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Halo 4 Review: The Master Chief is Back and Better Than Ever

I received the opportunity of a life time this week when I was sent a review copy of 343 Industries’ Halo 4.  I haven’t stopped playing it since it hit my 360’s disk drive, and that’s not because I’m too damn lazy to get up and change games.  Halo 4 is just that amazing of a gaming experience that it’ll remain in my 2012-13 gaming rotation for quite some time.  I urge you to remove any fears that you may have in regards to 343 handling Bungie’s creation.  They’ve crafted the definitive Halo experience on the Xbox 360, and quite honestly they’ve managed to create what many will argue to be the finest game for the console in its lifetime.

Yes, Halo 4 is that damn good, and I’m not just fanboying out because I received an early copy.  For all intents and purposes, Halo 4 is a glimpse into the future of video game design, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say that I just played the first next-next-gen game.  If for some odd reason you weren’t planning on picking this game up on November 6th, I hope that our review will convince you otherwise.  I truly believe that this is a game that should be experienced by all gamers looking for an excellent gaming experience, or for those who want to see what this generation of Xbox 360 games still have to offer.  If it were possible, I’d vote for Halo 4 to be President.  That’s how much I respect 343’s creation.  Please continue on after the break to soak in our full review, so you can be prepared to rejoin Master Chief’s fight against everything evil on November 6th.

Halo 4

EB 10 out of 10 Buddhas

The Awesome

  • Best looking game on the 360
  • Familiar yet new gameplay
  • Intriguing story
  • High replay value
  • The Master Chief is back and badder than ever

The Not so Awesome

  • Some plot points are muddy unless you’ve read the Forerunner Saga novels
  • Terminals require Waypoint access to view

Story

Within moments of pressing the start button you’ll instantly be hit with the new mature look of Halo, but more importantly you’ll be treated to an intriguing prologue sequence that takes a look at Dr. Halsey’s motivations for the way she handled the early beginnings of the Spartan program.  This CGI cutscene sets the stage for a more personal story about Master Chief in this new Halo trilogy, and the fact that he’s a broken individual due to his involvement in the Spartan program, and its sadistic treatment of the early candidates.

In Halo 4 the Master Chief is no longer just a faceless avatar that we control, he’s a human that has emotions.  This is made poignantly clear in John 117’s relationship with his AI partner Cortana throughout Halo 4’s campaign.  She just so happens to be going through her own emotional changes (due to rampancy which all UNSC AI experience after being in service for as long as Cortana), and the focus on her relationship with the Chief is what initially drives him to explore the artificial planet of Requiem after they’re pulled into its gravity well, and crash land on the Forerunner planet.

The Chief’s relationship with Cortana is the focus of Halo 4’s story

The heart of Halo 4’s story revolves around their relationship, and it sets up for some heavy hitting moments that the previous Halo games haven’t showcased.  It also leads to the discovery of this Halo trilogy’s new antagonist, and this time around it’s not just a band of nameless Covenant forces.  Yes Halo fans, you’ll now have a singular enemy to hate, and without spoiling it for you, all I can say is that this new enemy threat will challenge Master Chief like he’s never been challenged before.  I’d recommend reading the new Forerunner Saga novels Cryptum and Primordium, because the events that take place in those two books are directly related to this new foe found in Halo 4.

Now that the emotional side of the story is out of the way, let me preface for you what this game is all about.  Halo 4 takes place 4 years after the events of Halo 3 ended.  Master Chief and Cortana are still floating through space on the UNSC Frigate Forward Unto Dawn, but a new evil awaits them on the artificial Forerunner planet of Requiem, which they just so happen to be orbiting when the game begins.  Cortana is literally losing her mind while she’s been watching the Chief cryo-sleep for four years leading up to the beginning of Halo 4, due to the fact that UNSC AIs begin to think themselves to death after a set amount of time in service.

Their broken down vessel gets scanned by a foreign entity while orbiting Requiem, so Cortana has to wake up Master Chief, which signals the start of the game.  It’s actually very reminiscent of the beginning of the original Halo, as are many other chapters in Halo 4, which may play into this game’s awesomeness quotient.

Halo 4’s opening mission will remind you of Halo and Halo 2’s beginning missions

After yet another harrowing and unbelievable escape on the part of Master Chief, the true meat of Halo 4’s campaign begins on the surface of Requiem.  What begins as a quest to get off the planet and back to Earth to try and save Cortana from her rampancy, ends in a whole new galactic conflict, and a new enemy that the Chief and his UNSC buddies must vanquish.  Throughout the game’s 7-10 hour campaign you’ll be treated to more “Oh Sh*t!” moments than a Michael Bay film, and you’ll also be exposed to the big picture in regards to this franchise’s overall direction.  Let’s just say that the whole Covenant war that took place in the original trilogy is just a side story in a massive tale that spans tens of thousands of years, with Humans and the Forerunners being the main parties involved.

I love where this new trilogy is headed, and Halo 4’s story definitely re-ignited my love for this franchise, and the excellent science fiction story that it has to tell.  Trust me, many answers in regards to the Forerunners are answered in Halo 4, but even more questions get raised.  All I can say is that they aren’t the benevolent race of advanced beings and caretakers that they were portrayed as in early Halo lore, which sets the back drop for this new 343 created Halo saga.

Gameplay

Halo 4’s story may be one of the best to date, but it would’ve fallen flat on its face if the gameplay portion of it stunk like a pile of rotting grunt guts.  I’m happy to say that 343 nailed the familiar feel of Halo gameplay, but at the same time they spruced it up with some new improvements.  The most notable changes come in the form of a new control scheme, but the new Promethean enemies also play a large role in the evolved gameplay of Halo 4.  With that being said I want to focus on the new controls first.

Say hello to Mr. Promethean Knight – A true badass AI enemy

It’s not like you’ll be lost if you’ve played the previous Halo games, but 343 has definitely altered the layout of the controller scheme in Halo 4.  The best way to describe Halo 4’s new controls is to mention its biggest competitor in its genre – Call of Duty.  I hate to make the comparison to this juggernaut of a franchise, but many of Halo 4’s new controls are inspired by COD (Most notably in multiplayer).  For example, there’s now a dedicated sprint button that is mapped to the LS, which when clicked will allow Master Chief to get his Usain Bolt on.  I loved this new feature, because let’s be honest, the whole jumping Chief mechanic was starting to get old, so it’s nice to be able to sprint, rather than jumping around like a kangaroo on crank when you need to cover long distances.

In addition to a dedicated sprint button you also get a dedicated armor ability mapped to the LB button.  Throughout the campaign you can equip the Master Chief with abilities that range from holograms to sentry bots, which change up how you approach each skirmish.  These allow you to experiment with a new level of strategy not found in previous Halo campaigns.  Personally, the sentry bot is my favorite new toy, but I did find myself using multiple armor abilities along the way.

We should all thank 343 Industries for these new abilities, because without them the new Promethean enemies would be that much harder to kill.  These new ancient warriors will provide a challenge unlike any you’ve encountered in the Halo franchise.  With the Prometheans (A Forerunner Warrior-Servant class created to fight on their behalf against the Flood thousands of years ago), 343 has created some of the smartest AI I’ve seen in an enemy character.  The three main classes of Crawler, Watcher, and Knight work in symphony with each other to give Master Chief the business like never before.  Just when you think you’ve downed an impressive Promethean Knight he’ll get revived by a Watcher while some Crawlers flank your position.  Yeah, prepare to get pwned!

You’ll need all of the new gear to help take down the Prometheans

The Promethean battle tactics would make Sun Tzu jealous, but their new weaponry also helps to kick your Spartan-ass.  Halo 4 carries forward the UNSC and Covenant arsenal (Yes the Covies are still in Halo) from the previous games, albeit with some slight modifications, but the new Promethean weaponry will help you turn the tide throughout your playthrough.  I was most impressed with, and therefore used, the Promethean Lightrifle the most throughout my campaign run.  It’s concept is similar to the UNSC DMR, or the Convenant Carbine, so I found it to be the most lethal weapon to use at any range during the campaign.

The Prometheans also have a shotgun, pistol, sniper rifle, grenades, and just about any other equivalent weapon type to the Human and Covenant versions.  I think I was most impressed with the design of these new weapons, especially the animations used by them when the Chief picks one up.  These weapons more or less assemble themselves to the carrier every time they’re picked up, which added a nice level of visual flare to Halo 4.  Like I mentioned earlier Halo 4’s new control scheme and Promethean enemies will make you appreciate the changes that 343 incorporated, as well as remind you of why you fell in love with this franchise in the first place.

Graphics

Both the new control scheme, and the new Promethean enemy types will surely make your Halo 4 experience a fresh one, but the aspect of Halo 4 that truly sets it on a pedestal above the other games is its breathtaking visuals.  If I didn’t know any better I would have sworn I was playing this game on the Xbox 720, or whatever lame name Microsoft ends up going with.  I can say without a doubt that Halo 4 is by far the best looking game on the Xbox 360, and at times it’ll make you wonder if you’re watching real people on screen.  The character animations will make you blink a few times to convince your brain that you’re actually watching fake people and not real life actors.  If I had to compare it to another game I’d say that Halo 4’s character animations rival those found in L.A. Noire, so yeah, they’re freaking amazing!

The level of graphical fidelity that 343 was able to squeeze out of the aging 360 is jaw dropping.  Think of the best animated CG movie that you’ve seen and you should have an idea of what Halo 4’s cutscenes look like.  The lighting and textures in Halo 4 give it a more realistic feel, and it definitely doesn’t come off as cartoony looking as the previous Halo games.  343 has managed to make the Halo universe feel alive with their impeccable game engine, and you’ll find yourself soaking in the game’s many different vistas as if you were on a sight seeing vacation with the Master Chief as your guide.

Halo 4 is stunning to look at

 

The improved and more mature visuals take Halo 4 from a comic book-like experience to a movie-like experience, and they’ll only make you wish that the powers at be could get off their collective a*ses, and finally make a live-action Halo movie.  343 has nearly managed to do that with their game engine on a 7-year-old console, so I can’t express how amazing their achievement is without you seeing it first hand.  Halo 4 isn’t your big brother’s Halo.  It’s a sneak peek at the next generation of gaming, and how close developers are to producing life-like visuals in video games.

Sound

To be honest with you, Halo 4 wouldn’t have been able to achieve the level of realism that it has without the revamped sound system that 343 has created.  Every sound in this game has been overhauled to give the world a more authentic feel.  Each weapon sounds different, along with the vehicles you pilot throughout the campaign.  Even the nuance of Master Chief’s armor movement is captured brilliantly in Halo 4.  The Covenant forces have also had their sounds overhauled making them a little more realistic, and not as campy (think Grunts) sounding as previous Halo games.

When it comes to sound in Halo 4 the big elephant in the room is the game’s soundtrack, which isn’t scored by long time Halo composer Marty O’Donnell.  Neil Davidge is the new maestro for the Reclaimer trilogy, and for the most part he’s managed to create a solid score that sets itself apart from the original trilogy, while maintaining its roots to the musical themes found in the Halo franchise.  I did miss the now iconic chanting theme that accompanied the previous Halo trilogy’s menu music, but Davidge has replaced it with an equally compelling tune featuring an ethereal female voice that sets a somber tone to accompany the overall feel of Halo 4’s story.  With the overhauled sound design, and new musical score by Neil Davidge, Halo 4’s new more mature sound scape only helps to compliment the other improvements made by 343 to the Halo universe in Halo 4.

Multiplayer

For the most part each and every one of us started playing the Halo franchise because of its expertly crafted addicting multiplayer mode.  I’m happy to report that 343 has maintained the level of excellence that we’ve come to expect in Halo’s multiplayer component in Halo 4. Halo 4’s many different multiplayer modes are contained within the new Infinity multiplayer venue, which is set on the decks of the UNSC Infinity mega-cruiser.

Infinity Multiplayer’s War Games is the traditional Red vs. Blue mode that you know and love

Infinity multiplayer is split into two main categories.  War Games, for all intents and purposes, is your traditional Halo multiplayer portal that features the Red vs. Blue game types that Halo fans have been fragging in since 2001.  The other category is a new mode known as Spartan Ops, which is a co-op campaign told through episodic content that will be released each week, and will feature a complimentary story to the single player tale told in Halo 4’s main campaign.

In both modes you will be controlling your very own Spartan-IV soldier, who you can rank up and customize with the new COD-like multiplayer options present in Halo 4.  I mentioned earlier that Halo 4’s control scheme has been slightly COD-ized, but that’s even more evident in the revamped multiplayer modes.  For example, you can now customize your character for how you like to play with various unlockable abilities. Changing your armor is no longer the only option available to you.  You can now unlock, and fully customize a set of load outs with armor abilities (think cloaking, hologram, jet-packs), armor mods (think shield recharge rate, advanced XP earning abilities, stealth upgrades), and your desired arsenal.  As you progress in Spartan Rank you’ll earn Spartan Points to spend on items to unlock for use in your multiplayer load outs.

This level of customization, along with the allure of ranking up to the point of unlocking a new Specialization class will undoubtedly keep gamers enthralled with Halo 4’s multiplayer modes for quite some time.  These new Specializations are in some sense similar to prestiging in COD, because once you hit SR-50 you can unlock a Specialization class such as Wetwork, Rogue, or Engineer to further enhance the skills of your custom Spartan-IV soldier.  343 has definitely upped the ante when it comes to multiplayer customizations, so I hope other gamers will appreciate this as much as I do, and actually start playing a multiplayer game that doesn’t start with Call and end in Duty.

Before I wrap up this part of our Halo 4 review I want to touch on the new Spartan Ops mode, which is essentially Firefight mode on steroids, with meaning.  What I mean by that is that each Spartan Ops episode will feature brand new story content that will come out each week after the game’s release, and it’s meant to be played with friends.  Each episode will feature five chapters full of objectives that will tell an actual story set in the Halo 4 universe after the events of the Halo 4 campaign.

Spartan Ops adds a whole new co-op centric campaign to Halo 4

Spartan Ops isn’t just Firefight with never ending waves of enemy AI.  It’s a stand alone co-op campaign that will add upwards of 10 hours of new story content and gameplay with its first season.  I’d assume after season 1 343 will start charging for new Spartan Ops episodes, but the fact that they included an entire season for free with the purchase of Halo 4 makes it a new feature that really sets itself apart from previous Halo games.

Final Thoughts

Most hardcore Halo fans may consider it sacrilegious to say that 343 Industries has created the best Halo game to date, but I truly feel that’s exactly what they did with Halo 4.  Everything from its focus on an emotional story, to its realistic, more mature visual and sound designs, sets it apart from its predecessors.  There’s not a better looking game on the Xbox 360 than Halo 4.  I’d be willingly to bet that it’ll go down as the best looking game in the console’s history when everything is said and done in regards to the aging 360 platform.  The new Forerunner antagonists are formidable foes that will make any seasoned Halo veteran rethink their battle tactics.  You have to use the new armor load outs with precision and care to help turn the tide in Chief’s fight against the new Promethean warriors, as well as employing some of their new weaponry to help turn the tide.

343 Industries has also managed to make the excellent Halo multiplayer formula that much better in Halo 4 with the introduction of COD inspired gameplay mechanics, which allow for a level of customization never seen before in a Halo game.  Not to mention the fact that they’ve included the new Spartan Ops mode that is surely going to revolutionize how certain game developers roll out DLC content for their multiplayer modes.

I really struggled to find one single, glaring issue in Halo 4, but I couldn’t find a blemish.  Outside of some cheap deaths due to frantic evasion tactics while on platforms, I can’t fault much in Halo 4.  It will easily earn its place in the inevitable 2012 Game of the Year discussions, and it may have already seeded itself in my number one spot.  Halo 4 is that damn good people!  I wouldn’t lie to you, nor fanboy out on you.  343 has officially earned their spot as a top notch game developer with their Halo 4 debut.  Their work has led to me giving this game the coveted perfect rating of an EB 10 out of 10 Buddhas.  Don’t be the gamer that misses out on all of the Halo 4 talk next week when it releases on Tuesday.  This is a game that all gamers need to experience regardless of their prior thoughts of the Halo franchise.  Respect.

 

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Tags : Game ReviewGOTY CandidateHalo 4
Matt Heywood

The author Matt Heywood

Matt Heywood is the founder and EIC of EntertainmentBuddha.com where he strives to make you a better geek, one post at a time! When he’s not scouring the Internet for interesting nuggets of awesomeness he can be found in his secret lair enjoying the latest and greatest video games, taking pictures of toys, or talking Star Wars on EB’s Star Wars Time podcast show.