November 13, 2012 by Paul Curtin
With the Xbox 360 in its twilight years, the franchise that built the house of Xbox has returned one last time this generation with its iconic hero back at the helm. It’s been five years since we’ve last seen Master Chief and Cortana after Halo 3‘s post-credits stinger cliffhanger that left their fates up in the air (literally). With Bungie’s last Halo game not involving the Chief or Cortana and the studio stepping away from the series, many were left questioning not only the fate of their beloved characters but the fate of the entire series after Bungie passed the monumental torch to 343 Industries, a studio who had never shipped anything alone before.
There’s no question that 343 hasn’t ruined the series in its highly scrutinized inheritance of the Xbox’s flagship franchise, but the studio remains under the microscope and begs another important question: Has 343 already surpassed Bungie by giving Halo new life and creating the best game in the series yet?
Starting off four years after where Halo 3’s Legendary credits left off, Halo 4 tells the story of Master Chief being awoken in his cryo-chamber by Cortana, only to find that the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn ship is not only being overrun by Covenant forces, but heading towards the mysterious planet of Requiem. As always, it’s Chief’s job to save the day, which turns into something even bigger and dealing with saving all of humanity after he discovers that a newly risen ancient evil needs its alien ass kicked. And while Halo 4 might feature more alien ass-kicking than ever, it’s the touching story between Cortana and Chief that helps bring more depth to both characters and makes Halo 4 by far the most emotional and memorable.
Master Chief has been criticized in the past for being a character that lacks personality and depth with very little to say, which was also part of his charm, but 343 has nailed it by having him still remain short on words, but giving him the right amount of lines to help make John-117 feel more human behind all that armor. But Halo 4 isn’t as much about John as it is about his AI guide Cortana. Jen Taylor’s voice acting as Cortana throughout the entire campaign steals the show. The story will have you choked up at moments and is enjoyable once again up until the very last scene after the credits. Other than some convoluted parts where the story starts to get a little complex towards the end, it’s the perfect way to kick off the new Reclaimer trilogy.
From the very first cutscene to finally taking back control over Chief in the gameplay, it quickly becomes apparent that Halo 4 looks good… real good. 343 has used Microsoft’s funding well by taking Halo to the next level visually, and has raised the bar for the series that hasn’t stood out visually since Halo 2 on the original Xbox. Halo 4 isn’t just the best looking Halo game by far, but it’s one of the best looking games ever with cutscenes and character animations that hold their own against other graphics juggernauts like Killzone, Crysis, Uncharted, Gears of War, and L.A. Noire.
With the exception of some slight framerate lag in Big Team Infinity Slayer (formerly Big Team Battle) online where complete chaos is unfolding onscreen, Halo 4 plays as smooth and sexy as Cortana’s new curves. It’s nice to finally see Halo back to competing with other AAA games in the graphics department and exciting to think about what 343 has in store for Halo 5 on the next-generation Xbox.
In an effort to keep everyone happy, 343 has done their best to not stray too far from the core gameplay but still make some adjustments to change things up a bit. 343 could have done a little more in terms of changes, but it’s understandable that they wanted to keep the right balance between old and new and not upset hardcore fans. Levels look and feel just like previous games in the series as if they were still being made by Bungie, and slight improvements have been made to keep things fresh such as new enemies, weapons, and abilities. Abilities are taken straight from Reach and include upgrades such as jetpacks and hologram diversions; however, there are some new perks, such as the energy shield and Promethian Vision, which allows Chief to see enemies through fog and walls and can completely change player tactics.
The biggest change comes in the form of sound: 343 has completely scrapped the original soundtrack and sound effects and has replaced them with their own. The updates to the way guns sound when fired is awesome with 343’s team beefing up a lot of the classic sounds and giving them more umph, but the removal of the iconic soundtrack is a bit upsetting.
While the abilities and gameplay might feel very similar for those who have played the last Halo, it’s the new Promethian enemies and their weapons that really help diversify gameplay and help give the series a much needed new feel. AI is challenging, especially when not familiar with the alien weaponry they’re using, but they still feel slightly behind the curve and not as evolved as human AI in other games. The fighting begins to become a bit repetitive, and enemies can get a little boring after you’ve killed what feels like thousands of the same ones. The game just doesn’t throw much in terms of new enemies at you. But the way that the levels differ from wide open landscapes with monumental-size structures where tanks and airships can be used to more traditional linear corridors helps keep the pacing strong throughout the entire eight-hour campaign.
Once finishing the campaign and venturing into the newly renamed and revamped War Games multiplayer, you’ll remember why Halo has been at the top for so long. 343 has done an amazing job of preserving what makes Halo “Halo,” yet it still manages to successfully bring over new concepts from the campaign into multiplayer in order to create a more unique Halo experience. Players can now create loadouts like rival Call of Duty with different weapons, perks, and abilities. Also new to the multiplayer are Ordinance Drops that are like care packages which players can call down after a certain amount of kills and choose on the fly which one of the three weapons or abilities they want in the moment. Both Loudouts and Drops are welcome updates that make the competitive multiplayer more intense and enjoyable than ever.
In addition to the new gameplay elements, 343 has created ten all-new big and small maps that are all very well designed and already feel like classics, one of which is of course another new take on Valhalla/Blood Gulch/Coagulation, now called Ragnarok. Almost all of the classic modes have returned, like Regicide (Slayer), Infinity Slayer (Team Slayer), Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Oddball, and SWAT, but it’s very disappointing that 343 has removed some of the objective modes, such as in Big Team Battle and Reach‘s Invasion mode. Halo‘s most competitive and played mode might be the smaller Infinity Slayer, but personally I’ve always had more fun playing the larger modes, and it’s a shame that Halo 4 only offers big team deathmatch now.
To make up for the removal of other objective modes, there is one new objective playlist called Dominion, which features two teams trying to capture territories and the unique concept of building bases once said territories are captured. Fans might also be upset to find that Firefight has been removed and replaced with Spartan Ops, although it feels like a somewhat fair trade with the new mode being an innovative new idea that involves new co-op missions and stunning cinematics each week over a period of ten weeks, all for free.
After completing the epic campaign and spending many hours leveling up in multiplayer, it’s safe to say that Halo 4 is in fact the best Halo to date and that fans can rest assured that the franchise is in good hands with 343 Industries. Halo 4 is not without its minor flaws, and 343 could have played it a little less safe, but in the end what they’ve produced is amazing, especially considering it’s their first game in the series and how much pressure they had on them and nobody thought they could deliver anything on par with Bungie. With a great debut and Halo officially reborn, it’s going to be very exciting to see where 343 takes the series next with the support of fans and the power of the next generation Xbox behind them. We’ve seen seven Halo games (including the CE Anniversary remake) since the series launched eleven years ago, and for a series that everyone should be sick of by now, 343 has managed to bring back some of the magic of the original and has us waiting in anticipation as to what they do to evolve the series next. Halo 4 gets 4.5 out of 5 stars (Amazing).
- 343 has taken what made Halo great and has made it even better
- Multiplayer is exactly what you’d want from a new Halo with the perfect mix of old and new features
- Solid singleplayer story that’s far more emotional than any other Halo
- Graphics are finally updated to hold their own with stunning visuals during cutscenes
- Overhaul of the weapon sound effects make firefights sound more badass than ever
- Campaign’s story can be a little confusing towards the end
- A couple fan-favorite multiplayer and co-op modes have been removed
- Removal of the iconic soundtrack is a bit upsetting
- 343 has played it a little too safe in order to not upset die-hard fans