This review is going to be a hard one for me to write, I’ll tell you that right now. The Halo franchise is a Star Wars-like experience for me personally. I’ve gone through a pretty good original trilogy. I’ve gone through a spin-off that was pretty cool. I’ve gone through a prequel that went rampant with the pre-existing fiction and cast it all aside all while being a mediocre product to experience. So when it was announced back in March 2010 that 343 Industries would be taking full control of the Halo franchise, I was very skeptical. How could a beloved franchise such as Halo survive a such a drastic changing of the guard? Could anyone match the quality and care Bungie puts into their video games like Bungie, or at least the Bungie that existed prior to Halo: Reach (a title that I was completely underwelmed by and feel that the studio phoned in through sheer disinterest or exhaustion of the franchise)? Did 343 set out to accomplish making the franchise their own? Yes and no. The Halo 4 experience is a divisive one, for many reasons.
Halo 4′s campaign is where I began my experience with the game, and the story of this title is quite simple: Several years after the events of Halo 3, Master Chief is woken up from his cryogenic slumber by his A.I. companion, Cortana (Who is beginning to think herself to death, as she begins to deteriorate) during an approach to an unknown planet where you fight the same bad guys as before, as well as a few new dudes (More on that in a bit.) Throughout the entire lead-up to Halo 4, 343 Industries has emphasized that this time around Chief will feel more like an actual character rather than a plot device/blank slate, talking and interacting more fluidly and organically with those around him. While the latter part of that statement is definitely true, as Chief converses with Cortana and several military characters frequently enough where he seems more lively but not enough to annoy the player, the characterization of the Master Chief into a “character” seems forced. For the majority of the campaign (outside of three moments in particular, which I’ll give 343 a lot of credit for), it falls flat on its face. As the new trilogy goes onward, I hope that the studio puts even more effort into the Chief’s personality and characterization. In the end, they have left many doors open for the writing staff to go with, especially how after the first cutscene the idea of Master Chief being ultimately broken and dehumanized is just tossed away and not touched upon outside of a single line later on.
Chief isn’t the only big focus in this game though, and the rest of the core characters of this game are pretty enjoyable. Jen Taylor’s performance as Cortana is stellar and full of emotion, and Thomas Lasky was instantly a joy to see after watching Forward Unto Dawn. The biggest new addition to the game, as well as one of the title’s biggest links to the franchise’s expanded fiction is the new villain- The Didact, who despite making very few appearances in the flesh, is the big driving point of the first chapter of this new trilogy and ultimately his storyline and goals are the big focus of the game. I won’t delve in too much for the sake of spoilers, but it is nice to finally have a face to put to being the core villain in this series.
Like with every game in this series (and many other FPS games) the campaign basically boils down to “Get from Point A to Point B by shooting dudes and pressing buttons to open up more areas to shoot dudes”. The way Halo 4 sets itself apart from the sea of FPSes that surrounds us all is how you follow through on that. Throughout the game, you are presented with a myriad of choices with how you, as a player, can take on the various challenges in a level allowing for multiple different ways and paths for you to accomplish your task- a factor it seems 343 has pushed harder than Bungie ever has. Ultimately, this new push toward supporting multiple attempts and tactics to achieve your goal is one of the more brilliant parts of 343′s campaign.
For an example we’ll turn to the game’s fourth level “Infinity”, where you are immediately thrown in some vast jungles and face a group of enemies you’ve just recently discovered minutes ago. The jungle itself is a fanastically designed arena for you to test what you can do to take on these new foes, and what exactly these new enemies can do.
If you take the most basic and obvious path, the run straight-forward while killing everyone you can find in sight path, you are slowly introduced to the various strategies you can use to take on the new Promethean enemies and the various techniques that they have (For example, when you meet up with a Knight and a Watcher with a pack of the four-legged Crawler enemies around them, most players would feel the need to throw a grenade into the masses in an effort to break up the crowd. Once you throw the grenade, you’ll begin to realize just how badly that plan would backfire anytime a Watcher is nearby, as the new flying foe grabs ahold of the grenade and throws it back at you) all while being slowly introduced to new weapons (Whether they are new to the franchise as a whole, or just new for the experience so far) and given the chance to experiment with them just long enough to learn their faults. As with the rest of the weapons in the campaign, you are given enough ammo for you to get by if you know what you are doing, but a small enough amount to get you to switch and experience other weapons that you find on your path. This method will work for you, if that’s how you want to play.
But let’s say that the “Run Forward and Shoot” method isn’t just working out for you and you begin to look for an alternative way to get to your destination. You begin to look around your surroundings to see if there’s anyway you can use the environment to your advantage, leading you to go on a stealthy approach throughout the jungle, sneaking around and taking out enemies from afar while using the vines and trees as cover, all while having the same experimental experience that is presented to you in the previous attempt. You can do that. Or you could always do what I personally did after getting frustrated at the swarms of Crawlers, and use the tactics that the wall-crawling creatures use by beginning to climb unto the trees and vines themselves, giving yourself a better vantage point at the enemies below in which you can slowly pick of enemies one by one, and an alternative path to your destination. The campaign is all about the choices that you can make as a player, and while it does not have an effect on the story being told, it does give a reason for a player to go back and try the campaign over and over again experimenting with your different tools that you have available.
And boy, does the campaign have a lot more tools for you to use in this game. Outside of your usual staple of weaponry that you’ve been becoming familiar with over the course of the last seven titles, but a new variety of vehicles for which you given the chance to experiment with multiple times over the course of the story; such as the new Metal Gear-esque Mantis mecha, the tried and true Warthogs and Ghosts (which have some new tweaks to them to give them a slightly fresh feel) and the chance to use some impressive military aircraft in several free-flying portions of the game.
Ultimately, the campaign of Halo 4 is definitely a fun experience, but when you get down to the core of things, it still feels like Halo. 343 did some fantastic work on making changes to how you approach the game, but they succeeded in doing what many were afraid they could not. Despite all the changes and attempts to shake up the core feel of the series, in the long run I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve been here before and that I’ve played this game several times already. It’s fun, no doubt about it, but like many have said, it feels that 343 played it safe by sticking close to the core experience of the franchise.
And when people think of the Halo franchise, what else do they think of but the beloved multiplayer aspect of the games and overall I feel that this is the area where 343 put the biggest risk in the production of this game by overhauling the majority of the franchise’s basic concepts and refreshing the experience, much to the dismay of many. While having no impact on the gameplay itself, one of the biggest changes is that Halo 4′s competitive multiplayer experience now takes place inside the story of the Halo itself, being virtual reality-based training for the new Spartan IV program inside the UNSC Infinity.
(DISCLAIMER: I will not be covering every change to the Halo experience in Halo 4, mainly for the sake of brevity and time, but also because not every change is important enough to discuss.)
To start with, 343 has changed the way the weapons work in terms of how you start each match, and how weapons are distributed, by taking a page from the current handbook of the Call of Duty franchi- Hey. HEY. No. Stop screaming, and stop laughing and pointing. That may sound bad, but ultimately it does work out for the better. Aside from the new loadout system where each player now gets to choose what equipment they start out with and what special abilities/perks they have active at a time, the biggest shift in the new weapons system are the added Ordnance Drops, where after you rack up a certain amount of points (Which are distributed for basically everything you do aside from running around and jumping) you get the choice of three different items (Randomized each time) that the UNSC Infinity will drop down for you to use, being the core way that power weapons and power ups are provided to the player, eliminating the rush that occured in most Halo matches where people constantly swarmed to power weapons and ultimately provide a constant flood of new tools for people to acquire on the battlefield. While it does seem lazy for 343 to shamelessly rip the concept of loadouts and weapon drops from the other big names on the market, it ultimately improves the pacing of the multiplayer modes that are available.
The other shake-up to the multiplayer are the big changes that 343 has done to the various multiplayer gametypes themselves, and while the goals may remain the same as before, the way to accomplish the game modes are carried out are different than before. Your usual Slayer (Deathmatch) matches remain with the addition of the previously mentioned ordnance drops, and is still a solid core experience for the majority of online players. The real big changes occur in the game’s objective type modes, where the game gives an added focus into the various new roles a player is given, such as Ball Carrier (in Oddball and Grifball gametypes) and the Flag Carrier (in Capture the Flag, of course), giving you additional points for carrying out the roles (and escorting those who are working on the goals), and giving you extra abilities while carrying the objectives- such as the new ability to throw the ball in Oddball/Grifball to teammates (or to confuse oncoming attackers, as they are forced to pick up the ball once you throw it at them, giving you a chance for a surprise counter-attack) and the ability to have a sidearm (A slightly more powerful Magnum, dubbed the Flagnum by 343) while carrying the flag. The changes may seem simple, and for some unnecessary, but they provide a welcome change of pace in game modes that have become generic staples in the FPS genre. The final multiplayer mode is Forge, Halo’s map customization gametype. Not much has changed from Halo Reach’s rendition of Forge outside of Object Magnets that allow for quick “snap-to” points on items and dynamic lighting, which means for the first time ever, Forge objects now give off unique shadows. Nothing too different.
One thing that is sadly missing from the jump from Reach to Halo 4 is the Horde Mode-style Firefight mode. In its stead, we have the free episodic Spartan Ops game mode (which is actually the reason for this review’s delay) that are the missions that your multiplayer spartans have been training for. Featuring five episodes and levels each week with pre-rendered CGI cutscenes attached, these free missions take place six months after the Halo 4 campaign and are meant to bridge the story between Halo 4 and the next installment. Sounds pretty cool right? Well in concept, yes.
What 343 Industries has magically neglected to mention is that while the environments are also ripped straight from the campaign (Which was announced prior to launch) but they are not unique to the week as it airs. At the time of writing, ten levels are currently available for play in this mode. Of those levels, only six have unique stages. The others are you either running the maps backwards, or are simple “Hey we’re in this location again, Jared’s not even joking around about this, that’s actually the way the story went” moments. While being touted as a new co-op campaign-style experience, Spartan Ops is anything but and features short and linear levels that do not have the range of experimentation that the full-on campaign has. And while the mode is also claimed to be the replacement for Firefight, it lacks the customization and scoring features that the Firefight mode has, and in turn removes the competitive aspect that many found enjoyable from that mode. While the current season of Spartan Ops is currently ongoing, at this point in time the mode feels more like a wasted effort and a phoned in experience by 343. Only time will tell how Spartan Ops will be carried out, but right now I am far from impressed about the results.
There is one final mode that is available in the game, but as of this point in time the features have been severely gimped for Theatre mode. As in Halo 3 and Reach, you can save any multiplayer match that you have and freely film clips and create screenshots of your multiplayer gameplay and upload them to your file share. While website functionality is completely gone at this time, it is allegedly set to return sometime before the end of the year, giving you the ability to view file shares online and grab your in-game screenshots. What ISN’T coming back, barring a giant update, is Campaign (and in turn, Spartan Ops) Theatre mode, leaving you unable to grab clips/screenshots of any neat moments you may experience for yourself in those two modes. Not a game breaker by any means, but still a disappointment.
The game isn’t without its faults, however minor they might be, and 343 may have fallen short on their claim of a more characterful Master Chief, but overall I enjoy Halo 4. It’s a very solid entry, and the changes given to the multiplayer mode are a much welcome breath of fresh air into the franchise. I hope that 343 Industries can pick up Spartan Ops before the episodic content falls into a rut, and I wish them all the best as they begin this new trilogy.