Die-hard fans of Microsoft’s now-legendary shooter franchise can rest easy: 343 Industries didn’t break Halo. The Master Chief still carries two weapons at a time, effortlessly jumps higher than any Olympian and manages to wipe out hoards of aliens without once breaking his cool, collected demeanor. Halo 4 doesn’t reinvent the formula developer Bungie so lovingly crafted, and for the most part, that’s a good thing.
It’s good to jump into an online match and instantly feel at home. The responsive, tactile nature of combat has been improved enough to make it relevant in today’s landscape, but not so much that it feels foreign. The multiplayer pushes this franchise in all the right directions, borrowing key elements from most modern shooters in order to spice up its own unique brand. It’s the kind of familiarity you hope to see in a time-tested feature, but this reluctance to break free of its predecessors makes the campaign a less novel element of this high-quality product. While it may be mechanically sound, the return of the Master Chief does little to establish itself as the new, inspiring chapter of the Halo saga. The more personal narrative finds success in spots, but the full experience feels a bit too safe for a developer attempting to make an impactful statement. It may be able to stand alongside the campaigns of the previous games in the franchise, but I hoped for a better reason to wake the Chief up after such a long slumber.
Familiarity begins to surface as soon as Chief awakens from an extended sleep. The Covenant have boarded the ship where the super soldier has been in stasis, and while bullets aren’t exactly the most desired alarm clock in the world, it’s the space craft’s quick descent to the Forerunner planet Requiem that’s the cause for most concern. It all begins to feel like the standard procedure, but soon, a new race called the Prometheans is added to the fray. New weapons and the rapid deterioration of the AI Cortana continue to shake things up, as well as the appearance of the ominous villain, the Didact. Instead of an entire race like the Flood or Covenant to focus on, the antagonist of Halo 4 has a face – and a truly hideous one at that. It’s a welcomed change of pace, and just one of the many aspects of the campaign that make the story structure more solid.
Yet, it doesn’t take long for the Prometheans and their armaments to resemble the various archetypes established in past Halo games. Some of the AI patterns are exciting to experience due to their unpredictability, but the Promethean shotgun is still a shotgun. The sniper, too, still closely resembles the feel of most other scoped rifles you’ve come in contact with before. Fresh elements are present, but you’ll still find yourself battling similar enemies, vehicles and routines from the past. Some chapters just drag due to repetitive design.
None of this makes Halo 4’s campaign a bust, though. This is still a high-quality, entertaining experience that Halo fans will enjoy. There are strong moments both from a gameplay standpoint and in the overall narrative, but there’s just not enough different here to make it a standout chapter within the fiction. The connection between Cortana and Chief is the brightest spot, and it’s tough not to appreciate some of the more cinematic moments. Yet, I was left wanting something a bit more novel, even if the new look for the environments and opposition is truly impressive.
These improved aesthetics are much more than just a shiny coat of new paint. The cinematics, both in-game and pre-rendered, are astounding, and the overall design for each piece of the environments is something special. Halo has never been an ugly franchise by any stretch of the imagination, but the art direction here takes things to new heights. Bright colors pop off the most menacing enemies, and the different pieces and parts of the weaponry are far more detailed than ever before. 343 Industries has delivered a visual treat, and the returning brilliance of the orchestral soundtrack makes Halo 4 a pleasure for the senses. Situations may get dire from time to time, but a heroic soundtrack paired with the gorgeous presentation make the chaos seem more hypnotic than overwhelming.
The familiarity that holds back the campaign has significantly different results in the fantastic online experience. Neither feature flips the formula on its head, but the improvements made to the classic Halo competitive features do just enough to modernize an aging phenomenon. The sprint feature introduced as an armor ability in Halo: Reach has been toggled to the left stick, which makes for a much smoother game. The melee remains snappy, a kill streak variant can help turn the tide of a lopsided match and equipment slots help to differentiate each Spartan on the battlefield. Active camouflage, Promethean Vision that lets players see through walls and a quick dash are just a few of the unlockable abilities that make each encounter in Slayer unique, and while players will quickly find a loadout they enjoy and stick to it, a match filled with wholly distinctive soldiers never feels unbalanced.
Is the experience entirely unique? Not in the least. It feels as if 343 had an extensive sat-down talk with a few Call of Duty developers before creating the competitive multiplayer of Halo 4. All deaths are followed by a nifty killcam, and any points earned during a match are flashed in the center of the screen. You can customize loadouts, complete weapon-specific challenges and modify a Spartan to your heart’s content. It’s hard to argue that any ground is being broken here, but it’s all so wonderfully integrated that it’s difficult to complain. All the right steps have been taken to make this game function like your favorite Halo, but there are enough new elements to keep your hands gripped to the controller for hundreds of hours. As soon as I jumped in, I felt like I had just discovered a long-lost hoodie that I wore at least twice a week during a high school. All that old comfort remained, yet instead of being frayed and infused with the cheap smell of Axe body spray, it returned fresh and ready to be worn in public.
All your classic game types, as well as a few modified modes, make their way into Halo 4. You’ll still participate in Slayer as you would in any other Halo game, while the Flood mode, which closely resembles Infection, is a nice change of pace. There’s some variety, but the largest change comes in the form of the cooperative Spartan Ops feature. This weekly, episodic mode follows a team of Spartans that work out of the Infinity, which is a large ship that appears in the campaign. There’s a small cutscene that introduces the five chapters available now, but this is in no way a story-driven experience. These are short, serviceable missions meant to be enjoyed by a group of friends, and while it’s difficult to judge a feature that’s going to be updated with free episodes so frequently, what’s available now is underwhelming. I’d be content with the prior wave-based mode being replaced by something with greater ties to the fiction, and the campaign co-op is still a wonderful option, but the debut episode of Spartan Ops fails to engage with its consistent radio chatter. It’s not a strong start, but the solid action makes it worth at least watching in the future.
Halo 4 succeeds in its developer transition, and in many ways, is the most enjoyable entry in the franchise. The multiplayer is an addictive mix of both old and new shooter tropes, and the progression system in place should satisfy players until a new numbered Halo appears. It’s also a massive step up in terms of presentation, with both the art and technology taking tangible strides since our tour of Reach. But the campaign, which only lasts around six hours, is just a little too analogous to what we’ve played many times before. The return of the Master Chief is worth seeing, and there are some truly special narrative moments that help to build pivotal characters. Yet, things start to look and feel all too familiar before the credits roll. Halo 4 is a safe return to one of gaming’s most recognizable protagonists, but I can’t help feeling like something more interesting could have been accomplished by this new development studio.
Halo 4 was developed by 343 Industries, and published by Microsoft Studios. An Xbox 360 copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.