Halo 4 Review: A New Dawn
Halo is the most venerated of Xbox series, mainly due to the first Halo putting the original Xbox on the map and making it a legitimate platform with a future in the industry. Bungie crafted Halo into one of the finest shooting franchises in gaming, attaining a stunning level of quality not only in gameplay but also in its mythos, scale and production values. Halo provided players with an outstanding trilogy of games as well as 2 excellent spin-offs in ODST and Reach, and Bungie left the franchise with their own arc concluded and a sprawling background of possibilities ready to be tapped by any new talent Microsoft wanted to hand the series to for future releases. With such a great legacy to follow, developer 343 Industries had a mountain of a task if they were to meet the previous heights of Halo in this latest sequel. With so many challenges and expectations on the shoulders of 343, did they manage to maintain the quality of the series, and has the game made any changes to its formula, avoiding becoming stagnant despite a change of developer?
Halo 4 picks off right where Halo 3 left us, with Master Chief in stasis and Cortana keeping a handle of things as the ruined Forward Unto Dawn drifts through space awaiting rescue from the UNSC. Suddenly the ship comes under attack after drifting into a force of hostile Covenant ships in orbit around a mysterious planet. The Forward Unto Dawn crashes onto the surface of this unexplored world known as Requiem, and then the adventure begins, as Chief and Cortana look to find a way back to Earth. A new enemy force makes an appearance, with the Cybernetic Prometheans opposing the Master Chief throughout the game. The Covenant are back again, and the antagonist of the game is a powerful villain that provides a lethal new threat to humanities existence in the galaxy. I do feel that it’s a bit of a shame that 343 didn't completely leave the Covenant and UNSC behind completely, embarking on something new and different without the requirement to refer to any of the previous races in Halo. The setting quickly feels like it falls back into old troupes of this series, which really did strike me like a missed opportunity, but 343 make good on what is well worn ground.
The strength of the story in Halo 4 is the relationship between Cortana and Masterchief. Cortana is degrading rapidly, having entered service 8 years prior to the events of Halo 4, and the drama surrounding the process of her rampancy and the Chief’s reaction to losing the one thing that makes him human is the soul of the story. Master Chief is fleshed out as a character for the first time in the series, and really feels like a legendary hero at this point. The game does a great job at leaning on all the interactions that players have had with Cortana and Chief over the years to really hit hard with this key relationship, and it works brilliantly. However, outside of the excellently portrayed relationship between Chief and Cortana, I have a lot of issues with the story of Halo 4.
Firstly and most egregiously is that Halo 4 relies on the expanded lore of the Halo series as fundamental pillars of its story. I have played every Halo game but am not interested in reading the books or consuming any tie-in media, and I was surprised by a lot of the information that Halo 4 seems to assume the player should know. Its very annoying and actually damaged my investment in this series as these lore points weaken the Halo universe in my view. The villain comes out of nowhere, the reaction of the UNSC to finding the Chief lacks impact in the context of how important Master Chief is, and some events near the end of the game are a bit silly. For all of this Halo 4 is not a bad story, it just makes a lot of mistakes in the way it tells it. To its credit, the game has excellent pacing that matches the like of Bioshock and Half-Life, I just wish it didn't rely on the expanded universe so heavily.
Visually the series has never looked better than Halo 4. The game is the most impressive 360 exclusive that I have played, with crisp graphics that really stand out. Its amazing to see what the aging 360 is capable of producing at the end of its life cycle, and I feel that Halo 4 really gets the most out of the machine. Incredible particle effects, sublime lighting and lovely texture quality combine with strong art direction to form a cohesive vision that feels alive and energetic. It really is a stunning looking game from a technical perspective, managing to maintain a good frame rate despite the intense levels of explosions and enemy activity that can occur at times.
The artistic design of the levels, with their grand vistas and instantly recognisable architecture brought me right back into the universe of Halo. The Covenant, Forerunner and Human building styles are burned into the consciousness of a Halo player at this stage, but they look stunning in Halo 4. The backdrops are also beautiful, with some rich jungle environments contrasted beautifully with the raining ash of a ship crash and the cold beauty of space environments. Halo 4 also nails the design of enemies and character models in general. The Covenant are back and have been slightly redesigned to look slightly updated over previous iterations, but retaining all the familiarity at the same time. The new enemies, the Prometheans, look fantastic, with interlocking metallic appendages morphing around each other in a way that reminded me of the suits in Dead Space. The game also has striking cutscenes that improve upon anything that the series has done before, along with much greater effort and detail poured into facial animations.
The music of Halo has always been incredible for me thanks to the work of Marty O’Donnell. However, 343 have changed things up and handed the reins over to Neil Davidge, who has changed the tone of the tracks and created more sombre, subtle and ambiance focused music to accompany the game. None of these tracks are as powerful as the monk chants and exciting pieces that O’Donnell created for the series in the past, but they do compliment the game nicely throughout its length without ever taking over a scene the way the music of Halo could in the past. Voice acting is solid throughout, with the Chief actually coming across as a fleshed out character this time round and Cortana stealing the show for most of the game. The Didact is voiced very well and really captures the tone of an intimidating villain, and overall its an impressive voice casting job.
Halo 4 has been had many subtle refinements to its gameplay from past entries in the series. The core shooting is the same as ever, with the outstanding free flowing and tactical combat that I love in Halo. Enemies are smart and reactive, and the Prometheans can be a real challenge. The knights take a lot of damage to put down, and airborne robotic enemies can spawn shields, turrets and throw your grenades back at you. The Covenant are the same as ever, but Elites are still a fantastically fun and interesting enemy to fight against. The environments are generally large and open, allowing the maximum amount of player strategy in the combat in a way that Call of Duty and its scripted ilk have never managed to obtain. The weapons I love are all, mostly, back, and the famous combat puzzle mechanics are beautifully intact here. You can also sprint now, which is a nice change as the Halo games always were a little bit plodding in terms of movement speed, and you do not need an armour ability like Reach in order to sprint, its always available to the player. The armour abilities and equipment introduced in Reach does make a return, granting players additional options for combat.
The new Promethean weapons, while powerful, are not as interesting or fun as the classic Halo equipment, but they in no way detract from the game. The vehicles that I have always loved in Halo are also present, and we even get to pilot a Pelican for the first time, shooting down Covenant dropships and causing mayhem. Also, the Mantis is an excellent addition to the cast. Having said that I do think that the campaign of Halo 4 is tame and not the best that the series has ever produced. There are a lot of indoor sections reminiscent of Halo Combat Evolved, and there are no incredible stand out moments like taking on two Scarabs at once or racing a Warthog against time, but there are also no awful levels like the "Library" or "Cortana". Its a solid campaign, with excellent pacing and direction, but it just lacks the steel heart of Halo 3 or the thematic moments of Reach. The campaign is also a bit on the short side, taking me about 6 hours on normal, but it does not outstay its welcome and the higher difficulties turn Halo 4 into a devilish experience that demands co-op partners.
The multiplayer has undergone some major changes. There are now class loadouts that can be customised, and a ranking system that gives players points to spend on new equipment and abilities as they level up. Its very CoD like, but don't panic, it works really well in Halo 4, and has me completely hooked. Its a deep and involving experience, allowing multiple strategies to be employed against other people. The levels are much better than what I found to be relatively lazy and wholly underwhelming multiplayer maps in Reach, and allow a variety of combat options. Team Slayer is the bread and butter of the mp, and you can now call in ordance drops which removes the ability for a team to control sections of the map to win just because that is where the rocket launcher spawns. This may sound bad to the Halo fanatics, but it is an exciting change to the series and I think it makes the multiplayer richer as well as making Halo 4 independent from the rest of the series in a small but noticeable way. Plenty of other modes are present, and forge and theatre make a welcome return. All this makes Halo 4 the biggest shooter on the market in terms of sheer size and what you are getting for your money, and I believe you really get your monies worth from this multiplayer offering.
Halo 4 is an excellently designed game, with truly thoughtful changes made to the multiplayer, and carefully crafted maps and levels for both the campaign and the online. Everything that is in the game just clicks together to offer a cohesive package. I had virtually no technical issues with the game, with a frame rate slowdown on two occasions being the only blemish that I can remember. One thing that 343 could be faulted for on the design front is that the multiplayer is requires a second disc to be installed, and this means that people without a large enough hard drive or with a full one are out of luck.
I also have to question the decision to remove Firefight from the game and replace it with Spartan Ops. I though that Firefight was the best wave based mode outside of Gears of War, but 343 have placed in a story focused set of missions instead, which are fine but are not as fun or fluent as Firefight can be at its best. This is not a major blow to the game, but it does come across as strange that one of the best new trapping of recent Halo games got removed. Beyond this I can only admire how well 343 managed to maintain the feel of Halo while just about managing to make it feel different enough to be the start of a new trilogy.
Halo 4 is a transition point in the history of the series, and could have potentially been a disaster despite its huge budget, like the recent Resident Evil 6 proved to be. However, 343 came good and made a Halo game through and through, but with largely its own identity. The multiplayer is outstanding, and the campaign is completely solid despite being more subdued than previous Halo games. Halo 4 is one of the finest shooting games I have ever played, and I think that if this is the last full calendar year of the Xbox 360 as a frontline platform then Halo 4 is a damn fine product to sign out on. It is not the best Halo game I have ever played, but it is one of the most whole games and deserves to be experienced. The new Halo trilogy is off to a good start with Halo 4, and while this title has a lot of strengths there are issues with the campaign and story that need to be addressed in the next installment.. I just hope that 343 can improve on these issues while keeping the outstanding multiplayer intact.
- Strong ambience that drawsa upon core character relationships
- Sweeping tactical combat with fun weapons and vehicles
- Stunning visuals and environments
- Great multiplayer maps and modes
- Plot relies on knowing the expanded lore
- Waypoint is used to watch terminal footage
- Tepid and slightly disappointing campaign
- Installing the 2nd disc
- How long has that suit been on the Chief now?
- 7/10 - Good