A new chapter
The introductory cutscene gets the game off to a compelling start. The exploration of Dr. Halsey and her Spartan project is a key pin at the center of the Halo story which has been sadly under-explored in the games to this point. For the first time we look at the Master Chief and really wonder what is going on behind his visor. We are presented with a dilemma; a question with no simple answer. A question that is dramatic, intriguing… and mostly forgotten during the rest of the game.
Clearly, 343 is setting up more than just Halo 4 with this introduction. They are setting the stage for an entire trilogy to come. But all we have in front of us right now is Halo 4. Issues surrounding Master Chief’s humanity are certainly touched upon over the course of the game, but I wish the exploration had gone a little further and dug a little deeper. As it stands, no other point in the campaign matches the level of dramatic engagement achieved by the introductory cutscene.
Thematic issues aside, the introduction looks incredible. Halo 4 utilizes a combination of in-engine cinematics with pre-rendered cutscenes (a first for the Halo franchise). In both cases, the visual presentation is stellar. Facial animations set a new bar in videogame storytelling. 343 feels very strongly about the story they are telling, so they’ve gone to great lengths to create lifelike, engaging characters. Moment to moment, the results are exemplary. The greater narrative is a slightly different matter, but we’ll get to that later.
Halo 4’s impressive graphical presentation continues from the cutscenes to the in-game action as well. Rather than attempting to wow the player with extreme texture detail, 343 has put great emphasis on their engine’s lighting capabilities. Light shimmers off every surface; from towering Forerunner structures to the menacing armor of your enemies. Even the Master Chief’s own visor glimmers and glares. Aside from a few moments, the game runs at a smooth frame rate with fluid animations and clear, jaggy-free lines.
These visual improvements have not been achieved without some small sacrifices. There are some minor elements of the graphics engine that have clearly been pulled back, such as the explosions and weapon effects. Plasma Grenades vanish in an underwhelming “puff”, and exploding vehicles do not result in the impressive shower of dynamic sparks and debris that were present in Halo Reach. But these are acceptable compromises in light of such a spectacular graphical presentation. One could easily name Halo 4 among the best looking games of this console generation.
While Halo 4 is a visual home run from a technical point of view, the art design is a more complicated issue. 343 has not been shy about crafting a visual style that is uniquely theirs. This is still Halo, but it’s their Halo. While Bungie had slowly brought Halo towards a darker, grittier, westernized style, 343 has swung things back in the opposite direction. There is a clear sci-fi/anime inspiration to the design of Halo 4. Everything looks stranger, more alien. This is also where things get problematic. The Spartans in Halo 4 look less like the genetically augmented super soldiers we’ve come to know, and more like something out of Ghost in the Shell or Vanquish. The Elites are hardly recognizable, ditching their traditional hunched, predatory stance in favor of remarkably good posture. They stroll around completely upright, with a movement and body language nothing like what we are used to. Part of me recognizes that 343 needs to create their own version of this world, but the changes can sometimes be hard to swallow.
Halo 4 introduces us to the franchise’s first new enemy class: the Prometheans. With these new enemies, 343 has the opportunity to let their creativity run wild, free from preconceptions. Once again, a heavy anime influence can be seen in their design. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but it does create some visual friction. Even at the end of the campaign, I was having a difficult time accepting the Prometheans as part of the Halo universe. Still, they do have a unique appearance, making them stand out from the crowd of videogame alien bad guys.
While the character design is hit and miss, the world of Requiem is beautifully realized. We see a diverse range of locations, each compelling, mysterious, and alive. I did miss the iconic curve of a Halo ring rising up from the horizon. I also found the pure physical nature of Requiem a little confusing at first (being made up from a sphere within a larger sphere). Various missions take you from outside the planet, to inside the outer sphere, to inside the inner sphere, back outside again, etc. It can be a little tricky to keep track of where in Requiem you are as you play through the campaign. But it all looks so good that I didn’t mind feeling a little lost from time to time.
– Take a look at the jaw-dropping visuals in Halo 4 –
Audio design and Music
The occasional feeling of disconnect caused by some of Halo 4’s visual changes is amplified by the audio effects. Halo 4 sounds fantastic, but often unrecognizable. If I were to close my eyes and simply listen to the game, I wouldn’t even know it was Halo. Again I can respect 343’s need for creative license, but the sonic identity of Halo is so strong, so deeply embedded in our minds, that it is tough to lose.
In addition to the new range of sound effects, Halo 4 presents us with an original soundtrack not written by Marty O’Donnell. I will admit, I am a huge Marty fan boy. His work over the course of the Halo franchise stands as some of my all-time favorite compositions. His music was as much a defining element of Halo as any character or location. To create the soundtrack for Halo 4, 343 Industries enlisted the services of composer Neil Davidge. Davidge’s score is excellent from start to finish, with a tone and atmosphere that fits perfectly with this new vision of Halo. But its not as good as O’Donnell’s music, and I’ll explain why.
Neil Davidge has done a great job of contributing to the mood of the moment throughout Halo 4. The music gets sad, exciting, or ominous in all the right places. But it is reactionary. It builds upon feelings I am already feeling. In previous Halo games, O’Donnell’s music would actually change the way I played. As The Silent Cartographer begins, O’Donnell’s thunderous drums and pounding cello lines prepared me for a battle that wasn’t even on the screen yet. By the time my Pelican touched down on the beach, my adrenalin was already pumping. I hit the ground and slammed head on into the awaiting Covenant forces with everything I had. I played aggressively, because the music made me aggressive. This is the power Marty O’Donnell’s music commands, and it is noticeably missing from Halo 4.
Of course, newcomers to the Halo franchise will simply be able to enjoy Halo 4’s audio presentation for what it is. While the music, voice acting, and sound effects are very well done, the same cannot be said for the overall audio mix. The dialog and musical score are frequently drowned out by deafeningly loud weapons fire and ambient noise. There is a surprising lack of polish to the audio mastering for a game with such otherwise impressive production values.