At what point does a videogame become more than just a game? When did Star Wars make that leap from cinematic blockbuster to world-conqueroring franchise across a plethora of media formats? This is a question that has been puzzling me ever since I was asked to play Halo 4 and write this review. I knew loosely what was coming, but I didn’t fully appreciate just how large Halo has become, despite being a mega-fan. It has now evolved into something quite unique in the gaming world. You see, Halo 4 isn’t a stand-alone game and is very hard to actually see it in that light. It’s designed very specifically to be part 1 of a trilogy and this is evident right from the very start. Which is unusual when compared to many other games series that started out as a one-off entity and then evolved into something more... just like, for example, the original Halo did. There are now a dozen or so books, internet ARGs, and live action films. It’s like trying to review The Empire Strikes Back as a stand-alone film, knowing that Return of the Jedi is on the way, but knowing that most people haven’t actually seen A New Hope. And as if that wasn't confusing enough, there's also been a change of studios and talent too, with the mantle passed from Bungie to the purpose-built 343 Industries, headed up by former Bungie legend Frank O’Conner.
The first thing that really hit me when I got going with Halo 4 was the graphics. It’s hard to believe that an Xbox 360 is running this. People, this machine is 7 (there it crops up again...) years old. Most of us don’t own any form of hardware this old. So to see it chuck around graphics like this is quite something. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking top-end PC graphical capabilities here, but they’re right up there with the best the 360 has ever managed, and an improvement over the already-brilliant Halo Reach. There were only 2 or 3 instances of slow-down or dropped frames that I noticed in the whole play through, too, so the code monkeys have clearly got the machine to whistle their tune pretty damn perfectly. To get architecture this old to pull this off is no mean feat, and whether you’re a fan of Halo or not you’d be an idiot to say it looks bad, or even average, by the standards of the 360.
On top of the fantastic visuals and aesthetic design, I must also pay compliments to the game's audio. From the meaty thudding of the AR to the whine of an over-charged plasma pistol, the crispness of each note is bang on the money. I swear you can hear each revolution of the Scorpion’s engine as it crunches over the dirt, interspersed with the roar from a lion. If I had to pick holes (and I do, I’m pedantic to a fault) I would say that Grunts have been messed up - previously they were funny, providing a bit of comic relief to their arrogant masters, the Elites. From their little chirps and screams to their aggressive little snarls, they counter-balanced each other perfectly. However, now they seem devoid of all personality, and the majority of that was down to the noises and screams that they made. Sadly, they now seem to be something out of the Star Wars reject bin, and given some of the crap that made it in to Star Wars you can imagine what horrors got rejected.
But the true proof in this particular pudding is that iconic Halo theme music. As any Halo fan will know, Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori made the proverbial icing on the cake with their iconic score for the previous Halo games. With the migration from Bungie that 343 that task has been passed to Neil Davidge and he has got an extremely large pair of Mastercheif-shaped boots to fill. Thankfully though, he doesn’t try to carry on their work, or build from it, instead, he's very wisely started again with a new score and a new direction. Don’t get me wrong, some of the tracks are forgettable (and yes, I’ve been listening to the OST on CD too) but then not every track from the previous games was etched into your ear-drums. But overall, Neil and his team have managed to make the score very Halo-esque whilst simultanesouly coming up with something completely new. The almost-religious overtones of the previous scores fitted well when the Covenant were the focus (what with them being a bunch of religious zealots). But now, whilst being very Halo in nature, the music has adapted to the plot - with the Covenant no longer being the primary antagonists, the music has followed suit and it feels very... Forerunner-like. It’s deeper, darker and there’s a certain threatening menace that underlines it all. All of which marries beautifully to the plot.
But herein lies the crux of the my problem. I know the plot. I’ve read the books. I’ve followed the back story. From the brilliant introduction through to the spine-tingling end-of-level cut scenes to the grand finale. Every little plot thread I could follow. But then your average gamer hasn’t done this. At best, they’ve played all the Halo games and watched a couple of trailers. Which unfortunately means that a lot of the undercurrent in the story might well be missed by the average gamer on the street. The ancient evil awakening might just seem like an excuse to ham-fist a new enemy into the mix, but the truth is it’s just more of the threads in the grander scheme of things all being gently and delicately pulled together. The whole plot of Halo 4 is just the beginning of this new arc, and that’s an arc that’s part of a larger circle, or Halo if you will.
The gameplay though is obviously very separate from all of that plot though. Halo really had two mantras at its core; 30 seconds of fun over and over again, and the focus on the trinity of guns, melee and grenades. This is frequently maintained for the bulk of the game, but it does stumble from time to time as you’re put into massive firefights - not only out-numbered but frequently out-gunned too. I must also say that grenades are a bit too nerfed here. I’ve seen Grunts not even flinch from a grenade that’s exploded not 3 metres from them. They have to be almost inch-perfect to be effective, and that’s if you can control the bounce on them - rubber is now the material-of-choice for frags-grenades.
In terms of difficulty it’s certainly stepped up a notch. I played through on Heroic (naturally - the way it’s meant to be played) and hit only a few harsh difficulty spikes. In previous Halo games the harder difficulty settings allowed the AI more room to manoeuvre (because enemies survived for longer) which means when you died it was usually because you’d not spotted the Elite flanking you, or you turned into a room full of Grunts and Jackels far too fast. In Halo 4, though, there’s a new kid on the block -the Promethean Knight, and boy does he get all the new toys, all the loaded dice and a couple of aces up his sleeve. Unfortunately, all of these benefits aren't highlighted by the AI out-smarting you, rather just out gunning-you. OK, in heroic you can pretty much pick them off one at a time with a bit of effort, regroup and then move on. Although there a few parts where even this isn’t possible due to the level design, which instead means you’ve just got to slog your way through it, praying that you get a lucky break. All of which moves the game away from the more-traditional roots of intelligent shooter into gung-ho poor man's FPS.
On legendary, though, each one is like a mini-boss encounter. They’re tougher than Elites, can absorb a full clip from the magazine of almost every weapon (meaning you’re going to get caught on a reload or be forced to weapon swap a lot) and as if all of that wasn't bad enough,they’re usually accompanied by Watchers, which rules out grenades (breaking the trinity of guns, melee and grenade). Obviously it makes sense to take out the Watchers first, right? Easier said than done - they’re small, nippy, and while you’re trying to swat them out of the air the Knight is very close by doing his best to take you out. Manage to get a full clip into a Knight and you’re mid weapon swap to get that all important head shot? Watch the bugger teleport away. Should you manage to take out the Knight first then the Watcher can just resurrect it. That’s one Knight. Now try 4. At the same time.
Most Knights don’t quite have the armour or firepower of a Hunter (but it’s close) but they do have a lot of other advantages that push the game from “tough but fun” to “joypad crushing frustration”. With team work all encounters are naturally easier as you can combine efforts onto one target or split a group of enemies up, but I warn people with high blood pressure to step well away from solo Legendary. I finished Reach on Legendary solo and it felt tough but fair. Not so here. Here we’re talking Halo 2 levels of frustration folks.
With me having early access to the game, I couldn't play much multiplayer due to a distinct lack of people online actually playing the game, so I can’t really comment much on this side of things. Sadly, theatre mode also seemed to be disabled (or bugged) and no files were recording for viewing or editing. I did manage a brief dalliance with Spartan Ops mode, though. The customisation of Spartans is back (customisations are unlocked by earning credits, which this time are not earned in campaign mode), there’s daily, weekly and monthly challenges, and also commendations to achieve. Medals are there, but are now a background thing only, not popping up when you earn them, only seemingly viewable in the post match reports. Spartan Ops has clearly been designed with co-op play in mind given the sheer number of enemies you can be facing at once (I’d say 30 was about the max at once in an area). One of the challenges I tried (and eventually succeeded) was to complete Ep1 Chp5 on Legendary. Sadly I ended up in the last section for an hour as I tried to take out 3 Knights at the same time, Knights who refused to be drawn out and clustered around each other, working as a team, hammering home the fact that I didn’t have a team. But Spartan Ops has great potential to keep delivering new content. At least 5 episodes of 5 chapters will be there (1st episode was available right away) and they can always add more content. Speed runs I can see becoming very popular very quickly. Think of this as a mix between a large campaign encounter and a small Firefight section from the likes of ODST and Reach.
In some ways though, Halo 4's gameplay is a step back from Halo Reach. Sure it's a little bit prettier, the audio is a touch crisper and the music is (by and large) up to scratch. But then it seems a little bit slower. For example, it seemingly takes an age to be able to use your equiped weapon after sprinting, and weapon swapping seems to take a little bit too long. I'll be honest, it could be that my view is being distorted by Borderlands, of which I've played over 150 hours in the last month alone, where these speeds can be improved considerably. But it does seem odd that it would take a Spartan super soldier a full second to move a rifle through a 90 degree angle to bring it to bear after taking a 3 second jog. And for all the bells and whistles for graphics and audio, do we not now expect that as standard in a game that's on a 7 year old machine? Borderlands, Skyrim, Gears of War et al all look and sound great. The bar has not been raised because it cannot be raised any more. So the only two areas where it really can stand out is story and gameplay.
But the gameplay is just not quite up to scratch. It's not bad per say, I'd just expect better from a flagship AAA title, and I've played better, particularly Reach. Spartan Ops is good, but it's not the main game, and is designed from the ground up to be played co-op. Although I couldn't play the mulitplayer I cannot see it being any better than Halo Reach, which was nigh on perfection as far as Halo multiplayer goes (And for the record, I'm no multiplayer fan. Campaign and co-op all the way). And as for Campaign gameplay, there's nothing really new, nothing really epic, and nothing that really stamps its mark as saying "this is Halo 4. Not Halo 3, not Reach, THIS IS HALO 4". The atmosphere, audio and plot succeed in creating a rich and epic world, but the gameplay just isn't quite there. The new enemies are mildly interesting, all three of them. But Crawlers are just faster Grunts, Knights are tougher Elites and Watchers are just a pain in the arse. The loss of the Flood, Stalkers & the Brutes isn't worth the trade. The new weapons look fancy, but they're just clones of UNSC weapons (Light Rifle is a Battle Rifle, Suppressor is an Assault Rifle etc etc) so there's nothing new there apart from a bit of fancy graphical bling. The encounters are, by-and-large fun, but also forgettable. They all have 7/10 written across them in very large letters.
Every Halo has epic battles that are etched in your memory forever - all good games of any genre should do this. From the end of Two Betrayals in Halo, to the ODST insertion in Halo 2, to the Scarab encounters in Halo 3. But there's no moment that stands out for me at the moment just 1 day after playing it. Well, I tell a minor lie, there is one, but I don't want to ruin it for everyone. But even so, when that started I was seriously excited, but when it was over it was a case of "oh... well that could have been better."
I'll level with you all - I'm biased. I love Halo. And Halo 4 is fantastic, but only when taken as part of a whole, which will only really appeal to the fanboy such as myself. The plot, for someone like me is brilliant, and the direction that 343 has taken with this is superb and even a bit ballsy, so kudos to them for that. It would have been easy to play it safe here and rehash old ideas from the previous games, but they're not only delving within the backstory, they're also (as the cinematics outside of Halo show) looking at the very dark back story of the Chief himself and dealing with not just war, but the cost of war, and looking at the ethical choices that were made. But again, there's plot holes that will annoy people, holes that are filled in by the books, both published and yet to be finished. So I know why things are happening, as will all other fans of the books. Joe Public, however, may only end up confused and thinking "This makes absolutely no sense...". And even having read the books, there're still gaps to be filled. Although personally I'm confident that they will be filled in.
If you're like me, a big Halo fan who can deal with a couple of let-downs for the sake of the greater good, then get this right away. Hell, get to a midnight launch. I'll be at the Trafford Centre and I seriously can't wait. It'll whet your appetite something chronic and leave you wanting more. Personally for me this is a 5/5 as the plot and atmosphere is what I care about that that's nailed perfectly *if you follow all the threads*. But for people with a passing interest in the series your money and time are better spent elsewhere.