Two years ago, developer Bungie ended their reign as the kings of the first-person shooter genre by finishing their beloved Halo franchise with the prequel Halo: Reach. For fans, its release was bittersweet; while many didn’t want to see Halo’s run come to an end, they were still rewarded with an amazing prequel game that was a great last hurrah for Bungie. It then came as a surprise to see that the Halo franchise was being passed to the developer 343 Industries after Reach’s success and that the story of Master Chief would continue. That’s where Halo 4 picks up.
At the end of Halo 3, Master Chief saved the planet at the cost of having to drift into deep space aboard a destroyed spaceship. Telling his AI partner Cortana to wake him if she needed him, the Chief crawled into a Cryo-chamber and cryogenically froze himself. The credits rolled, and fans were left wondering if Chief would even survive, considering everyone on Earth presumed him dead. Well, it turns out he did.
In Halo 4, you, playing again as Master Chief, awake nearly five years after the events of Halo 3. Cortana is deteriorating (artificial intelligences can only survive around seven years; Cortana is eight), you’re captured by a new enemy race known as the Prometheans, and the Covenant Empire is once again trying to kill you. The main antagonist is a Promethean leader known as the Didact, but his motive to destroy Master Chief and the entire human race seems like an excuse to give players a new thing to shoot at. I’ve never really been into the Halo fiction, but it seems like you’d have to be a master scholar of the canon to even grasp what’s going on. The story relies heavily on the lore not established in the games, so even those that have played through each iteration may still end up confused.
Many of the locations seem inspired by previous Halo levels. More than once I entered an area only to be instantly reminded of significant locations from other games. It’s clear that 343 borrowed heavily from Bungie when designing their levels. Besides multiple feelings of nostalgia throughout, each mission seems like it has the same objectives: go here, kill these guys, press this button to open the next area, repeat. It’s unoriginal and trivial. A few HD cutscenes spread throughout the game reward you for your persistent switch-flipping abilities, but nothing really felt new. The few vehicle levels you get to play are a blast, however.
Despite not exactly knowing why the Didact is trying to kill Chief and the human species, I did know he had to be stopped, but that was hardly enough motivation to keep me playing the campaign. What intrigued me was the story of Cortana’s slowly deteriorating condition. As the story progresses, she becomes more and more deranged, even to the point of blaming Master Chief for the dark events happening around them. The Chief just wants to get to Earth to Dr. Hasley, Cortana’s creator, to fix her, and that’s what I was fighting for. Even if you’re new to the Halo franchise, the human element of the relationship shared between Master Chief and Cortana and their story is one anyone can appreciate. I won’t spoil the conclusion to the story, but the ending made the entire confusing (and incredibly short) story worthwhile.
But the real attraction to this game isn’t necessarily the campaign. Halo has a history of fantastic multiplayer, and 343 definitely knows how to keep that tradition going. While there aren’t many maps or game modes to play, I have a feeling the developer will increase the playlist pool as the game grows, and it’s certain that more maps are coming in DLC. The levels are well-designed. No one area in any map is a huge chokepoint or gives anyone a significant advantage, meaning the gameplay stays fair. Weapon spawns on each level are also random now, meaning players will no longer rush to a power weapon and battle over a gun every game, which is a nice change of pace.
The multiplayer seems more tactical now that you can spend points to unlock new weapons and armor abilities for your loadouts. The action is as fast-paced as ever, but no longer are you at a huge disadvantage when going up against a Scorpion tank or the Covenant flying vehicle, the Banshee. Vehicles are slower, weaker, and their attacks are not nearly as strong. As a result, the playing field is a lot more level than it has been before.
A new feature in multiplayer is the use of orbital drops. Much like Call of Duty’s in-game killstreak rewards, players are awarded with a supply drop of random weapons, grenades, or temporary abilities such as a speed boost after acquiring a certain amount of points. Using the directional buttons, players choose their desired prize and use it until their next death. Orbital drops don’t give players huge advantages, but it’s always nice to have a leg up on opponents for playing well.
Firefight mode, a popular gametype from Halo: Reach that tasks players with cooperatively eliminating hordes of enemies for points, has been removed for Halo 4. In its place, 343 has created Spartan Ops, a cooperative story-driven experience. Taking place a few months after the conclusion to Halo 4, Spartan Ops places you and three friends in the boots of the Crimson team, a group of Spartans that cleans up the Covenant and Promethean forces on Earth. Each week a new episode is released for free. Each episode includes five chapters to play, along with a cutscene to continue the story. This is sure to entice fans to keep returning to Halo to play the weekly iterations of Spartan Ops, and it’s an interesting gimmick on 343’s part to keep fans entertained.
It’s clear that Halo is different now. 343 has made Bungie’s successful franchise their own by making minor changes to give the universe their own feel while keeping the core gameplay the same. Sound effects and the feel of weapons are unique compared to previous installments, but what makes fans love Halo so much is still at the heart of 343’s first take on the series. While the story seems lackluster at times, the gameplay is as solid is ever, and I know that 343 Industries will only improve on what they’ve created. I’m excited to see what this developer has in store for Halo 5.