Halo 4 review: A visually-stunning reprise of classic Halo moments
1st Nov 2012 | 07:01
A few years ago Microsoft set about building its own studio to carry Halo beyond Bungie's contractually obligated spin-offs ODST and
Halo 4 isn't just a another Halo; it's the Haloest Halo ever. It's good at mimicking the bits you remember best from past games to make it clear that, Bungie or not, this is the real thing. Level one is all grey corridors like Combat Evolved's Pillar of Autumn. Level two is a remake of the Chief's arrival on the first game's ring, complete with stunning vistas, arbitrary Warthog ride and a trip inside a Forerunner structure. There's a cross between
343 have replicated their favourite bits from other games in the series using an upgraded version of Reach's engine and Halo has never felt better. The guns have never packed more punch, its world has never been so beautiful and the enemies have never put up a better fight. It could be the perfect Halo - 343 are clearly capable of making it - but Halo 4's problem is the way it references Halo 2 more than any of Bungie's other games.
DOUBLE OR QUITS
Halo 4 picks up four years after the events of the third game, with Chief fighting a Covenant boarding party in the wreck of the Forward Unto Dawn. Caught in orbit around the hollow Forerunner world of Requiem, the Chief fights a zealot fleet before being swallowed by the planet, accidentally awakening an ancient Forerunner, and getting involved in lots of drama we won't spoil here.
Meanwhile, the UNSC ship Infinity traces Cortana's distress signal to the crashed Forward Unto Dawn and enters the planet's outer shell, where it becomes the jumping-off point for Halo 4's co-op campaign - Spartan Ops. Playing out in a series of episodes that will be released weekly, following the launch of the game, Infinity tells a complete side story. This free DLC series does a similar job as Reach and ODST's Firefight - each mission a series of simple arenas flooded with enemies, with enough space for four players to have fun without treading on one another's toes the way you will in Master Chief's rake-thin campaign.
343's main story hits the same hardware bottleneck that throttled Bungie's ambitions for Halo 2. Halo is at its best when the game is about sheer scale and epic battles in colossal spaces but Halo 4 is narrow and constrained. Halo 2 is among the best-looking games on the original Xbox, but its campaign is also the series' lowest point. To look as good as it does, Bungie kept the path narrow and the walls high. The maps are small, levels offer little room to experiment, and the combat - evolved in Halo Combat Evolved - devolves in Halo 2's restrictive spaces.
So when Bungie had 360's power to play with for the third game, they built their biggest battlefields ever because that's what Halo is supposed to be. You like the Warthog? So drive one along miles of Tsavo's highway and into huge arenas loaded with interesting tactical options. You like Silent Cartographer? Here's a landing on an island flooded with Covenant forces and a new flying vehicle to play with. You like epic set pieces? Here's a fifty-foot Covenant Scarab you'll have to take down from the inside. You liked that? Good, now here's two of them at once.
Just like Halo 2, 4 is prettier but smaller. It's among the best-looking games on 360 but its scope is much narrower than Reach, ODST and 3. When you drive your 'Hog for the first (and potentially only) time on level two it's along a path barely wider than the 'Hog itself. When you fight the Covenant's carrier it's in a barren space populated with only a handful of enemies, and when you fly out for Halo 4's version of Long Night of Solace you're in for a long, lonely flight with little to direct your Pelican's substantial firepower at.
At its most epic, 3 has you fight two Scarabs in a colossal arena with a Scorpion tank, Warthogs, Banshees and Hornets all as viable as one another. At 4's most epic, you're piloting a mech in an empty cavern against half a dozen Banshees and some Grunts. Halo 4 will show you dozens of eye-popping moments but it's all visual, not physical spectacle. The path is wider than any Call of Duty or Gears of War campaign, but by Halo's standards it's too narrow.
But even in tight spaces, the combat works well. In both campaigns you'll face armies of Covenant, Prometheans, and Covenant and Prometheans fighting side by side. The two factions go to war with one another in the third level, but soon unite against their real enemy - the squishy pink guys flying the million tonne warship overhead - so the dynamics of the battlefield are constantly evolving. It's another classic Halo callback where uneasy alliances are constantly forged and broken, and without the Brutes, Drones or Skirmishers getting in the way, Halo 4's combat is a welcome return to something old and familiar.
Against Grunts, Elites and Hunters the action is unmistakably Halo, and the new Promethean Knights and Crawlers immediately feel as though they belong in the same universe. Their techniques make for a thrilling fight, their 'injured' states and power attacks are telegraphed clearly enough so you'll always know when to close in for the kill, and the little four-legged ones pop like balloons when you hit them with a headshot. Nothing dies better than a Halo 4 crawler.
The Promethean weapons change battlefield dynamics too, though many feel awfully familiar. The Promethean Suppressor feels similar to ODST's scoped SMG, the Lightrifle is redundant in a world with a Battle Rifle and a DMR, and the Scattershot is so good it leaves little room for the standard Shotgun. One hundred thousand years ago, it seems the Prometheans fought the Flood with transforming versions of modern sniper rifles, SMGs, shotguns and rocket launchers, which suggests an incredible lack of creativity from a race that ruled half the galaxy. And from 343, too.
It's a tough balance to find, though. Had 343 changed too much they would alienate fans; change too little and Halo would be left behind. Adding a new faction to the Haloverse is already brave enough for one game, but real risks were taken with the engine and the art too. 343's art team understands how Halo should look as perfectly as the designers know how it should fight. It's still the most colourful shooter around, and the environments feel abstract and alien the way they should, and for the first time the maps feel like the giant, ancient machines they're supposed to be.
The engine's tweaks let 343 reshape massive chunks of the environment in the middle of the action. The Forerunner architecture is constantly in motion - sometimes to help you and other times, to hinder. There's never a moment to rival the collapse of the ring at the end of Halo 3 but there are moments when skyscraper-sized chunks of geometry will fling themselves in your path and entire sections of the map drop out beneath your feet. Halo 4 feels huge even though it never actually is. Art and careful design makes it feel like the biggest Halo yet until you measure the miles you've travelled and the width of the spaces you've explored.
You get the sense that 343 is a studio waiting for a console generation on which their grand ideas won't be so tightly constrained, and often, it shows. There's conspicuous texture pop-in as the 360 struggles to keep up with 343's art team, and some completely invisible enemies in the Infinity campaign as the draw distance struggles to keep up with the level designers. Spartan Ops' Firefight-style arenas are large enough that distant enemies can be seen to fade away beyond a hundred metres or so, invisible but for the icons hovering above their heads as if to apologise for their inconvenient intangibility. 343 needs a new generation now.
Risks have been taken with multiplayer, too, though the engine enhancements means it runs horribly in four-player split-screen - phasing non-critical objects out of view at distances less than ten metres and chugging along at a framerate in the low 20s. It still plays well, though, because 343 really do understand Halo's core combat loops.
The new maps are a nice balance between close-quarters and ranged combat, with no stage being dominated by one weapon thanks to the new ordnance drops and scoring system. Valhalla - now named Ragnarok - is the only classic Halo map among them, which suggests big brassy balls on 343's part and confidence in their own map design. Or big DLC plans.
The respawn timer has been removed altogether, critical weapons are highlighted on your HUD, and ordnance drops are awarded for racking up enough kills in every standard mode. It's a crafty psychological trick that gives you a sense of progress even when you're behind - sure, you might not get the three hundred points you need to win, but you can always try to get the three kills you need to pick up a SAW and go on a rampage.
BODY OF WORK
There are dozens of micro-tweaks to Halo's multiplayer systems but 343's boldest move was to remove the game's bodycount altogether, and with that one change
The scoring could be more transparent - something a little closer to
That degree of craft is lacking at the end of the campaign. Halo 4 ends with a shrug rather than a bang - a tepid version of the classic Halo escape sequence, a series of firefights in copy/paste spaces, a quicktime event and an inexplicable ending that falls apart under scrutiny. The soft finale is one final throwback to
So, deep breath... Halo 4 is to Halo 3 what Halo 2 was to Halo 1. But for all that, never forget we liked Halo 2. Everyone did. The only thing stopping it from being the best shooter of 2004 was
Halo 4 is a good game too. It's spectacular, it fights like Halo should, and it throws another hundred brilliant shootouts your way. But it's not a good Halo. There are too few options, too little to make the new weapons tactically interesting and the engine is reaching further than the hardware ever wanted to go. 343 did the best job anyone could have done with those graphics on this generation of hardware but given the choice between pretty or huge, Halo should always be the biggest game in the world.