By Sean Connelly
Developer: 343 Industries
Director: Frank O’COnner, Brien Goodrich (cinematic director)
Music: Neil Davidge
Cast: Steven Downes (Master Chief), Jen Taylor (Cortana), Vedette Lim (Sara Palmer)
I can remember the very first time I played Halo: Combat Evolved. It was back before there was XBox Live, and first-person shooter controlled holiday seasons. It was the time of the glorious LAN party. Nerds from all over town (and in some cases even further) would convene in one central location with their giant black boxes and heavier-than-a-Spartan-in-armorlock CRT TVs. Cheetos, Surge, greasy controllers, and sleepless nights were the true calling cards for any of these proud Warriors of Geekdom. And I was one of them (I may have even had a cape).
It wasn’t until attending one of these girlfriend-prohibiting events that I discovered what Halo actually was. It wasn’t just three-shotting your friend off of a platform from across the map in Hang ‘Em High, or smashing in to your buddy with the Warthog as he teleported out in to the middle of Bloodgulch. It was also about discovering new worlds, protecting the Earth and humanity from an alien threat, and the budding relationship between two of the most iconic characters in gaming: Cortana and the Master Chief.
However, in subsequent Halo titles, the characters were set on the back-burner, presumably to allow more time for the over-arching “saving the world and then the galaxy from the brink of destruction” narrative. It brings me great joy to be able to say that this is not the case at all in Halo 4‘s epic tale. Cortana and the Master Chief, and the relationship between the soldier and his Artificial Intelligence companion, are once again at the focal point in the story. And speaking of story, I have never had the pleasure of playing a FPS with such a well-paced campaign. With fierce gun play interwoven with intimate moments between Chief and Cortana, as she fights for her own mortality, truly make the narrative in Halo 4 worth the price of admission ALONE—something that can hardly be said for other “top tier” titles on, or arriving soon, to the market. Halo 4 delivers a much needed strong emotional core to its main characters while also providing a truly epic mission for the Master Chief as he carries the burden of saving humanity once again.
Another crucial piece to the Halo experience has always been the music. When the Halo franchise left Bungie and wound up with 343i it lost, in my humble opinion, one of the best composers in the business in Marty O’Donnell. I would always get chills when firing up the XBox in to the menu of a Halo game. That unmistakable hymn-like chorus would instantly transport me from my living room in to the incredible world of an imagined 26th century. While Halo 4‘s music is memorable, Neil Davidge falls a bit short here in delivering a soundtrack that truly compliments the epic nature of the game’s narrative.
A music score is only one aspect of sound design, however, and let me tell you that the rest of the sounds in Halo 4 are going to make you audiophiles jump for joy. You can feel it in your bones as each gun pops with the press of the trigger, the sticky grenades hiss and crack on unsuspecting grunts, and as each step you take in the behemoth MJOLNIR armor clanks against the ground. If you’ve got yourself a surround sound system you’re going to be fully immersed in the world of Requiem. Not a single piece of audio was carried over from Bungie (none so apparent as the new voice actor for the grunts), and 343 really nailed it here.
Another area where 343 really knocks the ball out of the park here is with the visuals. Halo has always had a distinctive visual style, from the industrial cities of Earth to the grassy hills and planes interspersed with futuristic Forerunner constructs on the Halo installments, and the alien structures of the Covenant. Never have they impressed me so much as they have here. Right from the opening cinematic all the way through to the final credit roll, and in to War Games (what 343 has dubbed the new Multiplayer mode) Halo 4‘s visuals are some of the best the system has to offer. I actually thought the opening cinematic was live-action until they started talking, only the lip movement gave it away. I cannot stress how impressed I am with this game visually. But graphics aren’t where this category ends. Lighting effects and cinematic direction are both top notch as well.
I’ve talked an awful lot about the campaign for Halo 4, as I should, but I know most of the readers out there want to know about the “new” War Games and Spartan Ops. Do not fear, nerds, for Halo has received the very capable minds at 343 Industries and they have created the best iteration of Halo multiplayer to date. Not since Halo 2 have I been so excited to delve in to the world of matchmaking, and that’s saying something.
For those who don’t know, War Games is how 343i is explaining the classic Red Spartans vs. Blue Spartans that has been the pinnacle of Halo multiplayer since day one. Basically, Spartans that are being trained aboard the UNSC Infinity are pitted against each other in battle simulations. So all of the maps (13 initially, at least 22 eventually after DLC, and countless more via Forge) are said to actually be held on-board the ship.
The improvements made to each mode are some that Halo fans (at least this one) have been asking to see for a long time. Things like being able to both carry the flag and a pistol simultaneously, throwing the bomb (see also: ball), and a whole slew of new weapons and vehicles. Everything in multiplayer feels the same, and yet completely fresh and rejuvenated. This is in part, I’m sure, due to the new way your Spartan levels up. Each kill, assist, distraction (for those of you support classes out there), every second spent driving a vehicle, and other feats will earn you experience points. These points will level up your Spartan and unlock new customizations, abilities, and weapons along the way.
In addition to the new leveling system, 343i has added Perks to the Halo experience. With these, you equip additional bonuses to your Spartan like extra experience points gained, more health for the vehicles you drive (along with quicker recovery times while in the vehicles), and things like that. This is where Halo takes a tried and true formula from Call of Duty and really implements it in a better way. None of the 10 perks are too overpowering or break the game. If you’re playing against someone who has reached Spartan Rank 50 (you start at SR1) that has unlocked the perk options you won’t find yourself outmatched just because of his rank. Perks are just what they’re called. Perks. They enhance your experience while not taking away from someone else’s.
Finally, there is Spartan-Ops. Dubbed a “game within a game,” Spartan Ops serves as the spiritual successor to what was Firefight. This is a great addition to the Multiplayer experience, as it’s meant to be played with 4 players at the Legendary difficulty, although it can be played at any difficulty setting with any number of players. Each mission comes with an introductory cinematic and will take about an hour, adding 10 additional hours of storied gameplay when all is said and done. While I definitely appreciate this mode, and hope they add even more in the future as additional DLC, I do miss the endless waves that Firefight offered.
All in all Halo 4 is one heck of a game, and one that is now a must-own for the XBox 360. The fantastic story, incredible visuals, completely immersive sounds, and one of the best multiplayer experiences in existence give this franchise new life heading in to the next generation. I already can’t wait for the next installment in the franchise and the continued story of the Master Chief. Luckily, I have War Games to keep me company until then. Now if only I could find a bottle of Surge somewhere…