Halo 4: This isn’t Bungie’s Halo anymore – it’s better
Note: Due to the number of changes made in Halo 4 from previous titles, both in campaign and multiplayer, our review has been split into two. This article focuses on the story of Halo 4 and its campaign mode. You can read our Halo 4 multiplayer review her
The Halo franchise tells the story of a man becoming a machine and a machine becoming human. There are explosions, religious analogues, alien zombies, and gunfights spread on top, but at its core, the story has always revolved around the dynamic between Spartan 117 and his AI companion, Cortana.
Master Chief has been, by and large, a blank slate. He has historically shown very little depth to his personality, opting instead to spout action hero one-liners like, “Thought I’d try shooting my way out; mix things up a little.” When you think about it, it’s been Cortana, a computer program, who has shown the most personality and reflected the most “human” characteristics. Chief is more or less her operating platform.
Halo 4 is playing for large stakes, and of course you’ll be asked to save the world in the course in the game. The more interesting question, and what often seems to be the more pressing threat, is what would happen were Chief to lose Cortana. He promises not to let anything happen to her. “Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep,” she responds. An AI construct can look very lost and scared indeed.
There is a lot of story going on in Halo 4, and it would be impossible to describe just how grand and far-reaching the various plot arcs are without spoiling anything. I’ve tried to keep spoilers not only to a minimum, but limited to questions and situations players could or already have figured out.
There is an introductory cinematic at the prologue of Halo 4 that shows a man interrogating Catherine Halsey, creator of the Spartan-IIs – cybernetically-enhanced super soldiers like Master Chief – and the MJOLNIR armor so familiar to fans of the Halo universe. The man speaks to the sociopathic tendencies of the Spartans. “Do you believe the Master Chief succeeded because he was, at his core, broken?” he asks.
I won’t say whether or not that question is answered by the end of the campaign, or who the man questioning Halsey is. The fact that the question is even being asked speaks volumes to where 343 Industries is taking the Halo franchise. That Master Chief could be not just less than perfect, but a mentally unbalanced tool of violence, is a daring one for Halo 4 to ask.
At the same time, Cortana is beginning to experience rampancy, a state of decay in the core logic of an AI system. It’s a complex, convoluted piece of lore, but the important thing is that Cortana is losing control of herself, and will soon think herself to death. Just like Blade Runner’s replicants, Cortana and constructs like her where only designed to operate for a set amount of time. Combine these two problematic questions – is Chief just a killing machine who happens to be on our side and will Cortana succumb and perish – and you have a recipe for serious personal level drama that progresses alongside the apocalyptic events that take place on Requiem, the Forerunner planet seen at the end of Halo 3.
The story progresses at a smooth pace, with a total of eight missions. That sounds short, but remember that Halo: Reach had ten missions, while Halo 3 had nine. They’re not as varied as Halo 3: ODST was, but they still provide a lot of landscapes on which to do battle. There are opportunities to pilot vehicles that haven’t been seen before, to team up with other humans stranded on Requiem, and even call in rail cannon artillery against high-priority targets.
Master Chief can also utilize modules like players could in Reach, and these will change how you play through a level as well. You can be given a floating turret, or the ability to see enemies through walls. The game plays differently in single player than it does in co-op in the campaign, and the game’s difficulty rating also changes how you play. There are skulls that change different aspects of the game as well, increasing the replay value. The skulls are unlocked by default, allowing you to tweak certain aspects of the game and enjoy the fun right off the bat.
You’ll move from battleground to battleground, choosing how to attack and progress through each one. You might find a group of enemies defending the entrance to a Forerunner building, for example. You look around and see that you can sneak under a ledge to the left, take cover behind a rock in the center, or take the high ground to the right. It’s not a sandbox, but it’s a far cry from being a linear corridor shooter.
The new emphasis on story and character aren’t the only updates; 343 has made major shifts in approaching the game’s cinematics and set-pieces. Naughty Dog has set a high bar for character interaction by having real, flesh and blood actors move about and interact with one another on constructed sets, as in a film. Halo 4 introduces this production technique to the Halo franchise with impressive results.
Character movements are natural and feel weighted, while realistic facial expressions add a new dimension to the emotion of a scene. The motion capture actors aren’t the characters’ voice actors, but it seems that the two have complemented each other superbly. There is a scene where a superior officer orders Chief to give up Cortana after she has an emotional outburst, and you can feel the tension in the room. There is a sense of pathos and fear to the game, especially in Cortana’s voice acting and motion capture, that we haven’t seen in past games. Halo 4 is better for it.
The graphics are fantastic, and that’s obvious from the get-go as you see small flakes of ice float through the derelict ship Chief and Cortana are stranded on. What has not been shown thus far is how important wide horizons and awe-inspiring vistas are to each of Halo 4‘s levels. In some areas I felt like there had to be some trick to how good the game looked, or we were seeing a pre-rendered sequence. But no, the game just looks that good. The enemy designs and emphasis on the heads-up display, showing you the world as if you’re looking out through a helmet, almost lends the game a Metroid vibe. It’s not an unwelcome addition.
As you exit a cave, the sun beams fade to reveal massive Forerunner architecture. As you battle across the outer hull of the ship Forward Unto Dawn, you’ll see Requiem’s massive shadow looming across the void of space. Each massive scene does an excellent job of capturing the feeling that Master Chief is a small player in a huge conflict.
The characters have well-written dialogue, but there’s very little context and set-up for much of what’s said. If you want to know who’s who, what’s what, and why’s why, you’ll want to study up on expanded universe material like The Forerunner Saga by Greg Bear. This could be an issue for less-invested players, as I found myself explaining important plot points to Ben as we played through the game together. He had played the previous games, but had not read the books, and was often lost by the plot.
You can also slow down and explore each environment; finding a computer panel might play back a log of Halsey’s experiments with Cortana, investigating the wreckage of a Covenant ship will explain how long the Covenant have been around, and accessing terminals will give more backstory on the Forerunners, the Mantle, the Flood, and ancient human civilizations. It’s highly suggested you take the time to search out this material; if you don’t bother to spent time with the terminals and haven’t read the books, you stand more than a fair chance of being confused by the events in the game. It’s a shame the story and background can’t be introduced more organically.
Franchise Director Frank O’Connor and Creative Director Josh Holmes have stated multiple times that they didn’t want to take Halo down a super-serious path; that they still wanted to retain the bigger-than-life action and feelings of being a badass space marine. There will be plenty of people who play this as a straight-up action game, but I’d rather 343 continue on the path of a more serious and thoughtful story. Like Assassin’s Creed 3, Halo 4 places emphasis the relationships between characters as well as the action. This is a very pleasant trend.
Sounds like a plan
Visuals aren’t the only thing to get an overhaul; the sound has been altered significantly from previous Halo games. Voice acting is more dynamic and the actors give a much larger breadth of emotions with their performances. Guns sound beefier and heavy, as though each bullet was designed to tear through a tank. And then there’s that score by Neil Davidge.
The music of Halo, as created by Martin O’Donnell has always been powerful and instantly recognizable. That music is not here. There is one, brief moment where you experience the familiar chant, but otherwise the music has been taken in a brand new direction. It works beautifully, and there will be times you might not want to progress just so you can focus on the soundtrack.
The tracks “Nemesis,” “To Galaxy,” “117,” and “Green and Blue” are particularly well-done, and while they may not be as hummable as O’Donnell’s work, they significantly add to the scenes in which they play. You can buy the soundtrack on iTunes, and it’s worth listening to even without the context of the game.
There’s a common principle that can be shared across visual and sound design: a good game creates something interesting and forces you to look at it, while a great game creates something so interesting you want to experience it. Halo 4 doesn’t take the camera away from you to say “Look! Look at this big, cool thing! Isn’t it big and cool?!” It just shows you big and cool things and lets you choose when to look and interact. There is a confidence in the amazing scenes it places in front of the player, and the environments and situations are often fantastic without being unbelievable.
Just getting started
343 Industries was handed one hell of a ball with the Halo franchise, and it wouldn’t have been surprising had they tried to get away with a rote game in a known universe. This is a series that prints money and has a strong, dedicated fanbase that likely would’ve been happy with more of the same.
It takes a lot of guts to put this much of yourself into a property this well known, but 343 didn’t shy away from the challenge. This is a bold new look and feel for the Halo franchise. The storytelling is more layered, the combat and characters sound better, the graphics have been updated and overhauled, and the plot offers many amazing and unforgettable moments.
If you were curious about 343’s ability to pull this off, to make Halo 4 as good as Bungie’s games, here’s your answer: Halo 4 is not as good as Reach or Halo 3. It’s better. Wake up. Cortana needs you.