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Halo 4 is the most important sequel in the series. It's the first game not developed by franchise creators Bungie. It may seem blasphemous to suggest that another company could step in and replace them but 343 Industries has done just that. With H4, they've managed to continue the best traditions in the series while introducing some innovations of their own.
Halo 3 ended with Master Chief and his A.I. companion Cortana hurtling into space aboard a ruined UNSC frigate. Halo 4 begins as they arrive at their destination: Requiem, an artificial planet created by the Forerunners. They find the Covenant waiting for them on this mysterious world, as well as a new enemy.
This new enemy turns out to be the Forerunners themselves. Their return is a pivotal moment in the series, as the Forerunners were long thought to be extinct. The Forerunners are a vital part of the Halo universe; they’re actually responsible for building the titular Halos throughout the galaxy. It’s great that 343 Industries was able to find a new enemy that fits with existing series lore. It would’ve felt artificial if they had made up some other sinister alien race from scratch for the game.
The Forerunners are one of the most welcome improvements to the series in years. After fighting the same Covenant and Flood enemies over and over, it’s refreshing to confront a new opponent. The Forerunners look and behave distinctly different from other races. You’ll fight dog-like Crawlers that climb along ceilings and attack in packs, as well as armored Knights that can teleport across the battlefield. Watchers are small flying units, can shield Knights or even resurrect them. Taking down these enemies will require you to revise your usual tactics. The only downside to the Forerunners’ presence in the game is that they make fights against the Covenant feel even more boring than usual.
Forerunners supply most of the new weapons in the game as well. While all of these guns fit into the standard archetypes (shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher), they’re different enough from the existing Halo arsenal to feel useful and (more importantly) fun. The Scattershot might seem like just another shotgun but its rounds ricochet. The Incineration Cannon spreads out its fiery explosions over a wide area, making it an entertaining alternative to the UNSC Rocket Launcher. These new weapons have the same effect as the new enemies: they make Halo fresh again. They’re big additions for a series that badly needed some change after back-to-back prequels.
When Bungie handled the series, each new Halo raised the bar for visuals. Halo 4 continues that old trend. Requiem is home to every type of environment conceivable and all of them are jaw-dropping in detail. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the battlefields of this game’s campaign felt smaller than they were in say, Halo 3. It’s possible that 343 couldn’t get huge skirmishes to perform as well with this level of visual polish. That’s too bad, because Halo’s at its best when offers players a pile of weapons and vehicles and lets them clear the battlefield however they please.
Halo 4 technically has two campaigns. The second, called Spartan Ops, stars a squad of UNSC Spartans who have arrived on Requiem as well. Spartan Ops is split into a series of 15-20 minute missions that feel more like standalone combat challenges rather than a story-driven adventure. Alone or with three friends, you run around the map and complete a series of simple objectives before heading to the extraction point. Some of these maps are about the same size as a competitive multiplayer map – that’s not necessarily a bad thing but that just shows how limited in scope they can be. These Ops can certainly stretch out your Halo 4 experience – the game ships with 5 missions and will get 45 more over the coming months – but I imagine many players would’ve preferred to have the survival mode Firefight from ODST and Reach instead.
The competitive multiplayer experience from previous games remains more or less intact here. You’ve still got the usual collection of modes like Capture the Flag, Slayer, and Oddball. Infection mode from previous games has been updated so that infected players now become Flood. The new Dominion and Regicide modes are dressed-up versions of capture-and-defend and free-for-all, respectively. Forge and Theater features once again return so creative players can build their own maps or films.
The biggest improvements to the standard multiplayer formula can be found in Halo 4’s progression system. As in Reach, players will unlock new armor pieces to allow them to build their own custom Spartan super-soldier. Furthermore, they can choose an armor ability such as a jetpack or optical camouflage. Halo 4 takes this progression a step further by letting players also unlock other weapons for their loadouts. Additionally, players can unlock and equip Support and Tactical Packages. Packages, the equivalent of Call of Duty perks, give you passive bonuses. They will let you, for example, carry more grenades or reload faster. The long list of desirable unlockables should make it easier than normal to spend entire afternoons on the game’s multiplayer.
The basic gameplay of multiplayer is unchanged by this progression system, though. The heavier weapons in the game can’t be added to your loadout so you’ll still need to scramble for them. At the beginning of a match, the special weapons up for grabs are actually highlighted on the map to encourage this mad dash. If you rack up enough points in a given match, you can also call in an Ordinance Drop. The contents of these drops, selected from three options, include weapons and power-ups. The drop will land wherever your crosshair is pointed, so you may have to fight enemies off to actually keep it. The power-ups are one-time use and the weapons have limited ammunition so these gifts from above won’t let you rule the match. Multiplayer will, as usual, be ruled by the players with the lightest feet and quickest trigger finger.
It’s impossible to talk about Halo without talking about Bungie. 343 Industries owe them a permanent debt for creating the foundation upon which Halo 4 rests. However, 343 aren't just the caretakers of the series - they're the co-authors. With this game, they've improved upon Bungie's work and taken Halo in a promising new direction. The game feels a little too familiar in some ways but nonetheless, it has 343's stamp on it.
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios