Discussion Review: Halo 4

Review written by Matt Litten & Aaron R. Conklin

Halo4

Matt: After floating in space slumber for two games, and now under the guidance of a developer not named Bungie for the first time, Master Chief is back to save the galaxy from a new and ancient evil.

In many ways Halo 4 marks the re-launch of the series, 343 Industries given the pressure-packed task of carrying the series forward and establishing its own identity within the Halo universe without mucking up the beloved sci-fi space opera formula brewed by Bungie. That’s a tough spot to be in, but I’d say they completed the objective admirably.

The highest compliment I can pay to 343 Industries is that they finally made me care about the world and characters of the Halo universe. Storytelling was never one of Bungie’s strengths, but 343 really rocks Halo 4 with a dramatic, cinematic narrative that connected me to the experience more so than any previous title. Master Chief is still a dud of a super-franchise star for me – sorry, I still just don’t get why he’s such a gaming icon – but his personality does at least shine through a tiny bit more than past titles.

Cortana steals the show in this new saga starter, her relationship with Master Chief taking center stage as she faces her gradual decline caused by a condition of rampancy that takes hold and threatens to send her into crazy computer madness. She’s just an AI, but her lifelike characterization makes her seem real and in turn the responsibility Master Chief feels in wanting to find a solution to the seemingly incurable problem becomes an emotional burden upon the player’s shoulders. The closing moments do a good job of resolving this evocative scenario while also laying the ground work for the future.

Wrapped around this subplot is a fairly generic and forgettable conflict with a Forerunner villain known as the Didact, who you probably won’t much know or care about unless you’re a dedicated student of Halo lore. In terms of art direction, music and gameplay feel, 343 puts its own slant on things, presenting Cortana in a more humanly fashion and putting a slightly darker, more realistic edge on the existing sci-fi motif. 343 also jazzes things up a bit with gorgeous environments set on the Forerunner planet of Requiem, inhabited by a new race of enemy, the Prometheans, who look like burning, phantasmal skeletons trapped inside a suit of armor. With a new opposing faction also comes new weapon tech for Master Chief to kill with, and the Promethean guns, while offering similar functionality to the standard arsenal of laser rifles, shotguns and pistols, stand out for their incredibly cool Transformers-style morphing animations.

Even with the extra touches, Halo 4 very much still is a Halo game. I enjoyed the story and the look of the game, and the balanced ratio of watching the story unfold to typical run-and-gun FPSing and varied vehicular combat is flawless. However, something about the gameplay just feels old hat to me. It’s solid and fun, but doesn’t do anything different or take any risks, nor does it even seem to meet certain modern genre standards. The action is very simplistic, with familiar Covenant enemies we’ve been shooting and plasma grenading since the first Halo populating the majority of the game’s jaw-dropping spacescapes. I hate to say it, but the game is often so predictable that for me it became quite dull if I played any longer than 30-45 minutes at a time.

Aaron: Hatin’ on the Master Chief. There was a time when going there would have amounted to modern gaming heresy, Matt, but I think we’re safely past that now. I’m not among those who are going to enshrine it in my top-three list for 2012, but I definitely enjoyed Halo 4 more than you did. And that enjoyment begins with the game’s vastly—let me repeat, vastly–improved storytelling.

It’s not difficult to argue that Halos 1-3 succeeded despite plot and character development—go back and play Halo Anniversary edition and tell me the plot isn’t thinner than your typical piece of lotion-infused Kleenex. Mystery works when you’re talking about A and the latest twist on Pretty Little Liars, but not so much when your game’s hero spends the entire adventure in self-contained Spartan armor and never shows his face. No, the lasting triumph of the Halo series is laid at the altar of online multiplayer: Bungie boldly blazed that trail on consoles, giving us the first workable matchmaking and team-based system gamers still want to keep coming back to, even ten years later.

But something interesting has happened in the interim between Halo 3 and Halo 4—storytelling began creeping into the landscape. It started with Halo Reach, which added a grim and hopeless pathos to what had been a fairly straightforward Triumph-of-the- Human-Spirit-with-the-Big-Gun storyline. Meanwhile, the series of novels based on the Halo universe continued to pile up, filling a lot of the gaps the game’s plots had left unfinished. I don’t mean to suggest that every gamer has a stack of dog-eared Halo novels strewn across his bedroom floor, but I think we’ve reached the point where we care in a different way about the fates and motivations of characters like Catherine Halsey, Cortana, and yes, Master Chief. Hell, we’re even on a first-name basis with the guy now.

Does the gameplay here feel new and refreshing? No, but I’m not sure that was ever the point, or, more pointedly, the bar 343 set for itself. I actually liken playing through some of these levels to revisiting a place like Disney World after a several-year hiatus. The familiar environs no longer have the power to rock your socks off, but the ghosts of the good feelings you felt the first time are enough to carry the experience. If Halo 5—or whatever 343 Industries dubs its next Halo project—tries to run the ship with unleaded Eau de Nostalgia, that’s the point at which the warthogs of gamer fury can be unleashed.

I’m happy to see there’s still an option to complete the campaign in co-op mode, and even though they tend to be shorter than your typical Allstate commercial, I like the idea of Spartan Ops, the weekly episodic content that’s replaced firefight mode. It’ll be interesting to see how long that train keeps moving, as these types of ongoing content exercises tend to die out sooner than expected.

I’m less thrilled with the way 343 forces you to try out the complete new weapons smorgasbord by making ammo as scarce as a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Requiem. Asking for a little resource and ammo management from players isn’t an egregious developer play, but it sure seemed like there were a lot of times I was scouring the ground in the middle of a firefight, hoping to stumble on something that still had a charge in it. And when I found it, it usually had about five bullets remaining. Ouch.

Matt: I didn’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy the game. I guess what I was trying to say is that Halo 4 just feels very safe. That’s to be expected, I suppose. Obviously I didn’t expect or even want 343 to come in and veer off in a completely new direction, but I think they could have done more to incrementally evolve the series’ beyond-stale gameplay. Halo 4 is basically an extension of some of the new things Bungie introduced in Reach, such as the equippable power-up (jetpack, light shield, etc.) and the more open environs, but it doesn’t push any further than that. The game just lacks a much-needed punch of excitement.

Halo has always been exceedingly simple in terms of being a straight up run and gun shooter, which was fine once upon a time, but nowadays just feels so flat and one dimensional. There has always been an elegance to Halo’s fundamental simplicity, and there still is to an extent, but I still find myself wanting something greater. Why has dual-wielding not been fully resurrected? Why do I still have to run and hide in a corner when I need Chief’s shield to recharge? Couldn’t something as basic as peek and lean be added so at least sitting behind cover isn’t such a pace breaker? Why can’t I aim with iron sights? And yes, why is inventory still limited to two measly guns with such low ammo capacities that you regularly need to scrounge about the battlefield for a replacement while Covenant are actively trying to shove a needler blast up your ass. Screw “realism,” I like my first-person shooters with weapon wheels or, like the old days, a “magical bag” inventory holding every single gun. I’m not asking for huge innovation here or a complete Halo overhaul, but every franchise reaches a point where it needs to mature and take a risk. Halo has long since reached that point.

Like previous installments, multiplayer is Halo 4’s bread and butter, and in the competitive (and cooperative) arena it doesn’t disappoint one bit. I too appreciate and welcome the Spartan Ops experiment, which turned out to be a whole lot more in depth than I ever imagined. We’re up to around 10 episodes in so far, each consisting of five short missions that generally take 10-15 minutes to complete. So yes, the individual missions are fairly short, but there are a lot of them and there is an interesting side story attached to the episodic campaign that will make it worthwhile for fans to complete in full. I also appreciate the fact that Spartan Ops missions can be soloed, for times when you don’t feel like dealing with Xbox Live dickheads or for players who prefer taking on the Covenant hordes one man army style.

Multiplayer War Games is the other draw, offering 16-player competition across a robust roster of match types, both fresh and familiar, with a large selection of maps expertly balanced for dynamic large-scale battles between on-foot Spartans and those in mech suits and other vehicles. Flood mode headlines the Halo 4 multiplayer experience, a fun take on a survival mode in which a team of Flood take on a squad of Spartans, with each kill resulting in the deceased Spartan becoming a Flood abomination until there are no more Spartans left.

Whichever mode you’re rocking, your personalized Spartan earns experience and rises up the ranks, unlocking new loadout options and avatar customizations along the way. Altogether, Halo 4 offers some of the deepest, most engaging online multiplayer on the Xbox 360.

Halo 4 is a good game. In fact, to me it’s not even a debatable statement to label this installment, 343’s first crack at the franchise, the series’ strongest showing, far more impressive across the board than any Bungie-made Halo game. However, for a franchise that is the face of a company’s entire console gaming brand I sort of want something that transcends, not a game that’s merely solid and reliable. (For the record, I feel the exact same way about the solid yet unspectacular Resistance series on PS3.) That’s what Halo 4 is to me, and what the Halo franchise as a whole has always been. You can count on it for reasonably fun and fundamentally sound game design and a wealth of content, but there really isn’t a distinguishing characteristic that stands out as being special or memorable. Putting hype and expectations aside, for me it simply comes down to this: Halo 4 is a good first-person shooter, just not a great one. ‘Nuff said.

Matt-TryIt

Pros:
+ Captivating relationship drama between Cortana and Master Chief
+ Requiem’s space environs are jaw-droppingly gorgeous
+ Episodic Spec Ops missions provide long-term replay incentive
+ Robust competitive multiplayer, including the fun new Flood match type

Cons:
– Familiar Halo gameplay just feels safe and predictable
– Main storyline is forgettable
– Hiding in a corner while Chief’s shields recharge kills the otherwise excellent pacing
– Can I get more ammo and weapon slots, please?

Aaron: Seems to me your reaction comes down to a question of expectations—you like it, but had hoped for so much more. I can see that. It’s fair to argue that taking the current gaming landscape and the tendencies of the publisher is beyond the scope of evaluating the game itself, but I think it really matters here. Microsoft isn’t Activision, fronting a biz strategy that requires triple-A franchises to pump out new editions every year—we’ve had to wait several years between every single Halo game (and sometimes a lot more than that.). Each one of those gaps creates a growing interest for another dose, another chance to go back and re-experience the stuff we loved before. Contrast that to Call of Duty, where every-year entries demand splashy overhauls and innovations to justify their $60 price tags, and often end up disappointing the die-hards. Halo 4 was the first effort of a new studio, offering us the chance to play again as a character we thought was gone forever, and that’s more than enough to compensate for a failure to reinvent the FPS wheel. Especially since that wasn’t the prime directive.

You talk about innovating, but in this case I think adding a compelling narrative is the innovation, because there really wasn’t one before. In other words, we now have a new emotional connection to an experience we were already enjoying. If Halo 4 had added something like a cover system, the Gears crowd would have derided it as derivative, and frankly, it probably wouldn’t have been that impressive. I’m with you on the concept of dual-wielding—come on, guys, it’s not that far-fetched, and could cure a whole host of gameplay ills—but you can also point to some of the new additions in multiplayer, like decoys, Promethean Vision and upgraded shields, and say they’ve added some clever gameplay wrinkles, at least for those players who are patient enough to figure out how to use them.

And if they’d rather just race to snatch the energy sword or railgun, they can do that, too. There’s more than enough to satisfy here, and 343 has effectively set a new bar for the series- and, perhaps more importantly, for itself. Wherever the Spartans end up heading next, they’d better be ready for some evolution.

Aaron-BuyIt

Pros:
+ For a change, a compelling storyline—and you can play it co-op
+ Spartan Ops is developing into a good DLC-delivery system
+ Enough gameplay tweaks to keep things interesting

Cons:
– Limited ammo means lots of annoying battlefield scrounging
– Some Spartan Ops episodes are woefully short

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: 343 Industries
Release Date: 11/6/2012
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-16 (2-4 co-op, 2-16 competitive)
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!