343i billed Halo 4 as the beginning of the ‘Reclaimer Trilogy’, complete with new characters, enemies and environments for Chief to explore. The game begins after the events of Halo 3, with Chief and Cortana drifting through space. A new world comes into view. Cortana is beginning to act rampant. A splinter of the Covenant still wants Chief (‘The Demon’) dead. A ancient enemy awakens. Throughout the campaign, Chief and Cortana embark on a journey to make it home to Earth while uncovering a plot to destroy it. The story in Halo 4 is very personal, with more interaction between Chief and Cortana; in fact, the main ‘summer blockbuster’ storyline of the game takes a backseat to Chief doing everything in his power to save Cortana from destroying herself. The two of them have been together since the 2001 original game, and seeing Cortana start to lose control of herself is an emotional rollercoaster unlike anything the series has accomplished before. Get the tissues ready.
Immediately upon starting Halo 4’s campaign, players will be in awe of the graphical prowess 343i was able to squeeze out of the seven year old Xbox 360. Not since Halo 2 has a game in the series been known to push the boundaries of current graphics engines. This is a gorgeous game and easily considered a frontrunner for best graphics of the year. The attention to detail is staggering: from light sources (comparisons to Tron: Legacy have to have been made during production) to normal/parallax mapping, to the 2x anti-aliasing, to the overall character and gun models, Master Chief and his surroundings have never looked better. Vehicles glimmer and sheen where appropriate and deteriorate over time. Sound effects are also top notch, with all new mixes recorded for guns, explosions, and environments. For the first time in a Halo game, motion capture has been used for faces and full-body animation, and it’s this extra effort that makes the characters that much more believable. Seeing Cortana come to terms with her fate is absolutely heartbreaking, made even more powerful due to her facial animations. The Covenant have new skins and ranks, keeping them fresh for another installment. The new enemies, the Prometheans, come packing new guns and tactics, mixing up the combat enough to keep players on their toes throughout.
In any first person shooter, guns play an important role and can make or break the entire game. Halo 4’s guns are spectacular, feeling balanced, weighty and complex. The DMR is as close as players will ever get to the pistol from Halo 1. The rocket launcher brings back target tracking from Halo 2. Promethean weapons add a third class of guns, with alternate firing modes for most. The exquisite ‘rock-paper-scissors’ game between guns and players feels well balanced-about on par with Halo 1’s weapons. New favorites like the sticky detonator, light rifle and incineration cannon allow for experimentation in the campaign and multiplayer modes.
Speaking of multiplayer…wow. In a world with perks and killstreaks, Halo’s multiplayer felt archaic to some, classic to others, but many agreed that an overhaul needed to be done to keep the series at the top of the charts. Enter: War Games. Deathmatch, Free For All, Big Team, Odd Ball, Capture The Flag, and other fan favorite gameplay types have returned, along with some truly spectacular map designs (Haven immediately ranks up there with the best Halo maps of all time) Numerous loadouts can be created for certain scenarios/map sizes/objectives, complete with guns, perks, abilities and armor variants. Perks and abilities replace equipment from Halo: Reach and feel the most like Call of Duty: unlimited sprint, faster reloads, Promethean Vision, the ability to spawn with two power weapons, etc. Power weapon placement on maps have also been changed. No longer with players race to claim the sniper rifle or rocket launcher on maps, but will have to earn these weapons with kills, calling in a drop after a threshold has been reached. These changes have polarized fans of the series, accusing it of playing more like the competition. It has made the series feel much faster paced and, possibly, less tactically demanding than Halo 3 was. Firefight mode has been replaced with Spartan Ops, a weekly episodic epilogue to the main campaign story. Each episode has five chapters, where your multiplayer loadouts can be used to clear short missions with friends, earning experience for new unlockables. While the storyline for Spartan Ops wasn’t as strong as the campaign’s, having free(!) weekly campaign content was a great addition to the series, even if the cost of losing Firefight was greater than anticipated.
Halo 4 was a huge gamble for Microsoft. Could another development studio capture lightning in a bottle the way Bungie did with the series? Did 343 Industries have the talent to craft a new game that embraced the loyal fanbase and bring new fans in? Yes, yes they did. Halo 4 is a resounding success and raises the bar for the series in spades. Sure, some of the objectives in the campaign felt too fetch-questy and multiplayer has taken a huge overhaul in order to stay relevant with its competition, but the end results are nothing short of spectacular. Halo is in very good hands.