Review by ChemicalReaper

"How To Kill A Franchise"

Quick Review:

Halo 4 is a divisive game. Classic Halo fans might generally hate it for playing with and changing up the formula too much. The departure of Bungie and their composer, Martin O'Donnell, is evident from the moment the game starts up: the gameplay, the story, the music... everything just feels off, because the new engine – although it looks absolutely gorgeous – just doesn't play like a Halo game.

In-Depth Review:

On paper, Halo 4 should be an easy A. After gallivanting around as a fairly useless ODST and an unnamed Spartan III, returning to the story of Master Chief and Cortana should be a welcome change for the better. But it isn't.

As a Halo game, Halo 4 is terrible.

So, what went wrong?

Let's start with the positives.

First off, the game is absolutely gorgeous. It shows off with art assets that are beyond what anyone thought the Xbox 360 was capable of. In fact, I'd say it rivals what the PlayStation 3 was supposed to be capable of, graphics-wise. The lighting is so incredible, it's unreal; particle effects, single player level design, textures, and 'little details' (like plants) are also phenomenal.

Secondly, the story is a strong point. Although the main overarching story is cliché (oh, no! Generic overlord villains!), the Chief-Cortana relationship is fleshed out far more than it ever was under Bungie's direction. They feel like a real duo, and the dynamics as both of them struggle with their humanity (Master Chief becoming more than just an automaton of destruction; Cortana becoming insane as she devolves into a state called "Rampancy") works far better than I could have imagined, and is really a good step in the direction that the series needed to take.

Finally, the audio is brilliant. All of the sounds of previous games have been re-recorded, or at the very least remastered, and as a result, we have a Pistol that sounds as powerful as a Magnum, a Sniper Rifle that when fired will scare your opponent to death, and Assault, Battle, and DM Rifles that pack a hell of a punch. The Covenant weapons certainly seem to have received less attention than the humans' - at least regarding sound design - but still sound quite good. On the negative side, the Promethean light-based weapons don't sound anywhere near as powerful as they could or perhaps should.

Unfortunately, that's where the good ends and the negatives begin.

The Campaign has certainly borrowed a lot of points from rival FPS games. For example, Quick Time Events (QTEs) are now apparently a mainstay of the series. The truth is that QTEs simply do not work in a Halo game. I shouldn't have to mash X during a lull in gameplay to pry open a stubbornly locked door - that's not what Halo is about: if Bungie wanted to show us something cool, they'd let us figure it out on our own, or they would show it in a cutscene. 343 Industries and Microsoft, on the other hand, jump aboard "Look what we just figured out how to do!" train. Sorry, 343i, but that particular train already departed "Generic Station" four years ago.

The story, too, is designed to be as straightforward as possible for a Halo newcomer. Rather than alienating new players, 343i alienate players who played the Halo games, but didn't devote their lives to reading and memorizing all of the Halo fiction. And even then - for someone who read the Halo books - the game still cherry-picks what it wants to tell you and leaves it to the gamer to figure out everything else. What Halo 4 ends up being, then, is a game that tries to cater to the short attention span of today's children (the Post-Call of Duty 4 generation of gamers), but ends up leaving the gamer with more questions than answers.

While it's certainly not easy to fill Bungie's shoes, Halo 4's Campaign aims to dazzle but ends up a glare that hurts to look at.

Spartan Ops, the successor of and replacement for ODST and Reach's Firefight mode, is simply underwhelming. Whereas the Campaign at least tries to throw a few curveballs, Spartan Ops pretty much boils down to "go here, kill this." While credit must be given to 343i for their promise of 10 new 'episodes,' each consisting of 5 missions, over a 9 week period post-launch, Spartan Ops - or at least the first episode - does feel like little more than a rush job to add extra hours of playability to the game.

I hope that the future episodes of Spartan Ops will perhaps bring some new, innovative, and genuinely fun gameplay to Halo 4, I get a disheartening feeling that each episode will be a near rinse-and-repeat of the last one, but played out on a different map.

And finally, we come to War Games, which is Halo 4's fancy name for Matchmaking. Sorry, 343i, but simply renaming your gameplay mode does not count as innovation.

Ultimately, War Games is the reason people will play Halo 4 - not Spartan Ops, and probably not so much the Campaign. In theory, War Games should be a really easy sell: just take Halo's world-famous multiplayer, and do it over again.

And, ultimately, War Games is absolutely - without a doubt - the most disappointing part of Halo 4.

Let's be perfectly honest: Halo Matchmaking was in need of a revamp. Reach was fun but, personally, I found that Bungie's copy-paste multiplayer design was losing steam. Halo 2 had the best maps of any Halo game to date, but was plagued with the overpowered Battle Rifle and cheapness of the dual-wield Needlers; Halo 3 had, perhaps, the most balanced multiplayer and the best (and fairest) ranking system; Halo: Reach was good, but did nothing to evolve or revolutionize the formula; and, by the time Halo 4 was released, many of the maps were half-baked creative ideas made in Forge World.

343i looked at that need of a refit, and overdid it. Waaaaay overdid it. If Matchmaking was in London, England, it needed to get to, say, Marseilles, France to be revitalized and refreshed; but instead, Halo 4 landed in St. Petersburg, Russia.

To cut a long story short, Halo 4 tries far too hard to beat Call of Duty at being a Call of Duty game. And, you know what? As a Call of Duty game, Halo 4 would actually be fantastic. But as a Halo game, it positively sucks.

We can start by looking at the weapons. If you don't pick the Battle Rifle or the DMR, then you should just quit, remove the game disk, turn off your Xbox, and sell your game back to the retailer. You will not help your team if you run around with any other weapon, and you'll only get frustrated when you have a negative Kill/Death spread. This seems to have been a cue taken from World at War and Modern Warfare 2, where both games had one ridiculously overpowered weapon (for WaW, it was the MP40; for MW2, it was the nearly-recoilless ACR). The Battle Rifle and the DMR have uglification, but they are absolutely 100% necessary to win matches. Why? Well, let's take a look at map design.

If you're playing Infinity Slayer (Team Slayer - once again, 343i, name-changing does not equal innovation), you'll have a certain set of maps on rotation. If you're playing Big Team Battle, you'll have a certain set of maps on rotation. The problem is, there only seems to be a few maps for each game type, and you'll find that people usually vote for the same one or two: Abandon and Solace for Team Slayer, or Ragnarok for Big Team Battle.

The thing with the smaller Infinity Slayer maps is that, despite the fact they are *technically* asymmetrical, they're all still very symmetrical. The problem with the design lies in the fact that they're all centrocentric. What I mean is that the focus of the map is the center, and everything is built around it: usually to the detriment of the map itself.

For example, we can look at "Abandon" and "Haven." Both of these maps feature a round, tiered central platform at least on the same level (if not slightly higher) than the rest of the map. The concern here is that most of the rest of the maps are in open view to these central platforms: in both cases, there are very open areas all around the central platform that are easy to attack. If one team controls the high ground with DMRs or Battle Rifles, there are literally no angles of attack for the other team to use that don't leave them wide open and exposed to enemy fire. Even skirting around the edges of the map leaves you vulnerable because, in both of those maps, the level design is a big circle circling the central circle. If that sounds like a terrible description of a terrible map design, that's because it's terribly accurate.

And even when Infinity Slayer maps aren't a big circle encompassing another circle, the level design suffers from the same problem of reenacting a Civil War battlefield. Let's take "Solace" as our example. There are two sniping platforms and, basically, two large rectangles beneath them. The top rectangle has a massive square cut out that allows one to drop down to the lower level. Well, this sounds like a good level design: in theory, it should allow for exciting sniper/countersniper and visceral close-quarters combat. In reality, it inevitably ends up as an uninspiring clusterf**k as both teams cram into the wings/ramps leading up to one of the sniper towers. Reach's "Pinnacle" (a remake of 2's "Ascension") worked because the sniper towers were perpendicular to each other and the map was very large and open: if both teams had good snipers, they would primarily train their sights on the other tower, leaving the central dish relatively free for intense close range combat. "Solace," though, is simply too small and cluttered for sniping to be a viable means of combat, and the fact that the sniping platforms directly face each other leads to the issue of both teams spamming DMRs: there's no need or drive to take the other tower, because it offers the exact same view, which leads to a very stale and boring match.

Big Team Battle, on the other hand, is plagued by a different problem: the Mantis. The Mantis is a mech that looks like it was directly copied from Metal Gear Solid: even the name is similar to one of Metal Gear's villains (Psycho Mantis). What this demonstrates to me is that 343i was at a complete loss as to how they could actually evolve Halo's multiplayer gameplay. You know that a game company is running short of good ideas when they start pulling at straws like "Zombies!" or "Mechs with Rocket Launchers!" and it shows. The map "Ragnarok" is a direct copy-paste - sorry, "remake" - of Halo 3's "Valhalla." Like Valhalla, Ragnarok is a great map. But Ragnarok is ruined by the presence of the two Mantis mechs, which replace the Scorpion tanks from Valhalla Heavy. The mechs are just so distractingly dumb: they sit up high enough that they can shoot over most of the map's smaller hills and valleys. The Scorpion tanks sat lower to the ground, turned more slowly, and had a much more limited firing arc, making it easier to get up close behind the tank to board it.

So, how does Matchmaking play?

Well, shields are now effectively useless – they run down quite quickly, they deplete and you die about as fast as you do in, say, Call of Duty and Battlefield 3. In fact, all the game really needs is to replace the shield bloom with a 'bloody screen' and the games would be practically interchangeable. For us old school Halo players, this is sacrilegious: no longer are one-on-one battles a test of skill and maneuvering; now, in most cases, it's just determined by "who fired first?" And, whereas in Halos Past, one person – with good tactical sense – could win in a two-on-one battle, in Halo 4, there is no chance to win in anything more than one-on-one. That particular call sure sounds dutifully familiar.

Halo now has Killstreaks, apparently – sorry, I meant "Ordnance Drops." Get a certain number of kills, and you'll score an Ordnance Drop: you can choose between two randomly selected weapons or an armor upgrade. As an aside/personal commentary – I imagine that in Halo 5, you'll probably be able to select whether you want offensive or defensive Ordinance Drops, and maybe at what killstreaks you want, with higher killing sprees equaling better drops. (Totally not inspired by Call of Duty, right guys?)

In place of Call of Duty's "here are some perks, pick three of 'em" system, Halo 4 has Armor Ability Tactical Package, and Support Upgrade. Armor Abilities are an extension of Reach's, which were an extension of 3's Equipment. The Armor Abilities are fine, and some cool new ones (like the "Hardlight Shield" – which reminds me a little bit of Modern Warfare 2's riot shield) have been added.

The Tactical Package is a passive upgrade that is selected from a list, and includes such upgrades as faster shield recharging, the ability to carry two primary weapons (wait, doesn't that also sound familiar from Call of Duty...?), unlimited sprinting (also sounds familiar, no?), Fast-Track (which allows quicker ranking up), the ability to carry more grenades, Scavenger Pro – SORRY! – "Resupply" (pick up grenades from dead bodies), and one that increases the durability of any vehicle the player drives, among a couple of others.

Support Upgrades include such abilities as the ability to carry more ammunition, an upgrade that allows users to reload and switch weapons faster (and it's called "Dexterity," which is TOTALLY NOT "Sleight of Hand"!), an upgrade to the range and sensitivity of the motion sensor (which isn't all that helpful as, unlike previous titles, Halo 4 doesn't tell you what the range of the sensor actually is during gameplay), the ability to sprint quietly, and one that allows the player to have longer sustained fire from turrets before they overheat, and several other abilities.

One of my favorite game modes in previous Halo titles has always been "Infection." It's back in Halo 4 with some of 343i's top-notch gameplay innovation. By that, I once again mean that they've changed the name and applied some new character models. Now it's called "Flood." And, since the Flood are absent from the Campaign this time around, this is how 343i got everyone's least-favorite pseudo-zombies into the game.

What a shame, then, that I think the new "Flood" mode absolutely misses the mark. First things first, the Flood in this game mode don't even resemble traditional Flood. (You remember what they used to look like, right? Good.) Apparently, in the four years Master Chief spent in cryogenesis, the Human Flood somehow turned one of their arms into a sword. Um, okay? And, apparently Human Flood now have shields, too. Which leads to my next point of frustration: pistols are no longer one-hit kills on zombies/Flood. And that brings me to my next, next point of derision: 343i gives you nowhere near enough pistol ammo to last one round of Flood.

If you want to play "Flood" – and this actually applies to every mode in Matchmaking – you should probably also be aware that lag is very much present in Halo 4. There have been countless times when I've been "killed" by another player slicing the air next to me – or behind me, where I was standing a second ago.

If it seems like I'm being harsh, it's because I am. I expected far better from 343 Industries. It's a Halo game ¬– not only that, but it's the next major, numbered entry in the franchise –, and Halo has a very long and proud gaming heritage.

You may be thinking, "Hey, he compares it to Call of Duty a lot!" In fact, I've mentioned that particular series by name nine times now. The reason I compare it to Call of Duty (ten times!) is simply because that is the most apt comparison. I really wish I could compare Halo 4 to Bungie's games, but there is just no comparison available.

The fact of the matter is that, unfortunately, Halo 4 simply does not live up to its predecessors. 343i wowed us with incredible TV spots, brilliant teaser trailers, and phenomenal graphics, but they skimped on what really mattered: the gameplay. Halo's multiplayer was in need of an update, yes, I'll freely admit that. But what it didn't need was a new personality. It needed a facelift, not complete facial reconstruction.

Even the audio is underwhelming. Newcomer Neil Davidge fails to deliver any of the memorable music that Martin O'Donnell did, and, frankly, Davidge's attempt at writing developed and compositionally advanced orchestral music just falls flat on its face. He clearly wasn't up to the task, and I sincerely hope that 343i replaces him with a more gifted composer for their next project.

In short, the old Halo is dead and gone. Bungie are out the door, and Microsoft – not wishing to let a multimillion dollar game series lie unused – handed the reigns to a vastly less talented studio. The game has fantastic visuals and incredible art direction; but, the story tends to drag on slowly and is riddled with plot holes*, multiplayer tries to emulate Call of Duty rather than Halo, and the new enemies, music, and weapons are all generally underwhelming.

(*For example: at the very beginning of the Campaign, Cortana expresses complete and total shock that the ship is orbiting a Forerunner planet, and, earlier, that they are surrounded by Covenant ships. Well, if she's the AI and 99% of the ship's systems appear to be functioning, then why didn't she already know that? It's just an example of awkward phrasing or slight oversight, which really stands out compared to the shiny graphics and generally strong story.)

QUICK SUMMARY:
Story: 7/10 - generally strong, although there is a lot of jumping forward without explanation of events occurring in-between and the story does slow down quite a bit in the middle.
Gameplay: 5/10 - it doesn't really play like Halo, which is the worst possible mistake this game could make.
Graphics: 9/10 - these are the best graphics I've ever seen on the 360; the campaign's level designs can be absolutely jaw-dropping at times, and the crisp detail of every object, enemy, and cutscene is simply stunning.
Audio: 5/10 - the new sound effects are pretty badass, and the voice acting is solid, but Neil Davidge's frequently emotionless, generally unmemorable score counteracts the rest of the audio's strengths.
Multiplayer: 1/10 - No. Just no. Persistent and unbearable lag, godawful map design, and terrible fundamental design decisions killed Halo matchmaking.

Rating: 5/10 (D)

The Bottom Line: If you loved Bungie's Halo games, then you're in for a disappointing experience.


Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 11/13/12, Updated 03/04/13

Game Release: Halo 4 (Limited Edition) (US, 11/06/12)


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