How does one review a videogame institution and furthermore, why is a videogame institution even being reviewed on a comedic website that focuses on fighting? The explanation is short and sweet. Basically, the dudes over at 343 Industries realized how much we love Halo after we let them know there's a Halo reference approximately once every 21.7 articles on MiddleEasy.com. Considering MiddleEasy has around 9500 published articles, that's a lot of Halo talk. Also: I don't want to speak for Zeus, but he could probably beat you at any Halo multiplayer mode you throw at him. I could defeat you every now and then, but Zeus will beat you. That pretty much sold them. So we received the game last week to expertly dissect, analyze and critique for your enjoyment and the benefit of the world. However daunting it may be.
The Halo series, to me, is the best and only shooter on consoles worth playing (aside form Goldeneye and Perfect Dark 64). I present that bias to you with full disclosure. I'll also be completely honest in saying that I was more than worried about the transition of the franchise from series creator; Bungie, to 343. Sure, 343 Industries slid into the universe pretty organically throughout the end of Bungie's reign as Gods of Halo with Halo: Reach, but Halo is special to a lot of gamers. What were they going to do to my, no, our baby? I'm here to tell you that 343 has nurtured that baby into a supersoldier worthy of consideration for the Spartan-IV program. The best analogy I can think of is this: the original Halo games by Bungie were the Tim Burton Batman movies. Judging by this first entry into the Forerunner trilogy by 343, this is the Christopher Nolan helmed Dark Knight of Halo games, or...you know what I mean. The Bungie games and this fully-developed by 343 Halo 4 are awesome. But now, with Halo 4, 343 has has taken the series and universe to new, deeper and darker depths, and I love it.
Beyond the development team change, I got all up in arms like a gaming hipster about the continuation of the series. Why did they have to milk it? Why can't Master Chief rest? My worries were soothed like George Costanza draped head to toe in velvet within a half hour of the campaign. Right from the start you are thrust behind the iconic helmet of Master Chief. No longer are you a floating gun, you are The Master Chief, Cortana is talking to you, and the universe needs your capable hands once again. It's a lot of responsibility, and you feel it bearing down on your heavily armored chest right from your waking moment four years after Halo 3. The HUD is more personal behind the eyes of John-117, and it makes you appreciate the boots you are filling. As for plot points, I'm on a non-disclosure agreement that basically states that if I reveal anything, Microsoft will sneak into my apartment at night and present me with the option of ritualistic knife through the heart or a Windows 8 installation, so I don't want to give up much because I don't want to die. What I can tell you is this: Master Chief has been in cryosleep, chilling, then Cortana wakes him up and they go on a grand adventure involving a race of creatures called the Forerunners. I always enjoyed the Halo campaigns, especially Halo 1, but 2, 3 and ODST were passable to me. The multiplayer was what had my focus. Halo 4, though...my God Halo 4. In my opinion this is the best campaign in the series (which for the record I personally rank 4, Reach, 1, 3, 2, ODST), the stoyline has never been so concise. In fact, it basically reminded me that the previous were a bit convoluted at times, but Halo 4 jumps along at a great pace. The missions feature tons of variety and the game's plot is way easier to follow throughout the epic campaign that spans about 8 hours. Typical of any Halo game the scope is huge and if you've been following the Halo: Forward Unto Dawn mini-series, there are beats that pay off over and over. Dare I say that by the end of the campaign 343 are the superior Halo storytellers? Yeah, I dare say that. I can tell you I felt emotions for Cortana I've never felt before through multiple Halo games combined (it has nothing to do with her rockin' blue bod') and I can't wait to see what happens in the next game and Spartan Ops. Speaking of Spartan Ops...what about the multiplayer?
If you shield your eyes from the loadouts and what I think is a slightly sped up game, it's Halo through and through. Customizing your Spartan is as addictive as ever, and the addition of Spartan Ops, the multiplayer mode that sends you and up to three of your friends go on a mini-campaign released in story-driven chunks throughout the year, is where the innovations are. I love Spartan Ops. It's the campaign for someone who has five to ten minutes to kill, and there's weekly challenges for XP bonuses just like Halo: Reach tied to the new mode. The cutscenes for Spartan Ops are great, and nothing feels tacked on. It feels like a full on expansion pack that's coming to me like a morphine drip. All in all, the multiplayer is as fleshed out and deep as ever. Many hours will be sunk into Halo 4, many hours. Consider this the back of my hand being wiped against my forehead. Don't fear the absence of Bungie, Halo is here to stay.
So what's fundamentally different about Halo now that it's in 343's control? From my roughly 25 hours with the game I can say confidently that it feels faster. Not dramatically so, but about 10-15% faster than previous entries in the series. The engine is absolutely gorgeous. This is by far the best looking Halo game to date, and I would rank it as one of the best 360 games I've ever seen. The in-game cutscenes rival if not exceed the graphical fidelity all previous entries in the series, even besting the gorgeous Mass Effect and Battlefield 3. Unexpectedly, the sound effects sound almost 100% different from the other games. The grunts no longer jibber jabber, and all of your favorite guns have a completely new signature sound. It's jarring at first, but I quickly got over it and gave in to the awesomeness. The game sounds great, looks great and plays great. Bottom line; it just feels damn polished. So smooth. I went from skeptic to fanboy in my time with the game, and I can't wait for more Spartan Ops.
So with Bungie's bittersweet farewell comes a new beginning. After years in the hands of it's creators Halo has moved on into the next plane of existence throughout it's expansive universe. At first I wanted to resist the new flag carriers of the franchise I hold so dear, then it became abundantly clear to me that this was exactly the boost the series needed. You can recognize the effort put behind Halo 4. From it's sprawling campaign to it's bottomless multiplayer suite, the realization comes clear that Halo 4 is not 343's attempt at besting Bungie, it's their tribute to them, and it's fantastic. It seems that turning your beloved creation over to someone else is the natural evolution for any great intellectual property, and I think Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan and Bob Kane would agree.