If you consider yourself to be something of a Halo purist, there are moments in Halo 4 that are probably going to trigger a few alarm bells. Admittedly, many of these are insignificant quibbles – several relating solely to the fact that Bungie appear to have taken their audio asset library with them – but others are much more fundamental than that. Although they occasionally relied a bit too heavily on cumbersome space politics, one of the most distinctive things about Bungie’s Halo adventures is that they never felt the need to incorporate anything as hackneyed as a central villain. In Halo 4, there’s a central villain. Similarly, Bungie never felt the need to include manoeuvrable mech droids; the ultimate me-too inclusion for any respectable futuristic space opera. Halo 4 has manoeuvrable mech droids.
But the aforementioned bad guy is conspicuous by his general degree of absence, and it isn’t spoiling anything to reveal that 343 don’t force you into a partaking in a climactic boss battle against him. In addition, the mech sequence is both incredibly short and extremely effective. Halo 4 commences four years, seven months and two days after the downbeat climax of the third game, and 343 have used that gap to disguise their need to re-work Halo’s distinctive visual style. Covenant architecture, so familiar to every Halo fan, has been evolved. In-line with the plot, the series’ breezy colour palette has been muted too, and the world feels as if it has become a darker, more pessimistic place in Master Chief’s absence. You feel as if time has passed in the story because it looks as if time has actually passed, and this may be a sequel but it occasionally looks like a full-blown reboot.
Which isn’t to say that the gameplay has been unduly modified, because this is 343’s biggest success: Halo 4 truly feels like a Halo game, and yet it’s never less than distinctive. Battles are smaller in scope but often twice as intense. Halo’s patented two-tier energy bar has been replaced by the multiplayer’s simplified single-tier system, so you’re no longer forced to periodically traipse around your environment looking for health packs. Warthog turrets can now overheat, but this just gives your enemies a bit of time to react if you attempt to partake in the age-old, illusion-killing process of finding a secluded parking spot and simply hammering away until they’re all dead. All of these gameplay tweaks and modifications are smart, minor and derail absolutely nothing. Master Chief may talk a little too much these days and most of the new Prometheun weaponry is instantly forgettable, but Halo 4’s campaign is almost on a par with Bungie’s best work.
The multiplayer is flat-out tremendous, offering up possibly the best online Halo experience since Halo 2. Reach’s weekly challenges, level-up structure and armour abilities all return, the latter of which are considerably more balanced than before. The bruising – some might say broken – Armour Lock ability is gone, replaced by an insta-spawning Hardlight Shield which limits movement and leaves you entirely vulnerable to attacks from the rear. The Thruster Pack is perhaps the best of the new additions, gifting you with either a brief speed boost, an extremely effective evasive manoeuvre or a fearsome alternative to the standard melee attack. The most notable other newbie is Prometheun Vision which is a massive boon on the tighter and more intricate maps, as it gives you the (very brief) ability to see in what’s essentially full-on X-Ray vision.
Spartan Ops is somewhat less successful, if only because it doesn’t do a great deal beyond throwing a couple of simplistic objectives at the now-abandoned Firefight mode. It’s certainly entertaining but also somewhat empty, and because these skirmishes are on a considerably smaller scale to what the Halo cognescetti are accustomed to, it may leave swathes of those fans pining for the frequently terrifying breadth of Firefight’s distinctly hard-won combat. The mission structure is just way too forgiving: there are no checkpoints so you’ll respawn exactly where you fall, even if a co-op buddy has perished as well. That being said, Halo’s ever-present set of modification skulls are always on hand if you want to manually beef up the difficulty yourself. Spartan Ops is easily as lavish as the rest of the package – and the accompanying CGI movie clips are utterly spectacular – but it isn’t yet essential. Copious free DLC is expected over the coming weeks, and we remain hopeful that many more creative possibilities are explored within that.
So the campaign is a bit of a triumph and the multiplayer is breathtaking, and whilst Spartan Ops is a decidedly ho-hum inclusion at present, it’s also a tantalising beacon of unexplored potential. Despite all of this, most people love Halo because of its idiosyncratic multiplayer component, so it’s worth stressing the casual brilliance of Halo 4’s competitive online offering one more time. Even the seemingly desperate new elements – a mode that mimics Battlefield 3’s Conquest, a (very) vague approximation of Call of Duty’s Care Package system – don’t feel misjudged or out of place… or even especially derivative. It’s as moreish and accessible as it ever was, and despite the foreseen promise of upcoming map packs, the ten arenas on offer here are all solidly terrific. It’s also one of the most technically accomplished videogames ever seen on a home console. In all, in summary: blinding.