Halo is back with a bang, but forgot some features
Before I start, I want to lay out what I love about past halo games, I believe the games offers many options and features and people value certain aspects much more so than others. Hopefully knowing where I come from will allow perspective on my review.
The campaign of combat evolved was where i originally fell in love with the series. The tight combat, the various ways you could approach encounters and the way seemingly huge battles with seamless transition to vehicle combat, could feel as focused and enjoyable as small interior encounters. The re-playability and puzzle like aspect encounters produce when played on higher difficulties and the enormous fun that experiencing it all is in co-op. The later games enhanced this re-playability with the addition of skull modifiers and campaign scoring to allow an almost arcade score attack co-op mode. I've replayed the various campaigns so many times with friends and each time new and interesting fun ensues.
The multiplayer from Halo 2 and 3 was the most addicted I’ve been to a game and I’ve played my fair share of Quake, Counterstrike and Battlefield. With an industry these days almost entirely focused on modern military shooters, halo's longer engagement times and lack of ADS, allow for dynamic and faced paced action and make it feel truly unique.
The competitive ranking systems in halo 2 and 3 also heavily promoted teamwork and communication, placing heavy emphasis on team performance over the individual, which lead to very close and hard fought games.
So how does 343's first attempt stack up? Well it takes some major steps forward, but also some major steps back. The graphics are largely fantastic, new lighting and better IQ, along with some fantastic art really pushes the series to a new level. It does however come with trade backs, Bungie's epic 3d skyboxes are out and enemies or objects viewed from a distance seem blurry. It seems the game has a more severe LOD system and at times excessive bloom. I had trouble picking out enemies in vehicle sections from a distance because of this, but on a whole the trade-offs seem fair and balanced, there is only so much you can push out of seven year old hardware. Encounters remain fun and dynamic, with multiple ways to tackle situations and the missions feel much more consistent without any standout lows like Cortana or the Library from previous games. There are some brilliant moments that had me on the edge of my seat and the new promethean enemies varied things up from previous games, while also fitting seamlessly into the general sandbox. It would have been nice to see some Promethean vehicles added and maybe a couple more enemy types, but what’s in is fun and fits.
The story had me engaged and interested for the most part. It felt better focused than previous games and I always felt my motives for wreaking havoc were clearly conveyed and made sense. The dialogue maintains true halo traditions of sometimes being stupidly cheesy and can pull you out of the moment. With that said, the cinematics due to new facial animation tec are fantastic in conveying emotion and are brilliantly directed. Ignoring the sometimes cringe worthy dialoge, they are head and shoulders above anything else I’ve seen from a game.
However campaign is missing some staple features from previous games; scoring and theatre have been removed. No longer can you have a score attack competition with friends or view amazing and crazy moments again. 343 have said theatre may be added down the line if they can get it working with their new rendering engine, but there's currently no news on why scoring was removed or if it may be added in the future.
Multiplayer feels at once like a breath of fresh air after the disappointing Halo Reach. Games are faster paced, with better movement speeds and higher jump heights, you no longer feel sluggish and vulnerable. The addition of sprint and instant re-spawn in slayer; give you the ability to quickly get into action and keep games flowing nicely. Armour abilities and perks feel subtle and well balanced allowing you to customize some traits to better suit your play style. As of yet nothing seems overpowed or game breaking like Reach's armour Lock, but only time will tell if this is the case. The ability to pick your starting weapon is also long overdue and 343 have done a great job in making each of these weapons feel useful, balanced, but also unique. The initial map selection is also fantastic, great sightlines, flow and variety throughout. They are for the most part larger in scale, but with the addition of sprint, they never feel too big. The basic mechanics feel like halo, but the additions and tweaks make it feel new, interesting and a blast to play.
However, the game is definitely not aimed at competitive players at this time, the lack of visible in game ranking and the inclusion of join in progress in all playlists means that winning takes a back seat to individual progress. If you were hoping for a return to the addictive levelling from halo 2 and 3, you will be sadly disappointed. 343 have said they will be adding a ranking system next year, viewable on waypoint, but without its inclusion in game it seems a fruitless gesture.
Spartan ops is a new episodic co-op mode which releases a new cinematic and five bite sized missions per week. Missions are roughly 10 -15 minutes each and take place in locations taken from campaign, but also in entirely new areas. The missions throw many more enemies at you than campaign and are a lot more hectic. I had great fun attempting these solo on legendary. This mode however lacks skulls, so no adjusting the difficulty from the pre-set norms, which can make four player a bit easy. The story is delivered by a cinematic and then through in game radio chatter. The first cinematic is truly jaw dropping and has me excited to see where 343 can take this episodic model.
So is this the greatest halo game to date? For me personally no, but it really comes down to what parts of the halo sandbox you place value in. The graphics are a huge leap forward for the series, the art is beautiful and the cinematics are a leap forward in conveying emotion from characters. The story is more focused, if still slightly confusing at times and the dialoge has some extremely cheesy moments. The exclusion of campaign scoring, theatre and competitive ranks however, left me bouncing between awe at what 343 had accomplished and annoyance at what was missing. At the end of the day though, for any and all faults, I still found it a complete blast to play.