Halo 4 Review
Cart: Halo 4
Cab: Xbox 360
Coin: 343 Industries
Have you ever questioned why the sound of cutlery smashing to the floor in a dining hall 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 particularly fine brand of public mockery ensues. Quite thankfully, I’ve never been the butt of said ridicule, but it always takes me aback when I’m witness to it nonetheless. Is this a quintessentially British phenomenon? Does it peel back our polite public 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 online backlash towards the monolith that is Halo is anything to go by then, yes, I’d say that it probably is the case.
It’s time to lock away your crockery with your daughters, Spartan: we’re landing hot.
Ever since firing up Combat Evolved on the Xbox, I’ve become 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. And 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 certain quarters whose boats are not equally floated. Now this phenomenon is nothing new. Friendly debates about the best band, football team, takeaway or supermodel have raged for decades but the stratospheric proportions of Halo’s success have been squarely equalled by a throng of critical voices. Given that those voices have had the best part of five years to fall silent in Master Chief’s absence (with ODST, Anniversary and Reach all treading water somewhat), where will Halo 4 find its place in the world?
I’ll tell you where, dear reader: with the haters knocking on Satan’s door asking for tips on how to bring it all crashing down because Halo 4 is, quite simply, the most remarkable entry into the Halo universe yet.
It goes without saying that the Halo 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. Its stripes had been well and truly earned and its place in our hearts was assured. So when we realised that Microsoft was going to take charge and appoint a new master, those of us old enough to appreciate how the world really works 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 long lost love. How wrong we were.
343 have done the impossible. They have 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 have built upon it in a number of meaningful ways. 343 have even gone so far as to have the confidence to reject several tangents the series had explored and in doing so they have placed their own stamp firmly upon the future of the franchise.
Absolutely everything you could wish to have been salvaged from the ashes has been in spades. This in itself is 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 has been pulled.
The Chief is considerably more verbose than before and his relationship with Cortana (whom is herself a revelation) 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 far 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. Audio is far less sweeping and encompassing than before yet all the more mature and supportive for it.
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 more recent entries in the series fell afoul of). Weapons 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 (quite so often) and yet it still manages to offer many genuinely interesting questions about what has been and what is 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 with the question “how in the hell do I kill that?!” – an experience not to be taken lightly on the well-trodden path that is FPS.
As ever, there’s only one way to play Halo: on Legendary. Any review of any FPS isn’t worth the platter it’s spun on unless the writer’s challenged themselves to experience what it truly has to offer. In this day and age it seems that expediency and the middle-ground are sadly more important. I can only implore you to up the ante and stick with it. My fondest memories of Halo have involved spending an entire evening attempting a skirmish over and over again until I’ve cracked it and moved on. Sometimes it can be something as small as an individual room. But 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.
And multiplayer? Well, I’ll be completely honest with you: I haven’t even gotten around to that yet. I’ve always felt that the best should be saved until last.
The Chief is dead; long live the Chief.
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