So, there’s a little franchise called Halo – you may not have heard of it, but it’s rather popular. Something about super soldiers, power armour, and aliens, and...
Oh, I can’t keep this up. Of course you’ve heard of Halo – even if you’re a dedicated PC gamer like me, Halo is likely the one franchise that keeps your Xbox from gathering dust. That’s certainly my story – apart from the odd Rockstar game, my Xbox remains cold all year, but it’s just been fired up for a weekend of intense alien fighting action for Halo 4.
And, I’m quite surprised to say – it was not a disappointment.
I should admit, though, that for me, Halo is pretty much a pure singleplayer experience. I know, for a lot of folks, the game’s real longevity comes from multiplayer matches, but that’s always been a distant second for me. In fact, given that my review period has taken place before launch, with limited multiplayer windows, I’ve in fact barely looked at that side of the game at all. I may brave the wretched hive of scum ad villainy that is XBOX Live once the game releases, just out of curiousity – the new Spartan Ops modes do look pretty interesting, and I am a sucker for what looks to be a deep and interesting set of armour customisations – but mostly, I’m there for the story.
The game has that in spades, though it does seem at times to be like someone stumbling forward while running – there’s occasional sense that the game doesn’t quite know where it’s going, so something explodes, the stakes change, and it’s on to the next fight.
Taken as a whole, though, the overarching narrative of Halo 4 is pretty tight. It’s four years since the Master Chief went into cryo, and the game begins with him being woken up by Cortana.
Well, actually, the game begins with one of those odd bits that don’t quite belong – Doctor Halsey, the architect of the Spartan program, apparently in custody and justifying her actions. But this goes seemingly nowhere; a shame, because it’s a particularly affecting scene, and a hint that 343 really gets the heart behind the Halo story. It also looks amazing – the quality of custscenes throughout the game is quite amazing.
In fact, the game’s graphics in general are really quite stellar – this one of the best Xbox games I’ve ever seen.
So Cortana wakes the Chief up, because – and this is a bit hand-wavey – the battered ship they are on is about to be pulled through rift onto a Forerunner world, along with a whole fleet of Covenant ships. Renegade Covenant ships, at that – there are no Elite allies for this game!
While the Chief and his AI muse are extracting themself, they at first call for rescue, and then – once they realise the deadly nature of the world, and that there’s one rather insane Forerunner who thinks humanity is an upstart to be smashed, try to call that rescue off. This fails, and the UNSC Infinity – a vessel that serves as the hub for the game’s multiplayer portion, by the way – crashes through the rift and onto the world. The rescuers end up needing rescuing, humanity needs saving, and it’s action all the way as Master Chief takes on old Covenant and new Forerunner badguys.
Through all this, there’s the more personal story of the last first generation Spartan and his virtual friend, now approaching the AI version of senility. Poor Cortana reveals that she’s approaching rampancy, the point when an AI becomes too smart for their own good. Given the straights this pair have been through before, it’s oddly affecting seeing Master Chief fight for the one friend and constant he has in a very dangerous universe.
And, being the last of his generation, there’s more than a hint that the Chief is past his prime. As scattershot as some of the storytelling can be, there is heart and emotion aplenty.
There’s also a lot of shooting, blowing things up, and moments of high action. 343 Industries has kept to a pure version of the game’s mechanics – there’s no dual wielding, the controls are instantly familiar, and even the new weapons – especially the exotic, multipart Forerunner weapons – feel comfortable and useful.
The new Promethean villains, too, bring a lot of freshness to the combat experience. They’re not yet as iconic as the Convenant, or even the Flood, but their abilities present interesting new challenges, like the pairing between flying drones and heavy combat units. Knights, as they are known, are a real threat at range and close up, and even when you do kill them, if you’ve not taken down the drones they’ll repair and resurrect the fallen Knights. There are enemies that phase in and out of combat, fast ones that can climb walls and ceilings, and a range in between.
There are also some vehicles to get to grips with, including a combat walker that features in two levels (including one that is very Robotech). The coolest new vehicle is on rails, though – called the Mammoth. It seems the UNSC has gotten sick of taking on Scarabs and built their own version. It only features in a single level, but it’s one of the most memorable, as you hope on and off taking out enemy outposts, defend it from air and land attacks, and then restock inside.
Sadly, vehicles feature in the game’s worst levels, too. Of particular note is one sequence in a fighter craft, doing one of the silliest trench runs on the most ludicrously designed piece of random and ever changing ship design that’s ever graced gaming. It’s bit of a Halo staple, and even Bungie has been known to mess these sequences up, but coming as it does at the game’s end it’s more frustrating than entertaining, and because of the camera angle behind the fighter, prone to constant crashing.
I clocked the game at about eight or nine hours long, which is just about acceptable, and certainly feel as though I got what I wanted out of it. What multiplayer brings to the table will be pure cream on top of an ultimately satisfying campaign – except for the fact that the classic Halo theme is pretty much missing in action. I cannot overstate how strange it is to play a Halo game without that iconic refrain.
Thankfully, after all the action, the game definitely ends on a strong emotional note. In fact, in a lot of ways, the impact of the final scenes acts as a coda to everything that has come before for the Master Chief. I’ll not give it away, but he really has been fighting for a long time.
But he’s not slowing down at all, and I think he’s in safe hands at 343 Industries. I’m hopefully that they’ll grow ever more confident as their new trilogy progresses.