With the return of Master Chief and new studio 343 Industries (343i) at the helm, many were skeptic of Halo 4. Luckily 343i has eased the nerves of fans and gamers alike with a title that is more than deserving of the iconic Halo brand. Equipped with gripping visual imagery, a solid narrative, and the best multiplayer the franchise has seen; this may be the best Halo yet.
The moment Halo 4 hits your disk tray you'll be amazed by just how beautiful the game looks. It is easily the best looking Halo to date, and most likely the best looking Xbox 360 game as well. Where most shooters opt for shades of brown and gray, Halo offers a variety of powerfully vibrant locations and enemies that showcase the game's visual splendor. The wide array of color injects energy into the surrounding world spurring players to explore.
Don't be confused tough, while Halo 4 is bright and colorful it's more than an amalgamation of "sunshine and lollipops". Halo 4 certainly hosts its fair share of scenic skylines, but each peaceful local only serves to thrust the player into the next chaotic contest. The rapid transition from serene to insanity creates a distinct contrast that matches the game's stellar pacing; so that when those big set-pieces do come about, they feel that much more intense.
Interestingly enough, one of the most jarring visual upgrades comes from the games uncanny facial recognition. It's strange that a game whose main protagonist does not even show his face would sport some of gaming's most impressive facial expressions. The lifelike facial animations are so masterfully executed that players can naturally infer character's reactions without any additional context. Thus, when an angry military official glares as he repeats his orders for the second time, his disdain is palpable.
Halo's large scaling landscapes combined with its meticulous attention to detail has a crafted a world that captures a sense of grandeur and magnitude. Players will find themselves attuned to their surroundings, as each awe-inspiring local adds a sense of adventure and mystique; a facet that has been missing from the series since the original Halo title.
In line with its visuals, the narrative offered in Halo 4 is an improvement for the series, though it is not without its faults. It's true that the game centers on a similar plot where John (Master Chief) must save humanity from a new galactic threat that has surfaced. However, in addition to its standard setup, Halo 4 introduces a far more interesting sub-plot that surrounds John and his AI companion Cortana.
Early in the game players learn that Cortana is becoming rampant or going insane from old age. Cortana's plight arguably thrust her into the spotlight in this installment as she becomes the catalyst of Halo 4's narrative. Cortana has always been an integral part of the Halo narrative, but more as a support character. Basically she has served as an emotional compass often revealing what John's stoic demeanor hides.
However, with Cortana slowly spiraling into lunacy, there is a role reversal. John becomes a support system for Cortona showing how much he cares for her, and in-turn revealing his humanity in the process. It's subtle, but he displays genuine fear for Cortana, he's distraught and he's determined to save her. Brining John's humanity to light, adds a new level of urgency to the narrative. Master Chief is not some infallible machine anymore, he's human and he's fighting for something far more tangible than the cliche fate of the galaxy.
The overarching storyline fits perfectly within the Halo cannon and is sure to please those that are heavily invested in the Halo universe. The only serious gripe to be had with the story is that it may not reveal enough to players who do not know the Halo lore. Halo 4 introduces a great deal of plot elements that were first discussed in the short novel, Halo Cryptum. While Halo 4 does eventually get around to at least explaining the basics, the game takes a while to do so and leaves out a great deal of depth in the process.
For example, when the game's main antagonist the Didact is introduced characters begin referring to him as if we already know who he is. It results in an experience that is very confusing for the player, everyone's familiarity with the Didact makes the player feel like they should know who he is, but unless you have read Cryptum you won't.
It's great that 343i looks to reward its dedicated audience, but tying in plot points from other mediums shouldn't come at the expense to the general gamer.
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