Halo, is it me you’re looking for?
Halo 4 is the first game in the series to be handled by 343 Studios. They may have a few of the original Halo creators on staff, but they’re not Bungie and this has led to a few doubts about how well they can handle the game. Fans will be happy to know they’ve done such a good job, they’ve almost made Bungie look bad.
Halo has evolved over the years but the core formula has never really changed. Each iteration of the game added a few new ideas and moved the story along. Each game was comfortably great and up there with the ‘must-have’ titles on both Xboxes. There were issues of course. Characterisation has never been a strong suit of Bungie’s, and despite the excellent Sergeant Johnson, there were few really memorably heroes or villains in the series. Bungie got better in that regard with ODST and Halo: Reach, two excellent spinoffs that brought storytelling to the fore, as well as preserving the precise and inventive combat mechanics that are the series trademark.
Halo 4 has continued that legacy, and gone further. The combat feels right, with a mixture of plasma and human weapons being needed to take down shields and inflict damage, Plasma grenades proving a get out of jail free card, and a limited supply of ammo encouraging you to try out every single weapon. I played through on Heroic, and although the campaign was remarkably short, I used every single weapon and had to get to grips with getting the best out of the guns in order to progress.
One nice new addition is the Mantis. A walking bipedal mech, it carries a rocket launcher and machine gun. Sounds fairly generic but in practice it’s anything but. The rocket launcher has a limited lock-on capacity, and can be charged to fire more rockets at once. The machine gun is immensely powerful but can overheat. Careful management of these systems can turn you into a walking death machine, but if you’re careless you can easily find yourself with no working weapons stranded in the middle of a battlefield. This is what Halo is about, clever use of tactics and weaponry rather than twitch-shooting and cover-nbased shenanigans. Each minute of playing a Halo game is fun, and although fighting the new enemies can at times be frustrating, the puzzle element is still there: How do I clear this room while using the least amount of ammo.
The new enemies, the prometheans, have some really nasty tricks up their sleeves. They can teleport, they can spawn little hovering drones, and the drones can resurrect defeated enemies. This gives them a clear hierarchy but can lead to some really horrible moments when you feel you’re not really getting anywhere after soaking bullet after bullet into their shielded armour. At the moment there’s only really three types of prometheans but hopefully 343 will be expanding on their lineup in future games.
Graphically Halo 4 is a masterpiece and a true swan song for the Xbox 360. After the disappointing Assassin’s Creed 3 I was starting to wonder if the 360 could really keep up with modern PC games and Halo 4 is evidence that it really can in the right hands. Beautiful vistas and busy battlefield all pass by without a hitch in the framerate. The art direction avoids the typical muddy browns and greys to use the full palette and provides some hugely varying environments despite all the action taking place in (mostly) one area. The enemies look impressive and are visually distinctive at a distance, the weapons all give off their own signature effects so you always know what you’re up against. This game doesn’t just look amazing, the looks actually help you play.
One particular piece of visual flair is the fact you can see your visor throughout the game, even in multiplayer. It’s a small change but for me it really boosts the immersion, in a way similar to the first person Metroid games. Light effects reflect and refract through the helmet’s glass and there is a constant feeling of slight claustrophobia. It’s a sign of a developer who really pays attention to how people react to the game, and how they feel. Simple, but effective and something a lot of developers could learn from.
Firefight has been replaced with a new mode called ‘Spartan Ops’ It is really similar to Firefight in that you generally end up fighting waves of enemies in different locations, sometimes with vehicles and sometime without. The big difference comes with the story that has been tagged along and the fact that new episodes are going to be released periodically for free. They are very light on content (each new episode reuses assets from the campaign and multiplayer) but they’re free so who cares? Each episode also comes with an animated short film explaining another piece of the story. These are entertaining and now Halo is such an established universe, it’s nice to see a little more backstory.
The chief draw for many will be the multiplayer, and Halo 4 does not disappoint. Lately I’ve been playing from a room with a terrible internet connection, and yet I’ve had amazingly few problems thanks to Halo 4’s net code. Progression is similar to how it was in Halo 3, but with a new unlock system like a light version of Call of Duty. There’s many more visual armour permutations to look forward to unlocking and these provide a real incentive to have just one more match.
The game modes are as you would expect, and with a daily, weekly and monthly challenge system, you’re always encouraged to try out new modes. Since the game launched there has been three new playlists rotated in and out so it seems that 343 is dedicated to changing things up to prevent things from getting too stale. Multiplayer is as satisfying as ever, and it feels as if tactics and accuracy win the day over twitch-reactions and a decent connection every time. When you die it feels like your fault, there’s very little randomness to the fights, and this encourages some truly brutal competition. New armour abilities change up things from the last couple of games, but they seem to be more balanced and subtle, with the removal of armour-lock and a slight nerf to the jetpack.
Maps are one of the few sticking points, with a seemingly low number available at the moment, and many promised as DLC. It really does feel as though a significant portion of the game is being held back to sell to us later, and it gets a little irritating when you see the same three maps come up again and again. The maps are good, don’t get me wrong, but there’s just not enough of them to satisfying those of us who play for longer periods.
Overall, Halo has something for everybody. The campaign is great fun, and ridiculously scalable. Anyone could finish it on the easiest difficult, but trying it on Mythic will be a significant challenge for even the most seasoned veteran. You can play everything in multiplayer, you can play any game mode you like and even craft your own maps using Forge. You can learn from your enemies in Theatre, and level up through challenges and Spartan Ops if you don’t like the multiplayer. It’s a true successor to Halo, and more of a leap forward than Halo 2 or 3 were. 343 have truly shown themselves to be capable of handling this licence and I can’t wait to see where they go with it.