Platform: Xbox 360

When Halo: Combat Evolved launched with the Xbox in 2001 it was a phenomenal moment for First-Person-Shooters and narrative in gaming. In 1998 Half-life proved narrative depth was possible for PC, but it left open the question of the potential for consoles to achieve the same success. Halo was then for the Xbox and home gaming world-wide, the first major narrative success for consoles, in which its grand story of religious fanatics and the extinction of the entire human race was masterfully told in a wide-reaching medium. Now, it’s 2012, and the Master Chief and Cortana are back for a new ‘Reclaimer’ trilogy in a reboot of sorts, helmed by a team composed of many people who have worked on the series before as part of previous development team Bungie. Considering the legacy of such a franchise, and the frighteningly committed fan base who probably know more about its lore than some of the developers, it is therefore an issue of anxiety for many that Halo 4 is the first in the franchise to be made by 343 Industries. However, perhaps quite unexpectedly, Halo 4 has delivered to a definite degree.

PhotobucketCombat, the bread and butter of the Halo experience is business as usual, but with Halo 4 this is the business of killing in the most elaborate and fantastical way possible. The armour abilities of Halo: Reach make a welcome return with a few new ones thrown in, while the addition of sprint to the left controller stick keeps up with the impatience of modern gamers in order to make sure The Chief gets to places quickly. Where Halo 4 really comes to life though is in the weapons. Adding to the usual array of Human and Covenant weapons are the Promethean arsenal of the new enemies. Not only do these look great, appearing as highly superior pieces of gravity defying technology that float together to form a gun, they also shoot in a distinctively satisfying manner. They feel unlike previous Halo weapons, with the Light Rifle providing a smooth and accurate alternative to the typical Battle Rifle, and the Scattershot shooting as a multi-bullet kerblamming Shotgun. It’s the most wide-ranging and varied choice of weapons in a Halo game to date. While Bungie focused on a particular weapon with a particular function, here 343 show a stroke of ingeniuty by providing alternatives to types of gun according to player preference. For once, we don’t have to choose between the Assault Rifle, Battle Rifle or DMR, but instead pick and choose between all three. It adds a great sense of customisation and depth that will keep the player interested. Halo 4 is essentially the same case of jumping around, blasting and flanking enemies on your path to victory, but the campaign is perfectly paced with your typical corridor strafing sections and vehicular combat exploration segments. The newly introduced Mantis mech is certainly a welcome addition with its extreme firepower and dominating height. Likewise, the campaign also features the first chance to pilot the classic airborne Pelican, which in spite of its large size jets about one particular set piece smoothly and violently: considering it is armed with a deadly Spartan Laser. The new Promethean villains provide a different threat altogether, in which the typical tactics applied to fighting the Covenant are shaken up for far more imposing and frantic battle scenarios.

The narrative of Halo 4 is not dissimilar to the original, but it has received a noticeable shift from the epic opera of the previous titles to a more character driven story of humanity. While its central story is concerned with the Forerunners and their relationship to humanity, the narrative drive is focused through the Master Chief and his relationship to Cortana, and its attention to her AI disease rampancy in which she begins to literally think herself to death. They have always had an interesting dynamic of brawn and brains, but here, it is essentially a love story between them, which even though I’m open-minded, I still can’t quite get my head around (and I’ve seen some pretty sexy Cortana cosplay). This interesting conclusion to their relationship has a divided effect on the narrative of Halo 4. It humanises the Master Chief, and gives a likeable and endearing edge to a character that could previously be discarded as ‘the big green robot guy from Halo’. However, the sophistication found in their complex and unconventional relationship that has always been sweetly unspoken is unfortunately rendered ridiculous by outing their human/AI love in such a cliché way. In one sense, it’s a touching story, because it shows Cortana’s human consciousness in spite of the fact she is artificial, whilst also demonstrating for The Chief, the necessity of companionship in a dark, dangerous universe. However, this element between them was touched upon before in the series, and it didn’t require them wanting to do the no pants dance. By flirting too closely to a romantic element between them it reduces an otherwise compelling and deep relationship to the playground of juvenility, which is something that also plagues the superficial and bland supporting characters of Halo 4. I’m looking at you vanilla Sarah Palmer and the unnecessarily angry Captain Del Rio.

PhotobucketAll this doesn’t really matter though, because where the real success of Halo 4 lies in how well this story is told, and this really outshines any poor writing in the voice acting and characterisation. In adherence to the tradition of Halo: Combat Evolved, it raises the bar of a video games’ ability to tell a story. While you would expect it with its accolade of ‘highest budget for an Xbox 360 game’, Halo 4 features some of the most fascinating environments on the console, as well as finally putting into an FPS the same quality of facial animation as that of LA: Noire. Characters actually put across moods and expression in a realistic way, increasing the emotional sense of what is going on. Regardless of all the artificial hormones throwing their way at The Chief, the story of Cortana’s descent into insanity is a thrill to witness, in which voice actress Jen Taylor tragically portrays the gradual corruption of her genius into madness. While it doesn’t quite capture that moment when you first stepped out onto the Halo ring-world in Halo: CE, an early moment where you first touch-down on the Forerunner planet of Requiem is nevertheless immersive. It replaces the spectacle of exploration with a more sombre introspection that is seen in the intimate environments, with a glossy finish that finally represents the Halo series as one of the most impressive looking games on the console.

Likewise, Massive Attack collaborator Neil Davidge provides a totally different audio approach to previous regular Martin O’Donnell. Gone are the optimistic strings, haunting chants and occasional epic guitar riffs, replaced with something that is more of an ambient score. At first it makes you miss the more abrupt and controlling moments of O’Donnell’s soundtrack, but after a while the more subtle electronica and brooding pieces nicely set in with the darker tone of Halo 4. This, along with a very distinct new visual style really helps establish that this is no longer Bungie’s game.

PhotobucketThis is also seen in the multiplayer component of Halo 4, which is for some the most important element of the game. At first glance, the ability to sprint on command, the inclusion of classes, perks as well as ordinance drops might encourage a cynical comparison of the multiplayer to that of a sci-fi Call of Duty. However, these additions don’t end up playing at all like COD, but instead complement the typical Halo multiplayer experience whilst adding to it in a more in-depth way. Classes add a great sense of customisation, in which the choice of the wide range of weapons, the distinctive functions of armour abilities and the added effects of perks create an element of strategy that previously could only be planned during a game rather than before. It works well with the Spartan Point currency which you obtain through ranking up, in which it proves prudent to consider carefully what you purchase next. The wide choice of armour from Halo: Reach also returns, but adds a whole load of new stylish metal to make your Spartan look fly on the battlefield whilst stabbing someone in the back. Ultimately, Halo multiplayer has always had a wide range of unique weapon and equipment choices that are now utilised in a more accessible way. Furthermore, vehicular combat, something that wholly distinguishes Halo multiplayer from other rival FPS’s has not been neglected, in which Big Team Battle returns as a major playlist: featuring huge maps that include everything from the banshee to the classic Gauss Warthog (which is still unstoppable, by the way). While the playable maps don’t offer any instant classics such as the infamous Lockout of Halo 2, they are nevertheless tight, well designed and balanced. As the replacement of Firefight, Spartan Ops provides a series of episodic co-operative missions available to download weekly. They aren’t anything memorable and are rather more of a repetition of single-player skirmishes rather than anything original, but still give you something to do with your mates online. Overall, it’s a fantastic multiplayer experience that doesn’t disappoint the hardcore fan and will keep a player entertained for quite some time to come.

Halo 4 then is a tremendous success. While perhaps it suffers from certain character issues, occasional dodgy script choices and a tendency towards melodrama and cliché near the end, it nevertheless recalibrates the franchise in a forward thinking direction that is entirely 343’s own. You might miss Bungie at first, but the new design direction plots the Halo series on a fresh course. It also has a multiplayer that both respects its heritage and revitalizes it with a fresh incentive to play. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Halo 4 though, is not the way the story ends, but how it guides the player through a bright, engaging and emotional narrative towards that end. It is very much the journey of the Master Chief that makes this game fantastic.