Halo 4 is a fairly important game in the Halo universe. It sees the return of series protagonist Master Chief, as well as the passing of the torch from one game studio, Bungie, to another, 343. As this new studio's first game, it has the potential to make or break the series, as well as the studio, and is possibly the highest stakes Halo game to date. And it preforms beautifully.
The Passing of the Torch
Up till Halo 4, every Halo game was developed by Bungie Studios. I won't delve into the history of the company, because its readily documented elsehwere on the internet. However, after the release of Halo 3, Bungie began to fragment. Several notable persons, such as Frank O'Connor, left Bungie as the studio split away from Microsoft, becoming its own independent studio. These employees, as well as other industry veterans, were formed into a new game studio, by Microsoft, devoted completey and entirely to all things Halo. This is 343 games.
Bungie loses its way
After the release of Halo 3, Bungie went on to make 2 more Halo games, Halo 3: ODST and Halo Reach. Both games received decent reviews, but, in this author's opinion, were not up to snuff with the rest of the Halo games. ODST, originally prooposed as an expansion pack on top of Halo 3, was later marketed, and sold, as a full game. Problem was, it wasn't a full game. It lacked a competetive multiplayer mode, and the campaign was a paltry 6 hours. Furthermore, the campaign was fairly unimportant, featuring 6 sci-fi stereotypes (with the voices of actual sci-fi stereotype actors), and an insignificant plot that only gains momentum in the final chapter. For fans of the Halo series, this was a new, and unwelcome departure.
With the launch of Halo reach, the Halo series took a new direction. Reach was supposed to be a prequel to Halo 1, and did not feature Master Chief. It was set on the planet Reach, much like the book “The Fall of Halo”. But, unlike the book, this game had an atrocious plot, one that retconned the Halo universe to fit in a plot twist. Similar to ODST, the game consists of 6 characters, all science fiction tropes, and all dying throughout the game, in some poorly thought out way of showing the futility of war or something similarly melodramatic. The campaign features next to no memorable events, and, like ODST, just feels utterly insignificant.
And then we get to the multiplayer of Reach. Reach tried out a lot of new ideas in the Halo universe. It tried out aim bloom (as you fire your weapon your aim gets increasingly inaccurate), loadouts (customizable starting packages of weapons and abilities), and new gametypes. However, many of these changes were half-baked. Loadouts were not player customizable, and didn't really impact the gameplay. Armor abilities, a take on Halo 3's equipment, were ok, but some, such as Armor lock, were terribly overpowered. And then the gametypes. Reach carried Halo classics, such as King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and Slayer, but brought new games, such as Race and Invasion. The former, Race, had devistating effects on the custom games community, resulting in a dearth of Slayer gametypes in favor of endless racetracks. Invasion, tested in the last few weeks of the public beta, was an interesting concept, but the balance was broken in the final game, and just became a frustrating experience for anyone involved.
Finally, Reach didn't have any maps explicitly designed for multiplayer. Maps were lifted from campaign levels, tweaked slightly, and called multiplayer. This seems like a good idea, as it gives players a knowledge and story regarding their play spaces, but its execution was poor. Maps had singular choke points, and didn't flow well for multiplayer matches, leading to frustration as one team attempted to break another team's camp-in. Additionally, there were relatively few unique maps, with focus being given, instead, to the game's Forge feature, and a large number of maps relying on it heavily.
343 Picks up the Mantle
343 had a massive task in front of them. They had to make a Halo game better than any previous game, to prove their worth as a studio, as well as stay true to Halo itself, otherwise fans would reject the. In my opinion, they succeeded. Halo 4 is, according to Microsoft, the most expensive game ever produced, and it shows an unmistakable polish. The story is interesting, featuring Master Chief, and has a significant plot, very reminiscent of Halo 1.
Halo 4 takes the classic Halo multiplayer, and refines it. It takes Reach's loadouts, and changes them up, allowing player customizations. Halo 4 also introduces the controversial feature of equipment unlocks, which, as you level up, you earn new starting weapons, such as the powerful LightRifle and Suppressor. Each loadout can have various other refinements, such as having your ability recharge faster, giving you a motion tracker while scoped, or allowing you to carry 2 weapons.
They also introduced new, dynamic gametypes, such as Dominion, which is a spin on terratories from previous Halos, only, once you capture a base, you get to reinforce it, with turrets, vehicles, and doors that only admit your team. The good old gametypes, such as Slayer and CTF are back.
Instead of having weapons that spawn in predefined places around the map, 4 introduces a new concept, drops. Mapmakers can create points at which random weapons (from a predefined selection) drop, and players can earn drops through kills or other actions through the game. They ensure that a player is never for want of a power weapon, which is an interesting change, to say the least
Unfortunately, like Reach, custom games don't have as many customization options as Halo 3. Creative gametypes from Halo 3 are impossible to make in 4. However, there is hope 343 will improve them in a future update.
Halo 4 forge finally feels matured. The map palettes are complex and allow the creation of awesome maps. Furthermore, the control system has been improved tremendously. New features, such as magnets and duplication, allow you to quickly build out games
Halo 4 feels like a welcome return to Halo, and while it has a few niggling litte problems, it is an overwhelmingly polished game.