November 3, 2012

Review – Halo 4

Review Halo 4
Soldiers scramble past fleeing scientists as Covenant troops fill the tight corridors of the Ivanoff space station. Emergency lights flicker over broken instruments as communications crackle and the battle consistently threatens to create hull breaches. And as the Master Chief charges forward, his faithful AI companion raises added cause for concern as her program continues to degrade and Cortana essentially thinks herself to death.

343 Industries returns the franchise to the opening tension of 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved along with a sense of horror – an action game where players discovered fresh threats in that empty space where no one can hear you scream. Having fully taken the reins from developer Bungie, 343i doesn’t simply mimic the flow of the story that started the franchise however, waging a war of their own to bring a deeper theme of sci-fi horror alongside the grand operatic leanings of the series.

That doesn’t mean that 343i reinvents the wheel, rather, that they take the opportunity presented by a new trilogy in the franchise to refine the ride – often with layers of attention that, either owning to a fear of breaking the formula or the idea that “if it ain’t broke you don’t fix it”, were very much overdue.

Review Halo 4
The story opens with the baggage of Halo 3’s conclusion, with the Master Chief and Cortana still floating adrift on the remains of the Forward Unto Dawn. And as a Covenant raiding party comes upon the derelict ship, the game isn’t long for placing the familiar assault rifle back in the Chief’s hands. Orbiting the newly discovered planet, Requiem, an artificial gravity well soon pulls the entire party planet side, where plenty of the ornate and ancient structures that form the backbone of Halo’s universe await discovery.

Parallels to Halo: Combat Evolved abound, the most crucial of which is that these actions set the stage for a consistently convincing and flowing chain of events – a narrative that moves the Chief from one battle to another with direct cause and consequence, versus the tendency of nearly all first person shooters, including subsequent releases to the Halo series, to jump between chaotic battlefields with little connection for fear of losing some imagined attention deficit disordered audience.

Review Halo 4
Having been fooled into awakening an ancient threat, the course for the Chief revolves around escaping Requiem to pursue and stop said threat. 343i finds space within that mission to introduce a variety of environments and situations that find space to still take warthogs for a spin as well as engage the pocket battlefields Halo always delivers.

The consistent flow of events offers an earnest opportunity for characters to hang around and gain more of a connection with players, rather than a sense of only popping into the story when needed. When players eventually take to space combat again as in Halo: Reach, the event actually makes sense versus simply doing so in order to let players do it. That’s what you really want to take away from this honestly, Halo 4 lets you do all the Halo things for well defined reasons. It isn’t a case of Halo 4 having a better story – though it certainly does – but of having a story rather than just two bookends with a bunch of Halo stuff crammed in the middle like an FPS Oreo.

Review Halo 4
While this story raises a new threat with the Forerunners that provided a backdrop for the original trilogy, much of the cinematic developments revolve around the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana. Unlike Bladerunner’s Replicants, exceeding her warranty is causing Cortana to degrade and malfunction, and while 343i is hesitant to explore the possibilities of an insane computer program as much as I might have liked, her worsening condition manages an impression on events – though more as a means of leading to different conflicts rather than causing issues within the play of the game to additionally challenge players.

There was plenty of space for ideas here, and 343i definitely plays it safe with everyone’s favorite AI. As events unfold, the developer also pushes a more sickly sweet agenda between Cortana and the Chief – which finds him stubbornly committed to saving her while she attempts to verbalize her attachment to him.

Such themes haven’t been entirely absent in previous releases, but Halo 4 brings them to the front burner, admittedly with several shades of melodrama that leaves the ending a little flat, largely as the game fuddles to define a concept of love between the Chief and Cortana. Of course I mean love as a bond, and not machine sex. But the idea still comes across as awkward as if it had veered toward the latter. Some of that awkwardness owes to the cold and duty-bound nature of the Chief, and yet the attempt creates space for future words in the way that it reveals a soldier who has been so busy protecting humanity that he has lost any sense of it he might have once had.

Review Halo 4
Where Halo 4 truly evolves the combat is in the pacing of stages. While it initially mimics the flow of Combat Evolved, it also greatly refines the duration of each situation. Halo titles have often found me grinding across a stage for so long, engaging so many bottlenecks, that at some point I simply forget what the hell I was even trying to do in the first place. Here, there’s a constant feed of information with more direct goals that still provide plenty of battles but also manages to keep a sense of momentum Halo has never possessed quite so fine as it does here.

Halo has often been caught between letting players get lost for awhile and tossing them frantically from conflict to conflict, and here 343i establishes a balance that I legitimately hope forms a new model going forward. There’s still some monotony on-hand – if you need to shut down or activate a panel, there will be a rinse and repeat formula at play. But the time it takes to do this has been tightened, not short changing players on the fight but simply adding more objectives to fight toward, which goes a long way in keeping my attention fixed and makes it easier to resume after breaks from the campaign.

Review Halo 4
The familiar weaponry of the UNSC and the covenant return, along with new Forerunner weapons to experiment with. Pistols and battle rifles still offer deadly proficiency, but the new toys steal plenty of attention, with a digitally transforming vibe reminiscent of games like Vanquish and maybe even films like Ultra Violet – everything from rifles and a pistol to something akin to an ACME atomic disintegrator.

The game is several shades more generous about keeping players supplied with ammunition, which still found me occasionally scrounging the floor but rarely forced to use the butt of a rifle as a primary means of defense. Secondary abilities, such as jet packs, hologram decoys, shields and auto-turrets continually pop up for consideration as well.

Halo 4 also offers a new ride in the mantis, an armored mech suit that allows the Chief to take on waves of troops and vehicles in two key situations, which are handled just as opportunities to drive the scorpion tank or warthog.

Review Halo 4
The other area of concern for 343i is the enemy AI, which has long served as a key ingredient in stretching out battles. While it doesn’t drop the ball handed over from Bungie, the result feels 50/50 at times.

Enemies will demonstrate a compelling desire to live by jumping around furiously to avoid fire and grunts still break rank when an Elite falls, and other times a Hunter stands behind a computer console waiting for the Chief to kill it. New enemies powered by Forerunner technology provide the most consistent challenge, with canine-like units willing to retreat to a better footing as well as rush from behind, and large knight soldiers able to warp to new locations when needed – though they don’t seem to do so as often as I might, if given the chance.

A more aggressive AI seems to be at work within Halo 4’s special ops feature, Spartan Ops. As with other large franchises, Halo 4 offers an additional series of co-op challenges that continue the story via episodes that will continue to arrive free to owners of the game going forward. At present there is only one episode, which offers five chapters of hungry covenant forces to grind through with friends. The first of these chapters offers up a large-scale battlefield filled with opposition and vehicles, though subsequent chapters also capture the on-foot terrain battles of the franchise as well. The addition puts Halo back on equal footing with Call of Duty in the added content department, and so long as future episodes continue to flow the addition will likely raise the bet for top tier franchises going forward. As someone not heavily invested in Halo’s multiplayer offering, it not only extends an invitation to an experience between campaign and multiplayer with ranking goals to build toward, but also offers a means for a quick Halo fix anytime.

Along with the map creation toolsets of the Forge, proper competitive multiplayer brings the myriad of maps and modes expected from the franchise, with everything from King of the Hill and Dominion to killing the enemy teams King and surviving The Flood. I’m most certainly not your go to expert on multiplayer, but I believe 343i has put a lot of care into bringing weapons forward with new ones to find a balanced killing floor players will be chewing on well into the release of Halo 5.

Review Halo 4
Every fresh Halo release is naturally one thousand percent greater than the previous outing in order to keep marketing people employed. And that the series has stumbled around in recent years certainly hasn’t stopped me from strapping in for each new release. But Halo 4 is thick with design intentions to improve upon the well worn formula, with small flourishes that make the visual aesthetic of this space opera richer for the trouble.

The build of the narrative carries enough momentum to forgive an ending that loses the sharp focus in the final moments – not directly burdening players with the setup for a future release, but certainly pulling punches on account of the inevitability.

Regardless of whether this is Master Chief’s finest outing, though I’ll certainly suggest it is anyway, the real surprise is in the clear potential for Halo to achieve narrative fed player goals that could stand to bring something memorable to the medium. This will clearly never take priority over pushing forward with future releases, but the tiny sparks are there to find all the same.

343 Industries

Microsoft Studios

Xbox 360

Singleplayer, Co-op, Multiplayer

Release Date
November 6, 2012

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review

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