This could have been a paint job. The development team at 343 Industries could have given Halo fans some new weapons, new terrain, and new enemies, called it a day, and still enjoyed the $220 million in sales that Halo 4 earned in its first 24 hours of release. That’s just how powerful the brand is at this point. Of course, Halo 4 has all of those requisite bells and whistles, but to truly plant the seeds of a brand new trilogy and keep gamers coming back for more in the years to come, the layers of depth needed to be there. Though it’s hard to imagine how even the most overly optimistic Halo fan could have expected just how deep the newest iteration in the franchise would go.
Like any Halo game, the core experience of Halo 4 is rooted in its campaign. Players inhabit the Master Chief’s Spartan armor for the first time since the end of 2007’s Halo 3, when mankind’s battle against the Covenant came to a close. The opening scene sees Chief’s AI counterpart Cortana awaken him from cryo sleep when they’re attacked by a Covenant ship. Chief and Cortana discover they’re orbiting an ancient Forerunner planet, and, (while spoiling very little) encounter a very pissed off Forerunner called the Didact, and an epic new battle that spans the Forerunner planet, the UNSC starship Infinity, and ultimately the Didact’s ship, ensues.
The wild success of the franchise has given 343 the freedom to explore some deeper and evergreen science fiction questions in the new story. A short while into the game, you learn that Cortana’s lifespan has a time limit, and she will eventually turn rampant and essentially lose her sanity. This plot point might have served as a simple “race against time” device, but from here Halo 4 delves into some surprising new territory and injects more emotion into the narrative than has ever been there before. The beauty of it: You can take time to ponder the friendship between a superhuman soldier in the future and the AI voice in his helmet, or just let it wash over you and keep blasting away. There are some neat philosophical blanks to fill in if you choose to do so, but the developers never lose sight of action as the driving force, and wisely never smash the player over the head with any message.
More importantly, gameplay improvements are considerable. The heads up display is rendered in a way that makes it seem like you’re really inside the Chief’s helmet. Chief’s hands have more texture and detail, and his movements have a weighted nuance to them, all of which adds up to the feeling that you are the Chief and not just pointing his gun. When the game veers away from being a first-person shooter—as it does when you hop into a vehicle like a battle mech—it’s a seamless transition, and best of all, none of these missions feel tacked on, even a potentially risky foray into flight combat near the end of the game.
Multiplayer excellence is the norm with Halo—and you’ll find all the simple team-based modes you’d expect—but again Halo 4 takes things a step further. Spartan Ops are weekly story-driven multiplayer episodes that play out after the credits of the campaign roll. If you’ve been watching the prequel video series Forward Unto Dawn (if not, catch up right now on YouTube) then you’ll really appreciate this playable bookend to the campaign, which drives replay value into uncharted territory.
In short, Halo 4 is a 10 out of 10. Every developer says it plans to deliver the best experience yet, but there really isn’t any other line to toe when money (especially this much) is at stake. When a game ultimately delivers beyond its lofty promise, you have an instant classic on your hands, an experience that joins the argument for being one of the greatest games of all time, and Halo 4 has done that. How 343 plans to follow up on this legendary effort is a question to worry about another day. There’s still so much of Halo 4 left to savor.
PAGE TWO: The Halo 4 Special Edition Console >>
Experience Halo 4 with a piece of hardware seemingly pulled from the game itself.
Big IP releases give hardware manufacturers like Microsoft a chance to capitalize on the frenzy and release a special edition-themed console. It’s fitting, then, that this year’s Halo 4 console is, like the game itself, literally the biggest of its kind ever produced. No special edition Xbox 360 has been able to boast a 320 GB hard drive, which, if you use your console as a cable box and find yourself downloading a ton of movies and TV shows, is (almost) a necessity.
Consoles like this one, though, aren’t about necessity; they’re a celebration of fandom, and this bad boy doesn’t disappoint in that department, either. The unit is housed in translucent gray panels with blue and silver highlights that give it the appearance of a piece of Forerunner technology that you might run into during the game. The two pack-in controllers bear similarly detailed markings, and the power and eject buttons on the console, when pressed, emit two distinct sounds that will be familiar once you’ve played for a few hours. The massive hard drive and two controllers would be enough to justify the $400 price tag, but a standard edition Halo 4 game disc also comes with the package, which hasn’t always been the case with special-edition Xboxes. If you need to replace a cranky old Xbox or simply want a functioning work of game art in your living room, here it is.