We last saw the big MC going into hibernation after effectively eliminating the galactic threat, The Flood and sending the Covenant reeling to the stars. Since then we've had two prequels and a side story set in the same universe adding more to the fiction and a little bit to gameplay. After a few years in the deep freeze, can 343 Industries defrost Master Chief and pick up to the monumental weight that Bungie left behind with their take on "Halo"?
In a word- yes. 343 Industries certainly made a straight-up Halo-ass Halo game, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Picking up where Bungie left off would make any seasoned developer more than a little hot under the collar, so to distill the soul of the franchise and add a few tweaks to make the latest entry fresh is impressive by itself. Another word could be "safe", story aside the formula Bungie created way back for the first "Halo" is largely unchanged. Still, fans should be more than pleased for the next numbered installment to the beloved series.
Mechanically, not much has changed. Anyone familiar to the past games will bunny-hop right into their Halo boots. You have a vast arsenal of UNSC and Covenant weapons along with all new Promethean guns that rightly find a place in your combat tool belt. There are a few improvement to the standard human/alien guns though the game tends to lean towards showcasing the newest and shiniest guns anyway and the newest boom sticks quickly found a place in my personal favs. The Promethean Scattershot and Suppressor were especially my go-to choices for bad guy blasting. But the rub is that, functionally, these are the exact same weapon types you've used before. I understand there's an hierarchy of weapons but it would've made more impact if these new alien guns played entirely different from their "traditional" counterparts. In the end, they work well enough for the intended purposes and the learning curve is shallow-enough that the first time you pick one up you'll already be a master.
Besides the new toys, the game largely sticks to Bungie's finely-tuned rock, paper, shotgun gameplay. The Chief soon comes up against the usual array of baddies, including Grunts, Elites, Jackels, and Hunters. It's a little disappointing to have so many of the same enemies that you've been blasting apart since the first game. Thankfully, the Promethean foes add a new element to fighting providing an aggressive style that'll keep you on your toes. These new enemies are markedly more mobile than the Covenant with quick canine Crawlers that chase you around taking pot shots, flying Watchers that can buff and resurrect fallen allies, and finally Knight classes that employ powerful weapons and can teleport. It's especially entertaining when Covenant forces meet up with Promethean to make a kind of three-way battle-royale.
Iterating on the classic gameplay, Master Chief also gets a leg up with the advancements adding new armor abilities to augment his already fearsome combat skills. Returning are the invisibility, hologram, and jetpack upgrades along with a quick movement burst, energy shield, and a x-ray-like Promethean vision ability to round out the set. I love to get up close and personal and leaned on the hologram for a good chunk of the campaign but truthfully, the armor abilities don't feel as universally needed as some of the more memorable sections in 2010's "Reach". It's not that they're totally useless, just that you sometimes forget you even have them at all. Additionally, 343 decided to ditch the sprint upgrade and make it a default function get players going sans any nearby vehicle.
Speaking of vehicles, the garage is full of familar warthogs, tanks, ghosts, and more. The newest addition is a bipedal mech, the Mantis, with rockets and turrets that, on paper, sounds like a blast. In practise, the mech is little more than a slower version of Master Chief, and only plays in a couple of limited shooting gallery sections. With m ore development it could have been awesome but ultimately, it's not needed.
Apart from the macro view of combat, when you focus on the finer parts, Halo 4 still stands tall against the wave of other "realistic" shooters. Obviously, this isn't a military sim but it's not quite "Doom clone", either. Halo tends to work best in arena style combat and the sections that open up and allow the full breadth of Master Chief's abilities are when the game shines. Weirdly, this seems like one of the more linear Halo's I've played, but that's more of a product of modern shooters. I recently played "Halo: CE Anniversary" and some of the opening missions are so open that you can easily get lost. Having a more or less straighter path tightens up the scripting and keeps the game moving.
I can't go much into the story but 343 Industries plays it pretty close to the vest for the most part, offering a few reveals early in the game that will surely play out over the larger scope. Word has it that is the beginning of the next big trilogy so literally anything could happen in the future. At other times, the story beats dive a little too deep into the fiction with characters that might appear totally from left field even to veteran Halo fans. I've read a couple of the books and Halo 4 might need more than a few asterisks to catch the casual fan up to speed. At the end of the day, the story presents itself well enough if somewhat a bit heavy on the slash fiction side of things.
Adding to the campaign is Spartan Ops, a 4 player co-op that sort of merges Firefight with short bits of story that fills in a few gaps. Think of it like a side story to Master Cheif's exploits with a dash of multiplayer. Spartan ops takes place via the UNSC ship, Infinity, setting you up with fireteam Crimson. To really get the full effect of Master Chief and Cortana's story, you'll need to play each episode.
You'll get to create your own Spartan MK IV warrior and send him on mini missions set into episodes. Each week or so a new campaign will be added that you can play locally or online. You earn upgrades and ranks that's also tied to the competitive multiplayer so you can pimp out your super soldier with fresh new paint and gear as well as unlock combat modifiers, like more resistant shields or powerful ammunition. You'll also be able to set up different loadouts to strategize against the enemy.
These missions are about 15 minutes on average depending if you're playing on Easy or Legendary but if things get too tough, you have unlimited respawns to brute force your way. It's a fresh change of pace and due the relative brevity and variety of the missons, you'll be itching for new content as it's released. I'm presonally, hoping 343 adds more weapons and choices in the mix with DLC.
On the competitive side, Halo 4's multiplayer lovingly remains in tact with a few key changes. As with Spartan Ops, you'll be able to create a personalized Spartan warrior with upgrades locked behind ranks and earned with points. The meat is still running and gunning with sharpshooters and smart team tactics ruling over less cohesive teams. Fans of competitive modes should find a little something to love with a huge list of game types with Slayer and Team Slayer along with King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and more.
The biggest addition to classic MP is the ability to earn points to call in ordinance granting a selection of random items like rocket launcher, overshields, etc. Don't worry too much as nothing you call will completely tip the scales but it's nice to have an other option from picking up random weapons on the field.
The complete package of Halo has never looked better, and the artists should really be commended on the exceptonally well done cutseens. It makes me a little sad as Halo 4 might have been a perfect launch title to the Microsoft's next big thing as here 343 is pushing the 360 to the max. The audio pumps with a driving synth sound that goes great with the new enemies and world, especially the TRON-esque Promethean architecture. Booming explosions accompany pinging bullets. From start to finish Halo 4 provides a solid visual and audio treat that fans will love. Spartan Ops is the next best addition to keep things fresh, multiplayer still holds up, and even with a somewhat lacking story, the rest of the campaign makes a nice bookend from 3 into launching a whole new era with 343 taking the helm.
[A copy of Halo 4 was provided my Microsoft. Played single player campaign on Normal to completion. Halo 4 will be available on November 6th for Xbox 360]