on 12 June 2013
After finally getting round to buying Halo 4, I decided to go for the limited edition, since it's still hanging around. However, one of my main reasons for going for it was that it "includes" the special edition of Forward Unto Dawn, which I watched online a while ago and enjoyed. However, what is really "included" is a code to unlock Forward Unto Dawn for streaming online, which is a huge disappointment. Although the quality when watching via Halo Waypoint or in a web browser cannot be faulted, it is a far cry from what I had expected which was a hard-copy of the live action film on DVD; I wouldn't mind an HD streaming feed in addition, but I had hoped to have a copy I could hold, or even better one that I could load onto an iPad or my phone to watch on the move. So for anyone else thinking that by buying this version of Halo 4 that you'll be getting a Forward Unto Dawn disk bundled with it, then please don't make the mistake I did; it's just an unlock code to stream it, so keep that in mind in case you'd rather just buy the regular edition Halo 4 and a separated Forward Unto Dawn DVD or Blu-Ray.
Now, that aside; the limited edition is very nicely presented, themed around a UNSC mission briefing packet with a mini dossier, orders envelope, spartan armour blue print and a two-disc game tin. It's all very novel but not hugely exciting. This edition also includes further unlock codes (I REALLY hate entering these now) for all the released map packs, plus spartan armour and a cryo tube for your stupid XBox Mii rip-off avatar; however, the armour looks stupid on an XBox avatar so I only really consider the Forward Unto Dawn and map pack unlock codes to be the real bonus features; you also receive a unique skin for the stock assault rifle and spartan recruit armour, note though that these are just skins, the unique armour only includes one new armour piece (different, but cool, greaves/legs).
Onto the game itself; 343 industries have a hell of a mantle to take from Bungie, but it's good to see that the Halo franchise is in good hands. The game has received some graphical updates, and looks truly stunning from sweeping alien vistas, UNSC ships under siege and strange forerunner constructs, with a very noteworthy improvement in character animations. A handful of cutscenes are also staggeringly detailed, though not many of these are in the single-player/co-op campaign (I believe most are in Spartan Ops, but I haven't got far into that yet).
The audio design has also taken a bit step up; weapons sound much more dangerous, giving them a sense of weight and power beyond the previous games, with Warthogs having a throaty rumbling engine, you can hear shells dropping from UNSC weaponry, hissing heat discharge from Covenant guns and the reconfiguring animations and sounds of the Promethean weapons lend them a very unique feel. The music (what there is of it, there is quite a lot of silence in the main campaign) is beautifully designed, though it is also a large departure from previous games with only a handful of cues borrowed from the previous titles to serve as tie-ins; the score is however a joy to hear and when it does kick in it only adds to the sense of wonder and alien beauty of the forerunner constructs, sinister Prometheans and so-on. This kind of attention to detail is huge feature of Halo 4's visuals and sound, and it shows that 343 industries can easily excel in this area; what they're going to do with the XBox One's graphical capabilities is going to be very interesting to see!
However, I can't help but feel that when it comes to the gameplay of the campaign that 343 decided to play it safe and it really shows. The story also suffers a similar fate, with many missed opportunities and too much focus on elements that didn't really feel necessary.
Let me explain; some of my favourite moments in the Halo series are when the Master Chief gets to fight alongside regular UNSC soldiers, showing them how it's done or rescuing them from situations where only a super-human Spartan can turn the tide, it's the interplay between the chief and other soldiers where things are interesting as many hold him in awe, but that only serves to increase his distance from humanity. Don't get me wrong, there is some fantastic development, particularly between the chief and Cortana which is possibly some of the best character interaction in the entire series; who'd have thought it would take an AI to make the chief feel human?
But at the same time there is a lot of wasted opportunity; after seeing Forward Unto Dawn and the character of Lasky, I was looking forward to some interesting interplay between him and the chief, but instead their past is barely referenced in the game itself, and this isn't helped by his in-game character's lack of any similarity with the Commander Lasky actor Ty Olsson (I think) who looks every bit the seasoned soldier Lasky is supposed to be; instead he just becomes the plucky soldier that helps the chief out. The bulk of the UNSC forces from Infinity also seem to serve more as decoration than actual allies for the chief, as he rarely fights alongside any of them. Even the Spartan IV's don't see much time in the game. There are some good moments, such as the chief stumbling upon a research outpost under siege, and rushing to save as many people as he could.
The problem as I see it is that 343 decided to push too hard to some galactic evil in the game, and pushed it even further into a threat against Earth. It all felt too synthetic, with too much escalation; while the Halo series has had a history of grand space opera theatrics, the antics of the Didact (Promethean leader) feels more like a back-drop to the story of chief and Cortana. The UNSC Infinity also feels very much forgotten as a result of the game's events, rather than being the focal point of the game as was implied before release; I just can't help but feel that a game with a bit more focus could have served the story a lot better, with more events around Infinity and its escape from a hostile forerunner planet, leaving the nature of the Prometheans a mystery to solve in a later game while the chief focuses on saving actual people (as opposed to just the whole galaxy, yet again). This is where games like Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach really excelled, as they told a much more personal story and to great effect, which is something Halo 4 hasn't really learned from, as the grand elements sit more in the way of the story rather than adding to it. Although the Didact is an interesting villain, and superbly voiced, he just doesn't get the time he needed to fully establish himself, which again could have been addressed by having him across a multi-game arc rather than being introduced early on and becoming a default bad guy; indeed, the after-credits cutscene is perhaps the most significant story coverage he gets, which is a bit bewildering.
In terms of gameplay, Halo 4's campaign is fun, and it's never really boring, but it also doesn't do anything especially interesting. Almost all of the objectives are about getting to a switch or interface, with groups of enemies just being in the way. This is another area where more interplay with other people could have served to give more of the objectives some weight and purpose, other than "Press X to flip off bad guy". I expect many people (myself included) had hoped Halo 4 would have seen an end, or at least significant reduction, in the Covenant involvement, but they manage to be involved throughout. Although their initial conflict with the Prometheans was fun, they quickly (and all) sided with the Didact, in a change that isn't explained, and just means that the rest of the game involves waves of baddies that are either Prometheans or Covenant; it would have been nice to see some of the Covenant having doubts or changing sides when they realise what the Didact is doing, but instead they're all just fodder for your battle rifle. Unfortunately this means there are lots of occasions where you are fighting groups of Covenant alone, and massively outgunned; as usual on higher difficulties a plucky Grunt can kill you if you aren't careful, and there are often enemy vehicles with few good ways of eliminating them. One memorable sequence is the advance of the Mammoth; a giant and supposedly heavily armed tank, but aside from a pair of easily destroyed turrets you as the player don't get a whole lot of mileage out of it, but still have to face Covenant tanks and hover bikes in alarming numbers; although it's definitely doable on your own, it does feel very much like co-op is almost a requirement, as a pair of players can much more easily perform the running and gunning warfare that Spartans are built for, where a single player will be forced to sneak around scouring for weapons on the periphery while thinning enemy groups.
Fortunately the AI hasn't advanced much; grunts will still wander towards your position, giving you easy head-shots, and even though you haven't moved and the enemies have seen you, you are rarely in danger of being flanked. The main threat of enemies comes from their weapons being just as good at killing you as yours are at killing them, and enemy grenades can be very hard to dodge at times.
But, Halo has never been about regular single-player, so it's good to note that co-op and multiplayer are as strong as ever. The new feel of the weapons alone makes multiplayer feel completely different, but with interesting new armour powers and the fun new Dominion game type things feel very fresh, and 343 have really outdone themselves in these areas. Maps are detailed and varied, but with good flow that keeps the action fierce and competitive. A levelling mechanic to unlock weapons for your load outs feels a bit tacked on, as it means that a player's early career is very much focused on getting a different weapon (usually a battle rifle or DMR) as quickly as possible so they can do away with the assault rifle as their standard weapon. It's not a bad idea, but it doesn't really add enough to justify it, and it quickly falls by the way-side.
To summarise though; this is a solid title in the Halo franchise, with great graphics, great sound, great multiplayer, but only a fairly average campaign. It'd be nice to see a more personal storyline for the chief in a future game; now that he's back at Earth it would be especially interesting to see him struggling to integrate with units of Spartan IVs who, unlike the chief, are simply augmented soldiers rather than children kidnapped into a life of augmentation and military service.