REVIEW: Forward Unto Dawn
Halo has come a long way since it's birth. Bungie's seminal console shooter started out life very differently - as a third person action game for Mac and Windows, in fact - but it's become a stalwart of the FPS genre and was the first true representation of how well first person shooters could work on consoles. Since Bungie concluded it's original trilogy with Halo 3, it's explored other parts of the Halo universe - strapping players into the armour of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper and casting them as a Spartan soldier in Noble squad. But now, Bungie has moved on to pastures new, and left the franchise in the hands of 343 Industries, who have elected to put us back into the battered olive Mjolnir armour of the Master Chief himself.
Conversely, Halo hasn't come that far, either. Halo 4 might be the first game of a 343i's 'Reclaimer' trilogy. but it's still comprised of the same core elements that have made the Halo games so successful: large, sandbox environments, intelligent enemies, imaginative weapons, and a medley of satisfying on-foot and vehicular combat. Those concerned that 343i might have broken the format can rest easy; Halo 4 is Halo, just as it should be.
That's not to say that the new developers have sat on their laurels and just churned out a new game with old mechanics, however. There are tweaks and changes across the board, some minor, some more substantial, and none more immediately apparent than the overhauls made to the graphics engine. 343i clearly has some impressive abilities at extracting the most from the ageing Xbox 360 hardware - Halo 4 is easily the most impressive game on the machine, if not the most impressive looking console title yet seen - it's environments are lavishly detailed to match the best Uncharted 3 has to offer, but Halo 4 opens them up into huge, sweeping environments and populates them with dozens of foes blessed with some of the most infuriatingly smart AI videogames have to offer. That it manages such visual splendour whilst locked at a silky framerate with no screen tear - even split-screen - is particularly impressive.
As Halo 4 begins and sets the Master Chief and his erstwhile AI companion Cortana against familiar Covenant foes, you'd be forgiven for the sense of deja vu it engenders. Okay, so they have some new toys - the old Plasma rifle has been replaced with a new, faster firing Storm Rifle, for starters - but it's not too long before you're introduced to a new foe in the form of the Prometheans, the strange metallic guardians of the Forerunner planet where the chief crash-lands, Requiem. The Promethean's come in several flavours; most numerous are the doglike Crawlers who can scuttle along walls and pester you with small arms fire. Less common, but far more annoying, are the Watchers, floating machines who rarely attack directly, but instead bolster their allies by creating shields, catching grenades you throw and summoning more allies. By far the most dangerous are the Promethean Knights; metallic warriors who can teleport around the battlefield, set sentries, and use a variety of the new Promethean weapons to fulfill a variety of battlefield roles. The new foes do mix things up, and provide a welcome change from fighting familiar Covenant foes, though ultimately they're not as interesting - they're as smart and versatile as their Covenant counterparts, certainly, but their silent attacks and death throes lacks the personality of each of the Covenant's multiple species. The Prometheans don't have any vehicles, either, so you'll still face off against (and, sometimes, make use of) the same Ghosts, Banshee's and Wraiths that you'll be familiar with, and, yes, the old faithful UNSC vehicles like the Warthog do put in enjoyable appearances. Only two newcomers grace the vehicle stable; the UNSC Mantis is a stomping, rocket-wielding war mech - not exactly an original creation, but enjoyable to pilot nontheless. More interesting is the newfound ability to finally pilot the Pelican, an airborne troop transport, in a level that brings to mind some of Halo 2 and Reach's airborne sections.
A handful of new weapons enter the mix, and these are mostly successful additions to the formula. The Covenant Storm Rifle is fast firing but less accurate than the old plasma rifle, whilst the UNSC brings a new DMR rifle, the first SAW in the series, and the glorious might of the hand-held Railgun. The Forerunner weapons are the big news story, of course; all fire vivid orange bolts of hard light and look stunning. The Bolt pistol is quick-firing and accurate, whilst the Suppressor does what the name suggests - fires dozens of bolts increasingly quickly but with very little accuracy. The scattergun represents a higher-powered shotgun, whilst the Lightrifle makes for an effective light sniper rifle. The Promethean's also bring with them a dangerous, explosive Incinerator Rifle and the wonderfully named Binary rifle, a devastating sniping weapon. Although the Promethean weapons are often rough equivalents of traditional firearms, they look and feel different enough to make for a varied selection in the game. Naturally, you can only carry two weapons at a time, and with ammo relatively scarce you'll often find yourself having to switch firearms around quite a lot. Unexpectedly, 343i has removed dual-wielding from the game, which has the side effect of making grenades feel like a more important aspect of the gameplay. They've also tweaked the way health works - the Chief's energy shields are lost much more quickly, but he has a bit more health when they're gone; he ends up being sort-of tougher, but easier to injure than before.
The tweaks and additions are filtered in to the campaign nicely, and the game mixes things up often enough to keep things interesting and exciting for its 8 hour(ish) duration. The campaign is a little more structured than previous entries, and lacks the open sandbox feeling of Halo Reach inparticular, but it compensates with stronger storytelling and feels a bit more focussed as a result. The storyline especially deserves credit - the writing is especially good, the new adversary - the ancient Forerunner known as the Didact - makes for a compelling enemy, and the chemistry between the Chief and Cortana is stronger than ever. This really is the Chief's story, and his relationship with Cortana is at the forefront - because she's dying, in a manner of speaking; suffering from a condition that affects AI's that have been active for over 7 years and causes them to descend into Rampancy - a mental state somewhere between schizophrenia and mania. It's a surprisingly touching saga, partly thanks to a great performances from actors Steve Downs and a show-stealing effort from Jen Taylor. The new cast of humans aren't bad, either.
Outside of the strong campaign comes a series of great multiplayer modes, which for the first time have some story relevance as players are cast as members of the new Spartan-IV squads assigned to the UNSC Infinity, the other human ship that arrives at Requiem. All the old multiplayer modes return, along with improved tools in the Forge to enable players to tweak the existing maps and game types to their liking, and it's worth noting that the maps are custom made for the mode this time around - they're not just sections snipped out of the campaign. The most notable new addition is that of the Spartan Ops - a series of self-contained story-linked missions that can be played solo or co-operatively. Spartan Ops effectively replaces FireFight with a more structured format, and the story elements combined with the promise of future downloadable Chapters helps flesh out Halo 4 as a very well-featured package.
Halo 4 is Halo, then. It doesn't radically depart from the formula - and in truth, we wouldn't want it to. The campaign still offers a mixture of elements that's pretty unique in the genre, and the addition of the Spartan Ops episodes adds a substantial amount of additional content for gamers who don't want to venture into competitive multiplayer. For those that do, they'll find Halo 4 is the usual embarrassment of riches. It's the strong storyline that seals the deal - and coupled with the sensible tweaks, interesting enemies and visual splendour makes this one of the finest entries in the series to date and, by extension, one of the finest first person shooters around.