectively as Master Chief and Cortana. More range is asked of them due to the emotional gravity of the script, and both deliver top-notch performances.
Each of the above facets creates a game with outstanding presentation. “Halo” always delivers the gloss of a triple-A video game, and “Halo 4” delivers in all categories.
New, yet familiar gameplay
The new default control scheme is like a “Halo”/ “Call of Duty” hybrid. Sprinting is no longer an armor ability like it was in “Halo: Reach,” as every Spartan can run for a limited time by clicking the left stick. Since clicking the left stick is used to sprint, the crouch action has been moved to the B-button. Melee is still handled by the left bumper, and zooming is once again done by clicking on the right stick.
Following the “new, yet familiar” theme, gunplay has a Halo vibe, but the action feels much more fast-paced. Since every Spartan can spring, and others can sprint infinitely (more on that later), players can zip across the map with ease. Even the normal movement feels snappier than previous “Halos.”
Don’t expect to be as indestructible as the soldiers in the previous games. The weaker shield takes some early adjustment. But again, this increases the game’s speed with quicker kills and quicker deaths.
Every weapon category has some new additions. The human arsenal contains both a Battle Rifle and DMR, plus newcomers like a sticky launcher – which fires a remote-detonated grenade – and Rail Gun, which is similar to the Spartan Laser of “Halo 3.” The Covenant made some changes to their weaponry as well. For example, the Storm Rifle replaced the oft-ignored plasma rifle.
The new lineup of Forerunner weaponry is the biggest addition. This new lineup has one weapon that falls in each category (pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, precision rifle, sniper rifle and launcher), but they behave differently than their human and Covenant counterparts. If nothing else, they provide more variety and choice.
Now that the new gameplay mechanics have been explained, let’s address the elephant in the room: Multiplayer.
The heart of Halo: Multiplayer
Herein lies 343’s biggest hurdle, because if multiplayer is anywhere from lackluster to completely broken, there won’t be any residual players – and they are the lifeblood of a first-person shooter. Fortunately, the multiplayer action (now called “War Games”) in “Halo 4” is excellent, but is not without a few faults.
The concept of armor abilities in “Halo: Reach” was a solid launch pad for the fully realized customization of “Halo 4.” Rather than a list of a few special abilities to choose from, each Spartan has customizable loadouts. Primary and secondary weapons can be altered as well as grenade types, Support Upgrades and Tactical Packages, which are new to the “Halo” series.
Both Support Upgrades and Tactical Packages act as perks. Examples of Support Upgrades are carrying more ammunition, being able to see your motion sensor when scoped, or reloading at a faster speed. Meanwhile, Tactical Packages allow infinite running, spawning with two primary weapons, or faster shield recharge.
After reaching a new multiplayer skill level, you earn a Spartan Point. Spartan Points can be used to unlock any of the above customization choices.
Multiplayer also introduces “Ordinances,” a variation of killstreaks. A small, circular icon can be seen on the left of the HUD, which gradually fills by scoring kills, assists, and generally helping your team. Once the circle is full, the Spartan receives an ordinance or a support package. Three random items appear at the top of the screen that can range from a power weapon to an overshield to an increased damage buff. The player makes the choice with the D-Pad, and the ordinance is delivered to his or her location. Players can earn as many ordinances as their performance yields, and the meter does not reset after a death.
343 Industries incorporated some changes to catch “Halo 4” up to the other shooters on the market. Friendly fire is gone, games of team slayer are now up to 60 kills instead of 50, and drop-in/drop out multiplayer is in effect, making uneven teams a thing of the past.
The maps are well designed and completely new for the sequel, which is a welcomed bonus considering there have been plenty of remakes in recent years. Team Slayer has a five-map rotation, but could use more. With only five being constantly recycled, it did get repetitive. Other maps get added to the deck in different modes of play.
I did experience some latency problems, but it should be noted that online play was tested before the game’s release, and these issues could be fixed with a simple update. Simultaneous kills, and not just simultaneous beat downs, were a major problem for me. They happened much more often than in “Halo: Reach’s” competitive play and were quite frustrating.
Regardless of these issues, “Halo 4’s” multiplayer is certainly different enough to set it apart from its predecessors, while staying true to its roots and managing not to alienate “Halo’s” loyal fans.
“Spartan Ops” is a completely new multiplayer mode implemented in “Halo 4,” and replaces the popular Firefight. This mode is a ten-episode series of missions that follows a team of Spartan Soldiers. Each episode is made up of five chapters, which each take around ten to fifteen minutes to complete. A new episode will release weekly and free of charge.
At first glance, this looks like a shoddy replacement for the renowned Firefight mode, but it’s actually one of the more creative modes in modern first-person shooters. By the end of the ten-episode season, “Spartan Ops” will give players a ten-hour story with its own dialog, cut-scenes, and plot.
Pumping up the difficulty to Legendary and jumping in the action with three friends is a blast. Lives are infinite, making the mode less stressful, with a bigger emphasis on fun-factor. In that respect, it surely delivers.
Master Chief delivers again
Fans of the “Halo” series have been looking forward to a full-fledged sequel to their beloved franchise for years now, and now that it’s finally here there’s a lot riding on it. Will the community accept the new fast-paced style and gameplay changes? We’ll have to wait and see. But 343 Industries created a “Halo” of their own, while staying true to the groundwork laid by Bungie before them. “Halo 4” is a huge stride for the series and shows progression in the genre alone. This is one of this year’s best.
9.5 out of 10
Feels like a real sequel rather than an expansion
Experienced some latency issues online
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