Video Game Review: Halo 4
I was at PAX last year when Microsoft first announced the new Halo trilogy. I was upset then, but I had long since had misgivings about the idea of 343 Industries having their way with my favorite franchise. The Chief and I go way back, and Cortana is like a sister to me. I hadn’t just played each game for hours on end, but I had read many of the novels as well. When Bungie said they were done with Halo, what I heard was that Halo was done, and I was fine with the franchise ending before it was run into the ground. Now that the start of the Reclaimer Trilogy has begun and I have played the first installment, I have breathed a big sigh of relief. Not only is this a great Halo game, but 343 has made improvements to the formula that make this one of the best yet.
In case you forgot where we left off at the end of Halo 3, I’ll remind you that John and Cortana were left on the back half of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn, floating in space and unable to pilot the broken ship. The front half made it back to Earth with The Arbiter, and peace was established between Humans and the Covenant.
The opening of Halo 4 is a bit confusing, then, as Cortana wakes the Chief from cryostasis, four years later, to defend the wreckage of their ship from invading Covenant troops. In the following couple of hours, The Chief and his AI crash land on a new planet, begin fighting Prometheans, and Cortana reveals that she is now inflicted with ”rampancy”, a kind of insanity experienced by artificial intelligence as they age and expire. I won’t say any more than that about the plot, as I would soon either ruin things for you or bore and confuse you. I will say, in general, I like where they are taking the story with this new trilogy, but some of the stops along the way made my eyes roll a bit.
Narrative aside, the campaign is quite refreshing. You get a lot of the same beats from previous games (the tank level, the sniper level, the escape-on-a-vehicle-as-the-world-falls-apart level, etc.), but removing the Flood and adding in a new race of enemies does a lot to change up the combat puzzle the series is known for.
There are big guys called Knights that can teleport around the battlefield, and who take even more shots than Elites to kill. They also throw swarms of dog-like enemies at you that are easy to take down, but are swift and can flank you, doing lots of melee damage very quickly, as well as a small flying enemy that heals allies and can return your thrown grenades back in your direction.
The weapons that come with the Prometheans mostly fit into the same categories veterans are used to, like their version of the assault rifle and their alternative to the sniper, but some add a little flavor. The bolt shot, the Promethean pistol, can be fired just like either of the existing handguns, or, when the right trigger is held down, it can function as a shotgun, using up half the clip at once. There’s also the incineration cannon, which is probably the most dangerous weapon of the entire franchise, and pulse grenades that hang in midair, doing light damage over time to enemies within their effective radius. Most of the armor abilities from Reach return, and there are several added in as well. There’s an auto-sentry, which doesn’t do all that much damage, but is great for setting up flanking positions or just distracting enemies while you hoof it in the other direction. There’s also Promethean vision, which lets you see enemies through walls and cover; there aren’t many useful situations for it in the campaign, but it effectively disables campers in multiplayer.
Speaking of multiplayer, this is where I feel the most difference has been made by handing Bungie’s baby over to a new studio. As with the campaign missions, it feels just like the Halo you’ve come to know and love, but with small tweaks that make it feel really fresh. It’s no surprise to see that, as you play more and more of what they are now calling “War Games”, you level up as before, but there is a lot more to customize and unlock as you earn XP to increase your Spartan Rank.
Everyone starts out with the recruit level armor set and the same default loadout options to begin with at each respawn. After a few short matches, even if you lose, you will have enough Spartan Points to unlock some other starting weapon and armor ability options. Eventually, you even open up tactical packages, just like perks, that add another level of passive abilities to your soldier. Beyond those upgrades, if you play enough, you will also get the choice of specializations that let you customize your Spartan with even more armor sets and perk-like abilities.
Taking on the Call of Duty style of progression is a big change for Halo. Bungie was very much against modernizing their shooter in this way, wanting to keep players on an even keel, but I think this system maintains that. The weapons available to unlock as part of your loadout are well-balanced and all have their uses, so it really comes down to player preference. There are still more powerful weapons scattered around each map, so the advantage of reaching their spawn points first is maintained, but these spots now show on every player’s HUD, so that everyone knows when a weapon is available and when it has been taken.
In some modes, Ordnance Packages can be called in by any player once they have reached a certain number of kills, delivering a heavier weapon or upgrade that the player chooses between three random options given. These changes make the game a lot less about controlling the map, its weapons, and spawn points, and more about each player being ready for whatever they might encounter. In short, the game is now more skill-based than it ever has been.
Some other meta-changes have been made to multiplayer to tweak the matchmaking experience as well. The playlist choices are very different under 343 Industries’ reign, and now allow players to get a lot more specific with how they actually want to compete. Whereas before you could pick to be matched against opponents for “Team Objective” gametypes, for instance (which could end up being Capture the Flag, Assault, King of the Hill, or one of several other options), you can now specifically choose to play CTF or Oddball or whatever specific game you want.
This ends up leaving out a few fan-favorites, but it also means a lot less people complain about what they got dropped into or quit out of games entirely. And, if players do quit, it’s now possible for others to be dropped into those empty slots after the match has already started. I love not being stuck playing two-on-four anymore, though the rare occurrence of being placed in a match that is already almost finished is frustrating.
The only other difference worth mentioning is that scoring in a game is now based on points, even in slayer matches, so quality of kills and teamwork matters just as much as how many enemy Spartans you take down. I didn’t like this at first, but after spending some time with the new system, I see its value. The daily, weekly, and monthly challenges from Halo: Reach return as well, giving players more incentive to come back and see what extra goals, like achievements, they can complete to gain extra experience points. In addition to the campaign and War Games challenges, some are only for the brand new Spartan Ops missions.
While some players asked for more Firefight, Halo’s horde mode equivalent, in this installment, 343 is answering the call for co-op multiplayer very differently. They have, instead, included a mode called Spartan Ops, in which players can complete short missions alone or with up to three friends, just like in the campaign. Each episode of Spartan Ops, to be released weekly, contains five missions and a cutscene, and there are ten episodes each season. As long as you are an Xbox Live Gold subscriber, all fifty missions will be free. Hopefully, Microsoft will continue to be so open-handed with future seasons.
It’s an interesting experiment in post-release support for a console game, sure, but is it actually any good? Yes and no. The missions are very short and quite bland, but the story that comes with them in custscene form, one that tells the story of Spartans and others aboard the UNSC Infinity instead of Master Chief, is pretty interesting so far. It’s obvious that a lot of work has gone into crafting these clips and I’m excited to see where this character-driven plot goes.
One thing that is missing from this otherwise very Halo-ish Halo game is the quest to find all the hidden skulls. The game-altering artifacts return in this installment, but only as campaign modifiers available from the very beginning. There are still secret computer terminals to find that unlock more tidbits of fiction to flesh out the universe for those curious enough to go looking, but I can’t help but miss trying to get to areas within levels that don’t look accessible to find those tiny hidden heads. The point of the skulls is kind of lost, anyway. Since campaign scoring has been removed, there’s not any reason to turn the mission mods on outside of the periodic challenges.
Surprisingly, 343 Industries has crafted a wonderful new Halo experience that has left me with very little to complain about. We’ll have to wait and see whether they can hold onto the magic through a couple more sequels, but I’m as confident in their talent as I once was in Bungie’s. I wouldn’t recommend this game to anyone new to the franchise, as the story will be flying over your head faster than a UNSC frigate using a Shaw-Fujikawa light drive to travel through slipspace. Also, you will get creamed if you try and drop into multiplayer now without building a bit of experience with the series’ most popular weapons. You will get creamed, anyway, but you’ll get back on your feet quicker if you have base knowledge of how things work.
If you are only in it for the story, and you really have no time to play through any of the previous games, at least check out this timeline via Gamefront, or this slightly satirical, less confusing video brought you by IGN, first. The six minute summary in that second link is a good refresher even for anyone who has played through the entire series but needs a quick reminder of the status of the universe. Once you’re done with your history lesson, well… welcome to Halo 4, Spartan.
Follow Levi’s tweets as he plays dress up with his Spartan’s armor @biggunsfowler