Prior to Halo: Combat Evolved, I hadn’t found many first person shooters that kept my interest. I had played, in small doses over the years, an array of games in the genre: Wolfenstein 3D, the Doom and Quake games, Duke Nukem 3D, Half-Life, as well as others like Heretic, Hexen, Unreal, and even Powerslave (Sega Saturn). Out of all those, Half-Life was the only game that I played through to the end. There was nothing wrong with the others, I simply wasn’t that into the genre. I never like to rule out any genre, so I remained open coming across a game that drew me in like Half-Life.
Moving the calendar to mid-November 2001 – I decided to buy an Xbox because my birthday happened to fall very close to the release of the console. Halo: CE was one of the launch titles, so I picked that up (Project Gotham Racing was next). While still skeptical of the FPS genre and how it would translate to a console-focused game, it didn’t take long until Halo made me a believer. The wonderful Gregorian chanting and orchestral music accompanied an interesting science fiction story and top-notch (at the time) graphics on a console. However, none of that would have made a difference to me if Halo had been annoying to control.
As we know, Halo: CE pretty much redefined how a console FPS would ‘feel’ and now that control scheme is one of the standards for many games in the genre. While I still wouldn’t consider myself an FPS fan, I had a lot of fun with Halo 1-3 (and its spin-offs, save for Halo Wars) as well as a random mix of other console FPS since that turning point, 11 years ago. For the record, while I have enjoyed all the Halo games, my favorite experience was ODST – I very much enjoyed the storytelling and vulnerability you felt with each squad member, which was a sharp contrast to feeling ultra-powered as Master Chief. However, sometimes it’s fun to feel like a super soldier, so I’ve been looking forward to the next chapter in Master Chief’s story.
Before I get into the game itself, I wanted to mention one thing. Halo 4 is the first game I’ve personally seen that does not come with an instruction manual. There isn’t even an insert card (everything is written on the inside of the covers – the insert is just a 14-day trial. I know the switch to digital is in progress and I’m sure other console games have been released without manuals already, but this one was the first that I’ve personally encountered. For someone who grew up with NES/SMS, when game manuals had some relevance, it makes me feel a little sad to realize they are pretty much a thing of the past. To be honest, I’m surprised this didn’t happen a while ago, such as starting last generation. Manuals from the 8/16-bit days, even into the PS1/Saturn/N64 days, usually contained something interesting, such as a back-story, cool artwork, or even some strategies to use against enemies. Once in-game tutorials became predominant, that was the beginning of the end. Farewell, video game manuals! I still keep mine and even enjoy collecting some from the older generations, thanks to Ebay.
Starting with the title screen, 343i makes sure you know they have taken over the series. The familiar chanting from Halo 1-3 is gone, replaced by a different type of chanting. After a few moments of recap time, you are placed in a heated battle, giving you little time to sit around and relish being back in control of Master Chief. The action is just like you remember, if not a bit more challenging. The scope and scale of the areas are just as impressive as they were the first time we saw Halo: CE. The environments in the Halo series have always been full of variety and part four is no different – from huge open areas with all types of action going on both in outer space and on the ground to narrow, sterile hallways to lush jungle-type settings, the attention to detail and emphasis on how grand the Halo universe is can be staggering at times. It would be a shame not to mention how the cutscenes, both pre-rendered and in-game, are so wonderfully detailed and silky smooth! Truly, everything looks better than it ever has; it would be difficult to find any details that haven’t been redone for Halo 4.
The feel of controlling Master Chief is as comfortable as it has always been. It’s clear that 343i put a lot of effort into keeping core elements the same while simultaneously exploring some new territories. If you are familiar with the previous games, you’ll have absolutely no problem getting comfortable. For people who aren’t interested in/haven’t played the previous titles, I’m confident you’ll find it easy to understand all the controls in a short period of time. One aspect that is different: Master Chief speaks more than he has in the past, primarily with a much more vulnerable Cortana. The relationship between the Chief and Cortana is explained and elaborated on, finally giving the player a chance to know more about both characters. Although there is more of an emotional vibe throughout the campaign (similar to the campaign in ODST), that doesn’t mean the Chief is soft. If anything, he is even more formidable than in the past. With more emphasis on storytelling and emotions, Halo 4 really does stand out among its prestigious predecessors.
Regarding the difficulty: Perhaps it’s because I don’t keep up with the other FPS – I don’t get into the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor/Battlefield series - out there, but I felt that Halo 4 provided much more of a challenge (on a Normal setting) than the previous games, aside from ODST. The AI is just as good as ever and a couple of new enemies enhance this aspect (as well as the story). As with past Halo games, enemies generally don’t just stand still waiting to be killed. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but so often in this genre it’s as if many enemies are simply parts of a shooting gallery, either because they stand still or pop up from behind cover in very predictable ways.
No matter how good the campaign mode is, the Halo series has always been about some form of multiplayer. I will freely admit that I generally do not play games online, cooperatively or competitively. Actually, I’m pretty sure the last time I played a multiplayer Halo game was back on the original Xbox, with four systems linked together (this was while I was working as a lead game tester at Midway). I enjoy going through the campaign and, unless the online mode affects the story (such as in Mass Effect 3), it’s unlikely for me to get into it. At any rate, it would be wrong not to mention the basics of Halo 4’s online modes.
I briefly checked out War Games (competitive play). Currently there are 9 game types and 13 maps. All that, plus a wide array of customizations and up to 16 players at once; how can you go wrong? Since I have limited experience with online modes in previous titles, I can’t say how all this stacks up against previous modes. I’ve noticed several friends (who love competitive online play in many FPS) playing War Games online, even with the latest in the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor available. I’m certain fans of this mode of play will have an amazing time with Halo 4’s War Games.
I then checked out Spartan Ops (cooperative play, which takes the place of Firefight from ODST and Reach) with a friend. This mode worked infrequently, due to some issue with the 14-day trial – a problem I’ve read that others have experienced as well. Spartan Ops was definitely more interesting for me personally, not because of any flaw with War Games, just simply because I’m more into cooperative play. Spartan Ops tells a side-story on Planet Requiem, which occurs months after the main campaign. You assume the role of a Spartan and, with up to three allies, you participate in a series of battles to help assume control of the planet. If you enjoy extending the story, then this mode should satisfy, as it comprises 50 episodes broken up among 10 chapters. To help move the story along, CGI cutscenes are viewable for each chapter – a really nice touch to a non-campaign mode.
Let’s close out the review with this: If you are a fan of the Halo series and/or sci-fi, I’m pretty sure you will enjoy this next chapter. 343 Industries has made the series their own and with the amount of passion and love that was put into Halo 4, I am confident we are in for a tremendous ride. With me cruising around on Normal difficulty, making sure to see the sights and get all the terminals, I clocked in right at 10 hours to finish the campaign. If you add in War Games, Spartan Ops, and Forge, you’ve got a ton of high quality gaming with Halo 4. Welcome back, Master Chief!