This fall, we’ll have another Assassin’s Creed, another Call of Duty, as we have had last year and probably will have again for next. We also have a new Halo, for the first time in two years, or a whopping five if you’re a stickler for numbered sequels.
That may not sound like too long, but with the popularity for Madden-ized franchises across the triple-A spectrum, it’s guaranteed that Microsoft sat on itchy hands as Bungie walked away from its runaway series and Master Chief sat drifting in space for half a decade. Yikes, I feel old.
And so, Chief is back, now under the banner of Halo-centric studio 343 Industries at the start of a whole new “Reclaimer” trilogy. In its return, Halo 4 may have just accomplished its duty, but does that mean it can win the war for a massive demographic’s trigger fingers after being MIA for some key years?
Last we saw the faceless, camo-green super commando, he was taking a powernap after defeating all the space terrorists, a hive-mind space zombie, and blowing up yet another ring-shaped space-WMD. Awoken prematurely, Chief’s discovered that his cruising commode has been overrun by angry-again Covenant and it is on a crash course with an undocumented, hollowed-out planet (built by the Halo makers, no-less) forebodingly called Requiem. Bad gets to worse when Cortana, your wry, lady computer companion, drops the bomb that she’s nearing her expiry date. In determination to get Cortana to a human that can fix her, Master Chief accidentally frees a big, ancient baddie, whose evil ultimatum hearkens back to a world before humanity.
343 Industries was originally assembled to develop the Halo universe, and that attention to mythos-making comes on a lot stronger in Halo 4 than ever before. While previous games struggled with an even narrative (because after all, we came for action), those problems worsen in this instance, as caches of information are bluntly launched at the players in sudden moments.
The underlying, new concepts are interesting and original, but it all swoops by you so quickly you feel more like you’re sleepwalking through an adventure than interacting with it. This is also, obviously, the episode about “emotions,” as the relationship between Cortana and Chief is pressed upon hard, though, these emotions are more told than shown.
While the new story hemorrhages, new additions to the gameplay are more organically introduced. Levels are still big vistas. The vast open spaces are mostly illusions of the scenery, combined with eye-a-pleasin’ graphics and a happy trail, with some interesting vantage points to pick off enemies from. While it is still bottle-necked freedom, it’s a lot more flexible than most of the cinematic hallways other recent shooters provide.
Most of those lovably kooky weapons have returned, even the Gravity Hammer if you keep a sharp eye out for it. There is a slew of new weapons, mostly based around the technology of the new foes, the Prometheans, which carry recognizable traits to previous guns but mix them up in slights. The Lightrifle and Suppressors are hybrids for range and speed, the former a near sniper rifle and the latter a near assault rifle. The two most unique new weapons are the Incineration Cannon, which fires a droopy tripwire of grenades, and the Sticky Detonator, which lets you plug a bomb on to an enemy and blast it when you see fit.
343 actually seem to have powered down many of the vehicles, as Banshees and Phantoms feel a bit more of a task to pilot. On the flip side, it was only a matter of time until you could pilot a Pelican, which flies real nice, and were introduced to a mech suit. There’s also a smaller, fighter craft used in a short Star Fox-lite sequence (reminiscent to the Captain Power credits), that will hopefully be seen again.
It’s the worst-kept secret that multiplayer is a bit of a to-do in the chewy, bro-y Halo saga, and there’s no messing around as Halo 4 comes with an entire second disc dedicated to it. It is a toolbox of online shenanigans. Forge mode, which lets you make your own levels, is back, as is Theatre, where you can review your own greatness/messy stupid goofy looking deaths.
War Games is the multiplayer mayhem you’ve come to love, minus Firefight, but plus the armour upgrades like jetpacks, sprint boosting and floating sentries. An interesting inclusion is Spartan Ops, an episodic campaign meant to be played cooperatively that will update in the weeks to come. Before you start rolling your eyes, it’s included in the game, so it’s more of a plea not to sell your copy than to milk you for quarters.
343 Industries has made an incredibly safe entry to the Halo franchise, which isn’t a slight, just an admission. Halo is back, once again, and while it doesn’t feel like it ever left, it actually, certainly, was gone for a few important years. For the marauding gangs of competitive online shooters, they buy, fund, and push these games to be the market drivers as they stand today. In recent years, those players have been plenty satisfied with the likes of Call of Duty, in all of its iterations, with yet another coming out this month. Microsoft is hoping many of them will return to Halo with a cozy, familiar embrace. Because so much of Halo 4, with a slender single player quest and a blooming online component, hinges on its multiplayer presence, the true enjoyment the game relies more on the players than the product.