Once upon a time – the year 2001, to be precise – Halo was just a sci-fi shoot-em-up video game that a lot of people loved. So many people, in fact, that the folks who created the Xbox blockbuster Halo: Combat Evolved made more Halo games. No surprise there.
But then Halo spawned novels. And comic books. And toys. And clothing. And fast food cross-promotions. And animated shorts. And a live-action web series. And almost – almost! – a feature film produced by The Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson.
Today, Halo is a pop-culture juggernaut that’s grown far beyond its humble origin as a first-person shooter pitting a lone soldier against purple-blooded aliens. It’s a universe with a backstory as deep and complex as any sci-fi film franchise, with an emerald-armoured hero nearly as recognizable as Mario or Batman.
Which brings us to the problem with the much-anticipated Halo 4, available Tuesday for the Xbox 360. Namely, Halo 4 is still just a video game. A game that is carrying an entire multi-headed, multimedia universe on its shoulders. And buckling a bit under the sheer weight of it.
The first new Halo game since 2010’s Halo: Reach, and the first game to cast players as cybernetic super-soldier Master Chief since 2007’s Halo 3, Halo 4 marks a passing of the torch from series creators Bungie Studios to Microsoft-owned 343 Industries, the new overseers of all things Halo.
The game picks up roughly five years after the events of Halo 3, which saw Master Chief and his curiously sexy A.I. hologram Cortana adrift on a crippled spaceship, having resorted to catastrophic measures to stop an intergalactic plague. When their ship is attacked by the alien Covenant, Cortana rouses Master Chief from his cryogenic sleep, and the two find themselves in an eerily familiar scenario: crash-landing on a massive, unexplored alien world.
On this planet, known as Requiem – created (I think?) by the Forerunners, an ancient alien race central to Halo’s sometimes bafflingly complex mythology – they encounter the Didact, a powerful Forerunner warrior and Halo 4’s chief villain. Who says things like, “You will relent, human, or you will perish,” with a straight face.
The Didact has it in for mankind, and it’s up to Master Chief and Cortana to pursue him across Requiem (and later, the galaxy) to foil his plans, assisted by the allied forces of the massive starship UNSC Infinity, which also crash-lands on the planet. Gravity is a law that one does not trifle with.
Complicating all this is Cortana’s descent into a form of A.I. insanity that will ultimately lead to her death, something Master Chief wants to prevent at all costs. Because she’s his girlfriend. Sort of.
The stakes, clearly, are high. But Halo 4 often feels like a game getting in the way of a story, rather than a story being served by a game.
That’s the fundamental problem with first-person shooters: they are a terrible medium for telling a good yarn. When your sole means of interacting with the world around you is through guns, grenades and fists, story has to be doled out in dialogue and cinematic cutscenes. And whether it’s because Halo 4’s mythology is so convoluted or the writing just isn’t that sharp, the game and the story feel like they’re constantly butting heads.
With revamped visuals that make it the best-looking game in the series, Halo 4’s environments range from cavernous alien structures to sprawling Earth-like landscapes to the interior of the Infinity herself. Yet most sections of the game play out more or less the same: Cortana slaps down a bunch of waypoints on your heads-up display and tells you to deactivate three flux combobulator carrier wave pylons to deharmonize the shield vanderwookies so you can destroy the plasma energy galoopatrix and proceed to the next area.
And you do it. A lot of the time you don’t know exactly what you’re doing or why, but you go from Point A to Point B, marvel at the scenery and shoot anything that moves. Because that’s Halo.
Microsoft has touted the game as being more focused on mystery, exploration and discovery than the previous installments in the series. What this boils down to is slightly larger, less linear environments which sometimes require a bit of stumbling around in to trigger the next objective.
Discovery? Debatable. And mystery? Well, in the sense the plot is so steeped in dense backstory that it’s difficult to follow without a wiki, Halo 4 is certainly mysterious. And yet when Master Chief and Cortana first crash-land on Requiem, they seem completely unfazed by the fact they’re on an uncharted world encased inside an incomprehensibly massive alien-made sphere. After five years in cryo-sleep, it’s just another day at the office.
I don’t blame 343 Industries for sticking close to the playbook with this, their first installment in a new Halo trilogy. Had they gone too far afield, fans would have cried bloody murder.
But I feel they erred on the side of playing it too safe. There are only so many ways you can drop a bunch of toys into a sandbox – guns, vehicles, aliens and a big dude in green armour – and come up with fresh experiences.
And there have been lots of sandboxes already in the Halo series.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of cool new stuff here. Such as an entirely new race of aliens, called Prometheans, who have their own unique arsenal and abilities. Each Promethean and each new gun does have a rough analog to an existing Halo alien and weapon – the Promethean Knights are like Covenant Elites, the Binary Rifle is like the UNSC sniper rifle, the airborne Watchers are like an even more annoying version of those goddamn flying bug-things from Halo: Reach – but it’s nice to have some new faces to shoot and new toys to shoot them with.
And there are a handful of set-piece moments in Halo 4 that rank among the franchise’s best, including piloting a Ghost hoverbike in a mad dash across crumbling, collapsing terrain, doing a white-knuckle Death Star-style trench run in a fighter ship and the game’s penultimate chapter aboard a research station, which strikes a perfect balance between tense corridor shooting and wide-open, choose-your-own-tactics spaces. Stomping on squealing Covenant Grunts in the towering Mantis robo-mech is deeply satisfying.
But if you’re not a diehard fan who understands every single reference and character backstory and mysterious Forerunner glyph, Halo 4 feels like little more than a well-executed but overly familiar Halo game. And for all the talk of exploring the bond between the Chief and his artificial galpal Cortana, their relationship still fails to resonate. Even in the game’s final moments, punctuated by acts of sacrifice, I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of emotion. And I’m the guy who got teary-eyed when Dom bit the dust in Gears of War 3.
For many fans, Halo 4’s online multiplayer component will be more important than the story-based campaign mode, and these folks shouldn’t be disappointed. Presented as simulated battles aboard the UNSC Infinity, Halo 4’s so-called War Games mode has 10 new and well-designed maps, and some of the new game types – including the tense, tactical Extraction mode and the absolutely chaotic Griffball, a lethal form of rugby – are a ton of fun. (A personal gripe, though: what happened to Assault mode, or single-flag Capture the Flag?) Also new to Halo 4 is the ability to purchase character enhancements and upgrades through points earned in competition, but this doesn’t unbalance the game as much you might think. Rather, it lets players customize their virtual warriors to specific play styles, and carry them over into the new Spartan Ops mode as well.
Unfortunately, Spartan Ops is not nearly as intriguing as it sounded on paper. It’s a great idea – a weekly in-game CGI series following a group of soldiers aboard the Infinity, which then funnels into five bite-sized playable missions – but the missions, at least in first episode, boil down to “go back to this area that you visited during the campaign and kill a massive swarm of bad guys. And good luck if you try it without some co-op companions, sucker.”
All these minor swipes at Halo 4 might seem nitpicky, but when we’re talking about one of the most recognizable game franchises of this generation, expectations are very high. Even my mom knows what Halo is, and the only video game she’s ever played is Wii Sports.
If what you want from Halo 4 is a polished, familiar but not particularly innovative shooter – and that’s exactly what some fans crave – you will be happy. If you’ve enjoyed Halo multiplayer in the past, you will probably be happy. If you’re not expecting too much from Spartan Ops, you might be sort of almost somewhat happy.
But despite how great Halo 4 looks and sounds, and how much time and energy and love and money has gone into in its creation, there’s something slightly empty about the experience as a whole.
The game will still remain in my Xbox 360 for many months, as I replay the campaign on higher difficulty settings, enjoy the insanely fun online component and hope for Spartan Ops to get better with each new weekly installment.
But there’s definitely room for improvement with the inevitable Halo 5 and Halo 6. And lots of fights left to finish.