It’s been some time since we last stepped into the capable, space-faring shoes of the Master Chief. As far as lead characters go, the Spartan remains one of the most iconic despite the concealment of his true face, as well as his determined yet quiet persona. The series has undergone a few changes since the Chief began his stint in hyper-sleep at the end of Halo 3, changing hands from Bungie to Microsoft’s 343 Industries for the beginning of a new trilogy. The hero’s return was always on the cards given his money-making status, but has the team done what Bungie could not – to lead the Chief down a new path without forgetting what made the series so popular?
The campaign gets off to a surprising start, as at first glance it appears that very little has changed at all. For all the videos and pre-release hype promising big things, you’d be forgiven for scratching your head over the first few stages. So far it’s a case of business as usual, but patience reveals that it’s all in the name of pacing whilst allowing for the changes to flow more naturally, rather than just dropping you headfirst into a new scenario. It soon becomes clear that things are about to ramp up a notch or two, and the Forerunner foes are every bit as hell-bent on your demise as the Covenant forces of old. You’ll face agile dogs and go toe-to-toe with Promethean Knights (complete with supporting tech drones), but it won’t be long before you’ve discovered the best tactics to achieve success.
Another blessing about fresh enemies is that they come packing a host of brand new weapons, all of which can be wielded by the Chief and turned against them. Favourites like the UNSC Battle Rifle, Covenant Energy Sword and rocket launchers can be found at various times, but the coolest moments come from the Promethean armaments such as the Lightrifle and Suppressor. 343 has done an excellent job of making these feel alien yet familiar, forming up around Chief’s hand and providing some other-worldly reload animations. Halo 4 is no slouch when it comes to the methods with which to kill the enemy, and it’s just as well considering how everyone seems desperate to see the Chief bite the dust. Expect to hold the trigger just as often as not, with waves of spawning foes who will dodge, duck, dive and even flank as you frantically empty each clip and charge for cover.
It’s certainly a hectic shooter, always pushing you ahead and through a predefined path. It’s not that we mind having a clear goal at any one time, but Halo 4’s campaign nearly always offers a single route or waypoint, and this includes in many of the wider and more open areas. You never get anything like a sense of true freedom and you may even be told to get a move on should you take a minute to enjoy the scenery. But take in the scenery you will, largely due to the graphical splendour that the studio has afforded the game. This is exactly how Halo should look on current hardware; metal gleams with reflected light, forests appear lush and foreboding, and character models are more detailed – with humans more realistic – than ever. There’s no denying the overuse of assets and colour schemes, but you’ve never seen a Halo game look quite this good before.
The presentation remains strong with rousing scores, meaty sound effects and solid voice work throughout. The script itself is something of a mixed bag, moving the Chief’s relationship with Cortana ahead in a respectful and emotional manner. Other supporting cast members come and go over the course of the game, but at least there’s no dead weight or annoying characters to drag the experience down. It’s a sci-fi tale that makes little sense at the best of times and will likely prove difficult for even the most attentive fans to fully understand. You won’t be playing Halo 4 for its literary strength, but the writers could have focused less on throwing inane words at you and more on fleshing out the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the story. Events seem to occur even more randomly than they did in Halo 3, making this a tough sell for anyone looking to take their first stab at the franchise.
As with previous instalments, gamers buying into the experience for the single-player outing will come away disappointed, as Halo 4 relies heavily on its robust multiplayer suite to bolster the package. You simply need to enjoy a more social atmosphere – whether on a single console or online – to fully appreciate what the title has to offer. No one seems to have understood that better than 343 Industries, as they’ve taken what came before and done things equally as well. The interface can seem cumbersome and even confusing at first (note: the game forces a one-time install of disc 2 before the multiplayer can function), but it won’t be long before you’ve taken the fight to the masses, begun to level up and customised your Spartan.
Slayer and Team Slayer make their inevitable return and are still great fun, allowing you to choose your loadout and do battle on a number of well-crafted maps. Dominion involves claiming and holding enemy bases while Flood serves as just another name for the game’s enjoyable zombie mode. There’s a long list of match types available for a few quick rounds, or you can always hop into the Forge and develop a few maps of your own. The biggest change to the formula comes in the form of Spartan Ops, where you can join with a team to accomplish set tasks, such as clearing a path full of enemies or laying waste to a series of broadcast towers. It may not sound like much on paper, but it’s great fun in practice and offers episodic content with unique cutscenes and voice work. Expect more Spartan Ops to come as further challenges are rolled out over the coming weeks.
Halo 4 strikes the delicate balance between experimentation and holding true to its heritage, which is all we can ask for when a new developer takes the reins. This is easily the best looking title in the series to date, boasting beautiful vistas, detailed character models and high production values. You’re getting a short yet solid single-player mode that demands a love for the ‘combat evolved’ formula – it’s a first-person shooter that is linear to the core, though we hope to see this change in future instalments. The story could have used some tweaking, but fans will still find an enjoyable experience with challenging gameplay and vicious enemies. As the start of a trilogy this is a good, if not revolutionary new beginning.
This review is based on a retail copy provided by Microsoft.
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