"Wake up, Chief," a distressed Cortana says as she stands in front of the cryogenically frozen Master Chief. "I need you." It's an oddly emotional moment, made possible by Halo 4's incredibly impressive facial animation system. And with Halo 3 having finished the fight, it's refreshing to see how new developer 343 Industries is taking a more personal approach to the narrative.
That's not to say that Halo 4 doesn't start with a bang, because it literally does. The drifting Forward Unto Dawn has been boarded by the Covenant and things quickly escalate. This introductory level reminds us of what made the original trilogy so great, by throwing nearly every Covenant enemy and weapon your way. The variety certainly makes it easy to see the strength of Halo's "sandbox" gameplay; and because Halo 4's guns lack ammo, the game encourages you to constantly discard and pick up new weapons along the way.
Reassuringly, this first level feels like a Halo game. For fans that haven't been following the news, it will seem as if series creator Bungie never left the helm. Grunts are still comical, Elites are still foreboding, the Needler is still fun to play with, and the beam rifle is still awesome. Fans that want a Halo game are certainly getting exactly that.
And then, 343 does something new.
With the first level proving 343 has the chops to do Halo the way mom and pop used to make it, the developer adds its own flourishes. For example, the first level adds a Metroid-esque escape sequence that has you rushing through panicking Covenant. You must escape through a shaft, and in Uncharted fashion, you begin climbing. You must dodge the falling debris as you make your way up, and it's all done in first-person. There's no QTEs here; this is gameplay, and it's unlike anything I've seen in Halo before. It's also absolutely thrilling.
That's just a hint of what's to come. Eventually, you meet the Prometheans--and they change everything. This new class of enemy forces players to rethink their strategies. For example, the floating drone-like Watcher can revive other Promethean enemies, making them an incredibly important target to aim for. Knights are aggressive, moreso than Knights, and even tougher to fight. Finally, Crawlers move all around the walls, making it necessary to keep track of your surroundings at all times.
Seeing how these enemies work together in their efforts to take you down is incredibly satisfying. Knights, for example, can teleport, making them even more deadly than Elites. Watchers are especially tricky, as not only do they fly away when low on health, but they curl up into a smaller form, making them even harder to hit. (ProTip: I found the drone armor ability to be especially useful against Watchers.)
Halo 4's facial animation system brings Cortana to life
The Prometheans disintegrate into a dazzling spectacle of particle effects when killed, and it's so satisfying that I became disinterested by fighting regular Covenant enemies. Later in the game, you'll see the Prometheans fighting the Covenant, and while it's possible to try to sneak through the battlefield undetected, you'll probably end up fighting both at the same time. Killing a Grunt and seeing his body lie on the ground without exploding into a hundred orange particles is oddly boring after encountering the Prometheans.
While it's already exciting having to battle a brand new enemy class, what really makes Halo 4 feel different are the weapons. Each weapon has two firing modes, like the light rifle which acts like a standard rifle--but turns into a sniper rifle when scoped. It was definitely my favorite new weapon (and I was saddened at how quickly I went through its ammo). The new grenade is also interesting, as it creates a time-delayed vortex that damages anything within its radius.
Halo 4 offers more of what fans have come to expect from a Halo game, like satisfying vehicular combat and harrowing enemy encounters in wide open spaces. But, 343 has done an incredible job of adding so many new elements that it still feels fresh. It's also a beaut; the new art style is especially eye-catching, and the enhanced engine somehow manages to make Reach feel outdated. Although I only played two full campaign missions, 343 has convinced me that not only can they match the bar set by Bungie, but transcend it as well.
Promethean weaponry is incredibly fun to use
The art style is absolutely gorgeous