Trodamus

A Drop in the Ocean: Halo 4 is Pretty Good

In Video Games on November 7, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Halo-4-Promethean-Enemy-Type-Weapons.jpg (570×300)

Halo is a humble series. A mere eight games in eleven years — bizarrely spaced out at that — contrasts well against Call of Duty’s nine games in as many years, or Battlefield‘s ten games and inumerable expansions since its inception in 2002. As well, while it pioneered a number of gameplay mechanics that would be championed by the “dumbing down” trend in gaming, regenerating health among them, it’s still a game that hasn’t changed much over the years with each release.

And yet, with this new and improve sequel, which does everything a sequel should, the game feels positively hardcore compared to the stagnation of the shooter genre in years past.

Halo 4 is still a Halo game. You still carry two weapons, your shields still regenerate (minus health pips, as featured in Combat Evolved and Reach), and your jumps are as floaty as ever. As a sequel, it no doubt carries the nominal tweaks and improvements to various systems and balance mechanics, though discussion of such should be left to those with more dedication to the form than I possess. However, it definitely expands the well-worn mold provided by Halo 3, ODST and Reach.

Traditionally, Halo has had two weapon tracts: Covenant energy and plasma weapons, and UNSC weapons, mostly ballistic with some outliers. Each iterative game seemed to focus more on rebalancing the existing weapons than adding new ones, though each new game did add a token weapon or two just the same. Despite that, the series’ perennial deathmatch stuck to well-defined grooves, such as headshotting with the Designated Marksman Rifle or the one-two shield obliteration and follow-up punch with the plasma pistol.

So while the need to greatly expand the roster of weapons outside of these two tracts notwithstanding, 343 Industries, new heralds of Bungie’s franchise, added an entire new tract of weapons: Promethean weaponry. These weapons so far seem to split the difference the raw power offered by UNSC weaponry, and unique effects and deployment seen in the more exotic Covenant weapons, paying a heavy price where ammo reserves are concerned.

Rounding out the returning cast are Promethean pistols that can be charged up to offer a devastating close range blast, or a marksman rifle that reflects off of surfaces it hits. There’s an absolutely gorgeous shotgun that just seems to sneeze a mess of molten orange bolts, disintegrating whatever it hits in short order. These, among other more traditional entries like a rapid fire weapon and a sniper rifle alternative.

These weapons are well served by the new production values. To be blunt: this game looks gorgeous. Not only has the art direction and overall design been revamped — “Covies” look much more intimidating and alien, for example — but the graphical fidelity is on a scale I did not believe possible on the Xbox. Everything looks super detailed, slick and has all the glowing bells and whistles you’d expect out of sci-fi shooter. There’s a renewed and well-implemented focus on making it appear that you’re looking out from inside the chief’s helmet; you’ll see bits of glare and rainbow bursts from lights out of the corner of your eye as they’re refracted against the visor, among other effects.

Combined with the new sound effects for the older weapons, everything just seems better. UNSC weapons bark out round after round, Covenant weapons no longer sound puny and Nerf-like, and the Promethean weapons are new and distinctive from both of them. The graphics allow for these stacatto bursts to look amazing as well, with high marks going to just how devastating the Promethean weapons seem with their bright orange lasers and projectiles.

In just the area of production values and new weapons, this is everything a sequel should be, and quite unexpected from a franchise as content with the familiar as Halo, and it’s a great start to the new trilogy or whatever it is that they have planned for the post-Halo 4 show.

For other areas, there may be some growing pains. Firefight has gone the way of the dodo, and it’s easy to imagine they couldn’t step up to the prime offering provided by Gears of War 3. In its place, however, is “Spartan Ops.” A more focused variant on Firefight, you choose from a number of “episodes” for each “season” (of which only one is available currently). These episodes have goals beyond surviving countless waves of enemies, such as destroying specific objectives. It’s a severe drop from the modularity of Firefight, but time and the continued free support by way of new seasons and episodes, will tell how well this carries on.

Tied into everything — campaign, multiplayer and Spartan Ops — is your overall character progression. Taking, in my mind, a heavy note from Call of Duty, you unlock quite a bit of character customization as you level up, and it goes beyond just armor parts. Additional loadouts, with primary and secondary weapons, grenades and armor toolkits and abilities round out the features you’ll wish you had access to as you level up to acquire them. These are used in Spartan Ops only I believe, as traditional multiplayer allows you to choose from game type and map variant specified loadouts to keep things fair.

All in all, I’m fairly pleased with the whole package. Even though Halo hasn’t changed much, I feel shooters in general have. It’s weird to describe, but I’d been missing the old school sci-fi shooters with cool weapons and areas beyond mere corridors to kill enemies in. I am so very used to pressing left trigger to get iron sights, a feature that still isn’t in Halo, and I find myself a little thankful for the lack. You pick up weapons and use them, throwing grenades and punching as you please. Cover is hiding behind a wall, not pressing A at a chest-high obstruction. Nothing seems incredibly scripted, no planes crashing into buildings or someone  kicking your gun out of your hand for a quicktime event.

It’s nostalgia, but for something Halo never represented until now.

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  1. Can’t say I’m a Halo fan (never played a single title in the series) but I’ve been curious about the development of this game for a while, since rarely does a series leave the hands of its creators and come out better for it. I’ve been surprised with just how much praise has been heaped upon this game, and I do have to tip my invisible hat to 343 for apparently pulling the job off despite the challenges and pressure that had to have come with it.

  2. I can’t comment too much at the moment as I have yet to play it. However, a friend does own the game and will be coming over at some point so we can blow through a bit of it. Currently my prevailing thought about Halo 4 is ‘you can polish poop, but it still stinks’.

    That said, I am glad to hear about new sounds for the guns. It was more rewarding for me to shoot a wall in ‘Gears’ with my basic pistol than it was to take down a tank in ‘Reach’ with a anti-material rifle. I am left wondering if this game represents the teams full vision, or if holdovers were forced on them for fear of losing the halo crowd.

  3. But Jack, can you actually polish a turd? I mean, has anyone ever actually tried? I’m starting to want to know if it can be done.

    …just not enough to find out for myself.

  4. Consider this responding to both Poe’s general comments about the new dev and Jack’s rhetorical question about how much leeway 343 had.

    From what I understand, 343 did not have a ton of mobility in mucking about with the formula. I can’t find anything about it, but I think some staff either left or intended to leave after Halo 4 was done, citing a severe lack of control over a variety of features of the game and its narrative, despite 343 being nominally in charge of the entire Halo franchise (including all non-game media as well).

    That all said, the final product (speaking from having finished the game and some of the multiplayer) doesn’t really reflect that level of restriction. As I mentioned, they’ve reworked the art direction to make the Covenant less comedic, they’ve outright removed at least one Covenant weapon and replaced it with something else, and the story seems to strike a different tone for Master Chief than previous numbered Halos.

    I mean, it’s not a third-person cover-based RPG/shooter hybrid, but it is more different from Halo 3 than I expected it would be. Apparently, to those that know, it is more similar to Combat Evolved, but I’m not as annoyed by it as I was by Combat Evolved.

  5. Poe: The old saying was ‘You can’t polish poop’, but then Mythbusters came along and challenged that. They managed to create two very shiny, one nearly capable of reflection, poo balls. But, as I said, they did still stink. I feel that this is not only awesome, but leads to a better saying. After all not being able to ‘polish poop’ implies that if something is bad enough you can not make it look good. That feels very false. But the fact that you can make a thing pretty but it still lacks real merit not only feels feasible but also falls in line with the basic laws Aristotle laid down for the theater.

    Trod: I figured they had some strict guidelines to follow, and I can’t really fault that since it’s halo and despite my misgivings it is a money makers. I was mostly wondering if this situation mirrored the one between D&D and Monte Cook.
    I have yet to play. I’ll try and get around to it soon.

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