@bluescreenwater has played Halo the majority of his adult life. Bungie’s handover to 343 Industries was met with trepidation and excitement: could the fledgling developer carry such an enormous task? Find the answer below.
“One perfectly coded moment”, so ended the Edge review of Halo: Combat Evolved over 10 years ago. And they were right: a perfect 10. A game which embraced a simple formula to create a great game: make a 30 second passage of gameplay as enjoyable as possible and repeat it without it being repetitive.
In the simplest of explanations, that was it. Delve further into the detail and you look at the emergent gameplay driven by the outstanding AI of the enemies – there were no patterns to learn and predict here, especially with the devastating intelligence and commitment of Elites. Enemy tactics always changed whilst remaining fair (the AI employed a line of sight rule) and level design always allowed a myriad of approaches to achieve a goal. Hunters? Use rockets. No rockets? Use plasma grenades? No grenades? Use a one shot pistol kill in the Hunter’s weak spot. Elites hiding behind cover? Play ‘cat and mouse’ and lure them out and pick them off, or sneak in slowly for a melee kill. Perhaps choose a needler as its homing ammunition tracks them to their cover, negating their evasive skills. Playing cooperatively? The options increase exponentially.Art design was another mitigating factor in this great game. The sunshine refracting through the clouds as you set foot on Halo the first time. Then you take down the Banshees admiring the purple hue of the Covenant throughout their technology and weaponry, agape at the symmetry of Forerunner architecture, the snow filled landscapes of Assault on the Control Room providing a suitably epic backdrop to an epic level, and so on. The music too. Stunning in the way a soundtrack should be: a memorable theme, epic strings to match epic set pieces and an ambience to convey what words cannot. And finally the characters: the quiet stoicism of the Chief, the companionship of Cortana filling in the lonely gaps of the long levels, the hard-nosed bastard thuggery of the Sarge, the hoorah of the marines, the running commentary from 343 Guilty Spark during the later levels and last but least the Grunts, with their bravado and cowardice (both in words and action) directly proportional to the presence or absence of Elites.
So why the eulogy for Halo: Combat Evolved? Because it is the benchmark. What followed in the series never matched up due to dilution by derivation, focus on increasingly convoluted storylines, and crucially, focus on inferior opponents compared to Elites (Brutes, take a bow). Simply put, it’s the measure.
So what of Halo 4 without the coding might of Bungie? 343 have delivered a superb game. The greatest complimentperhaps being you would not have noticed that Bungie had not developed this if you hadn’t been told; the transition has been smooth and impressive.
The game is not with its disappointments, however. The music, for one. The title theme is fantastic – it’s genius lies in how close and far it is from the O’Donnell’s original, and Davidge has achieved it with such a simple mechanic of approach. But apart from this, and the accompanying theme to the introduction of the Prometheans, it’s a largely generic score lacking the grandiose ambition of the original.
The lack of scale is another niggle. Clearly 343 has pushed 7-year-old hardware to the limits of performance, and priority has been placed on graphical fidelity over scale. The massive sprawling open levels are gone, battles are scaled down and everything feels more contained. Fair enough – something had to give. The lack of peripheral dialogue is another. The marine chatter has perplexingly been removed and the game is poorer for it. We have also lost the dialogue from the Grunts (they now speak in their alien tongue) which has removed the welcome moments of comic relief during tense, drawn out battles. Finally, those epic stand off moments of terror when facing a roomful of invisible Elites or determined Hunters in confined space are lacking in this iteration. On reflection however, these complaints are merely minor; a full orchestra missing a couple of violas.
The visuals are outstanding; the art design, detail, effects and animations are exceptional. Key characters have been updated and look fantastic, especially when conveying emotion – special mention to Jennifer Taylor for the voice acting of Cortana.Equally impressive is the audio. Weapons sound weighty, voices are clear and distinct in the mix and battlefield effects absorb you further into the experience. And what of the enemy? Well, the Flood are absent (and not missed), the Covenant are back (with Elites at the top of the hierarchy) and back to their tactical best and we have a new enemy: Prometheans. On Heroic and higher levels of difficulty, the Prometheans provide a fresh challenge equal to that of the Covenant. Facing enemies which can teleport, have portable defences and the introduction of the ocular Watchers: medics which can also resurrect, all provide a welcome change, forcing a change of tactics and an appreciation of spatial awareness.
Ultimately, what 343 have really nailed is the 30-second rule of fun. This is the first Halo since Combat Evolved which I have returned to immediately after completing. Now on my third play through I am discovering new ways to play the game, new nuances within the sandbox and simply new ways to have fun with Halo. Spartan Ops, Multi-player or co-op haven’t had a look-in.
One perfectly coded moment? Not quite. But close enough. And that’s more than we could have expected.