Halo 4's in-game engine... Way to start off with a visual bang, 343.
He destroyed Halo, delayed the Covenant destruction of Earth, made a promise to Cortana, and finished the fight, thought never to be seen again. Master Chief has been frozen in cryosleep nearly as long as he’s been missing from Bungie’s roster of games, but Microsoft has shown great faith in handing the reins to a studio named for the series’ most annoying character, and even greater courage in thawing out the slumbering Spartan when many fans believed his adventures over. 343 Industries teased a Halo 4 launch date during E3 2011, and you know what? It was worth the wait.
The campaign begins four years, seven months, and ten days after Halo 3's conclusion, according to Cortana. As the Forward Unto Dawn drifts towards the anomalous Forerunner planet known as Requiem, Cortana awakes a comatose John to intercept a rogue Covenant scouting party. I say rogue because, contrary to the pact made in Halo 3, the story never explains why the Elites and Grunts assault Master Chief when the two sides first make contact. Gamers now have an actual villain to put a face to, however, a being by the name of Didact. This menace unites the narrative in ways that the catch-all evils of the Covenant and Flood never could. Didact gives Master Chief a clear goal, a clear target to eliminate before he annihilates Earth.
Didact also causes Cortana to accelerate her rampancy – when an AI thinks itself to death. Most only last seven years; Cortana survived eight. Now her state of degeneration inhibits her functions and self-control, be it deactivating enemy defenses or acting hostile towards allies. As he is in the habit of doing so, Master Chief swears to find someone capable of restoring Cortana. While tearing its hero between saving one AI versus all of Earth’s populace, Halo 4’s narrative pitches more emotional developments than players are accustomed to. Despite Master Chief’s otherwise monotone vocal performance, the steadfast commitment to his promise affected me for the first time in the series, and several sorrowful moments shocked me, something I cannot say for every shooter I complete.
But 343 Industries tucks away important plot points in scattered terminals. Want to know the unspoken history behind Didact’s treachery? You musto locate that hidden terminal, download the file to Halo Waypoint, then exit the game to access the video. At least the developers divulge some information without making fans jump through hoops. Halo 4 explains the origins of the Flood, a secret previously revealed to those who watched Halo: Legends, and the Prometheans, a breed of metallic aliens that replaces the green parasites.
Promethean Knights have no concept of chivalry.
The Prometheans inspire new combat tactics that players could forgo in prior Halo releases. After learning to melee the Flood’s zombified Elites and shoot the infected humans, Bungie did not need to devote half of Halo 3 to fighting more of the mundane organics. Although the Elites still drop dead instantly from charged Plasma Pistol shots and Battle Rifle bursts, the Prometheans excite normally routine skirmishes. The wolflike Crawlers hunt in packs, splitting their numbers between those that seek a close-quarters engagement and those that lay down suppressing fire from walls and ceilings. Halo 4 also lumps the Knights into those two categories, but assaulting them with reckless abandon puts Master Chief in a premature grave all the same. The Knights may teleport, closing the distance and delivering a blunt strikes by way of burning lance, or retreat from the dangers of the front lines and regenerate their shields. Watchers, in spite of their meager firepower, prove the most perilous. These hovering drones shield other Prometheans, revive their dead allies, and catch thrown grenades. Players should target these sentinels first.
The Prometheans bring strange, fascinating weaponry to the sci-fi table, each firearm perfectly suited to eradicating Covenant traitors. These foreign armaments fit snugly into one of Halo’s established classes, be it pistols, single-shot/burst-fire rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, rocket launchers, or sniper rifles, yet these munitions radically differ in look and feel from humanity’s implements. The Scattershot fires ricocheting shells, and players can charge the Boltshot before letting off a short-range blast of pistol ammunition. A brief animation pieces Promethean weapons together when equipping them for the first time too, and the developers make discovering their alien tech even more tantalizing when enemy deaths end with a cool disintegration effect.
Anyone doubting the remaining visual fidelity of Halo 4 should get their eyes checked. Fantastic lighting, an absence of texture pop-in, and the expanse of the environments help Halo 4 stand out as the franchise’s first true HD experience. The cutscenes display minute details in the characters’ animations and Master Chief’s armor defects, more so than any CG trailer. The soundtrack is sadly hit or miss. Marty O’Donnell took his leave as composer, so is it bewildering that newcomer Neil Davidge scarcely lives up to his pedigree? Obligatory monk chants and guitar riffs aside, Halo 4’s soundtrack does not leave the lasting impression that Halo's original theme did. A different composer should not sway your purchase, however, or shame the presentation.
In addition to giving their artificial soldiers facelifts, 343 upgraded the UNSC’s tools of destruction, designing a fully automatic SAW that wrecks rivals’ shields, a remote-detonated grenade launcher that adheres to flesh or armor, and a powerful bipedal mech complemented by a bottomless chain gun and missile launcher ammo. The weapons that do return produce more intimidating sound effects that make Halo 3's firearms feel puny and meek by comparison. Now the Battle Rifle unleashes a booming echo of gunfire that coursed through my body. I wanted my opponents to know I was coming, and for my rounds to be the last shots they hear before a telltale “X” dots a teammate’s HUD.
Nerd fact #87: Instead of being a simple tool for assisting players' aiming, Master Chief's visor actually produces the weapon's crosshair.
To no one’s startling surprise, multiplayer returns under the title of War Games, a name for the virtual reality matches that pit Spartan-IVs of red or blue affiliation against one another aboard the UNSC Infinity. Regardless of the slight backstory, 343 Industries borrows clear inspirations from another genre heavyweight: Call of Duty. While Halo 4 implements the level progression and experience point system of Halo: Reach, as armor types tie themselves to specific ranks and challenges, the assortment of weapons and abilities requires players to spend Spartan Points on each armament before adding it to loadouts. Specializations (perks) round out the customization, granting competitors armor abilities (a deployable sentry bot, jetpack, etc.) and passive bonuses such as extra weapon ammunition or faster reloads.
This raises the question of whether or not late-to-the-party players will be put at a severe disadvantage by people outfitted in higher tier unlocks. In short, no they will not. From the dozen hours I’ve spent destroying rival Spartan-IVs, the matchmaking always placed me in a session filled by opponents of similar rank. The ordnance drops (killstreaks based on points) randomize every time and can easily tip a two-on-one skirmish in a newcomer’s favor. What you may actually be amazed to hear involves in-progress matchmaking. Remember the frustration of half your team rage quitting in a round of Big Team Battle? 343 Industries remedies the situation by letting players join engagements already underway. Although lag still affects the peer-to-peer connections, a killcam reveals when you were clearly bested in skill.
Even when players do encounter someone of greater prowess, the addition of a dedicated sprint button makes hasty retreats possible. In Halo 3, getting caught in the vast openness of Valhalla, Sandtrap, or other maps guaranteed an eventual respawn. Characters simply did not have the speed to outrun enemies wielding accurate Battle Rifles. Halo 4’s sprint mechanic increases survival chances and accounts for a faster paced game that satisfies me in ways that older Halo titles did not. Speak your mind about its similarities to Modern Warfare; just know that I have not felt this eager to continue delving into Halo’s matchmaking since Halo 2.
As for custom games, that’s a different conversation. I spent hundreds of hours splattering zombies in Halo 3’s Infection mode, now called Flood. Infection remains largely unchanged in Halo 4, though 343 has renovated several existing gametypes, breathing new life into worn-out objectives. Regicide bears semblance to Free For All, yet the person in first carries the title of King, and gamers that slay the current King receive the bounty of points displayed over his head. Dominion may be what Halo needed to reignite the competition in many fans’ hearts. Two teams struggle to lockdown the map’s three separate bases. Once a team possesses a base, a timer counts down until that garrison resupplies its owners and increases their points on the leaderboard. The defenders can build automated turrets to squash enemy advances, but these too can be dispatched. The constant base swapping encourages continuous movement, whereas camping rewarded players in the past. Even the little changes make an impact. The object – no longer a skull – can be thrown in Oddball, and players pull out a sidearm for personal protection when carrying flags.
Flood mode's infected players share only their name with the Gravemind's spawn.
As much as the developers borrow elements from Call of Duty, they take care to employ one of Bungie’s addictive strategies in the online theater of war. Daily, weekly, and monthly challenges give fans more reason to keep accruing hours and ranks long after they unlock all the achievements. Every mode features some task that doles out additional experience, including Spartan Ops.
Although Spartan Ops replaces Firefight of yester-Halos, 343 builds upon a strong cooperative foundation with Spartans Ops’ storytelling. Set months after the events of Halo 4, you and three others comprise a team of Spartan-IVs sent to eliminate Covenant guards and scout Forerunner ruins. After one episode (the rest of which will appear weakly), it is too early to predict how this separate narrative will pan out. At least the studio has created one-off cutscenes and maps instead of rehashing existing locales, and carrying over your competitive Spartan into co-op sessions ensures you may always level up.
The developers did remove several cooperative alternatives that kept me playing Halo 3 and Reach longer than I would have otherwise. They scrapped the campaign’s scoring options, matchmaking, and theater mode for the time being. 343 announced they could patch some of these features in later, but the complaint stands.
Petty grievances should not deter players from owning Halo 4. Bungie passed the torch to 343 Industries, who takes up the mantle proudly. Featuring the most stirring narrative in series history, I earnestly anticipate the next two installments in the forthcoming trilogy. The frantic gameplay pace and multiplayer tweaks only strengthen that resolve. Halo 4 will not cure shooter fatigue, but players will find no better shooter to burn out on this holiday season.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: 343 Industries
Release Date: November 6, 2012
Number of Players: 1-4 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative), 2-16 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed)