I've never seen Halo like this before. Halo 4 is emotional, something I've never felt from the franchise quite like this. Sure, invested fans will protest and say that the lore is fascinating and the war struggles moving, but I can safely say I've never sat through a Halo campaign quite at the edge of my seat like I have in the first title by 343 Industries.
People, especially gamers, seem to be afraid of change. That's understandable when it comes to the Halo franchise.
Halo is a legacy. When Bungie introduced the sci-fi, first-person shooter franchise over a decade ago, it wowed fans with a perfect formula of alien creatures and versatile weapons. People obsessed over the game's multiplayer modes, playing iterations that were years old, even after new titles in the series were released. Halo sold Xboxes. It's a household name, and for good reason.
So change seems like it would be scary. Like it might ruin the integrity of something that's formed such an impressive community. Hardcore Halo fans can rest assured that 343 has stayed true to the core of Halo, and I urge them to keep an open mind when confronted by its new skin.
Because that skin is beautiful. It's cinematic, and features lovely music. Cut scenes look absolutely phenomenal, with performance capture done so well that I sometimes confuse the rendered characters for real, live actors. The soundtrack, by Massive Attack's Neil Davidge, is expectedly wonderful, and the realistic sound effects are a delightful surprise. The crunch and squeaks of Master Chief's armor as he moves around, and the hazardous hum of damaged vehicles are little details that go a long way.
343's take on the franchise humanized what was up until now mainly just a really fun, well-made series of games.
Master Chief is an icon, in both our world and the Halo world. He's a super soldier and the people of the future look to him for safety and assurance. When he walks through those doors, there's a sense of ease that washes over the other soldiers. Everything will be okay now.
I have never felt that connection to Master Chief like I have in Halo 4. But I've also never been able to see under his helmet, at the kind of person he has to be to maintain the hero status. If you read all the Halo novels and get really invested in the Halo culture, you'll know that it's a struggle to carry the weight of the universe on your conscience. But this was something that never quite came across in the video games.
Halo 4's single player campaign feels like two stories. It's a story about war and the introduction of a new species of enemies: the Prometheans. It's a story about a fanatical sect of the Covenant that, ignoring the peace treaty set during previous games, are fighting humans again. It's a story with religious subtext and dense lore. But it's also a story about Master Chief, a human who can barely connect with humanity anymore, as he is so strongly focused on carrying out his obligations that he doesn't allow himself any other response to tragedy other than a devotion to eradicating it. And it's a story about Cortana, who has stuck by Master Chief for years. Their relationship is a strong one. It might be the last shred of any sense of normalcy Master Chief has left. This half of the story lends itself to Halo 4's emotional side. And it is a fascinating and lovely experience.
The other side of the story of Halo 4-that dense lore-is hard to approach. New concepts and names are thrown at you in such rapid succession that it's difficult to follow along. I imagine this will be especially hard on newcomers, who might have a vague understanding of the sci-fi universe they are entering, only to get bombarded by such inaccessible lore.
This is unfortunate, because I really want to love the Prometheans' backstory. So I can't help but feel that Halo 4 does a disservice to players who are new to the franchise by rattling off so many new concepts without giving proper time or context to digest it all. I suspect even veterans of the games might find it difficult to parse the information as fast as the game is shoving it down your throat. The Covenant's reemergence as a threat, for instance, was confusing. Certain parts of the story aren't explained well, and it's easy to get lost in new characters and abstract concepts that the game hurries to explain, and then just as quickly abandons.
Fortunately, digging into the Spartan Ops-solo or cooperative missions that will release weekly in tandem with cinematic episodes-reveal more detailed information that will hopefully help explain the campaign's thick storyline. Unfortunately, I found the Spartan Ops missions to be fairly boring. I played five missions, each better than the last, but they didn't interest me beyond functioning as another way to gain experience and therefore access new guns, abilities and perks. I can't speak to how much you can learn more about the behind the scenes stories, because the first week's content was severely limited and dry. I admire that 343 will release new episodes every week, but so far they've been mainly lengthy chores of killing waves of enemies with forgettable plot lines.
But what of the basic structure of the game itself? Is that formula of grunts, elites and jackals still respected? Are all your favorite guns included?
Halo 4 still feels like a Halo game. It's full of Banshees and battle rifles. It has impressive setpieces. Some of the multiplayer maps are even recreated-or at least inspired by-classic Halo maps. Halo 4 is proof that 343 is clearly in tune with what fans love about the Halo franchise. But, as I've said, gamers are afraid of change. So the addition of ordnance drops in multiplayer-basically a bonus given to players who do well during a match-might not be desirable to you. I think it works. You might not. That's fair.
Of course, you can tweak and customize multiplayer rounds to your liking, even opting to play around with ordnance options. There are a plethora of modes to enjoy, as well. I was particularly fond of the Flood mode, which pits a few players as Flood and most as human Spartans. As you kill the Spartans, they become infected and fight until there's only one man left standing. In first-person shooters, it's not uncommon for the community to take it upon themselves to invent their own game modes, listing out rules and relying on the honor code from players to carry it out, effectively creating their own unwritten mode. This Flood mode is a multiplayer game born of one such community-made mode from Halo 2, so it's nice to see 343 giving that community a nod. The other multiplayer modes range from the classic Team Slayer, which pits the red team against the blue team, to Oddball, where the goal is to hold onto the ball the longest. Every mode had me cursing and giggling simultaneously. Granted, my experience may have been the most optimal, as I was in a room with roughly nine others, all of us calling out playfully to one another in the competitive environment.
But 343 has added exciting new single player gameplay options, too. Like the addition of mechs. Even if their placement in the single player campaign is a rarity, it's very exciting to hop in an armored suit to shoot rockets and stomp enemies with your metal feet. In fact, there wasn't much of an emphasis on vehicles in general, though you do get to play around with the Pelican aircraft. I have fond memories of flying around in space battles in Halo: Reach, and though flying missions do reappear in the latest title, they don't feel as emphasized (or as cool as that space battle). They're more like quick intermissions between main events.
Prometheans as a new enemy class are more annoying than I expected. They're cowards. They immediately flee as soon as you shoot them. I expect AI to react to my threat, ducking under cover as needed. But I didn't expect to play hide and seek with them. A few of these species are more aggressive than others, warping in front of your face with the protection of their tough shells of armor. But others-especially the service-type species that can heal the other Prometheans-dart away from your line of sight and stay hidden. Though fighting them grew stale very quickly, picking up their weapons was not. The design of the Promethean weapons is impressive, even doing a neat trick where the gun disassembles and then reassembles itself to reload. From shotguns to snipers to rifles and pistols, every gun feels great in my hands. I always prefer alien weapons in Halo games, but these new, orange/red-glowing weapons trump even the Covenant's stock.
There are a few issues to pick out in Halo 4, whether they're to do with the storyline or gameplay. But my experience with Halo 4 was an enjoyable one. The campaign held my interest as I watched Cortana and Master Chief's emotions unfold. Missions were fun. Multiplayer is diverse and just as fast paced and unique a first-person shooter multiplayer experience as I have come to expect from the series. As afraid as you may be of Bungie passing the torch to a new development team to handle a franchise that has the foundation of years of quality behind it, I strongly urge you to keep an open mind for Halo 4, because you just may enjoy it as much as I did.
Pre-release multiplayer isn't the best indicator of how a game will play online once a community has formed around it. I'll update my review within the week that follows the game's release with updated multiplayer impressions based on playing against the general public. UPDATE: Change of plans. I decided to write my one-week-later impressions of online multiplayer in a separate article that you can read here.