I really, really didn’t envy 343. There are few franchises with as fanatic a fan base as Halo, and the departure of the beloved Bungie from the series to work on the interesting sounding Destiny meant that whoever picked up the mantle had big shoes to fill. To be fair, 343 was established with the express purpose of making more Halo games, but it’s fair to say that if Halo 4 had been a failure the fan base would not have been forgiving. Thankfully for 343, Halo 4 is most certainly not a failure, and is arguably in fact one of the strongest instalments in the franchise.
Halo 4 is the first of the new ‘Reclaimer Trilogy’, picking up over four years after the conclusion of Halo 3, which saw Master Chief placed in stasis upon the Forward Under Dawn, drifting towards a planet of clearly Forerunner origin. The planet is Requiem, and here Master Chief discovers a threat which potentially eclipses even that of the Flood or the Covenant. Master Chief inadvertently frees an ancient and antagonistic Forerunner entity known as The Didact, who brings with him an army of strange ‘Prometheans’, as well as a squadron of rogue Covenant who did not make peace with humanity at the end of Halo 3. Alongside the grand space opera, a much more personal tale unfolds as Cortana, the loyal AI who has never been far from Master Chief’s side, begins to enter ‘Rampancy’, a disintegration of the sanity of any AI which exists for longer than seven years.
The Halo games have always had an excellent sense of place to their settings. When compared to, say, Gears of War’s Sera, Halo’s planets are always bursting with personality. That said, Requiem sometimes feels like a ‘greatest hits’ collection of previous game’s locales rather than a coherent location in of itself, although I hold the unpopular opinion that Halo 3: ODST’s New Mombassa was the best Halo setting. Requiem is, due to the impressive stretching of the Xbox 360’s abilities, the most beautiful setting thus far seen in the Halo franchise, but it also isn’t particularly visually imaginative, with the design veering rather towards the conservative. Now, I can absolutely see why 343 did this; in many ways, Halo 4 is a declaration of intent, a message to fans saying ‘guys, we know Halo, we love Halo, we’re going to make great Halo games and you can trust us.’ This game contains plenty of little homages to previous games in the series, with Requiem itself being the most clear. So, what I’m basically saying is that I liked Requiem as a setting, but I really hope that 343 take some risks for Halos 5 & 6 and give us settings which feel totally new and special, just as Bungie did in Halo: Combat Evolved all those years ago.
Alas, the actual plot of Halo 4 is something of a mess. Supplementary novels, comics or short films for major game franchises are part and parcel of the industry these days, and I really don’t have a problem with this. Franchises such as Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed have substantial supporting materials, but the actual game plots function just fine without them. Sure, the appearance of Kahlee Sanders is Mass Effect 3 after her starring role in a couple of novel was a lovely little reward for loyal fans, but it was far from necessary to understand what was going on. These supporting materials have to be just that, supporting, and it is a failure to adhere to this that causes the biggest issues in the narrative of Halo 4. Vital figures such as the villainous Didact and the benevolent Librarian are barely explained, and I only came to understand what these characters were actually about through reading up on the Halo Wiki. If the actual game itself doesn’t contain enough information to explain what’s going on, that game narrative fails. There are hidden videos scattered throughout the game in Terminals which fill in some of the information, but this information is vital, not the sort of thing that should be withheld from the player. It’s a shame, because after reading up on the Halo universe it became clear they’re actually telling a really cool and interesting sci-fi story, but they’re just not telling it very well.
Halo 4 plays like, well, Halo, and that’s most certainly not a bad thing. When I first booted up Halo 4 I found myself slipping into the COD controls which have become the FPS standard, preparing to snap up my iron sights, before remembering that I don’t have iron sights. Halo is a subtly different beast to the other major FPS games out there, and nothing controls quite like it. Oh, and those floaty jumps. Those floaty jumps. I could write a dissertation on how much I love Halo’s floaty jumps. Halo plays as brilliantly as always, with the raft of new weapons spicing things up. The traditional UNSC and Covenant weapons are joined by Promethean firearms, and although these are fun and cool it’s very easy to view them simply through the lens of how they relate to the more standard weapons; the Suppressor is the Assault Rifle, the Lightrifle is the DMR, the Scattershot is the Shotgun etc. The addition of the Mantis, a huge mech is as welcome as mechs always are. The single player campaign is a decent length, with value added by the typically excellent and compelling online multiplayer, as well as the Spartan Ops Missions (which I’ll be reviewing separately ). In Halo 4, you get a lot of bang for your buck.
Halo 4 is an incredible looking game; I really don’t think that the Xbox 360 can do better than this, but when we look at the graphical leap from Halo 3 through to Reach and finally to Halo 4 it’s staggering how much power has been drawn out of this device. The environments are incredibly gorgeous and detailed, with the one downside of this beauty being that the more intricately designed the level, the more linear the path. For example, the jungle level is lovely to look at but disappointingly linear to play, whereas the more sparse desert offers the open approach to gameplay which makes the Halo campaigns so fun. Sometimes in Halo 4 you just want to stop and appreciate the spectacle. One aspect of the game which particularly impressed me were the character animations, both in the body and the face. I haven’t seen such believable and nuanced faces in a game since LA Noire, and they move in a smooth and human manner. The voice acting for these characters matches the quality of their models, with particular praise earnt by Jen Taylor for another wonderful turn as Cortana. New UNSC figures and Spartans are also voiced excellently, but I’ll cover this bunch in my Spartan Ops review, in which these characters play a much bigger role.
Halo 4 is an excellent first release from 343, and a triumphant assertion that they can comfortably handle this beloved franchise. That said, it’s hard not to feel that Halo 4 is playing slightly too safe, and I really hope that Halo 5 takes a few more risks and allows 343 to really grow into their own and to try to get across their own creative vision, rather than simply attempt to imitate Bungie. I’ll be very interested to see how Bungie’s highly intriguing Destiny stands against Halo 5; I imagine that this will be one of the most compelling debates of the next console generation, and one which I personally cannot wait to get involved in.