With the release of Halo: Reach in 2010, developer Bungie bidded adieu to Halo after nearly a decade with Microsoft. With Bungie on the way out, Microsoft began assembling a strike team of top industry talent for the sole purpose of working on Halo games. Dubbed 343 Industries, they began work on Halo 4, Master Chief’s first adventure since ending 2007’s Halo 3 aboard a destroyed UNSC ship drifting toward an unknown world revealed to be a Forerunner planet called Requiem.
With Halo 4 being 343’s first game release (and the first in a new trilogy), an enormous amount of pressure was on the developer to produce a game comparable to Bungie’s best. Fears of a less than stellar game have proved mostly unfounded; Halo 4 is a fine game, but perhaps a bit too similar to its predecessors.
With Halo 4, 343’s aim in developing Master Chief as more than just a stoic, faceless character proves quite successful. Chief (John) talks a lot in Halo 4, perhaps more than all the other games combined. His relationship with Cortana is further explored as Cortana nears a state known as rampancy, where AI’s literally think themselves to death. Her fracturing mental state is evident through garbled transmissions, stuttering hud, and delaying completing tasks. This development is a key plot point in Halo 4 and results in genuinely emotional moments. You believe in John’s relationship with Cortana and the effect they have on each other. This is due, in-part, to the fantastic performance capture work. Improved facial modeling contributes to some rather subtle facial acting which really helps lend to the performances of the characters.
This new focus on story does have some drawbacks however. The narrative can, at sometimes, be bewildering for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Halo lore (Forerunner-human conflict?). Its also disappointing that the reason for the Covenant being present (which seems incredibly important) is relegated to one of Halo 4’s hidden terminals.
With a new world to explore, a new enemy faction is introduced. The Prometheans enemies offer some variety of tactics, with the teleporting knights, ferocious dog-like creatures that scamper around, and a support class capable of shielding its comrades and reviving fallen knights. The new enemies slot seamlessly into the existing Halo sandbox but the weapons they wield follow familiar tropes like shotgun, sniper rifle, and pistol. It does feel a little disappointing that with the new world and new enemy class that 343 didn’t offer more creativity in the weapon design.
Halo still feels as fun as ever though. Its almost puzzle-like implementation of combat mechanics that Bungie so expertly implemented remains intact and employing various strategies in taking down enemies remains incredibly satisfying.
Multiplayer has been rebranded as Infinity. Your Spartan 4 avatar and all other online players are aboard the UNSC Infinity and participating in Holodeck-style training. Quite why this conceit is implemented though is a bit curious as it feels largely unnecessary. In the tradition of Call of Duty, you can customize your own loadout with weapons and abilities purchased with Spartan points; acquired by ranking up. This doesn’t upset Halo’s delicately constructed sandbox however, all the weapons are balanced and the added customization is a welcome addition.
The other major addition is Spartan Ops is Halo 4’s co-operative mode. Set 6 months after the campaign, you are introduced to a team of Spartan 4’s aboard the UNSC Infinity who is tasked with undertaking missions back on Requiem. They are five chapters in an episode, and each week a new episode is released with 5 being the total confirmed. But this addition is largely disappointing with reused environments from the campaign and mission objectives that range from go here, kill everything, press this button. There is also no fail-state in Spartan Ops so even the most inexperienced of Halo players could fumble their way through Legendary difficulty, eliminating any real need for tactical play. While pushed by 343 as bridging the gap between campaign and multiplayer, the lack of compelling story is disappointing. And with this mode replacing the wonderful Firefight mode from previous games, one can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed.
Theater, Forge are back as well though the former is noticeably unavailable in the campaign while the latter has added numerous features including dynamic lighting and player trait zones, which can be adjusted to affect damage resistance, jump height, and much more. The level of granularity available is staggering and the avid forgers out there have a lot of new tools at their disposal.
Visually Halo 4 is gorgeous. With a heavily modified engine (based on Bungie’s code) the game is considerably sharp with tremendous facial modeling and animation that really breathes life into the characters. The world of Requiem is varied with lush-detailed jungles juxtaposed with the metallic-sheen of Forerunner architecture.
The soundscape of Halo 4 is also noteworthy. All the weapons have a real meaty-sound when fired, giving you the feeling that your arsenal is inflicting tremendous damage. Conversely the music of Halo 4 is a bit disappointing, the score is structurally all over the place with certain segments emphasizing heavy use of techno beats while other segments sound almost Star Wars-like. With this sporadic nature the game fails to develop any sort of coherent musical theme which is something that previous Halo’s did so well.
But Halo 4 nevertheless remains quite the package. The new emphasis on story is a welcome change and offers some truly emotionally engaging moments. The multiplayer suite is a mixed bag however, with competitive being as strong as ever but the co-op stumbling in its design. 343 has crafted an excellent experience; it definitely feels like a Halo game. But its not necessarily the revolution some may have expected.