We dip our toes back into the console world to look at Master Chief's return.
By Jason Weston on November 5, 2012 at 6:39 pm
After five-year hiatus, the Master Chief has returned. Halo 4 is here and it marks a bold new direction for the game on a couple of levels. Firstly — for the three of you who don’t know — this is the first game in the series not to be developed by Bungie. This is an enormous deal: Bungie’s superb body of work would have to be one of the hardest acts to follow in video game history, so the pressure for 343 Industries is definitely on.
Secondly, Halo 4 sees mankind battling an entirely new race in a radical step sideways for the narrative. This is also a big deal, with the newcomers needing not only to fit into the established pantheon, but to bring enough new content to the table to justify their inclusion. This means, new tactics, weapons and architecture to help the new race stand out in its own right. Thankfully this is a hurdle the game clears effortlessly.
Finally, with the resolution of hostilities in Halo Reach, there isn’t really a reason for a new game — so an entirely new narrative is needed. I was very pleased to discover that Halo 4 delivers a story that surpasses all of its predecessors when it comes to narrative depth and the emotional punch it packs. With plenty of new developments popping up on the Master Chief’s radar, you’ll find that you are given plenty of reason to care about his predicaments.
Mankind is yet again facing what could be an extinction-level invasion from a malevolent alien force, and these new kids on the block are at least as tough as The Covenant and just as interesting, too. The Prometheans are part biological and part ‘energy entities’, with a variety of fearsome abilities and most significantly of all a seriously badass leader. That’s right: Halo finally has a decent villain for you to revile. Far from being named after a wayward AFL player, the Didact is a super powerful energy being with utter disdain for the “underdeveloped” race that is mankind. This hateful individual keeps cropping up during the game time and time again, and you will really love to loathe him.
However, when it comes to narrative intrigue Halo 4 has more than just one mere main plot thread. The game also explores issues associated with the Master Chief’s origins and how he, as a prototype, is not necessarily the altruistic saviour of mankind we have been led to believe. On top of this the game also explores Chief’s relationship with Cortana, his personal hologram/computer aid. Her sanity, and indeed her future, are both called into question.
We won’t ruin the narrative for those of you who are yet to enjoy the journey, but having finished the campaign it is clear that the story in Halo 4 is the most fully developed and engrossing we have seen from the series to date. There are a couple of reasonable twists and memorable moments here and there, and to my surprise the game managed to even pull off a few poignant scenes too. While none of the narrative scales the dizzying heights of current favourite Spec Ops: The Line, Halo 4’s story really adds a lot to the game where in previous iterations the game’s tale was sometimes rather lame. Halo 4 has a big ending with far reaching consequences and littered with dramatic moments along the way. The interplay between Cortana and the Master Chief is particularly satisfying.
That said, a solid story is just window dressing without decent play mechanics to underpin it, and this is something Halo 4 has in spades. The game delivers what we like to call good, familar fun — it doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the Halo way of doing things, but plenty of polish has been applied nonetheless. There are some great set-piece battles with corridor crawling, long range snipe-fests and plenty of airborne and vehicular action including the new Broadsword space fighter you get to fly at one point — perhaps not the game’s strongest element, but it does add to the variety of the whole.
Similarly there are moments when you get to control Covenant vehicles or USMC tanks which are fun, but mainly a distraction from the main game. Indeed it is the footslogging combat which is best in Halo 4 and the new levels, coupled with the new enemy race (and their weapons which you get to pilfer) makes for a refreshing experience.
Halo 4 is varied, at times tough and always interesting — although sadly there is nothing new on the Covenant side of the fence but the Prometheans offer plenty of fresh intrigue. Some of the new units, like the Knight, pack a massive punch while also having sensational speed. On top of this the Knight also has a tricky teleport attack than can launch him from medium range to melee in milliseconds. Before you develop tactics to cope with this, a couple of Knights on a rampage can be a tricky prospect indeed! There are also weird flying Promethean units that have are capable of attacking on their own, but most importantly can shield Knights while they in turn engage you. These two can make a formidable pair.
As you’d expect with Halo there are heaps of weapons on offer and coming up with the right pair to hang on to is a real challenge. The Promethean guns are pretty good, too — they assemble themselves magnetically like something out of a Tron movie and have functions that are very similar to the standard Covenant and USMC fare.
I’m also particularly enjoying the rechargeable pickups. Some, like the hard shield and decoy hologram, are only marginally useful. On the other hand the much loved active camoflague and portable pod cannon are both rippers. The cannon is particularly useful when ammunition gets low, as you can charge and deploy it, saving your limited munitions for when you desperately need them.
Halo 4’s action is delightfully balanced. Ammunition is just limited enough to prevent you from being reckless and you will have to change guns to suit the needs of the moment. There are intense moments, where the only way to prevail is by launching into a berserk trigger happy frenzy and at other times you’ll have to be clinical. The snipers out there will be delighted as the Promethean scoped weapons are great fun.
Unfortunately, the ending is a little bit of a let-down — the final battles aren’t as hard as they should be, and the passage leading up the climax is perhaps a tad soft, while a heavily implied ‘TO BE CONTINUED’ spoils the impact of the finale. Nonetheless, Halo 4 is still hugely rewarding and really whets your appetite for the inevitable sequel. I particularly liked the message from 343 Studios at the end of the game which politely acknowledges their role as custodians of one of the most important shooters out there. I won’t spoil what is said, but it’s a lovely touch.
- Fast paced
- Great variety
- Strong story
- Clever architecture
- No new Covenant weapons or units
- Safe design may disappoint those who long for more innovation
- A slightly easy endgame