Counting spin-off titles, there have been five Halo games released before Halo 4 by 343 Industries. Those previous titles were developed by the series’ creator, Bungie, who have since left their publishers at Microsoft to develop a new series. In the past few years the Halo series has stagnated, and required a revitalization before it could be considered relevant again.
Halo 4 is that revitalization.
The game’s story is simultaneously more personal, and prescient of a coming conflict larger than any yet depicted in the series. Halo’s protagonist, Master Chief, has to contend with his constant companion Cortana, an artificial intelligence, and her slow descent into rampancy, a state in which AI’s such as herself go insane. However, the Chief, and by extension the player, must also contend with the return of an ancient foe eager to reclaim rule over the galaxy.
Narratively, this is a huge step for the Halo series. Previous games always seemed mired in a certain amount of kitsch. Yes, you were fighting for the survival of humanity, but your enemies were aliens that looked like they were wearing Fischer Price armor and wielding Nerf guns. What’s more, your allies never seemed to grasp the gravity of their impending genocide, and maintained a corny “hoorah” attitude in the face of utter extinction.
Where the story has shed its gills and climbed on land, gameplay was content to evolve as little as possible.
The Halo games were never shooters, exactly, they were more like action games that happened to involve firing guns from a first person perspective. We all know how guns work; you point it at something, pull the trigger, and they’re either very hurt or very dead.
In Halo 4 you can pump whole clips into an enemy and it still might not do the trick. Normally this might be obnoxious, but Halo is one of best example of combat design in existence. Every weapon and every power-up is situationally relevant, your success or failure often depends upon how well you utilize your environment, and death rarely feels cheap. If you died, it was because you messed up.
Control of the battlefield is as important as accuracy. Grenades come in three varieties: Frag, sticky, and pulse. Frag grenades have a short fuse, and are good for clearing groups. Sticky grenades are tough to land, but are devastating to heavily armored enemies. Finally, pulse grenades land and create a small danger zone that enemies can’t cross for fear of being blown up, and are useful in creating choke points or for keeping your foes at range.
Guns come in a few varieties, all viable depending on your play style. A more cautious player might choose to stick with a semi-automatic, scoped battle-rifle, where a more aggressive one might choose Covenant Storm Rifle or Promethean Suppressor and attack head on.
Additionally, multiplayer actually feels like a viable story option rather than something tacked on so players can run around shooting each other.
In a side-story multiplayer campaign, players take on the role of Spartan soldiers serving on the Infinity battlecruiser. The popular “firefight” mode of previous Halo games has been expanded into an episodic series, where players can customize their own unique Spartan, and complete missions for to earn experience and level up their gear and weapons. Furthermore, typical deathmatch and capture the flag games are depicted as training exercises in between missions. It’s a welcome departure from typical multiplayer modes of play.
Halo 4 is the perfect sequel. It expands upon its past successes and attempts to improve upon where it was once lacking. It uses its past installments as a jumping off point, and doesn’t wallow in what made it great before. Halo 4 isn’t just a good Halo game, it’s an excellent game, period.