Do you ever get that feeling of déjà vu when you know that you’ve been there before? Well, Halo veterans should be prepared for something similar when playing Halo 4, a game which takes the mantra of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ to new heights.
In fact, short of stamping their own signature on their freshly held series, 343 Industries seems to have gone out of its way to pay homage to Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved; the scoped pistol makes a return, your Covenant foes – re-skinned for Reach – are back to their original appearances (albeit realised beautifully) and those same iconic environments return too (even if the returning Master Chief has swapped the Halo ring for a Forerunner world).
In what I can only really put down as a ‘tease’ there are early signs that 343 might have a whole new, infinitely more visceral, Halo in store for us. Early on the Chief is tasked to climb a shaft as debris falls on him from above, so forcing him to leap Nathan Drake-like to parallel handholds; next he’s ripping a door apart with brute strength alone (well, brute strength and much tapping of the ‘x’ button). Sadly however, such moments are sporadic at best throughout the rest of his adventure, 343 either unwilling or told not to stray too far from the series’ established party line.
Still, it’s not all bad news as said party line is of a very high standard indeed and Halo 4 has been crafted with exceptional aplomb. Those same qualities that made previous Halos great fun – huge expansive environments, sandbox encounters, aggressive AI (literally in this case) and vehicle combat – all returning, and wrapped-up in graphical finery which surely pushes the Xbox 360 as far as it’s ever going to be pushed.
What is different works well enough too, the most obvious and impactful change being the addition of the Prometheans, a network of belligerent energy beings who are the very definition of artificial intelligence as they flank you, bog you down with sheer numbers and work together smartly to cover each other.
And don’t think the Covenant are going to be far away either – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, remember? – but by deploying the Prometheans on to the field of battle alongside the Covenant, 343 have been able to challenge players in a brand new way by mixing up the way player’s must approach given situations.
The newbies do cheat a bit however, the Promethean Knights for example won’t think anything of teleporting from one side of the battlefield to right behind you, while their one shot, one kill Scatter Shot energy shotgun can get a tad annoying (particularly on Heroic difficulty and above). The nimbleness of the Watchers – flying droids adept at buffing their allies – is a further annoyance, particularly given the amount of ammo you’ll expend trying to pick them off at distance (lest they reanimate their fallen brethren).
I would also have sooner seen Covenant and Promethean engage each other in combat more; indeed, even during short sequences when they do they tend to exchange blows without ever looking for that killing shot. How much better had the Chief looked to bury the hatchet and temporarily teamed up with the Covenant in a bid to even up the superior firepower of the Prometheans? Surely there’s scope there for huge engagements between forces – or does the Chief’s ego have it that he must always be the central figure?
Still, on the whole combat remains immensely satisfying and the fact that 343 have resisted the cover mechanics so synonymous with the modern day FPS can only be a good thing – indeed after Warfighter the less time spent popping up from cover to shoot enemies who have themselves popped up from cover the better.
Instead Halo 4’s bad guys bring their own cover, the aforementioned Watcher beaming shields in front of its allies for example, while most enemies (certainly of the larger variety) come with their own self-recovering personal shields to rival that of the Chief himself.
Away from the Master Chief’s exploits I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the game’s online options, but what I’ve seen leaves me confident that I’ll still be returning often in the months to come. Spartan Ops sees players partake in a multiplayer campaign, which runs alongside events of the single-player experience, and promises to expand exponentially with 343 looking to add regular missions for players to partake in; while War Games pits Spartans against each other in simulated holodeck-like military training scenarios (read: traditional deathmatch).
Ultimately Halo 4 plays exactly how you’d expect which is either a blessing or curse depending on your point of view. 343 haven’t looked to rock the boat and in doing so have only ever made it possible to create an experience we’ve played through before. That said the genius of the old design means even now that same gameplay has merit, here’s hoping however that Microsoft and 343 don’t try a repeat trick upon the release of Halo 5 as surely a new console generation calls for a new experience.
Format: Xbox 360
Developer: 343 Industries