Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
It’s been five long years since Master Chief and Cortana jetted off at the end of Halo 3 and now here it is at last, the first chapter of a new trilogy. Halo 4 is developed by 343 Industries, a new studio put together by Microsoft specifically to make Halo games, handed down to them from former developer Bungie who have since moved onto a partnership with publishing giant Activision.
Considering the pressure, the weight of expectation and what’s been delivered as the final product, Halo 4 can be seen as a solid start for 343 and holds plenty of promise for the future.
Halo 4 continues on from the end of the original trilogy with Master Chief and Cortana adrift in space. After surviving an attack from an invading Covenant ship, they crashland onto a planet that was previous home to the Forerunners, a long lost race of sentient beings tasked with protecting the galaxy.
The Chief finds himself entangled in a new conflict against a formerly imprisoned creatured known as The Didact and finds himself in a race against time. Cortana has passed the end of her AI lifespan and is starting to deteriorate, in a process known as rampancy. To have any hope of preventing it, Chief has to return Cortana back to Earth, back to her creator Doctor Halsey.
The campaign mode in Halo 4 is pretty entertaining fare. Being the first installment of a new trilogy, there isn’t necessarily the full scale and spectacle of a Halo 3 or Halo Reach but nonetheless, it is reasonably successful in replicating the formula that Bungie championed. The enemy AI is challenging and there is a decent mix of corridor shootouts, arena battles and vehicular combat. Best of all, this campaign is presented in a fantastic new game engine that gives the game a level of polish you wouldn’t expect the aging Xbox 360 hardware to be capable of. The story is told in the time honoured Halo style. It is grandoise, slightly obtuse at times but ultimately an entertaining space opera, with nothing less than humanity’s existence on the line.
Something that 343 Industries seem to be willing to take a chance on is stripping away some of the mystique from Master Chief and at the end of the game, they take the rather bold step of showing us his face without the helmet. I’m not necessarily opposed to this step but hopefully 343 can deliver a satisfying narrative with this newly humanized Master Chief. A misstep here could cost the franchise dearly.
As for the multiplayer, Halo 4 is a game that is changing with the times and for the first time with the mainline series, its playing catch up. The first three installments in the game were nothing less than pioneers for console multiplayer experiences. The first installment for its local multiplayer mode, the second for taking the experience online and the third for its optimization, social networking and customizing functionality.
With the fourth installment, Halo 4 doesn’t really offer anything we haven’t seen before. If anything, the game borrows from Call of Duty, with its perks and levelling system being heavily influenced by Activision’s military juggernaut. Its unreasonable to expect every installment of Halo to shake up the foundations of console shooters but its clear that the former leader is now part of the pack. The maps in the game are a mixed bag with the smaller maps not being particularly strong compared to past installments. Subsequently, this is the first Halo that I can recall where the bigger maps are the more popular with the online community.
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but Halo remains my favourite online shooter. I was never particularly taken with CoD and I don’t play a whole lot in the genre as it is. But the Halo formula always clicked with me and ultimately, for all its strengths and weaknesses, I’m generally happy with what 343 Studios have created here. They’ve shown a healthy respect for the heritage of the franchise and have also shown a willingness to try new things and make it their own, not just in the campaign mode but also with their ambitious plans to support the game post-launch with a comprehensive Spartan Ops mode.
Coming out at the end of the Xbox 360s lifespan, Halo 4 feels somewhat like its part of a farewell tour. But whats on display shows a studio with great promise and when the next installment arrives on the successor to the Xbox 360, expectations will be high that they can once again make Master Chief the King of the Hill.
Summary : 343 Industries have crafted a solid chapter in Bungie's once imperious franchise. It doesn't have the innovation of the previous mainline Halo games but that was always going to be a bridge too far.