It’s been eleven years since the gaming community was introduced to the idea of “Combat Evolved,” yet the Halo franchise stands monolithic amongst heavy hitters like Call of Duty and innovative series like Resistance and Killzone. Now that the Master Chief’s creators have moved on, Microsoft Studios and 343 Industries have added another story to the house that Bungie built. Expectations are high, Activision’s Black Ops II is right round the corner, and gamers are waiting to see if a Spartan can still carry a flag over the heads of a larger and more contentious first person shooter market.
It’s impossible to talk about Halo 4 without talking about the games that came before. Fans and detractors alike will find evidence in past titles to either vilify or exalt new entries. Initially, Halo: Combat Evolved was notable for a great story, intelligent AI enemies, regenerating shields, a two weapon load-out, and a competent control scheme that worked on consoles. Pretty much all of these have been replicated (or, at least, imitated) amongst all triple A shooters released in the past several years. The first Half-Life was a turning point for shooters in general, but the first Halo defined what made a great console shooter for two generations. Such a heritage would intimidate even the most seasoned developer, but 343 Industries, after cutting their teeth on Halo Waypoint and the HD re-release of the first Halo, felt fully equipped to create their own adventure for Master Chief. Naysayers and those prone to worry should be relieved, Halo 4 plays, feels, and looks like a Halo game. The legacy is intact. Graphics have improved and new weapons abound, but this is Halo, just better than you remember it. Without ruining Halo 4’s story, I’d like to say it more than lives up to the heritage of games past, and pushes this series into more interesting areas. Expanded multiplayer options, a campaign that feels simultaneously familiar and fresh, along with myriad cooperative campaign episodes fill out a Halo package that is second to none. If past Halo entries have not enticed you, this will not be the one to change your mind. It merely improves upon the great foundation Bungie constructed, but that is not to say it lacks originality or spirit. Thoughtful additions like an ever-present sprint and expanded armor abilities show that 343 industries is more than capable of crafting a Halo game that both respects and improves upon its heritage. Halo 4 picks up a few years after the end of Halo 3 with Cortana suffering from digital rampancy and Master Chief trying to save her. New enemies (the Prometheans) join forces with the Covenant to make combat a perfect blend between the expected and the unique. The pacing is excellent with explosive shootouts, vehicle-heavy segments, and some great moments I won’t spoil here. Levels are different enough to ensure you’ll never get bored, changing things up before they have a chance to get stale. Environments evoke memories of past Halo greatness, while still adding new bits to the mythology. Naysayers be damned, this is a Halo game, and a great one at that.
Familiar weapon sounds, alien screams, and memorable music make up Halo 4’s audio package. Guns sound punchy and deadly. Different enemy vocalizations are distinct and easily identifiable. This series has always had great sound design and that’s no different here. Voice acting is good throughout, and a couple characters in particular speak with genuine emotion. Even in Halo 4’s most hectic moments everything just works. More spectacular moments show off excellent sound design and evoke the same feelings as listening to a blockbuster movie. Not much has changed, sound-wise, since Halo 3 and Halo Reach, but that’s a good thing. This sounds like a Halo game, and Halo games sound great.
With each Halo game this generation the graphics have improved incrementally, but Halo 4 marks a substantial jump in visual fidelity. Lighting, especially, has been vastly improved this time around. Touches like seeing your character’s shadow bobbing on the surface of a gun or soft light glowing through fog make certain this game never looks bland. Certain enemies will disintegrate into glowing ash and weapon effects all look polished. Character and vehicle models have been updated to look more substantial and functional. Master Chief even sports his number 117 in braille on his armor. Weapons have received some extra polish and now sport more elaborate looking scopes and different-colored ammo readouts. Environments are varied and range from sun-bleached deserts to dark space stations. Certain vistas can be breathtaking and show off a level of artistry and cohesion that left me very impressed. I was expecting this to look like “just another Halo game,” but new locations and all around improvements allow Halo 4 its own visual identity while still fitting snugly into the Halo universe.
Shooting while switching between weapons and managing your shield feels just as good as ever in Halo 4. 343 Industries has done a great job maintaining a classic Halo feel while adding some idiosyncrasies of their own. Dual wielding may be out, but Master Chief can now sprint at any time without having it assigned as a specific armor ability. Being able to run, full-tilt, at any moment makes not only general traversal, but combat as a whole faster and more exciting. Armor abilities return and allow for extra strategy through the use of jet-packs, shields, and invisibility. These all operate for short periods of time and have a cool-down before you can use them again, so none really feel overpowered. That sense of balance carries over to all of Halo 4’s gameplay elements. Even with new weapons like the Light Rifle and Boltshot, everything still feels fair. Firing guns feels better than ever and the newly tuned reticle makes weapons like the DMR feel more useful and deadly than their past iterations. Vehicles remain an important part of gameplay and feel largely the same. Even the new Mantis mech fits into the Halo play-space seamlessly with its own strengths and weaknesses. Combatting enemies will require new tactics if you hope to counter skills like teleportation and healing units. Fighting these strange adversaries spices up combat and great A.I. (at least on harder difficulty settings) keeps firefights satisfyingly engaging. In a truly inspired move, 343 has added the ability to deploy an ordnance in multiplayer after accruing a certain number of points. These can contain overshields, more powerful weapons, or speed boosts. Being able to earn better weapons or abilities during a match allows you more combat options and these perks don’t feel as overpowered as Call of Duty’s air strikes or helicopters. Controls are exceptionally responsive, and I never felt like any death was cheap. This is a tight and polished game that more than lives up to its Spartan ancestry while adding enough original elements to keep things feeling appropriately modern.
Beating Halo 4’s single player campaign takes around six hours on normal difficulty. That is pretty short, but Heroic and Legendary difficulty settings will add to that length, and the option to play cooperatively with friends gives even more incentive to run back through this story. Then there is the Spartan Ops mode that is, ostensibly, a secondary campaign with new content added weekly. Add to these campaigns a multiplayer component that is as robust as ever with Theater, the return of Forge, and several competitive playlists. Character progression has been improved with XP that can be spent on more than just cosmetic upgrades. There are armor abilities and specialized weapon load-outs to earn, as well as tactical and support packages that allow you to further personalize your online avatar. There are more incentives here to keep playing than most other shooters, period. Increasing your level online is nothing new, but its implementation into Halo’s already stellar online framework is more than welcome. As I said before, if you just don’t like Halo games this one probably won’t change your mind. But for fans and newcomers alike, this is an excellent addition to the franchise and manages to break new ground for the series while honoring the great work Bungie already put in.
Design – 10
Audio – 9.5
Graphics – 9.5
Gameplay – 9.5
Replay Value – 10
Overall – 9.7