The more cynical Halo fans always knew there would be a fourth instalment to the series; it made too much money. The optimists celebrated and mourned the end of the war with the Covenant and Flood and believed that our hero was set to retire peacefully among the stars. Never to be squeezed of his essence to sell for cash like so many of our beloved characters and universes over the years. So of course we were worried, not least because Bungie wasn’t manning the helm, that this could be the game equivalent of The Crystal Skull, Prometheus, or Star Wars episode one.
Four years after the end of Halo 3 saw the Chief drifting through space, on UNSC ship Forward Unto Dawn, Cortana is forced to wake him from stasis because of an intruder alert on the ship. Turns out it’s some pesky covenant soldiers, who haven’t yet heard the news that there’s a truce on. Get with the times! They also still believe that sending in four Grunts, two Jackals and an Elite is a valid strategy for taking Master Chief down. Wait, what? Elites? Didn’t we make friends with them two games ago? Not these elites, apparently.
A genuinely heart-pounding first level down and a series of events sees you, and the attacking Covenant fleet stranded on the Forerunner planet Requiem, which is protected by hostile AI known as Prometheans. At first a giant clusterfuck of fighting erupts, but the Covenant soon become BFFs with the Prometheans for apparently no other reason than to start a let’s all kill Master Chief club.
A more chatty chief than we’ve ever known battles his way through the story, talking to NPCs and having brief, regular chats with Cortana. And it’s not horrible. It’s actually quite nice. The Chief seems like a person. A super strong killing machine person, but still, a person. It’s a running theme through Halo 4: the chief’s humanity. It’s not over the top, it’s not pushed any more than necessary, and although part of the draw of Halo was always a quiet Chief so players could effortlessly assume the role of Spartan 117, the extra dialogue and hints at thoughts going through the mind of an otherwise emotionally void character makes Master Chief feel more whole and easier to warm to.
The Prometheans bring a whole new range of weapons that can be used both in campaign and multiplayer, which look great and are satisfying to use. There have been some tweaks to Covenant weapons, with the Plasma Rifle getting a long overdue upgrade to the Storm Rifle which can actually make kills. I know, right?! Human weapons now give you a choice of Battle Rifle, (boy, is it loud now), and the DMR from Reach, a sublime instrument for getting those essential headshots. There’s also a combat Pelican… you’ll love the combat Pelican.
But the Prometheans themselves aren’t varied enough, and there is the real reason why the Covenant make an appearance. Because shooting at three types of forerunner AI for seven hours would be horrendously boring. They have a great design, and are really quite challenging to beat, but there just isn’t enough variety. Hunter equivalents, and forerunner vehicles dotted around might have sealed the deal a little more.
The campaign dulls after the first level and, although pleasantly full of Haloey goodness, the amount of enjoyment you get from it will depend on how much you enjoy going through the Halo motions to an amazing soundtrack. It just all feels rather tentative, like 343 are scared of throwing anything major into the mix. And they should be, really. It shows they understand that you don’t mess with the hearts of those who love Halo. They’re easing us in to their way of doing things. It just means that very little stands out until the last level which, part way in, gets insanely fun and makes you feel like a true hero.
The cutscenes throughout feel like you’re building up to something special and that keeps you charged. It never amounts to much, though, as the new threat is, seemingly, eliminated as quickly as it’s discovered. It’s what comes after that that is of note. The end cutscenes will be the Halo universe as it stands, and it may be emotional, but it doesn’t turn out to be all that bad of a place. It will be interesting to see where 343 takes it from here.
Competitive players need to buy this yesterday to be in with a chance of proving themselves in this latest ‘season’ of Halo, as multiplayer is as tight as it’s ever been. With a few shake-ups of note such as customisable load-outs, which really don’t have all that much impact on a game so well-balanced, and ordnance drops, which are individual rewards where you’ll pick up extra power weapons. Replacing Firefight this time round is Spartan Ops, a separate campaign set six months after the main one, with extra episodes becoming available to download after release. It’s brutal solo, even on Normal difficulty, as the amount of enemies are pretty high, so you’ll want to get a team together. Add to that your usual Forge and Theatre and you have yourself a rather decent package.