Halo 4 is a titanic epic. Not just another AAA title, but the coming out party of 343 Industries as it takes the reins of one of the industry’s largest franchises. While it is certainly flawed, it is – in Halo tradition – the best $60 you can spend for a long-term game investment. With a darn fine campaign, a truly iconic multiplayer suite, a map maker, theater, Spartan Ops, and Daily, Weekly and Monthly Challenges … well, how can you say no?
Unlike my impressions piece about the campaign, this will be spoiler-free. The story is a giant selling point I will keep in-mind for scoring, but not elaborate upon here.
What is a Halo game without gunplay? Luckily for you, Halo 4 has some of the best around. Oddly enough, even though it is dumber than previous installments (the necessity for dual damage types is almost non-existent), it all works. Furthermore, it still feels like Halo, which is hugely important for identity and franchise fans alike. Still, in campaign, the guns are balanced perfectly and strikingly unique to hold and fire. As for multiplayer, only time will tell.
Along with the guns come armor abilities, which have thankfully been toned down in importance since Halo: Reach. The focus is much more on guns this time, and rightfully so. Don’t forget those iconic grenades. Along with the Frag and the Sticky, you’ve got a new Pulse grenade which works like a small, sustained fireball with a sizable explosion at the end. Very handy for area denial. All in all, the arsenal has never been better (RIP Brute weapons), nor has the combat been more-refined.
As I mentioned before, 343 keeps the tradition alive of cramming as much content on one disk as possible. We’re talking MMO-rivaling, laundry-neglecting, no-way-to-experience-it-all amounts of stuff here. Where most companies are content to add in a multiplayer mode or a Horde mode (strangely missing), you get the king’s ransom here.
Maybe you’re a builder? Well, here’s Forge, the only thing of its kind. A map builder that is astoundingly user friendly. Maybe you’re a co-op player? Here’s Spartan Ops, a recurring, weekly update that brings mini-campaigns to you with a continuing story arc for you and your buds. Again, the only thing of its kind. Maybe you’re a compiler and sharer? Use theater to save movies and pictures from any game mode you want. Build a map or game variant and share it with the world (or download it). Maybe you’re bored with multiplayer, campaign, Forge and Spartan Ops? Just hop in and complete some challenges.
There is simply more to do and the promise of even more to do than any other game out there. This is the biggest draw of Halo. But multiplayer is the very lifeblood of the game’s continued success. As far as I have played, it takes the Halo formula and adds in a large dose of influence from my least favorite genre: modern military shoo- oh, forget it, Call of Duty. Who would’ve guessed it, I was wrong about keeping CoD out of my Halo. How 343 managed to pull this off to such a wonderful end is beyond me. The nucleus is inextricably Halo, but it is dressed up with the trappings of systematic unlocks (though, only furtively). While only extended play will tell how well it is truly made, my few hours with it were really, really fun even though I was really, really bad.
Prettiest Pictures and Cacophonous Clangs
Halo 4, amongst its other achievements, is the best-looking game you can buy for your 360, maybe even on all consoles. Period. It’s not just that the lighting is photo-realistic or that the polygon count is higher than numbers probably can go. It’s that the settings, characters, guns and animations are inspired and cohesive. The jungle hosts some Uncharted-caliber design and realism (and linearity to boot). Vistas and skyboxes are too gorgeous and awe-striking to describe. Every single visual has been crafted by a team of ridiculously talented people.
Tiny details that drop people in the Uncanny Valley like skin and the folds around your eyes are masterfully depicted. This is the closest we’ll be getting to photo-realism this console generation, or at least until The Last of Us launches. The lighting is superlative and the line between fantasy and realism is thrown out. At times it is literally face-melting. [Editor's Note: Wait, literally?!]
Along with graphics comes audio. The looming shadow of Marty O’Donnell lies heavily on all things Halo. But the sound here is fantastic. Each gun’s audio is wonderful, inching close to — but not equaling – the pop and bang of Battlefield 3’s armaments. The feral noises made by your enemies illicit fear and wonder. Changing, natural ambient noise is really quite flawless. Finally, the music too is splendid, again falling juuust shy of the greatness set in place by the previous Halo franchise.
The issues mentioned in my previous write-up about Halo 4 stand (you can read the first half, no spoilers there). Outside of Spartan Ops, playing cooperatively is not strongly supported. From bad, bad, bad checkpoints and instances set off by the host to ravenous space-doors, playing through the campaign can be a frustrating time with friends.
Whispered Words and Waypoint
While the pacing, encounters and themes of the campaign are deliciously good, the story and plot are not. Simple questions like “Who is the antagonist?” or “Why are the Covenant on this planet?” will fester in your mind off and on. Maybe the information was addressed in an off-handed comment, maybe it wasn’t. Also, if you haven’t watched Forward Unto Dawn, you will also not realize the close bond Sergeant Laskey has for the Chief. Let alone why. This applies to some of the book’s fiction, too. I’m not here to be quizzed on homework; give it to me straight.
What’s even more frustrating are the many loose ends not openly addressed or one-offed. Important pieces of information are located in terminals across the game. Finding them yields bounties of story and text. Here’s the problem: You have exit the game and go to the Halo Waypoint application to view them. Flat out, this is bad design. When making a heroic charge, who wants to stop and exit the game just to read slices of fiction? No one.
Halo 4 is amazing. If there were any doubts about 343 Industry’s acumen with the series, bin them. If you’re on the fence, jump over it. Halo has returned with some new tricks and surprises, not to mention a Rembrandt level of shine. Serving up a value that is well worth the asking price, there is no reason to have a 360 left wanting. The Master Chief is back.