Hello Halo - Halo 4 Overview
~PLEASE ONLY READ THIS IF YOU HAVE FINISHED THE GAME~
Let's just get this out of the way, I'm a fan of Halo. Moreso the books and the universe they portray than the games. I've read the books and the wiki pages, played the games, and looked for as much information as I could find to acquire more knowledge about the lore. So I was surprised when I found that Halo 4 was a nod to those of us who had invested time in learning about the extended Halo universe.
The game opens with a cinematic of Dr. Catherine Halsey being interrogated regarding her involvement in the SPARTAN program and questioning as to whether Spartans are at their core still human or merely programmed machines. It then moves to Master Chief being brought out of cryo-sleep by Cortana due to an unknown threat, this threat turns out to be what Cortana suspects is a rogue group of Covenant who have not been made aware of the truce with Humanity -- or have decided to ignore it and continue with their fanatical devotion to the Prophets teachings. All of this takes place aboard the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn (a Charon-class light frigate Master Chief and Cortana are stranded on at the end of Halo 3 when it is torn in half by a slipspace portal collapsing) which is now currently in orbit around what looks to be a Forerunner planet known as Requiem that is surrounded by a Covenant fleet. The ensuing battle eventually leads to the Covenant fleet, the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn along with the Master Chief and Cortana ending up inside the Forerunner planet. This opening sequence is heavily reminiscent of the opening in Halo: Combat Evolved (waking on a ship under attack and needing to fight your way out) and this set the tone for pretty much the rest of the game.
New enemies are introduced in the form of the Forerunners, the ancient race that created the Halo installations and the Prometheans who are a Warrior-Class A.I. in the Forerunner Empire. These new enemies are much the same as previous enemies in the Halo games with a few slight differences. The Crawler-Class (Alpha and Snipe) are the fodder who effectively replace the Grunts and Jackals and the Knight-Class (Lancers, Commanders, Battlewagons) who replace the Elites, Brutes and Hunters. The Watcher is the only real new enemy type and it is a sentry like enemy that can be spawned from the carapace of a Knight, it's abilities include shield projection, redirection of grenades, revivification of dead Knights and support fire with Boltshots. In turn the Promethean weaponry introduced also fall into an already established category -- Boltshots replace the Magnum Pistol, Suppressors replace the Assault Rifle, Light Rifles replace the Battle Rifle/DMR, Scattershots the Shotgun, Binary Rifles the Sniper Rifle, Incineration Cannons the Rocket Launcher and the Pulse Grenades replace Frag and Plasma Grenades. New human weaponry is also introduced to Halo 4 in the forms of the SAW (M739) - a light machine gun used for suppressive fire which holds 72 rounds unlike the standard Assault Rifle (MA5D) which only holds 32 rounds, the Railgun (ARC-920) - a compact... railgun which will one-shot any enemy in the game (not vehicles though) and the Sticky Detonator (M363) - a single-shot, grenade launching pistol which will fire a sticky-grenade and then await your detonation signal. To me these additions feel like a lost opportunity, with the introduction of a new species/race and one that is supposedly much more advanced than the current forms of life, the template for something extraordinary was laid out but it somehow fell short. That's not to say that these new additions are bad, on the contrary I think they are a slight upgrade but they are also very predictable and boring which is a shame.
Despite this the campaign is good fun. The game looks fantastic, a major upgrade from the previous Halo games and is easily in my opinion the best looking of the franchise. The framerate holds up well and the textures and lighting are brilliantly utilised and optomized on what is now a 7 year-old console. Environments change regularly and can take you from a UNSC Frigate with it's narrow corridors and stairwells to a more expansive jungle filled with lots of weird plants and vegetation to ghostly, unearthly canyons or even to peculiar looking Forerunner structures/buildings and unlike Halo games of old, these levels are all laid out fairly well and no longer leave you wondering if you're headed in the right direction. The set-pieces where you usually take control of a vehicle, whether that be a Mantis, Pelican, Ghost or Broadsword are incredibly fun and almost breath-taking in the sheer spectacle of the moment with explosions happening left, right and centre as the entire level usually starts to fall apart around you. The voice acting while top-notch felt a little let down by the script, a few lines here and there felt overtly cliché even for Halo but they weren't so bad as to diminish my experience. The soundtrack overall I think is better than any of the past Halo games but strangely I feel they are not as memorable as that distinct monk-chanting of yesteryear. Neil Davidge's score does brilliantly in completing and enhancing the atmosphere set by the game and story rather than being the focus.
The story is something that I think can only be truly appreciated by those who have looked further into the lore of the Halo universe, without this knowledge the story merely seems average and at times strange. Whether or not this will be a mistake on 343's part, only time will tell.
The underlying story though is the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana. Master Chief and all the other Spartan-II candidates were kidnapped when they were 6 years-old and forced into a program designed to make them into the ultimate warriors. This didn't just mean training them to be the strongest and fastest, it also meant instilling a sense of responsibility and duty into their very nature. Effectively these children were brainwashed to the point where everyone questioned their humanity. For years they completed missions thought impossible and did things seemingly without fear or hesitation, they were no longer seen as being people. Their augmentations and implants did nothing to help this view, carbide ceramics being grafted to their bones making them virtually unbreakable, protein injections to increase muscle density, implants which release growth hormones that increase skeletal and muscle growth, occular suregery allowing them to effectively see in the dark and overcharging their nervous system giving them a 300% increase in their reflexes.. all this combined with the MJOLNIR armor which further enhanced these abilities made the Spartans seem more alien than human. Master Chief is no exception to this but one day he's told he must work with an A.I. and that being paired with this A.I. is the culmination of years of research to make him the ultimate soldier. So following his orders he does as told and partners with this spirited and witty personality who is nothing like the military personnel he's dealt with his entire life, this character who makes snide remarks, is rather smug in regards to her abilities and frequently converses with him just because she's bored throws him off balance. After passing a "test" to prove that an A.I. interfacing with a Spartan in the field was a viable combat solution, Master Chief comes to realise how much of an asset Cortana can be. Then following the hardships of Halo: CE and the life-or-death situations they scrapped through they form a bond, as you would with anyone if you went through a similar situation with them, and their partnership evolves into a friendship. It is this relationship that 343 Industries play on in the Halo 4 story.
Halo 4 takes place in 2557, nearly 5 years after the events of Halo 3 and eight years after Cortana was created (Nov. 7th, 2549). The reason why this is important is that "Smart" A.I. programs such as Cortana usually only have a lifespan of seven years after which they enter a state called rampancy which effectively means they think themselves to death (the equivalent would be a human devoting so much of their brain to their thoughts that the brain would stop sending signals to their heart and other vital organs to keep them alive). Cortana was already pushed to the brink of rampancy when she was captured and tortured by the Gravemind in Halo 3 (Nov-Dec 2552) these symptoms are further accelerated when aboard the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn and it's four years, seven months and ten days adrift in space. After Master Chief is awakened and is told about Cortana's rampancy it is apparent he will lose her if he doesn't act quickly so he decides that they must find a way to return to Earth and find Dr. Halsey so she can help Cortana and in doing this they encounter the Promethean warriors and their Forerunner commander Didact who wishes to destroy Humankind.
The reason why the Didact wishes to destroy the humans is a fairly long story, the short version is this -- 100,000 years ago there were three races who had reached what is known as Tier 1 technology (those with the ability to manipulate gravitational forces, create sentient A.I., traverse Slipspace and create worlds), the Forerunners, the San 'Shyuum and Humanity. The Forerunners came into contact with the humans when they supposedly expanded their reach and encroached upon Forerunner worlds and a conflict started, the Forerunners then laid the smackdown and put the humans and the San 'Shyuum in their place. What they did not realise was that the Humanity and San 'Shyuum were running from a biological parasite known as the Flood. The Flood slowly but surely started to infect all sentient beings in the galaxy so it was then that the Forerunners decided to use the Halo Arrays destroying the themselves and any life that the Flood was capable of infecting except for those on the Ark which then proceeded to re-establish life through-out the galaxy which includes the current iteration of Humanity and the races of the Covenant. The reason why the Didact despises humans is that he believes that the Forerunners are the only ones worthy to hold the "Mantle" which is a philosophy of ones duty to protect the bio-diversity of the galaxy. When the Forerunners activated the Halo Arrays, this "Mantle" was then handed down to Humanity when the Librarian planted a "geas" in the human genetic code, something the Didact disagreed with.
343 Industries have done a great job bringing back the franchise, they've proven that they can reproduce the experience we've all come to know and love from Halo. Though I do feel they played things a little too safe in some respects, it seemed like they feared they would anger the devoted Halo community by doing something different so instead opted to merely prove they could make a Halo-like Halo game. Does this make Halo 4 a bad game? No, by all accounts this is the best Halo game released in my opinion but it's defintely not as good as it likely could have been. The end of Halo 3 leaves open a universe of possibilities for 343 to do some potentially incredible things but in the end I felt that the potential was squandered. This also coupled with the fact that while I may be a fan of the Halo universe, many others aren't and they are left wondering quite a few things that could have been better explained in the game. Hopefully though some of you have had some of your questions answered by reading this "review".
Overall though what can I say about Halo 4? Am I disappointed? A little. Am I satisfied? Just.