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Halo 4 review: the ghost in the machine

Halo 4 is the best campaign experience in a shooter this year.

Halo 4 gets what made Halo: Combat Evolved special.

The original Halo wasn't just about great combat or multiplayer, though it set the standard for those things in shooters for the better part of a decade. There was also a sense of wonder and discovery that Halo's sequels often struggled to find again. They were bigger, yes, and they had more of everything Halo had, but that was also sort of the problem. They were charting known territory, with pockets of novelty and an emphasis on adding new mechanics or upping the graphical stakes.

Halo 4 does some of those things. It possesses a striking sense of scale. There are new mechanics. It's a technological achievement that most have assumed was outside of the reach of Microsoft's now seven-year-old console. But it's more than that. Halo 4 is a return to the series' roots of discovery, of wonder and, at times, of awe. It helps that it might be the most consistently great game of the series to boot.

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Set several years after the ending of Halo 3, Halo 4 opens in the wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn, the ship that the Master Chief used to escape the destruction of the Ark, an ancient command center capable of firing all of the Halo rings across the galaxy at once and destroying all sentient life in existence. The Master Chief is yanked from his cryogenic sleep to find the Forward Unto Dawn on the precipice of the massive artificial world Requiem and a Covenant expeditionary force waiting for it to open.

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Open it does, and the Chief and Cortana are pulled into Requiem, a world with, if you'll pardon the cliche, a sinister purpose. I'll leave the details vague, but Halo 4 explores the nature of the Forerunners, the extinct alien super-intelligence whose technological bones have haunted the Halo series from the beginning. But the standard Halo race against time — which, let's be honest, has powered every game in the series — has a more personal urgency this time around. In the Halo universe, artificial intelligences have a lifespan of seven years before they're decommissioned in advance of "rampancy," where said AI thinks itself to death.

Cortana's been in service for approximately eight years.

The omnipresent AI companion's impending mortality adds more emotional weight to Halo 4 than previous entries have seen. It sounds silly, the joke that Halo is a love story between a cyborg and an AI, but 343i sells that relationship in a surprisingly respectful way. Cortana has always been the more human of the pair — which Halo 4 also explores — and her arc over the course of the game resonates more deeply than you'd think.

The story in Halo 4 is more developed than it's ever been, because it's more present than it's ever been. It works for the most part, though it leans more heavily than I'd like on finding supplemental pieces of information to get a fuller picture of exactly what's going on. How did the Covenant find the Forward Unto Dawn? You'll need to find a beat-up Covenant computer to find out.

The story is actually the only real stumbling point for Halo 4, minor as that stumble may be. I encountered a few "wait, what?" moments throughout the story that Halo 4 presented in a strangely cavalier manner. As a fan of the series only passingly familiar with the external Halo fiction — the story and history developed in the books and comics — I barely clung to comprehension here and there.

Halo 4 is easily the best campaign experience in a shooter or action title this year.

I had the benefit of seeing all the history locked inside of Halo 4's hidden terminals, eight of which are scattered throughout the campaign. These provide almost half an hour of exposition and explanation of the forces aligned against the Master Chief and humanity that are otherwise only hinted at in the game proper, and I can't see a good reason for information that useful to be buried where most players will never see it. There's a lot of meat present for hardcore Halo fans, but less invested players might blink and miss something important — I played through the campaign twice before everything clicked.

You might do what I did anyway, though, and go out of your way to play again. Halo 4 is easily the best campaign experience in a shooter or action title this year.

Halo 4 uses the basic design tenets of the series at large to underpin some larger changes to the "combat sandbox" that original developers Bungie coined in 2001 with Halo: Combat Evolved. The emphasis on interplay between guns, grenades and melee attacks is still there. Virtually every Halo game since Halo 3 has sought to make substantive additions to that triumvirate — Halo 3 added equipment, which didn't work so well, while Halo: Reach added armor abilities, which often felt superfluous outside of situations designed specifically around their use.

On Difficulty

Original Halo developer Bungie made a point of emphasizing that the series was best played on Heroic, the third of four difficulty settings. It made the enemies more challenging, and gave them time to survive and demonstrate more complicated behaviors. My default assumption, then, was that Heroic would be the way to go on my first playthrough of Halo 4.

I was mistaken. 343i has been silent on difficulty levels, and the lack of messaging could be a problem. Halo 4's Heroic setting is considerably more difficult than it has been in previous games, at least for an initial playthrough, sitting close to the original game's Legendary setting. Normal has in turn been bumped up in difficulty. To be blunt, Normal is the new Heroic.

This could be the nature of so many new enemy and encounter types, paired with changes to existing weapons and equipment, but I don't think so. When I played through Halo 4 at a review event in early October, other press finished the campaign in six to seven hours. On Heroic, it took me approximately 11 hours. It's still enjoyable, but veteran Halo players will probably know what I speak of when I mention the walls of death I often encountered in my playthrough. When I played on Normal, I found a decent challenge and plenty of opportunity to experiment.

As for a solo Legendary run, I don't know if I have that kind of time. Take that as you will.

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Spartan Ops

It's tough to say much about Spartan Ops right now, since only one episode is currently available, but it's off to a promising start. When played in one or two sittings, it feels like well-balanced cooperative campaign content, and though I'll miss the escalating insanity of Firefight, 343i seems to be after something different with Spartan Ops' weekly episodes. For hardcore players, Spartan Ops scales automatically to the number of players — a team of four will always play on Legendary, for example. Brave solo players can do the same.

Spartan Ops feels designed to be a continuation of the main campaign — the first episode starts with the same kind of pre-rendered (jaw-dropping) introduction seen in the campaign proper, and everything I've seen suggests there will be more. If 343i can keep the level of quality up for the entirety of the free first season of episodes, it'll be hard to say no to paying for more.

"Dominion is the best thing to happen to Halo since Xbox Live."
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War Games

Halo 4's multiplayer sees many of the same additions that are found in the campaign, including dashing and Promethean weapons and equipment. The most immediate change is the framing device — multiplayer is now known as War Games, and is set on the UNSC Infinity.

343i has been paying attention to the Call of Duty-led developments in multiplayer shooters over the last five years, but rather than aping that series completely, the studio has picked apart how it works and why, and applied those lessons. The goal with Halo multiplayer seems to be speed. It's faster to get back into the fight after death by hitting X to respawn, though waiting will spawn you closer to your team. And the new point system gives players a way to feel successful and productive even if you can't manage a positive kill-death ratio.

The point, it seems, is that you're always playing, always doing something. Death feels less punitive than it has before, which makes for a friendlier, more approachable Halo game for people outside of the shrinking core audience for the series, without dumbing anything down. The playing field feels more level as well, thanks to on-screen indicators for power weapons and the addition of ordnance drops in Infinity Slayer. Despite these improvements, it's Dominion mode that stands out, and is easily the best thing to happen to Halo multiplayer since Xbox Live.

While previous Halo releases have iterated on the original's basic staples of Slayer, Team Slayer, Capture the Flag and Oddball, nothing has felt like a major addition. Even Headhunter, while unique, felt as much like a gimmick as something with staying power. But with Dominion, 343i has pushed Halo 4 in the direction of Battlefield-style objective-based gameplay, and it shines for it.

Dominion sees three bases on the map, each of which can be captured by either team. Once a base is claimed, a countdown starts to reinforce it, at which point barriers to the opposing team lock into place and defense emplacements come online. As the base is held, it continues to reinforce periodically. When it does, it adds points to that team's total. If the enemy team takes the base before it reinforces, you don't get any points.

This leads to a tense back-and-forth, even if one team has more bases than the other. If you've got two bases but the other team is forty points away from victory, then you'll still lose if they reinforce before you can take their base. It feels different, and new to Halo, and more importantly, it feels fleshed out enough to gain staying power and a large audience.

Halo 4 retains the custom game options of past games, and the revamped Forge mode seems poised to offer better-looking, more intricate creations. The theater mode returns as well, though it's absent from the campaign, which is disappointing.

343i has solved that problem in large part by adding new armor abilities that play directly into combat. For the first time, armor abilities feel like a significant tactical advantage in firefights. The sentry drone is great at taking out crawlers and grunts while you focus on jackals, elites or Promethean knights. The hardlight shield — which projects, you know, hard light — allows for a more strategic retreat, while enemies seem more vulnerable to the decoy-generating hologram than ever, which is a lifesaver against later Promethean Commanders and pairs of hunters.

Previous armor abilities like the jetpack, cloak and thrusters are present and have their uses as well, but arguably the most useful addition from Halo: Reach, the speed boost, is now a regular ability available at all times. 343i has used this to make subtle changes to their combat loop — enemies will keep more distance for longer, and it's up to you to close the gap more often. The speed boost can actually encourage riskier play than previous Halo games, since you have a viable means of "get in, cause damage and get out" than you've had before.

If you're not paying attention, you might get flanked

You'll need that, since enemies are more aggressive than they have been. Halo 4 continues the series' tradition of smart, ruthless AI, even on Normal difficulty. If you're not paying attention, you just might get flanked by that unassuming grunt you left alive before taking cover. It's often in your best interest to catch enemies unaware, inflict maximum violence quickly, then fall back to reassess the situation. How much you can do and how hard you push depends on the difficulty you choose to play on.

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All of this adds up to a fantastically dynamic combat environment. For what felt like the first time in years, Halo requires you to relearn its basic elements and their relationship to one another. Existing weapons have been subtly tweaked, but the Promethean gear and guns are completely new. If you want to survive on harder difficulties in particular, you'll need to understand the tools at your disposal, where they work, where they don't. Once you do, you'll find that there are always multiple combat options available to you in every scenario. That Promethean suppressor you left on the ground will become your best friend against shielded enemies that can put a quick hurt on you, given the chance. I was constantly rediscovering weapons throughout the campaign both times I played it. Even vehicles were different enough to force some re-education, and the addition of the Mantis, a spindly, rocket-firing and gatling gun-packing mech, was a welcome change of pace from hovering, wheeled or treaded anti-personnel platforms.

But Halo 4 gets that the moments without combat are as key to Halo's original appeal. It gives ample time to explore and gawk at Requiem without the threat of plasma-powered death. And more importantly, I was constantly presented with things I hadn't seen before, whether in a Halo game or elsewhere. Requiem, amid Halo 4's radically revamped presentation and new composer Neil Davidge's score, was something Halo hasn't been since 2001: unfamiliar.

In that way, Halo 4 is most like the original Halo, where the novelty and wonder of exploring something really alien and different is a key factor. While Halo 4 continues the series' tradition of iteration on its own design more successfully than any one of its predecessors, that sense of awe, of discovery, has been light since the first game, and I didn't realize how much I missed it until I played Halo 4. Halo is in new hands with 343i, but the studio nailed exactly why the series became a genre-defining franchise. And it's exciting to think about where it goes from here.

Campaign and Multiplayer modes for Halo 4 were played at a review event held by Microsoft in early October of 2012. A second campaign playthrough was also completed on retail code provided by Microsoft. You can find information about Polygon's ethics policy here, and see an explanation of Polygon's review process and scoring rubric here.