Passing the baton from developer Bungie to 343 Industries, Halo 4 is an attempt to reboot the groundbreaking first-person-shooter franchise with a brand-new trilogy of games.
Does Halo 4 reinvent the series or is it just an attempt to exploit its loyal followers?
I was more than ready for the Halo franchise to be put to bed once and for all. The repetitive gameplay, the same enemies, tired environments, and countless spinoffs were beyond stale. This attitude seemed to permeate through E3 2012, when Halo 4 led Microsoft's press conference to a perfunctory response from the attending crowd.
Don't get me wrong, I was absolutely a part of the eye-rolling bandwagon that dismissed Halo 4 as another easy money-making scheme that would sell regardless of the game's quality. It's true that Halo 4 will do well, but after playing it for a few weeks, I've quickly learned it's not just the best Halo game I've ever played, it's also one of the best shooters of the year. Sure, it lacks a lot of elements that most contemporary shooters rely on, like upgrading and purchasing new weapons, but there's no touching what Halo 4 does best: first-person-shooter action.
It's true. I think Halo 4 is the best Halo game yet. There's just something about the way the game plays -- it's a bit less floaty than the original Halo games. It has some weight. Weapon firing is more significant. The game is grittier and darker with a better story and voice acting than any of the Bungie titles. Master Chief is humanized in Halo 4 more so than ever before, and the game's dramatic chops are firing on all cylinders -- even if at times his personality comes off as mechanical. Halo 3 was the previous trilogy's grand crescendo, but Halo 4 makes it look like a elementary-school play.
While Halo 4 does fall victim to a few cliched issues most shooters suffer from, the overall package overshadows these blunders. There's a decent amount of elevator loading and enemy variation is composed of a lot of the same stuff we've seen for years now. Though unlike the disastrous Library level in Combat Evolved, I never felt a sense of mindless repetition. The campaign is beautifully paced, possessing the ups and downs of a great blockbuster. And did I mention Halo 4 is easily one of the best-looking Xbox 360 games ever made?
It used to be that Xbox 360 had the industry's best exclusive titles and more than enough to brag about. Over the last few years that's changed, and it seems Sony has been able to nail down a more impressive list of titles only playable on a PS3. With Halo 4, Microsoft can once again hang its hat on a triple-A franchise that's had a serious burst of energy injected into it. It's as if 343 Industries has brought Halo to where it should have been a few years ago. Skeptics be damned, Halo is back and here to stay.
Strictly from a craftsmanship standpoint, Halo 4 is meets or surpasses the high bar set by its predecessors. Encounters are crafted to, if not exactly surprise, then at least invigorate. Open-air sections (looking a lot like the original verdant Halo world) are just flexible enough to encourage a bit of nonlinear creative thinking, and the game eases you into decisions -- riding a warthog here, using this specific weapon there -- in a way that creates a decent illusion of choice, even though you're being led through a specific path.
That said, the fight-your-way-off-a-ship opening sequence feels awfully familiar by now. And a big chunk of the game will be spent fighting the exact same alien grunts and elites we've been fighting for 11 years now. Therein lies the biggest fault of this decade-spanning franchise: an embrace of change only at the most incremental levels.
An example: When the first Halo game was released in 2001, the standards for mapping a first-person action game onto a gamepad had yet to be truly standardized (today, virtually every first-person shooter has a similar control scheme). But Halo sticks, stubbornly, I'd say, to its original controls, eschewing the zoomed "down the sights" aiming view mapped to the left trigger found in nearly every other shooter from the past 10 years (a zoom view is instead mapped to the right thumbstick, but useless for most weapons). Others will no doubt say the nonstandard controls are part of the series' unique charm; I respectfully say Halo could benefit from a less risk-averse view of its own evolution.
But one area where the new game feels fresh and substantially different from its predecessors is in the inclusion of something close to a character arc for the nameless Master Chief (OK, his name is really John-117, but Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name actually had a name, too). The Chief probably has more lines of dialogue in the first few hours of this game than in every other Halo game combined.
There's a clear effort to start this new trilogy with a greater dramatic thrust, and put some real storytelling muscle behind Master Chief and his relationship with his artificially intelligent sidekick, Cortana. Despite the high level some game script-writing and voice acting has hit lately -- LA Noire, Mass Effect, Heavy Rain -- Halo 4 impresses, building on the stronger narrative we saw in the Master-Chief-free Halo: Reach in 2010.
The world of blockbuster holiday video games almost seems old-fashioned, now, as the popular consoles get ever-older, and mobile and downloadable titles become the order of the day. In particular, the first-party exclusive tent pole. While Nintendo focuses on a new console and Sony has backed off franchises like Uncharted and God of War for the holiday season, Halo 4 stands as the Big Exclusive on the block.
Halo 4 doesn't disappoint in the way that an excellently made Bond film doesn't disappoint. It delivers on the pacing, the action, and, most importantly, the sense of cinematic grandeur. That's the bit of extra magic that makes a big tent pole video game worth the experience and the money, in my book. I like to be wowed a bit. Halo 4 does this by believing in its mythos, taking it seriously, and building an adventure that doesn't take anything for granted.
Is it anything other than Halo? Of course not. I normally don't like endless game sequels, but in the case of Halo 4, it's a welcome arrival in what feels like an otherwise soft fall for big games. And it does just enough with its big spaces and care for storytelling to draw me in, occasional cheesiness aside.