Review: “Halo 4″

Halo 4 Cover

Xbox is the house that Master Chief built, so perhaps it was naive to hope that developer Bungie’s final Halo title, Reach, would actually conclude the series. Reach was one of the strongest games in the franchise.  The fact that the game ends in humanity’s defeat makes Reach an interesting counterpoint to Master Chief’s heroics and I think it would have made an excellent last chapter.

But, a few years pass, and Microsoft moves Halo development in-house with a new division called 343 Studios and cooks up an excuse to get Master Chief out of space-sleep and back into action. Bungie was an independent developer that was purchased by Microsoft but then the two later split, and Microsoft kept Halo in the divorce. 343 Studios updated the original Halo for an anniversary rerelease, which served as a a warm-up prior to building this all-new Halo sequel.

I am on record as an unabashed supporter of this franchise, and even though I’m going to pick Halo 4 apart pretty thoroughly, I still liked it, and I’d be lying if I pretended I was terribly upset about the fact that Microsoft has decided to stay in the Master Chief business. Because so much of the experience of playing a video game is about non-story aspects like level design, I don’t think that big-budget video game sequels are perfectly analogous to to big-budget movie sequels. Each iteration of Halo is, at its core, a series of puzzles strung together by a loose narrative framework. So if the puzzles continue to be strong, and the brain trust at Microsoft can come up with a reasonable justification for proceeding through the puzzles, then why not carry on?

Unfortunately, I think the level design is weaker than in previous titles, and the story is a bit arbitrary, suggesting that Master Chief might have been better off sleeping a bit longer.

New look. Same game.

Set several years after the events of Halo 3, Halo 4 involves a confusing conflict between humans and an alien named Didact. Didact is a Forerunner, the name given to the ancient race that built the Halos–giant space-weapons used to defend against a zombie-like infestation called the Flood. I didn’t know that any Forerunners were still around and never got a satisfying explanation for exactly what Didact was, how he managed to survive so long, or why he wanted to kill all humans.

I think Halo 4 compares unfavorably to the plot of the earlier titles. In the first games, a religious sect united a number of different alien races in an uneasy alliance against Earth. Starting in Halo 2, we were introduced to interesting distinctions between the different Covenant forces, and even spent a good part of the game playing as a Covenant character. Halo 3 ends with humans and one of the Covenant races fighting side-by-side. It wasn’t the strongest of stories, but I appreciated that the human-versus-aliens conflict actually was born out of political dynamics within the alien coalition, more so than any specific (or unspecific) beef with Earth.

Perhaps I give the writers too much credit, but I saw this plotting as a reflection of how wars actually take place. The US war in Afghanistan is not a result of some diabolical hatred of Afghans. It’s just that Afghanistan stands in the way of certain aspirations held by powerful Americans. The diabolical hatred comes later, as a cover. Why should an alien attack on Earth be any different?

Halo 4, though, is just about how Didact wants to murder everyone, using a weapon called the Composer that reconstitutes humans as digital computer-monster things. There may be more to it; apparently I’m failing to fulfill my duty as a Halo fan by only playing all the games repeatedly and not reading comic books and watching videos that are supposed to fill me in on extra arcana. In any event, I found various developments confusing and arbitrary.

In addition to not really understanding exactly who or what Didact is, I never understood why I found myself fighting the Covenant again at the start of the game. After all, Master Chief’s most recent memory upon waking is of saving the galaxy with a big assist from Covenant forces. A little odd to be killing them quite so quickly, isn’t it? Master Chief, though, is less curious than I am. Muddying things further, we first see the Covenant fighting against Didact’s forces, but later on they team up for reasons unclear.

Four games in, 343 Studios decided that it was perhaps time to try to flesh out the Master Chief character a little. They didn’t try very hard, and didn’t succeed very much. Their main attempt at conjuring up some sympathy is to explain early on that Master Chief’s helpful sidekick/digital lady Cortana is going crazy because AIs only last seven years, which I guess is some kind of computer science version of the seven year itch, only even less plausible. It amuses me that computers in science fiction are almost always both smarter and dumber than computers in real life.

“I’m sad because my brain wore out.”

It’s kind of neat that Cortana starts to lose it, but Master Chief is so stoic that it’s hard to take his concern for her seriously. He manages to look at least a bit introspective at the end, or at least as introspective as a guy with a face-obscuring mask and a tendency for long silences can appear. It’s a start, I suppose, but did we really need to wait four games for this guy to maybe feel a feeling? Master Chief is the archetypal video game silent hero, but the archetype already feels dated. Games like Mass Effect have leapfrogged Halo in terms of storytelling by letting their heroes speak.

Halo 4 begins with an intriguing sequence that reveals that Spartan soldiers like Master Chief were trained essentially as super cops to combat internal dissent. Fascinating! But ultimately empty, considering Master Chief’s lack of character development. The final cutscenes suggest that Halo 5 may reveal more about Master Chief’s psyche. How exciting! It will only have taken five games and three different incarnations of the Xbox to figure out, for instance, if “Chief” is a rank or if his name is actually John Chief. (That’s a joke. His last name is 117, I guess.)

I will now use this review to complain about one of my absolute least favorite lazy story tropes: the worthless, rule-following, risk-averse boss that nearly ruins everything by following the rules. Shortly after Master Chief awakes, he tries to get in contact with those onboard a nearby Earth ship called Infinity. Infinity is commanded by a Captain Del Rio, who might as well just be “Captain Shitty Police Chief Who Always Wants to Follow the Rules,” because that’s his exact character, from every cop movie about a loose canon who doesn’t go by the book but gets results, dammit! (Note: This is every cop movie. There: we saved you from ever having to watch a cop movie again.)

Del Rio doesn’t believe Master Chief and his crazy AI when they tell him that Didact is a dangerous threat. I hate this kind of lazy writing. It’s a side conflict that isn’t really a conflict, because as soon as it’s introduced, we know how it will be resolved. Master Chief will just go off on his own and do Master Chief stuff.

While there is still some great level design in Halo 4, I found a lot of moments repetitive and less visually interesting than in previous games. Too much of the game is spent in weird, metallic alien interiors that serve no clear purpose beyond being a place to fight. It’s a bad sign in a game with a multiplayer component when you play through the single-player campaign and you’re aware of when you’ve stepped into a landscape that will be recycled as a multiplayer arena.

Previous Halo games did a good job of hiding the fact that you’re doing the same thing again and again by mixing up the landscapes and hiding patterns. I can think of a number of sections in Halo 3, for instance, that I’d happily pick up and play again. I am unlikely to replay the Halo 4 campaign anytime soon, because so much of it felt repetitive.

Halo 4 does introduce some new game modes, with mixed results. In two sections, you pilot a robot suit called a Mantis, which I thoroughly enjoyed. You also briefly get to fly a Pelican, a ship featured in earlier games, but this section is unremarkable. You also pilot a ship called a Broadsword in what is, to me, the absolute worst section of the Halo franchise.

Perhaps I’m just biased against flying a plane in a first-person shooter, since I’m always skeptical of games that suddenly insist on making you use an entirely different set of skills to advance. But I just smashed that damn Broadsword constantly. The Broadsword mission cribs heavily from the end of the original Star Wars, which sounds like it would be fun. Only it’s not, because the mission is basically impossible. The turns are so sharp and at such a speed that I doubt any human being could make it through without quite a few smash-ups. You’re given so little reaction time that the only way to pass through is to crash a few times so that you know what’s up ahead and can avoid it; I don’t think that it’s possible to react fast enough without relying on a certain degree of memorization.

The Mantis is fun, but all giant robot suits are fun.

Halo 4 introduces some changes to its multiplayer options, but not enough to interest anyone who doesn’t already love multiplayer Halo. There are some nice tweaks, like occasional weapons bonuses, but the matchmaking lobby is still about the same basic mayhem.

One nice change, though, is the addition of a game mode called “Spartan Ops” which allows players to play cooperatively on select missions. These missions are really just snippets of the main campaign slightly repackaged, but I find cooperative modes to be a more relaxing multiplayer choice, particularly when playing with friends rather than strangers. Unfortunately, Spartan Ops replaces “Firefight,” the mode in which you and some friends could face wave after wave of enemies. Spartan Ops is a fun game mode, but if I had to pick between it and Firefight, I’d pick Firefight.

In summary, Halo stayed strong through an impressive number of  sequels, and though Halo 4 has a great deal in common with its predecessors, its story is uninspired and adjustments to online play are a mix of incremental improvements and disappointments.

Halo 4 is available for Xbox 360.

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