The Halo 4 Journal: Day 1

I open this review in a unique position. At long last, I’m finally able to occasionally get review copies of a new game before release. Such was the case when I was assigned to review Halo 4 for my other outlet, Forbes, and as such, I’ve already been playing the game for a few weeks now with about 50 other press people, meaning it’s been tough to find functioning games.

What that also means however, is that I’ve already written a rather lengthy review of the game. You can find that here if you want to read it in its entirety, but I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t cover it for Unreality as well. Though there will likely be a bit of repeating, there’s a lot to say about a game this big, and it should be reported on not just before or at launch, but for weeks or months afterward. Hence why this is the first of a few journal installments covering the game.

So, what have I experienced in prerelease so far? The entire campaign, all the released Spartan Ops missions and a few dozen games of Regicide (free for all), Team Slayer and one or two of Capture the Flag. But now that the floodgates are open and EVERY game mode will have thousands of people in it, I’ll start to be able to get a wider view of multiplayer.

I’ll start up front with some of the controversy my “official” review caused when I published it last week. I gave it an 8/10, which I consider quite good, as a movie with 4 out of 5 stars is definitely worthwhile. Unfortunately in the gaming industry these days, AAA games seem to be rated on a scale from 9-10. Those are the acceptable ratings for a fanbase, and anything under that is met with snarling fits of rage.

Well this can’t be good.

Among my controversial views on the game, first and foremost was my extreme disappointment in the campaign. I acknowledge that the campaign is a relatively minor part of a Halo game, as multiplayer will have ten times as many hours sunk into it, if not  more. That said, it’s what many players choose to experience first, and this is the first continuation of Master Chief’s story in many years, as Reach didn’t discuss his plotline at all as a prequel.

Simply put, Halo has never shined for me when it’s come to its story. It’s always felt lost in its own universe, unsure of what it wants to be. It took the Terran-Protoss-Zerg race trilogy from the Starcraft games and crafted a far less  interesting universe involving the same characters. Sometimes it’s a spooky horror game as you’re crawling through flood infested tunnels. Others it’s a military shooter as you sit on a warthog turret unloading into enemy troops. Sometimes it’s in its own class when you’re punching a Covenenat Grunt in the face and he squeals like a demented Jawa.

Here, the story is essentially being started over from scratch. There’s a new threat, the Forerunners, who sometimes call themselves Prometheans for reasons unknown, and immediately assimilate the Covenant into fighting for them, also for reasons unknown. There’s a new big bad guy and a new big bad world ending threat, and Master Chief must kill his way to humanity’s salvation.

The “pathos” here is that your old companion Cortana, is suffering from “rampancy” which occurs to any AI over a certain age. She’s slowly going insane, and you must bring her to a doctor to save her, though that mission is part of the larger trilogy, and will not be completed here.

Someone has…upgraded their programming.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again, Master Chief is not a strong lead in a supposedly story driven game like this. It took him a solid while in the early games to even speak a word, and now even though he does talk more, all his lines seem to be ones like “We’re not leaving anyone behind,” and “I must deactivate the (thing) before the (other thing does something)!”

Cortana is the only one here with good voice-acting this time around, as the other two main characters we meet aboard the USNC Infinity could be classified as “good guy officer” and “bad guy officer” respectively. Guess which one aids the chief, and which he butts heads with? There are some truly terrible lines in all of these scenes.

Master Chief may be an icon of gaming, but that doesn’t mean he’s a compelling character or his story is terribly interesting. In keeping him mysterious all these years, he’s become quite boring. It’s sad because there IS a lot of potential in the universe, as seen in books and the recent web series, Forward Unto Dawn. But in the actual game? There’s not a single moment of dramatic weight to be found.

From a gameplay perspective, the campaign is nothing to rave about either. It has sections we’ve all played before in every other game. The Covenant have literally zero new enemy types, and the Prometheans only have three. Some of the new guns are cool (the SAW, the rain gun), but all the new Promethean weapons are just reskins of existing USNC fare. They don’t actually offer much new in the gameplay department.

Promethean shotgun! Which is exactly like a regular shotgun but with glowing shit!

Spartan Ops is the “Spec Ops” mode of the game that replaces Firefight. It’s campaign-like short missions that have hints of a story surrounding them. They’re good for padding your XP bar easily, but quickly grow old. There are a bunch more slated for release over the course of the Halo “season,” but they just feel like lost campaign missions with no real purpose to them.

But now we get to multiplayer, an area I do think there have been a few pretty solid improvements. First, and perhaps it should have been noted earlier, 343 has made Halo 4 the best looking game in the series to date with a new engine, and probably one of the best on the Xbox 360 period. Halo has never been known for its blindingly amazing visuals, but here, they’re definitely noticeable, and a huge step up over previous games.

Speaking of previous games, I still lament the disaster that was Halo Reach. A game that was fun initially until it became clear that the “steps forward” known as armor abilities were completely breaking the game. One in particular, armor lock, caused more frustration than any other, and eventually it became enough to quit the game entirely.

Here, armor abilities are back, but less dominant.  Strategic ones like hologram and jetpack are still really fun. Sprint has now become standard when clicking the stick, so you don’t have to give up a slot for it. Armor lock has become “light shield,” which essentially gives you a riot shield and is far from the invincible behemoth that was the old ability.

Serves its purpose without wanting to make you pull your hair out.

I also got in trouble in my initial review for mentioning Call of Duty to much when making comparisons, but there’s a reason for that. The fact is, for better or worse, Halo has borrowed many, many concepts from that series, something that’s impossible not to mention when doing a review. We’ve already seen the comparisons between Spartan Ops/Spec Ops, but COD’s hand is felt more heavily in multiplayer.

The Good: The ranking system mirrors CODs, and I’ve always felt that was one of the better aspects of those games, as it was motivation to keep pressing on, win or lose. You unlock different abilities, pieces of armor and weapons as you go, though we haven’t quite gotten to weapon attachments or skins just yet. This is a welcome change as past games, particularly the third one, had a puny unlock system and this is the best it’s been to date.

The Questionable: Now you can customize your own loadout, but as there aren’t nearly as many options as in COD, it sort of feels pointless. You almost always want to take the DMR and Battle Rifle, as they dominate the assault rifle class of weapons in almost every instance. Also not having everyone start with exactly the same kit is not the level playing field that the game has been known for. Though it leads into the next issue.

The Probably Not Great: I’m still trying to process how I feel about this, but in at least the Slayer modes I’ve played so far, there’s a new system for picking up weapons around the level. You don’t. Well, not really at least. There are instead “ordinance” locations of good weapons scattered around the level, with big indicators showing exactly where they are. They’re quickly snapped up, and only reappear sporadically. And again, following COD’s lead, there are now “killstreaks” of sorts. Kill enough people and you get a personal ordinance drop delivered right to you with one of three good weapons or perks in it. It’s not a bad idea in itself, but part of Halo has always been running around collecting new weapons when you run out of ammo for you own. It’s been racing for the best weapons in key chokepoints in levels, something that no longer exists as spawn points are random.

As for the level design? It’s hard to say so far. They’ve brought back a few great maps like Valhalla, but I’m going to need to play a bit more before I can safely say that this selection is fantastic. I also need to experiment with other game modes  like Flood and Griffball, but that’s what journal installments are for.

No, it’s not perfect, and I don’t care if you’re offended by that statement. I stand by an 8/10, and if you’re a Halo fan, absolutely pick it up! Just don’t expect it to be the second coming.

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  1. Just read your Halo 4 review at Forbes and man are the Halo fanboys pissed you “only” gave the game an 8/10 lol. As such, it seems you are a CoD fanboy in their eyes. Sheesh…

  2. Paul-

    Thanks for the thorough review. As someone who quit Halo Reach rather quickly, I’m glad many of the ‘mistakes’ of the past have been corrected. I’m still somewhat shy about picking the game up and will probably wait for some of my friends to review it. $60 is fair amount of money to a grad student, especially if I only get 10-15 good hours of play out of it.

    On a side note, WTF is up with ratings systems? I give the vast majority of things 3 out of 5 stars… I guess if ratings are between 9 and 10, we need to start treating the decimal places as the actual rating? Sometimes I feel like we all (reviews, GI, gamers) need a do-over.

  3. Paul and I have a very similar feelings about Reach MP (with mine extending all the way back to H:CE LANs) but I may have to disagree with his “The Good” section. The ranking/unlock system in CoD is one of the things I hated most about CoD (along with kill streaks staying intact after dying) and one of the things I most loved about the Halo series (lack thereof) since it wasn’t about grinding out unlocks and more about individual skill. I’ll guess I’ll have to reserve judgement regarding MP since I just got the game. It may be a while since I dislike going into MP feeling ignorant or unknowledgable and will want to get a feel for all things in the campaign (which I’m hoping is not as mediocre as Paul is saying).

  4. I’m very much so let down, halo has essentially become cod in space. The amount of influence is outstanding. Why is it cod sells 6 mill copies in a day and 343 assumes they should just copy cod to make.their game better. Whats wrong with some vareity. By the end of my first game I was shocked the final kill cam didn’t go slow mo and fade grey.

  5. I agree that Halo probably has the worst main character. He’s flawless, he’s silent and he either does what he’s told or what’s absolutely the right thing to do, no grey areas. I guess he appeals to younger kids who think he’s “badass” because he breaks stuff and the fact that he’s a blank slate allows them to project their own personality.

  6. Thanks for being honest as per usual and not bowing to the usual gaming politics that dictate this game get no less than a 9/10.

    Keep up the good work 🙂

  7. I still say Reach’s multiplayer was killer, but I’m so far disappointed with the campaign. I really enjoyed the story of the first 4 Halo games (ODST included), and this one’s is just “meh” so far. Then again, I was playing it co-op and talking trash the whole time so that’s not really the best way to immerse yourself into a world so my feelings may change.

  8. I just read your Forbes article and damn, you really did upset all those people. I admit that I never really felt the pull of Halo even from the beginning, but I’ve always been respectful of peoples choices in games. I understand you drawing a lot of CoD comparisons (maybe a few too many) but you almost have to since it’s the top selling FPS these last few years. I don’t see it as being that much different than test driving a Passat and comparing that to a Focus or Accord. Overall I think it might be worth my time to rent it or borrow it just to see if I might like it enough to pay for it.

  9. Played for the first time last night and just ran with two buddies in SprtOps. It was fun but I definitely with Paul it will grow old with me. After the 5th mission, I had not idea what the story was, nor why I was doing the things I was. I just killed and destroyed and moved on.

    I will admit that its infinitely better than Firefight. Especially towards the end where only Installation would be in the rotation. I hated that I’d get “stuck” in game that would seemingly never end and I barely even played that mode.

    I’m loving the DMR, but think some of the Promethean weapons are over powered.

  10. Man, did you play the whole halo series on mute and went for a leak at every cutscene? Every single thing you say makes no sense or is unexplained is a reference to past plot points, or explained a second after it’s stated in-game.
    I can protest about the fact that the covenant are suddenly all bad again (while halo 3 allied human race with the elites), but taking into account this is a religious conglomerate, I can accept many individual elites are still zealots. They are helping the forerunners? Oh my, shocking that they are helping the god-like race they wanted to follow to valhalla! truly shocking! the forerunners are sometimes called prometheans? er-no, they’re not; the guy with the fangs inside the sphere and the lady in the dress are forerunners, the shock troops, mere weapons are called prometheans, and use forerunner technology (and, er, ARE forerunner tech). I read this review and got the distinct impression you played the campaign once, on easy, and paying zero attention to anything said by any character, aside from “destroy that, kill those”

  11. The covenant worship the forerunners, something mentioned since Halo 1, which is why they side with them and Prometheans are ancient humans that were controlled by the Didact. You not paying attention to things that are clearly stated in the campaigns is not a reason to say the story isn’t explained well. I’ll let you slide for thinking the Didact came out of nowhere, since he was only mentioned in the terminals in Halo 3 and the remake of Halo 1.

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