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Note: This review contains no spoilers. War Games and Spartan Ops modes require a 3.5GB installation from disc 2. A minimum 8GB flash drive or hard drive is required for multiplayer experiences.
When a franchise switches developer, there’s normally a hesitation or feeling of dread. Will they shovel out a product that sells purely on the name? Does it intend to respect the original creator's vision, or dump on the fans who cling to the hope of keeping the universe they love alive? When Microsoft announced that 343 Industries was to take over from Bungie to bring forth a new trilogy in the Halo series, its future depended on the success of their first game.
Halo 4 sees the return of the Master Chief and his artificial intelligence, Cortana. Four years after the Halo event, Master Chief wakes up on the all but derelict UNSC Ship, Forward Unto Dawn, as it is being attacked by the Covenant. They soon find themselves on Requiem, a Forerunner planet with an ancient secret. What they find reveals a threat to all of humanity, leaving the Chief to fend off the Covenant and a whole new threat that’s much greater in power.
The Halo series is known for its deep lore, but it was never fully expressed within the games themselves. Halo 4 takes into account all the fiction released, and drives a new story with a much greater focus. The strong voice acting, direction of CGI cutscenes, and the creative decision to make Master Chief a character rather than a blank husk brings much needed weight to an expertly told narrative. It’s not essential to have played the games nor read all the books to understand the plot. Dedicated fans however, will get a lot more depth from the script, which highlights how seriously 343 Industries is taking their position as the “Halo team”.
The combat sandbox has always been Halo’s strong suit, and Halo 4 lives up to that tradition. Great level design that brings both intelligent enemies and fun weaponry together provide an exhilarating experience, with each conflict having a unique feel from beginning to end. Covenant forces return, and at large behave as they did in the previous games. They're still as smart and fun to fight, but there’s definitely a feeling of déjà vu. The new Promethean enemies make for a tough upgrade to the Covenant, and more entertaining than the Flood. They’re fast, deadly, and provide a satisfying challenge for experienced Spartans. Fighting against Promethean Knights who have Watchers looking over them is intimidating because they’re not simply cannon fodder.
Halo 4 provides a good variety of different objectives. You could start in a warthog with some marines to then be defending a choke point, only to end up flying between monolithic structures, all maintaining thoughtful pacing to keep the pressure of the situation on, but without the exhaustion of demanding too much from the player. Clearly a lot of focus testing was put into crafting each mission with care and precision to try to avoid the tradition of that one terrible mission leaving a blemish on other superior levels. Objectives and music cues trigger at the right moments to sadly remind you of the Halo movie we may never get.
Spartan Ops is the ambitious episodic cooperative campaign that takes places after the events of the single player campaign. For ten weeks, a new episode will be released that contains a CGI cutscene to install plot and provide five new missions to tackle with friends, or brave solo. Each mission is designed to last around ten to fifteen minutes and is considered a replacement for the now defunct Fire Fight mode. At time of review, only the first episode was available. The missions are entertaining and are likely to be an enjoyable extra to keep players coming back to the game throughout the holiday season, but there’s a lack of scope when compared to the campaign. If 343i can stick to their commitment, Spartan Ops has the potential to set new standards on what’s to be expected with post-launch content of triple-A games, but for now it’s an interesting addition to the suite.
Halo has a legacy in the multiplayer space, especially on consoles. Built from the ground up, Halo 4’s multiplayer has been built to address long standing complaints while keeping the distinctive Halo feel to the action. An all new loadout system allows for players to completely customise their weapon selection regardless of game type - meaning if you really don’t like the assault rifle, you can get rid of it for good. Armour Abilities return with a new emphasis on practicality rather than the spectacle of Reach's multiplayer. When these abilities are accompanied by tactical and support packages (perks) each Spartan on the battlefield will have a unique style of play, though not so much that one player is completely overpowered against a lower ranked player, accuracy is paramount.
New scoring systems that focus on medals and rewarding teamwork make Halo 4 a more objective focused experience. Slayer still exists for when you want to crank out headshots, but new modes like Dominion, and revamped versions of Capture the Flag and Oddball make the grind for XP more varied, and brings players of lesser skill in to the fold thanks to the near impossibility of ending a match with zero points on the board.
Earning XP raises the Spartan Rank (SR) of your super soldier, which in turn provides Spartan Points to buy weapons and perks to improve your game. Meanwhile, working through the ranks reveals new armour pieces that unlock by completing commendations that in turn reward you with more XP. Armour is a purely cosmetic customisation to allow your Spartan to be unique on the field, yet commendations unlock at a glacial pace meaning it will take months of solid play to unlock everything desirable. Once reaching SR-50, Specializations allow for the truly dedicated to unlock even higher levels for prestigious armour and emblems for their Spartan-ID.
With 13 maps on the disc, the promise of DLC, and a commitment to routinely update the matchmaking hoppers in accordance to community tastes and grievances, Halo 4 returns the series to the throne as king of multiplayer. An overall faster pace in gameplay, with meticulous weapon balance and addictive leveling up systems in place, means the experience is built to last until the next generation of consoles.
Forge returns in Forge 3.0, the all powerful toolset that allows for players to build completely new maps and game types from scratch. More an upgrade rather than an overhaul, emphasis has been put on making the building experience faster and less fiddly than previous attempts. New magnet placements allow placing objects and scenery in exact position a vastly simpler exercise, no more wrestling with an object for 20 minutes to get it exactly straight. New real-time lighting allows for shadows to render Forge maps within the lighting engine, making what were once sterile looking environments come to life. Other tools, like the trait zone properties, allows sections of the map to have abnormal traits like faster movement, low gravity, or higher damage resistance. What this all means is that truly creative people have the tools available to create original, and possibly amazing content; that or make complete disasters to troll their friends.
A new developer means new artists; Halo 4 comes with a new art style that remains familiar, yet different at the same time. Throughout the six to eight hour campaign, you will explore vast worlds with a level of beauty that is peerless on Xbox 360. The Covenant resemble their former selves, but have distinctive changes to their characteristics to bring a new flavour to the game. Being the first Halo game that runs at a native 720p resolution, the texture work and lighting is simply stunning. The fidelity on Master Chief’s armour is a sight to behold, whilst environments remain inspiring throughout. A new animation system makes characters move with more expression. Though while less robotic than before, the cartoonish behaviour of the Covenant remains.
Rounding out the presentation is the brand new soundtrack. Scored by Neil Davidge (of Massive Attack fame), the ancient vibe of Martin O'Donnell is respected yet surpassed with a new sound that’s orchestra filtered through electronic synth. This new score brings a a feeling of epic might, providing set pieces a certain punch that raises the blood pressure at times, while appropriately calming at others. The iconic monk chanting is gone without a suitably distinctive replacement, yet the complete soundtrack beats the already high bar of quality expected with Halo.
Giving a game a score of 10 is not something taken lightly. Often mistakenly seen as the claim that the game is flawless, it is more a badge of merit that claims that this is the defining example of the genre that gaming will provide this generation. Halo 4 has monumental expectations to live up to. 343 Industries have the weight of the Xbox platform on their shoulders to make or break the iconic franchise. Halo 4 succeeds in every possible way. This is both the Halo you remember, and the game you’ve always wanted. Make no mistake, the Chief is back, and isn’t going anywhere for a long time.