Review: Halo 4; both triumph and failure
Before we get to Halo 4 itself, I’d actually like to kick off this review by sharing an image; it’s called the Gartner Hype Cycle (see below). While it is a graph typically applied to business technology (Gartner being a business technology analyst firm), I think it’s entirely appropriate to explain what has happened to the modern FPS genre, and what will likely come next:
The FPS genre is currently at what the Hype Cycle calls the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” I say this because the budgets for these games are getting bigger and bigger, while at the same time the formula of the genre is becoming more and more homogenised – developers have latched on to something that works, and are running with it.
We saw this slide happen with the JRPG genre not long ago, in fact. People claim that genre is “dead,” – it isn’t really, it has just fallen out of the mass-market mindset because it slid into the Hype Cycle's Trough. What happened to the JRPG genre is also going to happen to the modern FPS. The good news is that when the genre eventually matures out of that Trough, it arrived in a period of "Enlightenment," where those games that are produced are innovative or intelligent reworkings of the basic formula – that is what is happening with the JRPG genre now, for instance.
Because I like to start with the positive with my reviews; there is not a moment in Halo 4 that is a missed opportunity to drown players in wonder and amazement. Around every corner is a more impressive vista than the last. Alien landscapes look incredible from a distance, but the eye to detail up close is even more impressive. The plot is standard pulp science fiction, but it is told in such an earnest fashion with such talented voice actors that it’s more than enough to sustain you from start to finish. And, for a genre that more and more feels like the single-player game is merely thrown in as a tutorial for multiplayer deathmatches, the epic nature of this game’s plot is a welcome sight in Halo, and proof that the franchises’ new developers have a firm grasp on giving people what they want.
Enemy AI is possibly the biggest improvement that Halo 4 brings to the table. It’s not that the AI itself is necessarily smart – winning through the game is, as always for the genre, a process of learning and then exploiting patterns. What is changed is how aggressive those enemy patterns are and how few mistakes the enemies make this time around. I was able to exploit Halo 4 far less than previous games, and that’s a substantial boost to the series. Players can go into the more difficult settings expecting to have to work to earn victory, though less-experienced players can keep the difficulty setting low and blast through the game with reasonable ease. In other words Halo 4 has a little something for everyone.
Similarly, coming up against someone with a much higher level than you is going to end badly nine times out of ten, but it’s the kind of failure that will encourage people to get up for more, because progress occurs at a fast enough pace to leave a very big carrot dangling in a player's face. Multiplayer levels are so expertly designed that mastering them and learning the optimal strategic points is in itself a game. And just to add even more value to a package that is already overflowing with it, there’s a nice level-creator mode for some quality user-generated content.
There is very little to criticise about the actual game of Halo 4 in other words. The game controls like a dream, looks amazing and has the expected brilliant multiplayer options. The great problem with Halo 4 that in many ways has ruined the game for me is more philosophical in nature; for all the game’s budget, it 343 Games have produced something so safe it’s cringe-worthy.
The game’s structure plays out very nice and neat for FPS veterans, too. Chief runs down a corridor and winds up in an open environment or room filled with plenty of enemies and plenty of areas to hide behind to recover health. He’ll work through that environment, shooting everything in his path, before wandering down the next corridor. It’s the exact same game that we’ve played a thousand times before, just with a different skin this time.
We’ve just seen with Assassin’s Creed III that a AAA-game with a mega budget can take risks and still hit the kind of critical and commercial expectations of a AAA-game. That Halo 4 fails to make any real impact on me beyond “this is a fun, big budget game” is not a reflection on the game’s mechanics themselves – which are as good as I’ve ever seen in a shooter. No, Halo 4’s failing is that it was scared to fail. This is a game that has been meekly cobbled together to check off the “how to make a big-budget FPS” game, and it does lack an identity of its own as a result.
It’s going to need to, because consumers will be getting sick of the saturation of highly-competent-but-generic shooters by the time Halo 5 rolls around. And to Halo 4’s credit it does issue a very big challenge to the rest of the developers out there making FPS games – if they don’t find ways to be genuinely innovative moving forwards, then their own games are going to be nothing more than pale carbon copies of something that is, mechanically, perfect.
- Matt S
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