If you're a Halo fan, there's no need to read the rest of this review. You're going to love what 343 put together. There are some minor hiccups, but nothing major, and the inclusion of the episodic Spartan Ops means you essentially have a free expansion pack included with the game. It's fun. It's engaging. Most importantly, it's a solid value for the money.
For everyone else, this review is for you.
In case you've been living under a rock for the past decade, the Halo series of games more or less defined the console-based first-person shooter. The original series of games was developed by Bungie, but that mantle passed to 343 in 2010 after Halo: Reach shipped to stores. That was the last Halo game to be developed by the original studio. Developer 343 handled last year's Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (a remake of the original game), but Halo 4 is the developer's first, wholly original Halo installment.
As the first game in a new trilogy, Halo 4 is also a good jumping-off point for players new to the series. It starts four years after the end of Halo 3, with the protagonist Master Chief and his AI partner, Cortana, still lost in space on the ruined husk of UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn. Drifting near an unknown planet, Cortana detects activity and wakes Master Chief to investigate, setting into motion a chain of events that will directly threaten the Earth.
Story-wise, Halo 4 departs somewhat from the traditional enemy of the series, the alien Covenant, by introducing a second set of aliens, the Prometheans. A mix of technology and light, the Prometheans are a mystery at first, though details are revealed as the game progresses. Despite the threat to humanity, it's obvious that the core focus of Halo 4's plot is delving deeper into the personalities of the two main characters. The last game to be so character-focused was Halo 3: ODST.
Halo 4's story starts out strong enough, and we do end up getting more insight into both Master Chief and Cortana than we've ever had before, but the promised payoff is more of a whimper than a bang. The threat of rampancy (the AI version of going insane) foreshadows a dangerous and irrational Cortana, yet the threat is only talked about; it's never really shown. Halfway through the game, we're given a big reveal about the ancient Forerunners and how the Prometheans came to be. Though it's obviously supposed to be a climactic moment, it falls flat.
Perhaps it's because the villain's plan in Halo 4 sounds a lot like what happened in "TRON 2.0." Oddly enough, the similarities to Disney's classic computer story don't end there. The interiors of the Forerunner buildings and ships look as though they lifted their design aesthetic directly from TRON's digital DNA. As for the the final battle between Master Chief and the game's big bad? Well, let's just say that how it plays out is a striking parallel to the ending of the original "TRON" film.
Story issues aside, Halo 4 has it where it counts, and that's in the gameplay. Here the team at 343 obviously decided to play it safe, sticking with what the franchise does best rather than trying to step off the beaten path. Level design is mostly linear, with a series of enemy hotspots along the path. You'll move forward, encounter resistance, clear it out and move on. Player controls are solid, as you'd expect, with Master Chief moving nimbly throughout the environment.
Visually, Halo 4 is a step up from Halo: Reach. It's noticeable in regular gameplay, but where the engine really shines is in the cinema scenes. The Halo franchise has always had an issue with rendering human faces in detail. Not any longer. The human characters shown here look and move naturally enough that they occasionally cross the uncanny valley into realism. That's not hyperbole. When you initially fire up Halo 4, it's very easy to mistake the first set of characters you see for human actors rather than CGI creations.
Pushing the visual limits does have one annoying side effect. During the campaign, dropped weapons will sometimes disappear rather quickly alongside dead bodies. Most games remove dead bodies in order to improve performance (fewer on-screen items mean less work for the video renderer). Having dropped weapons vanish so quickly indicates that the programmers implemented a pretty aggressive clean-up routine.
On top of the campaign, Halo 4 offers Forge mode, Spartan Ops and War Games. Forge mode is the lifeblood of online Halo players as it allows users to create custom maps, and this installment offers up an even more powerful set of tools. It's not something that a new player is going to master overnight, but for the budding game designer, it's a straightforward way to create new multiplayer arenas.
Forge mode gives you three blank environments to work in, and it allows you to edit any of the existing multiplayer maps. One of the new options this year is the ability to create special effect zones. After defining a zone, you can set it to modify a number of different elements, including damage, player movement, shield power, and visibility. Zones can also modify the physics of the world. Other updates include improvements to the tools, making it easier to line up objects in the world (useful when trying to build a large layout), straightforward duping and better integration with the lighting system. The last bit means that proper shadows are cast.
Spartan Ops is best described as the first expansion pack to Halo 4. Delivered as episodic content, it picks up six months after the end of the main campaign. Instead of following Master Chief, Spartan Ops casts you as one of many Spartans sent to clean up the remaining Covenant forces on the Forerunner planet. Each episode includes a fully voiced CGI introduction as well as multiple chapters to play through. Each chapter is a mission that plays out like a short campaign level. Since the episodes are released on a timetable, we can't comment on the overall experience of the first season, but the first episode is certainly promising. Playable solo or co-op with others, the Spartan Ops missions seem to be on par with the standard campaign objectives. One episode offers up roughly the same content as one campaign level, though they seem to be heavier on the action than the story.
Microsoft could easily have split off Spartan Ops and sold it as either DLC or a stand-alone disc. Not doing so is an interesting business decision. One benefit is that the episodic content is sure to keep players engaged as they return week after week to see what's new. If players are engaged, they're more likely to buy the DLC that is made available for purchase. A secondary reason is likely to increase the perceived value of the game. The simple act of offering an abundance of content, when so many publishers are locking content behind "online pass" and "season pass" paywalls, could translate into more sales purely on the value proposition.
Finally there is War Games. This is the traditional multiplayer mode where players fight it out online, either solo or in teams. This is also where Halo 4 makes its biggest step forward. All of the armor abilities present in the campaign (including the new ones) are available in War Games, as is the ability to sprint. Of the 13 included maps, location and design varies greatly, so they all feel fresh as you run through a playlist. Borrowing from other shooters, War Games introduces a kill cam and an ordnance drop. On game types that support it, the drop happens after eliminating a specific number of opponents. It might be a weapon or a power-up, but it's not a guaranteed win — more of a bonus.
Noticeably missing from Halo 4's online play is Firefight. First introduced in Halo 3: ODST, Firefight was a progressively more difficult wave-based co-op mode. You won't find it here. One of the other noticeable cuts to Halo 4 comes in the Theater mode feature set.
Theater mode is a way to edit your game sessions, saving high-quality screenshots and gameplay clips right on your console. The best bits can be uploaded to a custom file share. Unfortunately, Theater mode does not support campaign or Spartan Ops; only gameplay sessions in Forge and War Games can be edited.
One aspect we haven't touched on is the hard drive space required for Forge, Spartan Ops and War Games. While the campaign can be played off the disc, the Forge and War Games content requires a 2 GB install. Spartan Ops season one requires a 1.5 GB install. Both of these can be installed from disc two, but players also have the option of downloading them, free of charge, via Xbox Live, if you don't have the second disc handy. This may seem like a minor point, but it's a big deal to those who rent games via Gamefly or Redbox. As long as you have an Internet connection, you can access all of Halo 4's multiplayer content.
Making a mark on an established universe is a very difficult thing to do. While 343 put together a solid game with Halo 4, it hasn't pushed the franchise forward in any meaningful way. Multiplayer has progressed, but the campaign and the overall plot hew close to the established formula. Instead of innovating, 343 has played it safe in just about every aspect. Halo 4 competes favorably with Halo: Reach, but it doesn't exceed Bungie's final installment.
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