Approaching Halo 4
Lighting the flame anew in the best selling franchise ever for XBOX, Halo 4 has some mighty shoes to fill. The first complete game release by the newly formed 343 Studios (formerly the Halo games have been designed by Bungie. Halo: Reach was their last major video game project and they have since focused on a mobile platform business and other projects), this was truly the test to see whether Halo 4 could prove 343's worth.
343, part of Microsoft, had previously released Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition as their first selling game; however, this was neither an original game, nor a difficult undertaking. By the feel of the game, 343 simply updated the graphics and left everything the same including the engine. While a good idea in premise, the engine was not built for online multiplayer play, nor high definition textures and as a result, suffered horribly in low-bandwidth conditions and noticeably lagged when loading textures in an online an offline scenarios. The multiplayer embarrassingly just launched the Halo: Reach multiplayer with a couple remastered maps. Needless to say, after this game, 343 had much to prove.
And thus came the task of approaching the existing Halo universe. With a trilogy of 3 main titles, 2 other releases and a strange real-time strategy title, the Halo franchise has been going strong for years. Animated film, books, comics and visual art compendiums also made up a significant portion of the universe's story (although largely if not utterly ignored in the games). So how did 343 take on such a task? Very aware of the need to make a fresh image with this title as to produce an exciting new game that not only set 343's apart, but continue fan interest in the game given the many titles, 343 decided to embrace all of this universe, including the largely unexplored novels. The storyline e corporates elements of the books as well as continuing the story where Halo 3 left off (Halo: Reach was a prequel title).
Another significant departure from before is a new team for the audio/soundtrack aspect of the game. While this may seem like not such a major item, Halo: Combat Evolved set a new standard for video game soundtracks when it was released, effortlessly synthesising orchestral, vocal, rock and electronic elements to create an iconic sound that defined the sound of Halo. The team of Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori experimented quite liberally in Halo 3: ODST and Reach with darker orchestral tunes and guitar-heavy mood music; however, new composer Neil Davidge (known for other game music such as Mass Effect) chose to move for what could be best be described as an 'updated' sound, in following with the revitalisation of the franchise. In keeping with this, the game soundtrack is excellent, and is slightly more foregrounded through the entirety of the game - previously, during longer 'grinding' levels, the music was softened, a rather unfortunate choice as the mood music was arguably the best in any video game. The music is mostly a new take on the game, with noticeable mentions to melodies found in previous Halo games, the title 117 being a splendid example of such.
In game the music falls in seamlessly with the levels, and soon in I found myself in the familiar position of getting to know themes intimately as I died continually and heard the themes played again and again. My only complaint with this new sound is the progression further into electronic music as part of the updated nature of the game. This plays very much with our modern concept of a futuristic 'technological' sound, and much like listening to alien themes from the 1960's and 1970's, I suspect it may sound a little odd standing alone in the future, having lost the timeless characteristic that O'Donnell and Salvatori's instrumentation nailed so perfectly.
Playing the game was a refreshing and wonderful surprise. The gameplay really felt like one of the original Halo trilogy games - the classic Master Chief vs. the universe feel, but with an update. Like Call of Duty's snowmobile or ice climbing sequences, the game does try to dabble a bit in new methods of gameplay, but none are lengthy or tedious like the death of General Shepherd in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. None of the sequences felt as long as the lengthy level traversals of Halo 2, although there were times that I would enter a level and could tell exactly where I would be travelling during various objectives. The levels were stunning visually and very immersive, with familiar looking settings, but new takes on rock formations, structures and panoramic views that really highlight the excellent engine and artists of 343. Pleasing to me was the lack of panorama with very clear concept art as a background in favour of pre-computed renderings.
The game was not entirely glitch free interestingly enough, but the glitches were so minor (-1.0M distance to marker on death, some bounding box errors with camera view angles on death etc.) that did not hamper gameplay in the slightest. Nice to find was a very clear barrier for vehicles between areas and obstacles that very clearly indicated whether a vehicle would be useful beyond that point or not.
In a normal difficulty play through, the game took me about 7 hours reasonably comfortably, putting it at about a Halo: Reach timeline (of course the game makes up for this with Spartan Ops and the new multiplayer system which I had not had time to test much except for in the line outside store launch, at the time of writing). Overall though, I had an extremely fun time playing through the game.
343 has made a game worthy of sitting on the shelf next to the original Halo trilogy, as it begins its new foray into this universe (after all, Halo 4 is the start of a new trilogy). It is polished, refreshing and a perfect example of how to take a great game idea and improve on it ever so slightly, but keep it as awesome. Now to approach the story itself!
The Story for Étienne
Truth be told, the story was pretty fantastic. Exactly what is needed in a game of this type: not overly complicated, no huge emphasis on character development, just conflicts and shooting. Tying in the books was a great idea not only to construct a solid storyline, but to hook in existing fans to the new 343 version. I especially liked the exploration of Cortana's degradation and even subtle references like the mentioning of the original purpose of the Spartan program.
The cutscenes were interesting in that they seemed to be done in an entirely different engine sometimes, e.g. the opening sequence, but were still fun to watch and did not stretch on too long, nor be the defining storytelling method such as in the Uncharted trilogy.
The new look of the game, the redesigned weapons, the new armour on the Chief and the Forerunner styles were awesome. Exploring what was possible with Forerunner structure and environment was exciting, especially the grav-bridges and flying levels - clearly the designers had fun. The weapons were also very cool. I've never been a huge fan of the continual redesigning of Covenant weaponry (similarly here), but the new weapon designs were different enough in physics and visually fresh in a manner that was exciting. And the enemies never got tiresome, unlike the Flood. The Forerunners clearly didn't like vehicles though :P though clearly with the power of The Diadect who needs transport? And we finally saw the Librarian! Finally tying all that stuff from previous Halo's eh?
I would have liked to have seen more Spartan-IV action and the chief owning them, but I guess that's what Spartan Ops are for.
I was very pleased to see the return of the best vehicle sequences of Halo games past, the Scorpion 'shoot 'em all down!' scene and the warthog runaround, as well as Halo: Reach's flying sequence. The highlight of this without a doubt was the sequence of collapsing ship, but in a Broadsword, a nice twist.
The captain of the Infinity was also a great choice of character, putting into perspective on how awesome the Keyes were and how things could go so wrong without such members of the fleet.
That's all for now folks!