Summary [9.0 out of 10]
The first entry in the series by 343 Studios, Halo 4 is pretty fantastic. We haven’t always been the biggest Halo fans at this site but pretty much everything that bothered me about the past couple of entries in this series have been addressed, tightened and otherwise fixed and I had a great time with this one. Featuring fantastic visuals, a good story, excellent character interaction, great multi-player, a campaign that offers several types of gameplay and a bunch of new weapons and enemies, Halo 4 moves the series forward into new territory without compromising the series. This isn’t a new invention but rather a tightening of what didn’t work so well and bolstering of what did. The end result is a fun game in both single and multiplayer hampered only by some repetition in the campaign. I went in expecting to be as underwhelmed as I have been by the past couple of Halo games and was very pleasantly surprised by just how great this was.
What it’s like:
Halo: The fundamentals of the experience is still quintessentially Halo. Familiar weapons and enemies return and the controls and basic game play are intact. If you are familiar with the series then you will be in good hands.
Mass Effect: Some of the story elements, particularly at the end, felt very much like Mass Effect particularly the similarity between the Harbinger talking to you in ME2 and the Didact in Halo 4. Some of the late story elements in Halo 4 remind me a lot of elements of the Mass Effect story. It isn’t derivative, just similar.
Graphics: I’ve criticized the series in the past for having flat and uninteresting environments and graphics that lack distinction. Halo 4 changes all that. The environments are lush, varied and absolutely gorgeous. Likewise, the character models and weapon effects are stunning and detailed. There are several set pieces throughout the game that show off just how beautiful everything is and it will take your breath away.
Gameplay: The gamplay here is not fundamentally different than it has been in other Halo titles. The player is still essentially popping in and out of cover on the fly and running and gunning while drop ships keep areas populated with cannon fodder but the balancing is so much better in this installment that the gameplay works much, much better. The AI is smart but doesn’t cheat and keeps enemies from being psychic or supernaturally accurate or bulletproof. The enemies are formidable and do intelligent things in response to character actions but it never comes off as cheap or insurmountable. If you are having a hard time with a particular section or confrontation then it is pretty easy to adjust tactics and strategy and figure out the right way through. There is no more just running through hoping for a check point. I never found myself stuck for long periods of time and when I was it was always because I was approaching the situation incorrectly and never because the game was being cheap or suffering from poor design.
Controls: Halo has always had tight and precise controls and Halo 4 is no different. As good as they have always been classically, they feel much tighter here and there is none of the old feelings of floatiness in movement and jumping. Sure, you can still jump high and far but the control over the height and depth feels better. That it is bolstered by the game’s physics helps a lot too but I never felt like precision was a problem in execution and that means a lot. Vehicle controls, particularly Warthog controls, have improved immensely here and I finally felt like it was worthwhile to actually get in something and drive. The lack of frustration in this area was greatly appreciated.
Variety: Halo 4 throws in a good balance of standard running and gunning with vehicle, mech and turret sequences. A lot of times in shooters I find myself annoyed by these sorts of things because it breaks up the action and is often not as polished or well executed as the main gameplay. Here, each of these sequences control perfectly, offer interesting gameplay and are paced well enough that it doesn’t feel like a burden or like it is dragging the experience down. These also feel like they grow organically from the story so it doesn’t feel as if the level designers just said ‘okay where can we stick this new mechanic or sequence’ but rather it feels story driven. Master Chief needs to do this particular thing and he needs this tool to do it. It might seem like a nebulous distinction to make but in terms of immersing you in the story and feeling the experience it goes a long way.
Multi-player: It seems like a no-brainer to say this given that multi-player is Halo’s bread and butter but everything about the multi-player here is fun and engaging from the variety of game types to the maps and weapon load outs. The customization and progression system is also very robust and elegant and kept me playing long after I had decided I needed to stop to go do other things. There is a ‘just one more game’ instinct that engages as you get closer to the next progression step that keeps you playing. I haven’t encountered nearly as many douche bags in my time playing online as I have previously and that was a welcome thing. Granted, I muted most people who had live mics but even in terms of how people play it seemed better. This could just be me but the tone felt different. Also, the balancing and matchmaking did a good job of making sure matches weren’t just meat-grinders.
Master Chief: After Reach, it was really good to get back behind Master Chief’s visor. I’ve complained in the past that for a character who is as good as he is at what he does I have never felt particularly badass while playing. That changed here and I felt like he was more formidable. It isn’t that the game is easy and Master Chief just walks through with no effort but rather he seems more up to the task. Part of it is the balancing in terms of AI and adjustments to armor, weapons and shields but part of it also has to do with how characters react to him throughout the campaign and his attitude. The interactions between Master Chief and Cortana also humanize him without making him feel soft or weak. This added a lot of depth and richness to the experience that allowed him to feel fully realized instead of just a cipher with which the players shoot stuff.
Story: Some of the story elements, particularly late in the game, are well worn sci-fi tropes but that is really okay when they are assembled as well as they are here. As mentioned the interactions between Chief and Cortana form the backbone of the emotional connection to the story and anchors the other elements, which are mostly just the connective tissue of progression objectives. That Chief doesn’t flinch at any of the things expected of him with a constant focus on what needs to be done regardless of the personal cost to him allows him to be compelling as he goes through one set back after another. This is nothing new for the series but, again, the Cortana story goes a long way in humanizing him in contrast to this single-mindedness which in turn makes him a stronger character and the story he is in feels bigger and more important.
Score: Not at all repetitive or overbearing, the score in Halo 4 does exactly what it needs to do. It punctuates the moments it needs to, gives urgency where it is asked for and sets the mood just right. It is not at all intrusive and it isn’t overpowering enough that you notice it all the time but it does its job well and never jolts you out of the game.
Level Design: The level design from both an aesthetic perspective and a game play perspective is very well done. The environments look great and are always interesting and detailed while at the same time providing interesting environments to negotiate. There is also an element of variety here that really works as you don’t feel like you are trudging through the same corridors or flat grass plains over and over again. There’s a lot to hide behind when you need to and a lot you can use for tactical maneuvering. The levels are not overly complex or confusing but rather balance detail and intricacy with fun and interesting fields of play.
New Weapons: I didn’t really expect to love the new weapons so much but I really did. Some are just variations on old standards but many of them bring new strategy and gameplay elements into the mix. The visual variety here is pretty cool as well and while you still have a full compliment of UNSC and Covenant standards, the new gear is cool to look at, fun to fire and often times very effective.
Repetition: Even with the balance tweaks, new weapons and new enemies there are still some snags in terms of the overall game play. There are still drop ships and waves and waves of Covenant to deal with and some of the objectives repeat a bit more than is strictly fun but this has been considerably toned down from previous installments and just isn’t nearly as bad. It still grates on the nerves from time to time, particularly when the other more unique enemies and segments work so well. It doesn’t hamper the game very much but keeps it from being a perfect experience.
Conclusion [9.0 out of 10]
So, again, I haven’t been a Halo fan in awhile and I really didn’t expect this game to change my mind much but it did in a pretty big way. I am very much looking forward to what 343 with this franchise in the future and I think it is great that they were able to come in with a fresh set of eyes and rehabilitate the series. The campaign is fun and satisfying with a worthwhile story and great execution and the multi-player is fun and offers a lot of things to do regardless of what you preferred flavor of mutli-player is. Even if you haven’t liked Halo in the past, this iteration is definitely worth checking out. Heading into the next generation of consoles I think Halo 4 suggests some great things ahead for the franchise.