Halo 4 Review
When Bungie won their freedom from Microsoft and said they were done with Halo, that generally made people think that even if MS wanted to keep the franchise going, it'd never be the same and couldn't possibly be as good as Bungie's original five games. What wound up happening is that Microsoft formed a new studio called 343 Industries - a company named after a character in Halo itself - took on the challenge with Bungie's blessing. With the seeding of a few key ex-Bungie employees into the studio and a guarantee that the resurrection of Halo comes entirely as a result from this new studio, 343 and MS intend to let people know that this beloved franchise is alive and well. The result is Halo 4, a return to the adventures of the series' main protagonist - supersoldier Master Chief - and his dealings with the reawakening of the Forerunners, an ancient race of beings that created the Halo installations seen in the previous games.
This is one of those games that many people play for different reasons; some people play only for the story, some go for split-screen cooperative play, and others play only for the competitive multiplayer. Over the years, I've played Halo mostly for the story and for cooperative split-screen play; I prefer online gaming on PC, but there's nothing quite like Halo's campaigns on PC except the old, disappointing ports of the first two games. With that said, this means that I'll be mostly looking at the campaign for this review, and while I got some time in with the online play and Forge mode, it wasn't my focus.
The story begins with Master Chief's awakening on a half-disabled human warship, and quickly he'll be introduced with the Forerunners - and yep, they start a big fight while Chief gets reunited with the UNSC and Cortana starts to have... issues. Sounds good so far, but it's in the details that Halo 4's campaign starts to fall apart just a little bit. The backtracking that the series is infamous for is in full force here, along with lots of "Chief, hurry and push that button to lower those shields/destroy that reactor/start that elevator" - these rather mundane objectives are what Chief is reduced to completing nearly every time. There is good, though: Halo 4 doesn't really have boss battles (which I do actually appreciate), the Flood are thankfully gone, and the graphics are the best in the series yet. But in some ways, I feel like 343 took their daunting job just a bit too seriously, and that tone starts to manifest in both the story and in the way levels and combat play out. (I also find it curious that key backstory cutscenes must be found like secrets and played back from the game's menus, rather than simply being built directly into the campaign itself.)
The large vehicle-oriented sandbox areas with mixed fights between aircraft, ground vehicles, and on-foot soldiers were always my favorite parts in Halo. Sadly, those seem to have been minimized here, and a good half of these bits you do get to participate in have you piloting a slow-moving Mantis mech, which has some nice fire power, but it makes for some very immobile, plodding battles. Sure, you'll get your (brief) chance to use Warthogs, Ghosts, Banshees, and Mongooses, and even a weapons-equipped Pelican dropship, but these sections are all designed in small bites, and the level design and enemy placement makes this stuff not nearly as exciting in cooperative mode than past games. There's nothing here like the sequence that begins with Tsavo Highway in Halo 3 - that hour or two of gameplay is the most fun part of the entire Halo series for me - and instead we get something that's a little more laborious and somber instead.
Some will say that the look and gameplay of Call of Duty has finally infected Halo, and I can see where they're coming from, but there are at least a few key ways this hasn't happened. First, Halo is much more about movement than precise aim, and about taking on enemies without nearly as much cover by making use of Chief's shields and superior firepower - and thankfully, that is still the case here in 4. The Halo games have also made good use of enemy AI by pitting players against wildly different types of enemies, each with unique quirks and behaviors, and having them move around constantly to keep players guessing. That's still true here, but the overly linear level design often limits this factor, and you'll only see glimpses of this in a few of the game's big sequences. Finally, Bungie seems to have intended Master Chief to be a Silent Bob-type character who did talk, but only when it was really necessary. Here, it kind of feels like he won't shut up - or at least, not when talking with Cortana - and it does take away some of his mystique, and yet we still don't learn much about his upbringing and status as the first Spartan. Considering that fans that have been dying to back inside the helmet of Master Chief for a sequel have been denied for a good five years now, I suppose 343 felt like they needed to deliver more of the guy, but it's my opinion that they missed the mark on where to put that effort.
Halo 4's campaign is still entertaining and any fan of the series owes it to themselves to go through it, but it's lost some of that wild-eyed, silly fun that its predecessors had, especially in cooperative mode; the overall serious tone of the visuals and story this time around make it something that's just a little too different from the original games. That silly randomness is what made the Halo games so memorable for a guy like me who plays nearly every FPS that is released, and it's unfortunate that Halo 4 is just a little bit more like the average FPS with desperate races to pull a lever and linear firefights that offer only limited tactical options. It's not disappointing enough for me to tell you not to play the game, but those who were hoping for the series to return to original heights are going to have to wait and hope that 343 figures that out for the inevitable sequel.
From a multiplayer standpoint, I think 343 is much closer to the mark, and even a lot of that silliness and humor that we lose in the campaign is alive and well over here in the various playlists and in Forge mode. Overall, gamers have been rather pleasant on their headsets in Halo 4, and I hope that continues as it helps keep the game all about fun rather than about K/D ratios or ridiculous stats and charts about your in-game successes and failures. From the perspective of online play, the only thing I can complain about is the replacement of Firefight with Spartan Ops mode, which seems more limited with less long-term value. Still, the rest is great, and while I have never spent much time in any Halo game's online modes, I have spent enough time to know that this lines up with what most fans want. If your main goal is to kill people on your friends list, just go buy.
Considering that many people wrote off the Halo series as a dead or dying property once Bungie jumped ship, the fact that 343 came out swinging and delivered something that wasn't an overall disappointment - I know, I'm not really setting the bar very high here - is already a huge victory for them. But that's just my opinion on this game; I'm pretty sure that a good chunk of fans will have a higher opinion of Halo 4 than I do. The return of Master Chief alone will no doubt sell millions of copies, and while the campaign goes a bit off the rails early and never quite gets back on the track - nor does it quite reach the level of sheer fun set by Bungie - it's still worth it to jump in at some point, especially since we know there's definitely another sequel coming. For those who love Halo and mostly play online, all I can say is that you should pick up Halo 4 as soon as possible, because it's got everything that makes this series' online play so entertaining. For the rest, I wouldn't worry about rushing out to pick it up on release day, but do check it out when it's convenient.
Disclaimer: This review is based on time spent playing a retail copy of the game not provided by the publisher.