I've been writing this commentary for the last couple days, and now its finished. I did it more for myself than anyone else, but I figured I should give others a chance to read it too, just to get other peoples' feedback and opinions:
Let me begin by describing how important video games actually are. It is all too easy, from a distance, to dismiss them as a waste of time and of no particular value. But the truth is that video games are an entertainment, like film, like novels, and like television. As society advances, we come up with new ways to tell our stories. Games are a natural step in this progression, but they are unique in that they afford the audience the unprecedented ability of interaction. And like its counterparts, video games are prone to absolute trash. But there are good video games. And there are great video games. And there are even a few fantastic games, too. For my friends and I, Halo was always a fantastic series.
It was through Halo 3 that I met some of my best friends. Halo taught me how to truly have fun playing a video game, which is actually a rarity. The sandbox that Bungie (the original developer of Halo) afforded to the player allowed for unparalleled versatility and creativity entirely unique to the shooter genre. We edited maps, found out how to lag the game through excessive and never-ending explosions, but most importantly, we were having fun. Together. This is a series that has always brought people together. I suppose that’s part of the magic of Halo and, make no mistake, there is a magic about Halo.
It certainly has the deepest and most interesting fiction in the genre. Taken at face value, Halo is nothing more than a faceless dude in a suit of green power armor wasting copious amounts of alien fodder. But there is a depth to this universe. Master Chief is actually an intriguing character, having been abducted as a child and turned into a weapon to turn the tide on a growing insurrectionist war. He has never had a say in what he’s done as a soldier, and all those close to him have perished. All but one, and she’s not even human. Cortana, the most advanced AI ever created by humanity, has been Chief’s guide and friend since the beginning, and these two characters have become much beloved. And the aliens are in fact a coalition of many species, called the Covenant, unified by a zeal to collect artifacts left behind by the “Forerunners”, the oldest and most technologically advanced race to ever have existed. It gets much deeper, but my point is that there has always been more to this series than shooting things and drinking Mountain Dew. Halo is important, and it merits recognition for its contributions to video games as a whole. Bungie changed my life, and they did it through Halo.
The eventual exodus of Bungie from Halo was understandable, if not altogether sad. They are a talented group of people with an insight into making a damned good game, but Halo was always property of Microsoft, and Bungie certainly deserves to be more than a one-trick pony. The torch was passed on to the newly created 343 Industries, a team put together specifically to oversee and produce all things Halo after Reach. It consists mostly of fans of the series, presumably people who should have a good understanding of the IP. Their first act was the HD re-release of Combat Evolved, which had the prevalent appeal of nostalgia. After the complete of secession of Bungie from moderating Halo: Reach, 343’s incipient title updates tweaked the online experience in such a way, I thought, that made the game less fun to play. I shrugged it off, though, refusing to consider it an omen of things to come. 343 seemed competent and respectful of the series, and I felt that 343 could deliver and live up to the quality and soul of a series quite close to my heart.
For three years, my friends and I waited for a proper sequel to the game that made our very friendship possible. And once 343 began to showcase the game they had been working on for five years, it was difficult to contain my excitement. Mesmerized by all their “making of” videos, I had an eye and an ear on all things Halo. It is easily the best looking game to date on the 360. This game held so much promise; finally, I was going to see Master Chief and Cortana again. No more prequels, we were finally going to experience the future of Halo.
So important was Halo 4 to me, that I waited a full day to play it, because the first real friend I’d made on Xbox couldn’t get it on release day. Even Assassin’s Creed 3, the next numbered sequel in my all-time favorite series, had to wait, because Halo wasn’t just for me. It was for all of us. This was going to be our bread-and-butter for at least the next two years. We all even opened the damned case at the same time. But at that moment, I felt something was wrong. Something about it just didn’t feel…perfect, as it should have. I ignored it.
Upon finally playing Halo 4, I was excitedly impressed with the visuals and revamped, visceral sound design. What ensued, however, was a heart-breaking decent into unprecedented disappointment. My favorite online multiplayer has been utterly tarnished with ire-inducing impositions of Call of Duty tropes such as completely customizable loadouts, complete with perks and weapons camo. Weapons camo. In Halo. And on Covenant weapons too, no less. This fallacy, which has plagued not only the entire shooter genre, but others as well, is so tired, and got old years ago. Not only this, but 343 has seen fit to greatly increase the pace of a matchmaking game. No longer is there any time, nor patience for a coordinated, tactical approach. It has, quite literally, adopted the loathsome rhythm of “spawn, sprint, shoot, die, spawn, sprint, shoot, die”. Over and over again. The inclusion of armor abilities is nothing short of superfluous now. 343’s “groundbreaking Infinity Multiplayer”? What ground has been broken? All I see are elements adopted from other games! All my favorite game modes are missing; no more Lone Wolves, no more double team, no more multi-team, no more Invasion, no more head hunter. Oh, and the oddball ball is no longer a flaming skull, by the way. Their contextualized multiplayer only makes the whole thing less fun. And I cannot excuse the honestly stupid inclusion of the mech, or “mantis”. This is easily the cheapest vehicle in the game. Coupled with another player in a banshee, the team with both vehicles will win. All game-breaking aside, the introduction of a mech contradicts the established fiction of Halo. The entire purpose of the Spartan Project was to make a walking tank. It goes without saying that putting your walking tank into another walking tank is gratuitously redundant. As a whole, it would seem that the mantra of “all players are equal”, which was once a trademark of Halo multiplayer, has been completely deleted. There is no skill in getting a kill anymore.
But these thoughtless transgressions are only the tip of the iceberg. The campaign for Halo 4 was built upon additional fiction established in peripheral mediums, such has books and graphic novels, and otherwise never addressed in the games. This game essentially ignores any of the stories and resolutions established in previous games. The war with the Covenant ended, their leadership was decimated, and Elites seceded from the pact. Lo and behold, however, you are fighting Covenant. And there are Elites, too. Nothing, literally nothing, was done to justify their presence in the game. But there are new enemies, too. Halo 4 introduces the “Prometheans” along with the new villain, who is apparently called “the Didact”. (Can you say Tron?) Upon his introduction, however, the player doesn’t learn his name. The characters do, though, and refer to him casually. This is just one example of making the player feel like an awkward third wheel, and it is brutally annoying. The story is poorly told, and relies on hidden collectibles to brief you on important plot elements; this is just wrong. After having beaten the game, I still feel none the wiser. Who the hell is the “Librarian”? And who the hell is the “Didact”? Oh, and Cortana’s progressive degeneration? Her blatant and exaggerated embarrassment over her circumstances is honestly a misrepresentation of her bold and brave character. I won’t go into any more specifics, but the intimate story 343 tried to tell is admirable at the very least, but I found myself literally laughing at numerous points in the game. The campaign was a drag to play, with a crappy frame-rate, and potentially fun setpieces that, for lack of a better word, sucked. (Broadsword mission)
Adding to an overall lack of content, Firefight, Halo’s wave-based cooperative survival mode is nowhere to be found, but rather replaced by “Spartan Ops”. It consists of short missions recycled from the campaign. Pretty cool, huh? Firefight afforded players a fun replayability factor. Spartan Ops simply does not.
For all its visual prowess and excellent sound design, Halo 4 is a hollow attempt at a sequel to an amazing series. It is sorely lacking in any of the style, personality, and substance that its predecessors carried with such charm. 343 Industries deserves no impunity for their mishandling of a series quite sacred to the culture my friends and I have developed online; Halo is important, it changed our lives, and it taught us how to have fun. But this entire product feels like bad fan-fiction, and I am appalled that this is what has become of one of the most iconic series in video games, and for that reason, my investment in Halo, on emotional, spiritual, and monetary levels, ends with this offensive, soulless piece of trash. 343 has failed me, and they have failed Halo. Their bumbling impositions of shooter conventions and incoherent storytelling are indeed telling that this once fun and unique series has run its course. It was great while it lasted.