Review: Master Chief returns but this time under the auspices of new studio 343 Industries. Have they done enough with HALO 4 to step out from Bungie’s shadow and claim Xbox’s biggest franchise as their own?
And so, in the hour of need, Master Chief awakens from his Arthurian slumber. Even though this is the fourth entry in the series in as many years, it still feels as if those last three games – even the excellent Halo: Reach – were marking time until Halo 4. With original creators Bungie having departed the scene, and a budget that dwarfs any previous Microsoft Studios release, it falls on the expensively-assembled talent of 343 Industries to take the Xbox brand’s most iconic figure forward. No pressure, then.
Of course, they haven’t helped themselves, with deferential nods to the legacy of Bungie and promises to the fans to treat the Halo universe with the respect the faithful demand. It’s clear that many at 343 are long-term fans of the franchise themselves; problem is, fans tend to take things far too seriously. While there is undoubtedly some of that going on, especially in the density of the game’s lore, Halo 4 matches and in places exceeds, especially in technical terms, even the best of its predecessors.
The opening level gets the nods in Bungie’s direction out of the way early, harking back to Halo: Combat Evolved’s first level on the Pillar of Autumn as Master Chief escapes through the corridors of a ship under siege. It even includes the staple detection of your look-inversion preference as Chief awakes in his stasis pod, but 343 use it to introduce their own, more physically present take on Master Chief. This continues through the level as he drags doors apart with his hands, clambers up an elevator shaft and dispatches an Elite in – shock, horror – a quicktime event. Having added this little wrinkle to the formula, 343 barely return to it again throughout the rest of the game, but the point has been made.
It’s not just the central character who feels re-energised. The moment you first fire your assault rifle in anger you’re greeted with a thrillingly cacophonous new weapon sound. The UNSC weapons may mainly consist of old favourites, including the dearly beloved battle rifle, but they feel fresh and new again. Indeed, while Neil Davidge’s moody cinematic score may not be as distinctly memorable as Martin O’Donnell’s “Halo” theme from the original trilogy, Halo 4 is a sonic delight, from the clang of Chief’s boots as he jumps down on to deck plating, the fizz of stick grenades through the air, to the disturbingly womb-like slurping sounds haunting the strange alien corridors of later levels. You’ll want to break out a serious pair of speakers for this game.
Requiem for a dream
Once the initial ship corridors are negotiated, you’re confronted with an iconic Halo arena to get your teeth into, as Master Chief battles his way along the outer skin of the Forward Unto Dawn under the baleful eye of the Forerunner planet Requiem, before he, Convenant, ships and all are dragged down into the planet’s centre. It’s an masterly opening to the game, and indicative of the confidence with which 343 Industries approach the entire campaign.
What follows is a ruthlessly efficient and entertaining singleplayer experience, driving you on from checkpoint to checkpoint. The obligatory Warthog and Scorpion sections are present, but are bolstered by Banshee and Pelican air combat as well as a ride on the giant Mammoth anti-aircraft platform. You even get to don a Mantis mech exo-skeleton and become a literal walking tank.
It could seem like overkill, but vehicle combat sections are woven sensibly and in moderation into a varied series of engagements that make sense within the overall plot. Any time a particular style of play appears about to overstay its welcome, Halo 4 whisks you off to a new environment or gives you a new method of destruction to play with. The levels have no doubt been honed through thousands of hours of playtesting, but they manage to stay clear of an air of sterile over-refinement.
It only trails off – in typical Halo fashion – in the final level, which combines an overly long and frustrating aerial section – that is a bit too much of a blatant nod to the first Star Wars film – with an attempt to inject a sense of a ticking clock by breaking up arenas into small bitty chunks. But what comes before is arguably the best constructed of all the Halo singleplayer campaigns, and one that, with co-op play, Halo’s inimitable difficulty levels and Skulls available from the off to put a twist on the game mechanics, will have plenty of longevity.