Halo games typically have epic storylines with a capital ‘E’, so the main area 343i’s influence can be seen is in Halo 4’s narrative. Due to the length of Master Chief’s cryogenic stasis, Cortana has lived past her pre-programmed lifespan and is starting to deteriorate. What follows is essentially a love story between a human who may be part machine and a machine that may be part human, and it’s surprisingly effective. A large-scale threat to humanity rears its ugly head eventually, but framed within the context of Master Chief and Cortana’s story it feels more urgent.
By scaling down the grandiose storytelling, Halo 4 is the first in the series to make us care about what’s happening, or at least have an actual idea what’s going on. That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of convolution, with some fairly ludicrous mission descriptions such as: ‘Master Chief tracks the Infinity’s signal to Requiem’s core in the hopes of returning Cortana to Earth to address her rampancy’. Err… you what?
The main campaign is short and sweet (around the eight-hour mark), but weekly challenges such as completing levels on certain difficulties or with certain skulls activated offer extra replay value. As usual, any level can be played co-operatively with four players with higher difficulty levels playing host to, not just tougher, but craftier enemies.
Then there’s the online component, which is all set aboard a UNSC ship called Infinity. War Games is the classic multiplayer mode with 10 maps available from the off and all the game types seen in previous Halos. Similar to other modern online shooters loadouts can be modified, characters upgraded and there are killstreak-esque rewards, but that’s where the similarity ends. In a sub-genre dominated by twitch gameplay and kill death ratios, Halo 4 retains the series’ unique rhythm.
The flow of play is dictated by fantastic level design with an emphasis on verticality, while the placement of powerful weapons encourages players to move around the levels. Aside from the occasional perched sniper, multiplayer matches are dynamic and each skirmish is manic and unpredictable. This is partly because of the varied weapons and fun tools available, such as jetpacks and holograms, but mostly because you can survive a few shots before dying. Beginners will still get destroyed by experienced players, but there’s a much more gentle learning curve than its main competitors.
Spartan Ops is a new addition, replacing Firefight as the secondary multiplayer mode. Five missions are available from the off, with five more to be released each week for 10 weeks after release. A cut scene that advances the story and expands on the events of the main campaign, accompanies each set, or ‘episode’.
It’s a great idea and could have been 343 Industries’ chance to stamp their identity on Halo 4 like Treyarch have done to CoD with their Zombie mode, instead it feels like a missed opportunity. The missions lack variety and whatever their initial objectives, always end with you having to eliminate all remaining enemies. Spartan Ops can still be a lot of fun with friends, though that owes more to the sandbox qualities of large levels, plentiful cannon fodder and an endless supply of vehicles.
The Forge tool also returns with an expanded tool set and improved user interface, allowing creative players to engineer their own multiplayer maps, from the way it looks down to how the physics behave. DLC maps are scheduled for release but it’s this, along with the features offered by Halo’s community hub Waypoint, which will keep enthusiasts busy for months to come.
Halo 4 is a resounding success for 343i, even if they have played it safe. The Master Chief and Cortana relationship is engaging, making for the best narrative of the series so far. The comprehensive multiplayer takes elements from its competitors, yet retains its uniqueness, while Spartan Ops has the chance to prove itself in the weeks to come. Be warned though, if you’ve tried Halo before and didn’t like it, there’s not much here to convince you otherwise.