“Wake up, sleepyhead. It’s time to go kill a bunch of Covenant.”
John’s fine with this. He might have been in cryostasis for four years but a ruck with a bunch of short things with silly voices and tall things with weird sideways mouths is always worth getting out of bed for. The setup is classic Halo – wake up the big guy, run him through a brief refresher course of what his buttons do and send him off to fight loads of naughty aliens – and that’s fine with us. Because in the Halo universe, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
So while all the new features, environments and weapons make this the most radical departure from the usual template since Halo Wars, 343 has nailed the format so well that it feels like classic Halo through and through. The weight and feel perfectly reflect the fact that you’re behind the visor of a ton of green metal, relatively sluggish movement a breath of fresh air in a genre so often about sprinting around maps with the trigger held down. It’s a far more considered shooter than its peers, precision and planning rewarded far more than in other shooters – the closest real comparison (when playing on Heroic or higher, at least) is probably Battlefield, though it’d be slightly off to describe something so steeped in sci-fi nonsense as ‘realistic’. Still, there are parallels there and that it manages to make the unbelievable believable is easily one of Halo’s greatest strengths.
Rather than increasingly large enemies with arbitrarily rising HP counts, Halo’s firefights escalate incredibly organically. Each enemy has a weakness to exploit if you’ve got the right gear and a role to play in their opposition of the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant – taking them out in the right way and in the right order is absolutely crucial if you even want to put a dent in Legendary mode. This isn’t exactly new in the world of Halo, though the paradigm shift when the Covenant are joined by the new Promethean adversaries certainly is.
You might have mastered the various bullet-based methods of dealing with shielded Jackals and legions of Grunts but none of that will prepare you for the Promethean forces. Swarms of Crawlers rush you in a way that only the Flood have come close to in Halos of old; Knights are super-tough digital insect warrior things that have an annoying habit of teleporting to safety to recover; Watchers are frustrating sky bastards that demand your attention, their ability to shield and revive allies giving them priority target status. As with the Covenant, Halo’s new enemies impress not in their variety so much as their interaction with one another, these three main unit types operating as one terrifying combat unit in every encounter. Crawler rushes cause panic while Watchers flit about doing their nuisance bit and Knights sit back with their devastating arsenals, attempting to pick you off while you deal with the sheer numbers of lesser foes. It’s both amazing and terrifying, and dealing with several Knights on Legendary may well be the toughest challenge Master Chief has ever faced.
That arsenal we just mentioned deserves closer inspection, actually. Just as the new enemies demand new approaches, their all-new bullet-flinging toys also change the way you play. The Suppressor is a close-range SMG that seems useless at first but proves useful on tougher enemies purely for its large clip and insane rate of fire. The Lightrifle, meanwhile, is the Promethean equivalent of the UNSC’s Battle Rifle, only the three-shot bursts become powerful single sniper shots when scoped. Then there’s the Boltshot, an odd chargeable pistol that doesn’t seem nearly as effective in Spartan hands as Promethean, where its fully-charged beam is a one-shot kill on Legendary. The high-end gear is equally impressive, the Binary Rifle an alternative to the regular Sniper or Beam rifles and the rocket launcher equivalent is way better than the regular missile-tosser and the Fuel Rod Cannon – its projectiles are slower but secondary explosions give it a huge area of effect, making it feel like something that has fallen straight out of Borderlands’ end-game.
The need to introduce these new friends and toys properly, though, means that Halo 4 runs at a slightly slower pace to previous games in the series. That’s no bad thing, each of the eight chapters offering a totally different kind of playground to the last – it’s dense jungles one moment and classic Halo neon corridors the next, though it’s worth noting that the open expanses of earlier games have largely been swapped out for more structured battlegrounds where verticality and dense floor plans dictate the terms of battle. The campaign seems to be dividing opinion somewhat and while the self-contained set-up for a new trilogy does just about stand on its own, it’s undeniably a more involving tale if you’ve explored Halo’s expanded universe. Cortana’s decent into rampancy is far more affecting than it has any right to be as well, the emotional angle offered by the torment of the workaholic Spartan’s only real friend something never before seen in the series and an unexpected delight.
343 does seem to have a different idea to Bungie on what difficulty should mean and while the four classic skill settings are present and correct, the bar feels like it has been raised somewhat. Normal, while still not overly challenging, feels closer to old-school Heroic, while nu-Heroic presents firefights that rival Legendary encounters of old. The top-end difficulty actually isn’t that much tougher than Heroic now, although the insane damage you take from even the weakest of weapons will see even the slightest lapse in concentration boomerang you back to the last checkpoint.
Which, actually, is probably the biggest problem with Halo 4 – the checkpointing is borderline broken. Sometimes these life-saving auto-saves happen in the eye of the storm while other times, you can be fighting for ages without that relieving message popping up on the left-hand side of the screen. Even multiple runs of the same area can trigger checkpoints differently, almost at random. And while you’ll curse and lob controllers when a stray grenade sends you back to the beginning of an epic firefight, you’ll properly Hulk out when the Checkpoint Fairy sees fit to save your game when you’re out of ammo and several Knights are knocking on the door.
Flaky checkpointing aside, the campaign – which runs about eight to ten hours, depending on how much you take in the sights – is packed with standout moments and typically brilliant Halo warzones. Stomping around in the hideously overpowered Mantis mech, laying waste to a Covenant strike team in zero gravity, careering towards the gripping finale in 343’s take on the classic Star Wars Death Star trench run… each chapter has at least a couple of moments that will make you want to go back and play them again (probably with friends – co-op does away with some of the checkpoint stress and is obviously the best way to fully enjoy the game).
But the brevity of the campaign is borderline irrelevant when Halo 4’s pair of discs contain so much additional content. Spartan Ops offers bite-sized Halo thrills, Forge lets you get more creative than ever with map editing and competitive multiplayer is as brilliant and addictive as it has always been – simply put, the Infinity menu couldn’t be more accurately named. It’s a frankly obscene amount of content for one game to offer, ongoing free Spartan Ops episodes in particular spitting in the face of the cash-hungry DLC dripfeeds that stink up so many modern releases.
We’d even go as far as to suggest that the iconic green power suit fits 343 even better than it fitted Bungie. This is a team that clearly understands the strengths, merits and potential of the franchise, delivering a product that wears the Halo name proudly and breathes new life into a series that was just one or two by-numbers sequels away from losing us entirely. Easily one of the 360’s finest shooters, then, and we genuinely can’t wait to see what 343 does next.
Halo 4 review
“Wake up, sleepyhead. It’s time to go kill a bunch of Covenant.”