Halo 4 may be the best game in the franchise.
There was palpable anxiety and worry about the Halo franchise post-Bungie. How would Halo’s new stewards, 343 Industries, fare with Microsoft’s flagship franchise? Could they live up to the lofty bar set by the series’ creators?
The answer: a resounding yes.
Simply put, Halo 4 is a masterpiece. 343 went all-out in every facet of the game, and it shows. Graphically, the game is gorgeous. The cut scenes are simply incredible and boast some of the finest animation in a game I’ve ever seen. The audio work is of the same high quality. The weapons sound good, and the voice acting is stellar. You can really sense the emotions of the characters through subtle pauses and facial expressions, and it really makes them seem real and human.
Halo 4 picks up four years after the events of Halo 3. Last we saw, Master Chief and Cortana were floating adrift in space, heading towards an unknown Forerunner planet. The Chief’s last words were, “Wake me, when you need me,” and well, Cortana needs him. The Covenant have found the Forward Unto Dawn—well half of it at least—and the Chief needs to repel the boarders (sound familiar?) General mayhem and grunt birthday parties ensue, and eventually you make your way down to the surface of Requiem, the aforementioned Forerunner planet. As the ads indicate, an ancient evil is awakened—again—and once more, Chief and Cortana have to save mankind.
During all that, the game really explores the depth and humanity of the relationship between the Chief and Cortana. Smart AIs like Cortana have an effective lifespan of seven years; after that, they become rampant and literally start thinking themselves to death. Cortana has been around for eight years, so rampancy is setting in and affecting her ability. Master Chief is determined to save her, but to do so, he needs to get her back to Earth and into the capable hands of Dr. Halsey. You get to see the Chief’s sensitive side, and it becomes obvious how close Cortana and the Chief are. They are both struggling to face her mortality, and it offers some of the game’s most poignant moments.
The campaign offers a variety of environments that are all gorgeously rendered and often are a nod to previous Halo levels. The campaign offers a range of experiences, from fighting from the back of a lumbering Mammoth (think a Halo 3 Elephant on steroids with a giant MAC gun on its back) or piloting a Pelican to getting down’n’dirty in a murky jungle.
The enemy AI is pretty crafty, and the new Prometheans are a worthy opponent. The dog-like Crawlers aren’t terribly difficult, but their sheer numbers can be overwhelming. The Promethean Knights are a more difficult foe than the Elites. They are tough and can take some punishment—your best bet is to use a sniper rifle if you have one. They are often accompanied by Watchers, and those floating adversaries will throw your own grenades back at you when they’re not reviving downed Knights.
My biggest complaint about the campaign is the seeming lack of sniper rifles. I’m a sniper at heart, and those things wreak havoc on Promethean Knights. On the plus side, the much-beloved Battle Rifle is back. Yay! The DMR from Reach also returns, so marksmen will be rather pleased. The new human weapons are awesome. The SAW machine gun is fun to use, and the Sticky Detonator is effective once you get the hang of it. The Rail Gun requires a short charge before firing, similar to the Spartan Laser, so it will take some practice to use it effectively.
As for the new Forerunner weapons, they didn’t make much of an impression, for the most part, but they are still effective. The Light Rifle is a mix between the DMR and the Battle Rifle in that it is semi-automatic when zoomed in but fires a three-round burst otherwise. The Binary Rifle is a powerful sniper rifle with a limited ammo capacity, and the Incineration Cannon pretty much destroys anything it hits. The Boltshot pistol is much like a Covenant plasma pistol in that it can be charged up while the Suppressor is a Forerunner SMG. The Scattershot shotgun is deadly at close range.
Halo 4’s multiplayer also makes the grade. War Games is your standard online multiplayer, offering traditional gametypes like Slayer and Capture the Flag. There are some new modes, however. Dominion takes the old Territories gametype and tweaks it by allowing teams to reinforce an area once they capture it. If one team holds all the bases, the game enters Last Stand where the leading team can win the game by eliminating all the opposing players. Extraction pits two teams trying to extract various assets via a special beacon. Once a team locates a site, it must initiate the extraction process and defend the site until the process is complete. Flood is basically the popular Infection gametype from previous Halo games, and Regicide is similar to the old Juggernaut gametype. Whoever is in the lead is the king, and as he or she gains kills, the bounty on him or her increases.
Like in Halo 3 and Reach, you can customize your character’s armor. Unlike those games, you can now customize your loadout using Specializations. As you earn XP and level up, you can customize a loadout that best fits you, so if you want to start every game with a Battle Rifle, plasma grenade, and specific armor ability, you can now do that.
Firefight is gone, but it has been replaced with Spartan Ops, a co-op multiplayer campaign that is related to but separate from the main story. A new episode will be released each week. Each episode has a number of chapters. I haven’t had a chance to play much Spartan Ops yet, but I did enjoy what little I played. The first chapter involved taking down a number of Covenant generators and then holding off reinforcements before a Pelican arrived for extraction.
Experienced Halo players will have a bit of an adjustment as a couple of the buttons in the default control scheme have been tweaked. Clicking the left thumbstick no longer crouches; the default for that is the ‘B’ button. Unless you change the control scheme, you’ll have many moments of hitting the wrong button as you try and overcome years of muscle memory.
Halo 4 offers a deep, lasting experience. The campaign is rich and detailed, featuring phenomenal voice-acting and animation with an interesting and engaging plot. It’s challenging, yet fun, and is one you will want to go back and play multiple times. The multiplayer is perhaps the best yet. War Games provides the traditional Halo multiplayer experience, but Spartan Ops looks like it could be something special. New content each week will keep the game from growing stale and give you a reason to come back. While I’ll miss Firefight, Spartan Ops appears to be a worthy replacement.
Halo 4 proves that the Halo universe is in good hands with 343 Industries. It’s an excellent game and a must-have for Xbox owners who enjoy first-person shooters.