Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Halo 4 Review

Within a matter of days, Microsoft will celebrate a decade of Xbox Live – the online gaming service that has quite simply revolutionised the way we play games. To that degree, Master Chief – Halo’s lean, green killing machine – should be forever in its debt. Without it, Petty Officer John-117 would never have become quite such a phenomenon. He wouldn’t be constantly fighting it out with the likes of Call of Duty at the top of the online leaderboards, and as such, he probably wouldn’t be such an iconic character, finding himself in comic books and LEGO boxes.

Afterall, online multiplayer has become synonymous with the Halo brand; it’s where the series has always excelled. Halo 4 sure had a lot to live up to. It therefore must have been quite a daunting prospect when Bungie jumped ship and 343 Industries had to step up to the plate to develop the latest edition.

As you’ll all no doubt know by now, the new game marks the long awaited return of our visor-wearing protagonist. We all knew he’d return though, right? That Halo 3 ending was never really going to be the end of him, now was it? His suit may be a little more battered and bruised than it was, but he’s back and he means business.

Set in the year 2557 on the drifting UNSC frigate, Forward Unto Dawn, our hero Master Chief comes out of stasis to find a mightily distressed Cortana, moaning about the fact she’s getting old. But our favourite hologram isn’t just having a mid-life crisis; this is literally a matter of life and death as she’s exceeded the typical seven-year life span of an AI. Uh oh. As a result, she’s about to “expire” and appears to be going slightly insane. And just to complicate matters, Covenant have boarded the ship and all hell breaks loose.

Eight missions, and some 10 hours of gameplay later, you’ll feel physically and emotionally drained – but will have had an amazing ride. We’ll avoid spoilers but suffice to say, you can lay any concerns to rest; 343 has done the brand proud and this feels like Halo, looks like Halo and is a must have for any Halo fan. Unload a few rounds into your first enemy or whack them round the head with the butt of your gun and you’ll immediately get into the groove and feel right at home.

A lot of the action actually takes place on a planet called Requiem where you’ll face familiar enemies as well as the Prometheans – a new smart badass species that poses quite a challenge. Fear not though, you’ll have plenty of weapons at your disposal to see them off.

There’s certainly a far more emotional feel to the proceedings than in the previous games, allowing us to get under the armour of our protagonist and understand his thoughts and feelings. Despite Master Chief’s imposing presence, however, it’s arguably Cortana that steals the show. There’s a clear bond between them and the story is very strong.

But you don’t want to hear about emotions and feelings, do you? Guns, that’s what counts, right? And as you’d expect of any Halo game, there are loads of them. The firm favourites make a reappearance but the entire armoury has been overhauled. They all have a very individual feel to them and different attributes – but they all sound awesome, each shot emitting a satisfying bang that adds a sense of power and realism. The sound adds hugely to the atmosphere and reels you in. I played using a surround sound headset with some decent bass and I was blown away. Speaking of the audio, the voice acting is particularly convincing and nicely linked to mouth movement.

From the outset you’ll be staggered by the game’s aesthetic. The visuals are amazing with lovely looking cutscenes, animation and motion capture making this the best looking game of the series, in my humble opinion – and perhaps the most attractive release on the 360 this year. As I touched upon above, I was particularly impressed by the facial detail, which on many occasions caused me to question whether real actors were talking at me or whether they were computer generated – they really are THAT good. Everything from the eyes, mouths, wrinkles, emotions and expressions are perfectly replicated and recreated – and I’m pushed to think of any better examples.

The environments are big, bold and gorgeous, thanks to their variety, colouring and lighting effects. Sand, grasses, mountainous settings, flames… it all looks incredible and you’ll be forgiven for wanting to gawp at the scenery, ignoring the fact that you’re under heavy fire. The fine detail on Master Chief’s armour or the metal frames of the vehicles is equally impressive.

Now I was pretty ropey playing the previous games on tougher settings but ramp this baby up to the harder difficulties and you’ll extend your playthrough by some considerable time.

Long after you’ve completed the main campaign and replayed it a few times with your buddies, it’s the infamous multiplayer that will keep you coming back time and time again.

Without doubt, the online element remains the most important aspect of Halo and, once again, it doesn’t disappoint! The second disc is crammed with multiplayer goodness and consists of Forge – allowing you to create and download new maps, and the Spartan Ops co-op story mode – offering weekly downloadable missions (a fantastic idea to keep you playing) that focus on the UNSC Infinity crew as well as the Majestic Squad Spartans. Finally, there's War Games, where you’ll find the likes of Death Match and Capture The Flag.

343 has taken some hints from the likes of Call of Duty and this time round you’ll find yourself able to select different loadouts for various weapons and abilities, and earn perks to upgrade and customise your Spartan, ranking up by attaining XP. Once you hit level 50, you can then select a “Specialization”, allowing you to enhance your character’s attributes with various skills such as stealth.

The maps are many and varied, and feature a feast of weaponry and vehicles such as the Warthog, Mongoose, and Scorpion Tank. Weapons litter the landscape and are conveniently highlighted so they’re easy to find, and you can also call up some handy ordinance deliveries if you want to change gun mid-fight.

The matches are lengthy but never excessive and the team-based confrontations are particularly enjoyable. I can see me spending a lot of time transfixed in the multiplayer modes, lobbing grenades at rivals and trying to ramp up my XP in the coming months.

To summarize, any fears that Bungie’s departure and the return of one of gaming’s most iconic characters would be detrimental to this follow up have been allayed; Halo 4 is an essential purchase and a definite contender for Game of the Year. Suit up solider.

Reviewed on Xbox 360

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