The time has come, the saga that helped launch the original Xbox returns in its most ambitions installation yet – Halo 4. But with a new developer at the helm, will 343 Industries breathe new life into a long-loved franchise? Or will Halo 4 turn into a bitter taste in the mouths of the millions of battled hardened fans? Nothing like a bit of pressure, eh?
The first thing you notice about Halo 4 is just how stunningly beautiful the game looks, and I mean it’s a beautiful game! Even with my PC gaming background I well and truly tip my cap to 343 Industries for their stunning work here – individual bullet shell casings, rockface textures and character details are all sublime, lighting and scenery will take your breath away. The second thing you notice is how familiar everything feels whilst also leaving you with a subtle and strange sense of detachment and inexperience that usually comes with playing a brand new IP. I’ve followed the Halo franchise since the first game back in 2001, I’ve watched the separate animated series, the webisodes that have accompanies different releases and even read the books a number of times. The word ‘fanboy’ has even been thrown around a fair few times in my presence because of my genuine interest in the backstory and history of the series and it’s a badge I wear with a small amount of pride so it’s understandable that myself and any self-respecting Halo fan would call 343 Industries out on any changes they make to this well established series.
Believe it or not, gamers by and large are a forgiving bunch and as long as the core game itself is a quality product with a powerful story behind it we can forgive a few indiscretions with the sound files and texture packs but when instances such as the iconic Plasma Sword’s ‘ready’ sound effect, (you know the one, the sound effect that would strike fear into the hearts of LAN party enemies) when that has been replaced with a sound that reminds me of someone throwing a plugged in toaster into a bath tub or when our familiar little Grunts, who were once the subject to some cracking one-liners and never taken too seriously have now been completely redesigned and turned into bland generic alien foot soldiers with little distinctive personality, it might be a step too far.
So four years have passed since the Forward Unto Dawn met with its fate during the closing scenes of Halo 3 and the Master Chief and Cortana have been floating through space ever since, Cortana awakens our heavily armoured friend as they approach one of the Forerunner Shield Worlds (a concept best explained in one of the Halo books as a Dyson Sphere) as both Cortana and the Master Chief search for a way back to UNSC populated space. Now I’ll openly admit there aren’t many plot details I can publish without spoiling some pretty important aspects of Halo 4’s story but it’s key to remember that there are two distinct stories taking place simultaneously in Halo 4: There’s a very personal story which whilst not being completely unexpected given the plot details that have already been circulating the internet is still slightly hard to swallow for fans of the series. There’s also the overall disaster storyline which you would expect from any self respecting Halo game, a new main antagonist which must be stopped and a galaxy which must be saved one way or another. They’re both stories that contain moments of acceptable exaggeration and hyperbole and are littered with moments of confusing acceptance as you struggle to follow what’s going on.
Moving away from the spoiler-riddled plot for a moment, the gameplay for any Halo game is virtually self-explanatory as a genre with only a few changes and tweaks with each new iteration. This time around you have access to some new weapons such as the Scattershot (an energy shotgun) the Boltshot (a reasonably powerful energy pistol with little recoil) and the Light Rifle (a more powerful variation of the Covenant Beam Rifle) naturally some old Halo classics take a bow during the game such as the Covenant Needler which is still as utterly devastating and accurate as ever, the Fuel Rod cannon and Covenant Carbine. The UNSC also get some new and upgraded toys with the Battle Rifle, AR5, Magnum Pistol (sadly not as powerful as it used to be but still handy in a close quarters gunfight) and the DMR Rifle which acts somewhere between a Sniper Rifle and the Battle Rifle, Pro Tip: The DMR is a very handy weapon to carry. It’s also worth mentioning that the first three weapons I mentioned in this paragraph are neither Human or Covenant made but belong to Halo 4’s new antagonists.
You can also sprint this time around without it being a usable ability, other abilities making a feature in Halo 4 are the Hard Light Shield which resembles a riot shield, the Thruster Pack which offers you a small boost forwards and the Sentry Gun which provides stationary covering fire for a limited time. The Jetpack also makes a triumphant return although it has been serious pulled back in terms of usability and power.
Vehicles are never too far away when Halo is concerned and this time around makes no exception – with old favourites like the Ghosts, Banshees, and Warthogs all making their customary appearance and all handling wonderfully, there’s also a new addition to the vehicles roster in the form of The Mantis: a robotic exoskeleton which resembles the Docking Bay Loaders from Aliens, they’re a great reinforcement to have and don’t feel too out of place in the story.
As with most first person shooters these days, the campaign is only half of the game and Halo 4 is no exception; with its trusty multiplayer section taking pride of place on the games second disc, Infinity lets you play through the standard multiplayer modes (dubbed War Games) as you would expect from any Halo game – the only difference this time around is the controversial Killstreak and Perk system, essentially when you earn enough kills in multiplayer you can use the D-Pad to summon selected weapons into the battlefield and as you level up in game you have the choice to customise your weapons loadout and armour abilities. These aspects are not unlike other insanely popular first person shooters and like I mentioned in my preview from what I can see they don’t stop Halo multiplayer from being Halo multiplayer. During my time playing I found it just as enjoyable as playing Reach multiplayer (as long as you enjoyed Reach, that is)
Infinity also features Spartan Ops which is a curious mix between a whole new Campaign mode and Firefight – you can choose to solo-play or co-op play a series of mini-missions as one of the latest generations of Spartans, these co-op encounters are tagged to be continued and play out as almost a separate campaign after the games release which is something that would entice me to play more multiplayer rather than the promise of simple map packs.
Closing thoughts: “I’m going to have to do something you’re not going to like”
Playing through Halo 4 again before sitting down to write this made me feel like we’d been through many of these ‘generic sci-fi’ moments before. Again, without firing off any spoiler grenades – there’s one distinct scene right near the end of the Campaign which plays out as though it’s been taken from a Star Wars idea board, another which reminds me of something straight from the Mass Effect series and one scene which feels heavily influenced by the 1996 movie Independence Day and everywhere you look you feel as though you can spot non-Halo related sci-fi references in the game which I’m not sure if they are deliberate homages to other outlets of the genre which I simply don’t appreciate or just slightly lazy design choices.
Halo 4 is a good game, hell – it’s a great game and it’s one that I’m going to enjoy playing through on co-op and multiplayer with others once it’s released but sadly it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the current Halo family, this is something that, as a fan of the series for many years feels difficult to admit and publish but Halo 4 simply didn’t live up to my expectations, perhaps that’s just my opinion – I could be completely wrong. It’s easy for people to put these feeling down to fanboyism but Halo 4 felt like a recycling of ideas – Cortana herself even pokes fun at it, stating halfway through the game “Talking a move out of our old playbook” and that’s quintessentially what Halo 4 feels like. By the end of the game you’re very aware that this is the first part of a new trilogy and even 343’s obligatory Thank You message to the fans at the end states as much. I’m confident enough that what proceeds from 343 Industries will be blockbuster stuff but if you’re expecting to feel that comfortable Halo 3 groove we left back in 2007 you’ll soon realise that too many aspects that built up Halos reputation have changed. This isn’t Combat: Evolved anymore, it’s Halo: Evolved – for better or worse.
“Every Great Journey begins with a single step, this is our beginning” – 343 Industries
“For all our sake, I hope so” – Mike Smith
Microsoft provided Slimgamer.com with a review copy of Halo 4