They say you should never go back. After Halo 4’s announcement at E3 2011, gamers worldwide were quickly divided. It became clearer than ever that this generation of recession would conclude by overlooking creative risk for guaranteed income. The Halo story was told and even returned for a victory lap with 2010’s Reach. What could an increasingly fatigued series offer at the tail end of a console’s lifespan? Halo 4 does not answer this question, it merely dismisses it.
This uncertainty about its necessity is impossible not to carry into the first hour of gameplay. Bungie’s core trilogy succeeded in providing a complete story with sufficient closure, so the decision to reawaken Master Chief never seems entirely justified; the vast quantities of fiction within the Halo universe offer countless opportunities to start afresh in a familiar world. The Chief is an iconic figure in gaming for being the face of one of the industry’s greatest successes, not for his character’s contributions. The questions grow and the pressure builds on Halo 4’s delivery.
Fans who have long yearned for a mechanical facelift will be left immediately disappointed. From the onset, it’s clear that 343 Industries has been tasked with further refining an engine that’s been tightened and polished continually since 2002. There are a handful of key control changes which require a little readjustment; neither more or less intuitive than Reach’s, but rather a simple stamp of identity. Only when you shoot each pre-existing weapon for the first time does Halo 4 begin to introduce itself. The most notable development is how substantially more effective the classic assault rifle fires. Each shot feels responsive, targeted and wholesome in comparison to its previous life as a high-pressure watering can. Staying true to Reach’s redevelopment, the battle rifle is an efficient single-shot companion that will likely remain most players’ first choice of weaponry. The war-waging machine he is, Chief never once pauses to consider why his old trustee no longer fires bursts.
Once again, Halo provides two core recipients for your weaponry. The Covenant return alongside the debuting Prometheans. This new enemy provides some much needed refreshment and is here the most distinguishing feature, as battling them requires a substantially different approach. Crawlers are self-explanatory opponents, able to hound the player down across the entire arena, which creates a greater sense of urgency to find cover when death is imminent; they’re not overwhelmingly powerful however and a single well-placed headshot will see them off. Knights are the Prometheans variety of Elites, but their greater defences make them too resilient for one-on-one battles to feel as strategically rewarding. Their key feature is being able to teleport when in danger but this only adds to their one-dimensionality. Finally, Watchers are agile aerial-based enemies whose creativity keeps you alert – their ability to highlight you to other Prometheans being particularly dangerous. The plot’s justification for this new race adds a genuine enlightenment.
It’s a shame then that environments and level design never feel equally as distinctive as what populates them. Halo has always been at its best when many intimate battles are taking place over expansive environments. In Halo 4, you’re always expected to take a specific route or make use of a conveniently placed item. There are moments when that balance is perfectly struck, but there remains little incentive to replay individual levels repeatedly for sheer enjoyment – there’s no The Silent Cartographer or The Covenant but conversly no Library or Cortana. It’s therefore a consistent 10 hours reminiscent of ODST with few highs or lows, for better or worse. The locations do feel suitably grand throughout but the nature of them restricts the palette’s vibrancy. It’s another stamp of individuality on 343’s work that delivers something new, if not necessarily for the better.
Much has been touted about the new trilogy’s plot which does, to some extent, help justify the return of Master Chief over a new Spartan. His relationship with Cortana takes a greater stage for very specific reasons, though ultimately it becomes an unwanted and cliché distraction after some initial promise. That’s not to say the surrounding events don’t enhance Halo 4 in any way. However with no emotive desire to immerse yourself in the plot, this leaves the game’s mechanical aspects more exposed to scrutiny. Competing franchises are frequently lambasted for a sufficient lack of progression and Halo’s darling status cannot solely render it immune from the same criticisms, even with longer development cycles. The brand can still carry similar excitement in 2012 as it did in 2007, but the next full title could see that crumble without serious innovation on the Xbox 360’s successor.
The competitive multiplayer has been forced to take influence from Call of Duty’s online dominance by restricting the tools immediately available at your disposal. It’s a bold imitation for a series that has been so definitive for online console gaming. Previous games introduced similar measures but these were solely cosmetic – it’s therefore the boldest statement 343 Industries have made on the series. What makes this a more calculated risk is that competitive Halo has always been distinctive enough to develop without losing its underlying appeal. The clearest example of this is how Halo 2 translated the perfect balancing of the original game to online play immediately. With three map packs planned for release already, online will undoubtedly provide enough value to encourage Live renewals in preparation for the new console.
By not consciously striving to justify its existence, Halo 4 is an undeniably confident and rounded title. 343 have been successful to some extent in injecting new ideas, but there’s an undoubted feeling that Microsoft haven’t allowed them the creative risk needed to fully revitalize the brand. Master Chief is too safe a protagonist to tell a new story in the Halo universe; Reach’s Noble Six allowed a secular story to be told without baggage and the new trilogy begs for a similar distancing.
Halo 4 is another Halo game in every sense. It’s a technically spectacular achievement that in isolation is a product to make the industry proud. Series fatigue is inevitable after six full-length titles and this prevents it from being genuinely essential. For many that decision will have already been made.
The most important question it prompts is whether the industry needs new hardware or fresh blood.