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When Bungie stepped away from Halo, they left some big shoes for 343 Industries to fill, despite the studio’s existing experience with the franchise. Halo 4 is the first Halo to be developed exclusively by 343i, and there is immense pressure to create something new and exciting from Bungie’s legacy. The result is something surprising and wondrous, as 343i shows they are more than capable of carrying the Halo mantle, surpassing expectations and breathing new life into the series.
Master Chief returns to kick start a new trilogy in the Halo universe, one that brings back the stoic war hero to explore a new chapter in humanity’s rocky ascendance beyond the stars. Four years have passed since the Human-Covenant War, and 117 is abruptly awakened by Cortana in the face of an unknown threat. The UNSC Forward Unto Dawn has suddenly attracted some unwanted attention, pitting Chief against a fleet of rogue Covenant just before crash landing on the Forerunner planet known as “Requiem.”
Perhaps the first thing anyone might notice is how amazing the new Halo looks, purely from a graphical standpoint. All this talk of the Xbox 360 being on the low end of the current platform pool, and yet 343i spared no expenses in making Halo 4 look as gorgeous as possible on this aging system. After an action-heavy opening to get players back in the saddle, reacquainting us with the UNSC and Covenant arsenal, you’re treated to a breathtaking – and somewhat terrifying – vista of Requiem from orbit. The eye candy persists throughout the entire campaign too, as Chief explores the massive planet from within and without, treated to the sights of its artificial splendor and Forerunner tech.
Even with that lovely new coat of paint, however, it’s important to note that Halo 4 still feels like Halo. Every weapon in the game has seen some tweaks and entirely new sound effects, which may give the illusion of being different, but anyone who’s played Halo will fall straight back into the groove. The way that the campaign directs the player’s progress in a mostly linear fashion carries a certain familiarity, drifting between solo sequences and the occasional team of UNSC marines. Shooter fans know what they like, the nuances that set one FPS apart from another; Halo retains its own identity very well.
Enemies display the same strategic behaviors as before, where every species and class will act differently according to their nature. Grunts come in waves and attack relentlessly until their commanding unit is downed, which either sends them fleeing from or rushing at Chief on a suicide run. Jackals will cower behind their shields, Hunters always come in pairs, and Elites exhibit a ferocity that would make any Spartan think twice before charging in (because as anyone knows by now, Energy Swords are no joke). None of that takes into account the new Promethean hostiles either, a mysterious “race” of Forerunner constructs guarding Requiem’s secrets. They’re also broken down into a hierarchy based on difficulty, but no matter how weak or resilient the Promethean is, all act with unnatural aggression, making them formidable and dangerous even for Chief.
As before, enemies in Halo don’t have unlimited respawns, and they make up for it with intelligence. If you’re going through the campaign on your own, a more strategic approach may be required. Fortunately, you’ll never go wanting for ammo, though you may need to switch weapons pretty often depending on how loose that trigger finger is. Guns and armor abilities are practically found around every corner and from every enemy, encouraging the player to try out Halo 4’s full range of UNSC, Covenant, and Forerunner tech. About midway through the game, once you’ve had enough time to explore the entire arsenal, weapons of all variety seem to drop much more freely, granting players the freedom to stick with their favorite loadout as the campaign accelerates toward its narrative climax.
Armor abilities seem far more situational, though you’re always given a few options to toy around with, unless the ability is integral to campaign progression (i.e. Jetpack during one chapter). As with weapons, gameplay seems designed to promote experimentation, pushing players to try out everything that’s new and remotely exciting. Thankfully, sprint is now an innate ability, and while not everyone is going to love all the armor abilities in Halo 4, you’ll very likely find at least a couple to grow attached to.
A Story to Remember
Gunfights aside, Halo 4 delivers wonderfully from a narrative perspective, pushing ahead of its predecessors with the most cinematic, emotionally gripping campaign to date. Chief realizes early on that despite the treaty between human and Covenant forces, not all members from the disbanded alien republic are so keen on holding hands with humanity. His problems don’t end there, of course. Not long after his unexpected wakeup call, our Spartan learns that Cortana has been in service for about eight years now, and rampancy is creeping up on her. Simply put, his AI companion is slowly thinking herself to death.
Cortana’s deterioration is a focal point in Halo 4’s story, perhaps even more so than any grand inter-species conflict between humans and the universe. Her relationship with Master Chief, acting as his guide and his humanity, has been years in the making, and 343i’s handling of the duo is nothing short of masterful. Going into too much detail would only give away the story, but suffice to say, Halo 4 ends on a beautifully poignant note, while marking the beginning of this new Reclaimer trilogy.
Multiplayer is probably where most Halo players will be spending their hours, and Halo 4 sees a total revamp of competitive and cooperative play. Interestingly 343i bridges the game’s multiplayer aspect with the campaign, by framing the former within the latter. Competitive multiplayer is now referred to as “War Games” and takes place aboard the UNSC Infinity, as a sort of training scenario. Spartan Ops, the replacement for Firefight, gives gamers the option to co-op with some additional plot to supplement the main campaign.
In War Games, you’ll find all the same weapons and vehicles seen in the campaign, including a slightly nerfed version of the UNSC’s Mantis mech. What long-time Halo players will notice immediately is the pacing of each match, now much more streamlined than before thanks to drop-in play and quicker respawns (though waiting will drop you closer to your team). The result is a major cutback on the time spent waiting, whether you’re waiting for the lobby to fill up or that respawn countdown.
Weapon spawns seem more scant than before, but the tradeoff is that players can now call in special ordinance drops from the UNSC Infinity, utilizing a new points system that also rewards players based on more than just their kill/death ratio. Overall, War Games is more forgiving toward newcomers looking to begin their Halo career, while top tier rewards like Specializations ensure the most dedicated players are substantially awarded for their commitment and skill.
The addition of Dominion provides some welcome variety to the other staples, adopting objective-driven gameplay similar to what we’ve seen in Battlefield. In Dominion, teams vie for control over three bases across a single map, and once one base is taken, a countdown is triggered. Over time, the captured base is reinforced, gaining defenses and becoming more difficult to retake. The team holding said base will earn more points the longer they manage to maintain control, but if the opposing team takes the base before it’s reinforced, kiss your points goodbye. It’s certainly tense, and although not necessarily everyone’s favorite mode, feels new and exciting to Halo multiplayer.
Spartan Ops, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t quite replace Firefight like I’d hoped, enjoyable as it is. Basically, it’s a separate cooperative mode that continues the Halo 4 story from a Spartan IV’s perspective, and each week sees a new episode from 343i that continues the Spartan Ops subplot. Like Firefight, players can group with up to three others to fend of waves of enemies, with difficulty scaled based on the number of participants. What sets Spartan Ops apart is that the missions do have to end at some point, though the amount of content that’s there right now is fairly substantial. At least 343i is providing the first season for free.
Neil Davidge’s work on the Halo 4 soundtrack is worth a mention, if only because of all the negative feedback regarding his music. Playing Halo without the iconic beats penned by Martin O’Donnell is certainly unusual, even difficult to get used to; but that doesn’t mean Davidge’s work should be dismissed. To be certain, Halo 4’s music barely resembles what it used to be, though the iconic Halo theme does sneak its way in here and there. There are moments during the campaign when the music in the background will suddenly pop, and it’s really quite striking.
In a way, Halo 4 is much like the first Halo, just as 343i promised. The studio managed to restore that sense of awe and discovery that drew so many of us into Combat Evolved, yet they’ve also managed to create something new and unique to themselves as a studio. Through Halo 4, with its surprisingly powerful campaign and multiplayer innovations, 343i have proven worthy successors to one of the most iconic game series in history. I don’t know where it will go from here, but the excitement for more Halo is definitely a feeling I’ve missed.
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