Five years. Five long years since the Chief uttered those haunting words; ‘Wake me, if you need me’ and we feared he would be lost to us forever. In those five years we have had Halo 3: ODST. A film noir set in the ruin of New Mombasa. It received mixed reviews but I suspect that the majority of the criticism boiled down to the lack of Spartans running around kicking people in the face. Halo: Reach two years ago was the swan song of Bungie as they kissed their baby good-bye and waved it into the big scary world with 343 Industries holding its hand. And what a swan song it was. An utterly beautiful game worthy of a space opera and a profound tragedy; the death of a world. Halo: Reach had all the love and sadness Bungie felt poured into every inch of that game, and it showed.
Halo 4 sees the start of the Reclaimer story arc and is set 4 years after Halo 3. The Master Chief is right where we left him on board the wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn. Although you may notice he’s had a bit of a face lift. A side effect of the cryo process presumably. Initially I didn’t like the new, more industrial, look to the Chief’s armour but it does grow on you. It feels more menacing than Bungie’s iteration. There’s also been a lot more thought gone into how the synthetic muscle fibres would work and the segmentation of the armour. At the end of the day, we got use to the Mk VI MJOLNIR armour in Halo 2, we can get use to this.
To give you a run down of the opening gambit; the Chief is awoken to find Covenant ships attacking the remnants of Forward Unto Dawn which has found itself in orbit around a huge artificial world called Requiem. Much ass kickery ensues but ultimately ends with the Chief on the (inner) surface of the world.
This give us the first real flexing of muscle for 343 Industries. It looks spectacular. I mean utterly beautiful. The first proper look you get of Requiem is looking out over a facility that seamlessly shifts and slides on a background of floating skyscrapers, clouds and the far side of the orb with the usual mental levels of detail we’ve come to expect from the Halo Universe. It’s epic.
Which is the point of Halo 4. It’s 343 Industries first outing at the helm of the good ship Halo and they were determined to make fans proud. Overall they did a superb job. Aside from the maps looking the absolute tits, they feel huge. All the weapons have had a little tweak here and there both in look but performance. Every sound effect from previous games have been re-recorded so the assault rifle feels beefier. They also realised that a Spartan really isn’t going to have an issue with recoil so everything feels far more poised than it use to. Which means you feel every bit the super soldier as your blasting your way through the Covenant.
Yes, the Covenant are back. I suspect this was partly for continuity but they’re all renegades so it’s fine. Like the UNSC weapons, they’ve all had a nip and a tuck. Grunts now look quite sinister, all of the traditional cuteness gone. They can also hit things now. And plasma pistols are slightly over powered. So they’re actually pretty bloody annoying. As is the fact that they’ve done away with the health bar. AGAIN. So once you’re shields collapse (and they will do often) you’ve got no bloody idea how long you’ve got before you’re a peculiarly posed corpse on the floor.
However, you won’t just be facing the Covenant. As has been heavily publicised you also go up against the mysterious and technologically badass Prometheans. Mimetic constructs that can jump through slip space and have guns that wouldn’t look out-of-place on the set of Tron. I can’t go into too much detail plot wise and it’ll spoil things but suffice to say, they’re big, shooty, stabby and take a lot of killing. The AI is also sadly a little off and so are utterly predictable and, providing you have the right gun you can pretty much keep your distance and wear them down.
And ammo is a big issue in Halo 4. In that there isn’t any. There’ll be occasions you get to re-equip but generally speaking you’ll be scrounging weapons left right and centre. This is more realistic. But it it’s less fun because, personally, I like the UNSC weapons. They suit my style of play. Although I rarely get to do my usual style of play – which is run up and mang things – because the improved accuracy most things are dead by the time I get there. The funny thing is, in an attempt to be different with the Prometheans the weapons range from fucking ace in the form of the Light Rifle, Incinerator and Scattergun to the utterly useless – the Boltshot and Suppressor. The latter is so woefully inaccurate you’ll waste almost an entire energy sell to take out the weakest of the Promethean construct.
I suppose the upside of the erratic weapon performance, lack of UNSC ammo and the lack of health information does mean that you feel in more peril than normal. Which is both good and bad. It’s good because if you’ve played the other games you would have steamed through them easy enough once you figured out your preferred weapons configuration and playing style so it forces you to adjust your combat style and make use of cover. It’s bad because you’re a MKII Spartan and they’re supposed to be pretty nails.
In term of game play Halo 4, if I’m honest, doesn’t offer anything new. It’s still more arcade than ultra realism – which isn’t a complaint just an observation. It’s still got some of those frustrating glitches that have dogged all Halo games where it doesn’t register a head shot so it takes three shots rather than one. Melee is still an intangible affair where you rarely feel like you’re connecting with the target; more bending around it or simple moving through it.
There’s also more than a few moments in the campaign that are blatant rehashes of earlier games like the tedious gondola section in Halo 2 and the race through the Pillar of Autumn from Halo: CE. Although very intense it feels at times a tad Lego: Star Wars and because of the perspective you’ll smash yourself into structures you thought you were clear of. Some of the set pieces as well feel laboured and predictable and because of the ambition some of the graphics suffer noticeably. But these are minor grumbles really I just wish that 343 hadn’t been quite so quick to rehash old ideas. It’s too safe for what needed to be a seminal game.
The story, which I won’t go into too much detail on because it’s still early days for most people, is epic. It ties in the existing Halo lore, including the much maligned Halo Wars, as well as opens up a whole new facet of the Universe to explore as well as some pretty big revelations about the Forerunners and the original flood infestation. An old theme makes its appearance which is loss. It’s always been there in the Halo games. The loss of life, the loss of territory, the loss of hope. In Halo Reach it was the loss of an entire world and the loss of comrades and friends. Sacrifice is what the Halo games is all about.
In Halo 4 Cortana is suffering from rampancy – an affliction all AIs suffer after 7 years where they essentially think themselves to death – which adds a real sense of urgency to the game as the Chief as he struggles to rescue the crash landed UNSC Infinity to return to Earth and save the life of an AI he’s all but in love with. The story wrestles with the real tragedy of the Master Chief finally touching on the fact that he’s a transhuman charged with the defence of humanity who, outside those who serve alongside him, resent and fear him and he feels utterly removed from. That he’s most likely the last of the Spartan IIs and all he’s known since the age of 16 is war, having been abducted at the age of 6. And now he faces the loss of the only ‘person’ to every understand him and yet another threat to humanity that he must face all but alone. It is a completely brilliant story. It does however, warrant a couple of play-throughs as it’s opening up the proverbial can of worms and can only mean yet more mentalness in Halo’s 5 & 6.
Halo 4, for all the little niggles, is an absolute triumph and worthy of the legacy 343 Industries had to live up to. The combat is still frenetic and if you don’t have the reflexes of a cat you may find yourself dying, a lot, particularly in the later parts of the game. The story is tremendous and moving and the cut scenes are worthy of a film. There’s been huge improvements graphically and the hideous ‘people’ animation of Halo 3 has been tremendously improved upon. Playing on normal, however, I did rattle through it in just over 5 hours which does feel a little on the short side but I suspect Halo 3 was no longer and I was by no means taking my time. That said the game felt epic in size and there was more than one occasion when I felt knackered after the action stopped.
I’ve deliberately not played the multiplayer yet because Halo, for me, is all about the story. I’m sure it’s a huge amounts of fun, but the return of the Master Chief deserved my complete, and undivided attention. And what a return it is!