Playing through the entirety of Halo 4's campaign in a dimly-lit 24th-floor meeting room during New York Comic-Con wasn't so different from how I'd have experienced the game if I had simply played it at home. Lights low, snacks at the ready, one long sitting. That's how I've played every Halo game since the second one. In some ways, it's the ideal way to take in the whole experience. Otherwise the story can seem disjointed, each level a separate event without the context of the missions before and after. Played as a single experience, the story of Halo 4 was cohesive.
Developer: 343 Industries
Release date: Nov. 6
That's not to say it made sense, though. As the Master Chief is awoken from his four-year-long sleep directly following the events of Halo 3, his first words are "Where are we?" and "Why did you wake me?" Fans might be wondering the same thing. The story arc that began in Halo: Combat Evolved and ended in 2007 with Halo 3 was resolved nicely; the Covenant disbanded, humanity was finally safe from The Flood, and the Master Chief drifted peacefully through space, finally at rest.
But there was never a chance that Microsoft would let the Chief lie, even with series creators Bungie having moved on, and so 343 Industries was created and another Halo trilogy—once again starring the Master Chief—was begun.
One thing's for sure: it certainly feels like Halo. Mechanically, 343's gotten everything right, even surpassing Bungie's games in numerous ways. The weapons, the sounds, the new ways in which Halo 4 has been "modernized"—particularly in multiplayer—all fit together nicely to form what's possibly the most comprehensive and competent Halo game yet.
But the question for some fans might well be whether Halo 4's story is one that needed to be told, the way the first three games felt like the most pivotal chapters in the Master Chief's long and storied life. And the answer, unfortunately, is not so simple.
FOURTH TIME'S THE CHARM?
Halo 4 possesses a duality similar to Halo 3's, with a larger story providing the backdrop for a more personal one. In Halo 3, The Flood and the Covenant had invaded Earth, and the Chief had to stop them by whatever means. But more important to fans was the rescue of Cortana, the sassy purple AI lost in space during Halo 2.
Likewise, Halo 4's most compelling story elements lie in the onset of Cortana's rampancy, a terminal condition that affects AIs who've been "alive" for too long, and the Chief's quest to get her back to Earth for treatment. In between battling the Covenant and the new "Promethean" enemies, consulting with long-dead holograms and seeking ancient artifacts, and fleeing the Sauron-like eye of the nefarious "Didact," emotional scenes between the Chief and Cortana provide the plot's real momentum.
A number of other characters are introduced, and like the returning cast (Cortana in particular) each is given new life by 343's decision to use performance capture for the first time in the series. The Chief and Cortana have never had more feelings than they do in Halo 4, and their rather taboo romance, such as it is, has never been more overt. Your reaction to that may differ, but I personally enjoyed seeing a more human side of the 9-foot soldier and his computer companion.
Unfortunately, the backdrop for that personal tale isn't nearly as compelling. Admittedly, I've yet to read the most recent Halo novels by Greg Bear—the ones focused on the ancient Forerunners—that would have no doubt lent more context to Halo 4's larger narrative. But I'm guessing most of the people about to play Halo 4 haven't read them either, and as a result the whole story will suffer from seeming rather out of context. Villains like the Prometheans and the Didact are totally out of left field, and even after lengthy cut scenes, their motivations and actions remain ambiguous and inscrutable.
Multiple play throughs will likely help clear the fog, but I also suspect that most Halo 4 players will complete the campaign once—if at all—before moving on to the multiplayer. And to them, just like for me, it's not going to make any sense. I'd argue that the Master Chief should have been left to his endless, dreamless sleep, but then Halo 4's marketing wouldn't have been nearly as compelling, would it have?
SHUT UP AND TELL US ABOUT THE GUNS
So the story isn't all that relevant—what about the guns? What about the Warthogs, the Banshees, and the jet packs? For most, that's what's really important, and fortunately the gameplay is where Halo 4 positively shines.
Every new Halo game is a grab bag of the equipment, items and mechanics that came before, and Halo 4 possesses a nice mix of the old while injecting more new than any past game in the series has dared to. 343's need to make its mark on the series is blatant, but the game hasn't suffered from that. Far from it, in fact.
With the new Promethean enemies comes an entire arsenal of new Forerunner weaponry, from the shotgun-like Scattershot to the Boltshot pistol, the long-range Light Rifle and Binary Rifle, the rapid-fire Suppressor, and the devastatingly powerful Incineration Cannon. Each shot from that last one emits several smaller, arcing projectiles, each enough by itself to disintegrate most foes into clouds of dissipating orange particles.
On the human side, the SAW provides a light machine gun with impressive power, the Rail Gun is a less-potent Spartan Laser with splash damage, and the Sticky Detonator, a more reliable Plasma Launcher, is an instant classic. Even the fan-favorite shotgun has been revamped for the better. Unlike in past games, where throwaways like the SMG and Brute Spiker added little of value to the mix, the new weapons all feel useful, with few exceptions (the entirely useless new Promethean grenades being the most glaring).
On the vehicle side, the bipedal Mantis mech, with a missile launcher on its left arm and a powerful chain gun on its right, has particularly high durability to make up for its lack of mobility. And the enormous, single-player exclusive Pelican—a series staple fully drivable for the first time (besides a short cameo in Halo: Reach)—is a welcome addition. Likewise for the fighter jet/space ship combo called the Broadsword used in one Star Wars Death Star-style bombing run late in the game. One campaign level even tasks you with protecting and riding on an enormous "Mammoth," a mobile base many times the size of Halo 3's Elephant.
Armor abilities return from Halo: Reach, though the divisive Armor Lock has been replaced by a less show-stopping Hardlight Shield. Other new additions, like the Auto Sentry—a floating turret that fires distracting projectiles—and the Thruster—for quick lunges—are useful in both single- and multiplayer. Most importantly, all players are now equipped with the ability to sprint at all times, speeding up the sometimes slow-paced Halo gameplay.
SPEAKING OF MULTIPLAYER…
The bread and butter of any Halo game is the multiplayer, and Halo 4 brings several changes that are sure to prove divisive for long-time fans. Some will object to the (for lack of a better term) modernization of the series, while others, like me, will rejoice in kill-streak rewards and customizable loadouts.
Those rewards, in Halo 4 called Ordnance Drops, appear periodically, though performing well in multiplayer speeds up their arrival. They amount to a choice between three randomly selected items: usually powerful weapons like the SAW or Sticky Detonator, or power-ups like overshields and speed or damage boosters. These can complement your custom loadouts, which include any combination of primary and secondary weapon, two perks, grenade type, and ability. They can even be modified in the middle of a match, and they make each player's experience more customizable than ever before.
Power weapons—Sniper Rifle, Rocket Launcher, etc.—still drop onto each map periodically, but now their presence is lit up with an objective marker, eliminating the advantage of expert players who previously counted down the seconds between weapon spawns. To top it off, kill cams have been taken wholesale from Call of Duty.
Other changes are more minor, but will alter the game significantly for experienced players. For example, players who pick up the flag in a game of capture-the-flag automatically whip out a pistol in their other hand, whether or not they're actually carrying one. Being able to defend yourself as the flag carrier is a major boon, and it'll alter any team's strategy in the classic game type. Another example: charging up the Plasma Pistol's vehicle-stopping, shield-draining mega shot now depletes the weapon's ammo within seconds. There'll be no more running around with the trigger held down, which should mean less "noob combo" abuse.
LIVING UP TO THE LEGACY
It's clear that 343 has just as much respect for all the millions of Halo fans as Bungie did, but walking the fine line between fan service and mass appeal involves a balancing act that would challenge the most talented studio—even with all of King Microsoft's horses and men behind it. Yet in almost every way, 343 has lived up to that task.
No one will argue that Halo 4 doesn't feel like a Halo game, even with all the new additions and modern changes. As with any Halo game, there are pros and cons: the new Promethean enemies are certainly different from the Covenant, but their tendency to teleport around and flee behind cover makes them more annoying as well. On the other hand, the graphics and sound design are, in every way, superior to every past Halo game. Even familiar weapons sound exciting and new, and the score from Massive Attack's Neil Davidge mixes much of the old with invigorating electronic themes.
343's love of the series is evident in the studio's impressive attention to detail. Cortana's tortured emotions are writ large upon her expressive new face (thanks largely to a great performance by Mackenzie Mason); the Master Chief actually uses his hands to press buttons. The Battle Rifle now challenges the DMR for multiplayer dominance, and the race is so close it'll almost certainly come down to personal preference in the end.
It's too bad that the plot feels like one giant fan-fiction, though not in the sense that it's been poorly conceived or executed. No, the narrative campaign is actually more cinematic and complex than what passed for story in past Halo games (the plot's always been better-told in the books). Yet despite its newfound emotional gravity, Halo 4's plot just doesn't feel like a story that needed to be told.
Regardless, multiplayer is as compelling as ever, and I love that the leveling system is now tied to equipment unlocks as well as aesthetic ones, like new armor. The new Spartan Ops mode (which, regrettably, has replaced my beloved Firefight) promises free weekly content with an entire subplot of its own. Each weekly Op will be comprised of five mini-missions, and the ones I've played ranged from trivial to extremely engaging. And don't forget about Forge and Theatre modes, which in previous games were considered back-of-the-box features, and are now included by default—testament to just how much is crammed into this package.
All that and more will provide plenty of reasons for fans to keep returning to Halo 4. I say this every time a new Halo game comes out, but it's as true now as it was every time: Halo 4 is undoubtedly the most fully-featured and smartly designed Halo game yet. I was worried about the scepter changing hands, but I feel reassured now that 343 is in charge. And that's a relief; if the last eleven years have proved anything, it's that Halo is here to stay, and that's something that Halo fans and Microsoft can agree on.