343 Industries makes a strong case for game of the year with their first foray into the Halo universe.
For the past decade, I’ve tried to love the Halo franchise. Yet every time I begin to feel infatuated with the crown jewel of Xbox gaming, something about the series turns me off. Whether it be the lack of iron sights on most weapons, or boring enemy archetypes that require the same annoying, dull tactics to defeat, there is always something driving a wedge between us.
But not anymore.
Halo 4 is the best this series has to offer, and I think I’m in love.
Admittedly, my delight over 343 Industries’ first crack at the Halo universe seems unfounded, even to myself. Most of the guns in Halo 4 fire from the hip, a mechanic the Call of Duty fan in me hates. And the Covenant make a return here in a limited capacity, as cannon fodder for the Master Chief. However, something is different this time around. Something is more intense. More human. More satisfying. In all honesty, Halo 4 is just plain better than the rest of the series, and I’m still trying to figure out why.
I suppose some of the more obvious attractions I have to Halo 4 are found on the surface. The most apparent of all, being the stellar visuals. Make no mistake, this is probably one of the best-looking games the current console generation will see. Every environment in Halo 4 is absolutely gorgeous, from the cold, industrial corridors of the UNSC’s spacefaring frigates, to the sprawling, labyrinthine jungles on the Forerunner planet Requiem. Trust me, on more than one occasion you will stop and stare in awe, putting the gunplay and battlefield turmoil in the back of your mind to indulge in just a few more sweet seconds of aesthetic bliss. This feeling of visual splendor extends well beyond just the game environments, too. The character models for both the Master Chief, as well as the supporting cast of villains and heroes, look wonderfully detailed, down to the last plate of armor and alien appendage.
And if the characters and environments of Halo 4 look great, then the guns at the disposal of Master Chief look simply stunning. The usual suspects of the franchise all make a return, from the overpowered battle rifle to the forever-useless plasma pistol. But regardless of whether they are worth a damn or not from a gameplay standpoint, these death-dealing ammo hogs will all blow you away from a graphical perspective. The human weapons are simple steel and lead, each pistol, shotgun, and rocket launcher shining as sunlight catches their calculated angles. On the other hand, the covenant weaponry is characterized by rounded edges, and bizarre purple and teal materials that radiate vibrant plasma with each shot. But neither of these returning weapon types hold a candle to the newest addition to the series: the Promethean arsenal. These transforming cannons, wielded by the mysterious Promethean foes, are a treat to use. Whenever the Chief picks up one of these guns for the first time, a whirring array of parts and energy rotate, shift, and lock into place to create a truly unique looking device that burns a stark shade of orange. Because these guns haven’t appeared in previous Halo games, each time I found one I felt like a giddy child on Christmas morning, waiting to find some unsuspecting foe to try my shiny new present on.
Now I realize that beauty is, as they say, only skin deep. So with great satisfaction I can report that Halo 4 doesn’t just rely on a slick looking exterior. The core experience- in this case the story- is layered to perfection, with just enough going on to keep you hooked, but never too much happening to overwhelm you (a problem I’ve found with past titles in the series). The plot in Halo 4, without spoiling anything major, finds the Master Chief awaking from cryosleep in deep space, aboard the derelict UNSC vessel Forward Unto Dawn, four years after the events of Halo 3. Cortana, Master Chief’s longstanding AI partner, has been active that entire period and is gradually deteriorating; she has been in service for well over the standard period of seven years. The two are subsequently plunged into a new war with the ancient, mechanical Promethean race, who may or may not have connections with the Forerunners (the race that built the titular Halo installations millennia ago to defend the galaxy from the parasitic Flood). And while the most apparent storyline to be had here is the Master Chief’s struggle to overcome the Prometheans, the real nuts and bolts of Halo 4 are the interactions between the Chief and Cortana, as she is essentially dying in front of his eyes. I won’t go so far as to call this a love story, but Halo 4 is as emotional and human as I’ve ever seen in a shooter. During multiple gorgeous cutscenes, we find the aforementioned supersoldier and AI struggling to save their relationship, and contemplating the reality that this time around, on this suicide mission into the bowels of unknown Promethean malice, the pair just might not make it out alive.
Adding to the well-scripted story is a soundtrack by series newcomer Neil Davidge that really brings the conflicts and tensions of Halo 4 to life. In the absence of longtime Halo composer Marty O’Donnell, Davidge’s music is a great mix of synthetic melodies, orchestral arrangements, and haunting vocals. The composer pays homage to past games – and brings a smile to my face – by throwing in the occasional trademark Halo note progression, however the majority of the music here is refreshing and original. And while many games do a decent job of fitting soundtrack to scenario, Halo 4 really delivers some sweeping audio when it needs to. For example, in the final conflict with the game’s central antagonists, a beautiful arrangement of escalating strings and pulsating bass make every dash between cover and every well timed kill shot feel particularly epic.
Halo 4 also excels in general game design. I was recently playing through Killzone 3 (another fantastic FPS), and wondered why more shooters don’t have that kind of mission variety. Halo 4 answered my prayers, and delivers an assortment of vehicle and foot-based sequences that all control and play well. Walking mechs have been added to the series, and a couple levels with these behemoths add some great diversity to the game. Also, I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer to not mention a phenomenal rail-shooting mission, in which the Chief pilots a Pelican through hell and high water across the surface of a massive Promethean ship. This segment controls like one out of a Starfox or Panzer Dragoon game, but really felt like a tribute to Han Solo in Star Wars. I felt as if I was piloting the Millennium Falcon through the tightest cracks and crevices in the Death Star, with the fate of the galaxy riding on every maneuver.
So, add all this together, and you’re presented with a near-perfect single player experience. But what about the multiplayer? Well fear not, for that too is exceptional. Some traditional game modes return in what 343i is calling “War Games,” such as fan favorites slayer (deathmatch) and capture the flag. And as expected, these modes are fast and furious. But they are made even more exciting this time around by the addition of instant respawns, a la Call of Duty, if the player so chooses. Kill-cams and killstreak rewards are also present in Halo 4, which gives me hope that the series is doing a good job of keeping up with the times. But forget about all that tried and true multiplayer stuff you’ve already seen before. The most fun to be had here is with some of the newer game modes. My favorite being the survival/ infection-esque Flood mode, which pits eight Spartans with shotguns against two fast-moving Flood players who wield one-hit kill mutated arm-swords. Whenever a Flood player manages to kill a Spartan, that person too becomes a Flood. The goal here, of course, is to transform all players to Flood, or to last the entire round without being infected, depending on which side you’re on. In my playtime, this led to some truly epic showdowns where I was the last man standing, atop one structure or another in one of the ten fantastic new maps, mowing down hoards of Flood in order to stay alive.
Increasing the value of an already excellent game are weekly downloadable missions, called “Spartan Ops,” which expand the campaign of Halo 4. These can be played either solo or cooperatively, and do a stellar job of fleshing out some of the story that happens away from the Master Chief. They are relatively short (think weekly iterations of a television show) but because they come so often, their length seems rather appropriate.
If I had any complaints about Halo 4, they would be of the most minor nature. Like I’ve said more than once, I wish every gun had iron sights. It seems kind of silly to think that the most advanced and surgical soldier in the galaxy runs around firing every weapon he finds from the hip like Rambo. Also, I’m not a very big fan of the returning power-ups in multiplayer. While some seem alright, like the dash ability and personal shield, others, such as active camouflage (Crysis style), are just too powerful. Another minor complaint that mitigates itself the more you play is the auto-aim feature. While I realize all console titles have some form of auto-aim or another, it seems a bit too apparent in Halo 4. Swinging the camera around according to your chosen sensitivity feels fine, but when a foe finds his way into the crosshairs, the aim slows to a crawl. As previously mentioned, this wasn’t really a problem as the game progressed and I became acclimated, but it was a jarring annoyance at first. Oh, and one last thing: is Cortana on a USB drive or microSD card? Because it seems like no matter where the Chief travels, there is always some universal terminal he can simply plug the blue AI into, allowing her to break through firewalls and other defenses, wreaking digital havoc. You would think that these alien enemies would just start using some kind of proprietary terminals to keep from being hacked all the time… but I digress.
The fact of the matter here is that 343 Industries have taken the Halo helm from original series developers Bungie, and crafted a truly special experience that in most, if not all ways, surpasses its predecessors. Halo 4 is not only an exceptional shooter by the standards the genre has set, but a phenomenal game by the benchmarks the entire industry has set. And at the end of the day, this is one of those landmark games that simply needs to be played. It’s damn close to gaming perfection, if you ask me.