Halo has been Microsoft’s most successful franchise on the Xbox 360. Yet, when series developer Bungie decided they wanted to pack up their toys and play a new game, Microsoft had to be worried. After all, Bungie created the Halo universe and it was quite possibly more their baby than Microsoft’s. But instead of panicking, Microsoft took their immense resources and tried what the New York Yankees attempt to do every year, buy themselves a championship. And so, 343 Industries was born, staffed with some of the best game designers in the business and tasked with the seemingly impossible, to follow up Bungie’s massive success with a new Halo game.
343’s quandary was twofold. They needed to make Halo 4 a title that properly stroked fans of the series by not straying too far from the Halo formula but at the same time ignite a desire in non-fans to play it, further expanding their base of players. Amazingly Halo 4 succeeds at both these things. Make no mistake about it, Halo 4 is very much a Halo game. It looks like Halo. It plays like Halo. And, most importantly, it feels like Halo. But there is also something else to it, something that permeates the surface like an electric charge. For as much as Halo 4 is Halo, it also feels surprisingly different and new.
That difference can be felt immediately upon beginning the campaign. Players are treated to a gorgeous pre-rendered cutscene setting up the events to come. Cortana, the series’ charismatic and sexy AI, thaws out Master Chief, who has been in cryostasis for the past four years. Their drifting ship, Forward Unto Dawn, has been boarded by a rogue group of Covenant. For fans of the series it will bring to mind the opening moments of Halo: Combat Evolved but at the same time it is darker and more ominous.
343 has decided to approach the campaign of Halo focusing on the traditional sandbox encounters of the Halo series mixed with a healthy dose of narrative and characterization. There is an inherent danger to exploring a character like Master Chief. While there have been little touches of characterization here and there, the Master Chief has mostly always just been the faceless hero, a body more personified by the player than by the narrative at play. That changes here and in doing so Halo 4 weaves a more character driven story than ever before and does so quite well.
One of the core aspects explored in Halo 4’s narrative is the idea that the Master Chief might be more machine than Cortana. This exploration adds a depth to the iconic hero and his lovely blue AI that has never really been present in any of the prior games. The relationship between Chief and Cortana is front and center in Halo 4 and at times it can get quite emotional, which is both amazing and funny considering who we are talking about.
While Chief and Cortana’s personal arc is the narrative glue holding the game together, the story is propelled by conflict with a mysterious ancient being intent on eliminating humanity. Sadly this antagonist is underdeveloped and just thrown at the player in a way that left me scratching my head. While the origin and motivations for this antagonist are eventually revealed to the player through narrative drops, it seems lackluster next to the stellar handling of Chief and Cortana. And all of it seems too reliant on player’s knowledge of events and characters from outside the games. I am all for including extended universe aspects into games but a lack of knowledge of those aspects should not affect the overall narrative and I think it does here to a great extent.
Even with these issues though, Halo 4 shines as an excellent example of how to do narrative right in a first person shooter. It makes the attempt at emotional storytelling by EA’s recent Medal of Honor: Warfighter seem silly in comparison. The game proves that the narrative of the series was certainly in capable hands. However, no matter how well realized the narrative of Halo 4 may be, in the end, it is still a game and games need to play well. And in this regard, Halo 4 shines its brightest.
It would be easy to say 343 took the safe road in terms of their gameplay design because Halo 4’s campaign feels a whole lot like past Halo campaigns. But in truth, it needs to. Halo 4 is still a Halo game and there is a formula that needs to be adhered to, It is done masterfully here, blending in just enough new concepts to keep the game feeling fresh.
It is quite clear that 343 learned a lot from Bungie’s two side outings with the franchise, Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, packing Halo 4’s eight missions with a combination of classic sandbox firefights mixed with missions utilizing the UNSC stable of vehicles, including the new Mantis, a bipedal mech that unleashes hell upon its enemies. Each level offers plenty of gameplay variety, and while much of the game can be boiled down to shoot things and go here to press a button, it never feels like it is that simple.
Whereas much of the game will see players slaying hordes of Covenant baddies, 343 has introduced a new faction of enemies into the mix, the Prometheans. The Prometheans consist of three enemy types, the grunt-like crawlers, the Elite-like Knights and the watchers, a mechanical construct that can revive other fallen Prometheans. Watchers add a new level of strategy to the mix and should be eliminated immediately if one hopes to survive conflicts with them. Coming alongside this new danger are a slew of new weapons that literally deconstructs their targets.
All in all Halo 4’s campaign has a great sense of pace to it, moving Chief in and out of dicey situations in exotic locales. The game has a turning point about midway through which sunk its hooks in me so much so that I just could not stop playing. Between the urgency of the narrative to the excellently designed levels filled with classic Halo gameplay, I just wanted more and Halo 4 graciously kept giving it to me all the way to its gut-wrenching ending.
For as good as the campaign was, it does come off as a tad short, clocking in at roughly six hours of gameplay on the Normal difficulty. Heroic and Legendary difficulties are sure to extend that timeframe a bit but those difficulties are not for everyone. Still, the shorter length benefits the narrative, allowing it to be tighter and more focused. Ultimately Halo 4’s campaign shines as a phenomenal mix of gameplay and narrative combining together to create one amazing experience that is well worth the price of admission.
While some may come to enjoy the single player offering that Halo 4 has to offer, most will stay on board for the multiplayer. Since the outset of the series, Halo has always offered top-notch multiplayer experiences and Halo 4 is no different. 343 has taken the classic Halo multiplayer that fans have come to love and has spiced it up a bit for today’s competitive multiplayer market.
When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s unlock style of progression came along, Bungie openly declared they did not believe in that style of progression for their games. 343 on the other hand does not necessarily agree with that position and Halo 4’s multiplayer clearly draws inspiration from that unlock system. While that may seem scary or downright off-putting for fans of classic Halo, fear not. Halo 4’s multiplayer has not been transformed into Call of Duty. This game is still very much Halo.
343 has taken the best aspects of modern multiplayer shooters and modified them to best service the Halo franchise. While customization of loadouts is now very much a thing, every UNSC, Covenant and Promethean weapon has been expertly balanced. Someone using a UNSC DMR is not at a disadvantage against those using a Covenant Carbine or a Promethean Lightgun. The starting balance that Halo has always had is still very much there.
Additional to unlocking weapons, players can also unlock a variety of specialized skills and armor abilities. Much like in Halo: Reach, armor abilities can be a great boon or a complete bust depending upon who is using it. Success in Halo 4’s multiplayer is still entirely skill based and a stock Spartan with a DMR and a deadly aim can be more deadly than a fully equipped Spartan with no sense of placement on the map.
In addition to the progression system getting an update, so do some of the classic game modes. Most notable of which is that Free-for-All has been redesigned as Regicide, where the points leader becomes the King and gets a bounty placed on his head. Team Slayer, now called Infinity Slayer, is still classic team death match but power weapons randomly spawn in map locations and players can now call in personal ordinance after a certain number of kills. These newly implemented ordinance drops are reminiscent of care packages in Call of Duty but do not require a streak of kills to deploy. Considering power weapons are often hard to come by, a well timed ordinance drop can help to get someone back into the fight quickly, making things a bit tighter and more competitive.
Purists may deride the changes to the classic formula and spout doom and gloom for Halo multiplayer but, as someone that sunk over 150 hours into Halo: Reach’s multiplayer, these are mostly welcome changes that I honestly think spice up competitive Halo in just the right ways. The 13 included maps are sure to get plenty of play time, especially the masterfully designed Haven, from both old and new fans alike.
If there is one area of Halo 4 where 343 faltered a bit, it is with Spartan Ops, their replacement for the beloved Firefight mode from halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach. Spartan Ops is an episodic, narrative driven, objective based co-op campaign that will be released weekly and in many ways it pales in comparison to Firefight. Whereas Firefight was developed around a last-stand mentality, Spartan Ops are basically campaign missions that lack the polish of those in the single player in nearly every way. It is not that they are bad or un-fun; they just lack that something special everything else in the game has.
There are some other quirks and misfires that Halo 4 has, like the fact that the campaign lacks a scoring mode or that to view terminals in the campaign you need to boot out of the game to Halo Waypoint, but overall 343 has done a superb job of straddling the line between making the Halo game Halo fans want and bringing the series forward accessible to a new set of fans. It’s a great first step for Microsoft’s franchise developer on the biggest exclusive franchise the company has.
There was a time when Halo was the top dog among first person shooters and every other shooter wanted to be it. It is time for the rest of the pack to catch up again because 343 has reclaimed that crown with Halo 4.