Review: Halo 4 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Halo 4
Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: 11/6/2012

This review is a couple weeks after the release of Halo 4, so most of you will probably be caught up in Wii U mania or have already made your decision whether or not you want Halo 4. After having spent some time with the game I still wanted to share my thoughts about the major game releases this fall. If you are still sitting on the fence about Halo 4 or just interested in further information about the game, read on.

For this review I will separate information about the campaign from that of the multiplayer, as it is apparent when you play that both modes feel like they were developed almost independently of each other.

The Campaign

The last time we saw Master Chief he was floating in space in a wrecked spaceship after the events of Halo 3. Since then there have been spin off games, such as ODST and Reach, which have expanded the Halo universe. Halo 4 starts four years after Halo 3, with Chief still floating in space, and Cortana facing Rampancy. In the universe Halo takes place in, Rampancy is a condition that all AI units suffer after seven years, essentially they’re running so many processing with all of the information they’ve acquired that it drives them insane. They think themselves to death. At this point in the Halo story Cortana is eight years old, and is having some issues.

As if floating through space with an AI going insane wasn’t bad enough, the ship Chief is on just so happens to float towards a Forerunner planet that has a sect of still hostile Covenant in orbit around it. Cortana wakes Chief up, and then it’s on.

On the surface, the Campaign plays out like any other Halo game. Chief moves through different areas, some narrow others larger, with groups of enemies laid out in different patterns. There are new enemies to encounter with new tactics to consider, and the game mixes in segments where you will fight just one, or the other, or a mix of both, which requires some thought on how to best approach a situation. Occasional vehicle sections and chase scenes provide some variety between shooting segments.

The new Forerunner enemies are an interesting bunch and fit well into combat situations in Halo 4. My suggestion to those playing is to take out those flying bastards first if you want to save yourself some trouble. They’re flying support units essentially, and they can be a big pain in the ass. My only problem with the Forerunner enemies is that there aren’t very many different types of them, and for a significant portion of the game you will be fighting the Covenant again.

Another problem with the Campaign is how often the goal is to go push a button on the other side of the room. It gets ridiculous towards the end of the game, and they should have been able to figure out a way to create interesting combat scenarios without continuously going back to needing to hit a button and killing all the guys between you and that button.

Still the campaign is fun. Maybe it’s just that I’ve played too many modern war games recently where you have to just follow a guy, or that there hasn’t been a new Halo game in a while (I don’t count the remake), but playing Halo 4 felt like great return to a series I enjoy. It helps that the single player campaign is GORGEOUS. Seriously, the graphics are so great I expected my Xbox to explode. I don’t know what voodoo they did to make hardware this old pull off this level of fidelity, but 343 should be applauded for just the technical aspects of the game. They managed to create not only the best looking Halo game ever, but they’ve made a Halo game where the human character models look so good you could almost imagine that the cut scenes are live action instead of CGI. The Forerunner enemies and locations fit perfectly into the art design of the Halo, while also being new and different, and a little like out of something from Tron.

Splitscreen Co-Op the graphics suffer a little, after playing both I could tell that some lighting effects are missing, and in larger maps had some texture pop in, or textures that would only load when you went closer to the object. Even still, the game looks amazing. The audio is nearly as good, with the weapons sounding more powerful than ever before. The voice acting is well done, and the ambient background music is pretty good, though maybe not as great as some past Halo games. Particularly ODST, which had some fantastic ambient background music. Some of the audio for the cutscenes sound oddly mixed though, and there are instances where the audio doesn’t appear to be as well synced with the video.

There are multiple difficulties in Halo 4 much like the previous games. The AI has always been a strong point in the Halo games, and while still good in Halo 4, it feels like it has taken kind of a dip. The game just feels easier, even though ammo is scarce and enemies can be dead accurate with either guns or grenades. I can’t say with certainty that the AI is worse, only that there’s an achievement for tricking an enemy for falling off of a walkway that I got even though the enemy was nowhere near me, it just walked right off. Thanks for the achievement, but what the hell?

Halo 4 continues to expand on the story of Master Chief, though it does so in weird ways. After playing through it, I wonder if there was a meeting where they determined the overarching story with the Forerunners and the personal story with Master Chief and Cortana, and were instructed to build the plot without having it get in the way of the Campaign moving forward. I say this because there is a lot more to the story going on in this Halo game than any other, aside from maybe ODST or Halo 2, however unless you really are into the books or lore then the game doesn’t really bother explaining what is going on. Like what the Covenant are doing there, who the main antagonist is, what his motives are, or WTF is going on with this weird Matrix like moment that goes on about halfway through the game.

Oddly, there are terminals to find throughout the game, and after finding the terminals you can log onto Halo Waypoint and view videos that are unlocked through finding the terminals. The videos all together are about 16 minutes long and answer the majority of the questions I had with the plot. I understand not wanting to impede player progress in a series to show information that maybe only a small portion of players are even interested in, but at 16 minutes it’s kind of dumb to sacrifice these very relevant plot points. There’s already an option to skip cutscenes, let people who aren’t interested just skip it. Hiding information that’s sort of crucial to the story was a terrible choice and decision I fail to understand. Other developers have figured out how to add expand plot in their games in a way that doesn’t interfere with the game itself, Mass Effect had the Codex, Assassin’s Creed has an entire index on characters and locations in its pause screen sub-menus, and so forth. I disagree with keeping it outside of the game, and really some of the terminal videos needed to be in the proper game just for the context they provide.

That said, most of what they hide is the Forerunner stuff. There are two stories really going on, one about this new threat, and the personal story between Master Chief and Cortana. The personal story is truly the focus of Halo 4, with the Forerunner antagonist almost like an annoying chore that MC has to take care of. Because of this I almost don’t mind that the Forerunner stuff is hidden, as it might have taken away focus from the personal story that is told. Halo 4 asks some very interesting questions, such as who the man underneath the armor is, if he’s just a killing machine or if there’s more. He’s a man brainwashed to act like a machine and his best friend is a machine that is programmed to act like a human. While this may not seem like much, for a series with a faceless protagonist who speaks very little, 343 is daring to explore who this character is.

The developer put itself in a situation where they had a story to tell, multiple stories even, and they made the choice to not slow down the Campaign with too much plot. I think how they did so was a mistake, but part of the reason I’m angry about it is because I think they did an excellent job creating a first part of a trilogy, one that asks far more questions than it answers, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all plays out. I enjoy the hell out of the story they’re telling, I’m just against the way they chose to tell it.

Let’s move on to:

The Multiplayer:

A big part of any Halo game is the multiplayer. I was very anxious to see what 343 did with the multiplayer after hearing that it incorporated the progression systems like Call of Duty. I have nothing against that style, only that I prefer the balance of the Halo games. The progression systems mostly favor those who put more time into them by giving them better weapons as rewards, while Halo has always provided a fairly even playing field for all players, with those who played for longer typically doing better because they knew the maps better, worked as a team, or just had specific strategies. Hearing you could run all the time, that map weapons had been removed and that you could earn experience points to unlock things made me very wary of Halo 4.

Surprisingly, it works. In fact, I have to give the developers a lot of credit, somehow they were able to make significant changes to Halo, and yet it still feels like the Halo multiplayer I’ve always enjoyed. Partially because they’ve adapted the Call of Duty style, except made it work in such a way that it doesn’t feel like some players are overpowered. Leveling up for the first ten levels happens pretty quickly, and doing so provides Spartan Points and unlocks the ability to spend those points on different weapons, Armor Abilities, and so on. The very first weapons you unlock will likely be the same weapons that you will use into the higher levels of the game. Some are better depending on range, for example the Assault Rifle you start with is one of the better weapons at close range, however at further distances an AR user will lose against a Battle Rifle or DMR user. There’s a very Rock/Paper/Scissors feeling about all of the weapons and different abilities.

Armor Abilities are back from Reach, only they’ve been adjusted slightly. Armor Lock is gone, which means Ghosts drivers are now safe to splatter with impunity. There’s a Hard Light shield, which is the closest replacement. There are other new abilities, such as Promethian Vision and Auto Sentry. The AA will boil down to user preference for the most part. I love the Hologram and that’s one of the first AA you unlock, and I’m using it many hours later. Fooling someone with the Hologram is one of my favorite things of any video game ever. However if you go into a forum you will hear pros and cons of all the Abilities. I’ve heard people swear Promethian vision is overpowered and completely useless. I think it’s a great counter ability to Active Camo and Hologram, plus in tight corridors you’ll be able to see a guy from around a corner before he even turns it. Like the weapons, even the Abilities you unlock right away are balanced so that they’re useful no matter what your level is.

The ordinance drops are also great, I was worried about this, but it works very well. There are map ordinances, which drop randomly throughout a match in the Infinity match types, and personal ordinances. The ones on the map prevent the game from using the same couple of choke points, which typically happened in prior Halo games, and instead make the flow of where the match takes place feel like a natural progression instead of the majority of the map being ignored while people fight to get the shotgun. Personal ordinances happen by filling a meter by earning points in a match. This is done by earning medals, which can be for kills, but also for just about everything else. Save a teammate? Recover from near death? Provide a distraction? Medals for all these things. The game does a good job rewarding a player for being a team player by giving them a choice between three options when the ordinance drop meter fills. Then you aim at were you want it to be dropped. Sometimes this can be in the form of powerful weapons, or advantages like more damage, or an overshield. One of the side benefits of this is that no longer does a vehicle feel over powered on a map that features them. No one can go too crazy with a Banshee or Mantis, because between the map and personal ordinance, eventually there’s going to be a drop of a weapon that can take a vehicle down.

Add sprinting to this and the whole game feels like your typical Halo multiplayer, only sped up. The matches feel more fluid and dynamic, and just plain faster. Playing as a lone wolf versus playing as a team on Slayer is still going to get you wrecked. Some weapons and abilities are better for different situations than others, and there’s nothing better than getting into a one vs one situation and getting the upper hand because you were able to mentally stay a step ahead. It’s not about who gets off the first shot as much as it’s about how to make the other guy confused and make him waste his opportunity to get you.

The maps are great, though I wish there were more of them since people typically vote for the same thing (Haven for Slayer and Ragnarok/Valhalla for Big Team). Most of them follow the typical asymmetrical philosophy of map design. Oddly there are some maps that are found in custom games that I haven’t seen in map voting, and hopefully they will add something in the future to prevent some of the same maps from being voted on in a row. I love Valhalla as a map as well, but goddamn.

After ten hours or so online I’ve run into the occasional lag, but nothing out of ordinary. 90% of the games I’ve played ran smoothly, though there are some annoying times when the game shifts hosts or if the host leaves. The game doesn’t specifically punish quitting, though there is an automated banning system in place that will ban you for quitting, but XP the game doles out is significantly higher for completing a game. Quitting still happens, and for the first time Halo has drop in, drop out gameplay during a match. I really enjoy this feature, though there are times when you might join a match right before it ends, I’ve come across more instances of teammates on either team dropping out and then replaced quickly.

I’m really impressed by the way the developers managed to speed up the game, add new weapons, change how map weapons are incorporated and add a progression system while making the multiplayer still feel familiar to what the Halo series has done before. It feels like a natural progression of the multiplayer and maintains its own identity for an online shooter instead of a being ‘me too’ clone of how other games do their multiplayer. I do hope that they release Waypoint functionality for sharing maps, pictures, gametypes and so on soon, since that was always a big draw for me with the Halo series, and it not being functional yet is disappointing.

But wait, there’s more. Bungie had included Firefight, a Co-Op survival mode, similar to the Horde mode of Gears of War. This was a fairly popular mode that for Halo 4 is completely missing. Instead the game has Spartan Ops, a Co-Op campaign that follows the adventures of a team of Spartans after the events of Halo 4. So far two (by the time you read this there will be three or more) episodes out. These episodes are preceded by a video introducing the characters and motives behind the deployment of the Spartans. There there are five chapter levels in each episode, with each level having its own objective.

I understand that many people are upset by the lack of Firefight, however I enjoy what there is of Spartan Ops so far. The additional story is okay, and the objectives within Spartan Ops are actually more varied than what you will find in the Campaign mode (meaning you’ll be doing more than just pushing buttons). The levels are scaled for more than one player, though they can be completed alone. I completed the first on Legendary and it wasn’t actually very hard to do. When you die you respawn without losing any of what you’ve already completed, whether you are playing alone or with others. These respawn points are kind of odd, as you can respawn into the middle of a group of enemies or far away from your objective.

I think Spartan Ops is a fine substitution, considering there’s more of it coming weekly for free. Firefight was something that I only played with friends, and unlike Firefight I do not feel completely left out by playing Spartan Ops solo. My major complaint about the mode is that you need to have an Xbox Live Gold subscription to play it, which pisses me off a little. My wife and I play through the Campaigns together split-screen, and she cannot be signed in if we want to play Spartan Ops together locally. Even Firefight never locked people out for what subscription they had. That sucks. Also, the Promethian waves of enemies are not nearly as fun to fight as the Covenant, which feel better balanced for this type of thing.

The strangest thing about Spartan Ops is the fact that you can gain experience points and complete challenges, such as killing a certain amount of enemies and so forth, like you can in the multiplayer. I like this, though it further highlights the weird way the multiplayer and single player modes feel separate from each other. Why can we gain experience points and complete challenges in Spartan Ops, but the only challenges for the Campaign are completing it on Legendary difficulty? Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 managed to allow players to gain experience across whatever mode of the game they choose to play in, and it would have made Halo 4 feel like a more cohesive package had the ability to gain experience points carry over for every mode.

For example, the game has the skulls from prior games, but they’ve removed scoring for Co-Op campaign playthroughs, essentially removing the reason for activating the skulls in the first place. Had they tied score to how much experience points you could receive, and made challenges specifically for using different skulls or combinations of skulls, it would’ve given more reason to actually use them in the game in a way that would connect to the other game modes. Like I said in the beginning of this review, it sometimes feels like the Campaign and Multiplayer were developed separately from each other and then put together on the disk.

Basically, if you were hoping that Halo 4 was going to be a new kind of game with the switch to a new developer, than you might be disappointed. It’s still very much Halo game, though 343 studios have manage to make the Halo universe feel fresh again with design changes that make the game faster and more addictive than ever, without changing what it is that fans of the series have enjoyed. If you were never a fan of Halo, than Halo 4 will unlikely turn you into a fan. If you are a fan, then you will hopefully appreciate the dedication of the development team. There is certainly room for improvement, like how they go about telling their story in relation to the game, the variety of single player objectives, making the experience feel whole instead of separate, etc, but they’ve done an amazing job with Halo 4 and I look forward to seeing what they do next with the series.

The Scores
Story: Good
Graphics: Unparalleled
Sound: Great
Control: Great
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Great
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Classic

Short Attention Span Summary:
As a fan of the series, I appreciate the effort that 343 Industries have made in taking the Halo series in a direction where it feels both fresh and yet keeps the identity of the series intact. I don’t agree with all of the decisions made, though I’m still very happy with the final product and the moment I finished the campaign I’ve been ready to play Halo 5. The future of the series has never been brighter.



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4 responses to “Review: Halo 4 (Microsoft Xbox 360)”

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