For this review I will be casually ignoring one of the things I always say and think about the video game industry. I have said many times that I dislike franchises which rehash the same thing every year in order to squeeze money from fans with only the barest of changes between games and little to no innovation (read “Call of Duty, Mario and FIFA”). It is something which happens far too often in the mainstream gaming industry: a certain series or type of game receives wide acclaim and fandom and all of sudden that’s all the company ever makes. Halo was a series I loved, but honestly I thought that since Halo 3 the games just went downhill, they essentially became more of the same and just started to become disappointing (admittedly I did enjoy Reach).
With the fact in mind that Halo is a series which has now become one of those franchises with little new ever happening, I still have to say that I really, REALLY liked Halo 4. Reach was the last installment in the Halo Universe which was created by Bungie. Since they left the game has been taken over by 343 Industries (which is essentially a video game company created by Microsoft for the specific purpose of making more things Halo). 343 have had input on other Halo titles but Halo 4 is the first game they have created on their own. And you know what, it is gooood!
The game is the next instalment in what I am going to call the “proper Halo series”. While Halo ODST and Reach followed an unnamed ODST soldier and a Spartan respectively, in Halo 4 the focus is once again on the Master Chief. Oh yes! The Sierra One-One-Seven! Oo-rah!
Some people might frown a little at this saying “didn’t he die?!” And honestly, I was initially as confused as them. However, other people will be aware that if you completed Halo 3 on Legendary difficult you were able to see a secret cut-scene in which Master Chief, instead of dying on the spaceship Forward Unto Dawn, actually climbs inside a cryo-tube and gets put into stasis by Cortana.
Anyway, it is now four years on and suddenly Cortana is forced to wake Master Chief as the Forward Unto Dawn is scanned by some unknown entity and at the same time some hostile Covenant find the remains of their wrecked ship. And all of this occurs while they are orbiting a massive Forerunner constructed planet (I am describing this here assuming you have some background knowledge of the Halo Universe, apologies if you don’t). Whatever the case Chief suddenly finds himself once again fighting Covenant and then a new hostile foe, of Forerunner origin, as he is pulled into the centre of this gigantic constructed planet. While down there he has to fight the Forerunners, find out about their past, save the crashed UNSC ship the Infinity which crashes searching for him, and then save Earth again when things get dicey.
Overall, story has never really been Halo’s strong point but at least here it is straightforward (for ALMOST the whole thing) and solid, so describing it as bad would be incorrect, it’s just nothing particularly special. However, I would actually like to say that 343 have done a fantastic job in starting to fully flesh out both Cortana and Master Chief (as the only two real main characters). In previous Halos they were both essentially all business, at least I don’t remember finding either of them particularly engaging. But now, both Chief and Cortana start becoming far more believable and more human. This is developed with their relationship with each other and when it is discovered that Cortana is becoming rampant. I was really pleasantly surprised by how much more “real” they were and how much more engaging, and how much more emotion I felt towards the characters. Even if nothing else had been different this alone was a victory for 343.
The gameplay is really rather excellent as well. The game is still, and definitely feels like, Halo but I think some of the promises 343 made have actually come to fruition. The combat feels delightfully weighted and full, giving you the impression you really are wearing a two tonne suit of armour and are essentially walking around inside a tank. The continued use of armour powers, the introduction of a universal sprint and the changes in the HUD all make the game actually feel new and different, while at the same time it still has all the same familiar patterns and flow. I do think that of all the shooters I’ve played Halo remains my favourite, and this one just feels better and improved over the older ones.
Also, I approve on so many levels that there were more missions involving the use of vehicles and even space combat. The problem with games like Mass Effect and older Halos was that you are playing a futuristic sci-fi game and then you spend all your time on foot in ground environments just shooting guns at aliens. In fact one of the most stand-out missions in Halo 4 (and actually in Reach now that I mention it) was the one in which you are in a fighter in space. I don’t want the whole game to be like that, of course, but it’s inclusion just made everything else oh so much better.
The graphics and overall look of the game is absolutely amazing. The in-game graphics and backgrounds are absolutely fantastic and very cool, but what really impressed me was the cut-scenes. There were several throughout both the main campaign and the Spartan Ops missions (see later) which absolutely blew my mind with the level of realism achieved, I wasn’t expecting it and they each completely astounded me. This all said, I do think that a great too many of the environments used in the game used far too much bloom and gleam. It was all very alien-y and shiny and cool but also at times felt a little bit tiresome and even fake, it is probably worth thinking about cutting down the number of purple glowing corridors.
There were some disappointments in the game, I feel that the campaign was actually a little short (although it may have actually been the standard length of any FPS and I’m just getting too used to the long campaigns of RPGs) but this was supposed to be made up by the Spartan Ops. An episodic series of missions in which you would play another random Spartan as part of the UNSC Infinity in which you would be doing missions happening (I believe) concurrently with the main story. Now the good news is that I did spend a similar amount of time on the Spartan Ops as I did the Campaign so yes it is like a second Campaign if play-time is what you are looking for. In every OTHER respect? No… No it’s not…
Across the 25 missions you are placed into the same 6 small enclosed maps again and again, always with some varying excuse “The science team need you to clear out this area”, “The science team accidentally did something so you need to clear it out again”, “Oh wait! Shit! The science team sneezed in the wrong place and now it turns out that the first two clearings-out did literally fuck all for the number of enemies there”. There is supposed to be some small story that goes along with it, but honestly no there isn’t. It’s just a series of excuses to go and kill things. It was fun but quickly it starts becoming a little bit boring and samey at times and towards the end I found myself getting more frustrated with it than anything else.
Another disappointment was the music… In a way… I mean it was actually all atmospheric and awesome at times and I never really disapproved of it. I just personally believe it was a mistake to NOT include the Martin O’Donnel Halo theme. I mean seriously 343? What the hell were you thinking? It would be like making a James Bond film where they didn’t at least at one point play the Bond theme… Bad 343! Don’t let me catch you doing that again!
The multiplayer remains as it has always been, good fun and an excellent social multiplayer. It’s an odd thing to say about a video game but I do think that Halo is one of the best games to pull out when you and a few friends are a little bored and stuck with what to do. It ranges from the standard challenging and incredibly frustrating where every other player seems able to kill you before you even come close to the fun and light-hearted. I have already spent a good few hours messing around in the war games and for the majority of the time I enjoyed it, I actually even seem to have converted my CoD flatmate around to appreciating the game.
Halo 4 is definitely one of the stand out games of last year. However it’s not because of it’s quality. Don’t get me wrong it is an incredibly competent and solid shooter with a good plotline and satisfying finish. Overall it is a great game, but it’s not quite one of the best games ever… However, what it did do was something that my favourite games of the last year (and possibly ever) failed to do. It successfully lived up to and actually exceeded the expectations I had of it, a surprisingly rare occurrence last year. Along with that came something that I was not expecting, something which Bungie failed to do with the last few Halo installments, Halo 4 in my mind has successfully revived the series. Here’s to another trilogy!