Halo 4 takes few risks, but newcomer 343 Industries seems to understand the franchise and what fans want from it.
- 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
- Best-in-series graphics
- Exceedingly "safe" sequel from this new Halo developer
- Soundtrack ditches familiar themes
- More corridor shooting, fewer sandbox arenas
- No more Firefight!
Halo 4 Review:
When gamers and games media alike turn to look back over the releases of 2012, there's one word that you'll see frequently associated with 343 Industries' Halo 4: "safe." Master Chief's return is most certainly a triumphant one and there are some new flavors to be found here and there, but overall, Halo 4 is just about the safest approach to a sequel imaginable. Like most annualized franchises that embrace iteration over evolution, this is definitely one for the fans.
An Unexpected Love Story
The story in Halo 4 picks up the thread that was left dangling at the end of Halo 3. Master Chief isn't dead; he survived the previous release's endgame events only to find himself and his AI pal Cortana stranded in orbit around a Forerunner world. The Covenant are back, but the first third of the story establishes that the planet is home to an even graver threat. Humanity's future is at stake and, wouldn't you know it... Master Chief is the guy to fix things.
343 Industries has said more than once that Halo 4 will bring the character beneath the iconic green armor more to the forefront. While it's true that John-117 opens his mouth and speaks much more frequently than he ever has before, this is much less his story than it is Cortana's.
The talkative AI has always been a narrative fixture in the Halo games, but the exploration of her unusual relationship with Master Chief is what forms the beating heart of Halo 4's story. This is the best kind of deep-dive sci-fi, with the writers clearly drawing inspiration from the likes of Isaac Asimov in questioning the nature of sentience and the human condition.
It's tough to delve deeply into this or any other part of the story because of all the spoilers. There's some heavy fan-service going on in Halo 4. Without giving too much away, the primary antagonist is embedded in series lore that fans have been waiting to see realized in a game. The plot becomes a bit convoluted on occasion, but it's the sort of stuff that a proper Halo fan will happy embrace and nerd out over in online forums.
Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss
343 Industries may be fresh to the series with Halo 4, but this is a studio that clearly worshipped at the altar of Bungie. The feel of the game is virtually identical to past releases in the series. There are improvements to be sure, but it's very surface-level stuff. Things like the in-helmet HUD, which feels more like a head-encasing shell than it ever has before.
The graphics in general are the best so far for the series, to the point that it will now become difficult to go back to playing Reach and its predecessors. Lighting and textures see massive improvements over what's come before. This is offset somewhat by the minimal amount of destruction you can cause, but the abundance of eye candy definitely helps to diminish the sensation of running through a series of static environments.
On the gameplay side, the action is pretty much as you remember it from Halo: Reach. Corridor shooting and sandbox battle arenas are joined by the occasional palette cleanser. No spoilers, but think along the lines of the Broadsword space combat mission or the Falcon sections of Reach. These set piece moments are great fun, though there's little that offers the level of strategic complexity that the best moments in Halo 3 and Halo: Reach offered. The flash is great, but the substance is lacking.
Fortunately, the new Promethean enemies – and their arsenal of killing tools – adds an improved layer of strategic depth that was lacking in the blunt-force approach taken with the Flood of previous games. The Forerunner world's guardians embrace a similar philosophy of sending an overwhelming force after the player, but there's more variation within their ranks, making for a much more interesting enemy to fight.
I'm also going to take a moment to level a bit of criticism at the soundtrack. Lead composer Neil Davidge comes up with some memorable themes, but nothing that is as immediately catchy as the ever-evolving music of the previous games. Davidge effectively wipes the slate clean here, only once -- and very briefly -- echoing back to the familiar Halo Theme. It's disappointing that such a fan service-focused game comes up short on such a memorable point.
Don't take this the wrong way. Halo 4 is a great sequel and an exceptional first effort for a studio that must be feeling the strain of meeting fan expectations. On a purely technical level, this is easily the strongest game in the series, coming as it does in the twilight days of the Xbox 360's life. It's still a pretender though, an overly safe effort that leans too heavily on the Bungie crutch. That's not a bad thing, but it's hopefully a shadow that 343 will be able to step out from under in its follow-up effort.
The biggest chances taken in Halo 4 can be found on the multiplayer side of the game. Previous Halo games have flirted with custom loadouts and a dangling carrot progression of cosmetic unlocks, but 343 Industries combines the two here. While the cosmetic armor upgrades remain, your experience level in multiplayer now also dictates which weapons and perk-like buffs you can apply to your custom loadouts, provided you've purchased the desired gear using unlock tokens (also earned as you level up).
The best gear is still to be found out in the field, either as a random pickup -- now truly randomized with changing locations to prevent camping -- or as an earned supply drop that you unlock for filling a meter in certain multiplayer modes. Custom loadouts won't work for every multiplayer mode of course, with returning gametypes like Oddball designed for static loadouts.
The new gametypes are most welcome, however. Expect Dominion to be a popular one, a team-based objective mode that sees each squad vying for control of a map's three command posts. In a neat twist, the longer a team holds a command post, the more that post will be fortified with things like autoturrets and shield barriers. Flood is another cool newcomer; it's essentially Infection with the “zombie” team appearing on the battlefield as the Flood. And yes, it’s true: this is the only appearance of the Flood in Halo 4. Rest easy.
On the co-op side, Firefight is a notable and most unfortunate absence. Spartan Ops seems like a solid replacement though. For 10 weeks after Halo 4’s release, 343 will put out five new missions plus one CG cutscene per week. The story picks up in the aftermath of the campaign’s events, with players pitted against a variety of challenges that -- based on the first week’s worth of content -- feel like Halo mini-missions. Sealing the deal is the fact that XP earned in Spartan Ops also applies to your adversarial multiplayer progression.
The End Of The Beginning
With Halo 4, 343 Industries firmly establishes itself as the new driving force behind Master Chief’s adventures. Few risks are taken and most of the improvements over previous games amount to surface-level boosts to the presentation, but that also helps to make for a seamless transition from one studio to the next. As much as Halo 4 makes it clear that this is a franchise that needs to grow and evolve, 343 also gets a pass this time for playing it safe and serving the fans.