Master Chief may be the hero, but his AI companion Cortana is the focus of the story in Halo 4.
"We didn't want to break anything."
When I recently interviewed Josh Holmes, creative director of Halo 4 and of the entire Halo franchise moving forward, he admitted that when the newly-formed 343 Industries first started work on Halo 4 back in 2009, they were very tentative about changing anything about the series, in case they spoiled it. "Early on I think we were very tentative in terms of what it is that you can actually," he told me.
You can't make a good sequel without mixing things up a bit, though, so eventually the new caretakers of the series gained confidence and started to look at what parts of the wildly successful Halo formula they could tinker with and, dare I suggest it, improve.
The Prometheans are a cool new enemy race.
"I always go back to what I think are the tenets of Halo, and those are things we don't want to change," Holmes explained. And what are those tenets? "Higher level themes like a focus on heroism and sci-fi wonder," he suggested, "and a focus on player choice, empowering players to engage with the sandbox, engage with weapons and vehicles and physics, with dynamic enemy AI, and make their own way through whatever obstacles we put in front of them."
Having played through the Halo 4 campaign, these central pillars are very much in evidence. Halo 4 features gigantic spaces, towering alien structures, and the biggest maps ever seen in the franchise's history. For me, Halo has always been visually about scale, making you feel like one tiny man in a huge universe, and Halo 4 delivers. Too many times to count, I would walk through a door into a new area and just stop to look around at the amazing new vista.
Since the release of Halo 3 in 2007 we have had Halo: ODST and Halo: Reach, but with the long-awaited return of Master Chief, many will consider Halo 4 to be the first "real" Halo game in five years. A lot has changed, and the team at 343 has learned to squeeze every last drop of power out of the aging Xbox 360 hardware.
"Every Halo game that's been built, since the original, has been in the Halo engine, and it's sort of evolved," Homes explained. "This engine in particular has been overhauled, and many of the systems re-written, specifically to achieve the artistic vision of Kenneth Scott, our art director."
The result is, without the doubt, the most stunningly beautiful Halo game ever made, and perhaps the best-looking game ever on the Xbox 360. Everything about the graphics engine has been ramped up, and as a result the game's locations feel far more real than ever before. It's still colourful, the way a Halo game should be, but there is an amazing depth of detail in the models, textures, and animations.
"It's this marriage of art and technology, because there is fantastic technology that's been improved and evolved and extended, but we also have some amazing artists that have brought their craft to the game," Holmes said.
One of the biggest visual upgrades is in facial animation and virtual actors, which is vital for conveying story and emotion. Halo 4 is about a massive alien threat from the distant past, awakening with a desire to conquer and destroy - a properly epic science fiction plotline - but the backbone of the story is the relationship between Master Chief and his companion AI Cortana, and the new facial animation system gives this story a great amount of emotional weight.
In the Halo universe, artificial intelligence has a best before date, and after seven years an AI will start to degrade, a process known as rampancy. Cortana is now more than eight years old, and during the campaign she fights constantly to keep the digital decay at bay so she can continue to assist Master Chief. This unlikely friendship is as human as the genetically-engineered super-soldier ever gets, so the continuing degradation in Cortana's mental state frightens him more than any alien warrior. While he never says so, I suspect his only real fear is being alone again.
Cortana, along with other supporting characters, are animated with astonishing subtlety and artistry. Halo 4's writers have resisted the usual video game storytelling technique of dumping a truckload of exposition onto the player. Instead, characters will often say more with a single look than pages of dialogue ever could, and it's a joy to watch.
Of course, by this point veteran Halo fans will be saying, "Okay, so it's pretty, but how does it play?" The answer is that it plays like classic Halo single-player, though with some subtle tweaking that makes it feel fresh. All the old weapons are available, and you'll use them to shoot at the same old Covenant bad guys, but the action feels a bit more fluid and dynamic than I am used to from a Halo game.
The biggest change is the addition of a whole new alien race, the freakish hybrids of organic matter and technology known as the Prometheans. The whole race, from the troops themselves to their weapons, structures, and craft, seemed based around weird floating metal shards. Picking up a Promethean weapon for the first time is a memorable experience: the entire thing breaks into glittering pieces, which then assemble themselves in your hand.
These new enemies interact in interesting ways, requiring new strategies to take out a group. The big shock troopers, known as Promethean Knights, carry a variety of weapons and gear, so while they may look roughly the same, you will have to handle them differently if they are carrying a shotgun or sniper rifle. They are supported by flying machines that can generate shields, heal damage, and even raise them from the dead if you don't intervene.
I'll state right now that I loved Halo 4, and I think it is a worthy sequel, but it certainly isn't perfect. I would have liked to have seen more variety in enemies, and perhaps a bit of a shake-up in the weapons. As cool as the Promethean weapons are, they still adhere to the standard Halo categories - pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, tactical sniper, long-range sniper, grenade, and heavy explosive. Humans, Covenant, and Prometheans all have the same weapon set, with little variation except in how they look and sound.
I also found the Prometheans lacking in variety. While they are fun enemies to fight against, battles started to feel a little samey thanks to their really only being three types: the dog-like scouts, the powerful knights, and the flying support drones. Sure they can mix and match weapons to give a bit more variety, but I feel there should have been more. There also seem to be different types of knights, indicated by different heads and decorative armour, but I never noticed any meaningful difference when fighting them.
My other criticisms are minor, and feel like nitpicking. The huge levels feel wonderfully epic, but occasionally they can be a tad too big, and traversing them on foot can slow down the game's pace. Similarly, weapons run out of ammunition faster than I'd like, and scavenging supplies on the battlefield can bring the action to a sudden halt. Playing on "heroic" difficulty, I found myself often clearing a room, then running back into the previous room to replenish my supplies, then tackling the next room. This left a long pause in the action between battles, which annoyed me, but it was either that or risk running out of ammo in the middle of a fight and getting myself killed.
One example was a long mission in which Master Chief is riding inside a gigantic truck, essentially a four-storey-tall tank with room for several Warthog jeeps in its belly. The truck would trundle along and get into a fight, and I would have to clear whatever obstacles were preventing it from proceeding. I was chewing through ammo so fast that I had to trudge back to the truck several times in the middle of fights to restock, making the entire mission feel weirdly paced.
Overall, though, Halo 4 feels great to play, tells a compelling personal story, and looks and sounds amazing. Sound effects across the board are top notch, and the musical score blends the expected orchestral grandeur with pulsing electronica, always giving music that feels right for the moment. 343 Industries have done the impossible: take over the Halo franchise from Bungie and make it their own, keeping a classic Halo feel but also putting their own stamp on it.
Somehow, they have found a middle ground between sticking with how things have always been and injecting new ideas and energy into the old series. If you've never played Halo before, this would be a good place to step on-board, at the start of a new storyline.
What about the multiplayer, though? Well, I haven't played it yet. I'll sink some hours into it over the next week or two and come back with part two of this review at a later date. I'll also have more insights from Josh Holmes about the design processes that created it.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez