After five long years, Master Chief is back to crack some more alien heads. T3 dons the Mjolnir to see if Halo 4 was worth the wait...
Halo 4 is chief (hah) among the biggest releases in a pre-Christmas period that includes huge FPS titles like Borderlands 2, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, as well as other keenly expected games such as Dishonored and Assassin's Creed 3. Master Chief definitely has his work cut out.
Step forward 343 Industries (or 343i for short) – a new studio set up by Microsoft to exclusively handle the Halo franchise, after Bungie exited stage left following their last hurrah – Halo: Reach. 343i now have the unenviable task of delivering a new, better than ever before Halo, in a climate where decent first person shooters are thrown blissfully out of studios like wedding confetti.
Master Chief hasn’t had a day as big as November 6th for a long time. It seems impossible that his last great outing was way back in 2007, but it is five years - in fact, over five years - since we left Spartan 117 in cryo-sleep, in a dusty storage pod amid the floating wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn.
Halo 4: Campaign
The story starts where it left off in Halo 3, and you clamber out of your pod to have a little chat with Cortana, your AI companion. It turns out that the UNSC are actually at a truce with the Covenant, and predictably that lasts all of two seconds - why would we be here otherwise?
The plot revolves around two central pillars. The first is Cortana's descent into 'rampancy' - essentially AI death, where her processes and subroutines begin to run out of control (we're thinking it's a little like virtual memory thrashing). The race to get Cortana back to Earth is on, but it isn't long before you find a new enemy blocking your way. The new foes are a Forerunner military caste of sorts, and naturally they don’t like the ‘Chief one bit. Presumably because he has a habit of brutally murdering everything.
Different Forerunner units work with great synergy - Crawlers will keep you pinned down, whilst Knights will pick you off from a distance before teleporting in for the kill. If you don’t pick your targets wisely, it’s very easy to waste plenty of ammo and find yourself no closer to victory. Indeed, Knights troll like no enemy I've seen in a while. You can take them down from afar, but if you don't shoot down his accompanying Watcher as well, you're going to turn the air blue when you realised he's been resurrected.
As such, walking into the midst of a raging battle between Covenant and Forerunner lads - a Halo favourite since Combat Evolved - forces you to choose your targets carefully, as indeed does a battle with Forerunner forces alone. If anything, it's a little disappointing that you still spend much of the game fighting the Covenant, and the experience only feels different when there are Forerunner units involved.
If you’re playing on Heroic or Legendary difficulties, you're in for an exercise in cover and ammo management. Cover is a necessity, as even a pack of enemy grunts can tear through your shields at higher levels. Play on normal and below and you'll be stomping through enemies the way you'd expect a giant, metal titan to.
Halo 4: Graphics
There's no great change in visuals from Halo: Reach. That’s not a slight on Halo 4 though - Reach was a fantastic looking game, and It's become fairly common knowledge that developers have stretched both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 to their maximum capabilities now. If anything, Halo 4 feels a little more vibrant, without being over-saturated.
Campaign levels are well designed, with a tangeable emphasis on avoiding the linearity that has plagued the FPS genre for years, and there are some really beautiful vistas on show.
Most importantly, the frame-rate is excellent even during intense firefights and there was nothing in the way of screen tearing or graphical glitches. All in all, it’s very impressive.
Halo 4: Weapons
The presence of three distinct factions in Halo 4 means this games has more weapons than any of its predecessors. On the UNSC side, both the DMR and the Battle Rifle are included, along with heavy weapon favourites such as the Rocket Launcher, Spartan Laser and Sniper Rifle. A new addition is the 'Railgun', which is charged like the Spartan Laser but fires a mini explosive on release.
The same is true on the Covenant side, with the exception of the Plasma Rifle, which has been replaced in name and aesthetics only by the 'Storm Rifle'. The Needler has also been upped in terms of damage, with needle supercombines now capable of taking out multiple targets.
The real news here is the addition of a whole arsenal of Forerunner weaponry. Many of these weapons mirror some of their UNSC or Covenant counterparts - the 'Suppressor' for example, is essentially a UNSC Assault Rifle, while the longer range Forerunner 'Lightrifle' is the spitting image of a Covenant Carbine.
Rather than lazy design, this is more a recognition that certain weapon styles are core to Halo's combat dynamic. Fear not though, there are other weapons that are really changing the game. The 'Boltshot' pistol is a revolver by nature, but when charged it discharges four bullets for a close-range shotgun blast. The Scattershot? A mere shotgun, you say. But the bullets also bounce, making it prime for killing people round corners, off ceilings... the possibilities are nearly endless.
Halo 4: Vehicles
Again, pretty much every vehicle from the Halo series makes a return on both the UNSC and Covenant sides so get ready for more running Warthog battles, Scorpion Tank sieges and Banshee dogfights. Sadly no Halo 2 Elephants though.
New to the series is the 'Mantis' - a single pilot mechanised walker that packs rockets, a machinegun with limitless ammo, and a powerful pneumatic stomp for taking down closer enemies. The Mantis also has a shield, but no jump or sprint abilities so you are a bit vulnerable if you get swarmed, and particularly vulnerable when jumping in and out of the back.
Halo 4: Spartan Ops
One of the major new components that 343i has brought to the table is the episodic co-operative 'Spartan Ops' (we like SpOps for short). The Spartan Ops story is based six months after the end of the campaign, and sees you take your customized Spartan into the thick of battle with Crimson squad, completing weekly missions. This can either be with friends or in open match-making.
There will be an accompanying video every week, which progresses the story of the Spartans on board the UNSC Infinity.
Halo 4: War Games
In terms of play-time and longetivity, Halo 4's multiplayer is arguably the core of the Halo experience. The emphasis here has been on tweaking. Halo's fantastic multiplayer experience is one that has continually improved via community input and a policy of not fixing things that aren't broken - a policy that 343i are still enforcing.
Spartan customization still includes a huge range of cosmetic options, but now you have a Call of Duty-style loadout that lets you pick a primary and secondary weapon, and a grenade type, followed by an 'Armor Ability', a 'Tactical Package', and a 'Support Upgrade'.
The latter two are similar options to Call of Duty, including increased explosives damage, shield regen, faster reload times and the like, mainly a case of fine tuning your Spartan to suit your play style.
Armor Abilities are more Halo-oriented, and include jet packs and boosters, 'Promethean Vision' that allows you to see nearby enemies through walls, the ability to project a hologram to distract enemies, an automated sentry turret and many others.
Another Call of Duty-esque addition are the new 'ordinance packages' that act very similarly to CoD's 'care packages'. Hit a killstreak and you'll be able to call in one of two weapons (both chosen as being useful for that particular map) or an ability boost (damage, shields or something similar).
Any accusations that Halo is all getting a bit Call of Duty are wide of the mark. There are some additions here, but all have been made with the utmost care, and with advice from fans and MLG pros alike. Indeed, all the maps have been built from scratch with the help of numerous MLG pros. The result doesn't feel new, but it does feel fresh and it plays as well as any Halo game - indeed any online shooter - has ever played.
Halo 4: Verdict
This is tough, because Halo 4 epitomises some of the things that plague the games industry today. While there are tweaks, and good ones at that, this isn't the reinvention that many were hoping for, and 343i could be accused of a lack of ingenuity. At the same time, why fix something that isn't broken? One man's 'boring and dated' is another mans 'vintage' after all.
This game should be judged in it's own right, far away from Bungie's own efforts. The single player is exactly the right mix of classic Halo point-to-point gameplay, with a battlefield dynamic that feels new and instantly more challenging. The multiplayer has plenty in there to attract new fans, and is an absolute joy to play, as it always has been. And the soundtrack is mind-blowing. 343 has added real artistic flair to a universe that needed rebooting with a splatter of vibrancy.
In short, Halo 4 is the definition of classic. It's quintessential, an embodiment of what made Halo so fantastic in the first place, but brighter, bolder and with a few tugs at the heart-strings. We can't promise you'll like it, because you've seen a lot of this before. But five years has been long enough to open our minds, and it feels great to be back.
Halo 4 release date: 6 November 2012
Halo 4 price: £40