January 4, 2013

Review: Halo 4

Folks, it's the moment you've all been waiting for! The very first game critique, and for Halo 4 no less. Prepare your body.


Prometheans die in a spectacular fashion.
The first thing you'll notice about Halo 4 when you start up the game is it's the best looking console game ever made. Ever. I mean, holy breadsticks, how did they squeeze so much power out of a seven-year-old system? It's all just so damn beautiful. You're first treated with a cutscene that looks about as good as the pre-rendered ones from Halo Wars. And then you realize it's not. The whole game looks that good. I've never been so enamored by lens flare in my life. Of course, this works to create the most stunningly realized world in the Halo series. Remember the first time you played Halo? How, even with those blocky Xbox graphics, you "oohed" at the sprawling vistas and "aahed" at the corridors filled with glowing alien architecture? Imagine that x1000. It's immediately apparent that 343 spent an insane amount of time building Requiem. Even locations like the Forward Unto Dawn and the Infinity are beautifully realized. Unfortunately, you don't spend nearly enough time in this world. Several of the game's stages take place in dazzling outdoor vistas, inside mysterious Forerunner facilities, or within highly detailed space stations. >But a few of the later stages consist of a bunch of corridors and are, quite frankly, downright uninteresting.< It's a shame because the campaign is rather short this time around. Just eight levels, compared to ten, fourteen, and nine in the previous numbered titles. This wouldn't be a problem, obviously, if the levels were all lengthy. But they're not. Quite a few of them are pretty short. The intro stage will take you about twenty minutes. Yes, I certainly was disappointed with the length, especially considering that no review mentioned that ahead of time. You could argue that Halo 4 is only as long as it needs to be to tell the story it wants to tell. But I don't agree with this either. To save you any disappointment, I think you should go into Halo 4 knowing it's the shortest game in the series.

Behold: emotion!
Before I get into the gameplay, I'd like to talk about the story. I believe that the story of Halo 4 is the game's strongest aspect. The first Halo had a pretty simplistic, but appropriate, story. You crash land on a ring world and unravel its mysteries. Halo 2 really took things in a crazy direction with 100 interweaving plot threads. Halo 3 finished that story. So you might think, "Where could they possibly take things now?" Lots of places, it turns out. Halo 4 has two plotlines: One involving Cortana's impending rampancy, and the other involving the Forerunners. Surprisingly, both storylines are given equal weight and remain interesting. However, the Forerunner line (let's call this the "main" line since it's the one that establishes the trilogy) seems a bit under-developed. >You actually encounter the Dicact quite a bit faster than I thought, and then you don't see him again until the end of the game. What happens in between actually serves to explain some of backstory between the Humans and Forerunners, but a lot of the Dicact's backstory is explained in terminals only. As a result, you don't really get a good sense of him or context for the current events just playing through the game because, for some strange reason, you have to quit the game and load up Halo Waypoint to view the terminal videos.< I thought that what the game presents as the barebones story (terminals excluded) was pretty interesting, and it made sense to me as a longtime fan of the series. But newcomers or those not immersed in the fiction might be confused, especially if they haven't played a Halo game before. It stands on it's own, yes, but relies a lot on past fiction. Luckily, those terminals are pretty easy to find this time. The Cortana storyline actually has a lot of weight if you've been with the series from the beginning. Jen Taylor is absolutely outstanding in the role this time around, and Steve Downes finally gives the Chief a bit of emotion. The supporting cast is great, too, both in terms of personality and portrayal. If you haven't seen the miniseries Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, you'll probably be left wondering who the hell Thomas Laskey is. >One of the most surprising parts of the game is how cleanly it's wrapped up. Seriously. There are no loose ends at all, yet it's the start of a trilogy. I am extremely curious about where the story will go from here.<

So, you probably want to know how this thing plays, right? Guess what, you already know the answer to that. It plays like a Halo game. 343 Industries has done nothing to ruin the classic Halo formula. Is that good? Yes and no. Do you like activating buttons? How about sticking computer chips into terminals? You'll be doing a lot of both in this game! Seriously, when you're not shooting guys, you're holding X to activate stuff. Halo games have always had a lot of this, but Halo 4 takes it to a whole new level. The shooting mechanics are the same as ever, which is good news, I guess. There's sprinting now, so that's a plus. Not much else to say about that, really. What's really changed is the level design. Halo 4 felt a lot more linear to me. Spaces felt more closed and there was always, always, a waypoint to show me where to go. All the time. On the plus side, I never once got lost. That was something so common in previous Halo games, you could have said it was part of the design. I always knew where to go. Although when I got there, there was always something to activate. And that's the progression of the entire game. Kill things from point A to point B so you can flip a switch. No exploring or getting lost, no progressing just to progress. Always to flip a switch. I may sound cynical, and I am a little bit because it's kind of ridiculous, but that's seriously all the mission variety there is. Who are you shooting between point A and point B? Covenant or Prometheans. Yes, they found a way to bring the Covenant back, although I kind of wish they hadn't. More Promethean variety probably would have done the game good. You'll either be fighting the same old enemies you've been fighting for eleven years, or three new ones. That's all there is for the Prometheans. Once you figure out how approach each new foe, they're not difficult to fight at all. I recommend you play on Heroic or higher. When you have to fight only Prometheans for entire levels, things get monotonous. It doesn't help that the Forerunner weapons are basically reskins of other weapons, and, mostly, the least powerful weapons in the game. On the plus side, they vaporize flood into a fine mist, which would be great if there were any flood in this game! There's also new armor abilities, which are the most useful yet, but you still won't use them. There were a few moments that surprised me towards the end, but I think, when it comes to the gameplay half of the campaign, 343 played it way too safe.

There is one last bit to the game that can't be ignored: the sound design. It's some of the best ever. The sound effects, like the visuals, will blow you away. That's really all I can say. Incredible sound mixing. Because Marty O'Donnell works for Bungie, he's not the composer this time around. 343 went with the unusual choice of Niel Davidge, best known for producing albums by Massive Attack. The guy had little experience actually composing scores before he took on Halo 4, and the samples released early on had me concerned. Really, I can (and probably will) write a whole other review for this soundtrack. But here I will say that it's actually pretty good. Completely different from any Halo music you've heard before, but fitting for this game. Although Davidge elected not to use previous Halo themes in his score, there are little nods here and there. You won't hear the classic Halo theme anywhere, though. The composition is surprisingly great, but whoever put the music into the game needs to be fired. Having listened to the soundtrack first, I found that a lot of great music went nearly unused or was misused during the game. My favorite track can be heard below. A snipped about 30 seconds long plays in two cutscenes, one of which is hidden in a terminal. Upon first listen, I called this the most beautiful track I'd ever heard composed for a video game. To have it go unused is criminal.

The Halo 4 campaign is a bit of a mixed bag. Many new locations are fascinating, but you don't have much freedom to explore them. Missions are more linear and less varied than previous Halo games. The art direction, writing, and sound design are the best in the series, however, while the soundtrack creates a bold new direction.

But wait, there's more! Halo 4 has an entire multiplayer suite that's just packed with features! Remember how I was sad that you don't get to spend enough time on Requiem? Well, how's another 50 missions on Requiem sound? That's Spartan Ops, an episodic campaign of free, downloadable missions you can play with up to three other people. This replaces firefight mode, though it's arguably better. It works like this: There's a season consisting of ten episodes, consisting of five missions each. One episode is released a week. Currently, there are five, with the next five starting later this month. Spartan Ops takes place after the campaign and continues the story. You play as a Spartan you create, and any experience and unlocks you earn are usable in competitive multiplayer too. The missions aren't that long or fancy, but they are are free and they do take you back to Requiem, so I ain't complaining.

Hey, old friend. I've missed you. This is the only remake map. Good choice.

On the other hand, there's War Games. War Games is the standard competitive play, given a context within the fiction (Spartans train against each other on the massive UNSC Infinity holodeck). The biggest changes in the game are seen here, with some pretty big shakeups to the old formula. There's honest-to-goodness loadouts now with weapons, armor abilities, and other bonuses you can unlock and equip. Weapons no longer spawn on the map but are dropped in specific locations instead. You can also earn drops with power weapons or powerups by getting kills. Games are no longer scored by kills but by points. Flag carriers cannot drop the flag and carry a gun. Warthog turrets and vehicle boost now have cooldowns. The list goes on and on. I must say, 343 did a great job actually making me excited about multiplayer for once. And they didn't disappoint! I never play online because I don't find it fun. But this game I like. Every gametype is fun, from the zombie-like Flood mode, to the strategic Dominion, to the manhunt that is Regicide. The maps that ship with the game are probably the best bunch to ship with any Halo game. Loads better than Reach's bland maps. I actually like them all! There's another three DLC maps now available, one of which is a total blast. Be warned, though, if you like smaller matches: Almost all the maps in Halo 4 are large. And then there's Forge. It's easier than ever to create maps with the new tools at your disposal, but you'll probably miss the freedom that Forgeworld provided. The three maps in Halo 4 provide some nice variety, but may be too restricting for some. And all the pieces are UNSC-themed. In Reach, they were all Forerunner themed. What's up with that? Oh, and the best change of all? Playlists are broken up by gametype! No more praying for some CTF in the "Mystery Funbag" playlist or whatever the hell they'd call it. 

The multiplayer half of Halo 4 adds incredible value. It's the best competitive shooter of the year, and adds an entire co-op campaign for free. It's probably worth the price for this stuff alone.

In the end, Halo 4 is a worth addition to the series despite its faults. The campaign is worth it for the story, and the multiplayer is worth it for the fun. I went in with ridiculously high expectations. Like, "best game of the series expectations". While I think 343 Industries tried a little too hard to emulate the first Halo rather than trying something new, I can't deny that they did try hard. The care shows. Really, I think the misstep was trying so hard to not upset anyone. 343, you've proven yourself. We know you love Halo and you're not going to ruin it. You have our permission to experiment in Halo 5. And maybe add some more grass... and fewer square rocks. Seriously, the rocks are beautiful but we could do with a less of them.

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