Available on Xbox 360
Ever since Bungie quit the Halo universe and passed the reins over to 343 Studios and Microsoft, the same question has hung over Halo 4: it might look like Halo, it might feel like Halo, but would it have Halo’s soul?
Within a few hours of the single-player game, the question pretty much evaporates. In a lot of ways, Halo 4 feels more like Halo than any Halo since the original. Remember the sense of wonder you felt at the scale of the game and its landscapes? The visual spectacle of the Covenant spacecraft, their armour and their architecture? Remember the thrill of playing a game where your enemies were truly unpredictable, and where encounters never quite played out the same way twice?
Well, Halo 4 does it all, then ramps everything up to a whole new level. While you can’t exactly call it ground-breaking or innovative, it’s a beautifully made sci-fi saga that proves the current console generation still has the power to wow. It’s clear that a whole tonne of money has been thrown at it, but every last cent is up there on the screen.
Halo 4 kicks off where Halo 3 ended, with the Master Chief in cryotonic slumber on the broken starship, Forward Unto Dawn, watched over by his AI muse, Cortana, and drifting towards an unknown planet. Needless to say, it doesn’t end there, and it’s not long before our hero finds himself on and beneath the surface of Requiem, battling both against Covenant forces and a new foe, with roots in the ancient Forerunner race that created the original Halo, and with access to their advanced technology. Not only has Master Chief got his hands full, but there’s trouble for Cortana too. She’s nearing the end of her seven year AI lifespan, and at risk of going bonkers if she can’t be treated pretty soon. A nearby UNSC warship offers some vague hope of rescue, but can it be reached, can the Master Chief and Cortana escape, and at what cost?
If we’re vague about any further details, it’s intentional. It’s not that Halo 4 is a work of unalloyed literary or cinematic genius, but the writing, the plotting, the voice work and the cut-scenes are a step beyond the vast majority of sci-fi action games, and you really deserve to experience it all for yourself without any spoilers.
What we can talk about is how the game plays. The answer is – like Halo, but with a few interesting tweaks. Firstly, the armour abilities of Halo: Reach have now made the move to the mainstream Halo storyline, with Master Chief gaining access to stealth, shields, visual and other upgrades at various points in the game. Secondly, you have a whole new range of enemies to contend with, with the Forerunner Prometheans appearing in a selection of forms, from fast-moving, jumping dog-like critters to aggressive knights with short-range teleport abilities.
Luckily, these bring with them a new gamut of weapons, and while most of these are variations on the usual assault rifle/magnum/shotgun/carbine classics, there are differences in the way they impact on specific Promethean or even Covenant troop types. Part of the challenge in Halo has always been finding the right balance of weapons to deal with the enemies you might encounter, and Halo 4 makes that challenge feel even more demanding. Throughout ammunition will be scarce, so sometimes you won’t even have a choice, but with both the Covenant and Prometheans to deal with, it’s very hard to cover every situation.
While we were concerned about changes to Covenant personality in our preview, we’ve had no real worries during the single-player game. The grunts might not have so many lines, but they’re as mischievous and snarky as ever – nothing hurts more than a giggling grunt when you’ve just bitten the dust. The Promethens, meanwhile, bring a whole new aura of mystery and menace to the proceedings.
Perhaps more worrying were the concerns that Halo 4 might see a move to more linear, Call of Duty-like levels, but in fact these fears are all but unfounded. Some sections are quite restrictive, but Halo 4 remains full of those large-scale battlefields where you can tackle your enemies on foot or in a vehicle, where you can experiment with different strategies, and where you can try different routes with different weapons. The AI is as smart and responsive as ever – though Covenant pilots occasionally struggle in the space available – and the action has a great rhythm of tension and release.