When Microsoft announced that Bungie was leaving to become an independent studio, Halo fans around the world instantly became worried. The unproven 343 Industries, a company constructed for the sole purpose of making Halo, was now left with the mammoth burden of continuing the legacy of one of the biggest franchises in video games today. It’s been several years in the making and now 343 has delivered not just a new episode in the Halo franchise but a new beginning and potential rebirth for the series.
The fact that this game is titled Halo 4 should tell you up front what to expect from this game. Halo 3: ODST and Halo Reach were side stories, mere distractions from the true narrative in the Halo world. Halo 4 sees the return of the iconic Master Chief and his artificial intelligence companion Cortana. Thanks to the very final ending of Halo 3, those are about the only friendly faces you’ll get in Halo 4. With a new trilogy underway, several new characters are introduced but this is clearly the Master Chief and Cortana show. None of the new characters have the same impact as old standbys such as the Arbiter or even Sergeant Johnson. The closest is Officer Laskey, who you may remember from the web series, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, which led up to Halo 4’s release. Laskey is an interesting character but he isn’t around for much of the story.
Halo 4 begins where the post-credit scene from Halo 3 left off. Master Chief and Cortana have been stranded on UNSC ship Forward Unto Dawn for four years when suddenly a Covenant force storms the ship. Master Chief is woken from his cryostasis to deal with this threat. Upon further investigation they discover that the Dawn has drifted towards a Forerunner planet, Requiem. It is on Requiem that Master Chief will come face to face with new enemies, the Prometheans, and uncover an ancient evil that threatens the entire human race.
The campaign for Halo 4 is more or less the same style of gameplay we’ve come to expect from the series. Through the game’s eight levels you will go through a variety of scenarios ranging from close quarters combat, wide open battlefields, vehicle missions and even some surprises. The classic “sandbox” style of combat is still the focus and it provides a level of challenge and strategy just not present in other shooters. Enemies are smart and most battles require serious tactics to succeed, making for a thrilling campaign.
The introduction of a new species of enemies to fight for the first time in years also helps to breathe a bit more life into the series. The most basic enemy, the Crawler, are robotic dogs who climb all over the environment and fire at you from all angles. The hardest new enemy is the Promethean Knight. These guys have weapons ranging from rifles, shotguns and even the devastating Incineration Cannon. They also teleport around the battlefield, including right behind you sometimes, which will definitely keep you on your toes. The final new foe is the Watcher, a flying enemy which acts in a support role. It catches your grenades and throws them back, puts up shields for allies and can even resurrect Promethean Knights.
As far as campaigns go, Halo 4 boasts one of the best in the franchise so far, which says a lot. Every level is unique and there are several new ideas taking place. It doesn’t quite have the variety of Reach nor the epic feeling of Halo 3 but the actual story is told much better. Most surprisingly, 343’s first entry in the series takes a much more cinematic approach to telling the story. There are more cutscenes than ever before and the graphics in these scenes are jaw-dropping. This helps the story along to be quite impactful, there are some seriously emotional sections. Thankfully even though it’s the first entry in a trilogy, it doesn’t suffer a cliffhanger ending. The story is wrapped up quite nicely with a short epilogue after the credits to leave you clamoring for Halo 5.
Besides taking on the campaign solo, you can also play it through in up to four play co-op. It’s action much like you would expect although some design choices might leave you scratching your head, like a section where you use the Mantis – an awesome new Mech vehicle – but only three are provided. Co-op in the campaign also runs into serious problems with player warping. This has traditionally been used to bring up players who have fallen behind but in Halo 4 it is out of control. Warping happens constantly in certain problem areas of the game with the entire group getting disoriented and warped around, often several times in the span of seconds. It’s certainly a fixable problem but an odd issue to run into.
Naturally the campaign is just one aspect of Halo 4. Multiplayer and cooperative is just as, if not more, important for some players. Halo 4 receives a new mode in Spartan Ops, a replacement for the mildly popular Firefight mode. Spartan Ops provides short, cooperative missions to undertake with an actual, separate storyline to experience. Missions take place in areas from the campaign and new chapters will be releasing every week, accompanied by a short animated episode that moves the story along. The first week of chapters is disappointing. The story aspect is pretty minimal, the action was fairly straightforward and my co-op session was plagued with lag. Still 343 has ten weeks of content planned out so more variety and better plot could be on the way.
Last but certainly not least is the multiplayer, rebranded as War Games. This is the section of Halo that has seen the grandest change. 343 Industries has certainly taken a page from the Call of Duty play book by introducing several new options for how multiplayer works. Standard modes give you the option to set your Loadout. This includes what weapons you start with, what armor ability you have and also two new modifiers that are best described as perks. These consist of boosts such as unlimited Sprint (which is no longer an ability), being able to carry more grenades, faster recharging of armor abilities and more. Unlocking new items for your Loadout is handled with Spartan Points. You gain a new Spartan Point every time you level up along with new choices becoming available when you hit certain levels.
Just like in Reach, customization also includes cosmetic changes as well. These are tied to your level but there are also certain types of armor that are associated with completing challenges. Play long enough to become a Master at running people over with vehicles and you’ll likely have a fancy new helmet to show off. One odd design choice is that emblems, the custom symbols for your character first introduced in Halo 2, are also locked away behind certain levels and challenges. Most Halo players likely have an emblem that they’ve used for multiple games and it’s odd to see them held back from players. At level 27 I still haven’t unlocked the components to make my usual emblem I’ve had for years.
Even with all of this crazy customization, Halo 4 still plays mostly the same. It’s still about using your base weapons like the Battle Rifle, DMR, etc. and then trying to go on a run when you get your hands on a power weapon. Power weapons, however, are harder to come by on the map. Sure they show up in select areas but they are rare. Instead as you rack up points (through acquiring medals) you gain the ability to call in personal ordinance. The rewards are randomized but you have three options to choose from. Do well enough and you can call in shotguns, extra grenades or even a boost like an Overshield. It’s a simple system but it levels the playing field a bit and also removes the mad dash for power weapons. Whether or not that is a good thing is up to opinion.
So the game plays mostly the same and you will similarly find the usual group of Halo playlists such as Team Slayer, King of the Hill and so on. There are some newcomers to the party though and they are solid entries. Regicide is the game’s take on Rumble Pit. It’s your standard free for all but with an added incentive to take down the player in the lead, aka the King for some nice bonus points. Another new mode is Dominion, which is similar to Territories from past Halo titles. However, Dominion is about more than around just capturing an area and holding it. The longer you have control of an area the more fortifications it receives, such as turrets, shield doors, vehicles and weapon drops. It’s a nice twist added to an already popular map type.
After only one week it’s hard to predict how Halo 4‘s multiplayer will fare but so far it feels like classic Halo action taken towards it’s logical end point in a world where gamers are craving the Call of Duty model. Some might take offense at how much it ends up borrowing from Activision’s franchise: perks, kill streaks, loadouts, etc. but it doesn’t really affect base gameplay all that much and some new ideas, specifically the ordinance drops, are great additions. The most telling factor for Halo 4 going forward will be how much support and attention it receives. Bungee was highly regarded for how much a community they maintained by constantly updating the multiplayer and holding special events often. Only time will tell if 343 is up to the task of continuing that tradition.
343 Industries has a lot to prove about how they can handle the Halo franchise but Halo 4 is an excellent first step. They’ve taken the lore in a new, interesting and more mature direction than past Halo titles. They’ve also evolved the campaign to introduce entirely new elements, making Halo 4 an experience that feels both familiar and unknown. The multiplayer, arguably the lifeblood of the franchise, delivers another solid entry with enough new bits to keep fans entertained month after month. The only true miss is the underwhelming Spartan Ops, which in its early stages does not live up the promise of great cooperative content. Naturally there’s enough time for 343 to fix it up but it’s nonetheless disappointing. However even without a great cooperative mode, there is plenty to do and love about this game. Halo 4 is an exciting, new beginning for Master Chief and 343 Industries and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.