Halo 4 review: setting the stage under new management

If the newly announced Star Wars: Episode VII is anything like Halo 4, it figures to be at once ambitious but conservative; ready to rope in new fans, but desperate to please the old ones. As such, newcomer 343 Industries is looking less for a new beginning than to set the table for the franchise without alienating the fans. In that, they are reasonably successful. Halo 4 picks up where the last numbered entry left off, but a few things have changed in the intervening years. The Flood is long gone, and the franchise's namesake -- the galaxy-busting Halo superweapons--only warrants a passing few mentions. The Covenant is still kicking around, but they could be replaced with any generic alien villain and function just as well. Their presence in the story mostly feels like a product of 343 Studios trying to inject a sense of familiarity into the proceedings. From there, Halo 4 jumps into what amounts to its own Mass Effect or Star Wars Episode IV--a standalone story that leaves the door open for something bigger. focalbox Along with the new story is a new enemy--biomechanical aliens known as the Prometheans. Drawn with a minimalist style that brings to mind Platinum's Vanquish, their warriors are even nastier than the Covenant's famed Elites. Their best warriors teleport around the field, operate behind shields, and wield an array of devastating energy weapons. Halo may be under new management, but the A.I. is nasty as ever--maybe a little too nasty. Longtime Halo veterans will doubtlessly disagree, but I found Halo 4 to be tougher than usual even on the normal difficulty. It's not so much the AI as the enemy placement. Especially later on, Halo 4 absolutely loves its densely packed chokepoints, which can be a real bear to break on Heroic. Checkpoints are also a little sparse, which can be painful when you buy it after an especially long encounter. Higher difficulty isn't necessarily a bad thing--not when other first-person shooters are rolling out four hour campaigns--but Halo 4's difficulty can feel a little unbalanced at times. Matters come to a head in the final level, which combines fairly boring level design with those really nasty chokepoints, compounded by the fact that the Prometheans really only seem to have three types of fighters. Playing it leaves the impression that 343 was under the gun and needed to wrap the campaign as quickly as possible. The final battle does little to dispel that feeling. The disappointing finale aside, Halo 4 provides a very solid campaign. At its best, Halo 4 offers sprawling battlefields that can be tackled in a number of different ways. The best level appears around the game's midpoint, when Master Chief teams with a massive land tank called The Mammoth to hunt Covenant. It's big, it's beautiful, and it features encounters with solutions that range from hijacking enemy vehicles to abusing The Mammoth's big guns. Some of that scope manages to find its way into the multiplayer as well, thanks to the new Dominion Mode--a fantastic addition that combines the base-building of Starhawk with control point-to-control point fighting of Battlefield. The mode is centered around taking three bases and fortifying them into fortresses, which brings with it new weapons and vehicles. The swings of momentum can be huge as teams take the bases, knock the opposition down to their Spartan, then get thrown right back on their heels because they couldn't hold all three bases.

The Prometheans pack more of a wallop than the Covenant ever did.

343 has also seen fit to make a number of other changes that benefit the overall balance. Weapon camping is less of an issue due to the advent of more random weapons spawns, and sprinting is no longer a special ability. Those changes aside, it still feels like Halo. Veterans are apt to be pleased by the changes while feeling right at home. In both the single-player and multiplayer, Halo 4 is mostly content to hold serve and build on what's come before it. The new multiplayer modes, the new enemies, and everything else is designed to feel new without rocking the boat too much. Dominion Mode expands on the franchise's longstanding focus on diverse weapons and vehicles. The new Spartan Ops mode, a series of downloadable missions that tell a story over a period of weeks, are effectively a new brand of co-op challenge. It's not precisely accurate to say that 343 Industries is playing it safe, but it's obvious that they are very conscious of fitting in and building on what's already there. That's not to say that Halo 4 is afraid of striking out on its own. There's one story decision in particular that is apt to prove very daring, and may end up angering a legion of Halo fans. It's more that 343 is out to set the stage for the next decade worth of Halo games. Well, consider the stage set. The story stands on its own, the multiplayer is strong as ever, and the new components fit right in. 343 Industries hasn't quite made the franchise its own, but it has accomplished its first and most important goal--it didn't mess it all up.
This Halo 4 review was based on a playthough of the game at a review event sponsored by the publisher, as well as additional play time with a retail version of the game provided by the publisher. Halo 4 is scheduled to be released on November 6 for the Xbox 360.