As a huge Halo fan who was let down greatly by Halo Reach, I was approaching the next instalment with a mix of emotions. Highs because it is a new Halo game including a new campaign and multiplayer. General uncertainty because it is a new studio developing the game; 343 Industries as opposed to Bungie and a mix of apprehension and hope that it is a new story that continues the Halo saga. The Halo universe has been a wonderful place for me to explore through the games, art, short films, trailers and some of the most excellent books, specifically the ones by Eric Nylund.
As someone who has read, watched and played everything Halo since the original, I was very disappointed by Reach in that the story was the first time Bungie had changed their canon. Don't get me wrong, Reach was a fantastic game and I enjoyed playing it but the story and atmosphere was just not what the Fall of Reach represented for me and that broke my Halo universe just a little. I don't just focus on the single player. For many years I have played Halo 3 multiplayer and still to this day, host a yearly Halo 3 CTF tournament that falls on my birthday. ODST was a neat campaign and featured great co-op but Reach's multiplayer fell short of the mark for me and the friends I play with. Halo Anniversary did a bit to repair my lost faith but again, the multiplayer was just Reach with new maps. So now I have laid out my experiences, emotions and opinions on the Halo Universe I am ready to report back on Halo 4, and yes, it's pretty darn good.
343 Studios have done an amazing job in keeping what it means to be a Halo game yet trying out new things while they're at it. Visually the game is incredible, both from a stylistic and graphical quality the game excels. The colours and vibrancy are still present in traditional Halo style but have been toned down a little to let the world breathe more. The most astounding moment was during the cutscene at the beginning of the game I honestly thought they were live action. It wasn’t until I saw a couple of blinks and a bit more movement that I realised it was actually CG. The graphic fidelity held up during the game too with wonderful new environments and a much higher attention to detail that the Halo universe has not seen before.
New weapons and enemies have changed the gameplay space a lot and I think it is for the better. Gone are the Brutes and they have been replaced with a new interesting enemy known as the Prometheans. I will not go into any story spoilers but from a gameplay point of view, they are very interesting to fight against. The new variety of weapons are great and playing through to figure out the best weapon for each situation bought me right back to what made Halo great for me. My only real complaint with the newer weapons was that conceptually I didn’t know what their purpose was. Previously it was a simple rule set. Spikes and physical ordinance are great against armour, not so good on energy shields and energy weapons are vice versa. However, to take the new grenades for example. I just don’t know what they do? Are they good against shields? Are the good against armour? After finishing the entire campaign, I am still not sure. One of the new pistols called the Bolt shot was a lovely single shot, "fast as you can pull the trigger" type affair which was great fun, but frequently I found it sticking on the first shot. I'm not sure if this was a bug or functioning correctly but I could never tell when it would fire or stick.
The story is pretty good. I am not saying great as it didn't move or wow me as much as Halo 3 or even ODST in some places but it was solid and good enough to support the game and universe. To put it simply, it didn’t blow me away but it also didn't make me think negatively about the universe or game. There are some nice twists and turns and emotion in the right places so it does its job pretty well. I did however find that a bit too frequently, the story converted into quite repetitive objectives. "We need to operate this thing! Quick, destroy/find/open these three Shields/Terminals/Locks" becoming a common theme. When the story hits its strong points you care about why you are doing these things. In the low points, not so much and that is where you start to notice the repetition.
I was a little disappointed by 343's choice to make the hidden content in the game only appear in Halo Waypoint. When you find a hidden log or recording, it tells the player that they have unlocked content in Waypoint and to go there to view it. This is quite odd as usually I am happy to pause a game and view the content, gather some background on the fiction and return to the game wiser and deeper into the world. However, having to quit to the main menu, then leave Halo 4 to open Waypoint, feels quite disconnected from the actual experience.
The games core experience is Halo through and through. Large open scale battles, paced out by on-foot close combat and waves of interesting and diverse aliens to kill. In a couple of tight spots I found myself diving through enemy fire towards an objective marker and throwing the switch, only to trigger a cut scene that, once finished, would despawn all the enemies around me and made me feel a little cheated. This did break the atmosphere a little as I expected to have to fight off the surrounding enemies post-switch throw but alas, it was not to be.
As you play through the campaign there are moments of genius and heart swelling heroics as Master Chief performs great feats in front of epic vistas that frame the Halo universe in its best light. The soundtrack is superb and despite not featuring the classic Halo theme through the majority of it, the new compositions do an excellent job of succeeding it and featuring knowing nods to it here and there. Audio, dialogue and ambiance have been perfected here and knowing how tough it can be to produce quality in all of these areas, I give 343 a perfect score for the audio in the game. Outstanding.
I played through the entire game on Heroic as traditionally Bungie have said in the past that it is the way it should be played, saving my Legendary playthough for when I have no time constraints. However, whilst still a challenge and getting stuck a couple of times, the game was rolling its credits after roughly 7 hours. This felt a little short for a Halo title and closer to ODST than the epic campaigns of Halo 3 and Reach. I found myself interested in Spartan Ops once the campaign was over to extend my Halo fix and yes, it was great fun. Spartan Ops is a segment of the game that puts scenarios together in the form of short episodes for you to play through with friends or on your own. There are currently 5 planned for release every month or so and each one contains 5 chapters per episode. While reviewing Halo 4 there was only one available and although fun, I completed it on heroic in under an hour. This totals about 8 hours story content straight out the box. It didn't feel short but once it was over I was hoping for more. But maybe that is the trick that 343 were aiming for? A huge amount of Halo players only play the game for the multiplayer in any case so this may not be such a bad thing, but just in case you are expecting a 12-14 hour campaign, it is a little shorter than you might hope. With my single player experience seemingly over, I went on to the multiplayer.