Since it's explosive introduction back in 2001 that helped revolutionize console shooters for years to come, Halo has become recognized as one of the most innovative and adored franchises to hit the genre. What was once thought insane, Bungie was able to craft a first-person shooter on a console and not only have it succeed, but do so in ways that no one could ever imagine. In a market once dominated completely by PC's, consoles became relevant and many give credit to Bungie and Halo for accomplishing such a feat. Now with Bungie stepping down and 343 Industries taking the reins, how have they faired? Does Halo 4 reclaim it's title as king of the shooters or does it fall miserably short?
As many already know, Bungie has stepped down from their beloved franchise and has left it confidently in the hands of 343 Industries. Many were skeptical at this decision, especially due to the fact that it was Bungie's treasured possession. How could anyone re-invent their work? Thankfully, a lot of the good folks at 343 are ex-Bungie employee's who have Halo's future in their best interest. Is that enough though?
Halo 4 picks up some four years after the events of Halo 3 which left John and Cortana stranded in space aboard a mutilated ship, drifting through space with everyone presuming death. Let me just quickly get this out of the way. Disregarding the extended Halo universe, Master Chief had very little personality and nearly nothing to say and little reason for anyone to care for him throughout the games. Thankfully and surprisingly, 343 corrects that and gives players a reason to see Chief as a person, not just some unstoppable killing machine and for once, you actually feel his humanity and given reason to. Make no mistake, this story is not his, it's all about Cortana. While John has slept for the past four years, Cortana was left on her lonesome, with nothing to do but think and in turn, her age is slowly becoming the death of her. To anyone ignorant of the Halo universe, A.I.'s have a life expectancy of seven years. By that age, they begin to become rampant and quite literally think themselves to death as they can no longer process the information held within them. It soon becomes a struggle for Cortana as she helplessly loses her mind while trying to help Master Chief stop the incoming threats. It's a sad tale which walks the line of questioning who really is the machine and who is real.
The Chief is awoken to once fight again and as the Forward Unto Dawn is attacked by pocket resistances of the Covenant, the entire ship is being sucked into a Forerunner planet known as Requiem. The game's story takes precedence here as John and Cortana take it upon themselves to stop an ancient Forerunner threat known as the Didact, who is bent on destroying all of humanity. It is here that I would issue one of my only gripes pertaining to the campaign. Little information is given regarding this threat nor is much backstory explained without the inclusion of the novels. But the true story revolves around the two star characters and how their relationship grows. I can't give enough credit to 343 for brilliantly creating such an emotional and gripping story for a series that was once very poorly recognized for it's lore. The length of the campaign is but another minor gripe I might add. It only took me roughly 6-10 hours to beat the main campaign, albeit I never took it upon me to search for additional Terminals that provide substantial back-story into the game. What helps keep the game almost perfectly fleshed out is the excellent balance between on-foot and vehicle missions. The game expands into more of a sandbox in this situation and gives you the choice to either tackle it on foot or even jump into a Scorpion tank and annihilate anything in your path. Another wonderful addition to the vehicle side of things is the Mantis. An enormous, two story mech that's equipped with rockets and a mini-gun capable of eliminating anything short of a Phantom.
Newly introduced alongside the Covenant are the Promethean's. While having the Covenant back is like reuniting with an old friend, these new enemies require a completely new strategy and you are forced to work outside your comfort zone on many occasions. Promethean Knights are exceptionally smart, carefully avoiding your shots while playing aggressively one you decide to retreat. And to make matters worse, the Crawlers are just as relentless as they can reach multiple vantage points in order to attack you. With new enemies, comes a new arsenal and for the most part, it's pretty fantastic. The weapons range from short to long range and the majority even boast different firing options based on whether you scope the weapon or not. While some might never replace fan favourites such as the Battle Rifle, Energy Sword or Magnum, they are a welcomed treat and only help to diversify combat situations.
Now, Halo has never been recognized as one of the most graphically superior games of it's age. While it's never been a bad looking game, it was never exceptional either. That all changes with this most recent installment. With a new engine to work off of, 343 revamps the look of the game entirely and it can be said without a doubt that Halo 4 is one of the single most gorgeous looking games of it's time. From the expertly crafted cut-scenes, simply beautiful backdrops and some of the best facial animation I've seen this side of L.A. Noire. Halo 4 is a graphical force to be reckoned with and it is wonderfully coupled with amazing motion capture scenes that truly leaves the player enamoured.
On top of that, the sound design has been completely re-done. No longer are the returning weapons recognizable by mere sound anymore. This might come as a turn off to some, but truthfully, it shouldn't. The iconic returning weapons now sound more powerful than ever, packing a responsive punch with each pull of the trigger. Each piece of Master Chief's armour can be heard as he moves even in the slightest direction and it's incredible. But that's not the only change to come to the series. Sadly, Marty O'Donnell's extremely iconic theme is no longer heard as 343 opted for a new composer for Halo 4. Neil Davidge is O'Donnell's replacement and while his music will never strike a specific tone that the former's did, it is nothing if not atmospheric and appropriate. The voice work also takes a massive leap here and for the better. Both Master Chief and Cortana's voice actors are given more fleshed out lines and are given more room to breathe. As the story progresses, you can feel Cortana slipping and the fantastic voice work from Jen Taylor is commendable.
Replacing ODST's and Reach's popular firefight mode is Spartan Ops. Instead of keeping the popular wave based mode that has become popular over the past several years, 343 decides instead to create a weekly episodic feature that puts you in the shoes of a team of a Spartan-IV' and you are given the option to team up with up three other friends or by your lonesome if preferred. Each episode is split into five separate chapters, each with their own given objectives and while it's a fun addition, you aren't given much reason to jump back and replay each chapter. Theater and Forge also make a return and with very little changes.
And finally, we move on to the creme of the crop of Halo; multiplayer. Up until this point, one of the only reasons Halo has remained so relevant in the shooter genre is because of it's constantly innovative multiplayer. First revolutionized in Halo 2 and the introduction of Xbox Live in 2004, and only continued to improve with each installment, fans worried most that multiplayer would take the biggest hit. That is not the case as 343's endearing respect for the series is most evident here. The gameplay takes little visible change and is as fluid and responsive as ever. Unease spread through fans when new additions were announced though. Supply drops, which are similar to kill-streaks in Call of Duty, play a part in Halo 4's multiplayer, albeit not in every mode. Thankfully, what could have been unbalanced and over-powered, fits perfectly into the universe and does little to turn the tide massively in favour for one team as it might in other games. When a player garners enough kills, they are allowed a random choice between three items to choose from. It might be a weapon that will not spawn on the map, a speed boost or even a damage boost. But make no mistake, once selected, the item drops down on the map where the player selects it to and it all becomes fair game from there on out.
The ranking system first introduced in Halo Reach makes a comeback here where levelling is revolved around experience points. Competing objectives or racking up medals grants you a larger amount of experience points at the end of the match. Once you reach a new level, you are awarded a "Spartan Point" which can be used to purchase select pieces of armour or even alter your load-out weapons or armour abilities. Most of the familiar game types make a return with slight adjustments in roster size or name. The game ships out with 10 multiplayer maps, all with their own different feel and suited to different styles of play regarding the modes you play or the amount of players in the match. As with Halo Reach, it's apparent that with Forge mode, Community maps might become a part of the multiplayer again as there is countless variations to be made and selected from. If 343 is even only half as dedicated as Bungie was when it came to their community, expect to stick around for the long run.
With a brand new developer comes a cause for concern, especially when it comes to one that has never released anything prior. Such is not the case with 343 as their utmost dedication for Halo is clearly evident even without playing the game. Adding in not only one of the most gripping stories in the Halo universe but also re-creating a formula which was once though impossible, 343 sought out to continue Bungie's efforts in the best fashion they could and to put it simply, they created what could be the best Halo game to date.