Still the big Chief.

You remember the first time you looked out at the horizon in Halo, the awe of its planetary abnormality rising vertically to the heavens? Remember tracing its outline upwards and around, just to confirm that this globe on which you had just crash-landed was actually a ring? Well that was eleven years ago. Halo set the benchmark for the shooter on the consoles, but since Master Chief slipped into cryogenic slumber in 2007’s Halo 3, combat has evolved again.

The modern FPS has consistently looked to Call of Duty for influence, as one juggernaut, generation and sub-culture have superseded the other. Developer 343 Industries – now in command after Bungie’s final outing in Reach –  understands what’s at stake: Halo 4 is a make-or-break move. The series’ future or fall depends on the success or failure of the license to take off again in this one title. Has the franchise earned the right to retain its rep as one of the chief shooters in video games today among the ranks of duty-bound rivals? Or has the license truly become obsolete?

Halo 4 picks up where the third game left off. Chief has been at peace in cryosleep for four years when he’s disturbed by another race bearing ill will towards Earth. The Prometheans are the latest threat to humanity’s home world and are led by a powerful Forerunner known as the Didact – your new antagonist… he’s a bit of a step up from the ‘Light Bulb’. Crashing onto yet another planet, Chief and Cortana need to make it off the world of Requiem and return to the UNSC. And not just to get caught up in another war.

Mortal Combat

Mortality is the theme of Halo 4’s story, which is by far the most personal and most compelling of any plot in the series yet. Cortana is degenerating, the AI slowly losing her artificial sanity as she nears a point of dementia called Rampancy. At the same time, we finally get a sense of these two long-time space-trekkers’ relationship. Near the beginning of the game, when Cortana breaks the news that she’s dying, the Chief shows the first real sign of fear we’ve ever seen from the strong-but-silent soldier. He desperately wants to save the gal he’s gallantly carried around with him in his head all these years. The moment’s enough to make you choke. Not even a military superhero and a computer can defy death, and how these characters come to grips with their mortality and have to rely on each other in a post-war period that no longer needs them, is the heart of this tale. They saved humanity; now they’re just trying to save themselves.

Much of why the game succeeds in this storytelling is that the conversation between constructs is no longer one-sided. Throughout the original Halo trilogy, the Master Chief was a ‘Man with No Name’, a Clint Eastwood protagonist whose total dialogue in three games clocks at about two or three minutes. Trust me, I timed it a few years back. And all of his occasional remarks – “I need a weapon” – were short on words and kept to cut-scenes. Chief never talked in-game. Needless to say, he wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but that’s exactly what made the Chief-Cortana dynamic so intriguing. One did the talking, the other the shooting.

Chief’s only got eyes for one gal.

This time around, Steve Downes has been given loads more lines, which provides for a different dynamic but one that’s just as effective. With both characters talking in-game, opposed to Jen Taylor’s typical ‘go here, do that’ technical spiel, you are able to connect them in a way that you previously couldn’t. Before, they were just two army assets, software using hardware to carry out military orders. But now, they give the sense of a passionate, albeit incredibly complicated, partnership. It’s all part of the direction that 343 has taken in making Halo 4 a more personal study of obsolete supermen.

Halo Can You Go

Every first-person shooter today is the direct descendant of Halo, as much as they are the descendants of DOOM or GoldenEye. While the latter brought the genre to the consoles, Bungie’s shooter was the one that cemented its conventions and perfected its control. No one believed a controller could come close to the precision of a computer mouse… but Halo came close. Lobbing grenades into groups of Grunts, whipping out your assault rifle to deal with the formidable Elite, bashing the fleeing stragglers with the butt end of your weapon… it was intuitive gun-play that made you, indeed, feel like a demon.

Halo 4 succeeds in living up to the power and so-called ’30 second fun’ of Halo’s innate combat, even more so than its other sequels. The most important point is that 343 has not sacrificed the franchise’s identity to cater to the COD culture. It would take only an inclusion of iron sights to lose the feel of the series, and without a doubt, there have definitely been adjustments influenced by shooters since Halo passed its prime – a sprint feature to cover distances quick (introduced in Reach) and a few scripted sequences – but these are all practical updates expected for 2012; this is still the future warfare, not the modern warfare, you remember.

One thing’s for sure: rustiness in this game is not forgiven. The difficulty across the board has been ramped up, so those veterans customary of steaming through ‘Heroic’ with general ease will find themselves sorely spanked. Enemies are smarter than ever, the AI merciless and coordinating. Covenant will take cover, advance when your shields are low, and leave you very little in the way of safe maneuverability.  The Prometheans, on the other hand, are your toughest foes yet, sometimes requiring several cover-and-shoot volleys before being brought down. All the same, the core of the gameplay’s fun — the ability to take out enemies in completely flexible ways and feel like the game had no plan for your destruction, that you were just improvising and took out twenty aliens like a pro — is strongly intact. You still feel like a demon, and the ’30 second’ philosophy has made no retreat.

Your foes are fearless. Most of the time…

Pins And Needlers

As an FPS, Halo was always hyped for its weapons. Jumpin’ in the way-back machine, I can still hear the awe-absorbed cheers at E3 2003 as Chief dual-wielded a pair of SMG’s for the first time. While holding two guns simultaneously has been downplayed since, a new alien species means a new set of ordnance. Promethean weapons reverberate the typical classes – assault rifle, pistol, sniper – and while there’s nothing that rivals the shock value of the bullet-hoses from ’03, another weapon is still another substantial bullet point for a new game in the series. Traditional weapons return, and they are all perfectly fine-tuned and balanced – the Needler is by far the most deadly its ever been.

The killer app for the Xbox, the original game undeniably gave Microsoft’s entry console some early legs. The whole theme behind the campaign of that new, obscure machine was power. The hardware would be as buff as a PC rig and outdo its established competitors with top of the line graphics and sound. The Xbox’s 2001 shooter lived up to the promise with vast, stunning worlds that frequently demanded a vehicle to cross. Breath-taking moments like that of staring at the ring that encircled you as you contemplated its geometry from your perspective atop a 500-foot gorge were the serene counter-weights to the muzzle flashes of the war that occupied it.

Halo 4 evokes those same feelings again. The naturalness of an artificial world will leave you standing speechless as you look out at the expanse of gorgeously rendered canyons and colossal battle stations. The graphics are simply unbelievable. For everyone let down by how Halo 3 looked in 2007, take some belated comfort in the fact that this is bar-none one of the best looking titles today.

Interestingly, more enticing than the beautiful environments are the characters’ facial expressions.

Interestingly, more enticing than the beautiful environments are the characters’ facial expressions. Again, as this is a more personal story, one about individuals over the macrocosm of an intergalactic war, there is an incredible attention to those individuals’ subtleties. Long forgotten as the purple blur of jagged edges, Cortana looks not only sharp, but emotive. She’s less the steadfast symbol of martial hardiness she used to be; she’s vulnerable, and you can see it in her eyes as she looks at her instrument-turned-friend.  Speaking of Chief, the augmented combatant has also undergone a bit of a face-lift – metaphorically speaking of course. As per tradition, his Mark VI helmet sports a re-design that, while bearing the same build, impresses with greater detail and re-invents Sierra-117 as a bad-ass.

The sound is on par with the graphics. If you placed a bet to find a greater sounding title than Halo 4, you might have your savings sundered. Production values, obviously, are off the charts and everything from the voices to the sound effects to the music is top-notch. As already noted, Downes and Taylor are the pillars holding the campaign together, their performances palpable with desperation. The guns wow at every burst. The first time you unload your assault rifle – which sounds as powerful as it did in the original Halo – you know the series has returned to form, confirmed by the click of its first reload. Chief feels heavy as he walks, his clunking footsteps accurately indicative of the walking tank that he is.

A new trilogy, a new developer, a new direction… should be no surprise that there’s a new musical score too. Fans furious not to arrive at a main menu accompanied by the hollow chants of monasterial monks, relax. The theme does make a cameo. But composer Marty O’Donnell is gone. In his place is the British-born Neil Davidge who proves himself a capable replacement.

Bungie Jump

Normally I opt out of reviewing a game’s multiplayer component, as the amount of fun you’re going to have online is usually dependent on how good the core gameplay is. But as this is the shooter that launched a multi-player revolution on the consoles, I obviously have to make an exception. Dubbed as ‘War Games’, the online suite has been marginally remastered in its presentation, appealing to the current generation of weapon load-outs and ‘perks’ in the form of ordnance. Get enough kills and wait a minute or so and you’ll have the option of having a weapon or special ability air-dropped to your position. Ordnance includes a machine gun, an increase to weapon damage, over shield and speed boost, and they keep the experience composed so that even the mightiest pro can be toppled.

There are more game types here than you could possibly know what to do with. Slayer, a Big-Team variant that hosts up to 16 players, Capture the Flag, Oddball, King of the Hill, and Flood – previously Zombies – all return, and all are virtually lag-free. Winning games earns you experience and moves you up in the ranks, and makes even the most pathetic excuse for a gamer feel confident in their point-for-point progression.

The eternal battle between blue and red rages on.

Lastly, there’s the Spartan Ops mode. This is probably the only module of the multiplayer package that I would call semi-sloppy. The idea is to extend the main storyline in a segmented series of missions that are sided with cinematics, sworn to be released over the course of a dozen weeks or so. Though kind of cool, its doses of ’30 second fun’ are quite literally close to 30 seconds, the missions way too short and the whole mode feeling more like a gimmick that gamers will ultimately forget.

Consider that concern trivial though. Halo 4 is more than a sigh of relief that this new team – albeit commanded by a modest crew of the Bungie clan – hasn’t butchered one of the greatest franchises of all time with a title that, upon announcement, almost seemed farcical in the fact that no one expected the hushed casket to unseal again. But cast aside your scepticism  because Master Chief’s hibernation through 5 winters of warfare hasn’t made his trigger-finger stiff… just his voice a little more eager.

The ‘Reclaimer’ trilogy has begun with a bold statement by 343 Industries: we’re taking this series in a new direction, but we’re not forgetting where it came from. Artificially constructed ladies and bio-augmented gentlemen, you’re going to need a weapon, because the gun is pointed at the head of the shooter universe again. This franchise is back. And it’s just getting started.

Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then watch our video review here.

Obey Your Master

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