Back in 2007, Bungie Studios said that it was time to finish the fight with “Halo 3,” the “final” chapter of Master Chief and Cortana’s fight against the alien Covenant and parasitic Flood. This was followed by a string of spin-offs, like “Halo 3: ODST” and “Halo: Reach,” and the console strategy game, “Halo Wars”, but all of these took players out of the role of Master Chief. Now, the franchise has been handed off to 343 Studios, who were looking to establish themselves with their first game, “Halo 4”, which will allow players back in to the role of Master Chief for the first time since 2007.
“Halo 4” centers on Chief and Cortana as they combat the Didact, a Forerunner General imprisoned on the planet of Requiem. It focuses on the character’s struggle and the Chief trying to help Cortana who is beginning to deteriorate and go rampant, the AI equivalent of insanity. The plot helps to develop two vital elements: establishing the Didact as a true, individual villain, as opposed to the group mentality behind the Covenant and Flood, and also emphasizing the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana, especially given Cortana’s current state.
The relationship between Chief and Cortana is the standout of these two. Each character is portrayed in a more human way than previous games, where Chief was the quiet super-soldier and Cortana was merely a guide. This time around, 343 Studios manages to present both in a way that makes you genuinely care for the two, showing their dependence on each other and their fear of losing the other. This is brought to light through some fantastic voice acting on the part of Steve Downes and Jen Taylor, voicing Master Chief and Cortana respectively. The rest of the voice cast does a fantastic job, conveying new characters in ways that makes you want to see what will happen to them in the future.
The gameplay, however, was not as ambitious as the narrative for this outing. 343 sticks with the tried-and-true Halo experience and formula established by Bungie Studios years ago. While in other games this could be seen as a bad thing, in this case it is not as the Halo formula is built on game-play variety. In one area, the player may have to be combating a group of enemies trying to funnel down a corridor, while another area can be larger, and may require vehicular combat. The excellent enemy AI employed in the campaign further punctuates this; the Covenant and the new Promethean enemies using different tactics to take out the player.
343 Studios has also revamped the multiplayer options centering on the UNSC Infinity, a human ship introduced in the main campaign. The two main options are: Spartan Ops, a co-op mode centering on 10 weekly downloadable episodes consisting of five missions each week to advance the story, and War Games, the new competitive multiplayer interface for “Halo 4” that replaces the traditional matchmaking from previous games. War Games, instead, matches players of equivalent skill against each other to compete in established games like Slayer. 343 Studios has also changed the traditional leveling and ranking system of the old games, introducing loadouts to the franchise for the first time, keeping the multiplayer in line with other big name franchises.
On the technical side, 343 Studios easily outdone any work created by Bungie; the game squeezes every bit of juice it can out the aging Xbox 360. “Halo 4” is easily one of the best-looking games this year, and while the occasional hiccup still appears, it is hard to knock just how gorgeous this game is overall. The cinematography rivals the CGI of many theatrical films being released today. This is backed up more by aforementioned voice acting; the entire cast does a stellar job in moving the narrative along and establishing the relevancy of new characters. The final, most surprising standout is the soundtrack assembled for this game. With high intensity music for combat, somber songs for more emotional scenes and a main theme worth listening to by itself, the soundtrack is worth checking out on its own.
The release of “Halo 4” marks the first release in a new Halo trilogy from a new developer that manages to build on the tried-and-true formula while showing the direction the game could be taking. 343 Studios has crafted an amazing experience that should not be missed if you own an Xbox 360 and is, without a doubt, one of the best gaming experiences this year.