In 2012, Bungie handed down the reins of one of the most beloved video game franchise to a new-found studio with a promising name, 343 Industries. They had been tasked with producing a game that moves the franchise forward while keeping the existing fanbase in mind. So, it makes sense that Halo 4 plays and looks like any other Halo game. The core fallback mechanics of Halo, Guns/Melee/Grenade are still present and the story picks up directly from where Halo 3 ended.
But play for an hour though and you’ll begin to notice the changes 343 have made in the Halo universe especially the fact that Halo 4 feels and look a lot darker than the previous installments. Most of the changes try to set Halo 4 on exciting and different directions than its predecessors and while commendable the game has some major design flaws that keep it from reaching the same level of excellence as its prequels.
Story – The Standout Jewel
Set several years after the events of Halo 3, Halo 4 opens in the wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn. Cortana wakes Master Chief from his cryo sleep and they find the Dawn on the edge of a mysterious Forerunner planet.
Halo 4 explores the mysterious nature of the forerunners that fans have been wondering about since setting foot on Installation 04 all the way back in Halo: Combat Evolved. But, this time there is a personal urgency, as artificial AIs have a lifespan of 7 years after which they start to deteriorate and “think themselves to death”. Cortana has been in service for about 8 years.
The morality of the witty and playful AI who has been in Master Chief’s head for three games now creates a more grounded and emotional story than ever before. And that’s where the greatness of Halo 4 lies. No longer is the player in control of a big green walking tank who always comes out on top of seemingly impossible challenges. Master Chief, waking up after 4 years from the events of Halo 3, finds himself in a very different universe as now hundreds of Spartan 4s now fight along with him and he is no longer only person standing between humanity and its extinction.
On the other hand the story really takes a bad turn when it comes to the main antagonist. The Didact seemed like an interesting and sensible addition to the story,.. until it ends. This guy is supposed to be the big baddie of the Halo universe and all it takes to defeat him is a pressing a button in a quick time event. This could have been the overarching villain of the Reclaimer trilogy like Thanos or Darksied and is instead killed off in a comic book after giving some monologues and throwing the player around. Honestly, the story would have been much better without a central antagonist.
Gameplay – Major Design Flaws, But Still Enjoyable
When it comes to the gameplay Halo 4 is somewhat negative, mainly because of the boring and tedious new enemies, the Promethean Knights. These are basically bullet sponges who can snipe, teleport away when they are almost dead and have undodgeable melee attacks that on legendary can kill you in two hits. So, only option you are left with is to shoot them from a distance and hope you can kill them before they teleport away, and the fact that these are one of the most common enemies, it’s the only viable strategy for most of the game on higher difficulties. This is not helped by the fact that ammo capacity for most guns are so pitiful, that in most of the enemy encounters you are left scavenging all you can and using the most pathetic weapons just so you can scrape through the level.
Another big problem is the lack of player freedom and linear level designs. No longer can you just stray from the path and explore the game and see how far you push the boundaries of the level because all of the non essential sections of the map are sealed off by invisible barriers and kill timers. And even when you are given cool new vehicles to drive like the Mantis or the Pelicans, there is no reason to explore and you can only drive them from point A to B.
Halo 4 does have some enjoyable gameplay segments like Scorpion sections, the Mantis section in the final half of the game and flying the broadsword in the final mission which do bring some much needed break from the monotony. Halo 4 also introduces armor abilities like those seen in Reach and most of them are pretty fun in their own ways especially the thruster pack and unlike Reach, sprint is no longer an armor ability which is a good thing.
Graphics and Audio – All but Perfect
Halo 4 looks incredible. Its amazing this game was released on the Xbox 360 and still manages to look as new as some of the games that came out 4 or 5 years later. Halo 4 pushed the Xbox 360 to its limits and as a result holds up remarkably well. The level of detail while you are driving through an overgrown forest, fighting the Covenant up close or walking through Forerunner structures is exceptional and really complements to the immersion of the game.
The British record producer Neil Davidge takes over for the legendry Marty O’Donnell, who created the music for all of the previous Halo games and the results are jarring. The iconic Gregorian monk are gone and the new soundtrack, while amazing for kicking in the heat of the battle, are never as memorable or elevate the tone of the game like Marty’s bombastic compositions did. Perhaps its intentional as Davidge’s moody score is decidedly atmospheric and complement the feel of the game rather than being additive. Or maybe that’s because of the sound design as you barely hear any music at all, even when standing still.
343 Industries does a very good job of creating the dark sci-fi aesthetic of the post-war universe that the story was going for. Weapons look significantly more lethal and real than before which adds weight to how to player movements feel. The relatively grounded UNSC weapons and vehicle designs contrast nicely with the rounded covenant design and the hard angled Forerunner architecture. It gives each faction its own unique look and feel. Also the design of the armors goes for a more realistic depiction of how a human soldier would look like in the future. 343’s art style is really good, even if I still prefer Bungie’s old art style.
The few exceptions when the art style is not so great are how some covenant species like the grunts and elites look ugly and almost feral and the forerunner architecture, while beautiful, is plasticky looking and almost too clean, almost like someone hired a cleaning lady to keep the place running.
Halo 4 was reviewed on PC via Xbox Game Pass.