It’s been a long time between drinks with the Master Chief. Some fans of the Halo series were underwhelmed with Halo: Reach, feeling that it just didn’t fit well in the franchise, and this was partly to do with the absence of our favourite Spartan. So when it was announced that Reach would be Bungie’s swan song, many of us worried that 343 Industries might not do the franchise justice.
How wrong we were. The development team have taken great care to produce the pinnacle of Halo gaming so far, with just the right balance of innovation and faithfulness to make previous entries redundant. The team knows that they have a heavy responsibility: the final credits tell us, “Thanks for trusting us with the universe you love and joining us on this epic adventure”. It’s a humble statement from a team who has got it so right.
After destroying the threat of the Flood and averting the destruction of the galaxy (while inadvertently precipitating the end of the Human-Covenant War), Master Chief is marooned in stasis on the remnants of Forward Unto Dawn, watched over by his companion AI, Cortana. He is awoken when Cortana senses a threat, and the action ensues almost instantly. We are confronted (again) with aggressive Covenant troops, and then a mysterious new enemy type. These are Prometheans, a type of Forerunner who are the ancient ancestors of humans, and who designed the Halos to eliminate all life in the galaxy in response to the Flood.
Thus Halo 4 introduces an entirely new enemy class, with a striking visual design using sharp lines and lots of orange light. This new class allows for unique gameplay innovations. Crawlers are dog-like enemies who can scale walls and use some basic weapons: They are weak individually and vulnerable to headshots, but troublesome in packs. Knights are the Promethean heavy unit, but are even more unpredictable and deadly than Elites: they pack heavy arsenal and can phase in and out of locations to deliver a devastating melee attack. Watchers fly around providing support for other Prometheans: although weak they are hard (and frustrating) to hit, but they are prime targets as they provide impenetrable shields, healing, and even resurrection capabilities to their allies. Of course, the standard Covenant forces are also present in the forms of Elites, Grunts, and Jackals. Brutes seem to have disappeared after their betrayal during the War.
Along with this new enemy class is a new weapon class. Promethean weapons are based on light technology, and they feel less heavy physically, but just as powerful. It’s hard to innovate much on the basic weapon types, but the assault and sniping capabilities of Promethean weapons do feel different, even if they are mostly variations on a theme. There are some newer entries: The Binary Rifle is a super-powerful sniping weapon that can one-shot most opponents; and the Incinerator Cannon is an advance on the Fuel Rod Cannon and Rocket Launcher. These new weapons might not act much different, but they give a fresh flavour to the shooter experience. Vehicle types are not much developed from Halo: Reach, but are used very well in mission design and of course play a crucial role in multiplayer.
Halo 4's true genius is the deeper exploration into Halo mythology. The environments vary from the usual lush forests and stony deserts to magnificent Forerunner installations, with tall, angular towers and beams of blue and orange light. We learn little from the game other than that the Didact (arch-villain) seeks to eliminate all human life, and the Librarian (maternal friendly ally) is somehow on our side. But for players who have read Greg Bear’s excellent Forerunner saga novels (or watched the quality webseries Forward Unto Dawn), the game fits squarely in a consistent, well-conceived narrative universe. Familiar themes arise: fickle alliances among the Covenant, the duty of soldiers sacrificing themselves in a just war, the childhood trauma of those who were turned into Spartans, and the post-human cogitations of Cortana who is turning rampant: Past her use-by date, and quite mad.
Online play is the best we have seen yet, in a series that is known for excellence. Of course, all campaign missions are playable in coop mode (including local). War Games allows for competitive multiplayer in teams of all sizes (4, 6, and 8), as well as free-for-all in Flood mode (something like Infected or Zombie). Spartan Ops is a major innovation in cooperative multiplayer, with episodic content release of missions that take 5-6 minutes, and which follow on from the narrative of the main campaign. Perhaps the only major disappointment for me is the discarding of Firefight, which was my favourite multiplayer mode; I guess I just have to HTFU and get into competitive.
The Halo 4 Campaign lasts 10-12 hours, but is eminently replayable – and a first playthrough mostly serves as a basis for an incredibly rich experience through the rest of the game. The only reasons you might dislike Halo 4 are if you are sick of first-person shooters, prefer them on PC, or don’t like this particular sci-fi branded experience, but it is certainly no disappointment to fans. For everybody else, Halo 4 is a very bright star in this busy gaming landscape, and it will keep us happily occupied for years.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.