To say that Bungie had a successful run with Halo would be an understatement, so 343 Industries had a very high bar to meet after taking over the franchise. The single-player falters at delivering on an experience of equal caliber to previous entries, but there is still an amazing amount of great extended content crammed into this box.
Halo 4 picks up roughly five years after we last inhabited everyone’s favorite Spartan as Master Chief and the artificial intelligence Cortana have been adrift on the remains of the Forward Unto Dawn frigate since the events ending Halo 3. As chance would have it, they eventually encounter the shield world Requiem, which houses the Forerunner known as the Didact. He’s got a bone to pick with humanity, and his Promethean forces have attracted the attention of a rebel sect of Covenant and the UNSC Infinity. If this is all a bit confusing, it’s because many of these elements have only ever been alluded to or briefly mentioned in the games – Halo 4 makes use of the series’ extended canon from various books and miniseries. At times it’s a good addition; it’s interesting to see this greater depth being given to the story, like the shady ethics behind the creation of the Spartans and how AIs break down after seven years but Cortana has been online for eight. However, relying on other media also hurts Halo 4‘s story in places. Master Chief meeting with the now Captain Thomas Lasky is shown in a way that suggests some significance, which can be confusing if you haven’t watched the Forward Unto Dawn miniseries.
At times, the story is great; the interaction between Cortana and Chief is perhaps the best it’s ever been, with the lumbering stoic trying to come to terms with one of his only friends losing her sanity. Sadly, the rest of the supporting cast is not nearly as well-written. The captain of the Infinity, for example, seems to exist solely to contradict Master Chief regardless of common sense or whether it makes for good military strategy. Instead of a cohesive narrative, it feels as if characters are making decisions simply to move the plot forward or provide an excuse for the next big fight.
However, the biggest disappointment in the single player is how, at times, it just doesn’t feel like Halo. Aesthetically, many small things have been changed to give the game a more grounded or realistic look. To be fair, Bungie even did this a bit themselves, but all the little things, like plasma grenades and weapons fire being much smaller, makes the game feel not quite right. The game’s soundtrack is also a letdown. The loss of Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, composers on the previous games, is quite apparent and profound. While those are certainly big shoes to fill, the new score lacks any of the punch and gravitas from the originals. There’s something to be said about not repeating what’s been done, but the music in Halo 4 is often just subtle ambiance, if it’s even there at all. It simply doesn’t have a Halo feel at all to be tearing through Covenant with your massive tank without some strong percussion driving the experience.
Thankfully, much of the gameplay has remained the same. Enemies are more than just waves of mooks to gun down, and defeating them almost always requires some kind of trick or tactic. Halo 4 introduces a whole new set of enemies, the Prometheans, and they all have their own quirks and weaknesses that you’ll need to learn. Watchers, the flying robots, are particularly challenging as they do everything from shield other enemies, resurrect fallen allies and even toss your grenades around. These actions don’t seem like much, but the varied tactics helps keep fights interesting as you’re constantly thrown into encounters that can’t be won simply by shooting from behind cover. There are even new weapons to try, though a lot of the Promethean’s weapons just feel like laser versions of ordinary shotguns, assault rifles, and so forth.
The campaign will take you less than 10 hours to complete on Normal difficulty, but there is some incentive to replay the story because you can unlock hidden endings by completing the higher challenges. You can also add Skulls to the game, which are options you can select when starting a level that will adjust some of the basic rules and settings for either you or the enemies, like disabling your motion tracker or forcing you to completely restart the level when you die. The extra level of variety is welcome on repeat playthroughs or if you want to add a new challenge to co-op.
The multiplayer has an interesting twist in that the whole system is presented within the context of the Halo universe. When you create your character in multiplayer, you’re supposedly a Spartan IV that’s assigned to the UNSC Infinity, and any armor, skills or weapons you’ve unlocked can be used in any mode. Gameplay is split between the cooperative Spartan Ops and the competitive War Games. Spartan Ops, rather than just being a checklist of various challenge missions, actually has its own storyline, complete with cutscenes, which runs around the main single player narrative. 343’s current plan is to release free 5-mission Spartan Ops chapters over a designated season.
For a lot of players, the real core of Halo 4 will be War Games, which take place on Halo‘s equivalent of the holodeck housed in Infinity’s massive interior and are run for the Spartans to hone their skills fighting against each other. On the whole, the War Games mode delivers a healthy mixture of old and new. Mainstays like the Slayer game type and the Blood Gulch map – resurrected as a new map – will keep old fans smiling. If you ever get bored of playing the game maps, you can always jump into Forge and create something custom, or just play around making Rube Goldberg-esque sequences. It can be fun to blow off some steam by adjusting the gravity, spawning with rocket launchers or just adding a ridiculous number of tanks to a level.
New to the series are ordinance drops. Weapons will spawn on the map like they normally do, but players will also be able to call in personal drops upon filling their ordinance meter. The meter fills by killing players and performing other specific conditions, like ending a player’s killstreak. Personal ordinance drops help to alleviate the mad dash to or camping around weapon spawn points, but it can sometimes lead to a dominating player becoming more dominating. Halo 4 maintains the weighty feel to its multiplayer combat. The Spartans are sturdy folk in their armor and shield – not easily brought down – making firefights less about who shoots first and more about landing several shots accurately. This pushes the gameplay towards learning the weapons so you know exactly how many shots are needed or comboing with grenades and melee to quickly take someone down.
Bottom Line: It’s going to feel a little off with a new studio taking over the franchise, and Bungie left a big mark on gaming with Halo. While 343i shouldn’t just try to make a Bungie game, the single player isn’t up to the series’ standard. Halo 4 does balance that with a robust amount of content across the various gameplay modes.
Recommendation: The continuation of Master Chief’s story feels a little thin, but War Games, Spartan Ops and all the other multiplayer offerings Halo 4 will keep you playing for months to come.[rating=4]