Videogames were changed forever when Bungie released Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001. In that seminal release, the world met Spartan II cyborg Master Chief as he is awakened from cryo sleep to fight against the alien Covenant. We also met Cortana, the AI that would accompany Chief and become the voice in his ear as he fights. Among many of its revolutionary ideas was its holy trinity of combat that mapped guns, grenades and melee onto an intuitive control scheme that provided a deep and flexible options and allowed players access to large maps and vehicles. As the series progressed, it implemented a suite of online features and pared down gameplay into tighter design. At the end of Halo 3, Master Chief re-entered cryo sleep aboard the UNSC’s Forward Unto Dawn as it drifts aimlessly through space with Cortana watching over him. The trilogy complete, Bungie flexed their creative muscles on Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, two games that would expand the structure with new modes and matchmaking options.
Halo 4 is the first game in the Reclaimer Trilogy created by 343 Industries, a group hand selected to continue the legacy after Bungie passed the reigns. It’s a title that recognizes the series strengths and proves that 343 is more than capable of emulating Bungie’s design and making an excellent feeling Halo game, even if that same skill is lacking in the surrounding elements.
The campaign opens with homage; Cortana wakes Chief from his slumber as the Dawn has drifted into a Covenant armada just out of the Forerunner planet Requiem’s orbit. In her years of isolation, the A.I. has started to become rampant, a state of self-destruction that AI’s begin to suffer seven years after their creation. A minute in, Master Chief is fighting through a squad of enemies comprised of classic Halo enemies with his traditional weapons. The story proper starts on Requiem’s surface when Chief releases the ancient Forerunner general Didact from his imprisonment. The Didact is interesting for the Halo series as the first real antagonist face we’ve ever seen. Until this moment, we’d only had the concepts of the covenant and flood as enemy forces.
And with him come an army of new enemies to accompany the returning staples. Named the Prometheans, these new foes represent the most dramatic additions to the staid Halo gameplay. The most basic unit comes in the form of the tiny Crawlers who can traverse any surface and jump dozens of feet in the air. Easy to defeat individually, these pack hunters become a threat in large numbers and are destroyed in satisfying little explosions if shot in the head (fans of the Grunt Birthday Party skull rejoice). They are often accompanied by Knights, metal warriors who teleport into and out of the fray with a variety of weapons and devastating melee attack. As warriors, they’re not too dissimilar from Elites. The Knights deploy Watchers, flying drones that act as modifiers for the other units, spawning packs of crawlers, generating shields to protect allies and throwing your grenades back at you. None of these enemies have particularly deep behavior but it’s in how they all work together that makes them interesting to fight.
With the new enemies came new weapons but despite having well balanced firearms and varied overall selection the pool is largely redundant to what came before- every faction has a pistol, precision rifle, machine gun and rocket launcher equivalent. In fact, with the exception of the Needler, there aren’t any standout or particularly inventive weapons that had filled the series thus far. Bullet damage and clip size has been modified so that every shot is powerful but requires you to drop your gun and grab another. Every shot has an impressive report and powerful kick, adding a strong sense of physicality to the gunplay. Armor abilities return as well and give Chief a decent amount of perceptual and traversal advantages. Thankfully, you can now sprint without requiring a pickup, increasing the overall speed of the gameplay.
With those tools, you’ll be fighting through some of the most beautifully rendered levels you’re likely to have seen. The size and scope of the environmental designs are truly staggering with large vistas, densely packed interiors and full, saturated colors. With their distinct aesthetics, every level has complex map design properly built to facilitate the dynamic combat that separates Halo from other first person shooters. On the higher difficulties, the brilliance of the maps becomes more obvious as you’re forced to scavenge for weapons and explore the terrain for any advantage you can get against the packs of highly capable enemies.
The overall progression varies up the pacing so that you’re never stuck doing any one thing for too much time and despite Halo 4 continuing the series tradition of incredibly long levels, they never turn into a test of endurance. Whether it’s ripping a turret from its mount and cutting a swathe through your foes, laying waste with the new Metal Gear Rex-esque Mantis armored mech or escorting the massive UNSC Mammoth transport down a desert ravine, the thoughtful pacing makes it easier to accept the fact that the game doesn’t really offer up content that hasn’t already existed in one form or another.
What 343 built instead is an experience that refines all Halo’s individual parts that not even Bungie had managed before. The enemy’s health and shields have been adjusted so they can no longer take two rockets to the face on legendary and the weapons are useful in specific engagements but require players to be smart about how and when they’re used. It’s tuned to perfection. Therein lies their greatest accomplishment- they were not only able to emulate the core of one of the most gameplay rich franchises in videogames, but tighten up every aspect.
There’s little doubt that Halo 4 pushes the aging Xbox 360 hardware. But the game had to make some important gameplay concessions to account for it. In order to keep the memory in check, Halo 4 regularly seals doors behind you and often just removes dropped weapons from the floor altogether. For a design as heavily dependent on weapon procurement as Halo’s is, this changes up some of its strategy since you’ll find yourself in situations without the right gun and prohibited from running back to where you last saw it.
Where the gameplay has it successes, the story is a mess in virtually every way. After Chief steps out of his cryo chamber, there’s zero context as to why he’s again fighting Covenant forces when their political structure was destroyed in Halo 3, a game that had the soldier fighting beside the entire race of Elites. As the plot progresses, we are given the kernels of information to the unfolding events but every beat is weakly expressed so that we understand what is happening in the moment to moment mission objectives but don’t clearly grasp how we got there or what will come of our efforts.
In mission 4, we meet up with the UNSC battle ship Infinity who just randomly stumbled onto the Chief’s distress call during a mission. We meet Captain Del Rio, an insufferably irritating man who makes a series of obviously bad decisions and is set on snubbing Master Chief with the aid of every cheap and easy negative ‘Military Man’ cliché you can think of. He’s a jealous, petty, rank pulling, protocol-following bore specifically designed to make us hate him so we can like Commander Lasky in comparison, an otherwise shallowly defined character in his own right, obviously set on being one of Chief’s primary supporters for the trilogy going forward. He’s joined by Sarah Palmer, a no nonsense femme tough burdened with zero personality.
But there’s a problem here: none of them are the slightest bit likeable, even compared to the series cast thus far. That applies to the series new chief enemy as well, a role that is arguably the most important to properly define.
The Didact is a character whose only previous game appearance was relegated to Halo 3’s story terminals. Readers of the expanded fiction know that he has an entire story arc but the only characterization and motivations offered here come from accessing this games terminals and then logging out of the game and into the Halo Waypoint app to view their contents. In this way, Halo 4 commits one of the most unforgiveable sins of story-telling; it hides information crucial to its own plot in secondary sources.
While the setup for what seems to be the Reclaimer Trilogy’s main villain is incredibly vague, ample context is given for Cortana’s descent into rampancy, an arc that is hammered home multiple times in every mission. But it’s not introduced in any meaningful way and has little real bearing on the events of the plot until the final act. The most significant moment in the entire story is exposition that comes half way in and not only completely changes what we know about Master Chief and Cortana but retroactively casts the entire Halo franchise in a new light. It’s awful.
The story lacks skilled application, imagination and authorial courage. With it, Microsoft has finally turned Halo into a soulless content farm where nothing is truly said, no stance actually taken and the all narrative ambition is in the service of guiding their audience further into the Halo brand of books, shows, toys, and other game modes.
And yet their attempts in the latter come across as superfluous as a result. New to Halo 4 is Spartan Ops, an episodic series of missions that pit you against a predetermined set of enemies and infinite lives on maps found in the campaign. An opening cutscene introduces Fireteam Crimson, a motley crew of generic soldiers aboard the Infinity, people you don’t play as and disappear into the backdrop afterwards. The levels themselves lack excitement, rarely requiring you to do more than kill waves of enemies and hit switches in between. What’s strange is that despite the new emphasis on story, the connection between each mission is tenuous at best and copy and paste filler at worst with a spread of reused maps that have you starting at different ends.
However small the story for multiplayer is, Halo 4 provides you some agency over the type of Spartan you want to play, including unlocking weapons and creating loadouts with tactical and support upgrades and armor abilities that you can bring into Spartan Ops and War Games. As you level up and master commendations, you can open cosmetic upgrades to outfit your Spartan with new helmets and armor. These changes give you more customization to promote your own play style than the series has ever seen, replacing the traditional struggle for map control with quicker tactical options.
In many important ways, Halo 4 is Halo 3 made by a new studio. Where Bungie had revolutionized the genre with the original Halo trilogy and worked hard to imbue ODST and Reach with their own identity, 343 has played it safe and made something familiar. Halo 4 is the best playing, looking and sounding entry the franchise has seen yet, but considering that almost every new design decision is so badly constructed or otherwise uninspired, maybe 343 should stick with someone else’s work.
Developer: 343 Industries
Plaform: XBox 360