No spoilers here, guys. Proceed without caution.
Sound effects are an underappreciated element of most games, really. I hold up my hands here, I’m as guilty as anyone, never taking note unless they’re exceptional or exceptionally recognisable stock sounds – my ears are attuned to Half Life’s hitting-metal clink and every-game-ever’s Wilhelm Scream, to name but a few – which Halo 4 is refreshingly devoid of.
Halo 4 really pulls you into its world in a way few other games do. Stepping out from Forward Unto Dawn – one foot still braced on unforgiving metal, the other pressing down into soft grass – into the bliss landscape of Requiem, triggers one of the game’s prettiest tracks. You hear the tones of discovery, of trepidation and amazement, and then the distant humming of Covenant Ghosts zipping away, the slight distortion of weapons firing. All resonating as one, you’re there, and it feels just spectacular.
This medley synchronises seamlessly with the rest of the game, particularly the environments, to produce a stunning experience for the player. The scenery in Halo hasn’t always been considered too important: metallic halls and grand wastelands bursting with greenery were just backdrops to the Spartans’ explosive escapades and, in terms of the love lavished on them, could have been replaced with an evening in Photoshop. But 4 moves beyond that, filling the world with brilliant noise. Even such little touches as rustling trees, the squelching of mulch underfoot, the grazing metal of an unfolding door – all add to the immersion.
Up until now, the series’ audio achievements have all been in its soundtrack, and for good reason. The limp pew-pew of a plasma pistol, the hollow rumble of a Mongoose, the flat clunking of a grunt’s shell… Halo was never really renowned for its audio craftsmanship. 4 totally changes that, giving the series a viscerality and sense of realism it hasn’t seen before. From weapons, to footsteps, to the creak of armour; meticulous, crisp effects have been liberally applied to everything, major and minor both.
In previous titles, telling a Battle Rifle from an Assault Rifle meant listening to the rate of fire or rhythm of the shots, but in 4 the revolutionary step was taken to assign them individual noises! The Assault Rifle has its relentless rumble of churning bullets, a Battle Rifle its soft, rhythmic spray, a Magnum its lively little pop. What were once just indistinct noises are now identifiable features.
Distinction through audio is an important tactical feature which supplements the gameplay, if done right. See Left 4 Dead: knowing whether a Boomer is jamming the corridor ahead, or a lost Smoker is helplessly wandering the rooftops is key. Big Baddies may have their musical cues, but in normal combat situations the Witch’s blubbering is a Big Red Sign. And in Halo 4, hearing the enemies inside a structure are firing off shotguns acts as a warning signal, while the punch of a sniper rifle prompts a more cautious flank and the cooling of an energy sword’s slash says ‘Run, motherfucker.’ These sounds may seem like background noise, but they subconsciously influence actions.
Halo 4’s soundtrack is getting a ridiculous amount of attention – after all, it is an entirely new composer and the successor to one of the most famed videogame scores ever – and all of it deserved. It is sensational. That does not, however, mean it ought to eclipse the rest of the audio team’s stellar work. With a game this good, there’s plenty of praise to go around. Though they will never get the attention they deserve, the effort, hard work and care that has so clearly gone into this is worthy of as much recognition as the rockin’ tunes.