Every once in a while, a development studio will stumble across a hit. Not just one that hits certain sales numbers or is simply critically well-received, but rather they will somehow wring out from nothing a game that is socially impactful. Elements of the game will permeate gamer culture, infusing the zeitgeist with its own original flavor while its mechanics begin to appear in various forms in other products. Resident Evil 4 had “what are ya buyin‘?” and an over-the-shoulder camera; Gears of War brought about trailers of violent gameplay over melancholy music along with the active reload mechanic; and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare paved the way for main character deaths in the campaign and killstreak bonuses in multiplayer games.
After these seminal games hit, these studios are more or less locked into pumping out more entries into the franchise on a regular basis (or at least revisit it in some way or another). Infinity Ward, for instance, has exclusively produced Call of Duty games throughout its entire existence. Capcom has an entire god damn litany of franchises it has to touch back on every couple of years lest they miss out on a money-making opportunity. It is very much both a blessing and a curse to find such success.
If you look at Halo, though, you find something fairly unique. The series itself is, of course, a landmark in the history of video games. It brought about the two-weapon limit, regenerating shields instead of discrete health packs, dual-stick vehicle controls, sophisticated FPS enemy AI, and so much more, which is not to mention the creation of one of the most iconic characters in the history of anything along with the impetus for one of the first majorly successful machinima series in Red vs. Blue. Studio-wise, though, Halo is also the first to ever spawn a dedicated studio to the franchise.
Treyarch, I guess you could say, is a prototype for 343 Industries, the spinoff studio that formed after Bungie left Microsoft to become independent once again (since Microsoft retained rights to the series). Treyarch used to develop a wide swath of titles and genres ranging from hockey to a Max Steel game to a Minority Report title. Since 2004, however, they’ve developed exclusively Spider-Man and Call of Duty products, save for a brief dip into the James Bond mythos with Quantum of Solace in 2008. They, however, mostly stumbled into this fixed position. 343i was made for it.
While a fledgling studio in its own right, 343i is led by some industry and franchise veterans. However, Halo 4, possibly the biggest release of the year and maybe the most important game in the series since the first Halo, is still a fairly tall order for a new group of developers. Their primary goal could probably be distilled down to this single phrase: don’t fuck up.
It’s crass, but it’s true. Their first outing could justify their whole existence (though from the reviews currently up, it seems like they’ve done a mighty fine job). Not only do they have to create a good game but they also have to appease an innumerable mass of fans that demand consistency, creativity, and reverence. So it’s no surprise that Halo 4 falls fairly hard on the safe side of things.
To put it succinctly, 343i nailed the fundamentals of Halo. The unique interplay between guns, melee, and grenades that has identified the series since its inception is as strong as it has ever been. Each weapon, while workable in any situation, also has clearly defined strengths and weaknesses, making every firefight a puzzle of suitable armaments. The story serves to build on the foundation laid before it, not ruffle any feathers. Halo 4 is without a doubt the most Halo-ass game in quite some time (which is not to put down Reach or ODST; they were excellent games but also definitely departed from the formula).
And that’s fine. It’s like the first time you jump off a diving board; you start out with just a straight pencil dive, not a sweet life-endangering gainer. 343i has created probably one of the top three Halo games and did so with plenty of originality that managed to not alienate any psychotic, die-hard fans. There is so much fan service just from the novels that I can’t believe it isn’t required reading just to purchase Halo 4.
But perhaps that created something a bit too static in some regards. The Forerunner weapons, while visually interesting and easily distinguished, are all too familiar, which is odd for a race so much older and more advanced than either humans or Covenant. These are ancient weapons yielded by the mysterious Prometheans, so why do they all have conventional analogues? The lightrifle is basically the Covenant carbine. The binary rifle is the same as any other sniper rifle in any other shooter. The scattershot even pumps shells like a traditional shotgun despite shooting out god damn light.
The new vehicle even seems a bit too conventional. The Mantis basically a rehash of every other mech sequence you’ve ever played in a video game; you’re slow, lumbering, and overpowered, briefly but severely changing the entire game to serve as a respite from shooting things with significantly smaller guns. Jeff Gerstmann has quite a bit to say about it in the Giant Bomb Quick Look that is, for the most part, spot-on.
Little additions that tangibly change Halo 4 like Promethean Vision and the default sprint (the multiplayer has even more changes that may have serious implications to the long tail of the online game), but for the most part, the game is entirely a product of a super concentrated dose of Halo. It’s not even that you would call it evolution over revolution but instead just severe refinement. Wheat from chaff, fat from meat, and all that. 343i went down to Home Depot, bought a hammer, and put that Fundamentals board up on the wall because they are nailing it.
And that’s fine. For now. This can be considered testing the waters, a heat check for the studio as a whole. But knowing the leads at the company, it’s unlikely they’ll stay this reserved for long. A departure like ODST and Reach can only be expected after six years of hewing the same stone, but 343i and Halo 4 is a big ol’ reset. Now we’ll have to see how they build on the foundation they’ve built for themselves. At least those fundamentals will help.