Halo is to Microsoft what Mario is to Nintendo. The original Halo was, in simplest of terms, a game worthy enough to sell an entire console platform on its own merit. It may not have shown the ingenuity of French or Japanese games, nor was it revolutionary in any aspect—it was, however, a veritable distillation of FPS mechanics to the casual confines of the couch. It had a no-nonsense plot that drew from Heinlein's power armour-equipped space marine trope from Starship Troopers, and buffed it with excellent gameplay tweaks that overcame its gamepad limitation.
Halo games have never looked this pretty
Its fast, frenetic action, excellent weapon and enemy design, and a stellar multiplayer mode made it a benchmark in the console FPS genre. Much of its success can be attributed to the irreverent geniuses at Bungie. However, since its split with Microsoft, the Halo mantle was eventually taken over by 343 Industries after Halo: Reach. The developer had already shown competence with the 10th Anniversary remake of the original game. Halo 4, however, marks the first instalment of the series continuation that's been dubbed as the Reclaimer Trilogy.
The game takes place right after the events of the last proper series outing, that is Halo 3. The Flood menace has been routed from the planet and the Covenant armada has fled. However, Master Chief and his AI sidekick Cortana have been taken for dead and have been adrift in space for the past four years. Cortana awakens him after the ship is caught in the gravity well of a Forerunner planet called Requiem, and under siege from Covenant warships.
The Covenants and Master Chief aren’t the only ones on the planet. This conveniently sets the pace for yet another threat to humanity in the form of the energy-themed Promethean race, replete with unique fighting tactics and cool Tron-esque weapons. Interestingly, the series gets its first recognisable villain with Halo 4. You will find more conventional Hollywood themes in the form of a decidedly more sexed up Cortana and a healthy dose of pathos.
The game kicks off right after Halo 3
The shapely AI sidekick is nearing the end of her life span, which brings upon a behavioural phenomenon called rampancy. In simple terms, that’s the AI equivalent of post-menopausal mood swings. This also means Cortana will perish, unless she’s taken back to Earth. While John (AKA Master Chief) may play the stereotypical faceless marine hidden behind a flak helmet, Cortana and the rest of the cast are painstakingly animated. Don’t expect a Heavy Rain or an LA Noire, but the tragic chemistry between the main leads is done well, without being too cringe-inducing and mawkish (That’s you, Gears of War 3).
At any rate, one doesn’t exactly prefer Halo games for their narrative. What really draws in gamers is its finely tuned gameplay. The franchise’s gamepad-friendliness may prevent enemies from being quick on the draw and agile, but challenge is provided through a solid AI. Enemies charge, retreat and duck in and out of cover to keep you on your toes. Different classes of enemies team up and work to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
The shapely AI sidekick is nearing the end of her life span
The new Promethean enemies, for example, come in cannon fodder (Crawlers), support (Watchers) and heavy (Knights) flavours. The weaker Crawlers draw your fire while the fearsome Knights teleport in and out of cover to harass you with heavy ordnance. The watchers, who clearly seem to be inspired from Quake 2’s Daedalus/Icarus, maintain tension by shielding or reviving fallen foes. These enemy tactics keep the action from deteriorating into a mindless run-and-gun affair.
Countering this manner of guerrilla warfare isn’t exactly a daunting task thanks to a multifaceted offensive capability that gives players a choice between an assortment of guns, grenades, melee and armour abilities. You have the standard human array of short and long range, fast/weak and slow/strong, and explosive weapons that deliver splash damage. The Covenant as well as Promethean arms are essentially the same weapon classes with cooler Tron-esque animations and shiny energy projectiles though. Armour abilities range from Hard Light Shield to ones packing cloaking capability and sentry bots.
Gets a bit repetitive at times
Although there are a wide variety of weapons at your disposal, this diversity tends to cause balance issues. Certain rapid-fire submachine gun class weapons prove too weak, whereas some of the Promethean sniper rifles are rendered useless due to better alternatives from the opposing camp. The fact that quite a few weapons make no case for themselves points towards either poor balancing or shoving in extra firepower just for the heck of it.
Weapons balance issues generally stem from a lack of play testing, but one look at the game and you’ll know why that may be the case. This is easily one of the best looking games to have launched on the Xbox platform. Halo 4 regales you with sprawling levels and some painstakingly detailed architecture. Be it massive floating Forerunner citadels or imposing canyons, the sheer scale of the spectacle beggars belief. Levels vary sharply from giant floating platforms lit up by psychedelic light imbued structures to more down-to-earth jungle clearings. Every step of the way though, Halo impresses with consistently good art and texturing. All this is brought to life with beautiful volumetric lighting and particle effects.
The Prometheans make their first appearance
The multiplayer component compares favourably to the competition, but fans of the original Halo may have a few complaints. The overall pace of the multiplayer gameplay is faster, which does remind one of Call of Duty’s brand of multiplayer. Hardcore Halo players have been complaining of excessive bloom (inaccuracy due to automatic fire) on certain weapons, to some weapons such as the DMR being preponderant upon favourites such as the Battle Rifle.
The newly introduced aspect of Loadouts can be perceived as modernisation of the multiplayer component or a nod to Call of Duty’s Perk system. This Loadout business grants players with a pre-set number of slots to equip primary/secondary weapons, grenades and armour abilities, in addition to a pair of extra skill-buffing bonuses. Just like perks, players who do well level up and get more of these slots. Old schoolers have already started making noises about how this COD-esque system doesn’t encourage a level playing field.
Capture the flag makes a comeback
If you can embrace the changes with a more open mind, you’ll realise that they aren’t as bad for weekend gamers as the hardcore ones make it out to be. Yes, the new multiplayer component drops a few popular modes, but it replaces them with interesting new ones as well. The Firefight mode from the previous games is replaced with Spartan Ops, which are episodic missions padded with painstakingly crafted FMV sequences. Like the main campaign this mode can be played in either splitscreen or online co-op with up to three other friends. However, unlike the campaign mode, the first episodic content that I tried out wasn’t nearly as satisfying and felt disjointed.
Invasion mode too has been replaced by Dominion, which is a team-based push to control bases. Successful teams are rewarded with cool vehicles and weapon drops. Flood is the new moniker for the infected mode of the previous games, where you face off with superfast Flood-infected humans eager to impale you with their mutated arms. The competitive multiplayer mode dubbed as Wargames is a lot faster and a bit like COD as mentioned earlier thanks to Loadouts and abilities dynamically changing the course of battle.
You get to pilot a cool mech
To sum it up, Halo 4 sports a modernised multiplayer component that’s faster and incorporates some cues from contemporary games. It may not please hardcore competitive gamers, but on the other hand that just might get it more mainstream fans. The single player campaign is beautiful to behold, but it’s too short and can get a bit scripted and repetitive at times. The segment with the huge Mammoth truck is a prime example of unimaginative fetch quests and wasted potential.
As a consolation, the vehicle segments incorporating the Scorpion tank, a really cool Mech; the iconic Warthog, Scarab; and Banshee assault vehicles keep things interesting, especially in the co-op mode friends can pitch in and handle turrets. The game’s inherent weapons balance flaws too are tempered by great enemy AI and combat tactics. Make no mistake, Halo 4 is a very good game by itself, but its lack of innovation, linear gameplay, short SP campaign, a standard multiplayer mode and its propensity to force the unwieldy Waypoint system to get the complete Halo experience prevents it from replicating the greatness of Halo 3.