As the first numerical entry in the Halo universe not headed by legendary developer Bungie, Halo 4 has a lot riding on it. Not only does the game have to justify Microsoft’s decision to go with 343 Industries for development, it also has to give the company momentum for the inevitable next generation of consoles.
After all, the original Halo was the killer app for the original Xbox, while the online in Halo 2 brought about online gaming on consoles. And with Halo 3 being unable to emulate the legendary success of its predecessors, the fourth proper entry was anticipated. Luckily, the devotees can breath once again because Halo 4 is a fantastic, if familiar, experience that is sure to please any fan of the franchise.
Halo 4 knows its roots and stays relatively close to them. The game starts with our protagonist, the battle-hardened Master Chief, awakening from cryogenic sleep in a vehicle that has been invaded by aliens. Following a battle, the hero lands on the lush planet Requiem, both showcasing the game’s visual prowess while also evoking memories of the original.
The setup is notably similar to the original but moves a lot faster and is a lot more challenging. Players are constantly forced to scavenge for ammunition, fire conservatively, and recognize their own mortality. The series’ new antagonists, the Prometheans, are also far more versatile than the recognizably feeble Covenant of yesteryear. With the ability to deflect explosives, shield their allies and even teleport out of sight, these are the most challenging opponents the series has seen.
However, while this does promote a greater challenge, the dramatic tension somewhat fizzles due to the repeated deaths, as the watertight pacing of campaign is interrupted by constant reiteration.
The story this time focuses on Cortana, an artificial intelligence program that has always provided invaluable support to the protagonist. The humanized computer has seemingly absorbed so much information that she is at risk of overloading.
While this does seem a bit irrational, considering computers overwrite their older memories constantly, it does pose questions regarding the acquisition of knowledge, the effect of war on untrained combatants and the role of women in the male-centric world of battle.
This is undoubtedly a science-fiction tale in vein of writers such as Phillip K. Dick and the sharp writing is thoroughly aided by beautiful audiovisual presentation. Characters have unerringly accurate facial animations, the lighting is stunningly realistic, and the sound design never even misses the noise of a footstep.
Fans often complain that the narrative quality in Halo has taken a nosedive following the original but this story legitimately ranks with the best in gaming and places 343 Industries on the same pedestal as Bioware and Valve. The plot obscurities, clearly meant to provide a lead-in to the inevitable sequels, are somewhat maddening but the artistically and technically stunning world that the game creates is nothing short of masterpiece.
Of course, since the release of Halo 2, the series has been known for its multiplayer and Halo 4 does the legacy proud. The game’s weaponry and level design has been tweaked so that no one player will ever be entirely dominating or pathetic due to having a “bad gun” or having spawned in an unfortunate area. The new maps to play include training facilities, gigantic battlegrounds and several remakes from previous entries, yet each feels incredibly fresh and thoroughly conducive to large matches.
War Games, the new competitive multiplayer system, also works incredibly well and introduces limitless options. Granted, the “zombie” or “occupation” modes are very similar to classics such as Counter-Strike, but offer considerable variety. Modes such as the viewer Theater and the level-editor Forge, return with minor improvements and are still secondary to actually playing. Spartan Ops, an episodic downloadable extension of the campaign, is an interesting diversion but unlikely to overtake traditional matchmaking, especially since the story will not likely be clarified until the sequels anyway.
The introduction of an experience points system, allowing for character optimization through repeated gameplay, was received with cynicism but works well because the game still ensures fair competition by never allowing any individual too much strength.
Ultimately, Halo 4 is evolutionary but not revolutionary. If you have always been a fan, the improved audiovisual presentation and touching story will stay with you until Halo 5. If you were never into the series, however, then nothing here will change your mind. This game is proof that good storytelling and artistic brilliance can overcome familiarity, something Microsoft hopes will provide them momentum going into the future. Black Ops 2 may just pass Halo 4 in terms of sales but it will likely fail in providing this touching of a narrative. In that regard, Halo 4 is a last hurrah for the Xbox 360.