Halo 4 Xbox 360 Review – A Shadow of its Former Self

Halo 4 box

Publisher:  Microsoft Game Studios
Developer:  343 Industries
Release Date: November 6th, 2012
Platform: Xbox 360
ESRB:  M – Mature

Many people considered Halo 4 to be the biggest release of the year.  The kickstarter for a new trilogy featuring the return of Master Chief and the introduction of the Forerunners as a new main enemy, Halo 4 begins where Halo 3 left off.  The Chief and his AI companion, Cortana, are once again thrown into action when the crippled frigate Forward Unto Dawn encounters a mysterious Forerunner shield world.  Waking up to a fight is nothing new for Spartan-117, but this battle has more than a few new twists.

The transfer of the Halo franchise to 343 Industries has been the subject of hot debate since before the new Reclaimer Trilogy was even announced.  Many longtime fans were dubious about the infant developer’s ability to carry on the legacy and retain the high quality of classic Halo titles.  Others have expressed their unyielding faith in 343 for years.  So where does this new title fall?  Is it the masterpiece of game design that we all hoped for, or the lackluster shell of what it could have been?

Halo 4 Campaign Analysis – segment written by Eileen Murphy

After four years stranded in a cryopod in the severed aft section of the Dawn, Master Chief is awakened by Cortana to face a circling armada of Covenant warships.  He doesn’t know why they’re there, or where exactly their years of drifting in space have led them, but he is, as always, ready to take the fight to the Covenant.  A brief battle aboard (and outside) the wrecked vessel ends in disaster as the frigate and the nearby Covenant ships are pulled inside a Forerunner shield world, called Requiem.

The Chief and Cortana start off alone, fighting for their survival.  For Cortana, this also means getting back to Earth to locate her creator, Dr. Halsey, who she believes will be able to save her from her rapidly proceeding deterioration into rampancy, essentially every AI’s inevitable death sentence.  This plot, despite its potential and much greater feasibility than the events to follow, falls off immediately as the pair encounters friendly forces aboard the UNSC Infinity, which has also been drawn into the planet by an intense artificial gravity well.

Although the term “friendly forces” is a bit misapplied here.

 

The Chief soon meets up with the Infinity’s first officer, Commander Lasky, and a small contingent of UNSC troops, including the newest generation of supersoldiers, the Spartan IVs.  Their commander immediately delivers a stinging quip to the Chief with the cliché line, “I thought you’d be taller.”  Here is where the difficulty of drawing the Chief into a new storyline really begins to show; the line is a harsh reminder that the legendary hero, savior of humanity multiple times over, is now considered little more than an outdated piece of equipment.  Not exactly a fun role, and certainly not befitting of such an iconic character.

To add insult to injury, the AI characters are also incredibly unhelpful.  Perhaps even more so than in previous games.  In certain areas, you will likely be run over by AI-driven Warthogs at least as often as you are by Covenant Ghosts.

The Covenant have, by this time, allied themselves to the Forerunner forces on Requiem.  We learn that “Rest” is an appropriate name for the place, as it is the resting place of the Didact.  This still-living Forerunner seeks revenge on all of humanity for his eons of imprisonment, which leads him to take on the role of the primary antagonist in the story.  The Chief accidentally releases the Didact soon after his first encounter with his army of Promethean AI soldiers, allowing him to become a direct threat to Earth.

The idea of the Chief and Cortana returning to Earth is completely abandoned so that the two can essentially run errands for the crew of Infinity.  Most of the missions involve a lot of button pushing or driving off Covenant so that they can blow things up for reasons that are almost always completely unclear.  The poor plot is even further degraded by the lacking design of the environments.  In complete contrast to the typical Halo game, this one has mostly wide open battlegrounds with little to no cover or strategic opportunity.  A few small areas are set up with the intention of maintaining a defensive position, only to have this feature rendered invalid by the fact that the main enemies, the Promethean Knights, can disappear from a spot and teleport directly behind the player, usually taking out his shields with a melee at the same time.

There are a few more qualities that detract from the campaign experience.  Checkpoints are scarce and sporadic, often falling between areas or even in the middle of firefights, but rarely when you actually need them.  You will probably be a little impatient after your third or fourth time replaying the same large battle in its entirety because you died two areas down the road when you ran out of ammo (which happens all too often).  The Knights can be pretty overpowered if they spawn some Watchers, shields, or turrets, but the overall spectrum of difficulty for the Promethean group is rather disappointing.  Their allies are more diverse.  Though they look significantly different, the behaviors of the Covenant enemies are exactly as they were in Reach.  With one small exception:  the tagline for Halo 4 should have been “All Suicide Grunts, All the Time!”

The graphics in this game are a great improvement over previous installations, with extensive use of motion capture and modern animation and design capabilities.  The environments are detailed, colorful, and stunning (so much so that you may need some sunglasses if you want to avoid retinal damage).  Many of the character and weapon designs are vastly different from their older counterparts, showing how much 343 wanted to put their own look on the game.  The music is more subtle than in previous games.  There are few tracks that are particularly notable, but overall the music is nicely done.  The sound effects, however, leave much to be desired.

The cast of characters is deeply divided, with half being quite likable and the other half being idiotic, irrational, or just plain asses.  The dynamic between Chief and Cortana is still there, but immediately takes a backseat to the mundane, overly dramatic rantings of characters like Captain Del Rio and the Didact.  The few times their friendship is brought into the spotlight, it is usually crammed into a random lull in the game, such as when Chief is lounging around on the deck of the Mammoth.  The story is brief and, though some of the ideas are interesting, very poorly executed.  This is a campaign that could have had a lot of potential but was instead stuffed full of clichés, ridiculous twists, and shallow action movie style explosions.

The Good:

+Beautifully detailed graphics
+Some great characters
+Fun gameplay (minus some annoying qualities)

The Bad:
-Poorly articulated storyline
-AI’s need some work
-Too many explosions and extremely bright lights
-Sound effects
-Enemy behavior is often annoying or directly recycled
-Little opportunity for strategic play

2.5 out of 5 star rating

2.5 out of 5 stars (Campaign) 

Halo 4 Multiplayer Exposed – segment written by Tom T

Many are calling Halo 4 the best Halo, a “masterpiece,” the epitome of Xbox gaming.  It is none of these things.  The multiplayer portion (the focus here) is merely mediocre.  In this review I will attempt to explain the reasons why these misconceptions are made, and expose the unpleasant reality of Halo 4.

Firstly, it is worth noting the fundamental distinction between Halo 4 and its predecessor, Halo Reach: The core experience of Halo 4 is consistent.  Whereas in Reach inconsistencies, in the form of weapon bloom, led players to blame the game rather than aspire to improve, in Halo 4 players are treated to consistent combat exchanges.  The most apt series comparison is that of Halo 2, with its fast movement, and ease of aiming.  The result, with a powerful selection of customisable spawning weapons/loadouts (far better than the pitiful SMG from days of old), is a game in which the individual player is a force to be reckoned with.

Theoretically Halo 4 could have rediscovered, arguably, one of the best first person shooter recipes.  A higher aiming skill gap (see: Halo 3) not only reduces the frequency of memorable feats, it is inconsistent, as players frequently have off-days.  Halo 2, a game dominated so convincingly by team Final Boss for several years, did not have that problem.  Strategy took precedence and is much more consistent than aiming competency.  Sadly, this is the point at which Halo 4 breaks down.  Where Halo 2 had strategy, Halo 4 is severely lacking.

Halo 4, beyond the core, is mindless.  It has rectified some of Reach’s most fundamental flaws in turning off players (for one the aforementioned bloom, for another the toning down of Armour Abilities like the jetpack), but has replaced them with a more subtle, less individual, and thus less obviously damaging overall gameplay inconsistency.  Simply put, the game is a complete mess.

The reasons for this originate from the extensive changes made to the default experience.  In spite of many maps being symmetrical, players can spawn anywhere around the map (dynamic spawning).  Consequently there is little reason for map control, as the centre becomes a kill box in which those that advance are at the mercy of foes spawning from any angle around the map’s periphery.  There are also few weapons dotted about, with most power weapons reserved for care packages, or ‘ordnance drops’, rather than rewarded for coordinated pushes. These power weapons are frequently immensely overpowered.  Some, like the Incendiary Cannon, with its amazing ability to nuke the bloody hell out of everything, put even the Covenant’s glassing of the planet Reach to shame.  To make matters even worse these seem to be given out not unlike the blue shell and lightning in Mario Kart, with the best weapons and bonuses (including speed and damage boosts) more likely to be offered to players fairing worse in the game.

But none of these things matter.  Halo 4 is the best game of all time.  I mean, do you remember that one time I got an overshield drop, ran into the enemy base, and got a triple kill?  Or when I was in the Mantis (yes, Halo has mechs now), spawn killing noobs, only for them to leave and have others take their place (yes, Halo has join in progress now)?  Or, how about that one time I managed to get damage boost with the SAW and wiped out everyone!

There is a pattern here, or rather a phenomenon of selective recall.  There is no real incentive to win at present, nor is game balancing really a concern.  All one really focuses upon is their individual experience, rather than the overall course of the game.  The game itself is set up to ensure the individual inconsistently experiences undeserved but rewarding triumph.  This has been achieved by leaving the core intact, but employing other tricks to level the playing field.  Ordnance is the most obvious example of this and has been covered in detail, but the problem pervades the entire experience.  In FFA the leading player has a waypoint over their head, and an increasing bounty, the better they are doing; and in slayer spawning is instant, so players need not waste time digesting any bull that has befallen them – an additional consequence being that there are no small arena maps; all the maps must be huge, to act as a spawn buffer.  It is akin to gambling, where payout, irrespective of prior losses, dominates the conscious (here is an excellent video for those more interested in the Psychological specifics).

Halo 4, for lack of a better term, is a water-cooler game.  In some ways Halo always has been (theatre mode, added in Halo 3, was revolutionary for this very reason), but now the concept been taken too far, to the detriment of other aspects.  Halo 4 will most likely fare better than Reach, as the individual will be blissfully absorbed in their ability to kick ass, and in the Skinner box economy system.  The game is a testament to the unfortunate power of psychology in gaming and the self-centred nature of people in general.  Some, however, will gradually discover that the game itself is unfulfilling.  This is the problem with cheap thrills; they do not tend to last very long.

I hope some have already woken up, over the course of reading this review.  You might now see how sad it is that the once treasured multiplayer announcer, Jeff Steitzer, is incessantly geared towards making the player feel good, and feel sickened when randomly receiving Spartan points for being shot at, ‘Distraction!’  The weekly released cooperative content, ‘Spartan Ops’, also thus far continues the campaign trend, with its uninspired missions.  This, along with infinite lives and a lack of competitive scoring, makes it a poor replacement to the once fan-favourite Firefight.

It is very clear, upon taking a step back, that the game is far from being the best in the series, even if many people have been superficially convinced.  It is disappointing Halo has fallen so far from its origins, and that so many comparisons can now be made with other conventional shooters, which derive their success not from actual merit but from exploiting the psychological pitfalls of the playerbase.

Fortunately some redemption is possible.  Halo Reach was sadly squandered, by a cumbersome transition between Bungie and 343.  This same squandering cannot be allowed to happen with Halo 4.  The game has some potential and if it is to be realised the community must work to cut away the crap (using the forge and custom options) and 343 need provide significant support.  A ranked system is already in the works and I very much hope the situation has greatly improved by the time it is deployed.

The Good:

+ Consistent core experience
+ Much improved pace of gameplay

The Bad:

- Psychologically exploitative/over-reliance on tricks and game economy
- Moved away from gametypes that have been refined over a decade
- Dynamic spawns
- Lack of small maps
- Managed to ruin Jeff Steitzer

3 out of 5 star rating

3 out of 5 stars (Multiplayer)

3 out of 5 star rating3 out of 5 stars (Overall)