Halo sequel a modern masterpiece
REVIEW: Halo 4 (Xbox 360). 343 Industries. $99.
Perhaps as a result of the ongoing global financial crisis, the onset of the festive season seems to be starting earlier every year. With retailers desperate for ways to stimulate spending and kick-start a busy sales period, the first spotting of the C-word was as early as mid-October in some stores.
It’s a particularly lucrative season for the gaming industry, with as much as 70 per cent of annual revenue generated in the final two months of the year. This leads to the strange situation where the year’s biggest, and often best games are released almost simultaneously and a steady stream of AAA titles vie for the attention of the game and gift buying public.
Of course, some games are bigger than others, and they don’t come much bigger than Microsoft’s marquee franchise, Halo. A blockbuster in every sense of the word, the Xbox arguably owes its dominant position in the console market to the series that redefined the sci-fi shooter, with the first game a critically and commercially successful launch title for the original Xbox back in 2001.
Since then, Halo and its associated sequels and spin-offs have sold 46 million copies, racked up a mind-boggling $5 billion in revenue, built up a loyal and devoted fanbase and directly driven more console sales than any other game franchise in the modern era.
This latest installment represents a watershed moment in Halo history, with original developers Bungie handing over the reins to the unproven and untested 343 Industries. There is an incredible amount of pressure on 343 to deliver a game that not only lives up to fans' expectations, but also reassures publisher Microsoft that its cash cow is in safe hands.
Picking up a few years after the events of Halo 3, the game once again puts you in control of the super soldier Master Chief, assisted by the ever-present AI Cortana in a battle to save humanity. Without giving too much away (no chance of that with Microsoft’s strict list of off-limits spoilers sent out to reviewers), the plot reveals a more human side of John-117 than has been shown in previous games, fleshes out the Cortana character in some surprising ways, and introduces new enemies, new weapons and new characters, as well as reintroducing some more familiar faces, places and foes.
With most first-person shooters becoming more and more focused on multiplayer action, it is refreshing to play a single-player campaign that is as richly detailed, perfectly paced and engrossing as what’s on offer here. From the dramatic prologue to the epic finale, Halo 4 is a genuinely thrilling experience, with intense battles punctuated by moments of quiet tension as you contemplate plans of attack and take in the jaw-dropping beauty of some of most gorgeous gaming environments ever seen on a console.
That’s not to say that multiplayer has been ignored. Halo: Infinity offers a range of online options, with the series’ most popular modes retained while the interface and incentives have been given a complete overhaul. Gone is the True Skill system from Halo 3, replaced with a fully customisable loadout and levelling structure that rewards skilful play and online wins with character progression and unlockable features. It works brilliantly, with players more evenly matched than ever before and maps that lend themselves to a variety of game types and team tactics.
Perhaps the most interesting introduction is Spartan Ops, an episodic feature that expands upon the Halo story, with new missions released at regular intervals. With only one episode availabe at launch, it remains to be seen how well this will work, but it should add some welcome longevity once the main campaign is done and dusted.
Halo 4 does exactly what any successful sequel should – refining the features that made the early games so popular, adding some innovative original touches, and tying up loose ends in the narrative while still managing to leave you wanting more.
It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, and plays it safe at times when you feel it could have pushed the envelope, but it’s clear that the developers took an "if it aint broke, don’t fix it" approach; understandable when trying to fill the fairly big boots of Bungie.
The end result is a spectacular achievement, a high point for the series, a strong contender for Game of the Year and quite possibly the best sci-fi shooter ever made. I’m often reluctant to hand out 5 stars (the only other game to earn top marks from me was Skyrim, perhaps a little generous in hindsight) but Halo 4 deserves each and every one of them.
- © Fairfax NZ News