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After fighting my way through new worlds and enemies, going through highs and lows and reaching the end of the newest instalment in the Halo franchise, I couldn’t have imagined a better developer to take the reins of Bungie’s creation. Halo 4 makes some changes to the series formula, strays in some ways from the expected path of a Halo game, but the whole time it shows a great deal of respect for the games that came before it. It may take some new inspirations from games like Mass Effect, Dead Space 2 or Metroid Prime, but at its heart it’s still classic Halo.
Here are the basics. Halo 4’s single player campaign took me around 10 hours to complete. Its story spent a lot of the time placing me into battles alone, feeling like the lone soldier for whom backup would never arrive. From the game’s first mission where you’re sucked into a strange and foreboding Forerunner planet, the series has never made Master Chief feel so isolated. Your fellow soldiers aren’t there to support you, Cortana is suffering increasingly from Rampancy (the AI equivalent of Dementia) and swarms of enemies will constantly be able to flank and out manoeuvre you. This is not a bad thing, it’s the most vulnerable and most human the series protagonist has ever been.
You start off in the UNSC “Forward Unto Dawn”, being awoken from Cryo suspension by Cortana, who informs you that the ship is beginning to collapse around you. You have a couple of minutes to explore the ship, looking at a data log of events from the first three Halo games (if you need a refresher), before you start being given Covenant enemies to fend off. You’ll spend most of this first level fighting against Covenant enemies you’re used to, with weapons from the first trilogy that you have had time to learn to use correctly. This first level, along with the later Covenant battles, felt like a great way to reintroduce players to the world of Master Chief and ease them into the new enemies and weapons that will become commonplace very quickly.
As game progresses we learn that we have accidentally drifted into the middle of a Coventant fleet and are orbiting an enormous Forerunner planet. The Covenant have come to the planet in search of a weapon which can be used to aid them in their fight against humanity. What they find inside the planet is an ancient evil, a Forerunner called Didact (who was previously part of the plot of the Halo Anime and the Halo novel Cryptum). He is strong, intimidating and serves to make the player feel powerless very quickly. While I can’t talk specifics on the plot, it did a fantastic job of setting up the future of the series, having an emotional impact on me as a player and humanising Master Chief more than any previous Halo game. The question of his humanity is brought into question and makes for some very interesting moments that are likely to have a large impact on who the character is by the end of Halo 5 and 6.
While still in the first level one of the most striking things about the game is the complete visual overhaul 343 has given the game. The lighting effects are fast and accurate, the range of colours on display all look bright and vibrant when required, and the game is running at a super smooth 60 frames per second. This isn’t just a fresh coat of paint, it’s an entirely new engine and it’s looking superb.
The game’s difficulty has definitely stepped up too. I played through the campaign on Normal for review and it definitely caused me more of a threat than it has in previous games. The low availability of ammunition in the campaign was an issue at first, requiring a more calculated playstyle (during a particularly hectic firefight outside in a low gravity section I found myself dying multiple times as the little ammo available would often float off into space where I couldn’t use it to reload). On more than one occasion I found myself backtracking to scavenge for small amounts of ammunition, something I’ve not had to do before in a Halo game.
The campaign will repeatedly throw you against three new types of enemies in the form of a robotic species known as the Prometheans. Firstly you have the Crawler, which fills the same “weak enemy to blast through” status as Grunts have previously filled. Where they differ is that they are much faster, more agile and more aggressive. They also displayed far more strategy on the battlefield by performing effective pincer manoeuvres and flanking when I wasn’t careful. They still only take a few well placed rounds to destroy, but when you’re swarmed by them they can quickly do a lot of damage.
Next up are the Watchers, which I quickly grew to loathe. It’s similar to a two rotor gyrocoptor which flies around at such speed that it’s incredibly hard to hit. It creates an impenetrable shield for other enemies and brings downed enemies back to life, which generally makes your life much more difficult. They can throw your grenades back towards you and I found that unless I took them out first, fights were near impossible.
Thirdly are the Knights, which take the place of Elites. The difference with Knights is that not only do they often have the Watchers protecting them, but they are also much larger and take much more firepower to take down. They throw a large amount of area of effect grenades, which also seemed to be the most effective tool for taking them down.
You’ll also come across other Promethean enemies, but they’re generally just variations on those three types.
Along with the regular list of Covenant and UNSC weapons, the Promethean enemies provide us with a host of new weapon types as well. They generally fill the same roles as other available weapons (the Binary Rifle taking the place of a Sniper Rifle and the Suppressor taking the position of fully automatic weapon), but each was varied enough in power, design and speed that it felt unique and had its own uses. When the new Promethean weapons are picked up they disassemble themselves, arrange around your arm via some sort of gravity effect, then rebuild themselves for you to use. The visual was interesting to watch and gave a sense that these were something new, something mysterious and most importantly something powerful.
The biggest thing to me playing through the single player campaign was that, while it definitely still felt a like a Halo game, it has taken on board lots of other inspirations that are visible right from the onset. The creature design and sense of isolation had a definite Metroid Prime vibe, the action scenes were at times reminiscent of Dead Space 2 and the scope of the story bordered on that of the Mass Effect series. These influences do change up the feel of the game, but they are subtle enough that they never stop this feeling like a Halo game.
Next up is one of the most important aspects of the Halo series, multiplayer. Infinity Slayer is the same good old multiplayer deathmatch mode that has become a staple of the series and still packs all the classic, fast paced running and gunning. It feels just like Bungie’s entries did in terms of controls and the levels of polish, but with a host of new maps to explore and new weapons and armour abilities to utilise. Important to note is that weapon spawn locations are no longer set, but instead will be dropped on the map periodically preventing camping on a good weapon spawn location. If you score enough points personally, not including your team score, you’ll be able to call in specific upgrade or weapon drops to your location as well.
Regicide mode marks one player as the king and will offer a hugely increased point value for killing that player. Other than that it’s pretty much the same as Infinity Slayer. The more people the king kills before their death, the higher the bounty for successfully killing them.
Previous Halo games have featured a Capture the Flag mode, but none quite the same as this incarnation. The flag you’re tasked with moving is larger, more visible and heavier than ever before. The second you pick up a flag you’re limited to your pistol and unable to sprint, slowing you down drastically. To put it simply, you become a huge walking target. Teamwork is key, the lone wolf approach more often than not ending in a quick and merciless death.
The new Flood mode acts as a spiritual successor to the old Infection mode. You still pit survivors against the infected, but taking on the role of the infected has been tweaked. Rather than having a sword, you instead have a claw that is part of your armour, custom tailored for the infected. By having the mode right there in the multiplayer lobby it allows a greater deal of customisation and just helps flesh the mode out nicely. One of the new armour abilities, Forerunner Vision, is incredibly useful in this mode, allowing you to see heat signatures of enemies and locate them through walls and floors.
Last up is the new Dominion mode. You’re thrown into a map with three basses, and your team earns points by taking and maintaining control of each of them. After taking control of a base you can fortify it with automated turrets, start receiving supply drops and generally make life easier for yourself the longer you’re able to keep control of it. It’s a very tense game mode that has you constantly bouncing around the map trying to keep control of your own bases while infiltrating enemy bases before they become too heavily fortified. It made for a great competitive atmosphere and it’s easily the mode that has the longest legs for me.
The game also brings back Big Team Infinity Slayer, King of the Hill and Oddball, all of which have changed very little since they were last playable in the series.
The game also features a mode with a series of smaller Co-op missions, separate from the game’s main story, called Spartan Op’s. The mode gives you and your crew a small and self-contained story segment to add context to your mission, before throwing you into battle with enemy forces and complete various objectives. While the missions were more interesting than just giving you a Firefight mode, the maps I was able to play through were far too spread out, often meaning that too much time is spent travelling from spawn points to the action rather than actually doing the fun part – taking part in tense combat. The mode is set to feature downloadable “episodes” coming weekly for the foreseeable future, and they have potential, but whether I continue to play through the weekly updates will depend on if the maps become more busy as the weeks go on.
All in all I had a great time with Halo 4 and any doubts I had about 343 and their ability to carry on Master Chief’s journey have been blown out of the water. It’s still the Halo you expect, but it feels new, fresh and exciting. 343 have taken the baton from Bungie and are sprinting full speed ahead. Time will tell if they can sustain this level of quality throughout the second Halo trilogy, but they’ve certainly made their mark, have not been afraid to take chances with the story and have created a great game. It’s challenging, exciting and adventurous. Some people may not be happy with the ending, but I’m personally very excited to see some more character development from one of gaming’s most iconic soldiers.
What do you think? Are you excited to play Halo 4 when it is released? Do you have any story predictions? Do you trust 343 to take on one of gaming’s biggest series’? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.