Sunday, December 16, 2012

Halo 4: Limited Edition Review

As one of Microsoft Studio's largest launches of the year, Halo 4 needs no introduction.  The Halo franchise has been an Xbox staple since the original console released over eleven years ago, and the series is near and dear to the hearts of fans worldwide.

The primary protagonist of the franchise, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, has been missing from the last few releases, as Halo 3 saw the conclusion of his original journey to stop the Covenant and ultimately the Flood.  Instead, gamers have spent the last five years witnessing the beginning of the Human-Covenant War with the crew of the ill-fated Spirit of Fire, fighting for New Mombasa with a squad of ODST's, and witnessing the iconic fall of Reach.

With the exception of Halo Wars, the entire franchise has been developed by Bungie Inc., with Halo: Reach serving as their swansong to the series.  Now, Microsoft has appointed an internal studio, 343 Industries, to oversee all things Halo, and Halo 4 is their first full game ever released.

Set just under five years after the events of Halo 3, the Chief and Cortana are still adrift in the ruined back section of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn.  While the Chief has been in cryo all this time, Cortana has been active, pushing the limits of her seven year life span.  The remains of the ship are scanned by an unknown source and are shortly thereafter boarded by Storm Covenant, forcing Cortana to wake the Chief to deal with the situation.  After a pitched battle with this rogue Covenant faction, the remains of the Forward Unto Dawn and the Covenant fleet are pulled into the heart of a Forerunner shield world known as Requiem.

While 343 Industries might be new to developing games, they've actually been working on the Halo franchise and its expanded universe since the release of Halo 3. They've been slowly shaping the franchise in the direction they want it to go, building to Halo 4 with such novel series as the Forerunner Saga and the Kilo-Five trilogy (amongst other fiction), and everything to date culminates in this, their first game.

I'm going to be perfectly honest here, I was greatly concerned about another studio developing the Halo franchise.  Bungie Inc. had things down pretty solidly and their Halo games have a distinct feel to them absent from most other shooters.  After having spent a good bit of time with Halo 4, however, I'm happy to say the title is very solid and to make no mistake, it feels like Halo.

In fact, while playing through the Campaign, I must say the game felt more like Halo: Combat Evolved than any other Halo title released since, and there are several reasons for that.  The Campaign certainly has an element of mystery around it.  After the original game we knew more or less what to expect each time the Chief ended up on a Halo, and even when he arrived at the Ark, but Requiem is a different beast.  While we've seen a shield world before in Halo Wars, that one was Flood infested and par for the course, while Requiem is the resting place for the Prometheans, the Forerunner's warrior caste.

Originally, the Chief combats only Covenant, and even this feels more like the original game than the sequels that came afterwards.  You get to go toe-to-toe with Elites, Hunters, Jackals, and Grunts, and that's it.  For those who like the Brutes, the space apes are completely absent from this game, which makes sense if you've been following the expanded universe.  The Storm Covenant also uses its classic vehicles, namely Ghosts, Banshees, and Wraiths, with Phantoms serving as troop transports.  After a few Chapters, we're introduced to the franchise's new foes, advanced AI constructs from the Forerunner's Promethean caste.

The Promethean's come in three variety's, the dog like Crawlers, the more traditional Knights, and the flying Watchers.  Each fight in interesting ways and add a new dynamic to the overall gameplay; something quite welcome to the eleven year old franchise, though I honestly found they lack the variety offered by the Flood.  The Crawlers are more of a nuisance than anything and provide a distraction for players.  The Watchers fly over the battlefield in a support role, placing Hard Light Shields down in front of troops, catching player thrown Grenades and tossing them back, and resurrecting destroyed Forerunner troops.  All in all this isn't a great challenge, but the Knights are where the real meat of the Prometheans lie.

The Knights are more or less the Elites of the Prometheans, though I've found them a bit tougher.  While they sport shields, the classic noob combo of a precision weapon and a Plasma Pistol is no where near as effective since a headshot alone on an unshielded Knight will not kill it.  Combine that with the fact that they move at a good speed and can get in close or retreat quickly, use specific Armour Abilities to good effect, can spawn a Watcher, and have a nasty Blade Arm to slash you close-in, and you've got a fun and challenging new foe to face.  Knights also use a robust group of Forerunner weapons new and exclusive to Halo 4, and yes, you can use them as well.

The Halo franchise has a long standing roster of both Human and Covenant weapons to choose from, and many of these make a return in addition to some new tools of destruction.  For example, both the Battle Rifle and DMR are present, and the Sticky Detonator replaces the Grenade Launcher featured in Halo: Reach.  The Railgun is a new UNSC entry to the franchise and somewhat functions as an anti-vehicle and anti-personnel weapon.  On the Storm Covenant side, the Plasma Rifle and Plasma Repeater are gone, replaced with the Storm Rifle, which is essentially a Covenant Assault Rifle mirroring its UNSC counterpart.  I personally find this a shame as the Storm Rifle is not very effective in my opinion, and it takes away from the diversity of the Storm Covenant arsenal.  It looks like 343 Industries was really trying to standardize the weapons more between the factions, which is good for balancing but really restricts variety, and it's a great shame that this design principle was applied to all the new Forerunner weapons as well.

All the Forerunner firearms featured in the game are brand new and never before seen, yet they're all counterparts of standard UNSC weapons with perhaps a bit different functionality.  So instead of the DMR or Battle Rifle, you have the Light Rifle, instead of the Shotgun you have the Scattershot, and instead of the Assault Rifle, you have the Suppressor.  While the Forerunner weapons are generally good and throughout the Campaign you'll be using a lot of them, they're completely unoriginal and mundane.  What it boils down to is you now have three sets of weapons, Human, Storm Covenant, and Forerunner, that are very similar to one another so much so, that I spent a lot of the Campaign using the same tactics with the Light Rifle and Scattershot as I would have with the Battle Rifle and Shotgun.  Again, gameplay wise this isn't bad, it just lacks innovation or originality.

Armour Abilities function very much as they did in Halo: Reach, with Sprint becoming a standard control function available at all times (finally!).  Many of the usual staples, like Active Camo, Jetpacks, Hologram, etc. are there, as well as some new Abilities courtesy of the Forerunners.  You can create an Autosentry, for example, which is the single most useful Armour Ability in the Campaign, and another new one would be the Hardlight Shield (sort of like a Jackal's shield but tougher).  Some Armour Abilities are only available in Multiplayer, so let's talk about that.

Unlike past versions of the franchise's Multiplayer experience, 343 Industries actually grounds it properly in true Halo fiction.  Infinity Multiplayer is set on the Infinity itself, and the War Games are training matches between groups of Spartan-IV's.  These "simulations" are the classic Halo multiplayer experiences you know and love with some tweaks.  Infinity Slayer, Oddball, and Flood (a revised form of Infection) are all there as are most of your favourite game types, the difference is how you rank up your Spartan-IV and with your use of Loadouts.

As you progress through your Multiplayer career, you earn XP that ranks you up and each Spartan Rank unlocks new customizable options.  Unlike Halo: Reach, loadouts are not standardized and you customize them, bringing the franchise more inline with current shooters.  While many will like this, I actually don't as it clearly gives advantages, however minor, to those who spend a lot more time on the game.  So if you're new or low Rank and you're playing with players who are higher Rank than you, their Shields will likely recharge a bit faster, they'll reload a bit faster, they might be able to Sprint longer, etc.  While this doesn't break the game, it does mean that matches no longer start everyone off on an even playing field where skill alone is the determining factor, and I find that a big negative.

As you rank up you also earn Credits (cR) which you can use to purchase additional weapons, Armour Abilities, Tactical Packages, and Support Upgrades for your Load Outs, making your Spartan-IV more effective.  Unlike Halo: Reach, you no longer need to purchase armour permutations as these unlock natural as you progress.  New poses for your Spartan's Lobby Cards and additional Emblems also unlock as you climb in Rank.

One of my favourite game modes from the last two titles, Firefight, is completely absent from Halo 4.  While I'm sad about this, it does feature a new Cooperative Multiplayer mode entitled Spartan Ops, in which new Episodes are available for download pretty much on a weekly basis.  Spartan Ops is a sort-of story driven Cooperative experience with a cool cinematic that prefaces each new Episode, but the actual gameplay all boils down to your Spartan-IV blowing stuff up for good measure.  Set six months after the conclusion of the Campaign, the Infinity is sent back to Requiem to investigate the planet and secure the technology there-in.  They find Storm Covenant and Prometheans still present, allowing you and your buddies to clear them out while achieving or securing various objectives.  There aren't Sets, Rounds, and Waves like in Firefight, and you basically find yourself clearing out different zones on a map as you progress forward.  Ammo also seems scarce in Spartan Ops, and enemy dropped weapons disappear far too quickly for my liking, making dying and respawning the most effective way to replenish your ammo, which I find rather silly and removing from the modes tactical element.

Theatre also makes a return, though this time you can't view Campaign in it at all, and only War Games, Spartan Ops, and Forge matches are viewable.  I'm honestly not sure why 343 Industries decided to pull Campaign support from Theatre, but I personally find that a real shame, and as such I couldn't take some great Campaign Screen Shots for this review.  As mentioned Forge also makes a return and from what I hear it's more customizable than ever before, however I don't use Forge myself so you'll need to look elsewhere for further details.

Visually speaking, Halo 4 is the single most beautiful Xbox 360 game I've ever played, clearly showing that the console's seven year old hardware has some legs left on it yet.  Environments are simply gorgeous vistas with significant detail and lighting effects, and character models are the most crisp and detailed I've ever seen in the franchise.  I wouldn't call the facial features of human characters as detailed as in, say, the Mass Effect franchise, but they're very close.  I did notice that when you get close to some Storm Covenant models, such as dead Jackals, their skin tended to blur a bit, but this wasn't a huge deal as you won't be doing that too often, or at least you won't notice during regular gameplay for the most part.

One thing I do need to comment on is the new Mjolnir Gen-II armour design:  Personally, I hate it.  Again, I know 343 Industries has made the franchise there's, but I find many of the new armour designs that you can unlock for your Spartan-IV to simply look ridiculous and they don't have the same ground-in-reality feel that Bungie Inc. traditionally employed with their armour designs.  I also do not like the Chief's revised Mark VI armour design, which has no story reason what-so-ever for the vast visual differences.  The Covenant races also have been visually overhauled, and while most look exceptional, I wasn't keen on Jackals looking far more reptilian than avian.  Overall, these are all minor quibbles, I know, but aesthetically speaking I'm not keen at all on some of the new designs.

The game's audio, however,  is simply exceptional all around with solid voice acting and effects throughout.  The Chief speaks far more in this title than in the original trilogy and it really helps to flesh out his character and provide him with some much needed personality, and some of the audio work as Cortana continues to decline into Rampancy is well done.  I found the implementation of her Rampancy overall a bit cheesy and half-baked in the first half of the game, but it develops beautifully towards the end in a climax that I found very sad emotionally.  343 Industries re-did all the weapon and vehicle sounds from scratch, and most of them are great.  It does irk me that some weapons I've been listening to for over a decade sound a bit different now, but again, it's not the end of the world.  The game's musical score is also spot on and a nice departure from traditional Halo-themes.  I find it grand yet sad at the same time, there's always a hint of sorrow to most of the tunes, and it fits the overall theme and mood of the Campaign very well.

In terms of controls, the Chief moves, shoots, and generally feels just like he did in the original trilogy save for one big improvement:  Sprinting.  While Sprint was originally introduced to the franchise in Halo: Reach, it was an Armour Ability forcing players to choose it over something else, in Halo 4 it's a constant ability.  This is huge and allows you to play more aggressively or defensively than you have before.  Oddly though, some vehicles feel different than Bungie Inc.'s iterations, and not in a good way.  The Banshee, for example, feels extremely stiff and less agile, which is disappointing for a vehicle that's known for being swift and easily maneuverable.

Halo 4 also introduces a few new vehicles to the mix, the most notable being the Mantis.  For all intents and purposes, it's a traditional Mech that we're seeing more and more introduced to shooters today, and it pretty much functions as such.  The Mantis gets the job done both in Campaign and War Games, but I wasn't blown away by it at all.  Perhaps I'm just too much of a traditionalist, but I still prefer a Warthog, Ghost, or a tried-and-true Scorpion.

343 Industries also took note of how much players enjoyed the Sabre sequence in Halo: Reach and designed a much longer sequence for Halo 4 in which the Chief gets to pilot a Broadsword, a new kind of UNSC fighter, through a kind of trench run similar to Star Wars fame.  While full of potential, I actually found this sequence poorly executed with far too many environmental obstacles to collide on, making the entire process tedious and no where near as enjoyable as the Sabre sequence was in the previous game.  Of note is that the Chief also gets to pilot a Pelican Gunship in a similar fashion to how Noble 6 used a Falcon in Halo: Reach's "New Alexandria" Chapter, and the Pelican Gunship handles very smoothly and was fun to use.

Now, for those of you who purchased the Limited Edition of Halo 4 as I did, you get a bunch of physical and digital bonuses with the package.  Each Limited Edition comes in a numbered case (each number is unique as far as I know) and the package design is beautiful and well crafted and closes magnetically.  Needless to say I was very impressed with this case, and once you open it up, you're greeted to a nicely detailed Steelbook case containing both game discs, the first being a play disc and the second being a Multiplayer install disc which you only need to use once.

Behind the Steelbook case, and keeping with the tradition of the Halo: Reach Limited Edition, you'll find items packaged straight from the Halo universe itself.  The first is a UNSC packet containing download codes for a digital copy of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, early access to Specializations, an Armour and Weapon skin and unique Emblem for your Multiplayer Spartan-IV, as well as the War Games Map Packs (available at no extra charge when they launch).  A Spartan-IV Recruit Armour and a Cryotube Prop for your Avatar as well as a 14 Day Xbox LIVE Gold trial card are also included.  Behind this packet are a Mjolnir Requisition chart for a Spartan Ops character, a sealed Mission Briefing packet that you actually need to rip open to read the contents of, and an introduction manual for the UNSC Infinity, which somewhat functions as a manual for the game seeing as how games don't come with paper manuals anymore.

I personally bought the Limited Edition as I thought it was coming with a special extended edition of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, but this wasn't the case; it was the same web series we already saw, save edited together as a cohesive piece with all the Cortana bits cut together at the beginning.  That was disappointing for me, and the physical content, while beautifully presented and authentic to the universe, wasn't as informative or story-important as what came with the Halo: Reach Limited Edition.  The digital content is great for those who really want to play the game's Multiplayer, but for me I've always primarily enjoyed the franchise's Campaigns, thus, I did waste my money on the Limited Edition of Halo 4 and essentially bought a glorified Season Pass for Multiplayer Map Packs.  Had I known this in advance, I would have purchased the standard edition of the game and saved myself a good bit of money.

Overall, however, I've greatly enjoyed Halo 4, and I must credit 343 Industries with a job well done.  They took a very well established franchise, made it theirs, and released a solid product and a great addition to the series.  While Halo 4 itself isn't a revolutionary game and lacks a significant amount of innovation, it is loads of fun and really captures the original Halo spirit while taking the franchise's story in a new direction.  I will be playing through the Campaign a few more times and will be enjoying Spartan Ops and some War Games with friends for months to come, and without question Halo 4 is well worth being a part of any gamer's library. 

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