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Old Dog, New Tricks? Halo 4 Review

December 6, 2012

The Halo franchise is such a curious series. Normally I like games that are quite tight with their storytelling and plot, and to me, the Halo universe is told in a very loose, forgettable manner that is essentially full of ‘go here, press two switches and kill the Covenant’ tasks.

But it is still fun, and it is still easy to become immersed in the game. The way your enemies react is incredibly fluid and natural, and physics can be used to an incredible advantage, both for and against you.

It also brought with it the Forge mode and Forge World. To my mind, this was one of the most customisable sandboxes the Xbox has ever encountered.

In short, Microsoft inherited a great legacy from Bungie, who left their mark on fans and the FPS genre as a whole, thanks to its unique take on gameplay.

It now falls to 343 Industries to take the torch, and to make sure the legacy is carried on.

From the outset, it’s quite clear that this is a different game. Playing through the first level reinforces this early on. To keep things brief, you discover that Cortana is beginning to suffer from – or is already quite far into – the stages of ‘rampancy’, which affects AI units after a certain period of service. This makes her all kinds of unpredictable, and eventually, as she herself quotes, they ‘think themselves to death’.

This kind of sub-plot slots in smoothly with the overall storyline of the new Big Bad Boss, and it is a novel way to keep players engaged in what would otherwise be a generic ‘kill the aliens’ romp. Whilst I think it could’ve been pulled off better, especially towards the end, it’s a brave step that worked to the game’s advantage. The incredibly detailed expressions of the various characters add to this, too, and make the cutscenes that much more dramatic, thanks to facial motion and performance capture techniques. Cortana and Chief make an uneasy trek through the world, with the Chief providing counsel in his icily calm way. This gives him some much-needed humanity, not least for the fact that he speaks more than a few lines in Halo 4.

As well as that, the writing is intelligent enough to bring a grin to my face. Take a look at 1:10 of this video, for example. The commentator’s reactions speak for themselves.

Other things of note in the game’s plot are the new human characters, especially Palmer. As well as helping the Master Chief with his objectives and providing some friction when encountering his crazy AI pal, some of them feature in the episodic Spartan Ops mode, which takes place 6 months after the events of Halo 4. It’s tempting to compare Spartan Ops to the Firefight modes of previous Halo games, but I would coin them as bitesize single player missions. They focus on progress and plot, rather than survival. The cutscenes linking these episodes together, as well as the character development within this mode, grounds the multiplayer feature firmly into the story in a way that other games would be very envious of (oh, hello, Mass Effect 3!).

Gameplaywise, we also see changes from the beginning of the game. If you’ve checked out that video, you might have already seen a small QTE climbing section, ala Nathan Drake’s Uncharted 2 train mishap. These are littered at a few points throughout the game, not intrusively so, and not in a way that dictates the gameplay, like other games such as Asura’s Wrath. Gun sounds and effects have been tightened up, and thanks to the work of the game’s audio director, Sotaro Tojima (of MGS4 fame), the Magnum and Plasma pistol actually feel like firearms instead of party poppers.

Red vs. Blue

Red vs. Blue

Multiplayer has returned (naturally), and after a few playthroughs with my friend, I’ve decided that it is more of the same. You can choose weapon loadouts, yes, but this means that everyone is going to pick the DMR. Essentially, every match is a DMRfest. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t see any noticable improvement over Reach (which, to their credit, would’ve been hard to do). You can use abilities like in Reach, though Sprint is now usable by everyone. Invisibility and the rocket pack make a comeback, and newer powers have been added: the Hardlight Shield is a Gears of War-style shield you can use to block everything coming at you for a small period, whereas the Promethian Vision power is a predator-style x-ray vision, in the style of the Batman: Arkham games. There are also perks, which are pretty standard: unlimited sprint, more powerful grenades, and so on.

Zombie mode has been revamped, and is now Flood. Complete with infected Spartans. That was fun, especially when using Promethian Vision as the last survivor. I would cower in a corner, shotgun in my trembling, clammy hands, and watch as all of those red figures dart their way towards me with extreme prejudice.


A cunning disguise


Vehicles, a staple of the Halo diet, are also back. Ghosts and Wraiths have a limit on thier Boost capabilities, though in my gameplay I’ve never yet reached it. Vehicles also seem to have their own ‘health’ that is more pronounced in the previous games. Basically, the more it’s beeping and flashing red, the sooner it is to becoming an expensive firework. They feel as fluid as they did before, though the Banshee’s dodge move could do with some tighter animation compared to previous titles. You also -finally- get to fly a Pelican for one mission. I look forward to the day when we can use them in multiplayer, side-mounted turrets and all.

The environments all feel like they are from the Halo universe, sufficiently futuristic and metallic, though at times it feels like little more than a training ground than an authentic environment. If you see lots of walls and a few weapon creates, then you know what’s coming, and it makes the levels a tiny bit linear and forgettable. Despite this,  there are some beautiful backdrops, such as the one horizon shot at the start of the second mission (which I don’t feel like spoiling), and the Covenant’s design is changed enough so that they seem apart from the other Covenant, but similar enough to look recognisable. On that note, the AI mimicks that of Reach, with Elites often acting pretty sharp and increasingly ruthless the further up the difficulty scale you go. Grunts gain a new jetpack boost ability, also. Word of warning: there are a lot more Jackal snipers.



Predictably, there are going to be quite a few people who will sing the praises of Halo 4 until the Rapture approaches, but I feel the game does not merit a 9.8 out of 10. Really, I wonder if these people play the same game as I do, but I’ll shut myself before I end up on a mini-rant about games journalism. Halo 4 is a resilient first effort by 343, and it has done much to stave off criticism, but there are a number of things that can be addressed.

Covenant and Marine weapons all feel like they have their place in the game, though I feel more than a little underwhelmed with the Promethian choice of weaponry. Disregarding the fact that the Master Chief can seemingly use these weapons expertly upon first picking them up on Requiem, they feel like little more than reskins of the Marine weapons, except for a pistol that, when charged, becomes a mini shotgun. The rocket launcher equivalent has a Worms-esque banana bomb effect also, but everything else feels disappointingly familiar.

Promethian grenades seem to largely be a waste of time, except to perhaps render an area uninhabitable for about three seconds. The only use I have found for them so far is to blow up stationary turrets, but I would much prefer a couple of sticky grenades. All in all, it feels like 343’s Well of Imagination was severely tapped when they came to the choice of new weaponry.


“disappointingly familiar”


On another note, the music doesn’t really hold a candle to Martin O’Donnell’s work, and it’s probably an unfair point because O’Donnell’s work has been refined over the space of several years, but on most occasions, it felt like general sci-fi bipbopping in comparison.

They are issues that can be fixed and ironed out, but I suppose I was expecting something a little more fresh with 343’s take on things. I understand that they did not want to stray too far from familiar territory here, and perhaps they are more the wiser for it, but I had hoped that the Promethians were a little more, well… alien.

There are some plotholes that I can’t resist poking my finger into, too. Play through to the end and you’ll know what I mean.

Still, it’s a decent first start by this new developer, and we know that there will be more games on the way, so perhaps they will find some technical flair then. True enough, they can make a solid Halo game with a refreshing plot (at least on Cortana’s part), but let’s hope the gameplay doesn’t get too stale by the time they’ve finished, especially when considering the multiplayer.

Original Source: Halo 4 Review

Image Links: The Guardian, g4tv, Gaming Animal

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