You may have finished the fight in Halo 3, ending a story arc for Master Chief and Cortana, but the Halo games didn’t end there. We’ve now seen Halo: Reach as Bungie’s swan song and Halo: Combat Evolved rebooted by 343, but those weren’t to be the last games in the Halo series. Halo 4 continues the story of the iconic character of Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana. Helmed by 343 Industries, which is made up of a lot of ex-Bungie folk, Halo 4 tells the story four years after the events of Halo 3. What we have here is a Halo game that’s entirely different yet, incredibly familiar.
Firing up Halo 4's campaign you are greeted with and opening cinematic that rivals the likes of Blizzard and Square-Enix, yes you'll do a double take. For fans of the Halo universe and lore, there's a lot to latch onto here, for those unfamiliar with the series it’s a rapid introduction to mythology that was explored in other mediums and previous games. I'll admit it, I'm emotionally invested in this series having played it since the beginning, having read the books, and having listened to the soundtrack on repeat more times than I care to admit. Watching the game's opening and the Chief bust out of cryo-stasis one more time, it was hard for me not to grin and grab the 360 controller just a little tighter.
The same production values present in the opening cinematic make it into the game itself, the graphic fidelity will re-establish your faith in the Xbox 360’s visual capabilities. From the very first scene inside the wreckage of the USNC ship Forward Unto Dawn, to the large expansive outdoor environments that have been prevalent since the first game - Halo 4's graphics are impressive. It’s not only for show either, the set pieces 343 has created in engine showcase huge space battles, giant gravity wells, and impossible situations for the Chief to get out of; all of which add to the gameplay experience.
One thing you could always count on in between Halo games were the familiarity of a weapon’s sound, but that’s gotten a complete overhaul. The weapon sounds and audio cues are so gritty and powerful, it almost makes the previous Halo game's effects sound like the digitized beeps and boops from a 16-bit video game system. The human weapons pack a serious punch, you can hear the bullets tearing out of the barrel and the casings pinging off the rocky ground. The Covenant plasma weapons can be felt in your gut, the molten material burning through the air with each shot. And the Promethean weapons sound advanced, technological and powerful - like you are firing a gun that feels very alien, especially as an enemy disintegrates from the shot. But the sound changes aren't just in the weapons themselves, but the enemies too.
The Covenant feel more menacing in Halo 4, and through most of the game act their part . Once again each Covenant race speaks their own language and every line of dialog from them sounds aggressive and abrasive. Even the grunts, who supplied a little comedic relief in earlier Halo games, sound like a Russian hit squad.
Thankfully the Flood are gone, in their place is something completely different in an enemy called the Prometheans. These enemies aren’t only tougher, but they force you to mix up your tactics in combat. For instance a Promethean Knight is capable of deploying a small air vehicle which can shield him, or worse, revive fallen comrades if they aren’t dispatched quickly. The Prometheans also utilize their own set of weapons. There must be at least 20 usable weapons in Halo 4 across all three races which is truly impressive.
The entire campaign simply feels tighter, more focused, and definitely more story driven. The relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana is expanded, and in a way, it’s more gut wrenching than it was in Halo 3. It’s hard not to feel for a faceless warrior and a digital AI construct who want nothing more than for the other to survive and conquer. You’ll hit large set pieces, small corridor combat, vehicle sections, and space flight missions. Everything will feel familiar, yet fresh.
The campaign is playable in up to four player co-op, and like previous games, you’ll want to crank up the difficulty to get the most out of it. The biggest loss in terms of co-op is the lack of match making for the campaign and the lack of a Firefight mode altogether. Thankfully the latter has been replaced by Spartan-Ops, which we’ll get to in a minute. You can check our Co-Op FAQ or Database for all the nitty gritty details of what you can and can’t do in co-op.
The campaign itself presents plenty of great moments for co-op play - whether it’s working together in the giant moving vehicle, piloting a Warthog, or planning an assault on an enemy position. The Halo games feel as if they are made for cooperative combat and it’s a blast at every turn. So really it shouldn’t be a surprise to see 343 create a mode dedicated to this style of gameplay called Spartan-Ops.
Spartan-Ops takes place 6 months after the end of Halo 4 and it is planned to be presented like a weekly TV series. Each week Xbox Live Gold subscribers will get 5 new missions to play as well as a cinematic movie to help progress the story. These missions are designed for up to four players, but you can try them solo if you want. Each mission should takes an average of 15 or 20 minutes to complete and the objectives and style of the missions vary. In one mission you simply need to clear the area of enemies, another starts out as a recon mission that quickly turns into survival as you wait for extraction, and another is a vehicle based mission where you destroy generators. So far the first five missions of Spartan-Ops feel distinctly different from each other and each one starts with a small intro with some story. Hopefully 343 can continue this kind of quality every week.
All of your progress from Spartan Ops, the campaign, and multiplayer versus contributes towards your custom Spartan. It’s in the “Spartan Hub” that you’ll tackle challenges like killing a certain number of enemies, or completing a mission within certain parameters, to earn extra XP. The XP contributes to your level which unlocks access to customizations and tokens to further enhance your character. It’s a pretty in depth system that’s sure to take anyone hours upon hours to unlock everything in.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the competitive multiplayer in Halo 4, as it is a large chunk of the game. 343 has given a slight twist on the traditional formula by making the multiplayer as if it’s one giant training exercise between spartans taking place aboard the USNC Infinity. Because of this the presentation skews towards a military training exercise. There’s at least a dozen playlists to choose from and plenty of maps as well. Again everything you do counts back towards your custom spartan. I’ve found myself quite addicted to competitive, it feels fairly balanced and the maps are well laid out. As always the vehicle based larger team battles are a ton of fun and offer plenty of wow and laugh out loud moments.
Halo 4 isn’t so much of a reboot of the series as it is an evolution. While Halo fans will feel at home, those that are new to the series (seriously, what’s up people?) should be able to jump in, enjoy and appreciate what is there. 343 has laid the groundwork for something that can live up to its predecessor while still calling it their own. Halo 4 is exactly what the Xbox 360 needed at the end of a console life cycle, and it’ll only leave you wanting more.