An Excellent New Halo
When it comes to being a new development studio taking on an existing franchise, your first job can’t get much bigger than Halo. There had been considerable debate up until the launch of Halo 4 over whether 343 Industries could really take the reins from ex-developer Bungie and successfully create something that did justice to a series as influential and popular as Halo, but they have clearly delivered, and provided us with something that is both true to the series and adds a dash of something new.
The campaign mode of the game takes place four years after the events of Halo 3, with the Master Chief awakening from cryo-sleep when Cortana detects a strange signal running through the ship they are stranded on. Soon, the two find themselves shipwrecked on a mysterious planet and under attack by a hostile splinter group of the Covenant. Their plight is only made worse by Cortana’s descent into rampancy, a kind of AI madness, leading the Chief and Cortana to set out in an effort to make it off-world, and return Cortana to her creator to cure her condition.
The gameplay of Halo 4 is at its root everything you know from Halo. You have a recharging shield, you can jump considerable heights, you carry two weapons at a time, and there’s somewhat of an emphasis on melee attacks and grenades. It can’t be denied that that the basic mechanics of the game and the way everything handles still feel wonderful. Even all these years after Combat Evolved, the core gameplay of Halo is great fun to experience, and the old weapons remain very satisfying to wield. Unfortunately, the newer weaponry introduced in 4 feels a little lacking.
While all the guns are enjoyable to use, and Halo 4 gives the returning weaponry a sleek new coat of paint, most of the new weapons feel all too much like reskinned guns from previous games. There are genuinely interesting new firearms like the sticky detonator or the railgun, but many just run along the lines of being a new assault rifle, a new battle rifle, a new shotgun, and so on, and it’s a shame to see such an opportunity for 343 squandered.
A similar pattern can be seen with the enemies in Halo 4. There are three main new enemies in the game which are all clever in their own way; the teleporting Promethean knights, the wall-climbing Crawlers, and the Watchers, who try to protect other enemies on the battlefield, but outside of them, the enemies you face are the same Covenant baddies from previous games; the Grunts, the Hunters, the Elites, and the Jackals. This is disappointing considering that Halo 3 was largely about ending the Human-Covenant war, and their reappearance in Halo 4, while it does have a story justification, feels like a bit of a cop-out.
A significant number of the scenarios from the Halo 4 campaign are also reminiscent of parts of many of the previous games; Sections where you’re blasting through enemies in a Scorpion, sections where you’re driving a speeding vehicle through a collapsing environment, sections where you’re traipsing through a jungle shooting down enemies, etc. They’re all things we’ve seen in the past, and it would have been refreshing to see 343 do something more original with the game.
However, despite the retreading of familiar territory, the campaign feels grander than ever. As many holes as can be poked in it, the majority of the encounters in the campaign are still exciting, and the environments and landscapes presented in 4 are magnificent. In fact it’s just impressive how good the game looks in general. The model detail, the art design, and the lighting, both in-engine and in the pre-rendered cutscenes, are to be highly applauded, as are the detailed facial animations that really bring the characters to life. I think we all expected a considerable degree of polish on Halo 4, but even with that in mind, this game is aesthetically breathtaking.
Halo 4’s audio also deserves praise. The sound effects behind the guns give them a real kick, and the soundtrack, while perhaps not as memorable as those of previous Halo games, manages to take an admirable departure from the music of the series so far, but none the less retains a high degree of quality, particularly in its later tracks.
However, when it comes to the story, 4 is a bit of a mixed bag. In some ways the game manages to push the narrative further than ever before, but there are also clear problems throughout. For starters, the game doesn’t always do a good job of making it clear what exactly is going on. It’s possible to follow the plot without reading any of the extended Halo fiction or having read the terminals from Halo 3, but if you haven’t, it’s also possible to find yourself a little bemused by the events of the game, or their relevance to the Halo universe overall.
Additionally, the Master Chief still doesn’t feel like a particularly expressive or deep character, but that having been said, 343 should be commended for giving us a Master Chief who is more talkative than in previous games, and seems driven by a relatable goal; saving someone he cares about. Cortana’s rampancy in general makes for an interesting and rather affecting aspect of the game’s narrative, leading to some great moments where we see the usually confident Cortana in a more vulnerable state, and this is only enhanced by what is probably the best voice acting Jen Taylor has delivered during the entirety of the games. The ending is also of significant note, providing a touching and bold conclusion to 343’s first venture with the series.
Perhaps the side of Halo that has seen most changes though is the multiplayer. One of the most immediately noticeable things about Halo's new online mode is that the old scoring system for the deathmatch gametypes has been completely overhauled. Instead of just being based on how many kills you’ve racked up, the game borrows a little inspiration from titles like Call of Duty in how it scores you. Kill assists are now worth 5 points, standard kills are worth 10 points, and there are larger points bounties on offer for more skilful feats.
This scoring system comes across as just what the series needed, and makes it both feel like there’s a greater acknowledgement of your successes in the game, and that the multiplayer matches are fairer. There are no longer scenarios where scoring one kill is worth more than five assists, or situations where three separate kills are worth the same as three kills in quick succession. Seeing those points rack up also just feels good, and as they translate directly into experience points at the end of the match, you can see better than ever how your performance directly impacts the persistent rewards you receive.
Another big change that comes with 4 is the new loadout system. Just as you’ll find in many other popular multiplayer shooters, as you level up, you can unlock more weapons, armour abilities, and perks, and can put these together in various loadouts which you can switch between in-match. The game also eschews placing too many powerful weapons on the map, in favour of supplying them via “Ordinance Drops”, special rewards which can be obtained from gaining enough points to fill up a small meter on-screen. Once the meter is filled you can select from one of three different pieces of equipment to be dropped onto the map, including power-ups, weapons, and grenades.
The new loadout and ordinance systems allow all players to compete on a more level playing field, while also allowing you to tailor the game to your own preferred play style, and making it so that power weapons, like the rocket launcher or gravity hammer, are not just awarded to whoever can pick them up off of the map first, but are made available to more players, more often, and awarded under fairer criteria.
In addition, the multiplayer now includes killcams, which help lead to less of those “How the hell did that guy kill me?” moments, and in many gametypes, instant respawn, which means less sitting around after dying. Halo 4 also introduces two new gametypes; Regicide and Dominion. Regicide has players facing off against each other in a free-for-all deathmatch where there are extra points on offer for killing the player in first place, leading to a frantic scramble for pole position, while Dominion is a gametype not dissimilar to Battlefield 3’s Conquest mode, where players compete on large maps for control of various bases. The gametype has a rather epic scale to it and remains pretty consistently satisfying to play.
I can’t help but feel at the back of my mind that the series may have lost a little something in playing things so safe and taking most of its new mechanics from other popular shooters, as opposed to trying to introduce more mechanics that really set Halo apart from its competitors, but despite this, the game unmistakably remains Halo at its core, and in many ways these new additions feel like they bring Halo surging forward into the modern age of shooters.
Besides the campaign and competitive multiplayer, 4 also introduces a new mode, Spartan Ops, which consists of a series of levels that essentially play out like very short campaign missions, and are released on a weekly basis. The problem is the mode feels neither particularly challenging, nor rewarding. You have unlimited lives, there’s no penalty for dying apart from dropping your weapons, there’s no way to lose, story elements are minimal, and there’s no real scoring system outside of your kill count, which the game doesn’t care to display very prominently. It seems a bit of a mystery why the designers took the decisions behind Spartan Ops they did, and it sadly leaves the mode feeling very uninteresting, especially compared to the high quality campaign and competitive multiplayer.
Overall, 343 have not just done the series justice with Halo 4, but in many ways have reworked the components of the Halo franchise to make them better than ever. The Spartan Ops mode is unfortunately rather boring, and it would have been nice to see 343 push the boat out a little further in terms of originality, but these flaws are completely overshadowed by the areas in which the game excels. Halo 4 looks beautiful, provides a great journey in its campaign, and its changes to the Halo multiplayer make it fairer and more rewarding than ever. The newest instalment in the Halo series is fantastic fun for both rookies and veteran Spartans alike.