For the past decade, the Halo series has been among the most cherished franchises throughout all of gaming. As a series, it has managed to sell 43 million copies worldwide. Although it was never initially intended to be the saga that it has become, it has since spilled out beyond the world of games and crossed over to the land of books, novels and graphic comics.
Minus a PC port here and a strategy game there, very seldom did control of the series ever leave the hands of its original creators at BUNGiE. That has since changed, as BUNGiE walked away from the franchise following the release Halo: REACH in 2010. Microsoft has placed all development responsibility of its most important franchise into the hands of an internal Microsoft Studios developer. Enter: 343 Industries.
While some fans were initially skeptical at the idea of a non-BUNGiE-made Halo title, a promising Halo 4 demo at this year’s Xbox E3 conference managed to quell some of those anxieties. Halo 4 was officially a thing and a team known as 343 Industries would be the ones to bring it. While I couldn’t blame you for expecting the worst, honestly, the new team taking over couldn’t have been in a better position to succeed.
The original, Halo: Combat Evolved, was never written to be a trilogy; it was something that simply happened and things fell in place as they (BUNGiE) went along. 343 Industries enters the Halo picture with the advantage of having an elaborate story and canon already laid out for them. Luckily, they’ve managed to take that and hit an absolute home run.
Picking up four years after the events of Halo 3, we’re once again reunited with the series protagonist, the venerable Master Chief. Awoken from his deep cryo-chamber sleep by AI partner Cortana, the duo realize that the ship they’re on, the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn has just entered orbit of a mysterious forerunner world known as Requiem. Eventually the pair make their way onto the planet, where much of the game takes place.
The sub plot and origin stories told in Halo 4 is what really proved to me that 343 Industries not only respected the fiction, but that they also had the cajones to build upon it; they managed to do so rather gracefully. As you’re making your way through the campaign, elements such as the relationship between Chief and Cortana are further expanded upon. Even more importantly, we get a little better understanding why the Spartan program, from which Master Chief came from, came into fruition. Hint: It’s not the reason you think.
Along the way, we are finally introduced to certain characters, characters that previously were only heard of through the hints of backstory you heard while playing the previous games. Not only do these important characters show their faces, they also unveil their relationship to Master Chief and why he is so important. Taking these bold moves made for not just a better overall game, it actually made Chief, Cortana and even the whole saga that surrounds the Halo universe more enthralling than BUNGiE ever did.
Among the gameplay highlights are 343 Industries ability to deliver a steady flow of epic set pieces and surround them with a better sandbox experience than the series has had previously. One of Halo: REACH’s biggest short comings was that the game took the element of exploration away from players; it was very much a point A to point B experience. With Halo 4, obviously the linearity is still there, but how you approach the more open areas is totally up to you. Although the game’s story is set in stone and still has you going from one point to the next, this time around the paths you take are not forced which makes for a much more worthwhile experience.
The gunplay is another department that shines. Halo 4, to me, is the closest the series has come to feeling as good as the original, Halo: Combat Evolved. Sure, other Halo games along the way brought us their own little innovations, but I’m a Halo purist and the fact that the DMR feels like the classic pistol of old (like, for real this time) makes me incredibly happy. Add to that all of the unique (and very cool) new Promethean weapons you get to play with this time around, and what you have here is a recipe for success. A sci-fi gun nut’s dream come true.
Making their return once again are the armor abilities. Thankfully, this time around, sprinting is not one of them. Instead, it’s part of Chief’s movement as it should have been all along. While some armor abilities are cool, (Promethean vision will make you feel like the predator) I honestly think that only two of them are even necessary. Protip: The auto sentry gun armor ability will be your best friend during the game’s more intense situations; use it and you’ll be doing a lot less checkpoint restarts.
Visually, Halo 4 is currently the best looking game on the Xbox 360, hands down. The games is so gorgeous that at certain points, especially when you initially explore the cliff sides of Requiem, the game’s vistas will stop you dead in your tracks. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing what the team at 343 Industries has managed to pull off with seven-year-old hardware. I really can’t applaud them enough for what was done here.
Halo 4 is as much candy for the ears as it is for the eyes. The game’s audio is absolutely rocking. I played it using a 5.1 setup, and not only did it surprise me how well the game was mixed, but I’ll say that it’s actually the best audio in a game that I’ve heard this year (and that’s coming from an audio snob). The game’s score, composed by Neil Davidge, was very different from of the first trilogy (but in a good way). Throughout the campaign it had enough oomph to create a heroic atmosphere but also established a mellow vibe for the game’s more “human” moments.
The games multiplayer component, arguably one of the main pillars of Xbox Live, is also back and serves as another highlight. The team at 343 Industries calls it “Infinity,” and it’s broken down into four modes which are: War Games, Forge, Theater, and Spartan Ops. As an added flair, War Games is described as a Spartan vs. Spartan combat simulation that takes place on board UNSC Infinity. Think X-Men’s Danger Room. Obviously, competitive multiplayer is nothing new for the series, but the fact that 343 Industries goes out of their way to explain why it exists, I think, is deserving of some praise.
In the competitive modes found in War Games, you’ll find an array of series multiplayer favorite modes that we’ve all come to know and love as well as a handfull of new ones. Returning modes remain mostly unchanged, save for a few twists.
For example, in capture the flag, the person holding the flag now has the ability to shoot a pistol much stronger than the default, which makes being the flag bearer a lot more interesting. Games like oddball see a change where players can now pass the “ball” to one another (as if things weren’t frantic enough). All the changes I’ve picked up on so far definitely add to the overall competitive experience.
Weapon loadouts are also present, making the transition over from REACH. Those looking to upgrade their starting equipment will do so by ranking up and in the process saving up some of the in-game currency (Spartan Points) that’s found. Weapons are still found scattered throughout the map, except this time around everyone gets to see, not only where they are, but also the times at which they can expect new ones to spawn. Also, in Infinity Slayer (the new name for team slayer), players will be able to use the new ordinance system, which are weapon drops (like care packages) sent down for filling your ordinance meter. You fill said meter by getting kills, helping your team mates and getting multi-kills.
While Forge and Theater aren’t new for the series (though they both receive a handful of upgrades in their own right), Spartan Ops is an addition that will be sure to garner plenty of folks’ attention. In essence, it’s a return of firefight mode, where you’re fighting wave after wave of enemies with a group of friends, except this time around the madness is encapsulated by an episodic experience with a beginning and an end. It should allow for a healthy break up of the action that gives you the opportunity to catch a breather in between the mayhem.
For right now, there’s only one episode available, and the team is promising weekly entries. The first “season” of these episodes will be free, but considering that you have the same campaign-quality experience (cutscenes and all), I think most hardcore fans wouldn’t mind dropping some extra cash for more of this kind of story-rich content. So, although it doesn’t have the never ending element of Firefight, Spartan Ops has the potential to turn into something even more special in the long run. Perhaps even bridge the gap between games in this new trilogy?
It goes without saying that Halo 4 was one of those “expect the worst, hope for the best” scenarios. We’re talking about a series that had only one developer steer the ship for the majority of its existence to then hand things over to a pretty much unknown, in-house development team at Microsoft. Well, from here on out, 343 Industries will no-longer be unknown as they’ve managed to not only out do themselves, but also the game’s creators in the process. Halo 4, as a game, manages to check the box in every single category. The game’s story, action, pacing, visuals, audio and multiplayer are all top notch and it should be used as a point of reference for any title in the Xbox 360 library.
Halo 4 uses the rich history of the franchise to launch the re-claimer trilogy, and in the process, someway, somehow, gives us the very best damn Halo game yet.