They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Microsoft’s flagship Xbox franchise, Halo, has certainly not been out of the public eye, with prequels and spinoffs keeping fans busy over the last five years. But iconic protagonist Master Chief has been missing in action for a long time. In Halo 4, he makes his long-awaited return - and it feels like he never left.
Grabbing a controller and (metaphorically) stepping into Master Chief’s suit is as fun as it has always been. The satisfyingly weighty controls take little time to adjust to, and the opening combat scenes are a clear indicator to the tight map design present in the campaign and multiplayer. 343 Industries has done well to continue the design ethic laid out by Bungie.
The studio also seems to have acquired Bungie’s penchant for presentation. The orchestral soundtrack, while not as memorable as previous Halo
titles, complements the sheer technical beauty that 343 have packed into the environments.
Master Chief’s new adventure begins on the mysterious Forerunner planet of Requiem, a world that contains gorgeous, atmospheric locales. Some are twists on places that have become synonymous with the Halo
series - lush green landscapes, clear skies and babbling brooks, juxtaposed with foreboding mechanical enclosures bathed in blue hues and temple-inspired fixtures.
Other missions take place in areas of the planet that underline the Chief’s new, darker adventure. One such stage, in Requiem’s core, really draws out some deep reds and vivid blues, adding an etherial and foreboding atmosphere to the proceedings. In the distance, you can see all the individual scratches and ridges that grace the ‘ceiling’ of the core. It gives the feeling that you’re exploring some kind of hellish netherworld.
Such environments introduce you to a new race of enemies, known as Prometheans. These guys are generally harder to kill than the Covenant, due to their different attack patterns. While these are interesting, they can sometimes be a bit too annoying for their own good - particularly the hard-to-hit Watchers, which can spawn beefy Promethean Knights and protect them from damage.
With the new enemies come a range of visually interesting weapons that ‘morph’ into form in a similar fashion to a Michael Bay Transformer. In gameplay terms, however, they’re essentially alternate versions of already-existing UNSC or Covenant weapons. Some, like the rapid-fire Suppressor, can offer a meaty kickback though. Quite satisfying.
It’s strange to see how Master Chief adapts to the new guns so quickly, though. When even Cortana is having problems initially identifying the Prometheans, it seems a bit farfetched that the Chief would just be able to rock these new toys with considerable ease. And because of the manner in which you suddenly ‘bump’ into these new creatures, you don’t really feel invested in your plight to destroy them.
And therein lies a problem with Halo 4
. While the action is indeed fun, and the set pieces get pretty exciting towards the end, complete enjoyment of a game like this hinges on a thrilling and engaging story. Sadly, the campaign here leaves a lot to be desired.
Plot devices are weak at best, and the seemingly revolving-door appearances of secondary characters will confuse right from the opening cinematic (although they will no doubt please hardcore fans of the Halo
universe). Generally, the whole thing is over before it’s even really begun.
is not a game that gets to the point. The entire first half of the story feels like pure filler, and I lost complete interest by the time I found out who/what I was really fighting against and why. The actions of Master Chief and Cortana throughout are predictable, transparent methods of justifying the existence of the macguffin that appears in the latter half of the story.
It doesn’t make for an immersive, engaging experience - and as a comeback story for Microsoft’s biggest Xbox mascot, it’s simply not good enough. It feels decidedly like a B-movie. As a result, campaign stages feel like nothing more than very pretty, very solid shooting ranges.
And while 343 Industries has done well with its set-pieces and presentation, its overall level design can at times lead to navigational problems. It’s not always obvious which direction you need to go after engaging in an intense firefight. Waypoints are not always displayed either, which can add to player confusion.
Although the Halo 4
single-player campaign is underwhelming, the same cannot be said for its multiplayer mode. 343’s experience in this field clearly shows - the experience is sublime. Loading from its own separate ‘Infinity’ menu, jumping into a skirmish - or ‘War Game’ as it’s now known - is as easy as hitting a button (twice).
Once in a game, action is slick and fast-paced throughout - when you die, you get to see your foe’s killcam for a few seconds, or elect to press the X button to dive straight back into the match without waiting. In my experience, I found absolutely no lag and few connection problems.
Combine this robust system with improved and returning features such as Ordnance (the supply of special weapons and items during a match when a sufficient amount of XP is collected), Loadouts and Spartan Ranks, and this becomes the most comprehensive Halo
multiplayer experience to date.
Most importantly, Halo 4
seems to inexplicably maintain that ‘just one more go’ element that traps you into turning a couple of War Game matches into ten straight sessions. That it hasn’t lost this edge from past games in the series is a great accomplishment.
New maps in Haven, Abandon and Complex are prime candidates of classic Halo
multiplayer design, each having a central focus point with which players naturally gravitate towards and result in interesting power plays. Haven, in particular, is multi-leveled and allows combatants to drop in on one another in surprise attacks. Complex, on the other hand, is a much more open map which allows the use of Ghosts and Mongoose ULATVs.
The star of the show when it comes to Halo 4
’s features, however, is Spartan Ops. This co-operative episodic mission mode sees you and some friends revisiting locations from the single-player campaign and accomplishing squad-based challenges. You can, of course, take them on solo, but you’ll easily be overwhelmed with the multitude of enemies and overall difficulty.
There are only five levels to Spartan Ops at this time of writing, but 343 intends to support this with ongoing downloadable episodes that will aim to tell an alternative story that runs parallel with the single-player campaign.
In some ways, while the gameplay mechanics and mission structure of the mode should by all rights run subservient to Master Chief’s story, I feel that Spartan Ops has the potential to tell a much stronger tale. One look at the introductory CG cinematic for the co-op mode makes it clear that there’ll be little opportunity for dicking about.
Simply put, if you’re to buy Halo 4
it will be for its multiplayer mode. A multiplayer mode that’s beautifully refined, utterly addictive and tonnes of fun - but one that, besides Spartan Ops, doesn’t really push its own boundaries. If you’ve played Halo: Reach
or Halo: Anniversary
, you may well have seen this all before.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a fun time though. When all’s said and done, playing Halo 4 is like watching a Michael Bay film. If you switch your brain off, you can have some good, clean blockbuster fun. Grand set pieces, satisfying action and some great fanservice awaits. Just don’t jump in expecting to find an utterly enriching experience in the campaign.
Spartan Ops shows lots of potential
Excellent multiplayer experience
Weak, tedious single-player campaign
Navigation can be difficult at times
Solid, but unsurprising multiplayer
SPOnG Score: 7/10
”Good, clean blockbuster fun.”