Halo 4 in Review

 

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.

 

25 Responses to “Halo 4 in Review”

  1. Mark E November 1, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    How long was the single-player, roughly?

    Always an important question for me :)

    • Liastaob November 1, 2012 at 11:04 am #

      Also on that note, does it still have split-screen coop? That’s one of the things that sets Halo apart from all the other “modern” shooters.

      • Robotlazer November 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

        Yup! Campaign is split-screen 2-player co-op – and I think (think!) you can LAN it for 4. Spartan Ops requires Xbox Live I believe, but i’m not 100%

    • Michael Barnes November 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      Not really sure if it counts time spent redoing areas or if it just clocks you by the checkpoints, but I finished Heroic in 10 hours. There were a couple of INTENSE sections where it took me an hour to get passed them, so I’m inclined to think that it was probably more like 12-13 hours all told.

      And that doesn’t include another 4 hours or so for the current Spartan Ops missions, or replaying the campaign on higher difficulty or with skulls. There’s TONS for the solo player to do.

  2. Dan Spezzano November 1, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    I’d really like to know if you can do 4 player split screen multiplayer like every other Halo

    • Robotlazer November 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

      Local 4-player split screen and 2-player competitive online are in. Not sure about taking 4 online.

      • Michael Barnes November 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

        That’s correct- I’m not sure either, I didn’t play co-op. It’s not what I want out of the game. But yes, it’s there if you want it!

        I’d be AMAZED if split-screen didn’t put a massive hit on the graphics.

        • McKay November 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

          Back in the day our five man apartment used to do 12-16 player Halo 1 via LAN link. Don’t suppose something like that is still possible? Even 4v4 on LAN? :P

          • Robotlazer November 2, 2012 at 11:31 am #

            You’ve been able to system link every single Halo game, 4 boxes with 4 on a box. It’s sort of one those staples of Halo that makes Halo what it is. Pretty sure you can do the same with Halo 4. My buddies and I stil have Halo LAN parties a few times a year, ten years later.

          • McKay November 2, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

            Damn, nice. That definitely picks things up in my eyes. Trying to convince my friend to put together 4v4s at his place.

          • McKay November 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

            Broke down. Preordered.

  3. Robotlazer November 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    This makes me so, so happy. Got a couple of days off from work when this drops. Halo 4 has always been my definitive gaming experience, and to read this kind of a review on NHS warms my heart.

  4. Erick T. November 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    Is there a higher level of personal investment in H4 that keeps you playing through the game, an attachment perhaps to some degree? Compared to say Borderlands 2 where it felt as more of the same grind in each new zone.

    I often feel overwhelmed in multi-player console games, so many people are so very good and I am shit (I’ve spent most of my years on a PC). Will the less skilled still enjoy multi-player without playing it every night?

    Good review Barnes, thank you for the insight.

    • Robotlazer November 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

      You know, I’m sort of in the same boat. I”m decent, but my life doesn’t afford me the time to get really good like in the halo 2/3 days. The best way to improve your level of enjoyment? Private party chat with your friends while you play. If you all drinking beers and shooting the shit it doesn’t really matter if you are getting your ass kicked. It switches it from an ultra-competitive experience, to a let’s-have-some-fun experience. That’s what my buddies and I did for Reach.

      And the level of attachement is directly correlated to how much you like playing dress up with your Spartan (at least if you look outside of the “how much fun am I having?” scale of judgement), which for me is a lot.

      • Erick T. November 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

        I’ve noticed two things recently in my gaming sphere.
        1. I tend enjoy games more when there is some level of socializing with friends involved, but I enjoy winning; my friends will dick around while im charging objectives. I bought an 360 last year and i’m pruning friends i enjoy playing with.

        2. There are too many games to play and not enough time, so much so that i cant even play the big titles i want to play let alone ALL the awesome indie games that are coming out these days.

        So I have to decide if another social shooter is worth my time or something different like AC3.

        And you’re right Robotlazer, generally speaking playing with friends almost always makes a game infinitely better, but we cant always play with buddies.

    • Michael Barnes November 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

      Listen, I’m actually pretty bad at multiplayer games. I’m in dead last almost every game. But I still really enjoy Halo. I’m not a social gamer at all (mics off all around), but I love getting in there and getting shot to pieces. The new XP system rewards you for trying. ;-)

      The grind isn’t too bad, the XP is pretty generous, actually. You play for the fun of playing it, not loot or unlocks. I think you’d do fine just dropping in and playing casually. I’d recommend games that use the new Infinity stuff, so no abilities/unlocks. That said, the new stuff is definitely worth your time, I think.

  5. garion333 November 1, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    This is the first Halo since the first one I’m even remotely interested in … and it’s in large part to how bloody amazing it looks, on a 360 no less! I’m also interested to see what another studio did with the franchise, but the art and the graphics are what I keep coming back to. I’m shocked, actually.

    • Michael Barnes November 2, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

      I’m telling you, there is stuff in this game where I was just completely blown away by the visuals. I honestly don’t remember the last time graphics really impressed me, but this feels like a definite step forward and it really sort of sets the pace for the next generation. There is no game with better graphics on the 360. It’s really a testament to the time, money, effort, and programming talent that went into this game that it looks just absolutely amazing. It’s also clear that 343 was very careful about maintaining the look, feel, and style of Halo- it’s seamless with the past games…it just looks WAY better than they ever did.

  6. Brandon Dumsky November 1, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    I keep reading nothing but high praise for this latest installment. I can’t help but wonder if it’s from unaddressed bias by the franchise’s fanboys or if it’s actually a title that stands alone on its own merits? My ultimate concern is does it actually bring something new to the table? What new features are added? Any innovation being introduced? I just have a feeling the campaign is just epic and overall good in terms of narrative content. I don’t know….ever since this game came back out in 2001, it’s like every gamer drops to their knees while the Halo franchise explodes a load on their faces. In others, slightly overrated. Although I agree the controls and mechanics are solid, but at the end of the day it’s still just a FPS…..I guess with spaceships now?

    • Robotlazer November 2, 2012 at 11:38 am #

      “It’s still just a FPS” is kind of a funny statement. “Because something is X, it is lessened in my eyes” isn’t a statement about the quality of X, it’s a statement about your personal tastes. Which is totally fine! Don’t get me wrong. But I think to bag on something simply because it rests in some sphere you don’t particularly enjoy (FPS, short stories, old movies, whatever) isn’t really a solid critique of that thing, but rather an exploration of your pre-determined reaction to that thing.

    • Michael Barnes November 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      Why could it not just be that this is a best-in-class example of the genre? Why does it have to be one of those “I don’t know if I trust the critics” things? I’m a Metro 2033 fanboy, not a Halo one. But I know a top quality game when I play one. And quite frankly, unless you just do not like Halo’s mechanics, there is no good reason why this game would fail to impress _anyone_ that enjoys FPS games.

      In terms of bringing something new to the table, it does offer some new elements (the Infinity multiplayer is HUGELY reworked, new enemies and weapons that introduce new strategies, and then there’s Spartan Ops) but if you’re looking for something out-of-nowhere innovative and groundbreaking, at least be smart enough to NOT go looking for that out of a $46 billion franchise game. Yes, absolutely- this game is very similar in a lot of ways to Halo 2001, and it absolutely SHOULD be. Halo got a lot of things right on the first try, which is why we’re on the 6th installment and millions and millions of copies have been sold. Quite frankly, it’s foolish to expect a franchise entry to be innovative and completely different. If you want that, you go to a different start-up IP, and indie game, or something like…Metro 2033.

      I could care less about Halo fandom. I would rather read a Twilight book than one of those Halo novelizations. I don’t care about the “Red versus Blue” crap, I don’t care about the so-called community, and I don’t particularly care about the storyline. But the gameplay is as good as it gets, the technicals are the new benchmarks, and this is a game that I knew the first night I played it that I would still be playing it a year from now.

      At the end of the day, it is still just a FPS. But it’s one of the best. If you just don’t like FPS or if you’re one of those people that have this weird mythology built up that 9 out of every 10 games that come out are FPS, then you’re not going to like Halo 4 by default. But if you like good games- good AAA games- then this is one you shouldn’t miss based on prejudices or assumptions.

      • StillAtMyMoms November 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

        On that note, I am going to have look into this Metro 2033 that you mentioned. Video games are becoming like movies: You have to search for some obscure classics than just resorting to a formulaic Hollywood blockbuster that a bighouse publisher releases.

      • Robotlazer November 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

        “I would rather read a Twilight book than one of those Halo novelizations.”

        You take that back. For your own good. I’m only trying to help!

  7. Sushi Nao November 2, 2012 at 1:26 am #

    Good read, Michael. I’ve come to trust your taste in games, and even though I’m a rabid Halo fan, it’s good to know you were so impressed by this.

  8. Jason McMaster November 4, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    I couldn’t be assed about this game thanks to the lack of Firefight mode.

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