Better or worse, the Master Chief is back
If you're not mentioning Call of Duty as one of gaming's top-tier shooters, it's usually Halo. On the flipside, if the answer for the most overrated and/or overexposed shooter wasn't Call of Duty, it was usually Halo. Wildly successful and influential in showing console shooters can actually work, the franchise is now in the hands of a new developer, taking on a new storyline and in hopes, starting up yet another successful trilogy of games. An excellent campaign, a rather unique and potentially innovative co-op mode and the same addictive multiplayer suite returns but at the same time it doesn't carve out its own niche and instead becomes "another really great Halo game but not much else".
The story takes place 4 years after the events of Halo 3 with the Master Chief and his AI pal Cortana lost adrift in space aboard the Forward Unto Dawn. After being woken up, they find their ship boarded by the Covenant and close to the Forerunner shield-world of Requiem. Landing on the planet's surface, Master Chief and Cortana try to find a way to get back to Earth, deal with a new alien threat as well as the increasingly destabilizing Cortana.
A level back in Halo 2 meant to recall the horribleness of the "Library" from the original game was entitled "That Old Familiar Feeling". While it can apply to most gaming franchises anyway, that level title might encapsulate the Halo 4 campaign. The minute-to-minute gameplay is as exciting and energetic as its always been. Vehicle sections where you mow down enemies, dealing with a variety of enemy types and figuring out not only how they should be beaten but which ones should be prioritized and the large-map designs allowing for an almost improvisational combat, it's not really anything you haven't seen before. Whether they're finding their footing and didn't want to get too ambitious or just simply they didn't want to alienate fans by making a Halo game not feel like Halo, 4 definitely plays like one but maybe one you've played already. One major plus is that there is no "dead" levels a la The Library (Halo: CE), Cortana (Halo 3) or Data Hive (ODST) and the structure of the campaign and the combat scenarios are still as engaging as ever but there's also no standouts. There's no Silent Cartographer or taking on both scarabs at once or flying around in space but taken as a whole, the campaign is still one of the better ones in the series.
Another main contributor to the campaign is the music but new composer Neil Davidge, known for his work producing Massive Attack. Listening to the soundtrack independent of the game, you'll find bold, sweeping themes and those grandiose "epic" pieces that makes Halo 4 feel larger than life. Listening in-game however and the soundtrack doesn't elevate, it complements. It doesn't lift up the proceedings, it supports it. While occasionally the music helps certain sections, prior Halo music when it really kicked in and got going was key in making that combat even more rousing, here it just simply helps it along with a few stellar tracks.
In terms of the story, you can definitely see them striking out on their own. More insight is being given to the Forerunners, new enemy types are introduced which brings to the fray new weapons and not having their trilogy set on the Flood or the Halo installations allows for more cooler story directions. And while the villain is a bit too wax-poetic "I'm a god in the face of the clashing seeds of your destruction" type nonsense, the emphasis is on our stars, the Chief and Cortana. The former seemingly gets more lines than likely all his prior games combined and shows a bit more humanity than the badass that he is (although he still does that stuff too) but it's the latter that practically steals the show. In Halo lore, an AI active for longer than 7 years starts to develop into a state called "rampancy" which results in the AI's "death". The interplay between Chief and Cortana really becomes the heart of the story and its delivered near perfectly. While I might jinx it or really acting on high praise but Jen Taylor deserves the recognition for her work here.
Once the campaign's done (which is roughly 7-10 hours depending on difficulty) you can go one of 2 ways, Spartan Ops or multiplayer. Spartan Ops is sort of the new form of co-op missions and the concept of it is quite intriguing. Almost becoming like a TV show, frequent updates will arrive in the form of new chapters and missions that'll take place 6 months after campaign's over. Played locally or online up to 4 players, it's quite neat to see a more constantly-updated co-op mode that's story centric yet at the same time for me personally these never had the staying power of other cooperative modes. Replay value will be relative but I do miss the exclusion of firefight since the missions themselves are fun yet maybe not one you'd replay many times.
Then we have the multiplayer which feels like a combination of Halo and many other shooters that have come out since Combat Evolved. 2 biggest changes come in the form of loadouts and ordnance drops. Loadouts are pretty self explanatory with the unlocks tied to hitting a certain rank or completing a challenge where spending points to purchase whatever you feel like provided you have enough. This can make the online feel like a tug-of-war between the old Halo that provided billions of matches (literally) and that other popular shooter. This also shows up with the ordnance where obtaining certain medals like double kills, assassinations and what have you will fill up a bar which can then be spent on acquiring one of 3 random power-ups of some kind, from overshields to damage boosts, from shotguns to sniper rifles. Whereas prior Halo games were all about weapon control and knowing the spawns of them, it does feel strange to all of a sudden be given access to a sniper without the struggle over who gets it first but it does make the action a bit more chaotic and fun in a weird way.
If I was to sum up Halo 4 in a negative way it's that it feels like a Bungie game and not a 343 Industries one with a clear line of separation of "this is how they used to do things, and here's how we're gonna do things". Combat, aside from weapons and enemy types, remains largely unchanged and the campaign structure of pushing a lot of buttons or doing a bunch of things in 3's (kill 3 generators, switch off 3 systems etc) can feel repetitive. But in a positive way, it's still an incredibly crafted shooter with a clear reverence and respect for the franchise rather than a money-seeking rush job and the multiplayer suite with the confirmed 3 map packs and spartan ops missions coming makes Halo 4 another excellent time sink during the holidays and beyond.