Halo 4 is so stuffed with features that even jaded series fans will latch onto something and enjoy it. While its main story is disappointing in the context of previous strong campaigns in the series, the first instalment from new franchise stewards 343 Industries has a wonderful cross-section of different experiences outside of that – the fourth Halo excels in refreshing and reconfiguring first-person shooter ideas we thought we were bored with.
Tackling the story part first, Halo 4’s campaign is largely derivative of previous entries, referencing their design in both subtle and blatant ways. While it’s initially teased that the fundamentals of the series have been radically reinterpreted, with a brand new enemy in the Prometheans (vaguely confusing if you went to see Prometheus this year – there are even some parallels in the story), who operate alongside traditional comical Halo enemies The Covenant, this is still very much a well-worn template. Yes, battles are slightly different in their pacing, and the Prometheans come packaged with their own cool sets of weaponry, but make no mistake: such features and slightly tweaked combat don’t exactly count as an evolution of this formula.
That next step does come in the form of Halo 4’s visual presentation, however, which has stepped up a massive way since 2010’s Halo: Reach, with certain levels maintaining the look of a matte painting in the rich way they’re drawn out. 343 tries to emulate the original Halo’s ability to induce wonder in the player through environmental design, creating sprawling worlds with remarkably intelligent visual touches that imply a history of the setting around you; some levels are better at this than others, but in all cases we respect the effort and detail that’s clearly been invested in the new shades of this universe. Likewise, though the production values of the cutscenes try to mask an all-round dull tale of Master Chief’s pseudo-romance with Cortana (the little blue lady AI in his head who’s deteriorating in this story) the conviction in which it’s relayed is nonetheless impressive.
The fourth game’s campaign lacks set pieces of terrific pace or scale, with nothing here comparing to the bafflingly sized climactic battles of Halo or the haunting city-glassing and space dogfights from Reach. The vehicle sections are never as strong, and for us they’re one of Halo’s main draws, while many of the mid-campaign levels devolve into structure-less slogs.
When your six hours with the campaign are over, though, a fuller experience kicks in. Halo 4’s multiplayer is as able as previous entries in creating gigantic sci-fi conflicts with a myriad of variables. Maps are crammed with vehicles, leading to ludicrous and funny encounters where jeeps are blown up in mid-air by giant tanks, while enemies hopping onto gravity lifts are picked off by a canny bastard with a sniper rifle in the distance. With an excellent learning curve and inviting progression system, there’s hundreds of hours to pour into the many well-constructed modes here.
Then there’s Spartan Ops, Halo’s TV show-style deluge of extra single and co-operative missions, backed up by story cut-scenes. The actual layout of these levels lack flair, as if they were knocked together by fans in a level creator tool, but team up with some pals and it equals an admirably aggressive burst of Halo-lite skirmish. They have the clear potential to improve as the schedule for each new episode rolls around, but for now they add yet another layer of value to Halo 4’s volley of stuff to do.
That’s why Halo remains essential, really. The single-player mode might be inconsistent and nearing the ceiling of its creative potential – in this form, anyway – but Halo’s taking storytelling to other sectors with Spartan Ops, and multiplayer is tailored for a more diverse range of players than we’re used to. It’s a refined piece of work, and shooting stuff in Halo is still loads of fun compared to any of its contemporary. 343 Industries has demonstrated that Halo is still absolutely relevant, and that innovation can run convincingly alongside the familiar.