“Well Enough Alone”
It has been over two years since Bungie’s final Halo title debuted, the reigns of the series having since been handed over to Microsoft’s 343 Industries. While Bungie’s next project “Destiny” is still a ways off, 343I has just released their first Halo title. Halo 4 is the much-anticipated direct sequel to 2007’s Halo 3, bringing us back to the story of Master Chief and Cortana after Bungie’s last two games took a detour by telling us the story of a squad of ODSTs during the beginning of the Battle of Earth and a retelling of the Fall of Reach from the perspective of a squad of Spartan-IIIs.
So, how goes 343I’s first attempt at making a Halo game? Are they worthy successors to Bungie’s legacy, or has the franchised suffered a blow because of Halo 4? Read on to find out.
A hero returns. But is his latest adventure up to snuff with the series in the hands of a new developer?
Table of Contents
After a serious stumble in Halo 2, Bungie made gradual strides in putting Halo’s weapon balance back on track. Halo 3 fixed many of the most broken aspects of H2’s weapon sandbox, while Reach went even further, providing the most fun and balanced gunplay the series had seen since the original game nine years earlier. However, even it wasn’t perfect. For example, the automatics still had trouble competing against the mid-range precision weapons despite being more than the almost useless pop guns they were in H2 & H3.
Halo 4, however, has improved things even further, and probably has the most balanced weapon sandbox in the series (with one major and a couple of minor exception; more on that in a bit). Every gun is useful and fills a specific niche. There is no longer a “One Gun to Rule Them All” scenario. Automatics wreck precision rifles at close range, and the increased kill times of all the standard issue weapons mean there’s less of a gap between them and the power weapons.
Most classic UNSC weapons have returned, and they’re generally the same weapons we’re used to, but with various tweaks to things like damage and accuracy. The AR is extremely formidable up close and is decent at mid range when using short, controlled bursts; overall, it’s probably the most effective incarnation of the weapon to date, at least in MP. The magnum is essentially the same as in Reach (at least as far as I can tell), which is fine as that means it’s still a solid sidearm. The DMR is great for longer range engagements, while the BR is amazing against unshielded foes. While the BR and AR fill similar niches, they have enough contrast between the two to not feel redundant. However, the BR feels a bit underpowered compared to the DMR. In fact, the DMR, while not the most-powerful mid-range precision loadout weapon in the game, is the most reliable and accurate and has the most aim assist, which makes it somewhat more useful that its counterparts. Perhaps the BR could be beefed up a tad or the DMR could have either its rate of fire reduced slightly or more bloom added to reduce its accuracy when firing at its maximum rate of fire, or it could simply have a lot less aim assist. It’s not a huge problem, but it is definitely one that 343I should look in to. The shotgun has a tad better effective range than in Reach, and is the closest we’ve gotten to the old Halo 1 shotgun. The rocket launcher seems about the same as in Reach, as does the Spartan laser. The sniper rifle seems about the same as in Reach, but with less aim assist, which necessitates a slight bit of re-learning on the player’s part.
There are a few new UNSC weapons introduced in Halo 4 as well. The first of these is the SAW. Lots of people, including myself, were wanting a light machine gun in Halo for quite some time (and the absence of an LMG in the UNSC arsenal always struck me as a bit odd). It’s basically what a lot of us speculated such a weapon would be in terms of gameplay: a super-AR, one with a very high-capacity magazine (in this case, a 72-round drum mag) and a higher rate of fire for greater killing potential. It’s an absolutely beastly weapon, and I love using it. It’s even powerful at mid-range when using short, controlled bursts.
The sticky detonator is basically Halo 4’s version of the grenade launcher from Reach. It functions quite a bit differently from the grenade launcher, however, as it has no impact detonation (every shot must be manually detonated), no EMP effect, and, as its name implies, the ability to stick to any target or surface. It’s pretty good for both direct attack and for setting traps. I’ve seen some creative ways to use this weapon, including sticking it on allies and sending them after the enemy.
The railgun is an interesting and quite effective weapon, and is basically a portable, slow-firing, single-shot Gauss cannon. Like the Spartan laser, it has to be charged up to fire a round (oddly, you can delay firing the railgun for a couple of seconds after reaching full charge in Campaign, but in MP if fires immediately upon reaching full charge), but unlike the laser cannon it has no scope and cannot penetrate targets. The round is quite powerful, killing most infantry in a single shot. It’s not as effective against vehicles, though. Overall, it’s a great weapon, and I’ve enjoyed using it.
All of the classic Covenant weapons have returned, save one: the plasma rifle. In its stead, we have the Storm rifle. Functionally, it’s more or less the same as the plasma rifle, albeit with a higher rate of fire. It’s been buffed as well and, like the AR, it’s actually quite effective in close quarters. However it looks nothing like the plasma rifle, instead having a profile and coloration very similar to the Carbine’s, which makes it hard to tell the two apart. I honestly don’t know why 343I just didn’t bring back the plasma rifle, as it had a distinctive shape (and said unique shape obviously meant it couldn’t be mistaken for another weapon) and has long been one of the quintessential Covenant small arms. The only reason I can think of is that the plasma rifle didn’t fit into the “long gun” aesthetic of the other loadout weapons, but that’s a lame reason to re-skin such an iconic weapon. Interestingly, the classic-style plasma rifle does show up in the game, though only in the introductory CGI cinematic.
I forget. Which one’s which?
As for the other Covie weapons, the Needler is still great, shredding targets at its mid-range sweet spot, though as always it burns through its ammo very quickly, and an enemy equipped with one in Campaign is a serious threat as they can supercombine on you now (Needlers used by AIs used to not do this, except in Halo 1, but the supercombine wasn’t instantly fatal in H1, either). The Carbine returns after having been absent in Reach, the needle rifle having replaced it. While it’s effectiveness is decent — it’s a solid weapon in Campaign but a tad underpowered in MP when compared to the DMR, and should take one fewer round to kill —, I personally think the Carbine seems kind of redundant as it’s functionally a faster-firing alien DMR; at least the needle rifle could super-combine in targets, which made it feel like something other than a UNSC rifle that was purple and alien-y and fired colorful ammo. The plasma pistol is still great for stripping shields and disabling vehicles (the latter being something I wish it didn’t do in MP since everyone can start with one, which makes vehicles useless in most MP maps), but it’s still not the best as a killing weapon; its not impotent per se, and both the standard and charged shots do decent damage, but you can do a lot better than the PP if you’re trying to kill something outright. The fuel rod gun is essentially the same as in Reach, which means it’s still a very formidable heavy weapon. The beam rifle returns after having been replaced by the focus rifle in Reach; personally, I wish they kept the focus rifle and buffed it (it had a relative lack of killing power in Reach), as it was a far more distinctive weapon. The concussion rifle still feels impotent in Campaign, and, though it appears to function identically to its Reach counterpart, it also seems less effective in multiplayer. Why, I’m not sure. The sword is the same as in Reach, so nothing to really comment on there. The gravity hammer feels a bit more consistent and reliable, but it too is more or less unchanged.
The addition of a new faction, the Forerunner Prometheans, brings an entirely new batch of weapons with it. The only usable Forerunner weapon we’ve encountered before has been the Sentinel beam. Now, we have a half-dozen new Forerunner weapons at our disposal. While the potential for lots of unique alien weapons was there, unfortunately 343I saw fit to make the Promethean arsenal have full parity with the UNSC and Covenant arsenals. This results in a lot of redundancies, with some of these new weapons having little to distinguish them from their supposedly less-advanced counterparts. The Suppressor is the worst in this regard, as it’s a plain old bullet hose with no unique properties. The light rifle is basically the DMR when zoomed and the BR when unzoomed (much like the BR from the E3 2004 demo of Halo 2, which was also semi-auto when zoomed in but burst fire when unzoomed). The Scattershot is basically the shotgun, except that its projectiles reflect off of most surfaces (which rarely factors into gameplay). The Binary rifle is just a souped-up sniper rifle that has a visible laser sight that gives away the shooter’s position (to compensate for being a one-shot kill weapon, obviously). The Incinerator cannon and Boltshot have more to distinguish themselves from their counterparts — the Incinerator’s shots fragment into multiple smaller explosive munitions that bounce randomly away from the point of detonation, while the Boltshot is basically the magnum, plasma pistol, and shotgun all rolled into one — but they still fill the same niches as the other heavy weapons and handguns, respectively. Further adding to the largely redundant nature of the Promethean weapons is that they even all function like human weapons in that they’re manually reloaded; the Suppressor, Light rifle, Binary rifle, and Boltshot have replaceable power cells that are analogous to the magazines of human weapons, and the Scattershot is even reloaded one shotshell-like power cell at a time just like the shotgun is. Only the Incinerator has a reload animation that doesn’t look the same as the one for its human counterpart, and instead looks more like the weapon is overheating. The fact that Promethean weapons are manually reloaded is odd considering that the Sentinel beam was battery-powered and overheated, just like Covenant plasma weapons (which are based on Forerunner tech) do.
Now, this isn’t to say that these weapons aren’t effective. The light rifle is great at mid range. The Suppressor is okay in Campaign (well, not so much on Legendary) and when used at a close enough range (like, really close, as it has terrible accuracy) it’s slightly more powerful than the AR in MP. The scattershot is of course very effective up close (though it doesn’t have quite the effective range of the shotgun). The Incinerator is just beastly. The Binary rifle is great for one-shot disintegrations. The Boltshot is decent in Campaign and arguably overpowered in MP as its charged blast does just as much damage and has about the same range as the shotgun (read: one-shot kill within 7 or 8 meters) despite being a weapon the player can spawn with; in fact, I’d argue that it’s the only truly unbalanced weapon in Halo 4 and it needs to be either nerfed a bit for MP or removed as a loadout weapon (maybe made an ordnance weapon of the same power tier as the Needler or sticky detonator), because quite frankly the damn thing isn’t fun to fight against, and it’s been likened to the armor lock of Halo 4: annoying and OP.
However, none of the weapons have a practical reason for being. We already have multiple weapons between the UNSC and Covenant arsenals that already filled roles that these Promethean weapons attempt to fill. That there was rough parity between the UNSC and Covenant arsenals beginning in Halo 2 was understandable as it was borne out of necessity of having a playable Elite character in Campaign. But there is no such justification in Halo 4 as the Prometheans are all NPCs.
How could 343I had kept from having such a woefully redundant set of weapons? For one, they could have pared it down to three basic weapons: one general purpose, one for longer-range encounters, and one for heavy damage. You don’t need full parity between every faction. Also, they could have all been battery-powered, if only to give some continuity between them, the Sentinel beam, and certain Covie weapons. Instead of being an automatic weapon, the Suppressor could have been a continuous beam weapon, basically a Promethean-issued version of the Sentinel beam. The Incinerator and Binary rifle would have been okay as-is in terms of basic function/offensive capabilities. The former wouldn’t really need any changes at all since it’s already single-shot and has a reload animation that looks like it’s cooling off (or charging up, if you want). As for the Binary rifle, it could have been single-shot like the Incinerator (in which case I’d recommend getting rid of the visible laser sight), or it could have had some unique cool-down mechanism, maybe something like the plasma repeater from Reach. Beyond those three, there could very well have been other weapons, ones that didn’t conform to the “Standard FPS Guns” trope. Granted, there are only so many kinds of weapons out there, but if they’re going to have over two dozen basic infantry weapons in the game (more than in any prior title) they could have been something other than “AR that shoots orange bullets” or “H2 BR from E3 2004 that shoots orange bullets.” For example, there’s plenty of unusual weapons from other series that 343I could draw inspiration from, such as Resistance and Unreal Tournament. Also, there was a deleted weapon in Halo 4 called the “Stasis Rifle,” which was an area-affect weapon that didn’t do direct damage but rather created a spherical energy field that slowed enemies down. Now that’s a unique weapon for a Halo game, and I think it would have been a great addition (it could have been a lower-tier ordnance weapon like the Needler), but 343I decided against including it in the final game.
As for grenades, frag and plasma ‘nades have been nerfed a bit. While they appear to do the same amount of damage as in Reach, they have smaller blast radii. While players still spawn with two of whatever type of grenade they have in their selected loadout, the resultant grenade spam is not as effective/annoying as it was in the last couple of games. While grenades were the direct cause of well over 10% of my deaths in Reach MP (about 11% in the Competitive category and 16% in Invasion) and about 9.6% of my deaths in Halo 3, as of my writing of this paragraph they count for just under 9% of my deaths in Halo 4 (Slayer gametypes only). As for the new Promethean Pulse grenade, it’s actually a fairly distinct weapon, unlike its small arm counterparts. It’s reminiscent of the power drainer from Halo 3, as it emits an energy field that saps shields over time before detonating, disintegrating everything within its area of effect. It’s a very situational grenade type, ill-suited for direct offense but good for area denial, deterring enemies from chasing you, flushing out campers, or forcing enemies out of a hill in King of the Hill or away from a flag they’re trying to return in CTF. So far, I’ve only managed 4 kills with them in MP, and I haven’t been killed by one yet.
Melee attacks appear to have a shorter range than they did in Reach and Halo 3, though they do the same amount of damage. Since they still retain the guided lunge effect that’s been the norm since Halo 2, the reduced range is a good thing. The percentage of kills and deaths I have due to melees are much lower than in Reach, which may be due at least in part to their reduced range.
Shields & Health
The Halo series has been all over the place with this one, hasn’t it? While all games in the series have had regenerating shields (ODST just called it “stamina,” though it was functionally the same thing as shields but with added Interface Screw) overlying the player’s health, the health system has been in constant flux. Halo 1 had non-regenerating health restored by health packs, just like most other shooters before it (Halo’s big revolution was adding regenerating shields over that health). Halo 2 introduced fully-regenerating health to the series, doing away with health packs entirely; this system was carried over to Halo 3. ODST reintroduced the Halo 1 health system, bringing back health packs to the series for the first time in eight years. Reach took the Halo 1 system and modified it slightly, giving players partially-regenerating health; the health bar was segmented into thirds, so if for example a player with full health took an AR round or two after his shields popped, his health would fully restore, but if he lost half his health it would only regenerated back up to the two-thirds level, and he’d need a health pack to recover that missing third.
Halo 4 brings the health system back to the Halo 2/3 system. The player’s health can fully regenerate, and consequently there are no health packs. Personally, I wish they would have stuck with at least the Reach health system, since I prefer the health system to allow the possibility of being able to inflict/suffer semi-permanent health damage. I’ve written extensively about why I prefer this system in other articles, so I won’t reiterate here; refer to my commentary in my Ultimate Halo Game article instead. There is one thing about the health system I don’t particularly care for that I will discuss, but it’s a HUD-related issue so refer to the section below.
As for player shields, the bleed-through effect utilized in the original trilogy as well as TU gametypes in Reach is in full effect in Halo 4. While there’s points to be had both in favor of and against “bleed-through” and “no bleed-through,” it’s not a major deal for me, so going back to the old system is a net neutral.
Halo 4’s HUD goes back to a design more reminiscent of Halo 3’s. Of course, that means it’s missing one very important feature: a health bar. That was my biggest beef with Halo 2 & 3’s HUDs. The amount of health you have at any given moment is valuable, need-to-know information, regardless of whether or not health regenerates. Elites had fully regenerating health in Reach, yet they still had a health bar on their HUD, so why not have Halo 4 do the same? Other issues include the absence of a compass, the lack of of red “X”es over dead teammates, not being able to see what weapon you have as your secondary and how much ammo you have, the lack of a sprint meter, no map callouts, and (still) the lack of a damage meter for vehicles when you’re driving one. This would all be valuable information that could be conveyed on the HUD, but it’s not present. No red “X”es, no compass, and no map callouts in particular make communicating positions of enemies, supplies, etc., to one’s teammates quite difficult.
There are some minor improvements, though. Vehicles show up on the motion tracker as a blip shaped like how the vehicle appears from overhead, including showing the direction the vehicle is pointed relative to you. Also, the motion tracker gives you a heads up, showing an arrow on the periphery of the tracker pointing towards enemy vehicles that aren’t within the tracker’s normal range (though this “early warning” feature, while having a longer-than-standard range, doesn’t have infinite range). Certain neutral objects (e.g., ordinance drops, vehicles not in use) show up as blue-shaded blips, even when not in motion. Also, there are grenade warning indicators, which I like considering that I’m a veritable grenade magnet and couldn’t ever avoid the damn things when playing online.
The HUD also has some aesthetic changes. There is a subtle bobbing of the HUD when the player moves, and in Campaign you even see some parts of the inside of the Chief’s helmet. There’s also various little details that make it look sort of like a real-life jet fighter pilot’s HUD. So, while it doesn’t convey enough essential information, it’s at least nice to look at and makes it seem more like you’re actually a guy wearing a helmet.
All of the classic vehicles — Warthog (including Gauss and rocket variants), Mongoose, Scorpion, Ghost, Banshee, and Wraith — return pretty much unchanged aside from some slight balancing tweaks. For example, the Banshee’s fuel rod cannon has a much slower rate of fire, as does the Scorpion’s main cannon, while the rocket Hog’s projectiles received a much-needed damage boost.
Some vehicles from prior games haven’t returned, though. Neither the Falcon nor the Hornet are present, nor are there any mid-size Covie vehicles like the Revenant. There are a couple of new vehicles, however. First and foremost is the Mantis, and powerful bipedal mecha. While having a mecha feels out of place in Halo, damn if that thing isn’t fun to use. Also, there’s a new “gunship” variant of the Pelican, which is only available in one level in Campaign; this marks the first time the Pelican is usable by the player in the normal course of gameplay. In addition to the chin-mounted autocannon standard to all Pelicans, it has a laser cannon as a secondary armament, and if you’re playing co-op, the other players can use side-mounted machine guns or a large turret on top of the Pelican that functions more or less like the Scorpion’s cannon. It has some potential, but it wasn’t really exploited in this game like it could have been, as you only get to fight a few Phantoms while flying through a large, mostly empty expanse.
The damage system from Reach is still present, which is a good thing as I’ve always believed that vehicle hit points should be separate from the player’s. However, the vehicles still feel a bit fragile, though that may also be due to how the loadout system works in Halo 4. Also, there still isn’t a damage meter on the HUD, though fortunately an alarm starts ringing when a vehicle’s “health” is critical, giving a valuable audio cue to the player.
AAs are as a general mechanic functionally unchanged from Reach. While Active Camouflage, Hologram, and Jetpack return, Sprint is now a standard ability just like jumping and melees, and Armor Lock is thankfully gone. There are several new AAs, though: the Hard Light Shield, Auto Sentry, Promethean Vision, Thruster Pack, and Regeneration Field.
The jetpack is thankfully nerfed from Reach, if only slightly. It burns through its fuel quicker and takes a bit longer to recharge, thus reducing its tendency to break map flow by keeping users on the ground longer. It’s still annoying as hell to deal with jetpackers, though, and I would have nerfed it even further.
The active camo still has a radar jamming effect, but the blips are neutral blue, thus alerting nearby players to the camouflaged player’s presence without masking friendly or enemy signatures on the motion tracker. However, it still lasts too long and recharges too quickly, allowing players to spend most of the match invisible (esp. if they have the AA Efficiency perk) and thus really slowing down gameplay by encouraging camping and discouraging aggressive play.
The hologram receives a much-needed buff. While it was easy to tell a hologram from an actual player in Reach, in Halo 4 it’s much harder to tell the difference. You reticle turns red when you target it and it shows up as a red blip on the radar, and it flickers less and is less translucent. Overall, it’s a very effective decoy.
The hardlight shield is very similar to the Jackal’s shield. While ostensibly the replacement for armor lock, unlike the latter it’s not game-breaking. It only blocks shots from the front, the player is slow and vulnerable to attacks from the flank and rear, and it slows the user down and doesn’t allow them to jump when using it. Also, the user’s regular shields can’t recharge while the HLS is in use, which I think is a tad too much considering the other drawbacks. It’s still a decent defensive ability, but unlike armor lock it’s not an invincibility-on-demand ability that slows gameplay down to a crawl. You have to use it more judiciously, and can’t spam it all willy-nilly.
Promethean vision is a mixed bag. Its ability to see enemies through walls is fine in Campaign, but in MP it has the tendency to encourage camping (on part of the user, that is) and discourage aggressive movement, thus slowing combat down to a near-halt. Much like the AC’s radar jammer effect, the PV’s sonar-like ping, which is visible and audible to everyone, tells players “Hey! There’s a guy nearby.” What do you do? Camp as well to set up an ambush? That won’t work, since he can see you through the walls and thus knows you’re coming. Run away? You sure as hell aren’t encouraged to come after the guy, since he knows you’re coming and might very well have a Boltshot or some other CQB weapon primed and ready to one-shot you. PV is just as annoying and arguably as OP as Armor Lock, except I could actually counter AL. It’s not like I can poke a guy who is spamming X-ray vision in his eyes or anything. Technically, you can counter PV, but only by using the Stealth perk, which in order to unlock you must complete the Wetwork specialization.
The thruster pack feels like a half-assed version of the Evade ability from Reach. Unlike Evade, which was faster than normal movement and allowed two dodges per charge, the thruster pack is no faster than normal movement and only allows for one use per charge. It really needs a bit of a boost in how fast it propels you (say, 1.5 to 2 times sprint speed), because as of now it feels quite useless in most circumstances (though it is useful if used right in the right circumstances), particularly in MP.
The Auto Sentry and Regeneration Field are simply the Auto-turret and Regeneration equipment from Halo 3 modified to become AAs. The Sentry does little damage and is very fragile and thus isn’t all that effective on its own, and is almost purely defensive, good for CTF but not Slayer. It probably works best in Campaign, which it was likely optimized for. The Regen field seems kind of impotent as well, and as a result you don’t see it being used all that much in MP, though it can come in handy in Spartan Ops.
Fall damage is still present in Halo 4. However, it has been reduced quite a bit. It does not figure into the course of normal gameplay in any Campaign or Spartan Ops level or any standard MP map, and there have been only a tiny handful of occasions where I’ve suffered damage from a fall. Then again, there’s a lot less verticality in this game, so even if fall damage was at Reach levels, it might not be that much of a factor.
Not much to report on here. The player’s Spartan maneuvers about the same as they did in Reach, with seemingly the same running speed (they might be a tad quicker) and same jump height. The player and vehicle controls handle just perfectly, just like you’d expect in a Halo game.
Like in Reach, I’ve been defaulting to the Recon layout. It’s close enough to Reach’s Recon that the adjustment period wasn’t too bad. Still, like Reach’s Recon and Halo 3’s default before it, H4’s Recon might be my preferred layout and it gets the job done, but it’s not what I would consider my optimum layout, and as a result I end up with muscle memory issues going back and forth between H4 and Reach. I would’ve liked a layout that takes Recon and swaps reload/action to X and sprint to RB, making it more like H1/H2 classic default. It still irks me that after 11 years, six games, and two developers, we still only have six or seven preset layouts to choose from. I know they’re trying to take previous layouts and optimize them for each game’s unique gameplay features (dual wielding in H2, equipment in H3, AAs in Reach, sprint being a default ability instead of an AA in H4), and, in the case of the jump to the 360, differences in controller design, but it would be nice to have fully customizable controls so we can make our own layout optimal to us. If that’s not feasible, at the very least there should be a much larger selection of layouts, at least a few of which come from listening to feedback from the players (the “action/reload on X, sprint on RB” layout that I mentioned would be my optimum was also requested from quite a few other players).
Story & Presentation
(WARNING: If you’re one of the few who still hasn’t played Campaign but wants to, you might want to skip this section right now. It contains spoilers for the whole Campaign. Note that the concluding segment of the review contains story spoilers as well.)
Discussing the story of Halo 4 is a bit tough. It doesn’t involve political intrigue like Halo 2, nor is it a sloppy mess that retcons massive chunks of established canon like Reach (not to say there aren’t any retcons; there are, and I’ll mention those in a bit). The story is really very simple and straightforward, and much like CE it’s its own focused, self-contained adventure. However, it does drop the ball on occasion, and fails to deliver any emotional impact (outside of the Chief/Cortana angle; more on that in a bit) or sense of urgency, it fails to make good use of the new plot points, and ultimately there’s not much of a payoff at the end.
The game starts off where Halo 3 ends, with the Chief and Cortana arriving at a mysterious Forerunner world. Before they’re pulled into the planet, they are accosted by a remnant of the Covenant. If you aren’t familiar with the expanded universe, you would be at a total loss as to why these Elites and their subordinates are being antagonistic. There is a throwaway exchange where John expresses confusion because we had made a truce with the Sangheili, and Cortana remarking that a lot could have changed in the last 4+ years they’ve been drifting through space. These Covies are there just because, well, I guess it wouldn’t be Halo without Covenant to fight, and 343I just needed a brief token “truce broken” line to justify it. That nothing was really mentioned about the political struggles and factionalization within Sangheili society, and that no UNSC-allied portions of the former Covenant showed up or were mentioned, was a wasted opportunity.
However, the Covenant are just an impediment to your initial goal: the Chief wants to get Cortana, who is undergoing rampancy, to Dr. Halsey to be “cured.” And the Chief and his interaction with Cortana is the only strong part of this game’s narrative. The friendship between this hardened soldier and his AI companion, the devotion showed towards each other, the trust and concern, really delivers an emotional impact.
But the Chief’s self-imposed mission to help his friend does of course hit a major snag as we are introduced to the series’ new villain the Didact and his army of Prometheans early on in the game. The Didact, the last living Forerunner (which effectively makes him a god to the Covenant, who immediately join his side once he’s revealed, thus bolstering his forces), is an ultimately dissatisfying antagonist, lacking the depth of the sinister and duplicitous Prophet of Truth. He’s more along the lines of Tartarus: a guy with an axe to grind and not much more. He’s really resentful of humanity and wants to wipe us out, or more accurately forcibly convert us into members of his Promethean army, just to exact his revenge and further his own goals. While his motivations are fleshed out more in the terminals hidden throughout the game (which unfortunately can only be actually viewed on Waypoint, which sucks for people without XBL and/or internet access), it still doesn’t help his case, and he still comes across as a myopic, vengeful guy with a chip on his shoulder the size of Installation 00. Also, neither the in-game narrative nor the terminals clarify which Didact it is being portrayed. It turns out there are two of him: the “Bornstellar-Didact” who was depicted in Halo 3’s terminals and came across as a good guy who died when he fired the Halo rings 100,000 years ago, and the “Ur-Didact,” the original one who turned evil and who we fight in this game.
Of course, we have have to chase him down and stop him, a task which encompasses the entire remaining span of the game. We do get some help along the way. The powerful, gargantuan UNSC Infinity arrives, pulled forcibly into Requiem just like the Dawn and the Covenant’s fleet were. While her Captain, the obstructionist and incompetent Andrew Del Rio, is largely unconcerned with the Didact and his minions and is concerned solely with getting the Infinity off of Requiem ASAP (and being a total asshole to the Chief), his XO Commander Tom Lasky (who was introduced in the “Forward Unto Dawn” web series) being the voice of reason and the one who does the most to help the Chief. The Chief and Cortana are eventually left alone to stop the Didact as the Infinity leaves Requiem. Along the way, the Chief encounters the Librarian (well, a projection of her, really), who offers some exposition and gives the Chief an “upgrade” that he’ll need to defeat the Didact. The Didact leaves Requiem as well, but not before making a detour to a UNSC base orbiting Halo Installation 03 in order to retrieve the Composer, which he needs to convert humanity to members of his Promethean army (and which the Chief is immune to thanks to the Librarian). He then proceeds to Earth, where the Chief succeeds in defeating the Didact with the help of Cortana (but not before the city of New Phoenix gets Composed), who presumably dies in a Heroic Sacrifice.
While the ending was quite poignant, most everything before that didn’t involve the Chief and Cortana’s relationship wasn’t much to write home about. As the outline above shows, we get detoured from our mission to find Halsey and fix Cortana and end up spending most of the latter two-thirds of the game chasing a shallow, petty, vindictive villain around to stop him from “killing” everyone on Earth. The Covenant are just kind of there. The Chief and Cortana never make it to Dr. Halsey, who does appear, but only in the opening cinematic, which was really a squandered opportunity. The Didact attacks Earth with the Composer, but we’re so far removed from the carnage that no real impact is felt.
Despite all the potential this new story arc brings, Halo 4 never makes good use of it. No mysteries explored. Nothing about the new power structure in the galaxy (i.e., humanity as the dominant race in the galaxy). Just a generic “Stop the bad guy from destroying the Earth” plot serving as a backdrop for the Chief/Cortana dynamic. Add on to that a retcon that, while it might be missed by those unfamiliar with the expanded universe, is pretty significant — Bungie’s vision had the Forerunners and humanity be one and the same species, something all but spelled out to us on multiple occasions in the fiction, particularly in Contact Harvest, and explicitly stated by Bungie’s David “Evil Otto” Candland, but 343I decided to make them two different species (oh, an another minor Forerunner-related retcon: apparently everything they create is made of hard light now) — and you have a game that’s very lackluster in the story department.
It does however flow very well from one event to another, even though nothing really impactful happens. The game does a great job at building atmosphere as well. A couple of secondary characters (Lasky and Dr. Tillson) are interesting and likable. But that doesn’t change the fact that not much of anything meaningful happens. Also, while Halo 4 has a sequel hook that leaves room for potential future story arcs, the fact that it’s a standalone story with a definite end means it does nothing to build towards Halo 5 (granted, Halo 1 did this as well, but when it came out there was no guarantee of sequels as nobody could have predicted it’d be the runaway success it was). Overall, I’d say Halo 4’s story ranks just ahead of Reach’s and on par with Halo 3’s, but falls far short of those of Halo 1 & 2, which had excellent writing. Of course, that’s only when assessing each game as part of the franchise as a whole, where things like Halo 3’s first half being filler or Reach retconning the last act of The Fall of Reach work against those games’ stories. Assessing each game in a vacuum, Halo 4 has the weakest writing.
Stage Designs & Environments
Halo 4’s levels aren’t an improvement in terms of design over prior games, and while not bad, are painfully average overall in terms of design and layout and are a step down from H4’s immediate predecessor Halo: Reach. For one, there’s not really a whole lot of freedom to explore. While there are places that open up some to provide a bit of freedom of movement, the levels are too constrained for the most part. The overabundance of invisible walls and other arbitrary barriers to exploration and sequence breaking, which I hate oh so much, serves to exacerbate this. On the whole, they are as linear as ever, perhaps on par with Halo 2. Actually, Halo 4 might be slightly worse in terms of linearity, since at least Halo 2 didn’t have invisible walls everywhere and you could actually get out of bounds at explore in some parts. The most egregious examples of such linearity in Halo 4 are the gondola sequences on Shutdown as well as the Broadsword run in the last level, as these sections are almost quite literally on-rails.
The levels are also not that big, either. There are some parts that provide the illusion of scale, such as the level Shutdown. Much like New Alexandria, it’s a large but mostly empty space (in fact, it’s even emptier than NA was) where you fly a Pelican to one of several relatively small places where you have to get out and go on foot, and the Broadsword section at the beginning of Midnight encompasses a large space, but is a Star Fox-like scrolling shooter sequence that, like Long Night of Solace’s space battles, needed to be that big to encompass that kind of gameplay. But those sections don’t really count just like the aforementioned portions of Reach didn’t count (a sentiment shared Bungie’s Chris Opdahl in regards to Reach’s stages, who said that comparing LNoS to the other levels when discussing level size would be “cheating”), and the “regular” levels and play spaces are not that big by Halo standards. There’s certainly nothing that comes close to challenging the still reigning king of large Halo stages: Assault on the Control Room. Despite Frank O’Connor’s claim that they would try to capture the “spirit of exploration” of older Halo games, they utterly failed in that regard. Small, linear stages with tons of invisible walls and kill barriers aren’t exactly conducive to exploration.
Halo 4’s difficulty feels a bit more fair and balanced (ugh, I can’t believe I used that phrase) than the last couple of games. Against my better judgement, I decided to do my first run on Legendary after hearing that beating the game on said difficulty gave a little bonus scene at the end of the game. Turns out, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. There were a few snags (particularly when you first encounter Knights in the game), and while it was pretty damn hard, it was far more forgiving than Reach was. The Knights had quite the learning curve. I learned the hard way to not assassinate any Covies if he had a teammate armed with a Needler nearby. Vehicles felt like death traps. You really have to think through encounters on Legendary. But it was still nowhere near the hassle that Reach was. Once I finished the game, I checked out my final stats for the Campaign. I died 181 times, compared to 342 times for my first run on Reach (which was also on Legendary). I recently completed a second solo Legendary run to see how it really compares to the others, and I died a total of 74 times, comparable to how much I die in Halo 1, 3, & Reach. Overall, Halo 4 is a solid yet fair challenge.
Enemies & AI
Halo 4 sees the return of familiar faces from the former Covenant. The Covenant remnant is comprised of the four “classic” species introduced in Halo 1: Elites, Grunts, Jackals, and Hunters. Brutes, Drones, and Engineers are completely absent. In terms of behavior and role, the Covies are the same as they’ve always been. You know them. You’ve fought them countless times over the past 11 years. While the Covies have been pared down to the four “original” species, they do have some new ranks to give them a tad more variety. For example, both Grunts and Jackals have a jetpack-equipped Ranger rank.
While the number of old enemies has been greatly reduced, Halo 4 does introduce a new faction: the Forerunner Prometheans. They fight and interact in unique ways. The Knights are the backbone of the Prometheans, big and tough, almost like a “Super Elite” with all sorts of tricks up its sleeve. In addition to being strong and resilient, they are capable of teleportation and can summon Watchers. The Crawlers harass players with their numbers and use their ability to walk up walls and across ceilings to great effect. The Watchers are a support unit that can provide shields to other Prometheans, resurrect defeated Knights, throw the player’s grenades back at him, and summon Crawlers and defensive beam turrets. They also have the tendency to run away and hide the moment you attack them, and tracking them down to kill them (which you really should make your top priority when fighting Prometheans) becomes problematic when having to also deal with Knights and swarms of Crawlers. The way the three classes of Prometheans interact with each other is quite unique, and, while I feel it wasn’t exploited to the fullest extent, it does provide for a decent challenge.
Enemy AI feels like it took a step down from Reach, which had some really good AI, perhaps the best in the series. It’s still decent, though. For example, Elites still make good use of cover and have decent evasive abilities, while Knights aren’t quite as bright comparatively speaking, as though they have a few tricks up their sleeve they don’t always make good use of them. However, enemy driving AI is really great, which makes them more challenging in this regard. Overall, it feels on par with Halo 2’s AI, which while not quite as good as Halo 1 or Reach’s, is a good bit better than Halo 3’s. As for friendly AI, it’s as hilariously pathetic as ever. At least those Spartan-IVs have shields, which, like allied Elites in Halo 2 & 3, keeps them from being total cannon fodder.
Halo games have always been largely bereft of actual objectives aside from “Get from Point A to Point B” and “Kill this enemy/group of enemies or press this button to proceed.” There are a few notable objectives, though, such as escorting Keyes off the Truth & Reconciliation, destroying the Pillar of Autumn’s reactor, and severing the cable holding up the gas mine during the Arbiter’s first mission in Halo 2. Halo 4 does offer a fair number of objectives, but they get kind of repetitive. It’s almost always a variant of “Destroy these three energy cores.” I do appreciate the fact that 343I did try to give us something to do besides kill all the bad guys and get to the end of the level, but the objectives really could have used more variety.
It… doesn’t exist any more. Despite being a feature in Halo 3, ODST, and Reach, 343I saw fit to not include it in Halo 4. Why, I don’t know. Personally, I thought having scoring really added some genuine replay value to the Campaign. Interestingly, the PGCR in Spartan Ops (which also lacks scoring; see below) reveals the game does have point values for enemies and modifiers for difficulty in the game code. Scoring is just another entry on the long list of things that 343I cut.
Halo 4 introduces QTEs and other similar occurrences into the Campaign where none had existed in prior games. There are only two actual QTEs, both of which are of the “Press X to Not Die” kind: the elevator shaft sequence in the first level and the climax of the game where the Chief fights the Didact and nukes his ship. There are other events that, while not technically QTEs since they lack the mini-game-like nature of QTEs, are similar in that they result in sudden breaks in the natural flow of gameplay. For example, there is at least one instance where you are suddenly attacked by a Promethean Knight in a scripted sequence where the Chief fights and beats said enemy. Even more notable are the over 40 mandatory button pushes throughout the Campaign; when you activate a switch, it triggers a brief animation showing the Chief pressing the button, pulling the lever, or inserting/retrieving Cortana’s AI chip into/from a computer terminal. These wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that some of these buttons are in the middle of combat with enemies all around. In the past, you could just loot-&-scoot, zipping past the button while quickly tapping X/RB/whatever and then getting the hell out of Dodge. But since you have to deal with some mandatory animation that takes several seconds, if you attempt to press a button before clearing the area, you risk death, plus you are vulnerable during the animation, which worsens the situation.
Even if we admit that button pushes pulling us out of gameplay is a “minor” thing, there is the issue of precedent-setting. There’s a trend in the industry of making video games more like interactive movies than electronic games. In other words, they’re making things more cinematic, but sometimes at the expense of gameplay. This opens the door for further instances of the devs yanking us out of gameplay to do something “cool” and cinematic.
Even QTEs fall into a related category; though the player is technically doing something, it’s really just a simple “Simon Says” minigame that’s meant to give the player the illusion of control while at the same time crafting a more “cinematic” experience. The fact that yanking the player out of gameplay actually helps break immersion if it totally clashes with the established game mechanics of the series (which is the case here, as Halo never used QTEs before) apparently doesn’t register with the devs, who want to make “art” even if it comes at the expense of gameplay. The Didact either should have been a proper boss battle instead of a QTE, or that whole fight should have been relegated to a cutscene. Likewise, the elevator sequence in the first level should have been a cutscene as well if it was even included in the first place. These QTEs likewise set a bad precedent, and if enough people don’t air their grievances regarding these things, that just encourages the developer to add more QTEs in future games. The developer’s job is to make compelling gameplay experiences first and foremost, full stop. If making cinematic experiences ever comes at the expense of gameplay, then the dev is failing to do their job. Plus, at this point, aren’t QTEs just kind of trite and cliche? They’ve been used in their current form since at least Shenmue, which was released in 1999 (though they date back even further, to 1983 with the arcade classic Dragon’s Lair), but they’re rarely implemented well or even appropriately. One would think they’d have fallen out of vogue by now given that many people have criticized them consider them trite and usually poorly implemented, but I guess not since many devs think they’re great tools to make things more movie-like.
343I ditched Firefight for Halo 4, instead giving us a new play mode called Spartan Ops, which offers a serialized story told through cinematics and multiple short missions. The story so far has been quite interesting, and Dr. Halsey, Cpt. Lasky, and Jul Mdama have more prominent roles (the latter never even showed up in the Campaign despite being the commander of the Covenant forces on Requiem at the time). I’ve been looking forward to each new episode just to see how the story will play out. While I appreciate the fact that it has a narrative to it, Spartan Ops also has many cons to it that make it an unsuitable replacement for Firefight. For one, it has little variety. Unlike Firefight, which had a wide variety of squads which could be randomized, any given Spartan Ops mission has the same enemies spawning in the same location every time you play. This makes the missions — some of which are structured similarly to Firefight in that you’re defending a specific location from waves of enemies, and others which are structured more like miniature Campaign missions, taking you on a mostly linear trip from point A to point B (also, like Campaign you have unlimited lives) — play exactly the same every time. This results in very little replay value. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are no skulls to alter difficulty, no custom options to further spice things up, and no scoring to give you a goal to work for other than victory. Oddly enough, as mentioned earlier in the section on Campaign scoring, the PGCR in Spartan Ops does have a “Biggest Kill” entry, complete with point values for all enemies and modifiers for difficulty, thus showing that at least some of the ingredients for scoring exist in the game’s code.
The missions themselves do have a generally good flow, though, and they are decent fun when playing with a full group of four. In fact, Spartan Ops was obviously designed for co-op play (and for infinite lives on top of that), as the difficulty balancing has obviously adjusted damage tables for the enemies, and playing solo Legendary can be a frustrating experience where you are getting spawn killed constantly since, unlike in Reach’s Firefight, you can’t control where you respawn. In terms of difficulty, it feels more like Halo 2 Legendary, which was notoriously over-the-top. The missions are a mix of original environments, multiplayer maps, and areas cribbed from the Campaign. The original environments are quite well-designed, and I wish there were more of them. However, due to narrative reasons and the fact that there’s more missions than environments, you’ll be seeing the same places fairly regularly. On the plus side, though, 343I did manage to get a decent variety out of those environments by having different objectives, enemies, available equipment, and starting points, and even by placing buildings and other structures in various places specific to each mission. While this does keep any two missions from being too much like each other, it still doesn’t keep any given mission from being repetitive in and of itself.
While it was an interesting experiment, Spartan Ops just doesn’t have enough going for it to compel me to revisit missions I have finished, at least not with any degree of regularity (I may replay through the whole thing again once it’s all concluded). Here’s hoping that 343I brings back Firefight for Halo 5 (maybe even have it exist alongside Spartan Ops), or at the very least gives Spartan Ops the degree of customization and the arcade-like feel of Firefight — in other words, bring back skulls, customizable enemy waves & other options (e.g., limited lives), and scoring — in the future instead of having it be so damn repetitive.
The Cauldron is one of the play spaces unique to Spartan Ops.
I can’t say I’m really a fan of Halo 4’s current map pool. I can’t really put my finger on it, but they’re just not clicking with me. Few of them flow well or have good layouts (Abandon is just atrocious in this regard; it’s one of the top 3 worst MP maps ever IMO). Maybe that perception is at least in part because of gameplay changes like ordnance drops and custom loadouts, but since there’s no “Classic Slayer” playlist as of yet there’s no way to tell for sure. I know the BTB maps we have so far (except Ragnarock, the remake of Halo 3’s Valhalla) suffer from a lack of openness, and are very constrained and cluttered when compared to BTB maps from previous games like Blood Gulch & its remakes, Sidewinder, Containment, Relic, Sandtrap, Standoff, Highlands, and Breakpoint. It doesn’t really give vehicles (especially light vehicles) a chance to shine since there’s so little room for maneuvering, especially considering that everybody can spawn with plasma pistols and plasma grenades now. Also, Exile has some terrible spawns, and it’s easy to spawn trap the other team if you push them back to their base.
Few of the maps are really distinctive, either; in other words, they lack their own character. They’re so… nondescript. They fail to do anything interesting and none of them have any kind of novel design. Some of the most well-regarded maps of past Halo games, including classics like Hang ’em High, Damnation, Lockout, Zanzibar/Last Resort, The Pit, and of course Blood Gulch and its remakes, all had innovative designs and/or superb map flow, and had a distinctive character to them. Even Chiron TL-34, the black sheep of CE’s map pool, was at least trying to do something interesting and is a wholly unique design. Halo 4’s maps are just so humdrum in comparison. It has by far the weakest selection of maps in the series to date, and maybe it’s no surprise that perhaps the best map in the game is a remake of Halo 3’s Valhalla.
Even aesthetically they fail to be distinctive. Maybe it’s because they’re overall less colorful than prior games, and few of them use truly unique architecture or environments. In terms of overall theme or general appearance, what’s there to really, truly distinguish, say, Meltdown from Vortex, or Complex from Harvest, or Wreckage from Shatter? So many of the maps just kind of run in to each other thematically, and the only ones that really stand out are Exile and Abandon. Bungie’s maps tended to be visually and thematically much more distinct from each other (not to mention having better layouts). For example, though Reach had many maps with human architecture, there was plenty of variety: the rustic Powerhouse, the bright-white, tree-lined pavilions of Boardwalk, the shiny hardwood floors and East Asian deco of Reflection, and the technological space station environs of Anchor 9, to name a few. While Halo 4 is far from approaching the numbing sameness of the “Random Assortment of Buildings A, Random Assortment of Buildings B, etc., etc.” type of map design that plagues Call of Duty (which I will be mentioning a lot in this review, but only because, as the most popular and influential FPS series today, it’s Halo’s main rival, and as we’ll see its influences on Halo 4 are unmistakable), by Halo standards the maps are quite monotonous.
Gametypes, Custom Games, & Forge Mode
Oh dear sweet Lord in Heaven, what happened here? For the longest time, Halo games had continually offered us more in terms of options available to the players for crafting their own custom gameplay experiences in multiplayer. Halo 1 had some pretty basic stuff, offering a few core gametypes like Slayer, CTF, Oddball, and King of the Hill. There were plenty of options to change things up to keep things fresh and interesting during those LAN party days of yore. Halo 2 added more gametypes, and Halo 3 added even more. Halo 3 also added Forge, allowing us to alter maps and even adding a couple of “blank slate” levels in the DLC packs. Finally, we had Halo: Reach, probably the most feature-rich FPS ever. The amount of options were staggering. There were 12 core gametypes (not counting Grifball, which is just an Assault variant), more than ever before. In addition to the introduction of three new gametypes — Headhunter, Stockpile, and most notably Invasion — almost every gametype from prior games had returned (VIP was the only core gametype to be absent). There was also Forge World, a gargantuan canvas with a massive budget and a variety of terrain, plus Forge itself received many improvements that made it more flexible and user-friendly. The community had during the two years between the debut of Reach and the debut of Halo 4 churned out such a massive and varied amount of content, far beyond what was possible even in Halo 3. The hundred or so nights of Reach Custom nights we had in the Community Customs group playing games like Knockin’ Zombs, Sangheili Don’t Surf, Jump Rope, and Death Race (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg) is a testament to the incredible flexibility of that game.
But Halo 4 is a hugely disappointing step backwards in this area. The number of core gametypes has declined by a third, reducing the count to eight (again, not including Grifball, which is now an Oddball variant). Of those, three are new gametypes (and two of those are essentially new takes on Territories), meaning that only five “Classic” gametypes have returned. That’s a total of seven gametypes present in Reach that have been cut. Not only have the number of core gametypes been reduced, so have the number of sub-variants and custom options. For example, One-flag CTF is absent, and the re-branded Infection mode “Flood” is very limited in how you can customize it.
Also, there are changes made to several gametypes, some of which aren’t welcome at all. Most notable are the changes made to CTF, particularly the fact that you can’t drop the flag, which really detract from the CTF experience. Being unable to toss the flag to a teammate really removes a lot of depth from the gametype. Halo 1 had touch pickups for the flag, but at least you could drop it if you didn’t want to carry it or needed to throw it to a teammate. There should have been an option for classic CTF rules, i.e., no “flagnums,” press X/RB to pick flag up, dropping the flag enabled.
There is no longer one massive “blank slate” Forge map in the vein of Reach’s Forge World, and instead we have three different much smaller Forge environments. While having three unique environments to build in does alleviate the issue of visual monotony, which afflicted Forge World variants, their size makes it difficult and sometimes outright impossible to recreate any of the large-scale insanity we were capable of making in Reach. In addition, some functionality has disappeared: you can no longer click the left stick for slow-mo fine-tuning, nor can you zoom in while in Monitor mode, and you cannot control how far away or close to an object you are grabbing, instead being forced to stay a fixed distance from the object. Also, some Forge objects have mysteriously vanished. It’s not a total loss, though, as there have been some improvements to Forge’s functionality. For example, you can duplicate objects by just looking at it and tapping down on the D-pad, you can lock objects in place to keep them from being accidentally moved, there are magnets that, while finicky at times, make for quick and easy attaching of pieces, and finally you can delete objects by palette (that way you don’t have to hunt down all the spawn points to delete them, for example) or even clear the whole map out if you need to by selecting “Delete Everything.” Halo 4’s Forge also is capable of creating proper lighting and shadows for Forge pieces. But those improvements don’t negate the fact that Halo 4 is far less flexible than Reach was when it comes to giving the community the tools it needs to create a wide variety of custom games and map variants.
One of the two biggest changes to the Halo multiplayer formula is custom loadouts. While Reach had loadouts, they were always preset. For example, standard Slayer had five loadouts, all of which contained an AR, a magnum, a pair of frag grenades, and one of five armor abilities: sprint, jetpack, active camo, armor lock, and hologram. However, Halo 4’s loadouts are very similar to Call of Duty’s in structure, being fully customizable. You can pick and choose which two weapons you want (excluding power weapons), what kind of grenade you want, which armor ability you want, and which two perks — which are grouped in two categories: tactical packages and support upgrades — you want, and you place them in your loadout accordingly, and you can build up to five different custom loadouts.
While this greater flexibility sounds fine on paper, the implementation falls flat and results in a very un-Halo-like experience. For one, yeah, you have the ability to put various gear and abilities into your loadouts… that is provided you’ve unlocked them. Requiring players to unlock weapons and abilities effectively kills off the level playing field that had long been a hallmark of Halo multiplayer (I will talk more about this later in the section on player customization and advancement). Second, the perks also arguably have distinct “tiers” of usefulness, which creates balance issues. Some of them have very narrow range of specific uses and are arguably a wast of a perk slot (e.g., Gunner, Nemesis), while others are extremely effective and are always active (e.g., Ammo, Stealth). It just seems inordinately complicated and makes having a balanced game experience a less easily attainable goal. Finally, sometimes greater flexibility isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s much easier for Player Preferred Patterns to emerge. For example, the only handgun anybody uses in small maps is the Boltshot since it outclasses the other two as a killing tool, the most commonly used rifle is the DMR since it’s the most accurate and reliable rifle (seriously, go see how many deaths you have from the BR, Carbine, or Light Rifle in comparison), and in Big Team expect most players to have a loadout with a plasma pistol and plasma grenades in it so they can wreck vehicles.
To use a Halo-related example of why sometimes limited options is a good thing, look no further to the two-weapon limit, which Halo popularized. Before Halo, most popular shooters allowed you to carry any and all weapons in a “magic backpack,” so you always had whatever tool you needed for any situation at any time. However, Halo’s two-gun limit forced you to make tough tactical decisions on the fly (“Do I go pistol and rockets, or shotgun and sniper, or maybe something else? These weapons might be fine now, but will the one I didn’t pick up come in handy later?”). I always liked this about Halo, and it shows that, sometimes, restricting the player’s options instead of giving them access to the optimum solution to any problem at all times is a good thing as it forces them to think and strategize instead of becoming complacent and falling back on routine formulas constantly. As the old saying goes, sometimes less is more.
The other major change to Halo multiplayer is ordnance, which comes in two flavors: map ordnance and personal ordnance. Whereas in prior Halo games, weapons had fixed spawn locations with predictable (usu. timer-based) spawns, in Halo 4 map ordnance is normally structured to where you only have set weapon spawns at the beginning of the match — for example, there will always be a sword and incinerator at the bottom mid of Solace — but after that, it’s largely random. To continue using Solace as an example, the incinerator might never respawn at all, or if it does, it could be at any point in the match in any of several locations. Whereas classic-style weapon spawns promoted cycling around the map and engaging in proper resource & map control so that one’s team can gain access to the best weapons, Halo 4’s map ordnance is about just happening to be at the right place at the right time. That power weapon spawns near you? Then fortune smiles upon thee, as thou hast found the shotgun/binary rifle/whatever. But if it spawns near the enemy? Sucks to be you, I guess. Oh, and map ordnance also has resulted in standard issue weapons not showing up on the map, so any ammo for your regular guns must be scavenged from the bodies of dead allies and enemies. (I must also note that the lack of fixed, timer-based weapon spawns also contributes to the difficulty in calling out locations. Not only are the compass, map callouts, and red “X”es gone from the HUD, but you can’t even say something like “Near rocket spawn” because there is no regular rocket spawn.)
Personal ordnance is very similar to the “Care Package” killstreak from Call of Duty. A gauge fills up as you get kills and/or assists (the gauge does not reset if the player dies, so unlike in COD it does not require a kill/point streak to earn a drop), and once it fills completely, you can call in an ordnance drop. Such drops contain a selection of three items, whether they be power weapons, grenades, or power-ups. But it’s always a total crapshoot as to what you get to pick from. More often that not, it’ll be something like Pulse Grenades/Needler/Speed Boost, while more rarely a drop will give you something more powerful like a fuel rod gun or a beam rifle, and if you’re really lucky you’ll get two good weapons to choose from. Since it’s random, it’s possible for situations to arise where one team’s members get stuck with relatively mediocre drops, while the other team gets good weapons. There was one point during a match I played on Ragnarok where the other team ended up getting two beam rifles and a binary rifle for their weapon drops at around the same time. This can result in things snowballing in one team’s favor very quickly; they get an early lead and get some good ordnance drops, and that gives them just that much more of an advantage.
While not totally 100% random — with map ordnance, some weapons never show up on some maps, and those that do show up usually tend to show up in one or a few preset spots (e.g., there is one location on Haven where a binary rifle will occasionally appear, while on Complex there are several locations where a rocket launcher might appear), and the exact weapons that can show up in personal ordnance are also determined by map (I’ve never had the incinerator cannon show up as an option on Adrift, nor have I seen an enemy with one on that map) — the ordnance system is certainly almost entirely luck-based. As far as I’m concerned, that’s nothing but a bad thing. Making things more random doesn’t make things more balanced. It makes things unfair. If victory or defeat can be determined by simple luck of the draw, when you’re fighting not just the other players but also a random number generator, then something is wrong. I don’t mind losing because the other guy outshot me or the other team had better map control and teamwork, but I do mind it when I lose because the computer decided to give me a Needler and the other guy a beam rifle, or because it decided to spawn a rocket launcher next to someone on the other team instead of near me or one of my teammates. The ordnance system doesn’t add any depth to the gameplay, it doesn’t make things more competitive, and it doesn’t make things more fun. It’s just a bad idea that had no business being in a Halo game.
From a purely technical standpoint, Halo 4 is a very gorgeous game. In keeping with the other Halo games it has a rather diverse color palette when compared to most other games in the genre (though there are times when enemies and weapons don’t contrast enough with the scenery). The lighting is great (I seem to be the only one that’s not bothered by the lens flares either, gratuitous though they may be; perhaps J.J. Abrams has accustomed me to them), the textures are top notch, and the animations have improved, especially the facial animation, which is a step above Reach’s already impressive facial animation.
But while the game is for the most part very pretty from a purely technical standpoint, the art design is very hit or miss. The environments look really nice, but when it comes to character, creature, and mechanical designs, well, I’m just not digging it. While the design of a few new assets (e.g., new types of vehicles and weapons like the Mammoth and railgun) look pretty good, and a few returning assets are either more or less unchanged from their Reach designs (e.g., the Scorpion, Mongoose, and almost all Covenant weapons and vehicles) or have been changed only slightly from earlier incarnations (e.g, the AR looks nearly the same as it did in Halo 3, and the magnum, Spartan laser, and rocket launcher look very similar to how they did in Reach), many new assets don’t look that great, and most returning assets have been completely redesigned, and not for the better.
Not only do lots of these new designs and redesigns leave a lot to be desired from a purely aesthetic POV (they range from “okay” to just plain terrible), but they mark a radical break from established design precedent, creating major inconsistencies and outright retcons. Some things I can buy, like the UNSC’s weapons and vehicles being new models introduced after the war (though even then, the UNSC seems to introduce a new variant every couple of months, which seems a bit far-fetched given that most of the common weapons and vehicles in modern real-life militaries can go years or even decades without changing visibly and sometimes without being upgraded substantially). I can even excuse the Prometheans looking very unlike the angular aesthetic we’ve come to expect from the Forerunners; they’re likely the Didact’s personal designs, and given his disposition he probably wanted them to have a vicious, animalistic, bio-mechanical appearance. But other designs are just plain unacceptable.
Most of the armor permutations in multiplayer are not only just plain hideous (I can count on one hand the number of helmets that actually look decent). Not only do they have excessive kibble, greebles, and other unnecessary detail, but they don’t even look like Mjolnir. Many of them look extremely animesque, like a cross between a Super Robot and a tokusatsu superhero. With a few exceptions (e.g., the ODST-like Recruit helmet and returning helmets like Scout and Recon), they don’t look like they share any design lineage with any prior Mjolnir variants, and they sure as hell don’t look like something a Spartan would wear. The armor in prior games looked practical and militaristic for the most part, but the armor perms in H4 are a prime example of form over function.
The physiology of Grunts and Jackals (and even Elites to a lesser extent) has changed radically. The Grunts have gone from having chitinous crab-like exoskeletons to having leathery skins and crocodile-like scutes (the likening of Grunts to decapodian crustaceans goes back at least to Conversations from the Universe, which gave “crab” and “lobster” as nicknames for the Unggoy). The Jackals, long having been portrayed as vulture-like avians (when he first saw one, the Chief was reminded of carrion birds native to Reach), now look like demented iguanas with underbites (or the American Godzilla from the 1998 Roland Emmerich film); even though the Skirmishers in Reach were noticeably different from regular Jackals, they at least still looked like big, humanoid vultures, just with more feathers. Overall, the Covenant have been made far more bestial in appearance, and it’s been remarked that they look more like they’d feel right at home within the Locust Horde from Gears of War. (Note that we can no longer play as Elites in MP, which is yet another option from previous Halo games that is gone, though given that they look so hideous, and not in a good way, it’s not much of a loss.)
Even more egregious is the design of both the Chief’s armor and the Forward Unto Dawn. Instead of acquiring his new armor later in the game when he is aboard the Infinity, he wakes up from cryo wearing it, with no real explanation. It’s quite simply not the same suit of Mark VI he had on at the end of Halo 3. It just transmogrified in his sleep, I guess. Also, the Dawn just magically changes ship classes, having been completely remodeled to look like the new frigate class. Incidentally, this new frigate class is also actually supposed to be the same Charon class introduced in Halo 3 (which had the same basic body type as its contemporaries, the Stalwart and Paris classes) despite having a completely different layout from any prior frigate design. Go figure. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. We’re simply supposed to accept that that’s what it looks like now. At least the redesigned Pillar of Autumn seen in Reach and HCEA has the same shape as it did in the original release of Halo 1, differing only in the details.
The graphical evolution of the Mark VI armor and the four main Covenant species, from their first appearance to how they appear in Halo 4. (Click for full size images.)
What’s especially galling are the nonsensical explanations 343I have offered to explain why certain things look different (none of these explanations are in the game, mind you, and have only been mentioned in passing in a couple of Waypoint Bulletins). They’ve tried to use nanomachines to justify the changes to the Chief’s armor (in fact, “nanomachines” is now a meme of sorts in the Halo fandom) and genetic engineering/selective breeding to explain the changes to Covenant biology. But the Dawn’s redesign renders all that moot. It is completely different — it can be likened to the USS Enterprise magically changing from a Constitution-class vessel to a Miranda-class vessel between Star Trek II and III —, and that cannot be explained. Even ignoring the quasi-Orwellian “Mjolnir, Elites, etc., look like that; they have always looked like that” retcon in the opening cutscene, which could be ascribed to things like budget constraints or outright laziness in addition to simple deliberate retconning, the visual retconning of the FUD is the one thing that lays bare the fact that 343I’s art department decided to redesign everything because, well, they felt like it. That, despite any claims to the contrary, it was change for change’s sake.
Gameplay may be the most important aspect of any video game, but aesthetics are important for the storytelling aspect. Lack of visual consistency helps to break immersion. Making sure things stay looking the same helps ground the universe and tie it together instead of letting it look more like a mishmash of loosely-connected but otherwise separate continuities. Changes to the design of something — a character, species, ship, weapon — need a damn good explanation, or else it breaks continuity. For example, when the Chief’s armor was redesigned in Halo 2, it had a plausible explanation; the game starts with him in Cairo Station’s armory having just received a next-generation suit of Mjolnir, the Mark VI, which replaced the Mark V armor he wore in Halo 1. But in Halo 4 when I look at the Chief, I don’t see the same suit of Mark VI, even though it’s supposed to be the same suit of armor. When I look at the Dawn, I don’t see the same ship, even though it’s supposed to be the same ship. When I see Grunts and Jackals, I don’t see the same species I fought in previous games. Et cetera, et cetera. I don’t mind new art assets, but I do mind it when they come at the expense of what has come before. Save the creativity and newness for things that are actually new, or for things that might make sense, but do not throw out existing designs just because you feel like it. Changes like those done by 343I serves to break suspension of disbelief, making it feel like an alternate universe. They should leave what had come before alone. Give the Covies new armor to establish them as a breakaway faction, but don’t change their physiology. Give the Chief’s armor a firmware upgrade to make his HUD look spiffy and explain how he can use AAs, but don’t change it physically. If they wanted to redesign it, they should have either had him start off with Halo 3-style Mark VI armor and then getting new armor aboard the Infinity, or they could have just waited until Halo 5 to give him new armor. The last scene in the epilogue would have been a perfect setup for him getting Mark VII armor. Do some Escher-esque stuff with the level “Dawn” if you need it to fit in the rear half of a Charon-class frigate (in the same vein as the Autumn in Halo 1, where The Maw didn’t actually fit into the physical model of the POA), but don’t actually change the FUD’s design. Keep things consistent wherever and whenever possible.
Star Wars and Star Trek do a much better job of maintaining visual consistency than Halo has typically done. For Star Wars, compare Boba Fett’s armor with Jango Fett’s; when Jango was introduced in Episode II, it was obvious that it was the same armor as Boba’s, just newer and not all beat up and with a different paint job (IIRC, it’s the same suit of armor, and Boba just modified it after inheriting it from his father). Or compare their ship the Slave I as it appears in Empire with how it appears in AotC: exact same design aside from a new paint job (Boba repainted the blue parts red-brown). RotS-era Clone Trooper armor looks the same in both said movie and in the Clone Wars CGI cartoon, as do their gunships. Your basic Storm Trooper, the Millennium Falcon, X-wings, Y-wings, A-wings, B-wings, TIE fighters, TIE interceptors, Imperial-class Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, AT-STs, and other iconic vehicles and armors look the same in most of their non-film appearances as they do in the movies.
On to Star Trek. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you might remember the old TOS episode “The Tholian Web,” where the USS Defiant gets lost in a spatial rift. It shows up again on the Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly,” having reappeared in the Mirror Universe (the one where there’s the evil Terran Empire instead of the noble Federation and Spock is rocking a killer goatee). Here’s the Defiant as it appeared in “The Tholian Web”:
Now here’s how it appears in “In a Mirror, Darkly”:
Despite being a CGI recreation, it looks identical to the physical model used in “The Tholian Web.” Likewise, the CGI model of the Enterprise in the remastered version of TOS is indistinguishable in terms of design from the physical model used back in the 60s. Even the Defiant’s bridge as shown in “A Mirror Darkly” is indistinguishable from how it appeared in “The Tholian Web” (or from the bridge of the Enterprise; both are Constitution-class ships), and the uniforms the mirror NX-01’s crew finds on the Defiant are the same as TOS-era uniforms. When the Enterprise was redesigned for The Motion Picture it had a good explanation. Starfleet was refitting the now 20-something-year-old ship. While the differences are obvious, it wasn’t too radical of a departure. Even when the Enterprise was redesigned yet again for J.J. Abrams’ reboot/prequel, it still retained the same basic shape, and while it has obvious differences from how it appeared in the original series (they are products of the 60s and late 00s, respectively, and thus conform to the artistic zeitgeist of their days), it again is excusable as the new Trek films take place in an alternate universe running parallel to the original Trek universe. To see how similar the various versions of the Enterprise were, just click on this image. Also, while they only showed up briefly on a display screen during the Kobayashi Maru scene, the Klingon cruisers look nearly the same in the new movie as they did in back in the old TOS films.
As you can see, despite being sprawling franchises that predate Halo by decades, they have a much higher degree of visual consistency. Halo, despite being a much younger and smaller franchise, has not managed to attain anywhere near the level of visual consistency of those older franchises. Now, when Bungie was in charge most major assets were somewhat consistent, as shown earlier. However, the Elites had a noticeable but not drastic redesign in Halo 3, and in Reach you saw more changes to the armor the Covenant wore, as well as some changes to the design of a few weapons. The biggest lack of consistency was the Brute designs. However, 343I has cranked all this to eleven. Their art department apparently has been given carte blanche to do pretty much whatever so long as things look kind-of, sort-of Covenant-ish, Spartan-ish, Forerunner-ish, or what have you. Sure, you might be able to go “Oh, yeah. That’s a Grunt,” or “Hey, that’s the BR,” and despite being radically redesigned for no good reason (and no plausible reason), you’re not going to mistake the guy on the cover of Halo 4 as anyone other than the Master Chief, but it’s still a radical departure from what came before. While visual consistency has always been an issue in the Halo-verse to some degree, it’s gotten a lot worse in Halo 4.
Now, Halo has maintained consistency on many occasions as well. For example, despite being on different engines on two different generations of hardware, the Chief looks nearly identical in both Halo 2 & 3. There are numerous other examples of weapon, vehicle, and creature designs that remained unchanged from game to game (as mentioned earlier, Halo 4 actually retains all the Covenant weapon and vehicle designs from Reach, with the exception of the plasma rifle; the beam rifle and carbine have new designs as well, but weren’t present in Reach). That this consistency was applied, well, inconsistently has been rather frustrating as it serves to break suspension of disbelief. It was bad enough at times under Bungie, but has gotten worse under 343I. The fact that they easily could have made things consistent and had any changes make logical sense but chose not to is one of the biggest issues I have with 343I.
Music & Sound
Along with a new development studio comes a new composer. Neil Davidge, known mainly for his work with British trip-hop duo Massive Attack, takes over the role of producing Halo’s music from Bungie’s Marty O’Donnell. While Davidge’s work is stylistically quite different from Marty’s and the use of classic Halo music is limited to two occasions (the familiar “chanting Halo monks” when Gamma Halo appears briefly at the beginning of the next to last level and a new mix of “Never Forget” is used during the end credits), it is nevertheless very high in quality overall, with memorable tracks like “Arrival,” “To Galaxy,” and “Revival.” However, while Marty’s songs were prominent and up front & center, Davidge’s music is quite subdued and rarely comes to the forefront. It usually ends up being quite literally background music. Considering how good the music is, I was hoping it would be more prominent than it is in-game.
As for the sound design, it’s very hit-or-miss. Some sound effects are great, but others just fall flat. For example, the iconic sound of the Warthog is gone, replaced by something that sounds more like a go-kart or motor scooter. Also, most of the weapons just sound kinda off. Really… how do I put this? … electronic and tinny, almost over-processed, and just plain weak overall. They don’t really sound like weapons of war. The Covenant plasma weapons in particular sound weird, and have been likened to an old-timey typewriter and even to a stapler. Reach’s and even HCEA’s weapons sounded nice and beefy, but I’m not liking H4’s all that much. The DMR, shotgun, railgun, beam rifle, and SAW sound alright, but that’s about it. Speaking of good weapon sounds, Perfect Dark and especially Battlefield: Bad Company had some really good sound effects. From that field audio recording session video 343i released early last year, I was thinking Halo 4 would sound a lot like BC, but I guess Sotaro Tojima decided to process the hell out of what they had recorded. Overall, I think Reach and even HCEA had better sound design overall, especially in regards to weapon and vehicle sounds.
Finally, the voice acting is fairly solid as always. Steve Downes, Jen Taylor are back and as always are in fine form. The fact that the Chief actually talks during gameplay really helps his story and character development. The cast also includes the obligatory celebrity voice-overs, namely Mark Rolston (perhaps best known for portraying the character Drake from Aliens), who plays Captain Del Rio, and Adrienne Barbeau, who plays Dr. Tillson. Veteran voice actors like Kate Higgins, Laura Bailey, and Steve Blum provide the voices of more minor characters, and series regular Pete Stacker reprises his “Sgt. Stacker” role. The Elites and Grunts still don’t speak English anymore (and the latter sound weird, like constipated squirrels or something), which is a shame. Did Cortana’s firmware upgrade of the Chief’s armor accidentally delete the helmet’s translation software?
Theater mode has returned, but unfortunately it is only available for Multiplayer. You cannot view saved films for Campaign or Spartan Ops. And lack of saved films means lack of screenshot functionality. These are things we took for granted when Bungie still ran the franchise, and we had three games where we could view, record, and share our exploits in any and all play modes without the need for a capture card or any other gizmos. Yet another feature regrettably cut/severely reduced in function.
In addition, there are related community tools that are absent as well. When Bungie was still running things, both Halo 3 and Reach gave players the ability to render our saved films for online viewing or to save to your computer. Similarly, when you saved a screenshot from a film, it was sent to your online service record so it could be shared with the public. But these features ceased to be supported when 343I completely took over all things Halo nearly a year ago. I was hoping they’d return once Halo 4 came out, but alas that was not to be. We’ve regressed back to the era of capture cards. Furthermore, you can’t even view file shares online at all for Halo 4, which makes it just that more difficulty to share your creations with others (though apparently this one thing might change in the near future). Yet more tools that benefited the community that exist no longer.
Like in past games, Halo 4’s various play modes (except for Campaign this time) give medals for doing various things like getting multi-kills or killing sprees. While a lot of medals from previous games, most notably weapon-specific sprees like Sharpshooter and Open Season, are absent, Halo 4 offers medals for practically everything else. There’s medals for getting kills with just about every power weapon (except the shotgun and Scattershot) and even a medal for just plain old regular kills. While some of the new medals are pretty cool (Distractions are great), some of them are pointless, especially the generic “Kill” medal. Medals should be rewarded for things that a bit more remarkable than killing someone with an AR. Y’know, like getting a Perfection… which is no longer a medal but rather a commendation, so once you max it out your service record no longer tracks them. Wut?
Player Customization and Advancement
Halo 4 takes the player progression system introduced in Reach and expands it, making it more like COD and the rest of the current FPS status quo in this regard. Whereas in Reach the only things you unlocked were aesthetic in nature, mainly armor permutations, in Halo 4 you have to unlock practically everything. Most of the armor perms are still locked, but now emblems as well. While most of these are unlocked simply by reaching a particular level, which can take hours or even days worth of play time, many of them require maxing out certain commendations, which can take days more and also require playing certain gametypes or engaging in certain kinds of gameplay the player might not play or do otherwise. For example, the Splatter emblem and the green visor both require maxing out your Splatter commendation, which requires a total of 165 splatters, and I only have 11 total over 317 matches logged in so far as the writing of this sentence; for comparison, I have a career total of 284 splatters in Reach spread out over 3200+ MP matches, which gives an average of around one splatter every 11-12 matches, meaning I’m not really in the habit of going after splatters. Even more egregious are three of the stances for your Spartan ID (“Breach,” “Stand Off,” and “Believe”), which to unlock you need to max out the commendations for every weapon in either the UNSC, Covenant, or Forerunner categories.
Also, as mentioned earlier, Halo 4 also marks the first time in the history of the franchise where you have to unlock weapons and abilities (not to mention the very loadout slots to place these things in). It was bad enough that you had to grind, grind, grind to unlock armor in Reach, but at least Bungie never made us unlock things that actually have an effect on gameplay. You start off with access to the AR, magnum, and frag grenades, and that’s it. You have to earn everything else. As you rank up, you gain access to more weapons and abilities, and you also earn “Spartan Points” which are needed to purchase these things. All the weapons and armor abilities and most of the perks are available for purchase by SR26. Now, assuming you only play matchmade multiplayer do not use any Double XP codes, you’ll earn an average of around 2500 XP per match (you normally get in the 2000 to 3000 range). Given the amount of XP it takes to get to SR26, it will take roughly 75 matches, give or take to reach said rank, which translates to over 10 total hours of play time assuming an average match length of 8 minutes (a conservative estimate; my average match length is 9 minutes, 16 seconds). However, you won’t have enough Spartan Points to purchase everything until SR50, which requires about 4.7 times as much XP to get to as it does to get to SR26, which translates to about two days worth of play time. Some other perks require you to complete specializations, which you don’t get access to until you reach SR50, either. Note that these estimates are merely upper limits, and you can lower these numbers by completing Challenges and advancing Commendations. I’ve already played for about 49 hours so far in MM as of the writing of this sentence, averaging about 38 minutes per day, and I’m at SR68, meaning I’m close to completing my second specialization, and I’ve used a fair amount of Double XP codes and have completed quite a few Challenges.
While 49 hours might not sound like a lot, keep in mind that I am writing this section about 2-½ months after launch. It takes a good while to accumulate two days of play time when you play an average of only 4 or 5 matches a day. In any case, while someone who plays multiplayer and/or Spartan Ops fairly regularly (you no longer get any XP from playing Campaign aside from completing Challenges) might be able to unlock all the weapons, AAs, and most perks in a reasonable amount of time after they get the game, somebody who plays less frequently (say, only a couple of hours on Saturdays) will be unlocking basic stuff like that for weeks after they first get the game. My roommate got the game on launch as well, but he’s only in the 40s despite the game being nearly three months old; he’s not only played the game less than me, but also has completed proportionally few challenges and has used no Double XP codes. Meanwhile, some people had reached the SR130, the highest rank in the game, in less than a month after the game was released. And this is to say nothing of people who are just now getting the game or have yet to get it. There will never be a point where everyone is at least at SR50, much less SR130.
Personally, I’m not a fan of all this Skinner box crap. Not one bit. That’s my biggest beef with every COD game from MW1 on. It results in an unbalanced MP experience where those who have sunk more hours into the game have an advantage over those who play less. Up until now, every player in Halo was always on an even playing field. They had access to the same gear regardless of rank. Excepting certain “non-standard” gametypes like Fiesta, in Halo 1-3, everyone spawned with identical equipment, and even though Reach introduced loadouts to the series, at least Bungie took care to make it to where everyone in the match had equal access to all the available loadouts for the gametype.
But 343I caved to peer pressure and jumped on the player progression bandwagon. Now if you want a particular weapon or ability or whatever, you have to play for some arbitrary amount of time to unlock these before you can place them in your loadouts. Greater freedom in how you customize your loadouts is fine in principle (if not necessarily in practice, as I argued earlier), but requiring you to sink a certain amount of time into the game to unlock the tools to place in your loadouts is just piss poor game design. It doesn’t matter if a default loadout (which varies by map; usually BR, magnum, and hardlight shield in Team Infinity Slayer) is provided to offer newbies something other than just their initial AA-less AR/magnum combo, nor does it matter that all the weapons and AAs can be unlocked in “only” 10 or 12 hours worth of play time. It’s still bad design. It’s a carrot-and-stick approach: if you play enough games, you’ll unlock this great stuff, but if you don’t play often enough, well, somebody else will, thus giving them an advantage over you. And any advantage, however slight, that someone has merely by virtue of having devoted more time to the game is undesirable in the multiplayer realm. If somebody is being killed more frequently than they would had have been on an even playing field simply because they either can’t or don’t spend as much time in the game as some other players, how does that benefit them? How does it benefit the community as a whole? Answer: It doesn’t. These Skinner box elements exist solely to entice people to keep coming back to a game with promises of continued rewards. Modern Multiplayer Design 101 apparently instructs: “Sacrifice balance in the name of the almighty rewards schedule.”
Developers shouldn’t have to dangle carrots in front of the player to motivate them to keep playing. Whatever happened to playing for the sake of playing, of crafting experiences that kept people coming back simply because the games were that damn good? Unfortunately, player progression is what sells games — or is at least perceived to do so, since COD didn’t get massively popular until after it added rank-based unlocks in COD4 — and while it might sound cynical to say so, I think 343I did this (or was pushed by the suits at MS to do it) purely on the belief that it will get more people to buy Halo 4 and get more of those people to stick with the game for a longer period of time. Whether or not it clashed with the “traditional” Halo balancing act or not probably wasn’t a consideration. It was likely all about playing follow the leader in hopes of making Halo more popular than it already is (either that, or the people calling the shots at 343I are huge COD fans). If the new player progression system does make Halo 4 more popular, then it legitimizes future use of Skinner box mechanisms, and that is a direction I don’t want to see the series go in. When I think “Halo Multiplayer” I think about even playing fields as the most distinguishing MP-specific feature that sets it apart from most of the competition. Now Halo MP is lost in a sea of games with similar progression systems. We’re in a Brave New World of Shooters, one where the concept of a level playing field and balanced MP have become passé. 343I’s introduction of these elements legitimizes such practices and opens to door for such things to be standard, and perhaps even more egregious, in the future.
Finally, in regards to the LE of H4 giving people immediate access to any specialization they want once they hit Rank 50 (while those who bought the SE are stuck with Wetwork and Pioneer as their only choices initially, with the others being rolled out at later dates), that can, along with the Double XP codes one could obtain from Mountain Dew and Doritos packages, be construed as a form of bribing your way to victory. It means just that much less grinding needed to get everything you want, which in turn means just that much more imbalance (e.g., there’s going to be some people who have the ability to use scoped weapons without fear of being knocked out of scope because they got the Stability mod before the majority of players, which is in turn because they got access to the Rogue specialization before standard edition owners did). Again, this might only be a slight advantage, but as I said, any deviation from a level playing field, however slight, is undesirable. Furthermore, like introducing Skinner box-style progression systems in general, this too legitimizes such practices when they have no business existing in the first place.
There are some other issues with Halo 4 that affect multiple play modes but don’t warrant enough commentary to give them their own section. For example, Spartan Ops and multiplayer are horrible about deleting any weapons you drop. If you drop a weapon for any reason, it will disappear in less than 15 seconds, making it nearly impossible to retrieve one from your body when you respawn or to drop one for later. No other Halo game has been this overzealous with despawning dropped weapons.
The user interface for Halo 4 is lackluster at best. While Bungie had good UIs in their games, Halo 4’s UI is counter-intuitive, buggy, and generally just a pain in the ass to navigate. 343I should have just copied the basic layout and design of Reach’s UI and given it a new paint job to fit Halo 4’s general aesthetic (blue color scheme, glowing outlines, etc.).
Also, there’s no instruction manual. WTF? Even if it’s a game from a series that I’m familiar with like Halo, I still like the novelty of having an instruction manual, and one of the first things I do when I get a game is flip through it. I hope this isn’t the start of a trend here, because my niece’s copy of LittleBigPlanet Karting didn’t have a manual either.
Finally, Waypoint’s stats page for Halo 4 is just dreadful. I though Waypoint’s stats for Reach were worse than what was provided on Bungie.net, but damn. The Halo 4 stats page has a terrible layout, the stats aren’t as in-depth, there’s fewer options for sorting (for example, you can’t sort by both map and gametype, and you can’t sort by playlist at all), plus it can be quite slow at times. I know it’s just a website and not part of the game proper, but it’s still pertinent to the overall Halo 4 experience. If it were my decision, I would have just copy-and-pasted (with permission, of course) the same basic layout of the stats for B.net for both Reach and Halo 4 stats. Whoever the designer is for the stats pages at Waypoint, they haven’t done a good job at all.
Halo 4 isn’t necessarily bad. In some ways, it’s actually an improvement on previous games. The weapon balance is actually a bit better than Reach’s was. The story wasn’t a train wreck full of retcons like Reach is either. The Campaign is a lot of fun. But while it’s not awful, it is extremely disappointing. Had this been an original game, I’d be a lot more forgiving. But when it comes to Halo I have certain expectations, and those were not met by this game. While 343 Industries might be comprised of industry veterans, including a couple of former Bungie employees (most notably Frank O’Connor and Chad “Shishka” Armstrong), the game was seemingly put together by people who had at best only a vague idea how make a proper Halo sequel or even what Halo meant. They also apparently see themselves not as caretakers of a beloved franchise they inherited, but rather like kids who got this cool new toy and, being curious by nature, go “Hey! Look what we can do with this!” There’s a good reason why phrases like “Leave well enough alone,” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” exist in the English language, and Halo 4 is a prime example of somebody trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. 343I most certainly did not leave well enough alone.
First off is the fact that so much stuff from previous games was either deleted or severely reduced in capacity. Here’s a partial list of things present in Reach that were removed:
- Saved films for Campaign
- Campaign Scoring
- Multiple gametypes & gametype variants, including One-flag CTF, Invasion, Assault, and Race
- Various custom game options
- Various usability aspects of Forge (e.g., fine-tuning by clicking in the left stick)
- Film rendering and online screenshot sharing
- Playing as Elites in MP
Of course, there’s probably other things I missed. In any case, these deleted features help make the game an inferior follow-up to its predecessors. As Halo.Bungie.Org member and Guinness Record holder Cody Miller said, “In most game sequels, when there is an awesome feature in the previous one, if the developer is good, then it’s not only included in the sequel, but sometimes even made better. That’s the whole idea behind a sequel. Same type of game, but make it BETTER. Removing features is a pretty good way to make your sequel WORSE, negating the whole point of making one (discounting business considerations of course).” I honestly don’t care what 343I’s excuses are for not having these features (if they even have an excuse), particularly popular key features like Campaign films. Like Bungie before them, they have hundreds of employees and the financial backing of Microsoft at their disposal, plus a three-year development cycle, and if Bungie could get these things to work, then so can 343I.
Furthermore, artistic license is apparently accepted if not outright encouraged at 343I. The art department was obviously given free reign to redesign anything they saw fit and the writers were allowed to retcon certain aspects of the universe (most notably the relation between the Forerunners & humans). I disapprove of these changes because it makes me feel like I’m not playing in the same fictional universe. It shows no respect for what came before it. Granted, Bungie could be bad about redesigning things at times, but it was usually both within reason and fully explicable. To quote The Lionheart, another HBO forumgoer, “You don’t justify canon changes to ‘make it your own.’ You can’t. And you especially shouldn’t try. If you want to have something that is ‘your own’ then I suggest that you go out and create something. You know… something that is yours. And NOT someone else’s. How can it ever be ‘your own’ if it existed before you ever started creating it?” He goes on to compare Halo to Batman, saying “[T]he fact that you are an artist does not legitimize, justify, or authenticate any self-centered choices that you find yourself empowered to make over the identity of Batman, so, just because you happen to be sitting on the throne at the time, doesn’t mean that you get to make Batman’s cape red, give him ‘bat gats,’ and reveal Bruce’s true last name to be Cobblepot [AN: Referring to retconning Batman to be the Penguin’s cousin]. You are a STEWARD. Not a KING. Act like it. Or go create your own stuff and stop calling this self-centered stuff you’re making Batman when it’s something else that just has a lot of similarity to Batman.”
Finally, there are the gameplay changes. Halo 4 represents the single most extreme break from “traditional” Halo in the series’ history. While things like dual wielding, vehicle boarding, deployable equipment, and armor abilities were all fairly significant changes made under Bungie, the changes 343I have made eclipse them all in how radical they are. The utterly random and arguably broken ordnance system is bad enough, but even worse is the addition of rank-based unlocks. Skinner boxes (or “RPG Elements” or “Player Progression Systems,” if you prefer) are totally unnecessary features that detract from gameplay. Somewhere along the line, someone thought it would be great if systems that were once relegated exclusively to games like WoW and EverQuest were tacked on to genres that had for the longest time gotten along just fine without such systems. For FPSs, it arguably started with Call of Duty. CoD was only a moderate success in its earlier years — and back then, everyone was on an even playing field, just like every other shooter at the time —, with the first few entries in the series selling just a few million copies. Halo was still the reigning king of FPSs at the time. Then CoD4 comes along and introduces everyone to rank-based unlocks. COD went from moderately successful to massively successful, and the last four games have gone on to sell over 20 million copies each. Whether or not the addition of those Skinner Box features was the main cause of COD’s sudden explosion in popularity is anyone’s guess, but it might not be mere coincidence. It’s certainly perceived as the reason behind COD’s success, as such systems have become the norm in FPSs over the past five years. After all, what better way (in the mind of most devs, anyway) to keep players coming back than to entice them with a carrot-and-stick scenario?
Then Halo 4 comes along five years after COD4 and does the same thing. For four games and 11 years, the Halo series had an even playing field. Even when Bungie added loadouts in Reach, everyone still had access to the same stuff regardless of rank. But obviously 343I’s ideas on what makes for good MP design differ from Bungie’s. Either A) they though could replicate Activision’s success by emulating COD’s player progression system (in other words bandwagon-jumping as a cynical attempt to boost audience numbers), or B) 343I’s head MP designer (and/or anyone else who calls the shots about these things) is simply a huge fan of COD and thought it would be great if Halo MP did COD-like things as much as possible without making it no longer be a Halo game.
But the question remains, “Do these things actually improve the MP experience?” Are they necessary? Would the game be worse without them? I believe that these rank-based unlocks are invariably bad. They ruin competitive balance by destroying the level playing field that had once been one of Halo MP’s defining features. They treat the player’s time as a commodity. They are totally 100% unnecessary. Has the addition of Skinner Box mechanisms improved people’s opinions of Halo MP? Arguably not. Has it translated to increased sales or better XBL population numbers? Not really. Just because it worked for Activision doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone else. Some people might argue that the imbalances are minor at worst, but any imbalance, however slight, should always be regarded as deleterious for game design. Why should somebody have access to the Boltshot or Active Camo or the Wheelman perk simply by virtue of having put X more hours into the game than some other guy? It’s pointless. It’s stupid. It’s bad fucking design. Not to mention the issue of setting a precedent. What’s keeping 343I from doing something even more egregious in Halo 5? Maybe they’re thinking “Well, the progression system probably just wasn’t in-depth enough to put Halo back on top. Maybe we need to do more. Maybe greater customization or even calling in Pelicans or MAC strikes as ordnance options?” Who knows?
One of the great things about video games is their potential to be highly iterative. A game series can be highly iterative and still be well-regarded and even successful. Call of Duty is, as mentioned, massively successful despite having changed very little from game to game since 2007. The classic 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games were both highly iterative and very successful back in the day, but the series saw its popularity wane when it tried transitioning to 3D and hit the “polygon ceiling” hard, with the first Sonic Adventure being the only 3D Sonic game that was widely regarded as good. While the Sonic franchise’s reputation seemed irreparably damaged, especially after the disaster that was Sonic 2006, recent games like Sonic Generations saw Sega go back to a more classic style, and series is starting to get back on people’s good sides as a result. Other series that remained successful despite being highly iterative are Doom, Gears of War, God of War, Soul Caliber, Dead or Alive, the classic Mega Man and Mega Max X series, and the New Super Mario Bros. series. They may introduce new enemies, new abilities, or new items to keep things fresh (and that’s perfectly fine), but at their core they change very little from game to game. Or to use a non-game example, AC/DC has remained incredibly popular and successful over the last four decades despite retaining essentially the same sound throughout their career. You don’t necessarily have to evolve to stay successful. Sometimes you just need to leave well enough alone and not try to fix things that aren’t broken.
I’ve often mentioned in the past that Combat Evolved was one of the most innovative games ever. However, Halo 4 is one of the most imitative games ever. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, the comparisons between Halo 4 and Call of Duty are impossible to avoid: rank-based unlocks, custom loadouts, “perks” (a term I’ve used throughout the article for lack of a better word despite Halo 4 not referring to them as such) in the form of “tactical packages” and “support upgrades,” personal ordnance being the Halo version of Care Packages, and even the “Fishsticks” control layout. Being imitative isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it is when you borrow things from other series that clash with your own series in such an egregious fashion. Halo shouldn’t be imitating COD or other similar shooters. It should be imitating itself. Again, the iterative approach works wonderfully and usually works to a series’ benefit. I certainly don’t recall legions of Halo fans threatening to abandon the series if it didn’t start doing things more like COD or Battlefield or what have you. I sure as hell know I was content with more of the same.
So, to address 343I directly, please, let Halo be Halo. Don’t unnecessarily emulate features from other series that will end up getting rid of your own series’ defining features just because you either A) think it’ll make the game more popular or B) are simply a fan of this other series. Remember, you are stewards who have inherited a legacy, and you should show it the utmost care. Ignoring what has come before just to treat it like a lump of clay to mold in your image, to “make it your own,” is not how you respect that legacy. You might not think it’s a big deal, and I know you aren’t deliberately trying to disrespect the franchise, but for many people you are taking the series in the wrong direction. I and others like me have invested over a decade in this series, its style of gameplay, and its fiction. We complain about the changes you are making because we care. This is not the Halo we’ve come to know and love. It’s a fuzzy facsimile. When we play a Halo game, we expect (among other things) Halo-style gameplay, not some bizarre, misshapen hybrid of Halo and Call of Duty. For Halo 5, you need to respect the artistic and literary vision Bungie left you and resist the temptation to engage in artistic license. Making the Covenant look more like their old selves, at least in terms of physiology, would be a great start. Also, you need to respect what made Halo’s gameplay so unique. You can start by bringing back the level playing field in multiplayer. No rank-based unlocks for things that have gameplay consequences and no random ordnance. In fact, I’d even go as far as say that we shouldn’t have to unlock aesthetic things like armor and emblems. Give everybody everything from the get-go and let them have at it instead of making them jump through hoops to “earn” these things. Let players play for the sake of having a good time. Remember when the gameplay experience was its own reward and games didn’t have to dangle carrots in front of people to motivate them? Let that be the rule once again. Halo did perfectly fine without all the Skinner box nonsense in the past, and it can do so in the future.
Gameplay: 7. The weapons are great and generally well-balanced for the most part. There’s some fun new armaments like the SAW and railgun, but the Promethean weapons are woefully redundant copies of other weapons, which is a missed opportunity as a new alien faction should have seen the introduction of unusual and unique weapons (and there were unique weapons like the stasis rifle planned, but they were ultimately cut from the final release). The enemy AI in Campaign, while not stellar, provides a decent challenge, and Legendary is very hard without being unfair. However, the level design is lackluster, being overly linear with few if any opportunities for exploration or sequence-breaking. The HUD is missing certain essential information such as health. The multiplayer maps are generally weak. The out-of-left-field addition of QTEs and other things that suddenly yank you out of gameplay (which had never been done in Halo before despite such things existing in games before Halo 1 came out; see Shenmue) really detracts from the experience. But the biggest negative aspects are the two big changes to multiplayer: ordnance, which is terribly random, and rank-based unlocks, which does away with the level playing field that had been part of every previous Halo game.
Graphics: 9 (technical), 6 (art). While the game looks nice from a purely technical standpoint, the art design is a mixed bag. The environment art and certain things new to the series (e.g., the railgun, the Promethean weapons) look good, but many things that returned from previous games, most notably the Chief’s armor, the Forward Unto Dawn, and the several species of the Covenant, have received unnecessary and drastic visual overhauls which detract from the experience by making it feel disconnected from previous games, almost as if I’m playing in an alternate universe separate from that of the first Halo trilogy.
Music & Sound: 8. Neil Davidge’s score is excellent, if more than a bit understated at times. The sound design is more of a mixed bag, though. While a lot of sound effects are great, many weapons sound odd and/or weak.
Story: 6. The story flows well from one event to the next. The Chief/Cortana plot is strong and delivers an emotional impact. However, the story fails to deliver much of an impact outside of that. The main villain is shallow and never comes across as the threat he’s intended to be. The post-war power dynamic isn’t explored even when it’s integral to the plot (e.g., the Covenant just happen to show up as bad guys, which unless you read the books you’d be at loss to know why). The story doesn’t build towards Halo 5, either, so where we go from here is anybody’s guess. Ultimately there’s not much of a payoff at the end.
Features: 7. While still feature-rich compared to most other shooters, Halo 4 is a step backwards in this regard compared to its immediate predecessor, Halo: Reach. Firefight is gone. Spartan Ops is an adequate replacement, but it doesn’t always live up to its full potential and lacks any form of customization. Over half of the core gametypes present in Reach were removed, along with a number of custom options. While Forge has some minor improvements to its usability, it came at the loss of several other things that made Reach’s Forge more user-friendly (e.g., fine-tuning the moving of pieces by clicking LS). Also, there is no Forge World equivalent, and the three “blank slate” Forge maps, while offering more variety visually, don’t offer enough real estate in which to build some of the larger scale creations we could in Reach. Scoring is missing from Campaign and Spartan Ops. Theater mode support for those modes is lacking as well.
Replay Value: High. The Campaign is solid enough to warrant the occasional playthrough. The multiplayer has enough negatives that I don’t feel as compelled to play it as regular as I did in prior games (I even went three weeks without playing in December after a string of absolutely terrible matches that showed me just how bad MP can be at times; when it plays well, it can be fun, but when things go wrong, they often go catastrophically wrong in ways Reach and Halo 3 never could). Spartan Ops is compelling enough to get me to come back each week to play through the latest episode, but I haven’t felt much incentive to revisit missions I’ve already completed, perhaps because it’s not tailored for solo play like Firefight could be. Overall, Halo 4 has good replay value, but not as much Halo 1, 2, & 3.
Drive-In Totals: One disgruntled snaggletoothed alien. Lots of dead bodies. Elite falling down an elevator shaft. Jackal mauling a scientist. Sword arm to the face. Grunt stomping. Grunt stabbing. Grunt spacing. Exploding spaceships. Gratuitous eggheads. Gratuitous AI booty. Disintegration-fu. Mech-fu. Two-and-a-half stars. Check it out.
Overall: 7. Halo 4 is a prime example of why game developers should leave well enough alone and stick with an iterative approach to game design. Had this not been a Halo game, I might have been more generous, but it is a Halo game and thus I must rate it by how it compares to its predecessors. It’s a grab bag of missed opportunities, steps backward, and unnecessary changes that detract from the overall experience. While not a terrible game by any means and still better than most of the competition, it is immensely disappointing and one of the weaker entries in the series (for me, it’s a tossup between Halo 2 and Halo 4 for “Least Good Halo Game”), and I think the series is going in the wrong direction. It makes me very apprehensive about the franchise’s future, and 343 Industries has failed to demonstrate to me that they are worthy caretakers of the legacy they inherited from Bungie. They may win me back with Halo 5, but only time will tell whether that game will be a must-buy or a “rent first” title. At this point, I’m honestly more interested in Bungie’s new game, “Destiny.”
Well, that’s all for now. Thanks for taking the time to read yet another in-depth Halo review from yours truly.