It’s often been thought that exclusive titles are what define a console, the kind of experiences it offers that aren’t available anywhere else. While the quantity of videogame releases has continuously increased by dramatic numbers of the past decade, those which remain exclusive to their host format have become considerably fewer. Whatever the reason for this may be, of all the exclusive titles released in 2012 Halo 4 is arguably the biggest; both in terms of anticipation and social acceptance. Activision are keen to suggest that Call of Duty has penetrated the consumer psyche to the point where it’s not thought of as a videogame in the traditional sense but more akin to a Hollywood blockbuster, but they fail to acknowledge that Halo achieved the same landmark acceptance some years earlier.
The evidence of this has never been more apparent than in Halo 4’s opening; a step away from the typical demand to get the player into the action or even involved with the characters featured in the story, instead presenting an aging scientist. A character that many will not recognise, and many more will have little knowledge altogether, the calm introduction to the story only aids to build the tension. The climax is such a contrast that upon thinking back at the path taken, just how new developer 343 Industries managed to plot such a route is nothing short of astounding. Halo 4 remains the typical concrete block of science-fiction rhetoric that the series has become famous for, but whether or not you have become invested in the story the consistently delicate pacing and increasing difficulty build to some incredible action sequences.
All of this bears the hallmark of Bungie’s trademark experience even without the acclaimed developer at the helm. 343 Industries has taken the wise decision to build a familiar Halo experience first and then stamp their own seal atop it. Each of the most famous sequences from earlier Halo videogames returns under the constraint of one-upmanship: the division between close combat and snipers, assaults on hulking enemy vehicles, and rambling through huge environments in vehicles of your own all return, but each has been given a new lick of paint.
Far more challenging than ever before, the level design is perfectly attuned to this of course, innovating with jagged paths and uneven surfaces more than just a vantage point here and a floating outpost there. The uneven surfaces bear the hallmarks of an attention to detail that is so rare in first-person shooter (FPS) design, and yet greatly affects the nature of the combat set-pieces. One negative effect of this is that the environments appear constricted by comparison to Halo 3 in particular, but some will simply suggest that this allows for tighter orchestration of the combat set-pieces.
The infamous Warthog returns alongside the Scorpion, Ghost, Banshee et al, along with a brand new vehicle: Mantis. The Mantis is a bi-pedal mech controlled with the usual turn & movement style scheme and is armed with a long range automatic rifle as well as target-seeking rockets. Both manoeuvrable and heavily armed, the Mantis is counterbalanced by way of a quickly broken and slowly recharged shield. Additionally, the player is able to pilot the UNSC Pelican for the very first time, inviting airship combat into play in a similar fashion to the space combat sequence of Halo: Reach.
343 Industries have added a number of new ideas to the formula, not least the new enemies and environments that compliment both the story and the heritage of the franchise. In the collective opinion of the Electronic Theatre team however, it’s the Forerunner weapons that are the greatest addition that Halo 4 brings. For more than a decade there’s been the distinction between human and Covenant weapons, but even more significant is the distance between these armourments and those of the Forerunners. That’s not to say they’re unbalanced by any means, but in terms of visualisation and functionality these new additions are remarkably fun. The pistol, for instance, has a slow first blast followed by rapid successive shots, while the assault rifle is damaging at a much shorter range than either the human or Covenant equivalents.
Multiplayer gameplay has always been a highly acclaimed element of the Halo experience, from that first step into the online arena with Halo 2 to the genre defining collection of gameplay modes present in Halo: Reach. In terms of playability Halo 4 doesn’t steer too widely of that benchmark established with Bungie’s last production of the franchise they birthed, but it is an incredibly comprehensive reiteration of that which has gone before. Held in the Infinity option on the main menu, War Games is the competitive component of Halo 4’s daunting assortment of multiplayer options. Here players can choose to enter either preset playlists (of which there are many) or create their own match types.
As Halo 4 will undoubtedly become one of the most widely and consistently played multiplayer videogames of any current-generation system finding a match is not a difficult task, even prior to release there were thousands of players ready to go head-to-head with one another for the highest scores and kill:death ratios. Unsurprisingly it’s the Slayer and Team Slayer playlists which draw the most attention, but the likes of Capture the Flag and Headhunter remain popular also. The biggest change to the formula comes in the form of Requests: once a player has amassed a certain number of points in a match they may call in certain bonuses, such as a speed boost or new weapons, which can certainly turn the tide of the next one or two enemy encounters. While there are many other new touches and a great deal of polish, the only other immediately noticeable change is a cosmetic one, with players given the view of their opponent (often referred to as the ‘kill cam’) for the moment in which they were defeated.
In addition to the competitive gameplay comes the co-operative modes. Of course, the whole campaign is playable as a co-operative experience – as one of Halo’s defining features 343 Industries would’ve been foolish to change this – but in place of the much lauded Firefight mode comes Spartan Ops, a new presentation in which players take part in pre-designed scenarios much like the Special Ops modes of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, which is undeniably where Halo 4 borrowed the idea from. The Spartan Ops is set to evolve over time, with its own unique storyline and new episodes added as the months roll-on.
Halo 4 also features the same overarching level structure as Halo: Reach, including loads of unlockables such as emblems and armour pieces for cosmetic customisation, commendations and specialisations for your service record, weapons and abilities for your custom loadouts. Hand-in-hand with this overarching system, Halo 4 features a series of challenges which are set to be updated regularly offering yet more bonuses for their completion. This all comes in addition to the Forge and Theater modes, which reflect the general presentation of Halo 4: this is a Halo videogame, and as such everything that players have come to expect is present and correct. However, it’s also a Halo sequel, which means that that icing is a little bit thicker, and that cherry on top is a little bit sweeter.
Halo 4 is quite possibly the best looking videogame on current-generation hardware. The in-game visuals offer more details than the vast majority of videogame titles and the cut-scenes excel beyond anything fans of the series will be expecting. That being said, it’s puzzling why 343 Industries haven’t included a stereoscopic 3D option in Halo 4: while Microsoft may not be promoting the feature on Xbox 360 in the same way as Sony Computer Entertainment have been with the PlayStation 3, both systems have been providing the technology from the very same day in equal quality. Assassin’s Creed III proved that stereoscopic 3D gameplay can actually add significantly to the home console gameplay experience, and so it’s undeniable that Halo 4 has missed a trick by ignoring the feature. IT can only be hoped that 343 Industries recognise this over sight and add the capability later via a downloadable patch.
The sound quality is one of the areas in which Halo 4 had pushed the envelope more than any other. The soundtrack is simply a perfect accompaniment to the gameplay in near-every instant and the voice acting is undeniably of an incredibly high standard throughout. The shield recharge sound effect now sounds like a dial-up modem connecting to the internet, which in itself is a design decision worthy of note.
Despite the progression made in the combat set-pieces, multiplayer gameplay, visual and aural quality, Halo 4 has made some mistakes. The increased difficulty will no doubt annoy many and the decision to remove the unnecessarily wide landscapes has culled some of the many tactical options previously available. The campaign is also shorter than previous outings – though not aggravatingly so – and in an effort to make it a more cinematic affair 343 Industries has taken the decision to include moments where the videogame pulls a single-player into action, forcing co-operative partners out of the interaction for a moment or two. It may not sound like a bug issue, but it’s certainly at odds with the co-operation centric design that Halo has become famous for.
Launching on Xbox 360 next week, Halo 4 has a small windows of opportunity to dominate the sales chart before the arrival of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Those who question its ability to do so are fooling no one but themselves, as Halo 4 is just as epic and engaging as anything the series has yet produced. The FPS is arguably the leading genre in the videogames industry at present, and Halo 4 is one of its defining titles just as Halo 3 and Halo: Reach before it. There are a number of competitors for the best videogame of the year arriving in the tail end of 2012 and Halo 4 joins that line-up with composure and grace. From the deep and varied experiences available in the campaign to the intensely competitive multiplayer gameplay Halo 4 has all of it’s bases covered, and as such will surely be a mainstay in any Xbox 360 gamer’s console for months to come.