Friday, November 9, 2012

Xbox 360 review: Halo 4

Four years after the end of the Human-Covenant War, Cortana reawakens Master Chief on board the wreckage of the Forward Unto Dawn. A small group of former Covenant forces have boarded the ship, and as he fights his way toward the exterior hull, Master Chief discovers that the Forward Unto Dawn has been pulled into the gravitational pull of a Forerunner shield world known as Requiem. At the same time, a state-of-the-art UNSC ship name Infinity is inbound to Requiem, having picked up Cortana's distress beacon. As Master Chief races to find a way to communicate with the crew of Infinity and warn them not to land on the artificial planet, he discovers Promethean Knights, ancient soldiers used by the Forerunners, and a plot that could threaten the future of humanity.

While Master Chief encounters familiar enemies like Elites, Hunters, Jackals, and Grunts, they are largely pushovers when compared to the automated armies the Forerunners left behind. The Promethean Knights prove admirable foes when Master Chief faces them one-on-one, while Watchers provide support and Crawlers swarm and lay down repeating fire. A significant number of weapons have been removed in order to make space for the new Forerunner weapons. Each of these new weapons looks alien and controls just different enough from their UNSC and Covenant counterparts to make their inclusion worthwhile. Familiar firearms such as the Assault Rifle, Covenant Carbine, and Needler behave much like they have in recent Halo titles, while the Storm Rifle and Pulse Grenade don't have much practical use.

In keeping with the art style of Halo: Reach, Halo 4 sees inclusions of very industrialized vehicle and armor designs. Master Chief's upgraded suit retains its old sensibilities, but has a ton of new details worked into it. Character models, on the other hand, are a bit more stylized, falling closer to the realm of Halo 3 (though without the borderline-claymation textures, thanks to the Xbox 360's capabilities to run such improved graphics). There are a few pre-rendered cutscenes that look so incredibly realistic, you may have to do a double-take to confirm they aren't using live action actors ala the Forward Unto Dawn tie-in series. The design of the Forerunner world retains its roots from yesteryear, combining rich and colorful landscapes with silvery-gray geometric structures. Though it is a distinctly different style than Marty O'Donnell's work, Neil Davidge's soundtrack is at times tense, at others sweeping and mysterious, and as a whole provides a fitting follow-up to the familiar tunes of days gone by.

With regards to the online multiplayer, Halo 4 has traveled down a path similar to the Call of Duty franchise. Loadouts determine the weapons in use, with a very limited number of weapons that can be picked up on any given map. The medals earned for multi-kills and sprees in previous Halo games have been swapped out in favor of a point system that rewards in multiples of fives and tens based on kills, assists, and so on. Each level you rank up rewards you with a single Spartan Point, which can be saved up and spent on unlocking other weapons and abilities for your loadouts. Forge mode remains largely unchanged, though it is not on as grand a scale as it was in Halo: Reach. There is a decent number of maps included from the outset, with a relatively even balance of small, medium, and large spaces for appropriate playlists.

Gone is the wave escalation mode of Firefight, replaced with Spartan Ops, a series of short missions that allow a small team or a single player to fight a set number of enemies of the different difficulty settings. While 343 Industries plans to add new chapters over time, the default missions are rather small in scope. Each has you tracking down some Forerunner artifact or source of intel and fighting both Covenant and Forerunner enemies along the way. The environments are directly inspired by some of the campaign missions, and as a whole feel quite uninspired.

Though the campaign lasts only a few hours - short, even by Halo standards - the storytelling is consistently great throughout. With the threat of an ancient evil lying wait deep inside Requiem and Cortana's descent into Rampancy, Master Chief finds his hands full. This aids in bringing out some of his personality - an element that has been almost entirely untouched during his previous in-game missions against the Covenant and the Flood. Yet, for every two steps the campaign takes forward into bold new territory, the other game modes insist on stepping back one, offering up stale and uninteresting takes on a formula that did not require fixing.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

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