Platform | Release Date
360 | November 6, 2012
Developed by 343 Industries
Published by Microsoft
The Master Chief returns to battle an ancient evil bent on vengeance and annihilation. Shipwrecked on a mysterious world, faced with new enemies and deadly technology, the universe will never be the same. Enlist aboard the Infinity to experience Halo’s original multiplayer and Spartan Ops – episodic fiction-based co-op missions
Halo 4 is a crowning technical achievement. Regular readers know I spend most of my gaming time on the PC these days but I was honestly blown away with the graphical fidelity 343 managed to offer here. Some of the facial animations veer into uncanny valley territory but I easily forgot I was playing on a console. Even for non-Halo fans, this is worth a rental just to see what might be the best looking Xbox 360 game ever made.
Of course, Battlefield 3 on PC is eye-meltingly beautiful but no one, not a soul, can defend its wretched campaign by saying, “ooh, it’s pretty!” Previous Halo titles have always had a strong visual identity, but Bungie didn’t build an empire on their graphical achievements. What I look for in a Halo game is the series’ iconic linear sandboxes. While corridors abound, the fights you remember are wide-open areas full of threats at all distances – and many potential solutions to the problem.
The FPS genre on consoles owes a great debt to Halo but few titles offer a similar experience. Rarely do I need to approach enemies at anything other than “generic assault rifle” range. Enemies other games are often glorified “whack-a-moles”. Seeing a shotgun on the floor isn’t the highlight of a level. Sniper rifles in Halo games are precious resources to be saved up “just in case”, not featured in bespoke levels. In new hands, would the magic be lost? Would 343 be able to rebottle the formula Bungie created?
I’m happy to report 343 is able to make fighting the Covenant just as fun as ever. While I miss Grunts panicking and squealing “Demon!”, and the aggrieved death cry of Elites as I shot them in the face, fighting the alien alliance feels just as varied and challenging as in the past. Elites move, dodge, and flank aggressively. Jackals hide behind their too-resistant shields and harass at distance. Bungie slowly evolved Grunts over the years and 343 cribs liberally from their playbook. The enemies you love to headshot will carry everything from Plasma Pistols to Fuel Rod Cannons, and multiple suicide grenadiers are a common threat.
My sole complaint fighting the Covies is that 343 goes a little easy on the player when it comes to fighting the walking tanks that are Hunter pairs. They make 3 distinct non-vehicle level appearances in the campaign. Despite noticeably improved AI, defeating them has never been easier because of the tools at your disposal. The first appearance is a cake-walk thanks to a Fuel Rod Cannon. The latter two require you to strafe around to hit their fragile backs, but both times you’re given a shotgun to make your work as easy as possible.
I wouldn’t call Halo 4 easy, by any stretch, as difficulty settings feel akin to recent entries in the series. Skulls don’t have to be found in levels and campaign scoring is nowhere to be found, which will significantly impact replay value. If you have at least one partner and you’re moderately skilled you might as well dive right into Legendary (but sans skulls) from the start. here which significantly reduces. My “no skulls” recommendation doesn’t extend to Grunt Birthday Party, of course. Turn that the hell on.
If Halo 4 was only about fighting the Covenant, my job reviewing the game would be easy, and I’d rest assured the franchise was in good hands. Sure, there’s a painfully scripted level early in the game, but even Bungie produced some real clunkers. The problem is more systematic this time around. Instead of a bad level here or there, I don’t like the new alien menace at all. They’re not fun to fight nor are their weapons good alternatives to the well-established Human and Covenant equivalents. In fact, the Prometheans put me in the unenviable position of defending the Flood as a fun enemy to fight.
343 clearly understands the appeal of the Covenant “puzzle box” but think back for a moment to Halo: Combat Evolved and the Flood’s first appearance. The game went from wide-open spaces which required killing every last enemy in order to proceed to closed corridors, enemies whose numbers exceeded the available ammunition, and who came from all sides. The Prometheans offer neither the varied challenge of the Covenant nor the drastically altered gameplay of the Flood.
Halo 4 briefly flirts with three-sided factional battles which recall some the craziest Flood levels in Halo 2 but basically settles down and presents you with either the Covenant or the Prometheans. I enjoyed nearly every Covenant level but patiently endured the Promethean ones. Detailing all of my objections is beyond the scope of a review but the main problem is that there is one, and only one, approach to every Promethean encounter. Moreover, in a series with an insanely high skill ceiling that rewards headshot efficiency, I can’t stand that the Promethean Knights (think Elite equivalent) have no headshot hitbox. Brutes in Halo 2 were notorious bullet sponges but at least headshots were still worth 3-4 body shots. The only viable way to fight a Knight is to get as close as possible and pour fire into them.
A lot of the marketing hype around Halo 4 suggested an increased focus on story and world-building now that the series had fresh eyes. As B-movie as the previous games have often been, I really like the franchise and have consumed much of the extended universe fiction. Fans hoping for a better or less disjointed story will be disappointed. Microsoft devoted what must have been a significant portion of their marketing budget producing the “Forward Unto Dawn” web series. They wanted us to care about Thomas Lasky and his past relationship with the Master Chief and even that character is wasted until the final cutscene.
In fact, there’s not a single likeable side character in the game. Or even a well-developed villain. A wild, Assassin’s Creed 2-ending level of idiocy cutscene halfway through cemented my dislike for 343’s storytelling. By the time you dispatch the final boss with a bloody QTE I would strenuously argue that this is the worst campaign in the series. But hey, I loved Halo 2 and think that Halo 3: ODST is one of the best FPS campaigns ever made, so clearly my opinion isn’t valid.
It’s a shame, really, because 343 clearly understands the magic of the franchise and can create their own, new magic. The penultimate level is a brilliant piece of design I’d gladly put in the top 5 Halo levels of all-time. It blended completely new action with excellent musical scoring and, quite frankly, gave me chills like the iconic beach landing in “Silent Cartographer”. Then they shot themselves in the foot.
I can’t help but praise the sound design Neil Davidge capably fills Martin O’Donnell’s shoes, delivering an excellent score which is used to great effect at key sequences throughout the game. Halo: Reach saw an effort to give weapons a punchier, more “realistic” sound, with mixed results. Not so in Halo 4. I waste far more shotgun ammo than I should just to hear its satisfying kachunk.
Previous titles in the series are far from perfect but Halo 4, for all its technical polish, is my least favorite campaign in the series. The elimination of campaign scoring limits the appeal of ‘story be damned’ replays with friends. If Prometheans are a pill fans have to swallow, 343 has to find a more interesting way to use them or I’m checking out of future entries.