After Bungie relinquished the Halo franchise over to Microsoft and 343 Industries, many thought the worst: Halo was dead, and Microsoft was going to run it into the ground much like Activison did to Guitar Hero. Furthermore, many, myself included, wondered why there needed to be more Halo games. Bungie is as much a part of Halo as Halo is as much a part of Bungie. One can’t function without the other, right? Halo 4 should be a mess.
Wrong. While it remains to be seen whether or not Bungie can thrive without its Halo, Halo sure as hell can thrive—and grow—without Bungie.
Despite Halo 4 being easily the best looking Halo game – and maybe even the best looking Xbox 360 game – a strong argument can be made that the best campaigns in the series are Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo: Reach. Halo 4 does contend for the title. More so than any other game in the series, Halo 4’s plot relies on a heavy theme of humanity and what constitutes as human. Cortana shines through as the most human character in the game despite being an artificial intelligence, and the usually robotic Master Chief begins to show some real emotion for the first time in the series. The finale may even leave you a little choked up at how human an AI can be. It’s a science-fiction treat.
The campaign doesn’t get everything right, however. The plot moves incredibly fast; Master Chief and Cortana jump through portals to exactly where they need to be to advance the story. While this keeps the pacing of the campaign high, 343 leaves little room for savoring the complex narrative. Furthermore, the game’s story requires an absurd amount of back story to fully comprehend the plot. Much of the story is preceded by several Halo novels, so I found myself with a Halo wiki open to fill in the gaps.
As for actually shooting things in the campaign, Halo 4 offers a diverse cast of enemies to terrorize. The Storm Covenant—a fanatical offshoot of the Covenant from previous games—are in abundance. They play comfortably the same almost to a fault.
The new and rather mysterious Promethean enemies, however, will take some getting used to for any Halo veteran. Knights are perhaps the beefiest Halo enemies to date, Crawlers climb over surfaces and lunge at you and Watchers annoy by healing and shielding their allies.
The tactics to fight these bad boys are much different than the Covenant, and switching between the two enemies adds wonders to variety—especially because neither are as annoying as the absent Flood. To top off the diverse cast is some pretty smart AI; on heroic and legendary difficulties be prepared to die, often.
With the difficulty being as it is, it’s a good thing that 343 has beefed up Master Chief’s arsenal. Old favorites such as the DMR, Needler and Shotgun return with much more forceful sound design. New weapons—especially the Promethean weapons—fit in extremely well with the human and Covenant arsenals, and other new arrivals like the Sticky Detonator mix things up even more. Really, just about every gun in Halo 4 is a treat to handle.
I’ve always felt that the vehicle sections in the Halo games took a tedious backseat to the on-foot shooting gameplay, and unfortunately the same is true of Halo 4. Some part of me hoped 343 would inject some life into driving a Scorpion and flying a Banshee, but there is still a sense of something missing from these sections; they take away some of the complexity of the on-foot combat in favor of shooting some bigger guns.
343 Industries does attempt to spice things up with the new Mantis Mech. Although the Mantis can be a blast online, its campaign sections serve as simple targeting practice as it decimates just about everything—even on heroic and legendary difficulties. Despite the novelty of new vehicles, I still found myself waiting to return to the refined and near perfect on-foot combat the series is known for and that 343 has somehow made better.
As far as multiplayer is concerned, Halo 4’s matchmaking shows that 343 has made an attempt to bring the franchise within the realm of modern first-person shooter conventions. Mechanics adopted from Call of Duty are in abundance, such as player determined loadouts and earning experience to unlock different weapons and abilities. These changes had me worried; however, I can safely say as a longtime competitive Halo fan that this is for the betterment of the franchise. It does very little to effect the core Halo gameplay.
No longer are you scouring the map for weapon drops and fighting over a rocket launcher respawn in the basic Slayer modes. Players earn orbital drops after a certain number of kills in the redefined Infinity Slayer, and these drops bring with them multiple upgrades, weapons and a satisfying thunk when your weapon of choice falls from the sky. There were a couple instances where the enemy team managed to get a hold of three sniper rifles by sheer luck and to great annoyance, but overall the system adds a layer of complexity and surprise while taking nothing away from the tried and true Halo multiplayer mechanics of shoot, throw grenade and melee.
It is safe to say that 343 Industries has created the best competitive Halo experience yet. Halo fans looking for a classic online experience will see modes like SWAT and Slayer Pro virtually unchanged. Those three or four people who actually enjoy King of the Hill and Oddball will have a good time with 343’s little tweaks to those modes’ formulas. For example, in Oddball players can now throw the skull between teammates. Dominion, a brand new mode, takes a page out of Battlefield’s book of capturing bases.
Overall, I don’t think any competitive Halo player has the right to complain about 343’s offerings with Halo 4. It’s just that good.
Though the game already has a number of bells and whistles, a new replacement for the Firefight mode in Halo: Reach and ODST called Spartan Ops adds an additional layer of cooperative play. Unfortunately, Spartan-Ops is a poor replacement. Despite weekly updates to the missions, the bite-sized chunks of gameplay feel loosely put together and not all that enjoyable.
I can’t see these weekly updates becoming something Halo fans will eagerly await. However, the core experience of the campaign and multiplayer more than make up for the mediocrity of Spartan-Ops.
Perhaps the only significant step back from the Bungie developed Halo games is the music. If one were to judge Halo 4’s music secluded from the previous five Martin O’Donnell composed Halo games, it would serve as a complimentary, if rather plain, soundtrack to Master Chief’s space opera. When O’Donnell’s previous scores are taken into consideration, Halo 4’s soundtrack disappoints. With an otherwise amazing sound design, it’s surprising that very little of Neil Davige’s score comes close to the characterizing and atmospheric music of Halo’s past.
343 Industries has done what I and many other Bungie fans thought was impossible. Not only have they lived up to the Halo name, they have surpassed and improved upon just about every aspect of the series. The campaign is more thought provoking and complex than it ever has been, and the online components have evolved to meet modern first-person shooting conventions.
With two more games planned in the Reclaimer trilogy, I can’t wait to see how 343 improves upon the franchise next.