After Bungie left Microsoft many people wondered if 343 Industries would be able to successfully pick up where they left off with the absolutely wonderful Halo Reach. While there have been some fundamental changes to the formula in order to modernize the series, it has ultimately retained its core themes.
You start off the campaign a few years after the ending of Halo 3. It takes place almost exactly where Halo 3 left off (from Master Chief's perspective), as the half of the ship (Forward Unto Dawn) which Chief was slumbering in approaches a mysterious planet. Things kick off right away from the moment he is awoken from cryo sleep. While the campaign has its small moments of adrenaline scenes that are very representative of the direction that modern first-person shooters have taken, it mostly retains the feel and play style of the Halo series as a whole. The campaign has a pretty good variety of levels that really help to create a fun experience. With the Flood gone, the addition of the new Promethean race helps to add a fresh perspective to the gunplay within the series. For example: there are enemies that will teleport; there are enemies that will climb on walls; there are enemies that will summon defenses; there are enemies that will throw grenades back at the player. While none of this will sound particularly new to the genre as a whole, it's certainly new to the series. The Prometheans have been some of my favorite enemies in the genre to face.
The campaign, unfortunately, is the shortest in the series. I was able to play through the campaign in about 5-6 hours the first time on Normal. That being said, the little bit of the campaign that is present is extremely fun and paced really well. The story takes a more personal approach to Chief as a character, adding a much needed level of depth to him. On top of that, we finally start to learn about the Forerunners, an ancient race of beings who created the Halo rings. While the race has been referenced a lot, we've never actually met them until now. The story is mostly a setup for the rest of this new trilogy, but it's still well done. While playing through the game, you can find hidden skulls which will allow you to add difficulty modifiers to the game for fun challenges. You can also find hidden terminals which contain backstory on the important past of the humans, Forerunners and Flood. Ultimately the story is a huge step forward for the series, effectively continuing in exactly the direction that most fans were hoping for.
As mentioned, the gameplay has had some tweaks that make it play a little different now. Item abilities are back, though many of them are different from the past two games. The pacing of the game is a little faster as well, which will throw off veteran players. A new sprint feature has been added, which helps with mobility significantly. There are many new weapons that change up the gunplay a little, and some minor modifications to how many of the older weapons operate. Within multiplayer, all the old game modes are back. There is nothing really new added to the competitive multiplayer, which is a bit of a bummer. That being said, the new maps are actually designed quite well, and retain the quality of the previous games. There are some redesigned classics along with some new ones as well. The change in pacing may be a bit of a turn off to veterans, but I felt it was a much needed way of keeping the formula fresh. The playlists are all essentially the same as Reach as well. There were many tweaks and upgrades to the overall community features as well, which really made the game more exciting to play online. There are also a lot of customization features, which make an upgraded return from Halo Reach.
One missing component that I really enjoyed from previous iterations is Firefight (the wave defense mode from the previous two games). Instead, our replacement to it was an episodic co-op series called Spartan Ops. Each Episode consisted of 5 Missions, with a total of 10 Episodes all together. It takes a very interesting approach. Since this mode is a continuation of the story from the campaign, it really helps give closure to that story as a whole while creating just enough questions to make the next game enticing to play. Each episode starts off with a 5 minute cut scene that sets up the setting then jumps into the missions. The missions progress really slowly from a story perspective. From a campaign perspective, each episode tells about the story of one normal campaign level. Everything feels drawn out merely for the sake of creating fluffed out game play. To top it off, the first 5 episodes (so half of Spartan Ops) feels extremely boring and repetitive. All you do is essentially run from point A to point B while killing all the enemies in the map, which will keep coming in for a bit. At first it's fun but it gets to be too much after a while. From episode 6 until the end, though, there is a much needed level of variety between the missions that increases the fun of Spartan Ops significantly. Unfortunately, most will find it very difficult to trudge through the first half of this mode. Keep in mind each episode will take you about 2 hours to complete (on Normal), so many will find it extremely difficult to trudge through the really boring first half (about 10 hours’ worth) before finally jumping into the fun. The enemies gain new abilities and become harder to kill as you get further into the game too, which is a welcome challenge (though to counter this we aren't given any new tools). The downside to this is that, while you can play the game alone (which I did), it's very clear that the game was completely designed for co-op (up to four players). Most of these firefights will result in tons of deaths and will be extremely frustrating. Luckily, since this is technically a multiplayer mode, you will still respawn rather than start from a previous checkpoint. It was really cool that they decided to extend the story through DLC like this completely for free (it's a very interesting story, too). Spartan Ops was a very ambitious idea that was ultimately only executed effectively when it was too late. It's just too bad that Firefight needed to be taken out to make space for this. Having both modes would have been awesome.
Finally, Forge (the map editor) returns also with some upgrades and tweaks, though ultimately retaining the same features and quality from Reach. Besides Spartan Ops and a little bit of modernizing, it doesn't feel like 343 changed up the series too much. There are just enough changes to keep things fresh while still keeping everything as 'Halo' as possible. Of particular note is the high level of artistic design in the game. Everything is really creative and especially beautiful. They really managed to make the most of the Xbox 360 hardware as a sendoff for the console. The sound design is absolutely amazing as well. The music lacks some of the timeless charm of the Bungie made games, but still has some really nice pieces and many nods to previous musical themes.
Despite the shortcomings of the game and ambitious ideas (which mostly fall short), Halo 4 is a very good addition to the series which will help alleviate any fears of 343 Industries' ability to uphold the quality of the series. Fans and new players alike would do well to try out this high quality sci-fi first person shooter.
- Teepu (Bowser05)