- Publisher: Microsoft
- Developer: 343 Industries
- ESRB Rating: “M" for Mature
- Genre: Shooter
- Pros: Incredible presentation; solid campaign; same great Halo gameplay; awesome multiplayer; tons of content
- Cons: Bland campaign objectives; story a bit hard to follow
Halo 4's campaign takes place nearly five years after the end of Halo 3. If you remember, Master Chief and Cortana are drifting through space on the busted UNSC ship Forward Unto Dawn at the end of H3 and the Chief goes into cryo-sleep. Years later, Cortana wakes him up when she detects a Covenant fleet, and when they take a look outside they find a hollow metal Forerunner planet - a "shield world" called Requiem - and they are pulled inside by a gravity well. From there, they uncover mysteries of the Forerunners, as well as a new race called the Prometheans, which all lead into the next big threat to the galaxy that this new trilogy of Halo games, called the Reclaimer Trilogy, will cover.
It is all very interesting, but kind of hard to follow. The game really only gives you the bare minimum of story, so you kind of know what is going on, but not really. A lot of the lore and important stuff is spelled out in the Halo books and other media, so if you aren't a die-hard Halo fan it won't make a ton of sense. The broad strokes of story used in the game are motivation enough to keep you playing - a new enemy, an actual villain, a new alien super weapon - but the real context of things is more murky. More interesting than the grand overarching story, however, is the relationship between Cortana and Master Chief that plays a core role in Halo 4, which will definitely hold your attention even if the other stuff is over your head.
The campaign takes anywhere from 7-10+ hours to play through, depending on difficulty level, and is tried-and-true Halo at its finest. The "sandbox"-style gameplay where you have multiple ways to tackle each enemy encounter is present and accounted for, and the new weapons and other goodies offered in Halo 4 make things very interesting. The Promethean weapons are all new, obviously, though they are mostly just variations on assault rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun, pistol weapon types, but they do offer unique features that make them interesting to use. The Prometheans as enemies are also fresh and different and fun to fight. There are also new human and Covenant weapons scattered around (it has been nearly 5 years, after all, so there should be new stuff), along with the old standbys.
The campaign overall is pretty solid. There aren't any levels that just grate you and you'll never want to do again (probably because the Flood isn't present, unlike Master Chief's first three outings (see Halo 2 review)). It also flips the script a little bit and doesn't necessarily follow the Halo pattern of a climactic escape at the end. Because of the huge scale of the levels you fight in, and the large scale of some of the battles, it peaks many times through the campaign and has a (pardon me) rather epic feel. With that said, however, your actual mission objectives are disappointingly repetitive. It is usually hauling Cortana to some new data point she can plug into, or pushing a switch, or blowing up a generator or something, and you do the same stuff over and over and over. The combat while you're traveling between waypoints is still fun, of course, but we wish what you were actually doing for the objectives was more interesting.
The most important thing about Halo 4, though, is that it just feels good to play. The controls are excellent. The guns are all unique and fun to use, even though there are tons of different ones at this point. The A.I. is genuinely smart and actually puts up a real fight and are just plain fun to fight against. Halo 4 introduces the ability to sprint (not as an armor ability, but as a normal feature) - something that Bungie was adamant against - that fits right into the Halo gameplay perfectly and you wonder why it wasn't there all along. It also has to be noted that the Covenant in Halo 4 are slightly different from the Covenant we fought in past games. The Human v. Covenant war is supposed to be over, after all, so the Covenant you fight here are some of the last fanatical holdouts, and are a bit different. The grunts in particular aren't just comedic relief anymore, and none of the Covenant speak English, so no goofy catch phrases here.
Multiplayer is a key feature of any Halo title, and Halo 4 offers a ton of different ways to play with your friends. You can play co-op with up to 4 players in the campaign, but you can also play the new Spartan Ops mode that is co-op focused as well. Spartan Ops can be played solo co-op and essentially replaces the Firefight mode from the last couple of games. Spartan Ops is a collection of story-based missions focused on a new team of Spartans as they explore Requiem. They are objective-based affairs on closed maps against waves of A.I. enemies where each mission actually has an end point, rather than letting you fight as long as you can like Firefight. Spartan Ops is going to feature a new episode each week for 10 weeks, and each episode has 5 missions in it, and for this first season at least (no word on what will happen after this first batch of content) it is completely free. Can't argue with free.
Competitive multiplayer also returns, of course, and Halo 4 makes a few key changes from past games. You now unlock new weapons and abilities as you level up your character, just like the Call of Duty games, and can create your own custom loadout that you'll start with. This is kind of a big change from past Halo games and has already exposed some weapon balance issues such as the DMR rifle being crazy overpowered so everyone uses it. That can, and likely will, change in the future, though. The ten maps included on disc are all pretty solidly designed, so no real complaints here. More maps will also be coming in the future as DLC. Modes include all of the favorites - slayer, capture the flag, etc., and even Griff Ball as a build in mode - along with many others. And if you don't like the existing playlists, you can always make a custom game type with all of the features and options exactly how you want them.
The Forge level editor also returns along with three huge environments for you to build stuff in. We're big fans of Forge in past games and Halo 4 adds much needed features such as easily duplicating items as well as a magnetize ability that automatically snaps objects together so the things you're building turn out smoother and more natural looking, rather than having items clipping through each other at awkward angles (hey, we were lazy).
Halo 4 is an absolutely stunning game visually. The Halo games have always looked good, but never really challenged this generation's heavy hitters graphically. Halo 4 changes that. With fantastic textures, excellent lighting, and outstanding character models (really, really outstanding character models) it is right up there with Gears of War or Uncharted as the best graphics of the current generation.
The sound is also very well done. Weapons are nice and loud and every single one is distinct and recognizable so you know exactly what you're up against in the middle of even the most hectic firefight. Voice acting is also remarkably well done for all of the key players. The music is also very good, at least when you can hear it. For some reason it is very understated in the campaign and doesn't seem to swell and crescendo to fit the action as well as it did in past games. The actual score is really, really good. It just isn't used well.
Halo 4 comes on two discs, but there is no disc swapping required. You install multiplayer components from the second disc - by loading the second disc and the game will give you a prompt to install it - and then actually play everything from the first disc. This is a smart way to handle the storage limits of DVD media without making you swap discs constantly. Lets hope other devs follow suit.
All in all, Halo 4 is another terrific entry in the series that no Xbox 360 fan should miss. Even with a totally new developer behind it, it is still absolutely distinctly Halo, but with the presentation and level of polish and wealth of content pushed far beyond what the series has ever offered before. I would probably personally rank the campaign slightly behind the camapigns of Halo 3: ODST or Halo Reach, but it is very good, and the multiplayer is a much needed fresh twist on the Halo multiplayer formula that works well overall. Spartan Ops also gives the game some single-player and co-op legs that will keep you coming back, at least for the next 10 weeks or so, which is also greatly appreciated for folks out there that don't care for competitive multiplayer. The volume of content, the quality of that content, and the insanely great presentation all combine to make Halo 4 a fantastic title and one that we highly recommend for a purchase.