Developers: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: X Box
Genre: First Person Shooter
“She said that to me once. About being a machine.”
Halo is one of those landmark series which seems to cultivate its own circle of elitist nerds forever locked in debate over which was its true defining moment. Irritating purists cling to the borish ideal that the blockbuster sequels never lived up to the sacrosanct debut. Other slightly more disturbing people will proudly proclaim Halo 2 multiplayer to be the only game they ever have and ever will play.
What all of these odd specimens don’t seem to realise is Halo 3 was when the series truly hit perfection.
Hair splitting fanboy debates aside, the only real stumble in the series was Halo Reach (we do not speak of ODST). Despite boasting the most focused and cinematic story mode, and introducing many revolutionary new features to what had previously been an untouchable and slightly stagnating template, Reach somehow lost touch with that traditional Halo feel of perfect, intricate balance. The big things it did well: graphics, story, content, but the subtle, almost intangible things were ever so slightly wrong, and in Halo these things matter a great deal. What we were left with was some imposter trying to imitate Halo as best it could but not quite getting it right. It was clunky, awkward, and just a fraction too slow. Weapons and vehicles weren’t tweaked to that impossibly precise point where they all counter balanced each other and allow a seemingly effortless ballet of action and strategy to flow. On firing up Halo 4 for the first time it is immediately apparent that the magical sweet spot of balance has been rediscovered. Following several weeks of being enslaved to the online multiplayer, it is safe to say it has finally become better than ever before.
The first noticeable thing is just how drop dead gorgeous the visuals are. This is the first game since Skyrim which truly reduces the player to slack jawed wonder at both the epic scale of the environments and minute detail of the character models. With this gloss large scale battles with vehicles and a dozens of heavily armed Spartans can be as satisfying as watching an action film.
Despite things being beautiful on the surface there are one or two problems in the design department, especially where the newly introduced aliens the Forerunners are concerned. Realising a form of life so far in advance of humanity is always going to pose a challenge to writers and, considering this is computer game writers we are talking about, its not hard to guess the outcome. Apart from the undeniably cool ‘moving parts’ technology used by the Forerunners, everything is a massively over the top mess. Forerunner environments are predictably minimalist and slightly magical, consisting of bland and sterile corridors and chambers which have no discernible reason for being there. The reasoning behind the design never goes beyond providing convenient areas good for shoot outs which feels just a little archaic. The main villain ‘the Didact’ hams it up like something straight out of a childrens cartoon looking like… like… a badly burnt paedophile in a space suite, with little superfluous mouth tusks. Then there are the Promethean’s; a colourful bunch of bright orange ghosts clad in giant metallic exoskeletons. And for some reason they come in dog form as well. These strange fellows are the elite cannon fodder the dastardly Didact repeatedly throws into the Master Cheif’s path rather than just killing him. The origins of the Promethean’s is a mind boggling feat of ridiculous science fiction and hopefully the idea will quickly be swept under the rug rather made into a significant part of the new trilogy. If nothing else good can be said about them these bastards are difficult to take down and do force you to learn the many intricacies of the gameplay which will greatly benefit your multiplayer performance.
The more familiar galactic rascals the Covenenant also reappear for their regular dose of cosmic twatting at the hands of Master Chief, but shawn of any individual characters they are entirely superfluous to the story. As usual these oddly comical creatures and their plastic toy like array of guns add as little gravitas to the proceedings as could be expected of a bunch of rejected Jim Henson puppets but they do their job of anchoring the game in the familiar Halo universe and greatly expand the variety of opponents to be tackled which can only be a good thing. Perhaps after bipedal and dog form the designers simply ran out of ideas for the Promethean’s.
As the first entry in a whole new trilogy arch the story demonstrates enough potential to encourage fans over the future of the franchise now that this first tentative first step has been made, but the narrative is still a comical disappointment; something which by now should perhaps be expected of a Halo title. But with a new creative team in place there was a real opportunity here for a fresh start. Sadly Halo 4 continues in the tradition of the worst kind of convoluted science fiction which often makes you wonder whether 343 were torturing ideas out of a heavily drunk ten year old Star Wars fan. All too often things happen which leave you scratching your head in puzzlement wondering whether you have accidentally skipped over cut scenes, or nodded off. At its best the dialogue is muddling mess of nonsensical, irrelevant gibberish. At its worst it even manages to bleed into the level design resulting in endless switch pressing and the liberal use of a magic portals to bridge levels together. 343 seem entirely oblivious to how archaic and embarrassing the portals become; in fact they seem to see it is as a ‘clever’ device to move things along. Most of the suspenseful actions scenes seem to abruptly conclude with Master Chief jumping, leaping, flying or being sucked into another conveniently placed magic door. Forgetting that such a device negates the logic of almost every situation the chief finds himself in (“hey, shall we battle past those tanks or just use the portal thing again?”), it is a downright unforgettable exhibition of lazy writing. After the advances in story telling made by Mass Effect this feels like a step back into the days when video games were ridiculed.
The string of set piece battles is of a more familiar high standard, with the usual array of pitched gun battles, sniper duels, hand to hand combat, fast paced vehicle sections, full scale tank battles, and moments of hectic horde style survival. There are no real innovations, more like a best of Halo compilation, a fact which probably betrays 343’s conservative approach. That said they have not even really managed to pick out the very best bits.
Unless you are a forgiving fan of dodgy science fiction, or someone who doesn’t expect much from a computer game, the campaign can hardly be seen as a rip roaring success, but in pure gameplay terms this is Halo refined. Indulging in a bit of 4 player on Legendary difficulty makes this a necessary and entertaining enough way of honing your skills for the more significant part of the game.
The true meat of Halo 4 is to be found in its various multiplayer aspects – now re-branded as Infinity Mode. On board the ship Infinity you can pursue a career as an elite Spartan warrior, competing in War Games exercises (the traditional online versus multi-player), going out on Spartan Ops missions, or getting lost in the creative depths of the Forge – a place where maps and game types can be edited for community use. Spartan Ops are essentially the playable portions of the story but without any of the narrative constraints or bothersome cut scenes. As they become more difficult the missions develop into horde style battles which can pose a bit of a challenge to even seasoned players when tackled on Legendary difficulty. New episodes are uploaded weekly and though they don’t seem to add anything narrative wise they do present a more than satisfying alternative to the main story if fighting AI enemies is your thing.
For those who crave human competition Halo multi-player is the stuff of legend – an entire game in itself which continually goes head to head with Call of Duty for the crown of best online multiplayer. More a fierce, highly competitive virtual sport than game, it is so finely balanced it rewards experience and talent, as well as unpredictability and risk. Those who put the hours in can become infuriating opponents capable of exhibiting their action movie skills and dictating battles. Importantly though the learning curve never leaves behind the hapless noobs who can always find those few powerful game changing weapons or vehicles which can allow them to make some sort of contribution. The more advanced scoring system also rewards team play where points are earned for assists, protecting allies, or distracting the enemy while your friends finish them off. It creates a much more cooperative style of play and rarely descends to the punishing levels of cruelty witnessed in COD, where less experienced players wait to respawn for a few seconds of gameplay before being instantly cut down again.
Progression in any area of Infinity earns experience and credits to unlock an incredibly vast array of armour types, armour abilities, weapons, special perk abilities and all kinds of trinkets with which to pimp out your warrior and give you that little extra advantage on the battlefield. The armour abilities, first introduced in Reach, have now been toned down to the point where they are not really required but may just come in handy and can add an extra element of unpredictability to your prey.
The entire system has been refined from the ground up and the many needless rough edges smoothed out. No longer is a player expected to stare at a lobby screen for 20 minutes waiting for a game to start, only for the game to be immediately ruined by quiters or poor connections. Now matches are found almost instantly and any drop outs are quickly replaced without noticable interuptions. Betrayals – the source of so much comedy and frustration alike – have been largely removed creating a much less toxic atmosphere all round. Basic stuff in the post COD world, but at least Halo has finally caught up. And as usual there are facilities which allow players to replay their battles and take pictures or record mini movies allowing the community to witness your finest or most comical moments .
The flawless, painfully addictive multiplayer alone qualifies Halo 4 as a masterpiece worthy of months of your life. Add to this an enjoyable if badly written campaign, and a regular supply of new Spartan Ops missions and there is enough here to completely loose yourself.
Graphics – 9.5
Some of the finest around at the moment. Fire up the theater mode and take a good close look at the incredible levels of detail.
Sound – 9.5
Epic and beautiful scifi soundscapes from Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge.
Enjoyment – 9.0
Single player is a decent enough distraction but the over the top and nonsensical plot leaves a lot to be desired. Spartan Ops provide some additional challenges on Legendary but it is the majestic multiplayer which will obliterate your free time.
9.5 out of 10