After a five-year hiatus, Master Chief dons his helmet and armor once again to defend all of humanity from impending doom and utter annihilation. With a new development team behind him and a new trilogy before him, the Chief has his work cut out for him. Microsoft's past sci-fi FPS outings have each been giants in their own times, but does Halo 4 have what it takes to stand with its predecessors?
Halo 4 picks up four years after Halo 3 ends, with Master Chief and his A.I. construct Cortana trapped aboard the wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn spaceship. They soon find that it has been overrun by the Covenant, an alliance of several different alien species who search for technology left behind by an ancient alien race, the Forerunners. Their battle with the Covenant is cut short, however, when a nearby Forerunner planet's gravity well pulls them beneath its outer shell.
As the story continues, Master Chief encounters an entirely new species of aliens, called the Prometheans, which come in three varieties: Watchers, Crawlers, and Knights. Watchers fly across the battlefield, shielding its allies, summoning swarms of Crawlers, and reviving fallen Knights. Crawlers are like dogs, but can fire guns from their mouths and rely on sheer numbers to overwhelm you. Knights are the biggest threats, however: they summon Watchers, throw grenades, and wield high-power weapons, like the new Scattershot, a shotgun whose shots rebound off of walls, and the Incinerator Cannon, which blasts an enormous bolt that breaks into several pieces and vaporizes anything it touches.
The new enemy varieties add a layer of strategy to combat, as you have to decide who to take out first to make the fight easier. Enemies are also far smarter than they have ever been: Heroic mode is a staggering task, and Legendary is truly only for the best of the best. “Skulls” are available, which modify missions with stronger enemies, non-recharging shields, bonus dialogue, and exploding Grunt heads. Hidden terminals add more background to the story, but you have to leave the game and enter Halo: Waypoint, a separate downloadable app that tracks players' stats, to access them, which really takes away from the overall experience.
Though the story will draw many players to Halo 4, the multiplayer modes will keep them around after the tale is told. 343i builds Halo 4’s multiplayer by combining the familiar with new twists around every corner. Called “War Games,” this multiplayer mode takes place aboard the UNSC Infinity as Spartans train for missions on the Forerunner planet known as Requiem. Each player has his own Spartan, which can be completely customized, from its armor, to its color, to its four character ID tag, to its emblem. More armor and emblems can be unlocked by completing matches, gaining experience, leveling up, or even completing commendations, which reward you for getting kills with certain weapons or playing a certain game type often.
Initially, you play as a Spartan-IV, which is a basic Spartan with standard abilities. After going through 50 ranks, however, you get to choose from one of many Specializations. Each Specialization contains 10 more ranks, each unlocking special armor, emblems, weapon skins, and unique support upgrades. My favorite, the Wetwork, specializes in assassinations: its ability silences the user's footsteps, and speeds up the assassination animation. Other support upgrades increase radar functionality, strengthen vehicles, or even increase the amount of experience you get after each match.
343i also throws in a new mechanic to the War Games: loadouts. Players can customize their own loadouts between matches, a la Call of Duty or Battlefield, composed of a primary and secondary weapon, a grenade type, an armor ability, and two support upgrades. Armor abilities range from jet packs to shields to heat vision (the popular Sprint from past games has become a default ability for all Spartans). Support upgrades are more subtle, giving you extra ammo, faster reload times, or unlimited Sprint. While obviously taken from its FPS brethren, Halo 4 pulls off loadouts in a unique-but-enjoyable way that still sets it apart from its competition.
Online modes range from classic slayer games, to capture the flag, to king of the hill, to all-new modes. Dominion is one of my personal favorites: it pits two six-man teams against each other to control three bases. Each base can be outfitted with shields and turrets, and gives teams point for holding it for 45 seconds. Bases also spawn power weapons and vehicles that can only be accessed by its owners, making teamwork a must to secure these wellsprings of power.
Other game types, like Infinity Slayer, include an ordinance mechanic that will be familiar to FPS die-hards. As you build up points by killing opponents and getting assists, you can unlock an ordinance drop, which gives you the option to bring in a power weapon, grenades, or armor modifications. Players can also jump in a game at any point in time, unlike past games in the Halo series. While most game types are static, some are in rotation, and are constantly changed based on popularity, which is a welcomed addition and adds variety to the online play.
While Halo 4’s multiplayer is by far one of the best available, it is not without its technical hiccups. Lag rarely occurs in matches, but when it does, it makes the game nearly unplayable. Some new weapons, like the one-shot-one-kill Binary Rifle and the Incinerator Cannon feel overpowered and cheap. Halo 4 also allows players to jump into the middle of pre-existing matches, but more often than not, you end up on the losing team fighting a losing battle.
To replace past games’ popular Firefight mode, 343i created the new Spartan Ops mode. This miniature story mode takes your Spartan down to Requiem where you defend scientists, recover artifacts, and assassinate Covenant terrorists. Interestingly enough, Spartan Ops is divided into episodes, released each week, which flesh out the story. Though an interesting distraction, there is little incentive to replay missions, and the constantly recycled stages can get boring over time.
With the influx of Halo 4's new modes comes a few old favorites. Forge mode returns virtually unchanged since Halo Reach, and allows you to created your own stages from pre-existing ones. Theater lets you create clips and screenshots of your finest matches and post them to your file share for everyone to see. Custom Games let you play multiplayer offline, and offer more game types with the option to create your own.
As if the amazing gameplay was not enough, 343i went all-out in the graphics department. Every object, every scene, every landscape in the game is absolutely breathtaking. The CG animation used in the cut scenes create astoundingly life-like images: I thought I was watching a live-action movie during the opening scene. Minute details, like facial blemishes, wrinkles, and one character’s slightly-crooked teeth, are a testament to 343’s focus on realism. The lighting is perfect at all points in time in the game, and Master Chief’s armor is even covered in scars and scratches left behind by the past games. Halo 4 is hands-down a graphical masterpiece, and one of the best-looking games of the year.
If the game’s graphics are a masterpiece, then the game’s sound is an orchestra. The soundtrack is absolutely beautiful, but never overwhelms the action taking place. Each bullet has its own individual sound effect, creating an astoundingly authentic shooter experience. Characters’ voices are excellent, especially Cortana’s and Chief’s, which help drive home the already captivating story. Though probably not as worshiped as the graphics, Halo 4’s sound is undoubtedly one of the best of 2012, as well.
As mentioned above, Halo 4 is not afraid to kill anything and everything, and will reward you for every successful headshot and deadly explosion. Fallen Spartans and aliens leave behind splotches of blood, and Promethean weapons even disintegrate their targets, reducing them to ashes and computer code. Cortana curses a few times throughout the story, and her character design accentuates her feminine features.
When you consider the game's massive multiplayer functionality, stellar story, gorgeous graphics, and superb sound, its easy to see how spectacular Halo 4 is. While it has its moral issues and technical glitches, what the game does right far outweighs what it does wrong. Halo 4 is an outstanding title, and its success proves that 343i deserves to helm the Halo franchise for years to come.