After what was perhaps the most secretive Halo game in development since the first sequel in November of 2004, we get to see if 343 Industries truly deserve to take the mantle from Bungie as custodians of Xbox’s biggest franchise and one of the biggest first person shooters in the industry.
One thing that is obvious from the outset is that the production values for the game have increased massively. Not that the Bungie titles were short of that but it seems with this game a concerted effort has been made to take a huge leap forward with the technology available. It may still be based on earlier game engines but you wouldn’t tell by looking at it. It is startling just how much better everything looks and moves. Where the visuals in Halo: Reach felt like they were playing catch up to other shooters, Halo 4 stands amongst the best and often surpasses. Character detail in cutscenes using the engine are amazing to watch.
The art style is still very familiar, it wouldn’t be Halo otherwise, but colour, light and shadow have ramped up creating spectacular vistas that get close to recreating that sense of wonder players first experienced when crash landing in the first game. A lot of effort has been made to ensure that everything the player sees is new and different but it does highlight those small sections with repetitive architecture; at one point I was concerned I had run into Halo 4‘s version of the Library but was glad to see it end quickly.
Sound design perhaps tops the visuals – effects have an added impact to them that is quickly made apparent as it further adds individuality to the weapons and vehicles. I didn’t think the Covenant weapons could sound better but I was happily wrong. The Needler is now a sight to both see and hear. The soundtrack by Neil Davidge is really strong and is beautifully cinematic but it’s always going to be compared it to the iconic tracks by Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori. It’s a tough position to be in; like having to write a new theme to Star Wars following John Williams.
The gameplay itself is classic Halo; the campaign goes out of its way to introduce you to the basic concepts in a way that allows long time fans to feel comfortable quickly. Grenades to the left trigger, guns to the right. Quick time events appear early on in the opening sequence and at the end but are noticeably absent from the rest of the campaign. Though they are never apart of the regular gameplay, they did provide an interesting way to transition between sections of the game.
The real challenge though begins once the player is introduced to enemy types whose behaviours differ from the Covenant. With new enemies come new weapons too. Both of these fit into familiar categories but provide enough variation to add further dynamics to combat situations.
The campaign’s story is a move in the right direction, even if some familiarity with the franchise is required to fully grasp it. From the opening cutscene alone, more was done to humanise the Master Chief (our protagonist) than the games preceding it. And as the game progresses, his relationship with Cortana is pushed to the foreground again like in Halo 3 but now with some added spice due to the passage of time and the effects that it has on them both.
Terminals are in the game again too. Finding them in each of the campaign levels bags you a cutscene going into the game’s back story. I’m assuming they help with details that are covered in Greg Bear’s trilogy of Forerunner books but it’s a shame they can only be accessed through Halo Waypoint. It forces the player to back out of the game completely rather than get that little snippet of backstory at a time (in game) where it might have its best impact.
Beyond the campaign is of course the multiplayer and it is here where the game has changed the most. The regular multiplayer modes are here but more options have been opened to the player via loadouts which steadily become available as players gain experience in matches. During the course of playing, the opportunity to unlock more armour types, abilities and weapons present themselves. Though it might sound like it could introduce some unfair advantages to long term players, it doesn’t seem like it unbalances situations that much. More that it allows players to better tailor their set up to best work for their play style.
Personally, I think the beauty of Halo multiplayer is that the frenetic nature of it makes it rare for any player to not score a kill. Whether by skill or chance, no one is completely safe. Team games seem to naturally push players to cooperate either to complete objectives or to simply clean up weakened opponents.
Perhaps more contentious has been the introduction of Spartan Ops which is a new co-op mode broken up into episodes of five chapters with a new one released every week. These are presented as a side story spinning off from the campaign and are introduced with a short CGI animation setting the tone. The chapters themselves consist of levels tied loosey together but appear to be (for now) sections of campaign levels closed in to allow “kill everything” scenarios to play out.
This mode ended up replacing the previous Firefight mode and it turns out to be similar in execution but has replaced the scoring modes with storyline. The jury is out on whether it is the right move or not; it has potential but the game mechanics will need to be mixed up more in later episodes. The third episode (which I just played) is certainly the best so far and a lot of that is due to having vehicles available in more chapters.
In the end, this is the game we’ve been waiting for since the Master Chief’s last appearance. A lot has changed since Halo 3, especially in multiplayer, but it’s nice to be back in those giant green boots again.
|Presentation||Cutscenes are impressive and though the menus take some getting used to, they do work much better in a world of widescreen televisions.||9.0|
|Graphics||This is by far the best that Halo has ever looked and a remarkable upgrade considering it was built on the same engine as Halo: Reach.||10|
|Sound||Booming sound effects coupled with a more understated soundtrack creates a compelling reason to crank up the volume.||9.0|
|Gameplay||The game mechanics are now familiar to almost every Xbox owner in the world. And they are still sublime. The additions to multiplayer allow may be familiar to players of other online shooters.||9.0|
|Lasting Appeal||Campaign co-op will ensure replay value and DLC for multiplayer will keep that fresh too. Spartan Ops may be the killer blow here; the story driven missions have potential to lead into the next game.||9.5|
|Overall||Halo is in safe hands.||9.3|