Review: Halo 4 brings character and emotion to Master Chief
It's been five years since we've had a Halo game starring Master Chief (2007's Halo 3), and it wasn't until I started playing Halo 4 that I realized how much I missed him. 343 Industries tasked themselves with the burden of making Master Chief and Halo better than before — and they've succeeded. What they've done is take a popular FPS series, put their stamp on it, and recreate it with a focus on cutting-edge visuals, character development and a strong narrative — all while feeling like a Halo game. What they've accomplished will make Halo fans undoubtedly happy.
The biggest improvement over other Halo games comes from Halo 4's story and characters. 343 Industries' goal was to get personal with Master Chief. He's referred to as 'John' a couple of times throughout the game, and one of the game's arcs is the Master Chief figuring out whether he's a machine (figuritively, not literally) or human. The other big part of the story is his relationship with Cortana. Through three Halo games, they've been through hell with each other, and their friendship is explored deeper than ever before. I actually found myself caring more about their story than the new enemy that had risen to destroy humanity. The characters now feel like real characters, with each having legit emotions and responses to the things happening. The feel of the game is a bit reminiscent of Halo: Combat Evolved, where you're thrown into a conflict you don't fully understand. If this is your first Halo game, you might feel a little lost with what's going on. While it would've been nice to have a little recap of the story so far, a quick visit to Wikipedia can catch you right up.
Other notable characters include Commander Andrew Del Rio, who is a son-of-a-b*tch, and Thomas Lasky. I can see Lasky's role growing more as the Reclaimer Trilogy continues into Halo 5 and 6, as he was also a big part in the Forward Unto Dawn web series. The villain in Halo 4 is The Didact. I don't want to spoil anything, but he's the villain that Master Chief has been waiting for. The Didact is powerful and hates humans — what more can you ask for? We may or may not delve deeper into his story in the next game, and I certainly hope we do. Regardless of whether or not that happens, he has a reason for hating humans, and the story for a massive war between his army and humankind is all there.
All of these characters are brought to life by some of the most gorgeous graphics. It is not a stretch by any imagination to say that Halo 4 is the prettiest game on the Xbox 360, and maybe out of the three consoles. The Promethean enemies look terrifyingly gorgeous. Human characters look so realistic, you'll have to stop and look closely to make sure they aren't real actors. The environments range in beauty from vibrant, open landscapes to the cold, metal, mysterious interior of an alien construct. And oh, those particle effects! Watching Promethean enemies die and deconstruct into an orange digital ember is a sight to behold, and the Promethean weapons' animations are just mouth watering. Needless to say, Halo 4 pushes the envelope in the graphics department.
Then there's the sounds, which are equally as impressive. Simply switching to a shotgun has a crisp tone to it. All of the sounds feel revamped and have an edge to them. Also, the voice acting is the best in the series. There's a moment in the campaign when Andrew Del Rio shouts, and it was so powerful that I got goose bumps. You can hear the hurt in the voices of both Master Chief and Cortana, and the voice acting helps those characters become deeper than ever before. The music, however, felt a bit weak. While there were some fantastic tracks, it just didn't have the epic feel of past Halo games.
This is all great, but it wouldn't matter if the game didn't play well. Luckily, Halo 4 feels like a Halo game at its core. It's the same Halo combat that fans of the series love, so they'll feel right at home. From Energy Swords and Gravity Hammers to Battle Rifles and Needlers, the combat is fast, action-packed and a ton of fun. The controls feel more precise, including how responsive and accurate the use of armor abilities are. If you didn't like Halo's style of combat before, Halo 4 won't change your mind, but the series' style has become this popular for a reason.
My main problem with the combat in the campaign is the level design. Sure, each level is visually impressive, but the level layout feels a bit uninspired. For a campaign that doesn't take longer than six to eight hours to complete, I should never feel like a level is lasting too long, which I often felt. Maybe it's because I've seen levels like these in the other Halo games. While the multiplayer maps are better, they feel really familiar. That's both a good and bad thing, but there's not that one map that stands out as truly different. The campaign does feature your standard driving and piloting segments, including a sweet piece that is reminiscent of the Death Star trench run. Also, you can play the entire campaign with three other players. I didn't get to try that out, since all of my friends have been obsessed with multiplayer, but I definitely look forward to playing through the game on Legendary.
One other big problem with the game is the final battle, which essentially becomes Call of Duty. I would've much rather seen that last fight played out in a cool cutscene — which are amazing when you see them, and would've like more of them in the game — than having to push a button to input a nonsensical command. It's like 343 Industries missed a big opportunity at the end of the game. That being said, the Promethean forces are a force to be reckoned with, and there's some stellar enemy AI work taking place.