Two years have passed since the release of Halo: Reach, Bungie’s final addition to their juggernaut of a franchise, and the series has a new caretaker in the form of 343 Industries. Many were unsure of the developer’s ability to craft a quality experience, while others worried that the title would fall prey to “Call-of-duty-fication”. I’m happy to report that despite a few stumbles, Halo 4 is a worthwhile entry in the series.
The game opens up four years after the events of Halo 3 with Master Chief being awoken by Cortana. They’re floating near a mysterious planet known as Requiem, a place where the mysterious Forerunners once resided. It becomes immediately apparent that Cortana doesn’t have long before she succumbs to Rampancy: a condition where AI’s begin to think themselves to death after seven years. After an incident with the Covenant, Master Chief lands on Requiem and begins to search for a way off in order to save Cortana, and later to stop a new threat from the remnants of the Forerunners known as the Prometheans.
This should sound familiar to any who’ve played a Halo game before, and in many ways it is. But what really sells Halo 4′s story, even well enough for me to consider it the best in the series, is the emotional core of Master Chief’s and Cortana’s relationship. It’s certainly not revolutionary, but it’s still the best the Halo franchise has ever done in really engaging people with its storytelling. It’s especially good at discussing the irony in Cortana’s humanity and Master Chief’s lack of it in fairly subtle ways. It all pays off in some good ways throughout the campaign, and it achieves something I never thought possible: caring for any characters in a Halo game.
This isn’t to say the story of Halo 4 is good, because to be quite honest a lot of it isn’t. While much more coherently told then previous Halo games and containing a few interesting moments, outside of the Master Chief/Cortana angle the narrative of Halo 4 generally falls flat. This is mainly due to fact that many other characters prove uninteresting, but also because Halo 4 has a strange notion that its entire audience has a bona fide P.H.D. in Halo Lore; it’s not a good sign if I have to consult the series’s wiki to understand glossed-over huge events. But when the narrative of Halo 4 is squarely focused on Master Chief and Cortana, the game really is all the better for it.
But this is all for naught if 343 didn’t deliver quality gameplay in the Campaign to match; fortunately, Halo 4 delivers. The first few levels do feel a bit rote initially; you’re still fighting the covenant, and the whole thing feels a little too samey. But this is all forgiven upon the introduction of the Prometheans, Halo 4′s new class of enemies. The Prometheans accomplish the task of feeling both fresh and challenging, not to mention delivering a bevy of new weapons. These are mostly just reinventions of previous weapons, but there’s some subtle differences that I began to appreciate after a couple of hours with them. The campaign also ramps up in intensity pretty smoothly, with some strong vehicle sequences sprinkled throughout to help things out.
The multiplayer component of Halo 4 also lives up to the precedent set by previous games in the franchise. The fears of being transformed into a Call of Duty clone can be seen as false after a couple of matches in the game; it feels as much like Halo as ever. While the multiplayer isn’t a drastic upheaval of everything that has come before, there’s a ton of smart tweaks made to pretty much every aspect of it. For example, the loadouts introduced in Halo: Reach have been expanded on; you can now customize them, but only to a limited extent (no shotgun/sniper rifle combos here). Sprinting is now available no matter what, allowing other armor abilities to take more of a center stage in gameplay. Cool changes like being able to toss oddballs to other players and being able to wield pistols when holding a flag are some other examples of some smart changes to the formula.
There’s also a bevy of cool new modes that I enjoyed quite a bit. Regicide plays out like a standard FFA game with a twist — the leading player is highlighted on the map, and other players earn bonuses for killing them adding a new level to the standard action. Dominion plays out as an expanded version of a domination game in something like Call of Duty; three control points dot the map, but securing them can enable that team to build turrets and order new weapons to secure the post. It’s some pretty fresh stuff for a Halo game, which I certainly appreciated. Infection has also been expanded on in the form of flood mode, where dead players control the flood when converted. Again, these modes are game-changing, but it’s still some sizable and appreciated stuff.
The only thing that really doesn’t fare well in Halo 4 is the new Spartan Ops mode. It’s pitched as a continuing, episodic story with new cooperative levels for players to experience each week. This is a neat premise, but it’s undercutted by the the fact that both the episodic story and cooperative levels are pretty substandard. The first two weeks of Spartan Ops’s story has been extremely underwhelming, and seems to be and excuse for 343 to pack as many tired military tropes as they can into the game. The cooperative levels aren’t much better off; they’re generally not much more then “kill everything,” and some maps are even ripped straight from the game’s campaign (in fact, one ripped campaign map showed up TWICE). I really don’t have much in the way of high hopes for Spartan Ops considering how little of it is really engaging.
Still, 343 Industries has done a good job here. The campaign is of the quality one would expect from any other Halo game, and the multiplayer content is perhaps the best its ever been. Rest easy people, Halo’s in good hands here.
Second Opinion: Ryan McGinley
When Halo 4 was announced to be the start of a trilogy developed by 343 Studios, I was admittedly worried. The story of the Halo games have never grabbed me and the changes to the multiplayer sounded like they were taking away the charm of what made Halo unique. My preconceived notions of the game could not have been more wrong. After playing through the entirety of the campaign, I found myself more attached to Master Chief and Cortana in this one game than I had in all the other games combined. The relationship built up between the two actually feels genuine, and Cortana losing herself to rampancy due to age opens up a new side of Master Chief that we haven’t seen before.
The gameplay still feels very Halo-esque but has enough new tweaks and additions to make it feel fresh. The multiplayer, as with any Halo game, is the real draw to the game. Basic modes return, but each with their own twist. The removal or preset weapons on the maps, but addition of ordinance (a system similar to kill streaks of the Call of Duty franchise) give the feeling of progression and power, without giving a strong advantage to either side. Spartan Ops makes for an interesting concept for co-op, replacing Firefight. Sadly, this story driven mode doesn’t feel as replayable as its predecessor. Overall Halo 4 is a vast improvement on a series that grew stale over the last couple entries, and it marks a great starting point in 343′s journey to making a trilogy.