Friday, March 1, 2013

Video Game Review - Halo 4

There are only a few games which have truly become cultural touchstones. There are classics, recognized by virtually everyone, like Tetris, or Pong, there are beloved Nintendo franchises like Mario, which have attained recognition through sheer persistence, having been around for thirty years at this point, and there are juggernauts like World of Warcraft, or Call of Duty which pushed their way into pop culture through sheer numbers sold.

Halo falls into the latter category.

I do not own an Xbox. I have never owned an Xbox. As such, I've sort of missed out on the phenomenon which is the Halo series. I've followed it only through pop culture osmosis, or the occasional hour-long play session messing around in Forge with friends. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself to play through the entirety of the latest installment of the franchise with my cousin, I knew I had to to take advantage of it.

Halo 4, actually the seventh Halo game, picks up after... Well, I wish I could tell you. The game completely lacks a "Previous on Halo" feature to get me caught up on where we are. I know the basics only through the aforementioned pop culture osmosis, Master Chief is a super soldier, Cortana is a sexy blue lady, and the Covenant are bad for... Some reason. I don't know, the game begins with Master Chief coming out of stasis during a Covenant raid, but it's never explained who these strange dinosaur-men are, so I can only assume they're mad at humanity for displaying the bones of their ancestors, instead of providing them proper funerals. In their defense, if some aliens started exhuming my great granddaddy, I'd be a bit peeved too.

I am a bit confused by the presence of Covenant in this game at all, however. I don't know much about Halo, but I am pretty sure that the Covenant were the baddies of the first trilogy, bringing up the question of why there are so many of them in this game. And I mean, it's a lot. Either my knowledge of Halo lore is even worse than I realized, or you didn't quite "finish the fight" in Halo 3 after all.

Anyways, you fight off the Covenant boarding party just in time to get eaten by a giant metal planet of unknown origin. Unknown to me, that is. Cortana throws out the word "Forerunner" briefly, and acts as if I know what that means. To the game's credit, the name is pretty self explanatory; It turns out the Forerunners are basically the Protheans from Mass Effect, or if you'd rather, the Ancients from Stargate.

It might seem like I'm focusing a bit too hard on the lack of any sort of explanation for many plot elements, but I actually do feel that this is one of the game's biggest failings. This is supposed to be the start of a brand new Halo trilogy, created by a new developer, 343 Studios. It should encourage new players to jump in as much as possible, either by focusing on entirely new concepts, or by briefly explaining old concepts to new players through throwaway dialog ("We'll Chief, that looks like a Forerunner planet. They must have built it billions of years ago!") or through a simple "Previously" segment in front of the game.

That said, although I found it a little hard to follow, the story really isn't that bad. It's a perfectly serviceable sci-fi action story most of the time, with the rare glimpse of brilliance. I find the idea of A.I. rampancy (a degenerative condition A.I.s suffer from in the series after 7 years of service) to be especially interesting, and the all-too-rare moments where Cortana seems actually afraid of her fate are some of the best in the game. I do find it kind of funny that one of the first things 343 apparently decided to do with the franchise was to, *ahem*, accentuate certain aspects of Cortana.

I also appreciate the ways in which the game tries to humanize Master Chief. The idea of a super soldier struggling to come to terms with what he is, and whether he is a real person, or just a machine, is handled with an unexpected degree of sensitivity, and his lack of feeling and emotion works extremely well to contrast the story of the actual machine, Cortana, becoming too emotional. I do think that the Cortana rampancy storyline was put there as a pretty obvious set up for Dark Cortana as a villain in one or both of the next two games, but it here it works, so props for that.

The actual villain of this game is kind of lame though, specifically because he seemed to be of the evil for the sake of being evil variety, and didn't really seem to have much defined motivation beyond being generically bad to me. He looked cool though, kind of like Voldemort's more handsome brother. The end of the game, and specifically how you deal with him, are also disappointingly anti-climactic.

On a gameplay level, and mind you I say this as someone who very vocally does not like console shooters in general, Halo 4 controls extremely well. While I personally still find the controller to be too sluggish a method for player versus player combat, for the purposes of a campaign, it is perfectly functional. It moves like you want it to, and the guns are all very satisfying, and feel just powerful enough.

The campaign ran about 8 hours for me, which is a pretty good length for a FPS campaign. Unlike games with a similar length though, such as last year's Spec Ops: The Line, the game doesn't feel too long, and it's always keeping you engaged. There's no fluff. In fact, it's probably taken it a bit too far. In the end, the game actually suffers from a more mild form of the same issue I have with games like the Call of Duty franchise. The game is always set to eleven.

Do you know why Mass Effect has those ship sequences, where you talk to your crew? Yes, it builds characterization, but it's actually more important than just that. By providing you with those quiet moments, the moments where you're just talking to your crew, with no combat, and no action, the game is actually providing you with a moment to sit back, breath, and take in the action moments which just happened. If a game is constantly set to eleven, you get desensitized to it, and each explosion becomes exactly as interesting as the last. In all honesty, it gets boring. By providing you with quiet moments to contrast the big explosions, or epic story beats, it makes those big moments feel much more grand and exciting by comparison. 

Halo 4 has none of those, and at the end of the day, it really hurts it. If this 8 hour game had added another 90 minutes, split throughout the game, which were just quiet character moments as characters run from point A to B, I think that both the action, and he story, would have been much better for it.

I greatly enjoyed my time with Halo 4. I think it is a very well made game, with a decent story. As far as console shooters go, it's one of the better ones out there. While I'd still take a Mass Effect story any day, it's clear that there are, at least, some people at 343 who care about telling a good story in an interesting universe. Consider this game to have my official seal of approval.


  1. There was a lot of expectation of knowledge at the beginning of the game, and not just from the other games but the books, as well. So, optimally, you'd have played Halo 1-3 and read Glasslands and Cryptum before playing 4. ODST, Halo Wars and Reach are pretty stand alone. The other books flesh out what happens around the first trilogy.

    And if you haven't played Spartan Ops yet, do so. Or at least watch the videos that go with each episode.

    1. Unfortunately, since I don't own an Xbox, and my visit with my cousin is now over, my window for Halo-playing has now ended. I will probably go look up those videos though.

      I didn't go in expecting to be an expert on all things Halo, but when you market something as "the start of a new trilogy," I think you should at least make sure the beginning of it establishes the essentials, and doesn't expect you to just know everything there is to know already. I didn't expect to catch every reference, but when whole plot beats mean virtually nothing to me because I don't know what's being referenced, I feel the whole "new trilogy" idea has been screwed up. I feel like should be able to understand the essentials of the game without having played three other games and read two books, I guess.