November 01, 2012
You’ve only got to look at the sales numbers for the Halo franchise to know one thing: Halo fans love Master Chief. Halo 1, 2 and 3 sold 6, 8 and 10 million units respectively, while out of the four games since, only one could reach those dizzy heights, shifting 7 million units sold – that was the brilliant but Master Chief-less Halo: Reach. The fact that 343 Industries’ first move after picking up the Halo franchise from seasoned and respected creators, Bungie, was to bring Master Chief out of hiding will come as no surprise to anyone then. Whether his appearance will stimulate sales remains to be seen, but with the Chief back and 343’s first proper Halo outing now upon us, one thing is for certain. It’s the Halo game that fans have been craving.
Taking place 4 years, 7 months and 10 days after the events of Halo 3, Halo 4 begins when Master Chief is woken from his cryogenic sleep by his sentient sidekick, Cortana, to deal with the latest crisis in the galaxy. With the Covenant seeking one of their supposed gods on the nearby legendary Forerunner planet, Requiem, Master Chief and the UNSC head to the surface of the planet and uncover a threat greater than they’ve ever faced before, Didact, the antagonist, and his AI warrior-servants, the Prometheans. While it was hard to resonate with the bit part players in Halo: Reach, Halo 4 has no such issues as Master Chief and his relationship with his fragile AI sidekick, Cortana, takes centre-stage and keeps you glued to your seat from start to finish. It’s probably one of the stronger Halo campaigns, if not the strongest to date, even though it gets a little Matrix-y at times – get ready to constantly hear about The Reclaimer, The Composer, The Cryptum and many more “The” blah-blahs – and the end “battle” is a little tame.
It’s a typical Halo campaign in truth though, one that lifts its structure from pretty much every Halo game that has been and gone to date. However, with a new subject matter, set-pieces galore, plenty of new vehicle sections and this time with much more wide-open sandbox areas to explore – it’s a shame then that the game’s signposting lets down these new areas at times – Halo 4 delivers the action, suspense and drama that you’d expect from the latest iteration in the Halo franchise.
A new threat means only one thing...well, two things actually: new enemies and new weapons. It’s these two new facets that give 343’s Halo a much fresher vibe than we’ve possibly seen in the franchise, since its inception in fact. The new enemies come in the form of Promethean Knights, Watchers and Crawlers, and they’ll force you to rethink your battlefield strategies on more than one occasion, while the new weapons on the other hand might only be slight deviations from the FPS norms – assault rifle, shotgun, etc. – but with stunning reload animations and some interesting takes on the weapon-types they’re based on. At times it doesn’t even feel like Halo, which in this sense is a good thing. These two new facets of Halo 4 come together nicely to make this possibly the hardest Halo game out there too. Legendary on your lonesome should be quite the challenge with the new Prometheans! Of course, you’ll still face off against the Covenant, so things will still seem familiar too at times.
There’s also the inclusion of a few new armour abilities, such as Promethean Vision and the Hardlight Shield, new vehicles such as the pilotable mech, the Mantis, and the Mammoth, as well as incredible new UNSC weapons like the Railgun and the SAW to add another level of freshness to the fourth iteration in the franchise. It’s clear that 343 has gone to extra lengths to put its stamp on the Halo franchise and propel the series forward. The studio has also maintained the little things that the franchise is known for, from the skulls and the campaign co-op, to the newly introduced Terminals, and there’s even plenty of fan service dotted around the environment.
Speaking of co-op, rather puzzlingly and unfortunately Firefight has been cut. In comes Spartan Ops, 343’s attempt at creating true episodic co-op content that takes the form of a week-by-week, TV show-like story intertwined with some co-op gameplay. Having only had chance to sample the first episode – as that’s the only one released at the current time – it’s hard to see how effective and gripping this will actually be, considering that the first episode was hardly revolutionary. Sure, the cut-scenes boasted some impressive production values, but the gameplay was hardly enthralling and the fact that you spawn when you die rather than restart from the last checkpoint, sucks the tension away and makes it feel like you’re just going through the motions.
Halo has always been, and possibly will always be about the multiplayer though, and 343 has gone to extra lengths to shake things up a bit here too. Like in Reach, your Spartan’s armour is fully customisable in Halo 4 and we see the return of the daily and weekly challenges, but now you’ll have commendations to achieve in all facets of the game which give you an XP boost when completed, which in turn raises your Spartan’s level. It’s almost a proper ranking system a la Halo 2, although you don’t drop ranks this time for poor performance, thankfully.
The biggest change to the multiplayer though surely has to be the customisable loadouts, which let you choose your starting weapons, type of grenade you start with, your armour ability, your ‘tactical package’ (i.e. an improved shield recharge rate, infinite sprint, etc.) and your ‘support upgrade’ (i.e. quicker reload and weapon swapping times, increased motion sensor range, etc.). That’s all well and good, but you have to get to rank 25 before you can utilise the full set of options available. There’s also the new armour specialisations, which give you a certain battlefield advantage of some kind, the usual lobby and voting systems, a return for Forge mode, custom match options galore, 13 maps of varying size, and a shed load of match-types – from Capture the Flag and Domination to the new Flood mode (basically, a new take on the Infection gametype) – so as always, you’ve got a hugely deep, rich and satisfying multiplayer experience with plenty of options and customisability to tweak to your specification.
With all this positive talk of 343 instilling a new degree of life into the franchise though, with the multiplayer they’ve effectively undone in two minutes what Bungie spent 10 years perfecting, and that’s the notion that every multiplayer game is a level playing field. You know, the good old days of no perks or no advantages to veteran players. Nothing but skill vs. skill. Those days are long gone now, and unfortunately, we’re not sure that’s such a good thing. That’s not to say the multiplayer is bad, far from it. In fact it’s still pretty damn brilliant, as always. It’s just to say that with the new loadouts, unlockables and what not, no longer is it a tense race to the power weapons or that level playing field that made Halo so utterly unique. “Play Team Slayer Pro,” you might say. “Spread the userbase thin and have a copycat unlockable structure,” we might say back. That said, we do like the ‘Ordinance Drops’, which tend to have been perfectly fine-tuned in terms of balance, in that they're advantageous yet not overly powerful.
Speaking of perfect, Halo 4’s achievements are all but that… give or take a few grumbles. As we’ve said before in the past, we’re big fans of mission-within-mission objectives to unlock achievements, so to see one for each of the 8 campaign missions makes us happy bunnies. Mix that with some fairly mid-to-long-term goals for the veterans to work towards, a perfect spread across all of the modes and features of Halo 4, and even some challenging achievements to bring out that sense of worth in the title, and there’s not really too much that 343 has done wrong. You will have to wait some time before you get that 1,000Gs though, with some of the achievements tied into the as yet unreleased Spartan Ops DLC, but other than that, that’s how you should create an achievement list.
For the last year, all we’ve talked about between ourselves is whether 343 Industries can deliver a title worthy of the Halo name and do Bungie proud in the process. While Halo 4 is undoubtedly an unmitigated triumph and a return to the spotlight for Master Chief, something which has been a long-time coming, there are certain gambles that may or may not pay off in the long-term. Was leaving out Firefight the wisest move? Will Spartan Ops captivate over the long-term? They’re questions that can indeed only be answered in the long-term, although we suspect the answer to question numero uno is a big fat no. All we know now is that Halo 4 is a sci-fi soap opera of epic proportions with some really touching and emotional moments dotted throughout its lengthy story, a game strengthened only by its trademark and excellent multiplayer arena. For a first bite at the proverbial Halo cherry, 343 has proved that it's more than Spartan enough to fill Bungie’s boots. And maybe even then some. We’re just stoked to have Master Chief back. Halo 4 feels like proper Halo once again.
Neil Davidge has taken the superb foundations laid by industry legend, Marty O’Donnell, and built a house on them. With the Halo vibe running amok through his score, it feels oddly familiar, yet completely new and fresh. Kudos, Mr Davidge.
Quite easily one of the best looking games on consoles with some of the most visually impressive cutscenes around to boot. It’s a visual masterpiece, from the textures and particle effects to the ambience of the environments and the attention to detail.
It’s Halo. That’s all that needs to be said. One of the most impressive shooters from a playability standpoint, and nothing has changed there with Halo 4.
The removal of Firefight is disappointing, while Spartan Ops – effectively its replacement – isn’t really as gripping as we’d hoped, though it’s early days there. Still, the multiplayer and the game’s 8-10 hour campaign is right on the mark as usual.
Being a Microsoft owned company, it was important for 343 Industries to nail the achievements right from the get go… you know, because Turn 10 don’t seem to – Zing! – and that they did. Good balance, good spread and some mid-to-long-term goals for veterans to work towards.
With big shoes to fill and an enormous amount of pressure on them from fans to deliver, 343 Industries has struck a home run on pretty much their first time of asking. Halo 4 represents a bold step forward for the franchise that feels both fresh and familiar. Boasting Halo’s trademark multiplayer, a gripping campaign, an experimental co-op mode and the usual gubbins, Halo 4 like all the other Halos that have come and gone, represents incredible value for money.