Review: The Best and Worst of Halo 4 (Campaign Edition)
I’ve been a fan of Halo since the beginning, in fact it’s the game I bought an Xbox for after hiring one, with the game alongside it and having a play. Back then a lot of what Halo did was pretty revolutionary; only two weapons at a time, varied grenade types, a focus on story and scope. These days pretty much every game does that, particularly first person shooters, so it’s not hard to imagine that trying to get into the series now is… difficult.
It’s made slightly easier by the release of Halo: Anniversary edition – the remake of the game from 2011 that used the Halo: Reach graphics engine, but without a remake of Halo 2 (an Xbox exclusive which, to the best of my knowledge, is not compatible with the 360 any longer) well you’re kind of wasting your time.
Halo 4 does, sadly, suffer from this a little bit. For someone like me, I fell right into it but even that has had some drawbacks.
First things first though:
*minor spoilers from here on in. There’s one big one, but I’ll mark it clearly.
Halo 4 uses some clever tricks and great design to get a lot out of even older model consoles. I’ve never gotten around to upgrading to the newer types of Xbox 360, in fact the one I am playing Halo 4 on is the same console I purchased back in 2006. Since then it’s had one RROD and been fixed (about 18 months into the purchase) and since then it’s run fine. So when I tell you that Halo 4 looks fucking spectacular, know that it does so on hardware that by videogame standards is practically ancient.
The textures are crisp, even up close, with rocks looking suitably rocky and metal looking suitably metallic. There’s a real visible difference between fabric textures; leather looks like leather, cotton-like fabrics like cotton. Where the game shines though is in lighting.
Admittedly it’s a bit JJ Abrams Lens Flare at times – certainly in Forerunner structures where at times it’s like every surface is shining a flashlight directly into your eyes – but much like it did in the 2009 JJ Star Trek movie, it works for me. To me, scifi means glowing shit, and this game is full of it.
Oh, and those bump-map misloads and pop-ups of Halo 2 and 3, and ODST, and Reach? Gone.
It’s really pretty
Design wise, a lot of the game is spent between exterior environments – a jungle, a desert, a volcano-magma-death-zone-core-place – and Forerunner structures. Those exteriors are varied and feel genuine in their terrain and their decoration. The rocks of the canyon are different to those of the jungle. Dust clouds swirl in the former while the latter has sounds of the rainforest – an alien rainforest of course – and has leaves glistening with moisture.
Once inside, the buildings of the Forerunner are matched well with examples from previous games; all angled metal, bright glowing inserts and glass. So much glass.
It makes the interiors have a visual link between the older games, while still providing much newness and development. A lot of care has been put into the design of each location to make it feel like something the Forerunner would use, and not just a place for you to shoot aliens in.
Halo 4 begins us with the usual enemies of the series – The Covenant. Unlike later games in the Master Chief saga, the Covies are not our allies and are represented here by a fringe group, too stubborn to join the alliance, known as The Storm. The enemies here speak no English, and take no prisoners. It’s like playing Halo: Combat Evolved again, with brutal alien antagonists you liked to hate, and enjoyed pumping full of Needler shards.
But that’s not all, as the game soon introduces a new enemy – The Prometheans; combat AIs designed by the Forerunner to protect their facilities, much like the sentinels. Sadly though, these guys don’t care that John-117 is a Reclaimer and just go about shooting you in the face anyway.
Both the Covenant forces and those of the Prometheans have received a much welcome focus on great design. The Elites feel heavier than in previous games, and are much more menacing than those in Halo: Reach. Similarly the Grunts are much improved and actually pose a threat. Enemy AI has been vastly overhauled to make certain encounters more dangerous and more strategic in nature. At several points in the game, I’ve been forced to take pot-shots at the enemy from behind cover, taking them out one at a time, moving from cover to cover (there’s no cover system mind you, this is just me physically running behind walls and peeking past crates and such) to take them down.
That was something I never had to do in previous games where the spray and pray ideology could be embraced without fail.
Brutes are gone. Which is good. They sucked, and had no design consistency between games.
The Prometheans, divided into the dog-like Crawlers, giant Knights and the support class Watchers are almost too good an enemy. They use clever tactics to flank the player, can work together to deflect gunfire or grenades and when you have a pack of Crawlers on your hide, it can become quite frenetic.
And don’t even get me started on the times when you’re forced to fight both Covenant and Promethean enemies. I became something of a powerhouse of curse words the other day. Much of what I said didn’t even make sense, but I embraced the moment – hectic as it was.
Like Naughty Dog in their Uncharted series, 343 have used a great deal of performance capture in the cinematics and character actions of this game and it really pays off.
The opening cinematic could be, in places, confused for live action and overall the look and feel, and voice acting, of each of the characters is truly above par. Cortana is brilliant; emotive, damaged, honest. Chief is stoic, strong, commanding. Jen Taylor and Steve Downes (respectively) bring back their A-game for the roles they have played so well in the past and the marriage of performance captured visuals with truly outstanding voice work leads to a great experience.
I’d like to go on record as saying the Promethean Suppressor is the best thing ever. It’s almost overtaken the Needler as my go-to weapon of choice. The Scattershot is pretty great too.
All the weapons have new sounds, high fidelity design and improved functionality. The Needler feels a little more powerful than in Reach, but that’s not a bad thing as it was pretty underweight then (as opposed to the brutal, almost ridiculous beast it was in Halo 3). The Plasma Rifle has been replaced with the Storm Rifle, but it’s mostly a cosmetic difference. The Magnum is back, most welcome. The best additions are the Promethean weapons: Boltgun, Suppressor, Scattershot and others. Gorgeously designed, lovely animations and powerful.
If you have the option, always pick the Promethean weapon – if only because you can get ammo for them from almost any downed Forerunner enemy.
As the start of a new trilogy, the plot of Halo 4 needs to both wrap up the loose ends of the original, and branch out into its own territory. I’m going to be up front here – I haven’t finished the main campaign just yet. I’m on mission six of eight though, and I’ve had a taste for the direction they are going.
It can be a little hard to follow, and does drop some knowledge on you now and then (I’ll address that in my bad points section) but the story is pretty well crafted, and takes you to places the trailer never hinted at. I can’t say much more without spoiling it. I liked it, though. That’s what I’ll say.
Okay look, while I did just say it was great, it isn’t perfect and much of the problems with it stem from the inclusion of EU content without EU context.
If you have read all the books, delved into the expanded universe and are really well versed on Halo lore then you won’t have a problem and even without those things the story isn’t hard to follow or anything. What it does though, is drop in understanding that feels a bit out of place.
[POTENTIALLY MAJOR SPOILER]
When introducing The Didact, the characters go from having never seen anything like that before to knowing full well who it is. The Didact is a character mentioned only in Halo: Anniversary and experienced in Halo 3 through archived conversations between the Didact and the Librarian, which the player could access through found terminals, and who is mostly known from the novels.
Which I’ve never read, even as a big fan of the games.
[END POTENTIALLY MAJOR SPOILER]
I just think that a player shouldn’t have to have read the books and explored all the fine minutiae of the game’s expanded universe to fully understand the plot. It’s like expecting someone to have read the book to make sense of the movie. The story is really good, but some parts have that “how do they know that” feeling, because they rely on outside knowledge.
You can find this backstory on a terminal right at the start of the game, but it’s a pretty weak way to introduce it; scrolling through still images on a blurry screen.
Similarly the inclusion of Tom Lasky, protagonist of the (also truly excellent) Forward Unto Dawn series relies on you having watched the series to understand that Chief and Lasky know one another. I’m sure most people did, but it shouldn’t be necessary, and if you are somebody who hasn’t played the previous games – and thus are not likely to – there is so much backstory needed that it’s going to be a little hard to get new players.
This isn’t to say any of this diminished my enjoyment of the game, because it didn’t; but y enjoyment could have been greater had the story developed a little more organically in places.
This is less a comment on the game and more on how much I suck at it.
I love Halo. I love Halo 4. The series is going in a new direction, and taking ideas from other games like COD and other war shooters is a good idea; I mean they took a lot from the ideas developed by Bungie for Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s a great addition to the series and a great introduction to the new Reclaimer Trilogy.
While only having eight missions, each one is quite lengthy and has so much action and excitement that you’re not likely to mind. They’ve crammed a lot into the package they have delivered; epic battles, vehicle sections that don’t feel shoehorned, exotic locales galore and some truly, truly splendid architecture.
I’m giving it 9/10 and suggesting that if you have an Xbox 360 and like grand science fiction drama in the vein of the Mass Effect games and with tons of frenetic action, go grab it. You won’t be disappointed.
Come back next week for my take on the multiplayer portion of the game.
You can harass the author of this post via Twitter: @CAricHanley