• Halo 4 Review - Microsoft Xbox360

    Halo 4 marks the return of Master Chief to the popular first person shooter franchise, albeit for the first time not developed by Bungie. Sporting all the Halo hallmarks this iteration begins an exciting and fresh revitalisation of the series, with some bold design decisions and a clear commitment to the core gameplay that has been carried off with stunning execution.

    Halo 4 screenshot.
    Yes the assault rifle is back and it's even a viable weapon this time around!
    It's clear that Halo 4's designers have sat down and spent a lot of time analysing what has and hasn't worked in earlier titles. They haven't rested on the strength of the brand or the size of the advertising campaign, instead listening to both the dedicated fans and those who fell out of step with the games as time went on. In the process they have managed to stamp their own mark on the brand that still stays true to the core tenets that drove the original. Firstly they have culled all the elements that divided the playerbase over the years. Some hated the Brute enemies, who were far more basic than the Elites that they replaced and amounted to little more than large bullet sponges, so they are gone. The Flood, who were more of a storytelling device than an engaging foe, are also cut. Both of these removals are done whilst still maintaining a convincing story, but its nonetheless a bold move and one based on a simple reasoning – these elements had no strongly defined role in the combat model and diluted the tactical challenge afforded to the player.

    As a result the Covenant faction has been whittled down to its core archetypes, albeit with enough new tweaks to vary things up a notch. The diminutive Grunts have been given more armour, making them surprisingly strong when shot anywhere other than the head, and the Jackals have also had a slight boost in survivability. The result is that the Covenant now provide more of a unified threat, with the smaller enemies, while not as big a challenge as the larger, faster Elites, playing a much more significant role in the proceedings. Through all these tweaks the alien forces are that bit more aggressive and engaging, making for the purest and most accomplished implementation of these adversaries that we've seen to date. Combat has returned to the careful balance that made Combat Evolved such a hit in the first place, with the player rarely able to hang back and clear the level out through exploiting enemy AI weaknesses, whilst still mandating a degree of strategy and planning.

    Halo 4 screenshot.
    Grunts pose more of a threat with additional armour.
    This facet of fighting against a cohesive, diverse force, who react dynamically to the player's actions was what always made the Halo games so replayable and fresh. In all the intervening years, barring some interesting adjustments in the spin-off ODST, Bungie failed to really bring anything new to the mix, or move the concept forward in any meaningful way. With Halo 4, however, we have the first completely new faction to be added to the franchise, complete with a brand new set of weapons and technology to play with. The Prometheans look great, constructed from reflective plates of metal that transform and rearrange themselves into new shapes while emitting bright shafts of light. More impressive though is how they manage to epitomise the roles and concepts that spawned the Covenant in the first place, without coming off as derivative.

    Like the Covenant they are made up of a small number of different enemy types, each with fundamentally different behaviours and attack patterns. If anything their range of versatility is actually greater, able to use the walls and the sky to a much larger extent. With more of a focus on fast attack roles they can extend their reach aggressively and close the gap to the player that much faster. The Crawlers can attack from any direction, able to provide both supporting fire from a distance and get up close and personal with large, leaping bounds. Meanwhile the Knights not only pack a heavy punch but can teleport away from you, requiring a concerted push to finish off. Additionally they can deploy aerial Watchers that perform a support driven function, providing shielding and even resurrection capabilities to their allies. In the case of both the Crawlers and the Knights headshots have become an even more important form of dealing extra damage, while the Watchers are supremely nimble and can rotate themselves to present an incredibly thin profile to the player. These classes work in concert to very high degree and each feels truly different to the Covenant archetypes that came before.

    Halo 4 screenshot.
    Don't let their warm, cuddly exteriors fool you, the Prometheans can pack quite a punch.
    The result is combat that feels both new and suitably challenging, requiring a complete battlefield awareness and judicious application of mobility and forward momentum. The fact that Halo 4 provides not just one but two sets of intricate, involved AI really is an accomplishment. It's these tight, refined models of interaction that make Halo stand out from the crowd. Once you mix in the large, expansive environments, which are full of cover and finishing details and provide both a well designed, tailored combat locale and a large sense of scale, you get a game that offers the player so much choice in terms of how to approach the combat. Playing the Halo 4 campaign is not just a case of figuring out the path the level designers had in mind when setting these locations up, there’s far more scope for experimentation in how you fight. The sheer variety of weaponry now available, with the Promethean firearms providing a fusion of previous weapon styles and a grenade type that works in synergy with the rest of your arsenal, further enhances this aspect.

    If there's one fly in the ointment of this tightly knit shooting experience it's the fact that the creators have struggled with balancing a couple of the vehicle based levels. One involves the piloting of a Pelican dropship while the other sees you pondering towards an enemy installation on the back of a large walker. In both instances, play devolves into something of a shooting gallery that breaks the pacing and refined structure of the more small scale encounters. Fortunately these moments do only make up a small portion of the game's duration so the impact is limited.

    Halo 4 screenshot.
    It's nice to see a modern game that still features complex brushwork.
    When it comes to the storytelling Halo 4 doesn't disappoint. Supporting characters are well fleshed out this time around, enriching the isolation felt by Master Chief in a world that has kept moving since his sacrifice at the end of Halo 3. But the real stars here are the Chief and his AI companion Cortana. We've had more human takes on Cortana before, notably after her recovery from the alien Hivemind, but none come close to the nuanced scripting and delivery here. It's still a full bore action title at its heart but there are moments of tenderness that go beyond mere mission based motivations and result in a very personal tale this time around. This is further complemented by an important side-story in the form of the Spartan Ops spinoff mode. Despite certain gameplay balancing issues found in this portion of the game it has resulted in one of the finest CG animations out there that enriches the personalisation of the side characters and features one particularly satisfying cameo.

    One of the most striking visual elements that will hit you straight out of the gate is the terrific lighting on display, with all manner of post processing effects causing light to bleed out across the screen. This is a game full of neon colours with light sources sprinkled liberally throughout the levels and enemy designs covered in them. They really bring the world to life and act as pleasingly geometric accents to the hard lines and edging of the huge Forerunner constructs scattered throughout the world, which are now on an even larger scale than before. The intricacy of these shapes and layers are some of the best brushwork we've seen this generation. The frame rate is rock solid throughout and the clean, smooth feeling provides a very beautiful sci-fi setting that excels on an aesthetic level.

    Halo 4 screenshot.
    Boom! Kneeshot!
    The entire campaign can be played through with up to three friends in both online and offline co-operative play, and thanks to the scale of the locations, this has actually remained fairly balanced. Due to the previously mentioned level of detailing, the levels have avoided the problem that plagued Halo 3 of too many areas that felt devoid and barren for the lone solo player. In addition to the main storyline there are a collection of side story missions available called Spartan Ops. In an odd design choice the difficulty for these when playing with people not on your friends list is locked to a relatively easy setting and respawns are plentiful, taking away any challenge and turning them into bland races for points. The end result is something that feels rather hollow and out of place with the rest of the package. With levels enabled sequentially in the weeks following Halo 4's release these were an interesting experiment, but fail to live up to the experience provided by the more thoroughly put together story mode and don't really work as a whole.

    The competitive multiplayer still stands strong, however, with play taking on a more grounded, aiming-orientated focus than before. Guns deal more damage, jumping has been reduced and overall everything has been brought a little more in line with the more immediate, fast paced nature of the modern marketplace. There's still a wide range of game types available, ensuring that there's enough diversity to cater to most appetites and the levels have been constructed with a high degree of cover placement and route options. In particular the SWAT playlist is the best we've seen yet with the combination of both single-shot DMR and tight burst Battle Rifle options providing for a truly frantic and nail-biting experience. The auto-aim that was so dominant in previous releases has been heavily toned down and thanks to SWAT and Slayer Pro modes it is possible to play in a competitive environment where it has no real effect on success. There is an online unlockable progression that affects what weapons and options you have available but it only affects some playsets and is still pretty level across the board, so hasn't unbalanced the game in favour of those at a higher level, which is to be commended. Overall the multiplayer provides a solid experience that modernises some Halo staples without sacrificing its identity in the process. The only negative point is that, while all are strong designs and feature the same kind of graphical fidelity as found elsewhere, the number of maps present is a little on the low side, standing at ten on release.

    Halo 4 screenshot.
    The Promethean weaponry has some awesome animations.
    Halo 4 is the complete package, one that will reward both the series fans and newcomers alike. It delivers on both the solo and multiplayer fronts. It has a compelling story, a combat system polished to perfection, rich character designs and architecture, a truly artistic lighting model and a superb score. There's the odd rough spot, primarily in the form of Spartan Ops balancing and matchmaking peculiarities, but these are few and far between. The Halo franchise looks not only to have had a safe landing at 343 Industries but that it is coming into its strongest period yet, if Halo 4 is to be any indication of the future.
    Halo 4 boxshot.
    Players:
    1-16
    Genre:
    First person shooter
    Developer:
    343 Industries
    Publisher:
    Microsoft Studios
    Platform:
    Xbox 360
    Version:
    European
    Pros:
    - It's so pretty, oh so pretty...
    - Top notch AI.
    - Involving, emotive storyline.
    - Tightly focused multiplayer.
    Cons:
    - Spartan Ops sketchy balance.
    - Could be more multiplayer maps.
    Score: 8/10

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    dyer60

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