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Hindsight : Halo 4

Cart: Halo 4
Cab: Xbox 360 / Xbox One
Coin: 343 Industries

Have you ever questioned why the sound of cutlery smashing to the floor in a public space is greeted with rapturous applause?

There’s that momentary lull as all voices falls silent in solemn salute to the event before an impassioned crescendo of a fine brand of public mockery ensues. Quite thankfully, I’ve never been the butt of said ridicule, but it always make me ponder when I’m witness to it. Is this a quintessentially British phenomenon? Does it peel back our polite façade and get to the heart of our true nature? Are we all just one step away from gleefully dragging each other down for nothing more than base public amusement?

Well, if the long-running backlash towards the monolith that is Halo is anything to go by then, yes: I’d say that it probably is the case.

Ever since firing up Combat Evolved on the original Xbox, I’ve been hopelessly hooked on the particular brand of FPS that Halo offers. Finely tuned to the console experience; rich in atmosphere and mythology; unique in mechanics and dynamics and dripping in replayability thanks to some truly cunning AI and expertly crafted multi-player. Whilst I’ve been happily joined in my love for the franchise by millions of fellow gamers, I’ve always been acutely aware of the animosity that’s been directed towards it from quarters whose boats are not equally floated – those that are all too keen to mock the mistakes that the series has made. This phenomenon is nothing new. Friendly debates about the best band, football team, film or console have raged for decades, so it’s no real surprise to see stratospheric proportions of Halo’s success being squarely equalled by a throng of critical voices. But given that those voices had the best part of five years after Halo 3 to fall silent – with ODST and Reach all treading water somewhat in the Chief’s absence – how did the series respond upon his much-heralded return?

As iconic an Mario?

Perhaps conscious of the criticisms that any new Halo game would invite, the community held its collective breath when it was announced that Bungie were to hand the reins over to 343 Studios. Rare is the bond between developer and community as strong and unfailing as it had been with Bungie and the captive audience it held throughout a five game tenure. So when we realised that Microsoft was going to take charge and appoint a new master, many breathed a heavy sigh. It had been a nice ride whilst it lasted, but all we could hope for now was a cash-cow that vaguely resembled our fond memories.

How wrong we were.

343 managed the impossible. They stepped into one of the biggest pair of shoes in the industry and not only captured the true essence of what made Halo so special but built upon it in a number of meaningful ways. They even went so far as to have the confidence to reject several tangents the series’ mechanics had explored and, in doing so, place their own stamp firmly upon the future of the franchise. Absolutely everything you could wish to have been salvaged from the past was in spades. This in itself was a remarkable achievement from a fledging developer – but it’s far more interesting to note the number of subtle and yet telling directions in which the franchise was pulled.

The Chief is considerably more verbose than before and his relationship with Cortana (whose own character arc is gripping and fresh) is all the more rich and human for it. The Covenant no longer speak English and are all the more menacing and unnerving for it. Crouch is no longer an awkward affair, subtly enhancing the gameplay dynamics by offering up more viable options in any given situation. Weapons feel more accurate (particularly in vehicles such as the Ghost) and yet dogfights feel just as challenging and knife-edge as ever. The Chief’s HUD is far more intrusive than before and yet all the more immersive because of it. Like previous titles, art direction remains a subtle yet striking affair that eschews excessive polygon counts for genuine beauty – but unusually for a Halo game the results are, quite simply, next-generation in appearance. You could absolutely be forgiven for thinking this was an Xbox One launch title, even played on the ageing 360 architecture for which is was developed. Audio is far less sweeping and encompassing than in previous titles yet arguably all the more mature and supportive for it.

Trust an AI and a cyborg to play out one of gaming’s most human of relationships.

There are the first real meaningful vehicular additions since Combat Evolved and each and every driving section packs a punch as opposed to feeling like a box to be ticked – an issue that the ‘middle-ware’ entries in the series fell afoul of. Weapon developments are fresh and inventive and yet as balanced and refined as they have always been. Armour enhancements feel far more meaningful than before with ‘run’, quite sensibly, being a standard move across all variants. The plot doesn’t leave you reaching for Wikipedia as H2 and H3 at times did and yet it still manages to offer many genuinely interesting questions about what has been and what is yet to come. And lastly – and perhaps most importantly – for the first time since Combat Evolved (discounting Halo 2’s Brutes, whom we immediately established were nothing more than over-sized bullet sacks) you’re left wondering how in the hell you’re supposed to kill an enemy – an experience not to be taken lightly on the well-trodden path that is FPS. Wrap-up most of the above into a multi-player component that’s as smooth and refined as Halo’s ever been, and you’ve got a winning formula distilled and refined to near perfection.

As ever, there’s only one way to play Halo’s campaign though: on Legendary difficulty. My fondest experiences of Halo have involved spending an entire evening attempting a single skirmish over and over again until I’ve cracked it and moved on. Sometimes it can be something as small as an individual room.When a game forces you to explore the dynamics of such a small section in such a deep and experimental manner, you know you’re on to something special.

You know you’re playing Halo.

This article originally appeared here as a Review on VoxelArcade in 2012. 

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One Comment

  1. Amen.

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