I’ve been playing FPS games ever since id Software released Wolfenstein 3D on the PC back in 1992, and despite the lack of a mouse and keyboard, the genre managed to make the leap to consoles a few years later with great titles like Medal of Honor on the PlayStation and of course, GoldenEye on the N64. But it would take the turn of a century for the genre to reach critical mass with the release of Halo: Combat Evolved in November of 2001. Merging compelling single-player gameplay with some of the first-ever console multiplayer ushered in a new era for console FPS games and online gaming.
Over the past decade the Halo franchise has released numerous sequels and spin-off titles such as Reach and the infamous Halo Wars RTS game, and with each new release something always seemed to be missing. The franchise was slowly withering away, as if the fixed pool of “good ideas” had been diluted past the point of no return. While franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty were evolving game design and the rules of online gaming, Halo was stuck in the mire of its own legacy and perhaps the apathy of its creators. Usher in 343 Industries; apparently the fresh blood needed for the Halo transfusion that has resulted in the best Halo game since the first; perhaps even the best Halo game created to date.
The first hour of Halo 4’s incredible story sucked me in faster than all the best moments of all the past games combined, and no, it wasn’t because I was merely getting closure to the cliffhanger ending from Halo 3. Halo 4 masterfully blends its story into the very essence of its new gameplay mechanics as well as every pixel of its sweeping artistic level design. The sheer scope of the levels, the richness of textures, and the fluidity of animation is something that, quite frankly, I would only expect from a PC or whatever new console Microsoft has planned for us down the road. The fact that this game can even run on a 7-year old system boggles the mind – the fact that it does so at reasonably consistent framerates on even the grandiose of levels blows it.
Just as impressive as visuals, the score is worthy of an immediate soundtrack purchase, and the wildly diverse sound effects for weapons, creatures, ships, and landscapes are as uniquely original as they are exertly mixed in Dolgy Digital perfection. Voice acting is second to none for anyone with a spoken part, and I actually found myself enjoying the ongoing banter between the Chief and Cortana.
At the heart of the Halo franchise is the unique “love story” of Master Chief and his AI, Cortana, and Halo 4 expands on their virtual romance from the moment she summons Chief from his cryo chamber slumber to the highly emotional conclusion of this next chapter. Halo 4 blends the established with the new by keeping the Covenant as the significant and familiar enemy while simultaneously introducing us to the mysterious race known as the Forerunners. Not only does this provide for some wildly creative enemy designs, but expect to wield an arsenal of visually spectacular weaponry that seems to be built with some sort of tech from the Transformers universe.
Halo 4 turns the difficulty up to 11 in this fourth installment, so those who would normally tackle Heroic out of the box will find a more “legendary” experience waiting for them, while those who dare attempt Legendary (especially alone) will be in for the frustrating fight of their gaming life. The level of difficulty is not merely in the number of enemies the game throws at you or some arbitrary increase in their hit points but rather the dynamic evolution of tactics required to defeat these new enemy types. Some enemies rush and pounce on your like wolves while other will spawn drones that fly overhead and create energy shields. Other enemies can teleport from scope range to melee range in the blink of an eye, and when the game starts mixing and matching these enemy types your strategy has to remain as fluid as the combat itself. While the game is perfectly winnable playing alone, at least up to Heroic level, there is a reason 343 has made the game so easily accessible to online and even split-screen co-op – Halo 4 is an experience that is best shared with friends. The only downside to co-op is the fact there is no drop-in/out.
For as impressive as the Halo 4 story is, both in quality of writing and the stunning cutscenes, much of the epic history of Halo is told via hidden terminals. Eight such displays are hidden throughout the campaign mode and offer a great incentive for a second trip through each chapter. While I appreciate the attempt to have collectible secrets in the game, actually making the effort to find them on your first pass can be very distracting to the story and pace of the adventure, but you really do need to find and view this material, as it provides some of the best story moments of the game. It’s nothing that changes the outcome of the game, but the information on these secret terminals really adds to the backstory and your understanding of the Halo universe, and the production value is awesome.
Some changes were long overdue like your ability to sprint without the addition of some armor mod. Mods are now much more tactically beneficial like my favorite, the sentry drone that seeks out and destroys most of the smaller enemies. The hardlight shield is a lifesaver when you need to pop-up a temporary shield to repel the incoming blasts of a Promethean Knight before launching your own assault, and even the hologram decoy (perhaps a tribute to Holo-Duke) serves as a valid distraction while you flip a switch or search for more ammo. The cloaking device works well enough if you want to sneak past enemies without firing, and the jetpack will let you get through some of the more vertical areas with nimble ease.
The Halo 4 arsenal is bigger than ever with many of your favorite weapons as well as new Promethean gear that seems to assemble itself in your hands. Despite the odd multi-piece construction of these new weapons, they can all be traced back to more earthly designs like machine gun, shotgun, and sniper rifle, so it’s more of a change of form versus function. Enemies seem to have their own weakness when it comes to weapons, so finding the right gun for the job is essential for survival.
Beyond the campaign there is a big world of multiplayer waiting for Halo veterans including the new Spartan Ops, an episodic series of levels that seems to be proving more entertaining than even the campaign play. One thing is for certain – the opening cinematic for the first pack of missions rivals any cinematic I’ve seen to date on the Xbox 360. Spartan Ops delivers groups of missions and levels in weekly episodic drops; much like DLC…actually exactly like DLC, but the first season is FREE! Inside these bundles are missions that can either be arena-style survival missions or larger and more linear objective-based missions that, just like the campaign, can be tackled alone or cooperatively. The game does a fantastic job of scaling to the number of players and provides all sorts of fantastic combat moments in creative level designs. Those with a watchful eye may even pick out an Easter egg or two with some great Red vs. Blue references.
For those looking for a more traditional multiplayer experience look no further than War Games. In creating War Games, 343 Studios analyzed what everyone else was doing with multiplayer, borrowed the best parts and removed the rest. The end result is some of the best multiplayer the Halo franchise has seen since the creation of Xbox Live. Subtle mechanics have been put into place that not only balances the gameplay across players of all skill levels, but also adds new modes like the insanely popular Dominion.
With Dominion you have three bases on each map that are open to capture by either team. Once a base is captured it will undergo periodic upgrades of reinforcement the longer you maintain control, and the longer you control a base the more points get added to your team total. It’s a great game mode that challenges players to work strategically as a team, and presents that all-too-tempting third base that will inevitably have one team spread their forces just a bit too thin to try and capture them both, presenting the perfect opportunity for attack by the opposing team. All your existing modes are back, many tweaked and enhanced including the highly polished Forge mode and a feature-rich Theater mode that will have everyone creating their own Machinima projects.
I have to admit that I tend to be skeptical of these high profile titles that I am “expected to like” simply because they are part of a pop-cultural phenomenon, and while it is true that there are Halo loyalists out there who will praise any game that releases with the Halo logo stamped on the cover, Halo 4 truly is a remarkable achievement, not only in its masterful storytelling in the exciting campaign mode, but the new and improved multiplayer and the spectacular addition of the episodic Spartan Ops. This is a fantastic reboot of an epic series and a worthy title to launch a new trilogy of Master Chief adventures.