Review: Halo 4

What?!  There’s another one of these Halo games??!  Oh that’s right – I forgot, this is Microsoft’s mega cash cow.  Anyway,  I don’t play on the 360 box of X, but a friend and today’s guest contributor does.  So if you want to know what Matt (the Bat) thought of Halo 4, read on! 

Unquestionably, the worst thing about the Halo series is its fan base. While it’s almost impossible to generalize about any large group of people, it’s a series that has traditionally been the mainstay of high school kids and frat boys – two demographics not known for their restraint or reason. As such, it wasn’t surprising to read the reaction from Halo fans following the game’s E3 reveal: the series had transitioned from Bungie to new developer 343, and the changes they were implementing to attempt to modernize the series were roundly slammed as game-breaking and franchise-destroying.

Luckily, however, high school kids and frat boys – to generalize again – aren’t known for being smart, either. Or, as 343 multiplayer director Kevin Franklin diplomatically put it, ‘people don’t know what they want until you give it to them.’ In other words, 343 did what they thought was best for the series and ignored the derision. That decision has paid off for Halo 4, as the game is unequivocally the best complete product of the series.

Bungie was excellent at creating a fun multiplayer arena, but horrible at telling a story. Having the Master Chief as a silent protagonist was constantly rationalized as a way to get the player into the game, but was just a crutch for lazy, clichéd and boring storytelling. What was worse, they hired outside novelists and comic book artists to flesh out the game’s universe and provide backstory to characters, and then either ignored or completely erased the expanded content with each new iteration of the game series. 343 have taken a completely fresh approach. Every character appearing in Halo 4 has an arc, meaningful lines and well-acted dialogue. In the years leading up to Halo 4’s release, 343 commissioned a series of books, comics, online web series (culminating in the amazing live-action Forward Unto Dawn series) which are all integral to understanding the game’s plot. Compared to Bungie’s approach, it’s a revelation.

Without ingesting all this prior content, the game’s story could get confusing. I actually saw this as a huge positive, though – it was so nice to play a game, especially an FPS in 2012, that didn’t hold your hand, that encouraged you to seek outside information, that didn’t beat you over the head with obvious, boring exposition. If you want to learn more, there’s a wealth of information. There are a series of unlockable in-game animations that provide the histories and experiences of new characters, and are well worth viewing just for their artistic merit. But, if you want to play a shooter and aren’t so concerned with plot elements, Halo 4 rewards you with the best campaign the series has ever seen.

As fun as Reach’s campaign was, it took the gameplay in a different direction. Levels were more linear, combat was more focused on special operations urban encounters, and the story revolved around what it was like to be on the front lines of a war. Halo 4 goes back to the roots of the series – you explore enormous, alien environments with architecture and scenery that appears so vast as to defy comprehension. The visuals and aesthetics are the best we’re likely to see in the 360’s lifespan, and there’s a particular moment in the second mission that made me stand and pan around for a few minutes with my jaw open. You’re no longer on a Halo installation – you’re on a whole planet. As such, the terrain and skyboxes are much more open, varied and less restrictive.

The many moments of discovery and exploration really underpin why Halo 4 is so successful, particularly in the context in which it was released. Unlike modern military shooters, Halo has never been a theme park experience – you’re not on rails, enemy encounters aren’t scripted, combat can be approached in any way you like, and you’re actually expected to tackle large scale encounters yourself, rather than relegating them to a quick time event. The much-dreaded QTE does appear in Halo 4, but very minimally, and serves more as a device to engage you in a cut scene. The only real drag of the campaign was the frequency of the number three: press three switches in a given area, instead of one, to move to the next section of the mission. It wasn’t a major concern, and was normally completely forgotten by the next large scale set piece. The variation in combat locations – and the introduction of several enormous and impactful vehicles to pilot – makes Halo 4’s campaign the most memorable and enjoyable yet.

As far as multiplayer is concerned, 343’s changes – aimed at modernizing the game, creating a sustained sense of achievement and speeding up combat – all seem to be successful so far. Halo 4 is a hybrid between the traditional arena shooters of its predecessors and the class-based shooters it’s currently competing with, and it handles the hybrid style beautifully. Changes between loadouts, armor modifications and support upgrades are subtle enough to be noticeable without feeling game breaking or unfair – Halo has always been about equal combat, and the only difference now is it has become more customizable. Lag issues have been widely reported in the Asia-Pacific region, which 343 puts down to its matchmaking system still being in the process of learning how to correctly match players for best connection. It’s probably not going to be a long term issue, but it’s definitely a concern for non-US players. And aside from connection issues, it just gets old hearing Americans talk on their mics.

The game, put simply, is amazing. The fact that a developer was able to make Halo 4 look, at times, on par with a PC title on seven year old hardware is a real achievement. So, too, is the injection of some much needed writing talent in the story department. It’s no longer a generic space-themed super soldier one-liner festival, and by the end of the story the incredibly engaging cut scenes had me caring deeply about the characters and their fates. That the gameplay so closely resembles what made Halo popular on the original Xbox is a testament to the series status as a classic, and will hopefully serve as a much needed wake up call to developers of other FPS titles: it’s okay to let your player explore, think creatively and engage in combat however they want, and it’s a much more rewarding experience. The game’s ending perfectly establishes the transition point to the upcoming, episodic Spartan Ops DLC, and left me already looking forward to Halo 5. In the end, though, 343 have managed to recapture the fun and wonder of the series that Bungie had lost over their past few installments, and that alone has made the game a fantastic opening point to a new trilogy.

Talky talk

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