This is a Halo’vva big deal. For many, this is 2012’s biggest gaming release – time to find out if the Halo franchise’s new custodians, 343 Industries, have delivered on their promise to make an authentic and enjoyable seventh Halo title.
For ten years, wunder-devs Bungie created and grew a series of games that were unparalleled in their significance. 2010’s Halo Reach was their farewell – a wonderful game that stretched the Xbox 360 to the limit in terms of graphics, story and gameplay. They have always been the jewel in Microsoft’s gaming crown, the strongest franchise the Xbox brand has.
As an interim step, last year 343 Industries decided to re-release Halo 1 in HD – Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (see our review here). As I said at the time – this was 343 dipping a toe in the water, akin to Lucasfilm remastering the original Star Wars Trilogy before gearing up to make Episodes I, II and III. But it sure reminded us about the enduring qualities of that first game – the things that made it an all-time great.
So now, Halo 4, the big one, is here – is it any good?
Yes. Oh very yes. The campaign starts exactly where Halo 3 ended. Our hero is the super-soldier John-117, aka the Master Chief. Naming has always been a pretty… weird thing in the Halo games... He is awoken from four years in stasis, missing - presumed dead - in half a spaceship that broke in two as its slipspace portal collapsed (long story – play Halo 3). Anyway, the ship is called the Forward Unto Dawn. Well at least that’s less flowery than the Pillar of Autumn in Halo 1. Or the alien ship, High Charity, from Halo 2.
We digress. Cortana – the very non-ugly AI - wakes him, but all is not well. She is starting to suffer from the onset of Rampancy - the AI equivalent of dementia. Something urgently must be done to save her. On top of that, the ship is under attack – and there is a strange planet nearby called Requiem…
I’m not going to get too far into spoilers here. But regular fans will know that the Halo games usually involve some kind of three-way fight. In the first three games it was Humanity versus the Covenant (a coalition of zealot alien races) – interrupted by The Flood (ravenous, foul, alien parasites). Here the Humanity vs Covenant dynamic is still here – but there is a new race to deal with. These are the Prometheans. Soon another human ship arrives, the UNSC Infinity – and they get drawn into the conflict too…
Including a new alien race means that they have a whole host of new weapons of their own to learn, which is great. There are equivalent new weapons to compare against all of your old human favourites – be it the Magnum, Assault Rifle, Sniper Rifle, Plasma Grenades... It’s good fun learning these and trying out old favourites such as the Needler (so powerful!) and the Plasma Pistol (stops vehicles now!).
So a new epic adventure begins, on this strange new world called Requiem. It’s split into eight large chapters and can be completed in around 6-7 hours. As always, I took longer. I wanted to explore every room, nook and cranny that there was. Also as always – the first playthrough just invites you to start immediately again on Heroic and Legendary difficulty settings. I’m still getting round to that…
But, replay them I will – the intelligence of the enemies is one of the most important qualities of a Halo game – and it is on display again here. The Elites are as difficult to kill as always – dodging, barrel rolling and evading almost all of your attacks, be it by gun or grenade. The planet of Requiem is a Forerunner world – the real fans of the series will know what that means – in a nutshell it means that the striking alien architecture of Halo 1,2 and 3 is back in style. There are environments here that are vast, vibrant and… other-worldly. Only the Halo series could carry this off.
The story continues and, as usual, at some points it gets a bit confusing – bordering on the nonsensical – but it is a wonderful flight of sci-fi fantasy. Such a contrast from the tedious, disposable plots from more “realistic” military shooters (CoD, I’m looking at you…). The slightly short length of the campaign isn’t a big deal – as I mentioned before, this is all part of the replay factor for me. It was short enough that I wanted more and I don’t feel daunted about going through it again multiple times, on the higher difficulty settings.
Also, online co-op campaign gameplay is included – my friends and clan mates are looking forward to taking the game on together, maybe more than once. Not just for the honour of beating the game on Legendary difficulty together, but to discover all of the game’s hidden collectibles (data terminals and skulls) and to really start achievement hunting.
That’s half of the story. The other big draw here is multiplayer - Halo’s wonderful, compelling multiplayer. As I said once before, it was Halo 2’s groundbreaking multiplayer gameplay that drew me into the franchise and converted me to the original Xbox in the first place. My clan, The Sea Dogs (talk like pirates online and lose a lot) are still together from the old days of Halo 2 and we couldn’t wait for the release of Halo 4.
It’s a wonderful, familiar feeling – to turn on your Xbox and within seconds the invites come flooding in. Invites to join online games full of seven or eight of your old gaming buddies. We have had so much fun with the online mode already…
The presentation was slightly surprising – from the main menu you have to select “Infinity”. So the multiplayer mode is based in the lore of the other ship mentioned in the game. This ship is full of Spartan IV’s (whereas John-117 is a Spartan II) – so there’s no problem creating a Spartan of your own with whatever gender, armour style, colour scheme you like, without trampling over the continuing of the campaign’s story.
All the familiar favourite modes are back – Slayer, Big Team Slayer, King of the Hill, Oddball… There are a few new additions such as Regicide (free for all Juggernaut – good fun). And fan favourite SWAT is confirmed to be added next week, as is the promise of some form of clan support… As is traditional with these games, the updates will be frequent.
The game has been criticised in some quarters for having customisable loadouts, as well as a form of perk based system (armour and player abilities). Some have complained that this is a little too similar to games such as the Call of Duty games. I don’t agree – it fits well here and encourages progression even more. Besides the game plays so differently to the CoD games in every other way. No iron sights for a start – hands up those who accidentally pull the left trigger and throw a grenade every now and then…
The other big multiplayer story is Spartan Ops. This is a series of episodic content to be released by 343 Industries every week. These are single player / co-op missions, with their own cinematics, storylines and more. I’ve dabbled with the first episode and it’s great – more compelling than the kind of Special Ops modes you get in various CoD titles. Having a season of planned “episodes” with their own back stories really helps here.
Finally, Forge Mode is back. The powerful set of tools for players to create their own levels has returned – this was a real joy in Halo Reach, to search through the other levels that players had made – there were some insane and wonderful creations. This is a worthy addition – I hope it isn’t overlooked by too many players.
A lot to say there, then – but there’s a lot of game here. I will be replaying this for a long time to come in single player and I am hooked on playing this, pretty much every night, on multiplayer. I can’t see how even the imminent release of Call of Duty: Black Ops II is going to tear me away from this – it’s so damn good to be back, in an imaginative sci-fi world, immersed in incredible action and vibrant multiplayer.
The graphics are perhaps the best there will ever be on the Xbox 360 – nobody knows if the sequel to this will be on the 360 or its successor – so this could be one of the swansongs for the system, along with GTA V in the Spring. The music is a slight let down – there’s not a single piece of music here that is as iconic as the old Gregorian / Ace Ventura chanting from Halo 1-3…
But single player is great, multiplayer is great, there is huge long-term gameplay to be had and it’s just… great to be back in this universe again. It’s also a perfect switch from the continual glut of military-based shooters that stream out every year. Game of the year for me then, along with Borderlands 2… Good to have you back, Chief.
Halo 4 is out now for Xbox 360