When I think of what makes Halo great, I think of things like simple, accessible shooter gameplay built on a rock-solid foundation of impeccably balanced and specialized weapons leveraged in sandbox-y encounters that invite me to develop strategies and overcome impossible odds. I think of raucous multiplayer battles that feel more like schoolyard games than uber-macho paramilitary kill-fests. I’m put in mind of epic vistas and setpieces where I’m taking down a massive enemy vehicle single-handedly or riding out across an alien terrain in a cool tank. Then there’s the sweeping, portentous music and the particular sound of it all- from the announcer that says “Sssslayer” to the report of one of the game’s ubiquitous assault rifles. These things are all part of what Halo is to me.
It was when I was firing one of those assault rifles early on in the single player game that I realized that I wasn’t playing a Bungie Halo game, but a 343 Industries one. It sounded bigger, meatier, and richer. Everything did. Come to find out, they reworked all of the sound and if it’s not an entirely new graphics engine, then I’m shocked because the game looks sometimes astonishingly good. Who’s really impressed with graphics anymore? Play Halo 4, and you will be. During the opening cutscene, I actually had to kind of squint to see if the characters were real actors or CGI models.
343’s effort is an immaculate piece of AAA game-making, reportedly the most expensive game Microsoft has ever made. It shows. This is the product of folks working at the peak of their technical and artistic craft, every single element of the production from texturing and character animation to interface design and dynamic lighting is almost staggeringly polished and refined to near-perfection. But most importantly, Halo 4 is a smash success following up on 46 million copies and $3 billion dollars worth of successes , regardless of who’s steering the ship. In other words, they got it right and it’s money in the bank. More than that, I think it is likely the best Halo game to date if only because it is so carefully studied, constructed on the established foundations of this massive franchise.
But following on from and building on Halo’s past also means that some of the other things I think about when I think of Halo are there. The not-so-good things, mostly connected to the single-player campaign. The first part of the “Reclaimer Trilogy” story is another somewhat vague framework for outstanding gameplay and a number of bravura action sequences- almost all of which are player-controlled, not cutscenes. Master Chief is back, as adverstised, as is Cortana. Complete with all of her horribly written, horribly executed comedic relief lines. Some of the emotional beats playing to the silly relationship between Spartan and AI actually had me groaning, which is a huge disappointment in a game that is otherwise best-in-class. Believe me, the scene where you’re practically a one-man escort for the world’s biggest Tonka truck will make all of the feeble writing worth sitting through.
So yet again, the writing and story isn’t what it could be. Since I’ve never really been invested in the Halo story or the transmedia surrounding it, I found myself wondering why in the hell I was fighting my way up to a button and who the hell the Forerunners are, anyway. It didn’t really matter, I had a great time anyway and I just sort of shrugged off the nonsense. Hell, if nothing else the soft-headed story dragged me through some really awesome-looking places across several different kinds of environments.
And I do mean dragged, because Halo 4 can be brutally, refreshingly difficult when played on the Heroic or Legendary settings, which is really what you should do. The difficulty makes every firefight, sniper alley, or desperate rush tense and exciting, with a great sense of reward when you work out that guerilla tactics will get you through an area or simply playing the stealth game and avoiding a fight altogether is the best option. And there’s always the issue of bringing the right tools to the bench, so to speak. I love that in Halo 4, as in past Halo games, the two weapons you’re carrying are a major strategic concern.
So Halo 4 is Halo, and all that entails- which is both exactly what I wanted it to be, but it is also a minor disappointment. I went into Halo 4 hoping that 343 would really rock the boat, upending the series and revitalizing it with new concepts and forward-thinking ideas. It seemed like the mandate was there with the changeover in stewardship. But they really didn’t change that much in the formula other than bringing in some challenging new enemies that fight nothing at all like the Covenant or the Flood and an entire armory to go with them. Sure, they put you behind the stick of a Pelican and there’s a new mech you can rampage in, but most of the game is, as stated, a continuation of ideas from past games including Reach and ODST.
A reality check is in order. Halo simply can not be innovative and groundbreaking anymore because it is such a successful franchise. The old saying goes, “don’t mess with success”. You don’t gamble on a release like this. You make a game that will please most of the people most of the time. The developers can fidget with some elements of it, but ultimately this game has to be Halo first and foremost, and it has to touch all of those Halo things. You can’t possibly say they failed in doing so. No, it’s not the latest heart-filled, scrappy indie game made with ten grand of Kickstarter funds and the pipe dream of remaking an esoteric 1990s PC game. But anyone who thinks that 343 didn’t knock this out of the park- while also setting the stage for the next generation of FPS games- needs to get their head checked. So what if they stayed the course. It worked.
However, this stay the course approach is mostly apparent in the single-player offering, which is extremely generous for a linear playthrough but virtually unlimited in replay thanks to co-op and modifying skulls. The multiplayer game, where many would say that Halo comes alive, has seen some pretty extensive renovation and I’m not quite sure yet what to make of it all both because I’m kind of overwhelmed by the changes and also because I need some more time beyond the review period to sort of let it all settle in. There’s a new leveling system with unlocks, killstreak-like weapon drops, and a much wider range of customization and ability options. It’s a fairly controlled set of variables, but it is still moving Halo away from the more egalitarian multiplayer game of Reach and all before and more toward a Call of Duty-like system where some players have, and some do not. I don’t mind ending a game feeling outperformed, but I don’t like feeling like I’ve just been outgunned because I don’t have the top unlocks.
The maps are awesome, as good as anything in past Halo games, and the game types are the usual mix of fun Slayer and objective types and there are tons of customization options for each. Many, I predict, will bemoan the loss of Firefight but rest assured that the new Spartan Ops game, which is sort of cross between Call of Duty’s SpecOps and Firefight, is likely to emerge as something far better. It’s a series of weekly missions, complete with cutscenes and narrative context, that can be tackled solo or with three other players. I really like that it’s practically a serial, ongoing campaign.
I’ve not even touched Forge or any of the theater options but they’re available for the interested. One of my favorite things about Halo has always been that it lets players play the game they want to play, and 343i has maintained this design principle. If you don’t like the new leveling system and abilities, you can set up games without them and go purely old school. If you hate multiplayer, there’s tons of single-player game to be had or you could never touch the campaign and solely play this online with friends or strangers across any number of game types. Halo is extremely accommodating, a true mainstream game that welcomes the hardest of the hardcore and the casual-est of the casual. At this level of the business, that’s a necessary goal.
Halo 4 is Halo, that’s what I keep coming back to when I collect my thoughts on the game. It is exactly what it is, and if you are already dead set against Halo or if you resent it for being a simple, accessible shooter or for any other reason, it won’t change your mind. But it also won’t give you anything new to hate, because the game is what you make out of it. The product itself is an amazing, enormous, and sometimes ravishing piece of software. The game is almost preternaturally refined, precise, and peerless in its technical execution. But no matter what it all is to you when you put it together in your mind, Halo 4 is Halo- definitively.