Halo 4 is a game of questions and answers. Can 343 do the impossible and re-create Bungie’s untouchable magic? How did Master Chief survive? Who are the Forerunners? Does anyone care about Halo any more? Well, one thing’s for certain. Microsoft does. Halo 4 is a work of extraordinary scope and scale, of a budget that most games couldn’t even compute, and of a level of precision and execution few teams could ever manage. Can 343 follow Bungie? Quite simply, yes.
Not that it seems that way at first, though. Halo 4’s opening hour of campaign is a muted affair. While it looks spectacular – surely the finest visual feast on the 360 – the protracted firefights against the Covenant are overly familiar. 343 has captured the Halo essence – often referred to as the 30 seconds of fun but in actual fact a cosmic concoction of physics, AI and unscripted emergent madness – and it has done so with confidence. However, Halo fans will notice little quirks and irks that initially feel like they could pull the whole experience apart.
Comparing Halo 4’s AI to any other shooter is easy. It’s better. Enemies work in teams. Elites are crafty, Jackals precise. They act both predictably and erratically, making it seem like individual troops with their own personalities. Saying this, though, they’re not quite as believable as they have been before. Occasionally Elites will stop and stare at you. They’ll throw too many grenades. Enemy placements sometimes feel scripted rather than organic. These are small issues – probably imperceptible to those not veterans of countless Halo campaigns – but they do exist, and they remind you that the grand masters aren’t at the controls any more.
Thankfully, these small issues soon give way once the Forerunners turn up. These curious, imposing new cybernetic foes bring elements of the Covenant to the party, but also play by their own rules. The Promethean Knights are the leaders, and they’re an absolute nightmare to contend with. Not only are they as tough and clever as Elites, but they can teleport, summon flying sentry droids that catch grenades and fire down protective shields, and rush you in a split second to deliver a crushing melee attack.
Unlike, say, the Brutes, who were an underrated antagonist group, but one that never truly held its own with the Elites, battling the Promethean Knights is a genuinely different prospect, requiring new tactics and processes. On Heroic and above, each one presents a serious battle. And of course, they benefit from having no Bungie equivalent to compare them to. These are 343’s babies, and they’re a nasty bunch.
The giant development team is not satisfied with just shifting up Halo’s combat tempo, though. As the campaign progresses, some of the finest missions in Halo history roar out of the screen. When Covenant and Forerunners compete for screen time, and you have a few humans along for the ride – with vehicles left, right and centre, naturally – there are battles that truly eclipse anything in the series’ history. These are the moments when you have to pause the game to take stock of what you’ve just witnessed and battled through.
Perhaps more than any Bungie Halo, though, the campaign suffers from inconsistency. Some sections feel poorly thought out – either far too hard or unfair. Checkpoints are sometimes hugely spaced, and you could find yourself repeating long, arduous stretches of combat multiple times. Of course, there are the endless tactical options to try out along the way, but there’s not quite the same sense of relentless flow as Halo: Reach, say.
Overall, though, 343 has done marvellously with its Halo campaign. The scripting and cut-scenes are far beyond what the series has managed before, and even in its weirder moments, it’s coherent and engaging. Some of the humour of the previous games might be missing, but when they’re replaced with the kind of fan service we wouldn’t dare spoil, all is instantly forgiven. And there’s still plenty of Halo magic, of fist-pumping Master Chief heroism the likes of which no other shooter series has ever really got close to. When Halo 4 gets it right, and it does often, nothing can touch it.
Brilliantly, the same can be said for multiplayer, which could well go down as the finest in the series’ history. According to the fiction, the games of red versus blue all take place in simulation aboard the USNC Infinity, in some Star Trek-esque holodeck, but in reality it’s the same Halo we know and love. Except it’s not quite the same. The signature mode is, of course, still Team Slayer, which is still four-on-four and played on moderately sized maps with variable terrain and plenty of verticality.
Whereas Halo multiplayer used to focus around control of the power weapons on each map, 343 has dragged the game into the modern era. There’s a proper ranking system to plough through now, with Spartan Points awarded as you rank up, which can be spent on various unlocks for your loadouts.
At a basic level, this means much of the combat is focused around the balanced weapons – assault rifles, DMRs, Promethean Light Rifles and the like – meaning it feels like a blend of COD and classic Halo. It’s not all about dominating with the Energy Sword any more. There are perks, too, both active and passive, so you can make you Spartan a bit quicker, or a bit tougher, but also deck him out with camo or the ability to see through walls. It’s a natural evolution of Halo: Reach’s armour abilities, but with more options and variety.
And just because the game’s not as focused on power weapons, it doesn’t mean they’re not in there. Get a few kills and you’ll earn Ordnance – a Care Package, essentially – which can be fired into the ground next to you to collect. You choose from three options, and can either grab a power-up like the Overshield or a power weapon. Even if someone appears to be dominating, though, the instant respawns mean they can no longer clear out a team and isolate single opponents. It’s a radical overhaul to the flow of the action.
Fear not, though, as this is still very much Halo. Gun battles are still protracted and dramatic, grenades are still crucial, and the game still elicits the kind of jaw-dropping, theatre-mode-rewinding moments of magic that it always has. This is perhaps demonstrated best in the new Dominion mode, which borrows from COD’s Domination and Halo’s own 3 Plots, and asks teams of six to control three points across a battlefield. It adds its Halo flavour by allowing teams to then fortify each position so ordnance can spawn there, meaning each match eventually turns into a huge melee of power weapons and vehicles. It’s not as pure as Team Slayer, but it’s a perfect recipe for madness.
Throw in Spartan Ops (see boxout) into the mix, and you’ve got a phenomenal package; a game that more than justifies its asking price and a true blockbuster. Halo has always had a symbiotic relationship with the Xbox, and Halo 4 maintains that tradition. It feels special, still. Essential even, as if this is the game that you’re supposed to be playing on this console.
The question many will ask, ultimately, is how Halo 4 stacks up against its predecessors, and in truth it’s hard to answer at this time. It’ll take multiple runs through the campaign, hours and hours more multiplayer, and swaths of Spartan Ops mission to truly understand how good Halo 4 is. There’s one answer we can say with certainty, though: this is absolutely a Halo game. And that’s all that most fans would ever need to hear.