You can lay your fears to rest. 343 Industries knows how to make a proper Halo title. Halo 4 represents the studios’ first legitimate foray into the Halo-verse (Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary doesn’t count), and they don't disappoint. In fact, I might be so bold as to call Halo 4 the best this series has to offer alongside Halo: Reach.
Halo 4 picks up some four years after the events of Halo 3, with Master Chief being called out of cyro-sleep by his faithful AI partner Cortona after a strange disturbance rocks what remains of the Forward Until Dawn ship they’ve been hanging out on. With the passing of the development torch from Bungie to 343 Industries, it seems only fitting that Halo 4 begins a brand new story for Master Chief, called “The Reclaimer Saga.” It’s a fresh beginning and, unsurprisingly, a nice entry point for gamers looking to experience the Halo universe for the first time.
With that said, Halo 4 builds on previous entries in the series in a number of ways. You’ll hear references to the now-concluded Covenant War, the Flood and much more. But what Halo 4 is mainly about is the relationship between Chief and Cortana and what it means to be “human.” It’s the heart of the experience, and it’s pulled off better here than previous entries. I never thought a Halo game would make me truly care about the franchise's faceless warrior god, let alone explore the lofy philosophical quandary that is human existence, but Halo 4 tackles the subject matter head on. As a final exclamation point, the game’s poignant finale solidifies Master Chief and Cortana as one of gaming’s greatest relationships, as weird as that is to admit.
While the story of Halo 4 tops previous efforts in the series, deep down this game is basically just more Halo. As soon as you fire up the game’s campaign you’ll feel right at home blasting grunts and whipping around in a Warthog. Honestly, the first two chapters of the game feel like déjà vu. You wake up from your prolonged sleep, find out Covenant foot soldiers are knocking at your door and must fight them off. Sound familiar?
It’s honestly not until the game’s third chapter that things really get interesting and feel completely fresh. This is when you’re introduced to the Prometheans, a nasty bunch of AIs that protect the alien world of Requiem. Their attack patterns are completely different from that of the Covenant, making encounters with them something even Halo veterans will sweat. And their weapons, oh man, they are awesome once you get your hands on them -- even if they do check off the all boxes of the typical pistol/rifle/machine gun/shotgun fare.
Outside the new enemy types, 343 makes the old feel new again through the use of sound. Seriously, the audio engineers for Halo 4 deserve a ton of credit. Old, trusty weapons like the pistol, battle rifle and Covenant carbine feel new again thanks to some audio that truly packs a punch. And the impressive sound design doesn’t end with the weapons; it carries over to the entire world of Requiem and its digital inhabitants. If you have the sound system to support it, crank this game up to 11 and let yourself be taken for a ride. You won’t regret it.
Halo 4’s campaign can be completed in under seven hours on normal difficulty. However, I didn’t feel ripped off when the credits rolled. The game is properly paced and builds to a nice climax that by the time it’s over, you’ll feel satisfied. Without diving into spoilers, I will also say thankfully this game provides closure. I feared I would see a “to be continued” screen considering this is the start of a new trilogy, but that’s not the case. You get teases as to what comes next, but Halo 4 can be viewed as a standalone journey that in some ways feels as much an ending as a beginning.
Now once you’ve wrapped up the game’s campaign, it’s time to head into the Infinity suite, which is where Halo 4’s multiplayer component is housed. In Infinity, you’ll find two forms of multiplayer – “War Games,” which are competitive game types, and “Spartan Ops,” which are story-driven, five-part episodes that can be played solo or cooperatively.
Starting with Spartan Ops, I’ll admit I was a little underwhelmed by what is offered at first. It wasn't until I found the suspiciously hidden introduction cinematic that kicks off each episode that I began to enjoy my time with the mode. The story-driven content is what made me gravitate towards Spartan Ops in the first place, and without it the mode just feels like a flimsy excuse to give context to blowing away more Covenant and Prometheans troops. However, the nearly 3-4 minute cinematic that sets the stage makes Spartan Ops feel like something grander, a way for 343i to continue to peel back interesting layers to the Halo-verse. Additionally, the idea of releasing new Spartan Ops episodes (containing five chapters that take roughly 15-20 minutes each) on a weekly basis for free is commendable. Time will tell if the gameplay of future Spartan Ops episodes matches the scope of the intro cinematics.
Now if competitive multiplayer is your thing, you’re in for a treat. Longtime Halo players will feel right at home here. However, there are a few tweaks made to competitive multiplayer that, in this writer’s opinion, make the experience even better. For example, Halo 4 is the first title in the series to offer “Specializations,” which, as the name implies, outfit your Spartan with equipment designated for a certain class types – rogue, engineer, stalker, etc. You won’t be able to specialize in anything until you’ve reach the max level of 50, meaning you’ll be kept plenty busy as you work you way through the initial ranks and into a specialization field.
Furthermore, the ability to customize your multiplayer loadouts with a primary and secondary weapon, a grenade type, an armor ability (camo, shield, jetpack, etc.) and an armor modification (enhanced firepower, quieter footsteps, quicker reloads, etc.), means no two Spartans on the battlefield will be alike. There are plenty of customization options available in Halo 4, allowing you to waste hours away mixing and matching to find out what fits your play style best.
The maps of Halo 4 multiplayer also feel inspired. There are ten available at launch and they range in size from small to gigantic, meaning that there are multiple options available for each game type. And speaking of game types, the old favorites return like Big Team Battle and Slayer, while a few new additions like Regicide and Grifball keep things fresh for even the most seasoned Halo player.
When all is said and done, Halo 4 is a complete package. The campaign delivers probably the most emotional and riveting Halo experience yet, while the multiplayer suite offers plenty to keep you busy far after you’ve finished Master Chief’s latest journey. Sure, Spartan Ops is uninspired from a gameplay standpoint, but considering everything else 343i has dumped into Halo 4, it’s something I can overlook in the grand scheme of things. Halo diehards, you can breathe that sigh of relief because the team who now controls the fate of the franchise gets what made it special in the first place.
CraveOnline received one review copy of Halo 4 for Xbox 360 from Microsoft. We were held to the embargo date of November 1, 2012. Before starting our review, we completed the entire campaign, the full first episode of Spartan Ops -- that's all that's available thus far -- and played a number of hours online in competitive multiplayer. We now have the Halo bug.