Halo is a franchise that has always been close to my heart, for good reason. That said, my views on the former Bungie heartthrob are not always in the title’s favor. That’s not to say it’s bad, but that Halo as a whole has seen more ups and downs than most franchises, which tend to start high or low and shift in the other direction before disappearing into the ether or becoming Final Fantasy clones. Yet Halo is the most important franchise in Microsoft’s history, and really for all of console gaming.
With Halo 4, that creative content is back in Microsoft’s hands — developed by 343 Industries, which includes a number of ex-Bungie employees who wanted to stick with the franchise and a new team — but as I suspected that couldn’t fix all of the things that once made Halo not only great, but spectacular. This review won’t say that Halo 4 is a bad game, because it certainly is not. But it does lay the foundation of all future Halo content to come, and if you expected the world, then you’ll be disappointed.
The story of Halo 4 can be told in three parts, one for each game mode available. The campaign picks up where it left off in Halo 3, four years later to be exact. The Master Chief is awakened from cryogenic stasis — just like in Halo: Combat Evolved, mirroring the “reborn” aspect that definitely pits players as this fan-adored protagonist — and flings him into a confused and depraved plot of revenge to destroy humanity. That sounds good, but from the start it’s clear that something is amiss. Too many things are equally similar but different; fans who have spent countless hours playing past Halo titles will feel it, but it isn’t easy to expressly know.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen it once before.
Halo 4 has copycat syndrome, an occurrence where the game (more specifically, the developers made the game) feels too much like past titles because things are actually taken directly from them and then changed. I have no direct proof of such, but as players progress through the game it’s clear that some things are more than coincidence or deja vu. The level structure follows a similar pattern to the first Halo titles, starting on a ship and escaping to a nearby planet. Then on the surface of the Ringworld architecture isn’t just similar, but the level design feels at times identical to Halo: CE’s. You can claim coincidence or that it is intentional and works with the story, and perhaps it does.Yet as players progress through the campaign more and more of these little things pop up and they become difficult to ignore. In effect, the overall campaign doesn’t feel like a fresh experience; it feels slightly rehashed, but more accurately it feels like just another Halo game. Not new; more of the same.
There are some major differences, however, that appear to be fan service but end up the exact opposite. The Master Chief was known for his stoic, silent archtype, the all-knowing combatant who never falters. He speaks when he needs to. His few lines are memorable not only because of what he says, but at how succinct they are and how few they are. That’s not the case in Halo 4; 343 Industries sought to make this game a love story between two characters who clearly have a relationship, but not a romantic one. The Master Chief spends too much of his time talking to Cortana, the brilliant but aging and near-maniacal AI that progressively gets worse as the campaign goes on.
The major problem with all of this is that, again, it gets in the way of the actual game. This happens constantly. Every time a light bridge is activated, an elevator is called, or any action is required not including firing a gun takes control out of the player’s hands just to perform that action. There are a lot of cutscenes; they’re short, but many in number. Every time the Master Chief speaks player’s instinctively listen, but too often they lack the substance or definition expected and, perhaps, craved. Even the new abilities take a second to activate, pausing gameplay often at critical moments. When all of these pauses are added together, suddenly a lot of time is lost.
But the time lost isn’t important, it’s the breaks in the game that disconnect players from the overall experience. It was a constant juggling act, suddenly feeling “in” the game and then feeling thrown out by some minor thing. The final questionable turn comes in the form of a perplexing storyline. The Ringworld, a central hub for the seven Halo rings scattered around the galaxy (but the purpose of which is unclear), is discovered by a rogue fleet of Covenant (of whom we never learn anything about); it contains AI-driven combat drones in the form of a dog, a quadrocopter, and a giant; and there’s a completely new species introduced, of which he’s the last of his kind and only seeks to destroy humanity. Throw in a prissy ship captain, some unexplained backstory how Humans aren’t the Forerunners but existed before the Flood, and Cortana very quickly going mad, and you have the entirety of Halo 4′s plot. All of these parts have the characteristics of a bad Sci-Fi TV series. Things don’t make sense except when it’s convenient, and there isn’t any real connection between how things were before or now.
The only way Halo 4 continues from where Halo 3 left off is that it’s the same universe and same few main characters; everything else is different to the extent that it doesn’t necessarily fit into the Halo universe. The Diadac, an all-powerful being that flings the Master Chief like a Ken doll? AI units with unique weapons completely unlike anything Forerunner? Yet the Sentinels from Halo: CE and Halo 2 exist as paltry figurines that quite brilliantly lead players where they need to go with finely-tuned subtlety. Otherwise they are useless. And that’s really the bane of Halo 4′s existence. There is so much excessive content that it can — and does — frustrate players. So much is the same, so much doesn’t need to be there. Not enough was cut out of the editing room.
Yet at the same time the game is short at seven hours (I beat the game on Heroic in exactly seven hours), which makes Cortana’s turn to insanity all the less believable. First she slowly loses it, then it happens quickly, then slowly again, over and over. There only thing consistent about the pacing is it’s inconsistency. Combat is also lacking in many ways. The covenant aren’t as fun to wipe the floor with; they’re a little too realistic, and not as fun. In past games, Elites were always challenging yet fun, Grunts were always easy pickings, and Jackals were annoying but generally easy. And Hunters were always tough, rare, but placed at key locations. None of that holds true in Halo 4; Elites aren’t the top dogs anymore, and they feel too easy by comparison. Grunts have nearly invincible armor from the back and only die from headshots; even hitting them doesn’t work consistently. Jackals are far more annoying, and Hunters appear two, maybe three times in the whole campaign.
In fact, the Covenant are a post-it note in the book of Halo 4. The latest AI enemy — the Prometheans — fully takes over, with dog-like bots that, like Grunts, are invincible aside from headshots, and the aforementioned quadrocopter and goliath enemies. Worse yet, their weapons are the only ones regularly available. If you don’t like the latest Lightrifle or Suppressor, tough. Human and Covenant weapons are so scarce that Promethean weapons are the only option five minutes into almost every mission. These all combine to make for a really confused and frustrating campaign.
In spite of all that, somehow it’s still fun to play. I enjoyed the actual gameplay, and will go through it again on a harder difficulty. Unlike most games these days, Halo 4 has managed to find that sweet spot of high difficulty that requires excellence in gameplay, not cheap tactics that annoy or antagonize players into frustration. Towards the end such tactics appeared, but only within the last 10-15 minutes of play. The campaign has all the hallmarks of a Microsoft-designed game; there is a campaign to play through so players can’t complain about it, and the story ends up somewhere for another game in the future. And it’s fun enough to play again for experience points down the road.
The replacement for Firefight, Spartan Ops is a selection of new challenge levels for up to four players to cooperatively fight the Covenant and Promethean threat. Five missions weekly include offer new levels and objectives to complete, and points are earned just like (and even in the same quantities as) traditional PvP gametypes.
Spartan Ops is a decent cooperative gameplay mode, but it isn’t outstanding and doesn’t provide anything special to the mix of Halo games except for unique levels weekly. That alone is an extremely interesting prospect. Because of new levels weekly players who enjoyed the campaign will really like Spartan Ops, though it does really require at least one friend to make gameplay exciting and not overly challenging.
War Games — otherwise known as traditional multiplayer matchmaking — is a slightly broken in it’s current state but very fun. 343 Industries has done an excellent job of taking traditional Halo multiplayer and, while the developers didn’t fix it to Halo 2 stature, they did make it fun again since the horror of Halo 3 and only partial comeback of Halo: Reach.
However, as of this writing, serious changes are made to multiplayer on a daily basis. Players are constantly getting booted out of matches for no apparent reason; lag is prevalent in many gametypes; host migration is problematic; general bugs are rampant, like ordinance drops appearing on the screen after they’re collected or vehicle physics changing at random spurts. For a game so reliant on multiplayer, it’s surprising how many issues Halo 4 has. Yet in spite of that it is still very fun.
Major improvements to multiplayer include more weapons that are more varied, such as the DMR (long-range single-fire rifle), Battle Rifle (triple-shot mid-range rifle), and Assault Rifle (short-range automatic). Every class of weapons, no matter which species they belong to, is very finely tuned considering all of the competing and different-class weapons. Smart players will be able to differentiate between what works best in what situation within minutes of using any gun, something that just didn’t happen often because of so many dumbed-down and “nerfed” guns in both Halo 3 and Halo: Reach.
Some, however, are still underpowered to reprehensible levels. The Plasma Pistol is completely useless except to stall vehicles; the updated Plasma Rifle is both never available and weak compared to other guns; the Gravity Hammer (which shouldn’t even be in the game, since there are no Brutes in Halo 4) has minimal lunge and splash damage; and all super-weapons have been worsened slightly be requiring a lot of skill to do well with them. In effect, no one can pick up a sword and just be uber-powerful until they make a mistake or are overwhelmed. Every weapon has very clear limitations, and in many ways that takes away from the fun.
Others just appear too rarely, or are essentially non-existent except for random weapons drops and ordinance packages, which are earned by winning medals (but don’t stack), offering players a choice of three enhancements or weapons such as an overshield or Beam Rifle. Higher-profile weapons like the Spartan Laser and Sniper Rifle only appear at random drops when the level starts or after it’s completely used up. Others are almost impossible to find, like the Rocket Launcher, which makes no appearance in the campaign and after 20 hours of multiplayer I’ve only seen a half-dozen times.
Level design is equally excellent and lacking. Some levels, like Exile, are brilliantly crafted to enable both teams access to different groups of weapons and vehicles. Exile in particular is a wildly fun map because it features all of the major high-powered vehicles except for the Mantis (a mech…in a Halo game) on a circular track that has enough space and crevices for players to do anything, from mid-range combat to massive vehicle showdowns.
Then there are levels like Ragnarok (a remake of Halo 3′s Valhalla) that are just constant fights in key choke zones and constant vehicle supremacy. Or Haven, which is so overpicked that it loses it’s flavor all too quickly. The real tragedy, however, is how few maps there are, and how multiplayer requires an 8GB installation on the Xbox 360 through a separate disc included in the game box. With only 10 maps (and another 9 promised in future DLC), the selection is too limited and levels get analyzed and played through too quickly. Forge maps haven’t been introduced to matchmaking yet unless players are interested in spending money on Xbox Live, though free forge maps will be available in the near future.
Actual gameplay does have a few issues, such as minimal acknowledgment of weapons fire from some weapons (if you are hit by a DMR, the screen doesn’t do a good job of showing it). The addition of abilities may seem very much like Call of Duty, but they are smartly included to add some flavor to traditional Halo gameplay. Things like faster reload, bigger splash damage for grenades, an energy shield, and active camouflage are all intelligent options that players can use to their own abilities. I only find a few actually helpful, and more open up once players reach level 50 through armor specializations, but players will have to spend at least 30-50 hours of play to reach those levels.
I’ve come across some minor hacking and what would otherwise be considered illegal gameplay, but it isn’t rampant as it has been in past Halo titles (at least not yet). Thus far I’m very happy with Halo 4′s multiplayer. It is fun and challenging, though the lack of maps and plethora of bugs does hamper long-term gameplay significantly.
Halo is going the way of massive multiplayer franchises like Call of Duty, but Microsoft and 343 Industries isn’t completely confident in that route. The 7-hour confused campaign has poor writing but engaging gameplay, and it’s long enough to say that it wasn’t just an afterthought. Spartan Ops is an interesting cooperative mode, but it is really for the smaller group of gamers who want cooperative play, not to go through the campaign again.
The real goldmine of Halo 4 is War Games and multiplayer matchmaking. Even as a very buggy and almost pathetically limited experience, it’s a lot of fun. Players who loved Halo before, and those who haven’t had the pleasure to yet, will have a great time on Halo 4′s multiplayer. It is disconcerting that so few maps and game modes are available, something that both is and will be addressed, but players shouldn’t have to buy maps for such an absorbent cost when so few are included in the game already. And while Halo 4 multiplayer isn’t as good as Halo: CE or Halo 2, it is an experience that I will be playing for a long time.
Bottom Line: A strong game with really fun gameplay, but a confused single player and currently bug-ridden multiplayer
- Fun gameplay: the first time Halo has been this fun since Halo 2
- Spartan Ops is a smart way to keep cooperative play fresh
- Updates to multiplayer, including personalized loadouts, offer better customization without making the game feel like something it isn’t
- When things are done right, they are done expertly and are really, really enjoyable
- Game realism gets in the way of fun
- Too many things take players out of the game experience
- Single player campaign has a story that’s tough to like, with limited weapons choice and fewer fun combat scenarios
- Multiplayer is very buggy and very prone to lag
- Multiplayer maps are extremely limited, and few are better than average