As a whole Halo 4 is a very odd game being both effectively a new beginning and a direct continuation of an old series. Going into it you’ll find a lot of things the same but many changes, like there was some half-hearted attempt to overhaul the series and take it in a new direction but the studio was too afraid to alienate fans. Is it bad? No, but there’s a chance you’ll find yourself fondly thinking back to Reach even before you’re finished.
Following on from the Legendary ending the third game, this title sees Master Chief on a hostile world, facing down both old threats and new. Frequently at odds with the UNSC forces and Cortana showing visible signs of rampancy, there’s a lot to go on here. Unfortunately the game never really gets a chance to use this potential for a number of reasons, but two specific ones stick out.
The first is that, well, Halo 4 as a story doesn’t need to exist. The universe we all knew and loved came full circle with Reach and wasn’t really that much to go on as sequels go. Rather than having the option of just going on from plot threads we’ve previously seen 4 needed to spend more time build almost entirely new ones to extend the mythos and suffers as a result. The second issue is that 343 Industries took the Blizzard approach and released novels to try and help with their game’s plot and advance the story before its release. This isn’t an entirely bad thing, Greg Bear has done an outstanding job fleshing out the universe with his prequel Forerunner Trilogy but without going out and buying it you’re going to feel like you’re losing out on the meaning behind a lot of plot points. Even with the lengthy details and exposition given, the game never manages to match the strength of the story told in the novels. Not to mention it squanders the massive story potential found in Primordium’s reveals. On the upside however, returning characters are as strong as ever (even if there’s only two of them) and Cortana’s storyline is definitely the high-point of the single player mode.
Still most of you probably aren’t playing Halo for the story, so how does the game hold up while playing it? Well, most of the old mechanics have been kept with a few tweaks to keep things original in each mode and for the enemies to remain freshly interesting. Let’s face it, as fun as the Covenant are to snipe/frag/smack-about-via-rifle-butt they do require further variety to work. To help combat that problem the game introduces the Prometheans, orange glowing machines who you’ll quickly grow to hate. Or love to hate depending upon how you approach fighting them. As well as bringing a whole bucket-load of new guns to pillage from corpses and bodies to mow down, they force the player to take a few different approaches when facing them. While it would be wrong to ruin the surprise of running into many of these for the first time, anyone who has watched the trailers will know of the hovering drones often accompanying the meatier enemies. These things will quickly prove to be the bane of anyone favouring grenades, trust me don’t even try using them around them, and will make fights harder by healing foes, shielding them, offering buffs and even outright resurrecting them. When facing down groups with these things it can be remarkably easy to end up in fights of attrition on the higher difficulties.
Visually Halo 4 does manage to stand out from its predecessor. Notably the Covenant forces and the Chief himself have been given a few graphical upgrades, changing their general look while keeping what worked from the last game. While the reasons for handwaving this away are fairly pitiful, at least with Master Chief anyway, their look is definitely better suiting for their environment and feels like a natural progression from what we had before.
The environments themselves are as varied as you’d expect for a Halo title both in and out of multiplayer. While you don’t get anything completely new from what we’ve seen previously, there’s a general sense that the developers were looking at the errors made in the last game’s layouts and correcting them. There’s a much more distinctive sense of atmosphere and each location is astoundingly beautiful, assuming you can stop long enough to admire it while dodging bullets. It might even be enough to distract you from how the game repeats itself on multiple occasions and its very linear focus. The former applies more to what we’ve seen in the past, either emphasizing upon breaking something or collecting three objectives but it’s the latter which really detracts from the game’s quality. The strength behind Halo was always its openness, how it could seamlessly switch between corridor shooting and wide area combat with and without vehicles. This latest game definitely seems to be lacking in the latter department. Oh they appear and you’ll get chances to zoom about open areas more than a few times, but nowhere near as much as you’d hope and not with the same unique grandly explosive moments you’d want to make this specific game memorable.
Still, the real core of a Halo game is the multiplayer experience and that seems to hold up extremely well, though you’ll find a lot of it to be very familiar. The Forge is still present and the War Games while containing a few new aspects keeps most of what worked in the past and even Valhalla is still available, The differences come largely through two things, besides the inclusion of mini-mecha as vehicles, namely how the ranking system works and ordinance drops. The ranking system seems to be taking a much more specialized approach and are an extension of the commendations and challenges in the previous game. This time it’s angled more towards a career development and allows you access to purchases for armour, weapons, loadouts and further customizing your character through specializations. While this might seem like Halo 4 is just following a current FPS trend it’s a natural development from Reach’s ideas and they all work extremely well.
The other gimmick of ordinance drops isn’t quite so flawless. The inclusion of these seems to be an attempt to give more meaning to mowing down players by the dozen and ending a kill streak atop of solving a few older issues. In addition to the usual weapons you find lying about the map killing people, along with other conditions, will fill up a meter allowing you to call in your weapons of choice at will. The upside of this is it solves the obvious issues of someone having the one brute shot on a custom map and camping on weapon spawn points, but opens up a few other problems. Even after only one or two games it was noticeably easy for someone with the right skills and timing to keep up their dominating streak, especially when they are extremely accurate with long range weapons. As tough as SPARTANs are one guy with a sniper rifle is going to be as devastating as ever and now with ordinance drops he can call in all the ammo he needs with less of a risk of running out. That and the fact he can now call in rocket launchers whenever someone goes after him in a vehicle means it can be easier to stay ahead if you know what you’re doing in a multiplayer match.
For all these criticisms it ought to be emphasized again that Halo 4 is by no means a bad game, just one with some obvious flaws. It does feel like a slight step down from Reach but there’s no denying that it’s still vastly better than Halo 3 and ODST, even if it does lack Nathan Fillion. If you’re a fan interested in seeing some changes to what has come before or just keeping up with the series you’ll not regret buying this one.