It seems like only yesterday that I was playing Halo: Combat Evolved for the first time. It was the first game I ever played on the shiny new Xbox I received for my thirteenth birthday and it blew my tiny little mind. In spite of the fact that I hadn’t seen any other Xbox games at that point in time, I was convinced that this was the most cutting edge game with the best graphics ever. I mused – as I sat there with my tiny hands holding a giant turkey sized controller – that the only way anyone could hope to rival its technical brilliance was if they had a time machine that could take them ten years into the future. But, I was young and naive.
I think it’s fair to say that the first Halo was bettered from a graphical standpoint a long time ago, but perhaps my thirteen year old self wasn’t entirely off base with his prediction. I can’t think of many other games that have had such a large impact on the FPS genre from a design perspective. Halo was like a massive shot to the nuts to the world of video games both in terms of its scope and ambition. Here was an FPS with huge open sandbox style levels, an impressive amount of vehicles/enemies onscreen at any time, a distinctive visual style and a rich science fiction universe. And it was all running on a console.
This pioneering attitude was carried on by Bungie for their next series instalment Halo 2, which helped to shape the competitive shooter scene that we see on consoles today. Its incredibly well balanced weapons system and tight level design is still held in very high esteem by many gamers, and was only really equalled and never bettered by Bungie’s final entry into the original Halo trilogy: Halo 3.
The games that followed were certainly well received by fans – the series has sold over 46 million copies so far, making it one of the most popular exclusives in video game history – but they didn’t carry on the story of Master Chief. That immense responsibility fell onto the shoulders of 343 Industries, a company that had only so far released a remake of the original Halo entitled Halo: Anniversary. The training wheels were off, and things could have gone horribly wrong, but luckily 343 Industries have delivered a game that feels like it could have been made by the great Bungie themselves. More importantly though, they have delivered something that feels like a true series’ evolution.
The story begins four years after the end of Halo 3, with Master Chief being revived by Cortana in a floating wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn. The ship is being boarded by Covenant forces, and to make matters worse, they are locked in a gravity field that is pulling them towards a mysterious Forerunner planet, Requiem. The Covenant – being their usual religious-zealot fun loving selves – are looking for an artefact that seems to be encased inside the planet. Unfortunately, another human vessel called the UNSC Infinity has heard Cortana’s distress call and is inadvertently being drawn towards the gravity field. In his attempt to disrupt a jamming signal and contact the Infinity, Master Chief accidentally disturbs the artefact and unlocks an adversary called the Didact; an unstoppable Forerunner force with a legitimate beef with humanity. Hijinks ensue.
On the surface, this story might seem very similar to past Halo games. There is a threat that looks set to jeopardise humanity, a massive alien world to explore and Master Chief single-handedly taking on the enemy. In practice though, it’s actually far more emotionally charged than past titles. This is thanks largely to the inclusion of a single memorable antagonist with a deep hatred for humanity, and the relationship development between Master Chief and his AI Cortana. She is suffering from a condition known as rampancy that affects AI’s after seven years, causing their consciousness to multiply exponentially until they are driven insane and die. The stoic Master Chief seems genuinely affected by the distress of his only friend, and the dialog between returning cast members Steve Downes and Jen Taylor is genuinely touching at times, contrasting with the dire situation to make a multi-layered plot that is surprisingly mature compared to past Halo titles.
This emotional resonance is compounded by the use of full motion capture animations for the cut scenes, making the characters appear more three dimensional than your average FPS cast. The developers have even gone the extra mile by including facial mapping, transferring an actor’s live performance to the game world in a similar way to LA Noire, making their reactions seem disarmingly real. Even though these animations are rendered separately to the game’s engine, you will be very impressed with how well Microsoft’s aging hardware can perform. There were times when I felt like I was watching shorts from a fully-fledged animated series due to the incredibly high levels of presentation.
Luckily, this graphical fidelity does carry over to the main game as well. As soon as you load Halo 4 up and start playing, you will have no doubt that it is a Halo game. It blows past entries out of the water from a visual standpoint but scenes still explode with the colour and vibrancy we have come to expect from the Halo universe. The high level of realism does come at the expense of some graphical trickery from 343 Industries though. There is a lot of lens flaring and a certain amount of compromises made over the detail of some textures, but this never comes at the expense of decent draw distances or the frame rate, which remains buttery smooth both online and off. This is really one of the most gorgeous and visually accomplished games I have ever seen on the Xbox 360.
The big question on everyone’s mind coming into Halo 4 was: “what are the Forerunners like?” Even though we have seen much in the way of remnants from their ancient societies from exploring the ring worlds, we have not seen any in the flesh. It is the first real glimpse of their culture to anyone who has not avidly read the Halo novels, and the game certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Requiem is littered with structures that possess the same gravity defying technology we have seen in past games, making them seem in-keeping with the mysterious Halo rings. This theme extends to the design of the weapons and the Forerunners themselves, which are awash with orange runic patterns and metallic detailing, making them seem like a hyper advanced variant of the tribal adversaries seen in John McTiernan’s Predator.
They put up a fight that is – at least – on a par with the Predators as well, but Master Chief never goes to the same “cover yourselves in mud!” lengths that Arnold Schwarzenegger does, opting instead for the classic “shoot them in the face!” approach that has served him well thus far. The Forerunners are ruthless, tenacious and calculating with a huge amount of technological gadgetry at their disposal and they’re certainly not afraid to use it on you to devastating effect. Small doglike “Crawlers” run at you in great numbers, crawling on walls and ceilings whilst they overwhelm you with suppressing machine gun fire. “Watchers” support all other units on the battlefield, covering them with protective shielding and even reviving them from death. They all pale in comparison to the Promethean “Knights” though, who are by far the most fearsome adversary using teleportation, close quarters combat and hard-as-nails armour to make Chief’s physical strength seem laughably feeble in comparison. If you thought that the Covenant Elites were tough in Halo: Combat Evolved, then you aint seen nothing yet.
Of course, Halo just wouldn’t be the same without the Covenant, and I’m personally very glad to see the motley crew of suicidal space pirates make a comeback. All of the old favourites are here, from the gibbering Grunts through to the courageous Elites. Something about them teaming up with the Forerunners just seems so right and they certainly compliment each other on the battlefield, making for one of the most challenging and extensive rosters of enemies ever faced in a Halo game. Granted, the Brutes are somewhat sorely missed, but the inclusion of an occasional Hunter will more than make up for this oversight and certainly provides some extra challenge on the harder difficulties.
From a gameplay perspective, literally everything is here that you could hope for in a Halo game. Chief feels less ponderous now that he can sprint about the battlefield, but the feeling of being a walking tank is still present and correct, making you feel like you can survive literally anything just as long as you keep a keen eye on your shield indicator. Many of the huge vehicle sections from past Halo games make a triumphant return as well, even dwarfing some of Halo 3’s epic action set pieces to make this feel like the grandest scale Master Chief and Cortana have ever fought on, successfully upping the ante for the new series. The most notable triumph in the gameplay department though is the balancing of the new Forerunner weaponry. Everything just feels like it belongs here, as if it is somehow familiar and yet new at the same time. I daresay that devastating weapons like the “Scattershot”, “Binary Rifle” and “Incineration Cannon” will be multiplayer favourites for a long time to come.
Speaking of multiplayer, 343 Industries have knocked it out of the park by creating something that is both accessible for newcomers and enjoyable for series veterans alike. Game types like “Team Slayer” and “Capture The Flag” will be immediately familiar to any veteran of the series, but they will also serve to ease people with previous FPS experience into Halo’s trademark online arena. Old favourites also return in the guise of “Oddball”, “King Of The Hill” and the reworked “Flood” modes, but my favourites of the bunch have got to be the new “Dominion” and “Regicide” game types. The latter of these serves as a brilliant replacement for the standard Deathmatch fare, labelling the leading player as the “King” and increasing their bounty with each successful kill they make. Dominion, on the other hand, is a riff on the classic base defence game type, awarding players experience points for attacking or defending capture points. The need to “fortify” bases is where this really gets interesting, allowing players to erect impenetrable barriers and create machine gun outposts. Coupling this base defence action with one of the new “Mantis” mechs can make for some truly frantic and rewarding gameplay.
Sound isn’t something that I mention in every review I write, but the sound design of Halo 4 is something that should be taken note of by games designers everywhere. It is truly a treat for the ears that bolsters the visuals to create something that feels almost movie like in its production values. Everything from the stellar voice acting to the epic sounding orchestral soundtrack will make you feel as though you’re sitting in the cinema, but the game truly shines in its ambient sound effects. Every weapon you pick up sounds as though it has an individual personality in the way it fires and reloads, and the distant scramblings of Crawlers and explosions of vehicles seem completely three dimensional in their delivery.
Halo 4 is the most complete Halo package that anyone has the right to expect at this stage in the 360’s life cycle. Unreasonable people could complain that the omission of The Flood in the campaign or Firefight modes are dramatic oversights, but 343’s introduction of a compelling new adversary and a downloadable story driven “Spartan Ops” mode quashes even these grievances. In every respect, this is the most complete Halo game ever released, boasting incredible visuals, masterfully designed levels, refined Halo gameplay, extensive multiplayer and the most emotionally charged and memorable story to date. If stepping back into the armoured green shoes of Master Chief after four long years of waiting doesn’t make the hairs on your arms stand on end, then you’re not a fan of Halo. It’s as simple as that.