Over a decade has passed since Bungie launched Halo: Combat Evolved for the Xbox. Halo broke new ground for both Bungie and Microsoft, redefining how first-person shooters play on consoles. The popularity of Halo spawned a whole new franchise for Bungie, and since then we’ve seen three sequels and a prequel under their leadership. Now, the mantle has been passed to 343 Industries, a studio spawned by ex-Bungie developers while also bringing in new talent.
Halo 4 is 343 Industries’ first foray into creating a new Halo game. It came out on November 6, 2012 for the Xbox 360. We’ve played the campaign both solo and in co-op, and we’ve played the multiplayer. We also played Spartan Ops, but the episodic nature of that content makes it difficult to review, so we are not including it here.
The Halo 4 Campaign
We’re going to start off by talking about the logical entry point, the campaign. Bungie left very large shoes to fill when it comes to Halo’s story. 343 Industries’ handling of the campaign is going to make or break the success of Halo for many gamers.
Under New Management
The biggest fear I had going into Halo 4 was how 343 Industries was going to handle the campaign story. In Bungie’s games, we had a great arc for the Master Chief in which he defeats the Covenant and stops the Flood to save Earth, Humanity, and the universe; it wrapped up with him entering cryosleep while in orbit around a Forerunner planet—which we learn in Halo 4 is named Requiem.
As we learn during the course of the Halo 4 campaign, the Master Chief is the first visitor to Requiem in quite some time. This was something of a disappointment for me, as it could have been the first time in a Halo game where the Master Chief encounters other Spartan-IIs; in the novel Ghosts of Onyx, a few remnants of both the Spartan-II and Spartan-III programs, along with Doctor Halsey, find themselves on a Forerunner planet similar to Requiem. If Requiem was the planet the Spartans and Halsey found themselves on, it would have filled several gaps in the Halo continuity.
But Halo 4 isn’t a story about Spartans. It’s a story about Requiem, the UNSC Infinity, and—most importantly—it’s a story about the Master Chief and Cortana.
Green and Blue
Halo 4 takes place four years after the end of Halo 3. Cortana has been in service for eight years at this point, but a “Smart AI” like her has an effective lifespan of seven years. After seven years, a smart AI begins thinking itself to death, a process which is known as rampancy. In Halo 4, we’re not fighting to destroy the Flood or save humanity, but rather we are fighting to save Cortana.
In Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana downloads all of the Forerunner data available to her, including the Index. In the novel First Strike, it is suggested that this possibly cut Cortana’s lifespan in half, effectively causing her to enter rampancy prematurely. We start seeing signs of this in Halo 2, when she comments during the level Delta Halo, “if I were a megalomaniac (and I’m not) that’s where I’d be.” Additionally, a plot line considered for Halo: Combat Evolved involved the Master Chief returning to the Control Room only to find that Cortana is mad with power and wants to take over Halo and the entire universe.1 To put it simply, it has always been in the cards that Cortana would eventually fall to rampancy.
The Master Chief—designated John-117 in the Spartan-II program—was abducted by Halsey at the age of 6. He spent the next eight years learning military history, tactics, and training. He was indoctrinated at an early age to be a soldier, and viewed Halsey as a mother-figure. Outside of that life as a soldier, he has no friends and no family to speak of. The Master Chief had been fighting the Covenant for 27 years before being introduced to Cortana. A soldier’s life is all he knows. The Master Chief is 46 years old when Halo 4 begins, and his closest friend is Cortana.
Halo 4 isn’t “just another story” about the Master Chief saving humanity again. It’s not superfluous fluff meant to milk the fat cash cow that is the Halo brand. The story in Halo 4 is a story that has been a long time coming, a natural extension of the universe. We’re not playing the game to save humanity again, but instead we’re playing it to save one of our closest friends.
Getting into the actual campaign, the level designs are among the most boring examples offered in any Halo game. True to previous Halo games, every mission opens in your “comfort” zone; there’s no combat to speak of, allowing you to process the cutscenes that came before it, inspect your gear, and get your bearings. You can fall back to this area and let your shields recharge, as enemies will not follow you. Keeping the starting zone segregated from combat is very nice, but since every mission does it, every mission starts by feeling stale and sterile. Where is the beach invasion of The Silent Cartographer, the orbital drop onto Delta Halo, or the assault on The Covenant? 2
Once you get past the sterile breathing space, you’ll find that there isn’t a specific pattern or template that 343 Industries used to construct each level. There are shared elements, of course; you’ll see firefights (colloquially known as “shooty bits”), vehicle sections where you run over enemies, and exposition areas where you’ll have to listen to the NPCs talk for a bit before they open a door into the next firefight or vehicle section. Sometimes, these exposition moments are perfectly timed to start when you enter a long stretch of empty space, and end shortly before you enter the next encounter space; I dub these “exposition corridors.”
343i borrows many brushes from Bungie’s encounter palette to craft their campaign. However, after a decade of playing Bungie’s Halo, the Halo 4 campaign already feels like a dated game because 343i did so little to innovate the encounter design. Before I had finished a given encounter, I was feeling like I had already overcome the challenges present.
The biggest addition 343i made to the campaign is the quick-timed events (QTE). These break the fourth wall with instructional prompts; tap (X) to pry doors open! Press (B) to kill Elite! Although these QTEs are few and far between and certainly different from anything in Bungie’s Halo, they also break the flow. They’re designed to be friendly to newer players, but the inconsistent implementation of prompts does not make it so. Furthermore, these “press this button to win” prompts are present on Heroic and Legendary difficulties, which is very patronizing to veteran players.
Vehicle sections don’t fare much better, when they’re even available. One of Halo’s strengths has been well-done vehicle-based encounters, attributed mostly to how well the vehicles handle. The Warthog, Ghost, and Wraith are largely unchanged. There are new visuals, new sounds, but the same old handling. It’s just a shame that you never get a chance to really use any of these vehicles during the campaign.
On two occasions, you’ll find yourself piloting a Banshee flyer, and these are easily the weakest encounters in the entire game. Flying a Banshee has always been a high point in previous Halo games, because you get to dive, strafe, and swoop away with impunity. In Halo 4, the diving angle on the Banshee is greatly reduced, meaning if you want to do a strafing run on a target, you have to line yourself up several seconds in advance and stay close to the ground before pulling up, like you’re trying to fly under the radar. Combine this with these environments having yawning chasms underneath, and it makes using the Banshee Bomb not a question of “which target?” but rather one of “when I get hit by an overcharged plasma pistol, will I die before I can recover?”
New in Halo 4 is the Mantis. It does everything the Scorpion should be able to do: you hop into the Mantis and you feel like you can take on the world. It’s also far easier to control, and you can even walk over your allies without killing them. The only real problem I have with the Mantis is that when you’re introduced to it, the game prompts you to “Press (A) to overload hydraulics.” That doesn’t do anything. The Mantis doesn’t run faster. It doesn’t jump. It seems like a vestige of functionality that was cut. Regardless, the Mantis is pretty pleasant, all things considered. It’s a little flimsy, but it’s nothing that can’t be solved by knowing the terrain and being ready for whatever is around the corner.
That Old, Familiar Feeling
The enemy variety has changed slightly in Halo 4. Grunts are now capable of jetpacking to a higher level, while Jackals tend to stick to a Phalanx formation; both enemies are as fragile as ever, though. Elites are slightly more agile in dodging incoming hazards, but quicker to stand still and roar in defiance when you get close, making it easy to stick them with a plasma grenade, hit them with the plasma pistol overcharge and headshot combo, or sweep behind them for an easy assassination thanks to your ever-present ability to sprint.
Even the new Prometheans aren’t that different from what we’ve already seen, so they don’t change the combat dynamic very much. Crawlers are reminiscent of the Flood Stalker Form from Halo 3 in that they can crawl on walls, except they can shoot on the move instead of having to becoming stationary like the Ranged Forms. Unlike these Flood forms, Crawlers are as fragile as a Covenant Grunt, right down to dying from a single headshot.
Knights are the most aggravating addition from the Prometheans, as they sport full-body energy shields, a sword like that of an Elite—that sword is brutal on Legendary—and the ability to teleport. Knights like to teleport behind cover after any damage to recharge their shields, leaving the player to play peek-a-boo around an assortment of pillars or crates. When cover isn’t abundant, they tend to have Scattershots, which can instantly kill on as low as Heroic difficulty; regardless of their weapon, they’ll prefer to teleport-charge the player for what is almost a cheap instant kill. No matter the environment, Knights are always frustrating to fight.
The flying Watchers are the only interesting Prometheans in that they can: project hard light shields, similar to Jackals’ shields, in front of their allies; return primed grenades to the player; revive fallen Knights and Crawlers; and build turrets. However, Watchers can build turrets only at pre-designated locations, which are few and far between, and they’re slightly more resilient than Grunts, overall making them uninteresting cannon fodder.
Infinite Devil Machine
Early in the fourth level, there is an encounter in a small room with a Watcher and four Crawlers running behind a tree trunk. This is of the best encounters in the game because it utilizes everything unique about the Crawlers: they run around in a pack like wild dogs, but attack one at a time; by putting a tree in the way to break your line of sight, they draw your attention and lure you into the open so you investigate if you’ve destroyed all of them. They can crawl on walls, and they do this to hide just out of view as you approach the tree, allowing them to snipe you. It feels like a trap, but you can actually spot the sniper if you’re cautious and check the corners before moving into an opening.
By contrast, a number of encounters are just poorly designed. For example, there is an encounter a few minutes later where you have to fight off waves of Prometheans while Cortana tries to get a door open. There are three turrets to aid the player: two in front of the door, and one hidden off to the side. Your best option is to take one of the front turrets, but this is a trap. The environment funnels the very fragile Crawlers directly into the fields of fire on the front two turrets. Basic Encounter Design 101 states that killing enemies in a defense scenario causes more enemies to spawn; these weak Crawlers end up making way for multitudes of Watchers and Knights very quickly, thus putting the player into a no-win situation. The key is to take the third turret off on the side, which offers the player a much wider field of fire; on this third turret, the encounter becomes trivial. For reference, on Legendary, I died at least five times on each of the front turrets within seconds of starting the encounter, but had no problems with the third turret.
One Size Fits All
The final two missions in Halo 4 should have been the most emotionally engaging missions because everything is spiraling out of control and we’re struggling to fight against what is a lost cause, but bad encounter design ruins a lot of that tension. Given the number of testers the game had, I doubt the encounters were unseen before release. I doubt that, despite the number of contractors and external studios that worked on the game, that it is the fault of outsourced design.
The campaign has to be designed so everyone can finish it. Players who prefer the Assault Rifle need to be able to finish it. Crackshot players who can snipe you from across the map with only a 5x clench zoom need to be able to finish it. This results in 343i throwing a banquet of weapons and ammo crates at you to try and accommodate everyone. However, having weapon crates offering something for everybody made it so that there was less ammo for specialists. This has the adverse effect of making the best way to play not the best way you play, but rather to use everything at your disposal.
Admittedly, that is a great method to get players to mix up their game a bit so they’re not always just standing at range and taking easy shots, except I do that because I like it. Most of the weapon crates you’ll find in campaign are for Storm Rifles, Assault Rifles, and Suppressors, which are amazing weapons on Legendary if you like running out into the open and being cut down in seconds. I don’t like dying. I like being smart and taking my time, killing my enemies quickly, but methodically. I like to proceed with caution, leaving no stone unturned as I exploit every inch of the environment, utilizing corners, bends, height differences, and decorations to break line of sight and get some time to recharge my shields. To put it another way, I like playing as if I’m the last Spartan and the fate of my best friend (and I guess humanity) rests upon my shoulders.
Multiplayer in Halo 4
Moving into multiplayer, there are a number changes that make Halo 4 stand far and away from Bungie’s Halo. For the most part, these changes are just following the logical progression of Bungie’s own evolutionary choices.
The big change to multiplayer in Halo 4 is the addition of Infinity Slayer, mostly because it encapsulates everything that has changed from Reach. Infinity Slayer is different because you earn points for earning medals which reduces the number of kills your team needs to earn in order to win. A kill is worth 10 points and you need 600 points to win, so if your team is playing really well and earning medals hand over fist, then you’ll need less than 60 kills to win. In addition, the medals you earn are tallied to your personal score, so if you get an overkill for eliminating all four of the enemy team, then you’ll keep that credit for yourself; your team will still need less kills to win, but no one else gets to cash in on your accomplishment.
The personal score has two effects: for every 100 points you earn (roughly ten kills), you’ll earn a personal ordnance drop. A personal ordnance drop allows you to call down an item from the UNSC Infinity to assist you in battle. It can be more grenades, a weapon like a Needler, or something a bit heavier like a Rocket Launcher. It could also be something like a speed boost, overshield, or damage boost. Once you have a drop available, you can call it down whenever you like. It will land a short distance in front of you, but be warned: other players can swoop in and steal your ordnance! Any active drop you have even persists through death.
The second effect of having a personal score is at the end of the match. You’ll earn experience towards progression for completing the match, a bonus if you win, another bonus for any commendations (which return from Reach) you complete, and a sum equal to your score during the match. In other words, the better, or more fanciful, you play, the faster you’ll rank up.
Ranking up is tied to progression, which is vastly overhauled since Reach. You start with a basic loadout of an Assault Rifle, a Magnum, and two frag grenades. As you rank up, you’ll unlock access to further loadout modifications including marksman rifles, armor abilities, and new items called Tactical Packages and Support Packages. A Tactical Package affects how you play; I run with a package that allows me to sprint indefinitely, but other options include being able to select two primary weapons (such as the Assault Rifle, DMR, or Lightrifle) as well as having your armor abilities recharge faster. A Support Package is more passive, allowing you to reload quicker, extend your motion tracker range, or reducing how much damage you take from grenades. Ranking up also unlocks additional loadout slots and armor customizations options; completing commendations will unlock more armor options in addition to more emblems and backgrounds.
The caveat to all of this is that unlocking loadout mods cost Spartan Points. You earn only 1 SP each time you rank up, and some mods (such as the Regeneration Field armor ability) cost 3 SP to unlock. If you want something specific, you’ll have to save up and play some more. You can be smart about what you buy: you’ll encounter every weapon, grenade, and armor ability (save Regeneration Field) during the campaign, which also allows you to familiarize yourself with those options before you commit the points to purchasing them. You can also configure a custom gametype to start off with any of the options available, which gives you an otherwise impossible preview at Tactical and Support Packages.
Halo 4 introduces a few new gametypes. The big one is Dominion, which combines the reinforcement mechanic from Reach’s Invasion mode with the capture gameplay of Territories. Dominion is all about capturing and fortifying each base on a map. As you fortify the bases your team controls, you’ll gain access to vehicles, protective shield doors, weapons, and automated turrets to help defend the house while you’re out on business.
The second gametype is Regicide, which combines classic Juggernaut rules with Headhunter mechanics. The highest-scoring player is the King, and as the King gains points their bounty goes up; killing the King earns you points equal to their bounty. Unlike Juggernaut, where you must kill the Juggernaut to become the Juggernaut, you can kill anyone and slowly dethrone the King by earning points that way—it’s just usually faster if you kill the King. It’s a far more dynamic game than the original Juggernaut, and it’s far fairer than the broken Headhunter mode from Reach.
The third big change is to Infection, which is now called Flood. Flood is largely unchanged from Infection, and the Alpha Zombies trait even returns from Halo 3. In fact, Flood is Infection, except better in every way. Even distinguishing uninfected players apart from each other is easier because infected players look distinct despite the Flood not being part of Halo 4 otherwise.
Well Enough Alone
However, not everything is better. Capture the Flag (CTF) is worse off in Halo 4 as classic options are gone. Two popular gametypes, Neutral Flag CTF and 1-Flag CTF, staples which can both trace their lineage back to Halo 2, are impossible to configure as there must be two flags per match.
While 343i improved multiplayer in places where improvements were needed, even adding small touches to make it better, they also stripped away a lot of the heart and soul that has traditionally bound the community together in the vaunted halls of custom gaming. Multiplayer is better across the board, but it’s missing the little bits that made Halo, well, Halo.
Bits and Pieces
This final section doesn’t focus on any specific game mode, but rather elements that are omnipresent throughout Halo 4 as a whole. Here we’re going to be talking about achievements, art direction, and the score.
Gift With Purchase
Achievements are always a tricky affair. If a game rewards something as trivial as pressing the Start button at the start-up screen, then your effort will feel superfluous and unrewarding. If the game rewards you for doing what’s very unlikely to happen, such as killing two enemies with a single shot from the Sniper Rifle while you’re using a Jetpack, then trying to earn that achievement becomes a Herculean effort.
Halo 4 has the classic “milestone” achievements to denote your progress in the campaign, but it also has achievements for progression. There’s nothing as insidious as making you earn 100,000 lifetime kills, but rather there are achievements for more manageable feats: raise your Spartan to level 5, and again to level 20; win 5 matchmaking games.
There are also more challenging achievements in Halo 4, specific to each level. For example, for the third mission you must carry one of the weapons you start the mission with to the end of the mission, and there is no extra ammo to be found for either weapon; it effectively limits you to one weapon slot for the entire affair. All of the level-specific achievements are like this in that they require something specific.
Lastly, there are what I like to call “engagement” achievements. These are achievements designed to get players to try new things, like using the File Share, and thus are very trivial to complete. The obvious example is the achievement for changing your service tag. A service tag is important only when you’re playing with other players, so if you’re playing campaign solo, playing offline, or have no interest in multiplayer, then you’ll have no need to change it otherwise. When you change your tag for this achievement, you’ll see Halo 4‘s many customization options and the rank requirements to unlock them.
In Halo 3, Bungie introduced a scoring meta-game where you can earn points for killing Covenant, similar to the scoring in multiplayer. You could also activate up to 15 skulls which alter the campaign to make it more difficult while also providing a bonus modifier so you score more points. While 343i kept the 15 skulls for Halo 4, they also removed the campaign scoring mechanic.
The lack of campaign scoring might sound insignificant, but for both Halo 3 and Reach, the Halo community got together to organize events where the goal was to earn a number of points, such as a 7,777,777,777 global lifetime points event. Campaign scoring kept the campaign relevant for years after the game was released.
In Amber Clad
343i is clearly copying Hollywood for their art direction, which is a shame because it would be a beautiful game otherwise. I don’t want to play a movie; otherwise I’d pop in Medal of Honor: Warfighter, or one of its contemporaries. I want to play Halo. I want to be treated to a full and vibrant palette of blues, greens, purples, and, new to Halo 4, reds. I want to make full use of my HDTV’s ability to produce color instead of having just another game where the colors are washed out.
Aesthetically, Halo 4 isn’t desaturated gray like “modern” shooters are, but rather blue and orange. Having everything orange and blue makes the game seem more cinematic without adding substance, because that’s what Hollywood does. Hollywood uses this as a shortcut to make their films look good instead of composing a good scene. Blue and orange are cool and warm colors; they’re complementary colors, and having them next to each other makes them “pop.” Skin tones are orange, shadows are blue. Easy. Done.
The problem with this approach is nothing in Halo 4 supports this shortcut. The Covenant aren’t known for being pink-skinned and there aren’t many humans. Not even the environments exploit these contrasting colors, as exteriors are too well lit for there to be a significant number of shadows, and interiors tend to be lit with super-bright blue lighting. Halo traditionally used a palette of purples, greens, and blues, so thanks to the orange color filter, Halo 4 simply doesn’t look like a Halo game.
Cold Blue Light
Halo 4 makes ample use of lens flares. These turn what would be an otherwise lovely environment into a mish-mash of colors and brightness. When you go into a dark area, high dynamic range (HDR) lighting darkens the rest of the environment to make it look better. Most light sources in Halo 4 produce a lens flares, and lens flares are actually amplified by HDR instead of dampened—this is what make lens flares able to obstruct the environment. So when you see a light in the darkness, it’s going to be a super-bright point of light. What makes all of this worse is that these effects are present even in multiplayer, an environment where you need to be able to clearly read the battlefield if you want to play at any sort of competitive level.
Full Contact Safari
When the art direction isn’t actively detracting from the art, you’ll find that Halo 4 does offer some fantastic environments and vistas, even in multiplayer. A prime example occurs on the very first level when you open the observation deck to see what’s outside the ship. You can see Requiem in the background, you can see the remnants of the Forward Unto Dawn, and you can see the Storm Covenant fleet. It’s truly awesome.
Unfortunately, the vistas don’t enhance the foreground, they enhance the background. We don’t see a vast temple in the distance with the knowledge we’re actively heading down there. We don’t see a grand arch serving as a focal point for the encounter as well as a landmark for where our Marines are holding position. When we do see a fantastic environment, all of the cool stuff is kept away from the combat so you don’t have anything pretty to look at while you’re blasting yet another Promethean to Hell.
A good score should engage the audience and enhance the scene. If you’re watching someone deliver an inspirational speech, you’ll want to hear something like a choir in a major key backed by deep drums and strings, because that’s going to inspire you and thus enhance the scene. If you’re watching the death of your comrade, you’re going to want a solo piano playing in a minor key, because that will make you feel sad. These aren’t the only combinations which evoke those feelings, but rather practical examples I can cite from other games with successful scores, such as Halo: Reach.
Neil Davidge’s score for Halo 4 is largely forgettable because it fails to engage and rarely enhances the scenes. Part of this might be due to the audio mix; I found that no matter how low I set the volume on my TV, the sounds of gunfire were always too loud and prompting me to turn the volume down even lower. If the music is being drowned out by the sounds of combat, then that’s one thing, but it might also be that the music is never set to an appropriate level. In any case, the score is little more than background noise.
The score isn’t bad, mind you. I can even recognize some of the tracks on the soundtrack when I listen to it independently, but I never “heard” the music in-game unless I was stopped or otherwise not in combat. The only exceptions are the tracks “117” and “Arrival,” which I heard while playing the campaign and thought, “I have to go back and find this lovely music.” An honorable mention goes out to “Requiem,” which is the music backing the revealing shot of the opening vista at the start of the second mission.
Halo 4 is a strong entry by 343 Industries into the Halo franchise, but is not without its fair share of problems. While the campaign story is phenomenal, the missions are linear and go for too long without adequately engaging the player. The art direction mimics the aesthetics from Hollywood blockbusters without adding substance. The soundtrack fails to enhance the mood. Infinity multiplayer is the natural evolution of Halo, and it works. Overall, the game is very well-crafted, if a bit uniform. It’s the Halo game you would expect from a third party trying to fill Bungie’s very large shoes.
Final score: 87 out of 100.