Each year sees many video games hit retail store shelves and various digital networks. Out of the ones that end up becoming successful, some are surprises, some are expected and others are guarantees. There aren’t a lot of titles or series that fall into the latter group, though Halo is one of them. In fact, the franchise that Bungie took from the drawing board to the millionaire club is one of the most popular interactive franchises in existence, and it isn’t far from the top. As such, it was no surprise when Microsoft announced that Halo 4 ended up being its most expensive game to date. Of course, it goes without saying that the computer giant will make that investment back and then some.
Continuing Master Chief’s beloved story after a lengthy hiatus that saw a prequel, a spin-off and a revamp get released, Halo 4 is the first major iteration not to be developed by the Bungie team. It’s the beginning of a brand new era and, apparently, a brand new trilogy, and millions of devoted fans have been crossing their fingers, hoping that the new designers would do the brand justice. After playing through the full campaign and getting my ass handed to me in multiplayer, I can honestly say that those folks have nothing to worry about. In fact, this long-awaited sequel may just be the best Halo game thus far.
The presented storyline starts off with a bang as Master Chief is awoken from a cryogenic slumber aboard a UNSC ship by; you guessed it, his nearly naked A.I. sidekick, Cortana. Upon coming back to reality, the heavily armoured hero discovers that the ship he’s been floating in is under attack by the Covenant – a group that was supposed to have formed a truce with humanity following the aptly titled Halo event. Of course, being the badass that he is, the green-clad soldier runs off to save the day. Unfortunately, things go from bad to worse when the space vehicle plunges towards an unknown planet, introducing the hero and those controlling him to a brand new location, wherein bullets are destined to fly.
What seems to be a desolate globe is, in fact, Requiem, a hostile environment, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering the fact that Halo 4 is a first-person shooter. The Chief learns that shortly after crash landing onto its seemingly vacant surface, and ends up finding himself face to face with a hideous creature known as a Promethean. Covered in neon accented metallic armour, the beast oozes evil, with the same being true of all of its peers. Sharing the bad guy role with the annoying Covenant, the Prometheans present a challenging task for players to conquer, as they’re not afraid to enter into battle. That may be because numbers are on their side, including a plethora of dog-like wall-crawlers.
The reason as to why the two alien groups both play large roles within the core campaign is something that you’ll want to find out for yourself. I’m not going to go into too much detail regarding the storyline because spoilers are evil, and I’d hate to ruin the experience for others. However, with that being said, it’s important to explain that Master Chief and Cortana unknowingly create a major problem for themselves. You see, in an attempt to clear the interference blocking their communication with a presumed human rescue team, the two end up unleashing an ancient evil known as the Didact. An ungodly creation, ‘he’ has plans of his own, and there’s nothing pleasant about them.
Featuring intense action and an interesting narrative that focuses on Cortana quite a bit, the eight-hour campaign is an entertaining ride. There are times where it stumbles as a result of pacing issues and a couple of mediocre missions, but it’s predominantly impressive. Fans of the franchise will undoubtedly enjoy learning more about their favourite super soldier, his aging A.I. ally, the Prometheans and the Forerunners. Even those who’ve yet to experience what Microsoft’s flagship intellectual property has to offer will enjoy the main plot, though a lot of the in-depth canon elements will confuse them. However, those are still worthwhile viewing for that particular group, as some of the showcased events are rather unexpected, not to mention somewhat shocking.
On the gameplay side of things, not much has changed, although the controls seem to be tighter. You’re still running across, or driving through, a mixture of open environments and closed-in locations, taking out hordes of baddies along the way. All of that works as it should. The gun mechanics are thoroughly impressive, and the new power-ups are helpful assets. Note that the latter list item doesn’t change things up too much, as the abilities that Master Chief receives access to are familiar, and only one can be equipped at a time. You’ll recognize the jetpack, the cloaking device and the boosters, and will appreciate the inclusion of a projectile-blocking shield. On top of those additions, fans will also love the new Promethean weapons, although the race’s newly introduced grenade type leaves a lot to be desired.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the series’ familiar difficulty. There’s a decent challenge to be found on normal, let alone the tougher difficulties, though going the co-op route should make things easier. Checkpoints are spread out evenly and generously, meaning that cheap deaths at the hands of plasma grenade-throwing grunts won’t result in too much backtracking. However, there was the odd time where I felt that an extra checkpoint could’ve helped me avoid unnecessarily replaying time-consuming moments. Thankfully, those instances were few and far between.
Adding a wealth of replay value to the package is the multiplayer facet of the experience. Running off of the first disc, it requires the installation of two separate files that combine to total approximately 3.5 gigabytes worth of data. As a result, you’ll want to make sure that your hard drive has some extra space, because you’ll need it if you wish to own human players over the Internet. Completing the install will actually be the only time you’ll need the game’s second disc.
Like its predecessors, Halo 4 doesn’t skimp when it comes to competitive modes. It’s stock full of familiar options, as well as the Forge, where players can create their own content. In total, you’ll find around ten different gameplay types, if not a couple more, and each one lists its amount of active players. However, it’s not like you’ll have a problem finding a full lobby over the next two years or so. Once fans start playing the War Games mode, they won’t want to stop.
Even though I’m more of a fan of single player content than multiplayer modes, I enjoy playing online, albeit casually. Normally, the Halo franchise isn’t my first choice, but that is looking like it will change, thanks to the quality that this iteration’s competitive options present. There’s certainly no lack of polish here, and the same can be said regarding customization features. Add challenges and experience point related upgrades onto the above and you have a recipe for addiction.
The multiplayer component also boasts a brand new mode known as Spartan Ops. Taking over for Firefight, it offers an episodic campaign that up to four players can battle through. There’s a storyline to be found, but it’s another thing you’ll want to experience on your own without a pesky reviewer spoiling things. Though, based on my experience with Spartan Ops, the mode seemed more like an arcade experience than a true campaign. There will be added DLC, though, so maybe 343 will change things up.
Presentation-wise, there’s a lot to like. The original score is of high quality, and the voice acting is certainly above average. Going further, the game’s visual fidelity shows noticeable improvements over its predecessors, employing improved textures, better effects and extra shiny pieces of armour. The Prometheans look great, and their neon accents really stand out, giving the series a brand new look, which is complemented by the detailed look of planet Requiem and its varied locations. The only downside comes in the form of occasional non-playable characters whose faces leave a bit to be desired, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the frame rate dropped to a crawl during one campaign section.
Needless to say, Halo 4 is well worth your hard-earned dough if you’re a fan of sci-fi first-person shooters. The campaign is one of the best the series has offered, despite its noted downsides, and the multiplayer is stellar. For sixty dollars, you’ll receive a wealth of content that will surely keep you busy for a year, if not two. 343 Industries deserves commendation, as its first crack at developing a new experience within its adopted digital world is a hit.
This review is based on an XBOX 360 copy of the game that was provided to us.