Series-faithful continuation of Bungie's work
New enemy faction and weapons offer fresh strategic opportunities
Multiplayer progression falls in line with what's expected
Exceedingly "safe" sequel from this new Halo developer
Soundtrack ditches familiar themes
More corridor shooting, fewer sandbox arenas
No more Firefight!
Halo 4: Master Chief handles like a lissom athlete with the physical presence and power of a Mack Truck. Here’s a conundrum for any armchair games developers out there: how would you go about creating a new instalment in a franchise that both the fans and the owners of the IP in question want to stay as close to the last entry possible? In games, innovation and pushing the envelope are practically required, as well as expected. So how does a developer put their personal stamp on this kind of game?
In other words, how much innovation is there room for in the creative process, when the game one is working on is Halo 4? It’s a question that must have kept the development dream team at 343 Industries up at night. As the first studio to have a crack at the Halo franchise since original developers Bungie jumped ship, 343 have a pretty tough checklist. They’ve been tasked with producing a game that moves the Halo franchise forward, while remaining true to the expectations of its fan base and its legacy. Oh, and since it’s the new entry in the Xbox 360’s FPS flagship franchise, it’d better sell by the lorryload too. So it’s no surprise then, that at its core, Halo 4 looks and plays like any other Halo game. Master Chief – or the player’s own customised Spartan troop in the co-op and competitive multiplayer modes – handles like a lissom athlete with the physical presence and power of a Mack Truck. Weapons give a satisfying kick when fired, and driving a vehicle is like piloting a particularly chunky marionette. The controls feel like they haven’t been updated since the original entry; Halo 4 may take one or two cues from the current crop of shooters, but RB is still melee and zoom are activated by clicking in the right stick, rather than pulling the left trigger. If you’ve ever played (and loved) a Halo title, you’ll be right at home here.
Play for longer than an hour, however, and you’ll begin to take in the changes 343 have made to the Halo universe – notably in the form of the Prometheans, the brand new enemies of Halo 4, who seem to be the result of some sort of horrific merging of human flesh and digital steel. The Prometheans are split between three unit types: Crawlers, Knights and Watchers. Crawlers are the grunt units – these four-legged horrors can cling to any surface and usually come armed with a pistol or machine gun, which augments their vicious melee attack. Knights are the bi-pedal units – they look like human skeletons encased in glowing carapace-like armour and they have a nasty habit of teleporting to safety when the player reduces their health significantly. Watchers are the most annoying of the bunch. These floating units not only rain down gunfire on the player, they drop shields in front of other units and warp in new ones if they aren’t dispatched quickly. All three Promethean units have their own set of animations for players to learn in order to take advantage of the particular rhythm Halo has always offered as a shooter. They also helpfully drop weapons, which are variants of the pistol, machine gun, shotgun, sniper rifle and rocket launcher that players expect in an FPS. The Covenant forces, along with their requisite hardware and vehicles, have also returned, although for Halo 4 they seem to have left the Brute shocktroops at home.
Halo 4 looks and feels a lot darker than previous instalments. When the player unloads on a Covenant enemy with a firearm, sprays of blue alien blood cake the walls and floor around the target and melee attacks hit home with an eye-watering ‘crack’. The universe of Halo is still as vibrantly coloured as ever, but it contains more shadow pockets and sharp edges than before. Aliens no longer make adorable little ‘Jawa’-like noises and hiss and snarl instead. Action set-pieces are filled with thundering gunfire and teeth-rattling explosions and a gritty atmosphere pervades throughout. Despite this, Halo 4 looks absolutely gorgeous. I can’t speak about what goes into maintaining eye-popping visuals with zero frame-rate crawl, but 343 have pulled it off here. The characters and universe of Halo 4 have never looked better; each environment is imaginatively designed and painstakingly detailed and in some cut scenes, players will have to blink a couple of times before they realise what they’re watching isn’t video capture of real-life actors. As for the Campaign’s plot, it heralds the return of the iconic Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana and… well, that’s all I’m going to say about it. If you’re a Halo fan, the less you know about the events of Halo 4 going in, the better a time you will have. If you’re someone who doesn’t really care about the space opera lore of this series, the good news is that the story will not impede your enjoyment of the Campaign Mode at all – and it carries more emotional heft than previous iterations. The level design is well implemented too and remains exciting throughout; the player is never under the impression they’re simply gunning their way to another room of targets. The campaign on Easy or Normal difficulty is a six- to eight-hour affair – rather short by Halo’s standards – but players who are after a real challenge are advised to play it through on Heroic and Legendary, as the gulf between difficulty settings is rather large. However, in spite of Master Chief’s return, the main reason to pick up a copy of Halo 4 isn’t its Campaign Mode. It is, instead, the game’s Infinity Mode, which contains both Spartan Ops (the Four Player Co-op Mode) and War Games (the competitive Multiplayer Mode) – along with the improved Forge and Theatre tools. Spartan Ops at present contains the opening act for what is scheduled to be a series of story-based missions geared towards four-player co-op. The mode cranks the difficulty in line with however many players take part, and in the true spirit of co-op, the more friends you bring to the firefight, the more enjoyable it will be. There’s even a decent story running through it, to boot; the plot picks up the threads of the single-player campaign and it hints at an explanation as to why blue and red-coloured Spartans are blasting the heck out of each other in the multiplayer. On the evidence of this first episode, it’s a tonne to a tenner the rest of the mode’s episodic DLC will be well worth paying for.
War Games, however, is where Halo 4’s true longevity lies. It’s also the clearest and most credible claim the Halo franchise has made towards cementing its place at the forefront of the FPS genre. Yes, 343 Industries has taken some cues from the rest of the FPS field in terms of customisation of load-outs, emblems and visual representation of the player on the battlefield, but the whole shebang is shot through with Halo’s DNA. To wit, players level up, spend points on weapon unlocks and toy with the appearance of their Spartan. It also has to be said that Halo 4 exists in a rather safe – albeit appealing – middle ground in the FPS online frag haven. Maps run the gamut from environments where taking the high ground and augmenting a team attack with vehicles is accommodated, to shotgun-friendly boiler rooms. The match types themselves are a mix of old and new; for my money Infinity Team Slayer is still the chaotic jewel in the Halo multiplayer’s crown, but new match types like Regicide, in which participants target the player with the highest score, or Dominion – in which teams capture and then fortify bases – are well worth a look. Yet, what hasn’t been lost – indeed, what has been augmented – is the almost Bacchanalian sense of freedom a player has once they’re cut loose in the great multiplayer-nowhere world. Halo 4, more than any other shooter of recent memory, encourages players to take part in the often-intimidating prospect of competing online. If you’re new to online shooters, this really is one of the best places to start. Thanks to the Spartan ‘physics’ you’ll feel like a god going in. Not only that, you’ll also be able to dive right back into the fight by hammering ‘X’ any time you’re taken out, which will lighten the sensation of being clubbed by better players. Halo 4’s main trump card is that it appeals to players across the skill spectrum: it may be a game that attracts elite eSports players but there’s still a palpable sense of fun that pervades throughout. It’s also the only shooter you can buy today, where you can ride a Mongoose up a Man-Cannon, hurtle through the air, crash into a Banshee and kill the player driving it, and then flatten two other players who were unfortunate enough to be in your landing zone.
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