We so often use the word “universe” to classify sub-sections of fiction. The use of that term is never more appropriate than when referring to Microsoft’s blockbuster Halo franchise. Bungie, and now 343 Industries, created a trans-media experience spanning books, animation, short-form fiction in the form of clever advertising and, of course, videogames.  For that reason, enjoyment and comprehension of Halo 4′s single player experience will likely depend on how much of the material outside of the game you’ve taken the time to consume.

Let’s be honest, no one really believed that Master Chief’s story was over at the close of Halo 3. Fast forward four years, and the Chief is still in cryo-sleep aboard the derelict Forward Unto Dawn with his AI partner, Cortana, watching over him. An odd energy pulse and the presence of an enormous Covenant splinter faction force Cortana to wake John.

On paper, the story of Halo 4 and its Forerunner antagonist are dry. In fact, the highlight of Halo storytelling has never been in the games. The novels, animation and comics have always played a vital role filling in the backstory. In fact, I consider the Forward Unto Dawn five-part live action series to be required viewing before playing. I also strongly urge players to find each and every terminal to unlock the eight videos that tell the backstory of Requiem and its prisoner. When pieced together, the tale told in Halo 4 is masterfully emotional. Players that don’t partake in the other components will miss key details, and likely come away with an incomplete experience. Whether this is something gamers will embrace or reject is unclear right now, but I expect that there will be many that simply dislike the story because it assumes so very much prior knowledge that exists outside the seven games (including Halo Wars).

One of the key elements that did hit home for me, and should for even those who have just played the games, was the characterization of the relationship between John and Cortana. Underneath the overarching threat to humanity posed by the antagonist, there is a far more emotional conflict. AI constructs only have a shelf life of about seven years before they start to go “rampant.” This is a slow, painful death for artificial personalities that is marked by erratic shifts in behavior and the inability to focus. By the time Master Chief is woken aboard Forward Unto Dawn, Cortana has marked her eighth birthday, and his thoughts are centered largely on keeping his companion from death.

Halo 4 is about far more than the quest to save humanity. It is an exploration of John, the boy kidnapped from his home and molded into an indomitable warrior. It is an examination of the soldier as part of, and distinct from, the humanity he is tasked with protecting. It is a story of devotion, loyalty and gratitude. It is there that 343 Industries has surpassed even their forerunners, breathing new life into those personalities we have known since the beginning.

Where Bungie struggled to create interesting characters that fleshed out the plot, 343 Industries has excelled. The humans that accompany Master Chief are compelling, and the evolution of Thomas Lasky from wayward cadet to competent commander (I told you that Forward Unto Dawn is required viewing) works beautifully. It also serves to propel the gameplay into the cooperative, episodic mode entitled Spartan Ops.

Taking place six months after the conclusion of the single-player campaign, these weekly, free missions are designed as brief collaborative experiences. Again, strong voice acting drives the play forward, with Jennifer Hale (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect) playing a central role as Spartan Sarah Palmer, leader of the Spartan IV detachment aboard the UNSC Infinity.

The combat is intense, and the mission structure is simply more of the same. That said, fitting the mode within a narrative structure gives it legs. Most of the missions take about 10-15 minutes, pack in a lot of combat with a number of different objectives. They’re linear in scope, but I’ve had a great deal of fun playing each, even when my death count playing solo is a bit higher than I’d prefer. One of the smartest decisions made with regard to Spartan Ops (even if you lament the loss of Firefight) is that experience contributes to your service record, carrying over into competitive multiplayer.

The Halo community is one of the most vibrant in gaming, and 343i has taken a huge risk in switching up the way it works. Taking a page from other major titles, now there is a progression system in place. At each level, you’ll earn unlock points that can be spent on new weapons, grenades, armor abilities (making a return from Reach), tactical packages and support upgrades (which give you offensive and defensive boosts). These cost varying amounts to unlock and are governed by level requirements, but once they are yours, you can mix and match to create your own loadouts.

In addition to standard Spartans, there are new specializations. These unlock once you hit level 50 and allow players to further tailor play style. The two available to all players at launch are Wetwork (for stealthy players) and Operator (for those that like to stick to vehicles). There are additional specializations available early for Limited Edition owners, as well.

What amazes me is that in a game that must be filled to the brim with players, matchmaking continues to be a sticking point. It’s a problem in Call of Duty. It certainly wasn’t ever right in Battlefield 3. It isn’t good here. As a player at level 5, I should not be matched with opponents in their 30s and 40s. It’s simply not enjoyable, but it also raises a point about progressions systems: they are horribly unforgiving to new players.

One of the things that Halo used to do right is match you with similarly ranked players. Even if you happened to be joined by those higher up, they had access to the same weapons and started with the same loadout. Progression systems are a double-edged sword, and it’s only when matchmaking works do they afford the kind of experience in practice that we expect from the concept as detailed on paper.

Of course, this is a shooter, and a good story will only carry a game so far. Thankfully, Halo 4 looks, sounds and feels fantastic. Given that Brutes don’t make an appearance, weapons like the Spiker and Mauler are absent (though I did see a Gravity Hammer toward the end). With the introduction of the Prometheans, new weapons are available for the Chief. These share the same mutability and whirring parts of the new foes, and each has an analog to a Human and Covenant gun. The Suppressor is very much like the Assault Rifle and Storm Rifle, for instance. The Lightrifle feels a bit like the DMR and Covenant Carbine. The designs of these new tools are quite fantastic, fitting perfectly within the framework of the design. It also doesn’t hurt that there are some standard series conventions turned on their ears. Some insane Elites think it’s a-OK to put a fuel rod cannon in the hands of a sniveling Grunt. Did not see that coming.

As the franchise matured, it shrugged off the shackles holding it back. Through each iteration, there has been improvement. After Combat Evolved, scenery became more varied. Once we made the jump to Halo 3 on the Xbox 360, equipment diversified our choices in battle. ODST showed us another side of the war, and Reach gave us a look at those who gave their lives in the beginning. Halo 4′s greatest contribution is emotion.

Sure, it is hands down the most gorgeous game on the system. From the high level of detail on Master Chief’s armor to the amazing spectacle of each and every explosion, Halo 4 is a sight to behold. It is never more gorgeous than when human faces are front and center. During brief moments, I was unsure whether I was looking at animation or live action.

The sound is equally as impressive. While I lament the departure of Martin O’Donnell from the series, Neil Davidge does a commendable job with the score. There are instances where the music perfectly matches the on-screen action. Unfortunately, there are also  pitched battles that deserved more melodic drama. The original Halo theme is only hinted at, but that music evokes memories of the past. This is a clean beginning, and Davidge has only begun to flex his composition muscles.

The remainder of the sound design is pitch perfect. Each weapon sounds full and distinct. More importantly, they are distinguishable from across the battlefield. Play long enough and you will know what the enemy is wielding just by listening to him/her reload. The explosions sound as good as they look. Blowing up a floating sentry tower shakes my entire house through my 7.1 surround sound system. Even smacking a grunt with a weapon or fist produces a nice, meaty sound.

Halo 4 isn’t a perfect game (if such a thing exists). It isn’t going to win over anyone to the genre, or even to the series. In fact, for those that haven’t played previous entries, the single player campaign is going to be confusing and frustrating. It is, however, a smart evolution and a new beginning. The multiplayer retains the same feel, with exaggerated jumps and bang-bang death and survival. Spartan Ops is an interesting inclusion, but the loss of Firefight is sure to demoralize a number of players. Put simply, Halo 4 is more Halo. It’s better Halo, but it’s still the same series, and that’s not a bad thing.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Better character development than every previous Halo game combined
+ The story leaves just enough questions to be answered at the end to keep fans guessing
+ Combat feels the same as it ever did, which is a wonderful thing
+ The Flood are gone (for now) and have been replaced by enemies with new tactics
+ Multiplayer now features a progression system…
- … but poor matchmaking prevents that from being a wholly wonderful thing
- Firefight is gone
- Some pieces of the narrative can only be gleaned through sources outside the game 

 

8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.

Halo 4 was developed by 343 Industries and published by Microsoft. It was released on November 6, 2012, at the MSRP of $59.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.