The lights are on
The release of a new Halo game is an occasion, an event of epic proportions -- and with good reason. The Xbox brand is still around today solely because of the huge success of the original franchise spawning game. With Halo 4, developer 343 Industries returns to the roots of the series in some aspects while also adapting to combat it's biggest rival, the first-person shooting juggernaut Call of Duty.
Halo 4 finds everybody's favorite super solider, the Master Chief, in a cryogenic sleep drifting through the loneliness of space right where we left him at the end of Halo 3. His stalwart blue companion, the AI Cortana, wakes Chief up when an old familiar enemy, the Covenant, board's Chief's ship and immediately starts blowing things up. It doesn't take long for Chief to shake off the rust and do what he does best -- blast aliens to pieces. Eventually a new enemy emerges in the form of the robotic Prometheans. The identity of their mysterious master, without spoiling anything, should come as a nice surprise to those keeping up with the Halo fiction.
All the while Cortana is slowly losing her sanity due to an AI condition known as "rampancy." After 7 years of life, AI's such as Cortana "think themselves to death." The long and complex relationship between the Chief and Cortana is on full display here and is the strongest part of the game's narrative. Don't expect to see Chief cry or have an emotional breakdown, but his drive to save Cortana from her seemingly inevitable fate reveals much about the man underneath the iconic helmet. At times some aspects of the story aren't explained as well as they should be. Why are humans still at war with the Covenant? What is the "Mantle of Responsibility?" Those who haven't read the ever growing number of Halo books and comics may feel confused by some of the characters and concepts that pop up throughout the game.
From the get-go Halo 4 oozes nostalgia for the first game. Repelling an attack aboard a spaceship in orbit quickly escalates into a crash landing on a strange alien world known as Requiem, filled with sweeping vistas and strange alien technology. It all feels incredibly similar to the opening sequence of the original Halo -- a fitting way to start off a brand new Halo trilogy.
The level design is also a near mirror image of games past. Chief blasts his way from checkpoint to checkpoint in wide open environments, occasionally piloting vehicles such as the fan favorite Warthog or the Covenant Banshee. Over the course of the game expect to boot up, and shut down, countless generators and power sources as you backtrack through levels to progress to the next game area. It's tedious, but Halo's near perfect gunplay keeps the bulk of the game, the combat, as exciting and interesting as ever and includes some notable additions. A designated sprint button speeds up Halo's historically sluggish pace, new weapons, like the Forerunner shotgun the Scattershot, add some variety to Chief's traditional arsenal, and new armor abilities open up more possibilities to dealing with enemy encounters.
The Prometheans themselves fit in perfectly with Halo's other long time enemies the Covenant. Promethean Knights teleport around the battlefield and serve a similar role to Elites in terms of toughness. Promethean Watchers hover over the battlefield, protecting it's enemy allies with shields, deflecting thrown grenades, or even generating new enemies. The dog-like Crawlers attack in swarms as they climb along walls, infinitely more annoying than Grunts ever were.
While single player doesn't stray far from the tried and true Halo formula, multiplayer is a different story entirely. Halo 4 brings all multiplayer aspects, both competitive and cooperative, into the fiction of the game for the first time. Players create a Spartan soldier that serves aboard the vast spaceship the UNSC Infinity. Whether it be playing Team Slayer on the holodeck or landing on the surface of Requiem to fight the Covenant, multiplayer now makes sense within the overall Halo universe. While many players would be fine without a story explanation for why Red Team fights Blue Team, I find it a welcome addition.
The new cooperative mode, Spartan Ops, looks like something new on the surface but in reality is mostly more of the same. In theory, Spartan Ops is a narrative cooperative mode that will include multiple seasons over Halo 4's lifespan. At launch however, Spartan Ops is nothing to brag about. Blasting aliens with four of your friends is a good time certainly, but there is almost no variety in the five, 10-15 minute long missions that ship with the game. Defeat enemies in an area, press a button. Wait a few seconds as your superior officer blabbers on about something of no importance. Kill more bad guys, rinse and repeat. Hopefully the content coming down the pipe for the mode can actually deliver the narrative aspect of the mode and provide some much needed mission variety.
Traditional multiplayer is where the real changes to the franchise are taking place. Taking a page from Call of Duty's playbook, players now have the ability to unlock and customize weapons, gear and abilities before entering a match. Ordinance drops, in some ways similar to Call of Duty's killstreak system, reward players over the course of a match for scoring kills or completing objectives by providing near instant power-ups and weapons.
It's a big change. Halo multiplayer in games past revolved around fighting for and controlling important weapon locations. Now any player could have the powerful shotgun or an overshield delivered to them personally. The pace is definitely more frantic, but the verdict is still out on whether Halo faithful will approve of the change.
In many ways the highest compliment that can be awarded to Halo 4 is that it is without a doubt a Halo game through and through. Everything looks new to be sure. The game boasts incredible visuals that push the Xbox 360 to the limits of its power, but underneath the shiny new coat of paint Halo 4 is very close to the game that fans have been playing for years. Halo 4's achievement lies in its ability to evolve the series, slowly but surely, while remaining true to what made the first game so popular.
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