Platforms: Xbox 360
Developers: 343 Industries
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
Halo 4 is a little bit like Casino Royale. It's a more muscular reboot, everything from the sound design to the way Master Chief handles feels a little weightier, a little more impactful. It packs a somewhat surprising emotional punch towards the end, and there's a backstory to the bad guys that's a little hard to follow and ultimately easy to ignore. Like Casino Royale, you'll find that Halo 4 takes you on a wild ride, constantly teasing you with memories of what came before, but never quite giving you the musical payoff that you deserve, at least not until the credits roll.
And just like Casino Royale, this is a return upon which much rests.
The Master Chief is back, four years after the events of Halo 3, and he's woken from his deep sleep to find the ship he's on - the Forward Unto Dawn - about to disintegrate around him. Cortana has spent much of that time slowly going mad; being an AI, she has an expiration date, where she increasingly begins to split personalities, becoming a splintered artificial mind via a process called Rampancy that would invariably lead her to actively thinking herself to death. The only recourse is to locate Dr. Halsey, in whose neural image Cortana was made, in the hopes of restoring the latter to her former capable self.
Of course, things aren't quite that simple. The Covenant are abroad, and mean again, and the Master Chief has a new enemy to face in the form of the Prometheans. We might have been a little concerned at just how much fun fighting against the Prometheans might prove, but the fact of the matter is that Halo 4 absolutely nails the empowering-yet-challenging moment-to-moment gameplay that has made this franchise such an enduring prospect.
Master Chief feels a little weightier before, and he packs a little more punch. The assassinations you can dish out are more physically brutal, and the aural and visual feedback is more satisfying than ever. The enemy designs are a little less cartoonish than perhaps they've been in the past, with Grunts in particular no longer the "Demon!" burbling slapstick idiots of previous games. Elites will duck and roll as per usual, but are far more willing to stand their ground if you're out of range, and equally aggressive in attack should you find yourself pinned down. Thankfully the bullet-sponge Brutes are notably absent.
Their space is filled by three types of Prometheans: the Crawlers, the Watchers, and the Knights. Crawlers will hunt in packs, like a ravening horde of clones of the Decepticon Ravage. They'll swarm you up close, or use the walls and ceilings of caverns and Forerunner structures to present a threat in multiple dimensions. Let them reach you on Heroic and Legendary and you're toast, but those Forerunner weapons can pack a punch from range too. They're ably support by the hovering drones - the Watchers. Typically armed with a zipping pistol - called the Boltshot - the Watchers are not only pesky aerial annoyances, but they can shield ground units and resurrect fallen commanders: the Promethean Knights. These teleporting bigwigs sport Optimus Prime-style glowing swords, and have an irritating habit of vanishing and then reappearing behind you just as you're about to deliver the final blow. The way these units compliment one another makes for some incredibly challenging, but immensely satisfying encounters.
The new weapons that they bring with them are fantastic too. The Boltshot is a rather slow-firing pistol, but a charged shot will empty a six-round clip in one go for maximum payoff. The Scattershot is an immensely powerful shotgun, but one that holds precious little ammo. The Suppressor is an assault rifle with a brisk fire rate, but woefully inaccurate outside of the short-mid range. Moreover, every existing weapon in the game has been retuned and rebalanced, absolutely perfectly, and Magnum fans should find themselves very happy indeed.
It's a testament to the work done in fine detail on the Chief's tools of war and the foes he faces that Halo 4 is so engrossing, and 343 do a good job of keeping the pacing at a high tempo, with enough varied enemy types to throw at the player in any given situation if things are getting a little bit samey. Every so often, they'll give you a Banshee to muck around in, or a mech to play with. You'll get to ride a Mammoth and call in massive airstrikes on giant defence turrets in amongst the running and gunning and sneaking and sniping.
The sound design is fantastic as well. The weapons have never provided such fine aural feedback as they do here. The solid staccato of the Assault Rifle goes a long way to making it feel satisfying in a manner that perhaps hasn't been achieved since the original game. The brisk, brusque stutter of the Battle Rifle is almost reminiscent of revving a power hammer drill. The mechanical whirring, the buzzing drones, and that pulsating warp noise that accompany the Prometheans, they create an aurally alien landscape immediately removed from the Covenant and the (non-appearing) Flood. Every time you pull the right trigger, your ears are in for a treat.
That all being said, Halo 4 appears to be missing the iconic moments, the large-scale epic set pieces for which Bungie was renowned. The moment to moment gameplay is superlative, but the game is missing supersized enemy ordinance. There's little to rival taking down two Scarabs in Halo 3, or ODST's gripping finale, and nothing that even comes close to the three-way battle that The Silent Cartographer could boast of. There's a nice little Death Star-esque trench run that replaces the traditional Warthog scramble in the final chapter, but just as I found myself praying 343 would deliver an enormous celestial dogfight to cap things off, the action returned to relatively close quarters. Playing around with the Mantis mech earlier in the game was neat, but there was nothing to tower over it, no feeling of victory over Goliath-like enemies that previous games delivered so well.
The other issue that this fresh campaign throws up comes in the form of the soundtrack. Just as with Casino Royale - where the Bond theme is only tentatively teased until a payoff as the credits roll - the Chief's theme is never heard. Though we're given one of the themes from Never Forget as a reward on completion, there's never the adrenaline-pumping riff that gamers know and love. Davidge's score is frequently atmospheric, but it's placed low in the mix, and there's precious little that proves memorable. Whether or not there were any sort of licensing issues, the aural empowerment is left solely to the guns. It's swiftly fixed by playing the Halo 3 soundtrack over the top, all too readily fixed in fact, but that's rather beside the point.
There are a number of graphical issues too. Textures can look downright ugly at close range, although the "bigger picture" is often dazzling, particularly the scenery vistas. At first glance, the game looks phenomenal, but then the excited haze begins to settle and you realise that there's tons of inexcusable pop-in. Horrific amounts of pop-in, actually, and some of the gorgeous features that looked beautiful at range are anything but up close.
Of course, those faults lose their importance entirely when friends are involved, and it's here that Halo 4 truly shines as a content package to excel beyond even Reach. Spartan Ops is simply outstanding, delivering regular bite sized chunks of co-operative gameplay. Each episode is prologued via an impressive cinematic, telling the story of two squads of Spartans aboard the UNSC Infinity, a ship that appears in the main campaign. From there the episodes unfold through five 15-20 minute chapters that present varying locales and combat scenarios in which to dabble. The very first sees you set down in a dusty,rock-ridged, mini sandbox, and given a host of vehicles with which to play as Covenant drop ships fall like raindrops of death from the sky. Another sees you vying with a fellow, unseen Spartan outfit to clear a couple of Promethean-infested outposts as quickly as possible. They're all perfectly set up for quick blasts of trademark Halo action, and we're pretty sure that Spartan Ops Day is going to become a weekly staple across the globe. With 50 chapters coming free for new buyers across ten weeks, it's going to keep players coming back for months.
On top of that, there's the Halo 4 competitive multiplayer experience in War Games. All of the classic game modes are back - from Team Slayer to Dominion, from Oddball and Extraction to King of the Hill and Big Team battles. Flood mode is a welcome revamp of Infection and there are options for custom game variants such as SWAT, an office favourite, and Grifball too. But the core systems have been improved and updated as well. Once again you can outfit your Spartan with armour upgrades to customise the look of your multiplayer avatar, but now you can also create custom loadouts. You start of with the basic Assault Rifle/Magnum combination, but you can unlock further weapons such as the Battle Rifle and the DMR along with Covenant and Forerunner weapons too. Furthermore, you can unlock and include different grenade types, armour abilities, and tactical packages tailored to suit your own play style. As well as additions such as the Hardlight Shield and Regeneration beacons, there are options to outfit your Spartan with small passive upgrades that might slightly increase shield recharge rate, allow you to wield two primary weapons straight from the start of a round, or give you unlimited sprint. You can only equip one at a time of course, but they're all well balanced, and all add something to the gameplay in the right hands.
These unlockables do, however, require the spending of Spartan Points, earned singularly through Spartan Rank progression. It's a shame to see the military insignia of Reach disappear (a small thing, but important to this writer) in favour of a strictly numerical system, but you can design your own, with bragging rights reserved for certain emblems and armour types only available at higher levels. Everything you do in multiplayer - Spartan Ops or War Games - contributes to that XP system. If you assist in a kill, you earn XP. Off an adversary in a creative manner and you'll earn more than for a normal kill. Persistent challenges and deep stat tracking rewards mean that there's always something aim for, with brief in game pop ups always reminding you of a goal whenever you hit an incremental milestone. It's deeply impressive stuff, and as furiously addictive as any game in the series to date.
Of course, the additions make for slightly different approaches. Potent weapons are marked in-game so newcomers won't be in the dark as to where the best guns are, and there are occasionally rushes for the sniper rifles or rocket launchers. The active camo actually works properly, making it devastating when combined with a radar that fails to pick up motionless enemies. If you get a little momentum going, you can call in an ordinance drop with a prod of the D-Pad.
But it's the way that everything is superbly balanced that makes Halo 4 such an exciting multiplayer prospect. The Scattershot and Shotgun are devastating at close range, but you need to make that first shot count as the reload and cocking speeds are very slow. Maps take full advantage of verticality to provide opportunities for run-and-gunners as well as more ponderous marksmen, but there are multiple avenues all over each theatre of war, with camping rarely a successful approach for terribly long. Even if you're starting from scratch, the game will throw up at least one loadout with an armour ability for you to use, and levelling up the first few ranks takes no time at all. After a single episode of Spartan Ops on Heroic, and six rounds of Slayer, I was almost at SR10. Of course, there are so many weird and wonderful weapons strewn about the maps that you never feel cheated into being outgunned.
So have 343 delivered a good Halo game? Yes, they absolutely have. The multiplayer components and the overall content offering is the best that the series has seen to date, and we'll be coming back for more every day of every week for the next few months. The developers have delivered the most important foundation: it feels like the Halo you fell in love with over a decade ago on a moment-to-moment basis, and you'll slip back into the saddle with consummate ease. But it's also a little disappointing. Though the story for the singleplayer delivers a surprisingly emotional finale, 343 never quite give players a moment that would have allowed Halo 4 to achieve true greatness, nor the soundtrack to make you really feel like you are Master Chief. There will be few watercooler moments for this game, and it's difficult to pick a stand-out setpiece from the game, because there aren't really very many. The action is of a consistently high quality, and you'll have plenty of personal mini-battles on Heroic and Legendary that will imbue you with a sense of pride once you bust through them, but the campaign never blows you away. There's just no huge, epic payoff.
In the end, though, it won't really matter. Reach wasn't exactly filled with memorable moments either (that awesome dogfighting mission aside), but that remained entertaining beyond twelve months. If a game is fun - persistently, captivatingly fun - you won't have to worry about a resonance when you stop playing because you simply won't want to stop playing. And Halo 4 has that in spades. Pulling myself away from War Games to write this review was a painful process. Like a really good TV show, I simply can't wait for the next episode of Spartan Ops, and I'll be getting Jon and Carl round to play it as soon as it drops. I'll be playing through the campaign many times more to test myself on Legendary, and I'll be having a blast each time I do.
Warfighter and Blops be damned. This here is Game of the Year territory.
- Delivers a truly impressive, utterly comprehensive content package
- Spartan Ops Day will become A Thing
- New weapons and enemies are fantastic
- There's a "Death Star Trench Run" section
- But the massive battle you're waiting for never quite comes
- We miss those military multiplayer ranks
- The soundtrack never manages to make an impact
The Short Version: Immediately familiar and yet invigoratingly fresh in parts, Halo 4 comes close to being one of the finest FPS games of this generation, but for just a handful of niggling issues. Make no mistake, though, 343 have produced a staggeringly comprehensive package and breathed new life into Microsoft's flagship franchise. Devilishly addictive, perfectly balanced, and offering something for everyone - old hands and newcomers alike - Master Chief's return serves up the most fun we've had with a shooter in a long time.