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Halo 4 Review

343 Industries Balances Old And New
by Matt Miller on Oct 31, 2012 at 09:01 PM
Reviewed on Xbox 360
Publisher Microsoft Game Studios
Developer 343 Industries
Rating Mature

343 Industries had a series of challenges in front of it when it began to create Halo 4: Take a beloved series from the original developer Bungie, maintain the legacy established through a decade of development, and reignite enthusiasm by delivering something new. That is a daunting list, but 343 Industries was clearly up to the task. Halo 4 is a thrilling adventure, and takes the science fiction franchise headlong into the future. The magic formula is intact, but the new development team isn’t afraid to put its own signature features into play, assuring that Halo is on a path to growth instead of stagnation.

Recent Halo entries felt ancillary to the core story. Halo 4 returns to the resonant drive of the series – Master Chief and his unrelenting defense of humanity. For the first time, the story has an emotional core that grounds the fiction: the connection between John and Cortana. As the two characters face a reemerging threat to the galaxy, we finally gain insight into the mysterious Forerunner race hinted at since Combat Evolved. Along the way, 343 Industries plays around with some heady science fiction concepts, from the nature of artificial intelligence to the planned shaping of a species’ evolution. While these ideas might be bewildering to newcomers, the story is the most cohesive and well-structured in the series.

As I played through that story, I was struck by the extraordinary production values on display. Halo 4 is a visual marvel, with gorgeous environments accentuated by high dynamic range lighting and breathtaking particle effects. However, the experience is more than the graphics; I rarely feel the need to call out the sound effects of a game, but Halo 4 is an exception. The first time I fired a gun, I was startled by the forceful burst, and the impression only improves as the fights progress. From the distorted static of a scrambled audio communication to the revving propulsion drive of a speeding Ghost, Halo 4’s audio drags players into the game world by their ears. Several stirring new musical themes add to the effect, but those melodies are sometimes obscured within the sound mix. I wish Halo 4 allowed for manual adjustment of the audio mix like most high-end games on the market.

Enemies have defined the feel of Halo gameplay since the beginning, and Halo 4 balances familiarity and novelty. The Covenant returns (for reasons the in-game story fails to articulate), providing the classic experience Halo fans love – popping Grunts, zeroing in on distant Jackals, and furiously dueling Elites. Thankfully, new foes enter the picture before long. The Prometheans offer a robust tactical challenge, from the infuriating regenerative abilities of the floating Watchers to the savage Crawlers and teleporting Knights. Each battlefield becomes a tense puzzle as you decide which bad guy to engage first. That’s why the widely spaced checkpoint placement is such a bummer; I love the searing difficulty the game exhibits on higher challenge levels, but Halo 4 often sends its players too far back as a punishment for failure.

Master Chief has new toys to bring into the fight, including several powerful new guns. Added to the array already introduced previously, the armament variety is impressive, and trying them all out is fun. The game encourages experimentation by severely limiting ammo on most pick-ups. At times, the strategy succeeds by making players use all the tools at their disposal. However, frequently running out of ammo slows the momentum of the action as you’re forced to scavenge for an alternative.

Levels are thoughtfully structured and entertaining. One breathtaking environment is followed by the next, and several alternative gameplay sequences offer variety, from the new walking mech Mantis battles to high speed flights in outer space. The ever-changing locations and set pieces give Master Chief’s adventure a scope and grandiosity that’s lacking in many other shooters.

For many, Halo 4’s excellent campaign will be secondary to the endless battles of the newly introduced Infinity multiplayer. An integrated cooperative and competitive narrative tracks the progress of your Spartan as he or she trains aboard a UNSC ship and then heads out on missions, ranking up and improving on the way. Advancing your character is a joy, as you unlock armor pieces, customizable loadouts, and bonuses to boost performance in battle. The smooth and streamlined front-end interface is easy to navigate. Playing with friends is seamless; only time will tell if matchmaking can stand up to the rush that will hit after launch.

A few small changes to the flow of competitive multiplayer help Halo 4 feel more vibrant and replayable. Points have overtaken kills as the primary scoring mechanic. Random powerful weapon drops remove the chance for experienced players to camp equipment spawns. Support abilities and customized loadouts offer more flexibility. Combat is fast and intense, and hews close to what I’ve always loved in the series. New multiplayer modes like Regicide and Dominion join perennial favorites like Slayer, Oddball, and Capture the Flag, and all the modes play out across an impressive set of over a dozen strong new maps.

Along with the returning option to play through the campaign cooperatively with friends, 343 Industries introduces an episodic cooperative experience with enormous potential to change the way post-release content is delivered in games. Spartan Ops brings a new cinematic episode every week, along with five connected missions. The large battles and objectives available in these missions are ideal for a group of friends, and at a little over an hour per episode, it’s perfect for a weekly gaming meet-up. I’m disappointed that this new cooperative mode replaces Firefight, but I’m stoked about a continuing narrative that I can follow after the game is out.

Multiplayer is rounded out by the return of Forge and Theater options for the more creative. Each of the multiplayer maps plus several variants can be fleshed out into wholly new levels inside Forge. I especially appreciate the new tools to make iteration easier, from magnets that click pieces together, to simple button taps that replicate your last object placed. Along with broadened options for environmental effects, such as gravity shifting, I can’t wait to see what the community comes up with.

Whether I am watching a grenade explode a Promethean into a shower of sparks or charging with friends at my side through a cooperative adventure, Halo 4 makes the series feel new again. 343 Industries’ clear affection for the property shines through, leaving me thrilled to join Master Chief for another decade in defense of the galaxy.

Above: Watch us play Halo 4's multiplayer in this episode of Test Chamber.

Master Chief’s epic space opera steps in a new direction while maintaining the series’ legacy
Phenomenal visual detail and lighting makes this a dazzling showcase of the Xbox 360’s power
A new benchmark in sound effect design, and an imaginative new score – but no manual control of the audio mix is a drag
Tight, responsive controls are familiar and easy to learn
A grand sci-fi adventure accompanied by fast, fun, and addictive multiplayer

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Halo 4

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