The Halo franchise is a pretty big deal, it would be fair to say. Billions of dollars have been made from the games alone, not to mention the movie, comics, action figures, playsets and the rest. It is 11 years since the first game released on the Xbox and since then there have been another 5 games in the first person shooter series and a spin off strategy game, Halo Wars.
Halo games have spanned two generations of Microsoft Xbox consoles so far, and look set to carry on into the third as Halo 4 will be the first game in a new trilogy. It is also the first game not to be made by Bungie. 343 industries now bravely take the helm and the task before them is huge.
Halo 4 needs to excel as a game for many reasons. It needs to please the huge and established fanbase, improve on the excellent games that precede it, and with new consoles to be announced at any time, it is essential for Halo to remain the definitive franchise for Microsoft. A hell of a lot is riding on 343 industries and the new Halo game. Here are my thoughts.
Halo 4 boasts the return of Master Chief; the original and infamous Spartan of few words from the first three games. The introduction opens up the broader narrative, describing the shady inception of the Spartans, young boys kidnapped from their families, incarcerated, indoctrinated and enhanced into the ultimate future fighting force. An army of super-soldiers designed to crush all human rebellion, not a force for good as you might have imagined.
Heroics were coincidental, as when the Covenant began to attack humanity, the Spartans were the obvious choice to fight the threat. This background does a great job of fleshing out the personality of Master Chief, giving him some humanity and giving meaning to the relationship between him and his AI construct Cortana, which this game focuses on greatly. It is now 4 years since the events of Halo 3. Master Chief has been in hyper sleep on the damaged vessel “Forward Unto Dawn” during that time, but is awoken by Cortana as an emergency has occurred. Some alien heads need banging together, and so it begins.
The intro is incredible, my mind could not decide whether I was watching live acting or animations at some points. Such is the quality here and in the few cut scenes throughout the game. The game runs in 1080p across all game modes and it needed to, as the fine graphical detail is quite astounding. There has been a huge makeover to aesthetics since Halo Reach, which can be seen everywhere. Halo 4 has it all graphically – superb character models, great looking weapons and that trade mark effect of neon tracer fire of all colours creating an awesome visual display during intense battles. The environments though, do not match this level of excellence, they exceed them… and then some!!
Once the gameplay moves outdoors and into the huge open areas, the true artistic and graphical wonders are revealed. I was amazed that such epic and beautiful scenes could be achieved on the humble Xbox 360. You have to see this game in action to appreciate the superb artistic direction and attention to detail. Truly, the best looking console game of all time.
The sound has been overhauled also. Weapons sound a lot more satisfying now and the warthog engine growls like a race car. Music is top notch as well – orchestral, epic and perfectly matched to the gameplay, changing subtly as the gameplay requires. Wonderful audio quality adds to atmosphere and sense of purpose without being over stated. It fits the game so well that audio, visuals and gameplay feel like one and the same.
Visuals are all well and good then, but graphics alone do not make a good game. Fortunately, Halo has a solid gameplay foundation to draw from. Any fan of the Halo series will feel right at homeas the gameplay is faithfully classic. Things are shaken up a bit with the introduction of new race of enemy, complete with new weapons to be experimented with. There are a lot of guns in Halo 4, old and new, so there is always a new way to hand an alien his ass on a plate.
Multiplayer is, predictably, great fun and competitive. Not a lot has changed though, it feels pretty much the same as it ever did, albeit with a few tweaks. This is only a bad thing if you have grown tired of Halo multiplayer, but it is still excellent. A few weapons, modes and vehicles make an appearance, and most modes are team oriented this time around. Of course, you can always create new maps and modes in the Forge mode which returns in Halo 4. The servers were smooth and lag free, even on release day, which is very promising.
Halo 4 introduces a new mode called Spartan Ops . These are essentially short, bite sized scenarios to be played with up 3 other people. The draw is that more of these missions will be released periodically in the future. You can play these alone if you wish, but an Xbox Live Gold membership is required to play them, even as a lone wolf. I found these missions to be the weakest part of Halo 4, so offline players will not be missing the best that Halo 4 has to offer.
The campaign mode is where Halo 4 really excels. The blend of quality narrative and fast action gunplay being played out in glorious looking arenas, kept me engrossed from start to finish.
I saw the end credits in around 7 hours, alone and on Normal difficulty. It may be too short for some people, but it is truly a fine gaming experience which can be enjoyed alone or with up to 3 others, online or off. I will play it again on the harder difficulty settings very soon. It is impossible to find too much fault with this game. It feels like a next gen game on a current system. 343 industries did an awesome job with Halo 4; it is a classic Halo game, my favourite Halo game of all time, and the best game I have played all year.