How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks
Although Halo 4 introduces great new enemies, weapons, and environments, 343 Industries ultimately plays it safe with this new chapter by skillfully iterating on the canonical Halo experience.
One of the most disorienting experiences a critic can have is liking something, but not knowing why. In the context of video games it's an epistemological hazard I usually can avoid, but one series that persistently confounds my critical judgement is Halo.
For example, I've never found myself particularly inspired by Halo's militaristic, technology-driven, human-centric brand of science fiction; I instead prefer games like Mass Effect where you get to explore diverse cultural and sociopolitical relationships between advanced civilizations on a galactic scale, and also have sex with aliens. When it comes to competitive multiplayer, I usually opt for something like the deliberate, hyper-violent, highly strategic combat of Gears of War, which makes Halo and its floaty ragdoll physics look like NBA 2K13 by comparison. And in terms of protagonists, I pretty much prefer anybody to the Master Chief, a character so lacking in charisma he makes Gordon Freeman seem like George Clooney.
However, despite all my arguments to the contrary, I really do like Halo. Perhaps it's all those weapons, scattered around the battlefield with the abundance of dandelions in a glen. Perhaps it's the resulting frenzy of fast-paced combat, which resembles a firefight breaking out at the 2557 NRA national gun show. Perhaps its the panoply of bizarre vehicles, and the unfettered glee that accompanies soaring above the fray in a Banshee. Perhaps I just really like punching diminuitive alien zealots in the face.
Given how poorly I comprehend my affection for the Halo series, it was with some concern that I approached this newest installment. Marking a return to the original storyline after a five year intermission, and serving as the first major development effort by the new stewards of the franchise, Halo 4 could have been the key to unlocking what I find so appealing about these ridiculous games, or it could have been enough of a misstep to finally break their spell over me.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Halo 4 achieved neither of these extremes. Instead, 343 Industries channeled their obvious devotion to the Xbox flagship franchise and delivered an incredibly faithful reproduction of the classic Halo experience. As far as a casual gamer like myself can tell, the fundamentals of the combat are essentially unchanged; other than a dedicated button for short sprinting and fact that the armor ability system of Halo: Reach has been retained, most of the time I felt like I could have been playing any game in the Halo library. (Incidentally, I was a big fan of the Reach ability system, and was psyched to see that the "hologram decoy" makes a triumphant return.) Halo 4 even takes pains to make sure the 10+ hours of single-player campaign include all the requisite gameplay hooks, from the frantic close-combat battles in nondescript futuristic space corridors to the epic clashes of heavy weapons platforms that are really difficult to steer properly.
Unfortunately, Halo 4's commitment to consistency means that a lot of opportunities for innovation are lost. For instance, even though an entire new civilization is introduced—and with it, a wealth of new enemies and technologies—the resulting gameplay changes remarkably little. The new Forerunner weapons reprise the same well-balanced collection of roles already filled by the existing UNSC and Covenant ordnance (e.g. assault rifle, battle rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun), and despite the few novel twists and tricks they throw at you, any new foes you encounter can usually be dispatched with the same old tactics.
I'm not really going to offer a critique of the plot of Halo 4, because frankly the entire mythology of the Halo universe confuses the hell out of me. Over the past 10 years I've managed to grasp that the Master Chief (a.k.a. SPARTAN-II commando John-117) is a biologically-engineered super-soldier whose girlfriend is an artificially intelligent computer program that was modeled after his mother and lives in his head. Also, they've saved the universe a few times. Beyond that I'm fairly lost, so if you're the sort of person who plays these games for the story and you've read this far, I've nothing more to offer than my apologies.
Although the campaign is certainly worth playing, as with past Halo games (and pretty much every other first-person shooter), folks are likely to spend most of their Halo 4 quality time in competitive multiplayer. After haranguing all my regular gaming buddies into dropping a bit of their precious pre-holiday cash on this title (as opposed to, say, Black Ops 2), I supposed I was relieved to find the multiplayer was as conservatively designed and incrementally innovated as the campaign. Of course, this means that while Halo 4 does well what Halo games typically do well (e.g. robust matchmaking and well-balanced competitive combat), it also does poorly what Halo games typically do poorly (right down to the clunky menus and the litany of arcane, poorly-explained game modes). Then again, one of the multiplayer maps is a visually stunning remake of the Halo 3 favorite "Valhalla", so how much can one really complain?
Beyond competitive multiplayer, there's also been a general trend this console cycle towards more cooperative multiplayer game modes in shooters. In terms of quality, they typically range from paragons of game design like Gears of War's "Horde mode" to hokey half-assed pandering like Call of Duty's "zombie mode". Unfortunately, Halo 4's "Spartan Ops" cooperative game mode, which consists of episodic collections of co-op side missions, tends more towards the latter. Most missions are essentially glorified shooting galleries, and since you're free to respawn as much as you like, the primary challenge is how long you're willing to mop up the seemingly endless waves of enemies before you grow too bored to continue. If you're really looking to spend some quality time with your friends murdering aliens instead of one another, then playing the campaign in co-op mode is a much better bet.
In closing, I hate saying that Halo 4 is "basically another Halo game", but no matter how I run the numbers, that's the answer I keep coming up with. In other words, if the whole space marine thing has never really been your cup of tea, then Halo 4 is unlikely to be the game that changes your palate. However, if you're an old-school Halo fan looking to get back in the game or a current Reach regular looking to re-up your multiplayer, then Halo 4 is everything you need it to be, and maybe even a little bit more.