343 Industries hasn’t really done much to earn a serious gamer’s respect over the last couple of years since Bungie finished HALO: Reach, but all that is about to change for better or worse with Halo 4.
What you’ll love it for
- Flawless presentation
- Engaging narrative
- Saturated with online content
What you’ll sell it for
- Nothing truly new
- The next Halo probably
It’s just as well that HALO 4 is rather good – and I use that term lightly. HALO 4 is ‘rather good’ in the same way that blowing up a cow with a landmine is ‘rather gruesome’, or how a waiter sticking his hand down your girlfriend’s cleavage at your favourite restaurant is ‘rather inappropriate’.
HALO 4 will prove itself as a fine addition to the franchise which kicked the Xbox into the public eye, and for lucky bastards like me who’ve got a promotional copy it has already done so.
But we won’t get ahead of ourselves. This isn’t a flawless game; it doesn’t do anything truly new in terms of gameplay and, unless you’re a big HALO fan, the story won’t make complete sense unless you look at it holistically in that:
- Aliens are bad
- Humans are good
- Aliens want a super weapon
- Humans must stop them getting it
It’s the staple setup of most HALO games, but in HALO 4 it’s pulled off with such flourishes of science fiction concepts and top-notch scenes that it’s easy to get lost in the stunning details of your surroundings. I’m not saying there are only those four points to the story; of course there’s a lot more going on, but when you really boil it down that’s what you’re left with. A great tale that’s been told before that you don’t mind experiencing again.
Going back to the cutscenes, this is probably the first game since Enslaved: Odyssey to the West that used motion capturing technology for everything. Just by looking at Cortana’s face as she speaks you can see every pixel sweating emotion, and other character models have received the same treatment. Even John ‘lump of metal’ 117 manages to look like a proper human being for more than brief instances and THAT takes some doing.
This approach to making HALO 4 shine in the presentation department is carried through to environments, backdrops, and designs.
The campaign is well-structured in this regard, transporting players to outer space, dense jungles, ancient mega-structures, and meandering canyons with a quiet ease. It’s clear a lot of thought went into how HALO 4 should look and 343 Industries deserves praise for having the balls to throw you here, there, and everywhere throughout the narrative in order to pull it off without looking like they’re trying too hard.
As for the gameplay, yes, we’re still at the safe end of a series of high-powered firearms and vehicles shooting everything even vaguely non-human shaped that moves, and to make things more interesting 343 Industries has done away with some classic foes and added new ones instead.
The Flood, that hegemonising parasitic swarm we all knew and feared from previous HALO games, are gone. In their place we have the Prometheans, who are in some respects more troublesome than the flailing, armed mutants.
Bungie knew how to make great enemy AI, to the extent that no encounter with enemy forces in HALO games ever plays out in exactly the same way, and 343 Industries has carried on this fine tradition by developing and imbuing with life an entirely new family of sci-fi freaks.
Covenant forces fortify a position and gradually push outwards, using cover tactics and flanking. The Flood surges towards players with little regard for individual safety, their more robust forms rapidly covering great distances. These new foes, the Prometheans, are rapid offense specialists and will test the very limits of both your patience and your ammo reserves. Even on easier modes, they pack one hell of a punch when they get a shot in. Some of the bigger boys can take you down before you know what hit you.
It’s an absolute nightmare to face them on Legendary difficulty alone. The smaller ones like to cling to walls, hang from ceilings, and generally dart around distracting you with small arms fire and melee attacks while the larger Prometheans set you up for the finish. What’s worse is that Prometheans boast the most efficient support units, capable of rendering your shots useless and turning your own grenade attacks against you. They can even bring back ‘dead’ Prometheans if you don’t destroy them fast enough.
It’s a good thing you have plenty of firepower.
In brief, HALO 4 enjoys as much nostalgia with its weaponry as it enjoys design innovation. Human armaments are mostly stuff we’ve seen before, with old favourites like the scoped pistol and classic assault rifles, and no HALO game would be complete without a sizeable portion of Covenant weapons.
The freshest meat on display comes in the form of some juicy Forerunner tech. These guns, when you pick them up, slot and snap together in a manner that’s most pleasing to the eye, but if you really want to be critical you’re not at all surprised by what each weapon is designed for. Shotguns, assault rifles, semi-automatics, projectile launchers; it’s nothing but the tried-and-tested combat tools regardless of what faction they belong to.
That said, you’ll have fun using them – especially against other players, and that’s a nice point at which we can start talking about the multiplayer.
If you’re familiar with any online HALO games from HALO 2 onwards, you’re not going to feel like this is a foreign experience. HALO 4 does multiplayer as brilliantly as its forebears, which is to say that there has been tweaking, refinement, and additions that give this FPS a solid framework for justified online success.
You want to play co-op gameplay? Space biscuits for you, marine. You’ve got a choice between playing the campaign or an entirely new and intriguing mode called Spartan Ops. This is a campaign in its own right, continuing after the Master Chief’s story, and what makes it particularly enticing is the fact that it’s an ongoing process where new episodes will be released weekly. As of the launch date, 343 Industries has released five Spartan Ops missions and these are just the beginning. Players will join forces to take on fortified enemy strongholds, dispatch key targets, and generally run amok with the AI.
On the competitive side of things we have the War Games. Choose your game mode, whether it’s objective- or kill-based, and indulge your inner psychopath across vastly different maps that are as intelligent in their design as they are aesthetically pleasing.
343 Industries hasn’t been content to let things stand as they were in HALO: Reach, having turned up the knobs on customisation, speed, and violence.
In the first instance, everything you do online (regardless of whether you’re playing alone or not) earns experience and experience earns you ranks. Ranks earn you Spartan Points, which you are free to spend as you like when certain items unlock – and there’s a shitload of things to unlock. On top of personal equipment like jetpacks, players can take up to two equipment ‘perks’, a grenade type, plus their own choice of primary and secondary weapons.
The second major change 343 Industries included is that all players have the ability to sprint. It’s not the most original thing in the world, but it makes games faster-paced than they were in HALO: Reach and, crucially, it doesn’t take away the tactical elements you know and love the HALO games for. Timing your attacks against enemies, be they AI- or player-controlled, is still the key decider in who wins gunfights. Well, that and accuracy.
Do well in a game and you can select an ordinance package that pops into existence nearby at the click of a button. Weapons, extra shields, speed boosts; it’s a small but tactically valuable advantage. Weapon spawns are no longer fixed, either, but randomised so there’s no team killing over who gets to the shotgun first.
Forge is back and by Christ has it evolved since it first came on the scene in HALO 3. For teenagers with nothing better to do and idle minds bordering on the obsessively creative, Forge is still a dream factory primed to churn out untold thousands of unique gameplay scenarios and maps we can only imagine at this point.
HALO 4 is, like HALO: Reach was before it, a culmination of all things that made the series stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Its story – while familiar – is told with great acting skills and one hell of an original soundtrack, and it pulls you into a rich universe that at this point feels like an old friend who keeps surprising you. The game branches effortlessly into the online environment, going so far as to link its single player and multiplayer experiences through a loose but competent narrative. It continues along the community roads Bungie paved with the input from their fan base, and indeed it seeks to further develop those roads with file sharing, competition, and creativity through Forge.
HALO 4 is, in terms of gameplay and value for money, arguably the finest example of an FPS we’re likely to see this year. No, it’s not original; we’ve seen HALO before, but it’s just so damned good when a developer can take excellence even one step further. You know when you put that disk in the drive you’re going to have fun.
343 Industries has stood up and delivered an original HALO game you could put alongside any of the others and not feel like it was inferior. Sublime work.
Halo 4 is available for pre order at our official retail partner www.thatgameshop.com. That’s not all, Cas Anvar, who voices Lt Dalton in Halo 4 will be on hand, in their store in Arnold, Nottingham to sign your copy personally on the day of release as well as sign all copies that are pre ordered.