Halo 4 marks a new beginning for the Halo series. Bungie, the studio responsible for the first 3 games of the Master Chief saga, has passed the torch to a few defectors under Microsoft called 343 Industries. I can still remember saying to myself: “Well, It was good while it lasted.” I was thinking I’d have to move on, 343 was just what Trey Arch is to Infinity Ward (Pre-layoffs), Right? I honestly dropped everything Halo after Bungie split. I was into the Novels, Comic Books, and Figures and had an immaculate knowledge of the Halo universe. Two days ago I found myself looking on Amazon for the hardcovers of all the comics I missed. Why?
Halo fucking 4, that’s why.
Halo 4 grabbed me from the very beginning with a gorgeous and forbidding CG sequence featuring none other than Dr. Elizabeth Halsey, the spartan mom herself, in nearly photo-realistic glory. As usual, the first time you’re on the sticks, you’re in control of the Chief exiting a cryo-tube and there’s a few things you’ll notice. First, you can see the interior of the Chief’s helmet, not only that it reacts to the lighting in the environment. It really provides a sense of immersion without getting in the way. In addition you can see the Chief’s legs, you’re not just a disembodied set of arms. The second is the musty interior of the bisected ship. The game that immediately came to mind was Dead Space. I was even hesitant to leave the cryo-bay for fear of a necromorph or worse, the Flood.
Throughout the game they really strive to put you in the suit of the Chief. Opting, sometimes instead of giving you a removed third person video of him, to toss you around in the HUD. Initially by forcing you to climb up a deteriorating elevator. Even when you activate a button your head shifts down naturally and you see you hand physically pushing it. This attaches you to the Chief even more than ever before. It’s one of the more subtle features, but you start to feel more compassion for him. After the first level you are tossed mercilessly toward an alien planet. I found myself glued to the screen as I tumbled and barely missed collisions with pieces of decimated ships during my decent.
The scenery is the best I’ve seen in a Halo or in most games for that matter from breathtaking sky boxes to jungles to alien valleys. There will be more than a few times you will just stop and look around in awe. In fact, every person I’ve watched play through the second mission in the campaign has stopped at the same spot and just looked around. That’s a testament to the level of detail and the environment design. It is so meticulous it seemed like someone placed every leaf and blade of grass to look like a fully actualized natural space. There was a few times I wanted Cortana just to shut up and let me screw around looking at clouds and bushes and stuff, geez! And that attention to detail extends to everything. Take the warthog, it’s almost unrecognizable, there’s fuel tanks on the back and railings on the fenders. There’s even tow anchors on the back. Halo, as always gives you a sense that all this could exist one day, or already does depending on who made it.
The animations have really been ramped up. The Chief no longer floats like he used to–he walks and sprints and lands. Hell, he even plants his feet to distributes the shock after a long fall. The Covenant are very animal-like as in previous games. The Prometheans, the new enemies, are more calculated and unnatural with very deliberate and sharp movements, and it really sells their origin. Assassinating either of them is still as satisfying as it was in Halo: Reach as the Chief yanks off arms and stabs throats.
During the in game cinematics, I forgot I was playing a game, the way the characters blink and react and details such as pock marks or scuff and dents. The voice acting is as good as ever, with stellar performances from Steve Downes (Master Chief) and Jen Taylor (Cortana/ Dr. Halsey) and the other actors really engaging you. Although, there is a little issue with the lips, some characters will have flappy mouths that don’t quite sync up and you really can’t look away once you notice it. The Covenant no longer speak English which consequently made me more ruthless, even towards the pathetic grunts.
The Prometheans digital nature is shown by Matrix-like sound effects and teaches you to fear the sound of their arrival. The Warthog now sounds angry roaring to life and you’ll know when your Ghost is on it’s last leg by the alarms flashing and beeping. The score, while it hits the target on all of the important parts can sound like goofy home made techno in some of the battle sequences, but fortunately it never gets in the way of the story.
Now, controlling the Chief is tighter like some kind of heavenly mix of COD and Halo or Ranch and Nacho Cheese. Never mind that sounds gross. The food part. Anyway, they really took the wind out of the sails for anyone who hated Halo because of the way it controls. I’ve never found them getting in the way even in the intensity of multiplayer and they even give you a “Clench Protection” for those fat fingered players. Never again will I have to sacrifice melee accuracy and timing for that of a grenade or have my armor ability go unused.
All this adds up to convey a plot that is very engaging and better written than anything that came out of Bungie, if I’m being honest. From the real disdain for UNSC officers to the endearing relationship of the Chief and Cortana the whole game is emotionally charged. Which is something typically only reserved for RPG. My friends and I are still feeling the ripples from the ending. The cinematic experience of Halo can only be compared to a movie, not just with action as you’d expect but also with narrative and the sympathy you feel for the characters. That is a monumental experience considering we’re talking about a space marine and a blue digital lady who’s naked. Halo 4 really transcends it’s genre. And that’s only the campaign.
The multiplayer modes (my real area of expertise) are ridiculously good. Let’s start by talking about Spartan Ops, a co-op mode with a weekly episodic narrative surrounding the Halo 4 campaign aboard (the largest ship ever built) the UNSC Infinity. Each episode contains five chapters which taking place on a set aside section of the campaign levels with objectives that have voice work and cinematics to go along with them. These come out every week for ten weeks in a season. For FREE. When I first heard this I thought it was to good to be true, but for once in your life it isn’t. Every episode starts out with a several minute CG video to boot. You can cancel your Hulu subscription.
They also greatly expanded on the mutliplayer progression system to the point of Call of Duty. At first, I thought, who the fuck do they think they are? This is Halo! But, after playing for a while it fits and I figure why not mesh two great franchises together? You level up and unlock armor and symbols for your Spartan but the real meat is the custom loadouts (Yep!). You can choose a primary and secondary weapon, a grenade, an armor ability, and a tactical package and support upgrade which amount to perks from COD. I figure, why not take some of the market share from COD, all the more try-hards to slaughter, right?
You should note that all multiplayer activity beyond the campaign is in the context of the UNSC Infinity. Normal multiplayer games are now called “War Games”. This implies that they are ll taking place on the ship itself X-Men danger room style. This provides a nice flow and continuity. The only problem now is you question the intention in multiplayer in almost every other game you play.
Despite them borrowing a few pages out of another games book the muliplayer is still a uniquely halo experience with vehicles abound, hijacking and turrets. There’s no mistaking it. Also, a few favorites return completely revamped like infection. You play as a flood combat form now, the only appearance of the creatures (Thank you Jesus!). Being such a small part of the game as a whole, I figured they would put as much time and care into the creature itself. Sure, the armor abilities you get are identical to that of the “surviviors” but you have a huge flood arm sword thing as a weapon and a spooky camera filter! As far as new gametypes, here’s one Dominion. The objective is to capture one of three bases you start by engaging a console and starting a timer. Once the timer runs out your team is in control of that point. Sounds straight forward? This is where it gets interesting. Another countdown starts to “resupply”. After that expires the point is now fortified with shield doors and turrets. In addition it gives you access to vehicles and power weapons.
Whew! That was a long one with good reason. Halo 4 is the must buy for the holiday season. I have not played a game that came even close to the value and entertainment this year. There’s really something for everyone and even if your a fan of another franchise, it’s worth a try. 343 really carried the torch into a new era in Halo and my bet is a very successful one. See you online!