Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Rating: “M” for Mature
Review by: Nick Cohen
Let’s make one thing clear before I start this review; I am a huge Halo fan. If what you’re looking for is a review from someone without any sort of Halo fanboyism, you won’t find it here. However, I am still entirely capable of writing a completely honest review of Halo 4; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this.
Going into Halo 4, I didn’t know what to expect. Bungie’s time with the franchise is over and new internal Microsoft studio 343 Industries has taken the development reins for the Halo franchise. Combined with talk of making Halo multiplayer resemble Call of Duty, I both looked forward to and dreaded the release of Halo 4. Thankfully, Halo 4 doesn’t abandon what makes Halo the best, most well-rounded FPS in modern gaming. Unfortunately, Halo 4‘s Campaign also feels like ‘just another Halo game’ a little too often.
Beginning a few years after the end of Halo 3, Halo 4‘s Campaign begins with a familiar sight–the Master Chief waking up from cryo sleep. This time, however, he is woken up by Cortana, his A.I. companion from the previous games. Cortana is afraid she is entering a state of rampancy–in Halo franchise lore, most A.I.s go crazy (rampant) after about seven years of service from absorbing too much information. However, Cortana’s rampancy issue is put on hold for the time being in favor of a more immediate threat–the Covenant. Yes, in traditional Halo opening level fashion, the Covenant have boarded a ship and it’s up to the Master Chief to stop them.
‘But wait,’ you may be wondering, ‘didn’t the Covenant join forces with humanity in Halo 3?’ Yes, but…well, the reason for the Covenant’s sudden change of heart is never made clear in Halo 4‘s Campaign. In fact, one of the biggest problems that I had with Halo 4‘s Campaign is the understanding that I wouldn’t really know what was going on if I hadn’t read a few of the Halo novels beforehand. The big plotline of the game involves the Forerunners, the Didact, and the Librarian–if none of that made any sense to you, prepare to be confounded about much of what goes on in Halo 4‘s Campaign. It’s not necessary to read any of the Halo novels before jumping into Halo 4, but I’d recommend reading a few beforehand so you know what the primary antagonist is and what some of the supporting characters are.
One thing that is easily understood about Halo 4‘s story is the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana. As noted above, Cortana is going rampant. This manifests itself throughout Halo 4‘s Campaign in numerous ways. Sometimes, the Chief’s HUD will flicker on and off. Other times, Cortana will freak out and yell at a soldier. Halo 4 is as much about the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana as it is about the Prometheans, the Covenant, or saving the galaxy. Thankfully, the personal story is much better told than the confusing larger story, giving newcomers to the franchise something to latch on to when other things don’t make much sense.
What will make sense to anyone who has played a Halo game before is the gameplay. The core Halo gameplay is intact and still as fantastic as it was before. The Covenant are still a threat to you. You can still pilot vehicles like Ghosts and Warthogs. Levels are still fairly open and varied in terms of approach. Many classic Halo weapons–the Assault Rifle, Magnum, Battle Rifle, DMR, Needler, Shotgun, Plasma Pistol, etc.–return. Most of the time, Halo 4’s Campaign feels very similar to how other games in the franchise felt. Maybe too familiar, in fact; it’s great that I can use the trusty BR/Plasma Pistol combo to fell Elites easily, but give me something different.
To be fair, Halo 4 did give me something different in the form of the new Promethean enemies. What they are is a mystery you’ll have to discover for yourself (it’s explained in the game, don’t worry), but just know that these things are really tough and fun to fight. There are three basic types: the Crawlers are lithe, hard-to-hit grunts that look like a cross between a dog and an ant; the Watchers are floating drones that can catch grenades and resurrect other Promethean enemies; and the Knights are gigantic enemies that can teleport and take a ton of damage to kill. With these new enemies comes a new arsenal of weapons, including the awesome Scattershot shotgun and Boltshot pistol, as well as the useless Suppressor machinegun.
Halo 4‘s Campaign is plenty lengthy–it clocked in at about nine hours for me on Heroic difficulty, varied, and extremely tough. It’s one of the best FPS campaigns of recent years, even if it isn’t quite as good as Halo: Reach‘s near-flawless Campaign. It ends well and wraps up most of the story threads introduced while leaving just enough open for the already-announced sequels. And yet, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed with it. It’s just all a bit too familiar.
I’m also disappointed in Halo 4‘s new Spartan Ops co-op missions. Replacing Halo: Reach‘s much-loved Firefight mode, Spartan Ops is a series of weekly co-op missions for up to four players (they can be played solo) that are very loosely tied together by the flimsiest of stories. Each week, a new set of five short missions (roughly 15 minutes each) is released for free. These missions are precluded by a short CG cutscene that follows some Spartans aboard the UNSC Infinity. The missions themselves are pretty fun, but short and too easy. They also lack the replayability of Firefight mode. Honestly, I’d give up Spartan Ops in a second for the return of Firefight.
Here’s where things get surprising; Halo 4‘s competitive multiplayer–called War Games–is the most changed element of Halo 4, yet it’s also the best. In fact, War Games may be Halo‘s best competitive multiplayer suite yet. You get 10 maps out of the box–which is too few, even with DLC bringing new maps in the near future–plus three Forge maps that can’t be played in matchmaking (Forge remains mostly the same as in Halo: Reach). The new Dominion and Regicide modes are fun, though I miss Halo: Reach‘s insane Headhunter mode.
The big additions to War Games are clearly inspired by Call of Duty. Loadouts allow you to set a primary weapon (Battle Rifle or DMR, such a tough choice!), secondary weapon (Magnum pistol, for example), grenade type (the new Promethean Pulse Grenade joins the classic Fragmentation and Plasma grenades), armor ability (jetpack, hologram, Promethean Vision that allows you to see enemies through walls, etc.), and two perks. The other big new addition to Halo 4‘s War Games is Ordnance Drops; basically, killstreaks that–like the Support package rewards from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3–rely on points scored and don’t reset after death. Once the Ordnance Drop meter fills, you get three choices: one is always a grenade type, while the other two can be any combination of power weapons (Rocket Launcher, Needler, Shotgun, Scattershot, etc.) and powerups (overshield and speed boost).
While this all sounds like it could be destroying Halo–especially when you factor in the ability for every player to sprint and the Call of Duty-esque killcams–I can assure you that it isn’t the case at all. In fact, the new additions make for a faster-paced Halo game that still feels like Halo. It’s all incredibly well-balanced–all players can see weapon spawns on the map, for example, and players with overshield/speed boost powerups light up like Christmas trees so they’re easy targets–and doesn’t take away from the classic “Halo feel.” Halo veterans will love it, while many newcomers will also like it a lot. If you haven’t played/enjoyed a Halo game before because it was too slow-paced compared to contemporary FPS, give Halo 4‘s War Games a shot; I think you’ll really enjoy it.
There’s one last thing to discuss about Halo 4, and it’s presentation. Though graphics really haven’t been Halo‘s strongest suit in the past, Halo 4 looks absolutely fantastic. In fact, it’s the best-looking game on Xbox 360. Character models are the most detailed I’ve ever seen in a video game, the framerate is steady, lighting is top-notch, and environments are varied. The only thing that didn’t look so hot was a canyon environment in one of the later Campaign missions. Audio is just as good as the graphics. Ever since Battlefield 3 released last year, developers have taken notice of how much excellent sound design can add to a video game. 343 is no different; every weapon in Halo 4 now sounds different than in prior games. In almost every case (the lone exception being the Shotgun), the new weapon sound effects are vastly improved over their predecessors. Voice acting is also great, with each member of the cast turning in a great performance that adds some emotion to Halo 4‘s story.
With the series’ best competitive multiplayer to date, a great Campaign, and topnotch presentation, Halo 4 is one of the best first-person shooters in recent memory. I wish the Campaign felt a little more fresh, and I really wish Firefight mode had made a return, but Halo 4–while not the best game in the series–is definitely worthy of the Halo name and legacy. Bravo, 343; I can’t wait to see what you do with Halo 5.
Sound: Halo 4 features great voice acting and much-improved weapon sounds. Unfortunately, Bungie composer Marty O’Donnell’s music is missed; Halo 4‘s music never reaches the same heights as previous games’ and sounds a bit generic.
Storyline: Halo 4‘s Campaign features two distinct story threads. One is the larger narrative about the Master Chief fighting an ancient being that people who haven’t invested time into the broader Halo fiction outside of the games will struggle to understand; the other is a personal story between the Master Chief and A.I. Cortana that will resonate strongly for all players.
Gameplay: Halo 4 features a mix of old and new gameplay features that result in one of the best multiplayer components in years, yet also results in a Campaign that feels a bit too familiar.
Graphics: With detailed character models and environments and a smooth framerate, Halo 4 is easily the best-looking game on Xbox 360.
Overall Fun Factor/Replay Value: Halo 4 features a lengthy–yet slightly disappointing–Campaign and multiplayer that will keep players busy for months/years to come. Spartan Ops is a missed opportunity, but Halo still rules the FPS roost.
Final Score: 9/10 (fantastic, yet slightly disappointing on some levels)