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Halo 4 has a hard job.  It has to convince us that a new trilogy of games is worth it.  It also has to make us want to play yet another Halo game on the Xbox 360 hardware, even though waiting probably would have been a better idea.  Most importantly, it has to convince us that 343 Industries is a worthy successor to the mantle that Bungie passed onto them.  Not only did they manage to make a game that feels unquestionably Halo-like, they also gave it a unique feel that makes it their own and moves the franchise in some potentially interesting directions.

Let me start by saying that the campaign is not only one of the best Halo campaigns but one of the best shooter campaigns I’ve played in years.  The main reason for this is a change in pacing.  Halo games from Bungie tended to drag on a bit too long, both in the individual levels and in their entirety.  Encounters are more smartly spread out, mixing in the Covenant with the new Forerunner enemies where necessary.  The addition of a permanent sprint button also speeds up the pace quite a deal.  You still have your obligatory tank sequence and other tropes of the Halo games, but they all fit together in a way that had me wanting to play from start to finish without stopping, something I haven’t felt since the original.

Halo 4 desperately needed to change things up, particularly in the enemy department.  Covenant are fun to fight, but it’s getting a little stale.  Anyone who’s played other Halo games knows how they operate.  Forerunners are a great new addition to the bestiary.  They act in ways unlike any of the Covenant do, and their tactics can easily catch you off-guard the first few times you fight them.  The Crawlers, well, crawl onto walls and ceilings.  They alsolike to get in your face when you run out of shields.  The Watchers can respawn fallen enemies, something that can get unbelievably frustrating on harder difficulties.  Knights have a tendency to teleport around when they are almost dead, making it hard to finish them off.

The only real problem is that the game doesn’t have enough of these new enemy types.  All you get are the nimble Crawlers, the annoying-as-hell Watchers, and the resilient Knights.  I would have loved to see two or three more kinds of Forerunner enemies, mostly because I had so much fun fighting these three types.

There are new Forerunner weapons, but they fit into the molds of the other Halo weapons a little too well.  There is a DMR equivalent, an Assault Rifle equivalent, a Magnum equivalent, and so on.  These weapons look really cool, especially when you pick them up the first time, and they form together in your hand.  I just wish that I had a reason to use them over the other weapons that they resemble, other than when I have no other choice.

The story is also a bit different from your usual Halo fare.  It mostly has to deal with Cortana’s impending rampancy, a side effect of “smart” AI’s programming.  Essentially, they think themselves to death after seven years – and Cortana’s been going for much longer than that.  Because of this, the story has a poignancy that was never part of the series in the past.  Nearly all traces of the traditional Halo humor are gone, replaced with some self-reflection and sobriety.  I think that these are smart decisions and could lead to something meaningful with Master Chief, who has been a pretty lifeless character in the past.  I felt a bit teary-eyed near the end of Halo 4, which is something I never thought I’d say.

Unfortunately, there is a key sticking point – it can be extremely hard to follow the plot if you aren’t balls-deep in Halo fiction, especially plot elements found in the books.  I am a pretty big fan and have read several of the books.  Even still, I had to go outside the game and look up a few things to clarify what was going on.  These weren’t minor points; something as essential as why the Covenant are fighting you again isn’t really explained.  I think that 343 Industries is such a big fan of the fiction that they never thought that fans wouldn’t be just as invested.  That devotion is impressive, but it can irritate those who aren’t as invested.

After finishing the campaign, there is still plenty of meat in the multiplayer side of the game.  The first thing you do is customize your Spartan.  This is done through a mix of a newly added Call of Duty-esque leveling system and Halo: Reach’s armor customization system.  The scale goes up to fifty, with each new level unlocking more things to add to the loadouts.  You get to choose your primary and secondary weapons, grenade type, armor ability (some returning from Halo:Reach and some new ones), and a pair of perks.  These perks do things like speed up reload times and allow you to see the radar while zoomed in.

The armor system is mostly unchanged from Halo: Reach.  You still unlock most of your pieces by ranking up, but there are now unlocks tied to commendations.  These commendations are for things like cumulative headshots or kills with the Magnum.  The biggest change is armor specializations that unlock when you hit max level.  These are new suits of armor that level up on their own and carry unique perks with them.  Once you finish leveling that suit of armor, the perk unlocks for use on any armor pieces, and you can then choose another suit to level up.  This feels like 343 Industries’ answer to Prestiging from Call of Duty but in a way that sounds more rewarding than just a shiny new symbol next to your Gamertag.

Challenges also return from Halo: Reach.  These come in daily, weekly, and monthly varieties and pay out a sum of XP when completed.  They are a nice goal to set for yourself every day when playing, but they have wildly varied in challenge so far.  Hopefully, 343 Industries can figure out the right balance of challenge and likelihood of completion.

Once your character has been created, you can take them into one of two different modes.  Spartan Ops is the first on the list, and it is 343 Industries’ replacement for Firefight.  This mode is a series of missions broken up into episodes that tell a small story.  Each mission is a combat arena pulled from a campaign level with some quick and easy objectives.  They try to sprinkle in some story with a CG cutscene preceding each episode and some brief dialogue lines scattered throughout each mission. 

Regrettably, this mode feels really flat.  The story elements aren’t involving or engaging, and there is no challenge in the missions themselves, mostly because death isn’t an issue.  You immediately respawn with no penalties, no matter the difficulty.  More episodes are slated for addition each week.  It’s possible that it will get better with time, if the story manages to take off.  As it stands now, I think they would have been better off with Firefight.

War Games, the other choice on the menu, is the competitive multiplayer mode.  It feels quicker overall, mostly due to the addition of a sprint for all players.  The loadout weapons are nicely balanced in a way that a higher level player won’t really be more effective than a lower level player.  Perks are the only thing that may have give players a small advantage, but those unlock at a low enough rank that it won’t be an advantage for long.  There aren’t many choices that seem to really make much of a difference, but there is enough tweak room to make a loadout that fits your playstyle.

Most of the gametypes you know and love return, with the conspicuous absence of normal Team Slayer and Rumble Pit.  They have been replaced with Infinity Slayer and Regicide. 

Infinity Slayer is very close to Team Slayer but with the addition of armaments.  After scoring enough points, you are able to call down one of three random weapons or power-ups.  An example armament set might be a Needler, a Sniper Rifle, and an Overshield.  You never know what you’re going to get beforehand.  Choosing one drops it from the sky and lets you – or your enemy – pick it up to wreak havoc.  This doesn’t really feel that different from normal Team Slayer, but adds a small element of luck that wasn’t present before.

Regicide is a bit more divisive.  The person in the lead is giving the crown of king and shown on the map for all the other players.  The longer that person stays in the lead, the higher the bounty on his head.  Because of this, Regicide strategy is much more focused on chasing down the leader than just killing whoever you find.  Being in the lead is a dangerous proposition; the longer you stay alive and try to hold your lead, the easier it will be for another person to steal it from you.  Many people have been clamoring for the addition of a normal Rumble Pit playlist, and I have to agree that the option would be nice.

Another small change to the multiplayer is the focus on score to win over kills to win.  Past games in the series have had Team Slayer kill goals of 50 per team.  Now, it is a point total of 600.  This slightly changes the focus of a match, as things like headshots and assists award bonus points.  This means a team that is more accurate or helps each other can win faster than a team who is not.  It’s an simple change that inspires better teamwork in players.

The changes to the loadout system have an unexpected effect on the multiplayer.  Past games in the series had a certain flow: everyone spawned with a close-range, full-auto weapon that was average at best.  Everyone would scramble for the long-range rifles and the power weapons to establish map control.  Most people who play online in Halo 4 use the long-range weapons from the start, making melee much less useful than it has been in the past.  You also can now see where the power weapons are on the map at all times.  The strategy of timing out weapon spawns and keeping them from the other team isn’t as key.  It doesn’t necessarily make the multiplayer bad – just different.

The technical end of the game is just as impressive.  Halo 4 is an absolutely gorgeous game, especially when compared to any of the Bungie games.  343 Industries managed to eke every last bit of processing power of the aging 360 hardware and it clearly shows.  There is some astounding art design to be found in the campaign, and it’s usually paired with a jaw-dropping backdrop.  The CG sequences, although few in number, are some of the best I’ve ever seen.  If you didn’t look closely, you’d swear they are real people.  Non-CG cutscenes look fantastic as well, finally fixing the awkward face movement from previous games in the series.  343 Industries certainly raised the bar for how a Halo game should look.

The sound design is also phenomenal.  Weapons sound the best, nice and punchy.  Some of the new sounds for the enemies are great as well.  The music, however, doesn’t quite nail the Halo feeling.  I understand that they wanted to go for something new and I appreciate that.  The problem is that the soundtrack lacks cohesion from one track to the next.  I could never detect a unifying musical theme throughout the game, something that previous Halo games nailed.

Halo 4 manages to feel like a Halo game at its core while also adding new things that set it apart from those past games.  343 Industries has proven here that they are invested and care about the series, just as reverently as Bungie did before them.  Some of the gameplay changes are questionable, but the faster pacing helps the game from getting tiring.  I’m also truly excited for whatever story beats come in the next few games.  Hopefully, they will carry on with the somber tones and soul-searching themes.  After I’ve seen what they can do on the Xbox 360, I can’t wait to see how well 343 Industries handles Halo 5 on a fresh new console.