Halo, again. For better or worse.
It’s perfectly fine to go into Halo 4 weary of a new studio’s hands getting all over a classic franchise, but rest easy for 343 Industries didn’t break Halo. Master Chief (John) makes his heroic return, Elites are still cunning foes, and the grenade, gun, and melee holy trinity is still the centerpiece of combat. The issue is 343 Industries played it too safe. Halo 4 is very much a Halo game and it’ll take players on a very familiar journey despite being perfectly set up to tell a story new and interesting.
While we’ve been playing spin-offs and prequels, John has been in cryostasis awaiting rescue after him and Cortana drifted into deep space. The Halo universe has a lot of fiction that spans through movies, comics and novels, but the games themselves never really tell a thoughtful narrative. 343 Industries attempts to tell a more personal tale by giving John more dialog, humanizing Cortana and generally giving the whole story more of a soul. Weird enough, Cortana is the star of the show.
Cortana is past her expiration date. AIs have a lifespan of 7 years before they enter “Rampancy”, in which they essentially think themselves to death. She has been given much more attention than your average videogame character to convey emotion and to serve as an anchor for the story. While just an AI, Cortana expresses a lot of subtle body language, sighs, and is usually on the verge of emotional breakdown. Voice actress, Jen Taylor did a great job at breathing life into Cortana and the emotional personality surprisingly never comes off hokey, as I often forgot she was an AI at all.
With Cortana being the anchor, the catalyst for a new Halo game is a new war that threatens humanity. For the first time in Halo history, there is a clear antagonist other than “The Covenant”. John and Cortana are in a race against time to take down The Didact, an ancient Forerunner that may or may not have been resurrected. With the “love story” between John and Cortana being more developed, the fiction behind this new conflict makes Halo 4’s campaign fall apart. I was more than halfway through the game and had no clue why we were still fighting Covenant, who this antagonist was and what his intentions were. John even imposes the question in the beginning, “I thought we had a truce with The Covenant?”. That’s literally swept under the rug, for the game barely gives context to the greater story. I eventually put together the pieces by reading extended fiction on the Internet, but it’s poor storytelling to rely on narrative the average fan isn’t familiar with.
So yes, if you read the Halo books and are familiar with the greater fiction, there’s a great story to be told in Halo 4. But it relies on all that extra stuff too much, making me go, “Huh?”, after most cutscenes. Even the biggest supporting character, Lasky, meets up with with John acting like they’re old friends. Thankfully, I was introduced to Lasky during the mini-series, “Forward Unto Dawn”. Anyone that didn’t watch that will be totally lost at what this new character is all about. Jennifer Hale even plays a new Spartan character. This is the first time we see John and another Spartan in frame together and she barely has any dialog, it’s frustratingly annoying.
With that said, the Cortana story arc is interesting enough to keep things moving forward. It’s refreshing to see John have more of a role in the story. Halo 3 ultimately wrote itself in a corner to force the next game to go into new territory. While Halo 4 does introduce new foes and locations, it never goes far enough with it. Much of the game still revolves around fighting Covenant in the same manner that we’ve done half a dozen times before.
Overall, I had a great time with the campaign. The messy introduction of the antagonist and new faction is a huge bummer, but doesn’t bog down the experience enough to make it a terrible Halo game. The production values make Halo 4 easily one of the best looking and sounding games this generation. The gunplay is exciting and co-op on Legendary with a friend is as rewarding as ever. There isn’t any evidence of a greater conflict going on like in Halo: Reach, but the conflict you see in front of you is awe-inspiring. You will be hard-pressed to find a better-playing shooter campaign this year. Halo 4 ultimately does what Halo does best. It supplies the Halo-style combat in the best form it has ever been.
Along with The Covenant foes, are the Prometheans. With their origin story being a major plot point, I’ll leave that detail alone but rest assure that these beings are very different from Covenant. Different, doesn’t necessarily translate to better or more interesting. While not as awful as the Flood, the Promethean levels are clearly the weakest segments of the game. The “combat puzzle” that makes a Halo game is lost with the Prometheans, for they simply just run at you or engages from a distance. The most common enemy amongst their ranks is a robotic dog that just charges at you without utilizing any real tactics other than annoying you to death. What makes the Covenant great is the crafty AI and the colorful personality of the grunts. The Prometheans are largely forgettable and aren’t even artistically interesting.
With a new faction, comes a “new” foray of weaponry. The Promethean weapons are a literal translation from the Covenant weapons. The pistol for instance can be charged to shoot a large bolt of energy that takes out enemy shields. Sound familiar? Everything from the rifles to machine guns fire almost identically to the Covenant weapons, this is salt on the wound to my criticism of the story not going far enough for a new Halo. Thankfully, the Covenant and Human weapons are fun to use and are the best examples of weaponry across all the Halo games. All the guns have a great kick to them and sound deadly, making the combat even more rewarding. There aren’t a lot of cases when I was bummed out with a gun I had to use and even the Needler takes its rightful place as the most badass weapon in the game’s arsenal.
Halo: Reach introduced the popular Firefight mode, but that has been replaced with a half-baked mode, Spartan Ops. While the CG cutscenes are pretty, the story isn’t much to show off. The gameplay itself feels very generic and somehow makes the exciting Halo combat boring. It never ties itself to the greater fiction enough and generally just plants you in a familiar area with reused assets from singleplayer then tells you to shoot dudes for about 15 minutes. We’re supposed to get a new episode every week, the first 10 weeks being free. As impressive and ambitious that sounds, it just seems like 343 are chasing a bulletpoint. There isn’t a lot of care or creativity given to this mode so I can’t imagine this being in the mindset of players come week 10.
The real thing that’ll keep people coming back is the expertly crafted multiplayer. While you won’t find anything especially new, it’s the level of polished treatment that reminds you why Halo is one of the biggest shooters in the first place. There’s the standard foray of modes, but instead of just hitting “Objective”, you can specify if you want to play Capture the Flag, Oddball, and so on. Bungie was strongly against adding any sort of progression system to Halo, but 343 adding this mechanic hasn’t changed the multiplayer for better or worse. The customizations boils down to you picking a weapon loadout and special abilities like a Jetpack, Active Camo, and faster reload times. You aren’t getting special kill streaks or customizing optics, it’s all pretty basic, but without this mechanic at all might have made Halo 4 feel a little hollow for 2012 shooter standards. In place of crazy killstreaks seen in other shooters, you’ll be able to call in supply drops. The game will give you a seemingly random option of weapons or power ups like overshields, but once again probably isn’t enough to change the multiplayer to scare away hardcore Halo fans and might be too basic to bring in a lot of your Call of Duty players.
I had an absolute blast with multiplayer. Once again, like the singleplayer, I was disappointed with how safe 343 Industries played it with the multiplayer. At the end of the day, Halo still needs to be Halo, but this is a new trilogy that’ll probably be finding most of its days on a new generation Xbox. I think it’s time to shake things up a bit. There were still a lot of great multiplayer shenanigans like my Warthog driver taking me through a man-cannon only to be shot down mid-air by an enemy Banshee. The multiplayer announcer still annunciates every word he says in hilarious fashion to boot. How much you enjoyed previous Halo multiplayer will directly translate to how much you will enjoy Halo 4 multiplayer. It’s all really tight and well made. I’ll probably be returning to the multiplayer for a while.
There are definitely lesser games in the Halo franchise, but Halo 4 certainly isn’t the best entry. But its problems with fiction handling is probably the result of them having a fantastic narrative behind a curtain, I simply felt teased throughout the campaign. That isn’t to say the whole campaign is a dud, the gameplay is fun and the Covenant AI is as devious as ever. I was simply expecting this new trilogy to take advantage of a post-Halo 3 world. While the shooter landscape certainly won’t be shaken up with Halo 4 on Xbox Live, the multiplayer is as well polished and entertaining as anything Bungie has turned out.