Halo 4 (Xbox360)

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Whatever your thoughts of the Halo series may be, facts are facts: A decade ago, the release of the original Halo on Xbox provided a rock solid template for console-based first-person shooters and popularised the genre on gaming platforms that didn’t benefit from keyboard and mouse support. The Halo series itself used that template to great effect and evolved that original draft across five entries, as well as a high definition re-release of the game that kicked off the franchise.

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As developer Bungie handed over full stewardship of Halo to Microsoft and 343 Industries, there was a lot of uncertainty about the future of the franchise but with the reveal of Halo 4, fans were overall relieved to see one of their favourite games in the hands of a studio that not only understood the series, but was made up of former Bungie staff and comprised some of the best talent the game development industry has to offer.

Now that the release of Halo 4 is upon us, we’re finally able to see what 343 Industries has been working on for the last few years and I can say for certain that while Halo fans will be pleased with the results of the developer’s efforts, 343 has stuck incredibly closely to Bungie’s evolved template for a first-person shooter, and despite new features and extras, the team has delivered an all too familiar experience across both the game’s campaign and multiplayer.

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Halo 4 takes place four years after Halo 3, but continues on directly from the events of that game as Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana are suspended in the unknown, far reaches of space on the eviscerated vessel, ‘Forward Unto Dawn.’ Unwittingly, the ship has drifted into the orbit of a strange planet, Requiem, seemingly created by the ancient Forerunner race.

Halo 4 begins as the remains of Forward Unto Dawn are drawn into the planet’s hollow core, forcing Master Chief and Cortana into an inter-species war between series-long antagonists, the Covenant, and a new, mysterious and fearsome menace, the Prometheans. This war, and Master Chief’s run-in with the Forerunners, merely serves as a backdrop for a more urgent and personal story, however, and one that makes Master Chief and Cortana’s return to Earth a driving force for the pair.

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Unfortunately, the narrative and progression of Halo 4 suffer from the same problems as its predecessors in that plot details are not only skimmed over, but in some instances seem to be skipped altogether, making for a confusing, higgledy-piggledy story that moves at a whirlwind pace. It’s almost Joss Whedon-esque in the way minutia is discussed with laser precision, while big picture events are given short shrift. The level of sardonic humour and melodrama has also been ratcheted up a few notches and while I may have endured Cortana’s sarcastic remarks and the series’ over-wrought self-important presentation in the past, it’s a point of distraction in Halo 4.

To add to the confusion, entire events and gameplay sequences seem to have been removed from Halo 4, at times leaving me to wonder how I had arrived at my current destination or what had happened in the interim between major events. If you’re new to the Halo series, there’s a great chance you’ll be completely lost as far as the story of the franchise is concerned, and save for one text-based story dump on an in-game device hidden in the game’s very first level, you won’t find any further explanation of the previous trilogy.

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I had hoped that the gameplay of Halo 4 would then form the core of 343 Industries’ focus, but as far as the series’ evolution, it seems to have stopped at Halo Reach. The Halo template that I mentioned before has been copied, beat-for-beat, and despite the introduction of a fascinating new enemy in the Prometheans, the developer didn’t take its chance to introduce something fresh to the formula to match Master Chief’s latest foes.

The first-person shooting of Halo 4 is as rewarding as it has ever been, comprising the same ’30 seconds of fun’ loop that Bungie made famous with combat tools like a variety of grenades and close quarters melee attacks, as well as both long- and short-range weaponry like shotguns, rifles, rocket launchers and sniper rifles to play with. Armour Abilities make a return, too, increasing your battle options with active camouflage, a jetpack, the chance to see enemies around the corner, summon remote sentries, bring up a temporary shield and more.

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This time around, you won’t need an Armour Ability to sprint, but the decision to forbid players to simultaneously run and reload is bewildering, and it’s constantly jarring to exit a sprint and wait for half a second to let Master Chief ready his weapon before you can fire. Can’t this super soldier run and replace his weapon’s ammunition at the same time? Is it really beyond him to have his weapon ready and aiming immediately after pacing it through the field of battle? These are peculiar decisions that frustrated me to no end.

On your journey in Halo 4 those battlefields will take a variety of forms, from lush jungles choked by immense twisting tree trunks, volcanic terrain fused with glowing, alien structures, vast plains dotted with hills and soaring mountains, and Halo’s traditional cavernous metallic halls, shiny technological passageways and walls pulsating with circuits of energy. These differing sights (and their accompanying sounds), as well as pace-breakers like piloting mechanical exoskeletons and flying vehicles, help keep the adventure fresh, but there are times when you’ll be tasked with completing similar tasks, in similar environments, using similar methods in quick succession, which to me felt like an attempt to artificially extend the game.

Halo 4 was 343 Industries’ chance to break away from tradition while still telling the continued adventures of Master Chief to appease fans, but instead we’ve been given the same experience we’ve seen in five previous Halo games, while the more directed approach to the game’s progression means that the series’ celebrated sandbox gameplay affordances are all but non-existent. There are great moments in the campaign of Halo 4, and the opportunity to play through the story co-operatively with friends is a huge bonus, but I was personally underwhelmed by the beginning of Halo’s Reclaimer trilogy.

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It’s a good thing, then, that the online component of Halo 4 fairs significantly better than the campaign. Hopping into the game’s ‘Infinity’ menu options, I was met with an impressive variety of ways to enjoy some multiplayer matches with friends and players from around the world, with team-based deathmatch modes like Team Infinity Slayer, Big Team Infinity Slayer (larger levels and more players) and Team Slayer Pro (for those who wish to play without assistance from maps and Armour Abilities).

Other standard team modes like Capture the Flag, King of the Hill and Dominion (capture points on the map) are complemented by exciting game types like Flood (convert players into Flood zombies), Regicide (hunt down the leading points scorer for a bounty) and Oddball (hold on to a skull for as long as possible to rack up points). It’s when you start earning experience points for playing and achieving in your online matches when things start getting very interesting.

As is expected from any multiplayer game these days, you’ll rank up by earning hundreds, thousands and then ultimately hundreds of thousands of experience points, and for every rank you gain you’ll earn a Spartan Point to unlock anything from weapons and new Armour Abilities, to armour and ability upgrades. While using your accumulated points for new guns and grenades is cool, you’ll want to eventually spend them on attachments that improve your shield recharge rate in battle, decrease your reload time or allow you to equip two primary weapons at the start of a match.

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As seen in Halo Reach, you’ll also be able to unlock customisation options to personalise the look of your in-game Spartan and mix and match emblem shapes and colours – all superfluous cosmetic changes, but some of the gear down the unlock lists looks truly epic… Halo fans will be busy for quite some time!

Helping players on their way to rank up and earn more combat abilities and customisation pieces are the weekly challenges set by 343 Industries, tasking you with completing in-game assignments to net enormous amounts of experience points. Anything from finishing a section of the campaign on a certain difficulty setting to dispatching a certan number of online players will provide great rewards, and like Halo Reach, I can see these challenges (and the compulsion to complete them) becoming very addictive for competitive players.

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What is new and exciting in the world of Halo is the ‘Spartan Ops’ menu option, which will provide players with story-driven gameplay vignettes that further the Halo narrative and aim to expand the universe with more meaningful characters and scenarios through regularly updated missions. At the moment, only the first five-part season of Spartan Ops is available, most of which boils down to fights for survival against waves of enemies, but I’m definitely intrigued by the future of this method of delivering fresh content to Halo 4 players, essentially promising to give us new reasons to frequently jump back into the story of the series for 45 minutes at a time, with a few friends in the mix, too.

Rounding out the extra features included in Halo 4 is the Forge creation mode to allow players to create and modify their own multiplayer levels (and even invent new game types in the process), as well as the always-excellent Theater mode where you can re-play and review your games, and even record and share them via Xbox LIVE and Halo’s online destination, Halo Waypoint. Waypoint itself will soon come into its own and hopefully serve as more than a simple means through which to share exclusive content – even Halo 4’s campaign contains secret content that, if found, is unlocked for viewing on Halo Waypoint, so a more integrated approach will be nice to see in the future.

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Halo 4 is for Halo fans and it’s clear that the game has been created by people who are heavily invested in the vast fiction of the Halo universe. If you’ve been waiting to get into the series with a new title, however, and want take part in current Halo discussion, Halo 4 is your best bet, but the game does nothing to entice disinterested gamers into the fold – you may want to start at the very beginning and play Halo Anniversary through to Halo Reach to get a better understanding of this world.

While I found the campaign of Halo 4 rather disappointing in its lack of innovative gameplay and a clumsily handled storyline, I do think that the variety on offer in the game’s multiplayer options, the addition of the Spartan Ops missions and the inclusion of both the extensive Forge and excellent Theater modes will keep fans coming back to Halo 4 for months and even years to come.

It’s my hope that during this time, 343 Industries uses the technology and workflow pipeline it has custom created for Halo as a foundation from which to look to the future of the franchise and evolve the series as Bungie managed to do, and truly take up the demanding mantle of franchise steward. Despite my current misgivings, I’m already looking forward to Halo 5.