Be thankful, true believers. Halo 4 could have been a disaster – an unnecessary extension of a series abandoned by its original creators, Bungie, with none of the brilliance of Halo 1, 2, 3 and Reach. Instead, it’s a game that leaves you exhilarated, both in the sure knowledge that you’ve just played one of the year’s best shooters, and that the Halo saga is in safe hands.
You have to hand it to 343 Industries. Halo 4 doesn’t just deliver a good single-player campaign, but a genuinely great one. It opens with Master Chief and Cortana trapped on a half-wrecked starship drifting towards and unknown planet, and goes on from an unpromising start (the old ship under siege routine) to introduce a new setting, a new enemy and a storyline that expands the Halo universe while getting us closer to the characters (especially Cortana) that make it come alive. The scripting, acting and cinematics are all top-notch, and the narrative acts as a framework for a string of classic Halo action sequences, each one so good and so true to the spirit of the series that, if you didn’t know better, you would swear that Bungie was still at the controls.
Forget any fears you might have that 343 Industries would take Master Chief down the Call of Duty route. Halo 4 takes everything you know and love from the original trilogy and Reach, from the intelligent AI, the open levels that encourage different routes and strategies, to the smart, perfectly-balanced weapon set, and makes it shine. While objectives can be a bit mundane, with all the usual reach this point, press this button stuff, the combat that happens in-between remains exemplary.
Covenant forces work just as you’d expect, moving to outflank or surprise you or teaming up in combined units so that you have to think about how you pick them off. Weapons and ammunition are rarely easy to come by, forcing you to swap between weapons and consider how you use them. Vehicles, including all the Covenant and UNSC classics, are essential tools but never allow you to dominate. Halo 4 takes us right back to the “30 seconds of fun, over and over again” mantra of Combat Evolved, and ensures that each of those 30 second bursts feels thrilling and different, even if you’re just replaying what happened before you died.
Then on top of this, Halo 4 adds new enemies, new weapons, new vehicles and an even bigger sense of scale. The new enemies – the Forerunner warriors known as the Prometheans – add a new layer of challenge, posing different threats and demanding different tactics to the Covenant troops you’ve seen before. There are parallels between, say, the Covenant Elites and the Promethean Knights, but the latter’s teleport abilities and vicious melee attacks ensure that you don’t take them lightly. Their weapons also have rough equivalents in the Covenant and UNSC armouries, with sniper rifles, assault rifles and shotguns, but you soon learn that different arms affect the various Promethean troops quite differently, making you think more carefully about which two guns to pack at any one time.
The Forerunners and Prometheans don’t just add to the gameplay. They also expand the visual palette of Halo 4, giving us new shapes and colours that the Covenant, with their reliance on neon blues, pinks and purples, never did. What’s more, the new setting, Requiem, feels genuinely alien. You could mutter that its caves, canyons, jungles and frozen wastes aren’t a huge departure from what we saw in Halo or Halo 3, but the atmosphere is different and more exotic, with the architecture stranger and more enigmatic. Halo 4 is still made of the same stuff as Halo, but it’s a Halo that shows new influences creeping in.
Technically, it’s also a bit of a masterpiece. Halo: Reach was the first Halo to really look like it belonged in the same generation as Gears of War, Killzone and Uncharted, but at times Halo 4 looks like a link between this console generation and the next, with incredible levels of detail and some of the most impressive lighting and texture effects we’ve seen on the Xbox 360. The character models used in cut-scenes are impressive, yet there’s no dramatic fall-off in fidelity when you move to the in-game graphics. You might complain that the trees in the jungle don’t move or that the draw distances aren’t particularly epic, but you’d be nitpicking. On current hardware, you’d have to look to Gears of War 3, Killzone 3, Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and Crysis 2 to see anything comparable.
To cut a long story short, 343 Industries has done something really impressive here. Halo 4 expands Halo without losing what makes Halo, Halo. It’s not a revolutionary FPS. It does nothing to transform the genre. It is, though, one of the most immersive shooters we’ve played this year, for the simple reason that it’s so polished, so involving and so glossy that it’s almost impossible to resist.
You can say much the same about the multiplayer side of things. At the moment, the weakest link is probably the new Spartan Ops co-op campaign. The idea of a story-led, episodic co-op mode that works in concert with the single-player game is a great one, but we need a little more drama and excitement in the remaining ten episodes if it’s to really prove its worth. At the moment Spartan Ops is good, without being great.
Luckily, the War Games competitive element makes up for whatever small deficiencies Spartan Ops might have. Here you get all the features of a modern FPS, with a persistent experience system, unlockable weapons and customisable Spartan armour (as seen in Halo: Reach) but with the tight, frenetic action of online Halo. There’s a good balance of maps, from small and intimate deathmatch maps to large-scale maps for the bigger, team-based modes, and the weapons and armour-abilities are as exquisitely balanced as they were in Reach, if not more so. Where most of the big blockbuster shooters of the last few years have struggled to deliver both a strong single-player campaign and a great multiplayer option, Halo 4 manages both.
The laziest cliché in games journalism is to say that “If you like Halo, then you’ll love Halo 4”, but here it’s actually worth saying. 343 Industries has taken one of the most beloved series in gaming and made a new game that stands up with the best of the old. It doesn’t do anything to reboot the franchise or reinvent Halo for a new generation, but it’s a game built with an understanding of what made Halo great, and of how you expand the experience.
Whether you’re looking for a big story, magnificent eye-candy, thrilling action or exciting online play, Halo 4 delivers, and while the Spartan Ops mode is mildly disappointing, there’s still plenty of time for it to grow. If you have an Xbox 360 then Halo 4 is essential. If you don’t, then you’re missing out on what’s probably the best pure shooter of the year.