When Microsoft announced that 343 Industries—a brand-new untested studio completely dedicated to carrying on the Halo franchise following the departure of Bungie—just about every fan on the planet was overcome with skepticism. After all, how could a completely new crew possibly deliver an experience that's on par with what Bungie has created? The studio single-handedly saved the Xbox, revolutionized the first-person shooter genre, and changed the way we play games online forever. Those are some massive shoes to fill.
Well, I'm pleased to report that Frank O'Connor, Kiki Wolfkill, and the rest of the gang over at 343i have not only managed to craft an experience that lives up to the Halo name, but they've also created a game that takes the series in a bold, new direction. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that this fresh set of minds with a passion for the franchise and exciting new ideas was exactly what Microsoft's precious sci-fi franchise needed. I never thought I'd say this, but Bungie's departure may have been the best thing that ever happened to Halo.
From the outset, 343i made it clear that they would be making a conscious effort to include more of the extended fiction into Halo 4. Now I don't want to spoil anything for you, but let me just say that there's a clear emphasis on not only the humanity of John-117, but also a number of other notable characters, not the least of which includes Cortana. The game specifically highlights the relationship between the Master Chief and his purple AI companion, something the studio has been touting for quite a while. Unfortunately, I don't think they quite deliver in this department, as an overly personified Cortana felt a bit unnatural, especially considering how different she was in prior games.
The same goes for Master Chief in many respects. It's clear that 343i wanted to remind the player that John is not just a war-hungry robot, but an actual person. At the same time, the fact that the Chief has remained a faceless hero for so long has allowed the player to step into the character's shoes and assume that identity. The studio sort of toes the line between the two, ultimately resulting in a character who isn't completely fleshed out, yet detailed enough that it becomes difficult to assume the role personally. Though I'm sure as the Reclaimer Trilogy carries on, 343i will continue to chip away at John's stoic exterior, exposing more of the heroic man beneath the deep green armor.
However, that isn't to say I didn't enjoy the story of Halo 4. The game introduces a completely new enemy, the Prometheans, who are not only horrifyingly intimidating, but also require a vastly different approach in taking down when compared to the Covenant. The game also has a central villain who, while a bit cheesy at times, fits seamlessly into the series' fiction—after all, Halo isn't known to take itself all too seriously. As such, I found myself engaged in the fiction quite a bit, and while I may prefer the slightly more gritty approach to storytelling seen in Halo: Reach, the single-player campaign provides a fantastic ride that will undoubtedly please fans who prefer Halo 3's style.
I also just need to take a minute and gush about this game's visuals. This is hands-down the most gorgeous game you'll find on the Xbox 360. Microsoft has made it clear that this is the most expensive game they've ever made and it shows in the production values. From Halo 4's jaw-dropping facial animations to its vibrant and super-detailed landscapes, this game is downright stunning. The music is also quite good, considering the original composer Marty O'Donnell left when Bungie departed. His replacement, Neil Davidge, does a great job, as his expertise in film composition really lends itself to the creation of an atmospheric and ambient score. Is it as iconic as O'Donnell's work? Not quite, but it sure comes close.
But let's face it, we don't just play Halo for the story, graphics, and sound design; ultimately, it comes down to the gameplay. If you were afraid that the additions of sprint and new armor abilities would ruin the experience, you can rest easy, soldier, this still feels very much like the Halo you've come to know and love, only now there's loads of new awesome additions that will ensure Halo 4's relevance in a post-Modern Warfare industry. Throughout the campaign, 343i never has you doing any one thing for too long, providing just enough variety to keep you constantly engaged—the pacing is excellent.
The slew of new weapons, mostly of the Promethean flavor, add a whole new dynamic to the experience. They really mesh well with the rest of the game's arsenal and are incredibly well-balanced. Each weapon has its own specific purpose, so familiarizing yourself with the game's entire suite of firearms will prove incredibly useful, especially if you plan to excel online. Thanks to the excellent sound work of Sotaro Tojima, each weapon feels extremely powerful and unique. Oh man, does firing that sniper rife send chills down my spine.
As far as online play goes, it is just as seamless as you'd expect, and while I'm not crazy about some of their design choices as far as the menus go, they're easy to navigate. There's also a whole new level of customization provided to the player, allowing you to tailor specific load-outs, armor abilities, and even 343i's version of "perks" (known as support upgrades and tactical packages) to your liking. So while, yes, this does mean you have to play to unlock things, it adds a nice sense of reward that has had players hooked on Call of Duty for the past several years.
There are a number of new multiplayer game types including a territory-based mode called Dominion and a unique Flood-centric option appropriately titled Flood. The maps are downright incredible, each with their unique aesthetic design and gameplay applications. However, there is one area that I have slightly mixed feelings about. I love Halo for its elegant simplicity, but as the franchise continues to evolve, it has become slightly more cluttered, visually and mechanically, than prior entries.
Instead of going with a straightforward first-to-20 scoring system, players will earn points based on their accomplishments, adding to the overall total. In addition, you'll be able to call in ordinance drops carrying a weapon or bonus of your choice that aids you on the battlefield. This makes for a slightly more dynamic experience—again, akin to Call of Duty—but I think I'm just having trouble accepting the evolution of the series. I'm sure in a few weeks' time, once I'm fully acclimated to all of the changes, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Fans of ODST's firefight mode will likely be wondering whether or not the addition of Spartan Ops is a suitable replacement. Well, let me tell you that it most certainly is. Included on the disc are the first five missions as well as a several-minute cinematic intro, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. If you're expecting it to be as engaging as the campaign, you'll be a bit disappointed, but if you look at it as a nice side experience that you can play with friends, Spartan Ops will undoubtedly aid in extending the experience, as 343i plans to release new missions for free on a weekly basis for several weeks following the game's launch. Now that's what I call post-game support.
And of course, I have to mention Forge. While I'm hardly an expert at map creation, Halo 4 provides the community with plenty of tools, which will undoubtedly result in some killer new game types. In many ways, 343i's first foray into the Halo universe is a neat, little bundle of fan service providing the ultimate community-driven game experience. Halo fans are a loyal bunch, and they'll be pleased to know that this game was lovingly crafted with them in mind.
But that doesn't mean Halo 4 is only for the hardcore fan. If you're new to the series or you simply have a passing interest, I implore you to give this game a look. Unless Black Ops II or Far Cry 3 manage to revolutionize the genre in astronomical ways, Halo 4 is the clear frontrunner for best first-person shooter of 2012. Heck, it may very well be the best game you play all year.