Loyal to its predecessor
Hooray for 343 Industries! What else can be said about the fledgling developer who took up the Halo mantle after Bungie had gone? Faced with lofty expectations and heavy scrutiny, Halo 4 might have folded under the weight of its own legacy, and regressed into a shallow imitation of its former self. Instead, Microsoft‘s team hand-chosen to guide the Halo franchise forward knocks one clean into orbit, delivering the best game in the series since the original Halo.
Everything that’s great about Halo is present here – wide-open areas and plenty of vehicles; intense combat with formidable AI; tight, responsive controls; and polished, fun multiplayer. Admittedly, Halo 4 plays it a bit safe with its single-player and nothing here will challenge your perceptions of what Halo is capable of, but the entire game hits at a level of polish unseen so far in the series. The thrills are familiar, but they’ve never been done this well before.
One area where Halo 4 does break away from its predecessors is its story. Surprisingly, Halo 4′s biggest draw isn’t the galaxy-spanning conflict between humanity and the alien Covenant. Instead, it’s the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana that drives much of the plot, with the human race’s war for survival acting as framework for both characters’ journey together. Amid the pulpy sci-fi action is a narrative much more personal and intimate than it first appears, and it’s easily the most involving and rewarding entry in the canon so far.
Halo 4′s gameplay continues down the path started by Reach two years ago. Master Chief wields only one weapon at a time, and armor abilities add a wildcard to the Chief’s move set. Gone, too, are the pesky, zombie-like Flood, and in their place are the Prometheans, a quick, formidable race that complement the Covenant well as a third party in the conflict. Like Reach, action set pieces are exciting and well-directed, and though there are still opportunities to sit back and drink in the atmosphere, Halo 4′s campaign is focused and deliberate.
Of course, when it does slow down enough to let you catch your breath, Halo 4 is a sight to behold. Cold, sterile hallways give way to lush jungles and open clearings, and each area feels lived in and stirring to the imagination. Halo 4 does a fantastic job of recapturing Combat Evolved’s sense of wonderment and awe, opening up at just the right times, narrowing at others, and constantly providing new settings and experiences, whether it’s riding shotgun in a heavily armored carrier or scavenging through the wreckage of a downed Covenant cruiser.
Even better is Halo 4′s sound design. Small ambient hums and background noises add to an already rich sense of place, and every firearm reports with a satisfying staccato blast or electronic pulse. Composer Neil Davidge continues Halo’s reputation for great music with an excellent soundtrack, taking cues from Martin O’Donnell’s stellar work on the series without ever outright quoting from it. Except for a few audio glitches late in the game and weirdly compressed effects used during cutscenes, Halo 4′s sound is music – and gunshots and throes of alien death – to the ears.
Halo didn’t become an Xbox staple just because of its single-player though, and Halo 4′s multiplayer component stands alongside the best in the series. Matches are fast without being overly twitchy, and Halo 4 offers several new ways to play, from objective-based Dominion to six player free-for-all Regicide. Halo 4 ships with ten maps, though some only appear during certain modes; if you commit yourself exclusively Team Slayer, don’t be surprised to find yourself playing the same areas again and again.
New to Halo 4 multiplayer is a progression system, granting access to new weapons, perks, and cosmetic items as you gain levels. Most of the weapons and powers are already available in Halo 4′s five pre-made classes, though, making leveling less about unlocking the best gear and more a matter of customization.
All of your experience and customization carries over into Halo 4′s other multiplayer option, the cooperative Spartan Ops. Structured like a weekly television program, Spartan Ops brings a series of five challenges for every “episode,” along with a shiny CG cutscene advancing the story of the UNSC Infinity and Fire Team Crimson. Each challenge is a basic, brainless affair, usually a variant of “Go here, shoot these, press this button, defend the extraction point,” and most can be cleared in 15-20 minutes. Spartan Ops lacks the complexity for a satisfying solo venture, but is an ideal backdrop for groups of friends who want a casual cooperative experience that can be finished in short bursts.
And if that weren’t enough, Halo 4 has still more avenues available for players looking to exercise their creativity. Forge returns for players to sculpt their own maps, and just about everything is on the table: weapon and gadget loadout, spawn placement, geographical layout, everything. The interface is surprisingly friendly, given how deep and complex the editor is, and playtesting your work is a snap. Meanwhile, the Theater saves video from your last eight multiplayer matches, allowing you to make and share clips of your finest kills or, in my case, epic fails.
Ten years, three core releases, and one new studio later, Halo still feels fresh and relevant as ever, even in a shooter marketplace that’s never been more competitive. 343 Industries could have easily phoned it in and got by on Halo’s popularity, but instead manages to tap into what makes the series great while adding small tweaks of their own – not bad for a first game. Between the engrossing campaign and the addictive multiplayer, Halo 4 is my favorite entry in the series so far, and 2012′s best shooter by a walk.
Tested on 360