Someone really needs to cut Master Chief a break.
The guy’s saved humanity more times than I can count, and all it results in is him being sent on progressively crazier missions or being left adrift in the wastes of deep space. That is, if you’ll recall, where we left Master Chief last time, drifting aboard the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn. Conveniently it’s also where we pick up, with Master Chief’s ride under attack from the Covenant.
Enemies Old and New
Yes, the Covenant are back and seem just as determined as ever to kill the poor Chief. If you’ve been following Halo 4 in slightest though you’ll be aware that they’re not the full story, far from it.
No, it’s the Prometheans that are the focus here, so much so that they make the Covenant’s appearance seem odd. They get basically no screen time in the game’s cutscenes, and seem to exist largely to bolster the game’s enemy count. The biggest issue with them though is that their motivations go mostly unexplained, and are only questioned briefly in the first level.
There are similar, minor issues with the story throughout the game. That’s not to say that the overarching plot or writing are bad, in fact the dialogue is some of the best the Halo series has had. It’s just that, occasionally, there are things that seem to be accepted by characters without any questioning. Take the introduction of the SPARTAN-IVs in the game – not only does the Master Chief seem unphased by this new generation, he doesn’t even really ask any questions about them.
There are also issues raised about the behaviour of Andrew Del Rio, the Captain of the UNSC Infinity. It’s easy to explain away some of his stranger decisions, like sending in ground forces with no recon and almost getting them killed, as those of a poor officer but from the first moment he meets Master Chief he treats him with nothing but suspicion and disdain. He doesn’t offer any explanations for this attitude and neither do any of his senior staff.
Yes, he does out rank the Master Chief but it’s worth remembering that the Chief is a decorated war hero who’s largely credited with saving the human race from extinction by the Covenant. That doesn’t mean you always have to listen to his plans, but it also probably means you don’t dismiss him out of hand.
However, despite these issues it’s safe to say the game has an enjoyable plot with enough little turns along the way to keep you interested. If you’ve been following along with the recent Halo books then some of the events are going to have more meaning for you, particularly around the Prometheans (who, if you didn’t know, are part of the Forerunner society), but there’s more than enough for more casual fans of the series to sink their teeth into.
Perhaps it’s unfair to put so much focus on the Prometheans though. That’s not to say that they’re not a focus of the game, but far more interesting is the relationship between Cortana and the Master Chief. While this has certainly been looked at in the past, and Halo 3 in particular gave you some insight into their relationship, Halo 4 really explores and digs into their bond.
This is all spurred forwards by the fact that Cortana is slowly slipping into a kind of madness: the AI state called rampancy. Essentially, artificial intelligences in the Halo universe are created with a lifespan of seven years. This isn’t some morbid safety catch that’s put in by their creators to stop them claiming too much power, it’s simply a flaw in their design.
At the start of Halo 4 Cortana admits that with the four years that the Chief’s spent in cryosleep since the events of Halo 3, she’s been active for eight years now, and is clearly starting to find it hard to keep things together. As the game progresses her condition worsens and it’s genuinely distressing to watch.
It’s almost like watching the decline of someone with alzheimers or dementia. At times she slips back into memories from closer to her creation, seemingly unaware of her current surroundings. At others she lashes out at people that she feels are putting the Master Chief in harm’s way, or at the SPARTAN-IVs for “replacing” him. It’s tragic to watch, and plucks at deep-seated fears that a lot of people share.
There’s a great visual effect to go along with Cortana’s rampancy, with elements of your HUD taking on a red tint and losing clarity as she can’t hold it all together anymore. That same HUD has had some minor updates in the game but the other area that 343 seem to have really played with is the visor itself. For the first time I can remember in a game you genuinely feel like you’re looking out from behind a visor; like the TV is your eyes and sitting just behind the TV screen is a real visor.
It’s the little hints that give this feeling, with things like subtle light blooms adding to it, and it’s not like it’s ever thrown in your face, that would have felt exceptionally weird. It’s just there the whole time, giving you another gentle nudge towards suspension of disbelief.
Variation in the Visuals
It’s unfortunate that this feeling of quality doesn’t extend to the game’s graphics as a whole. They’re certainly not bad, and at times they’re outright beautiful, but they’re just very varied in quality.
Sometimes you get the feeling that the game’s had real work poured into making the environment interesting and deep, at others the textures feel flat and the level geometry feels a bit simple. There are levels that feel great and unique. The scale of the Forerunner structures you encounter is truly breathtaking at points but there are other levels that feel like they could have come directly from earlier Halo games.
Worthy of real praise, though are some of the game’s cutscenes. Again, these feel a bit varied in quality at times but when they’re good they’re simply fantastic. Gone are previous complaints about Halo’s facial animations, even in the poorer cutscenes 343 have fixed the issue. It’s very obvious that they’re mocapping actors at the same time as well, with the acting feeling a lot more nuanced and compelling.
Unfortunately the gameplay hasn’t moved forwards quite as much, in fact there’s one mission that feels like it’s ripped straight from Halo: Reach. It appears at roughly the same point in both games, and both the design and the gameplay feel remarkably similar. It’s still as good as it was in Reach but that’s the point isn’t it? It was already in Reach.
There are other levels that feel fairly new and interesting, though and there’s a stunning sequence towards the end that feels like an homage to the entire Rogue Squadron series. It’s significantly better than the space combat that was on offer in Reach but a lot of the experimentation from both Reach and ODST seems to have been quietly swept away. Perhaps that’s a simple attempt by 343 to make a more traditional Halo game with their first outing, to avoid straying too far from the beaten path, but you can’t help but feel a little disappointed.
- A new chapter in the Halo universe that retains classic Halo touches.
- Fantastic space level that feels like Rogue Squadron.
- Great acting in cutscenes.
- The evolution of Cortana and Master Chief’s relationship is wonderful.
- Will do little to attract new fans.
- Lack of explanation around several minor plot points.
- Whilst probably visually the best in the series, can be variable.
That’s not to say they haven’t added anything. The inclusion of the Mantis (a mech) in the game does help to spice things up and make for some really fun sequences but overall it all just feels a little too familiar.
There’s also the addition of sprint on L3, although this doesn’t really increase the pace of the game all that much. Compared to games like Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty it feels very slow, although it’s quite clearly a deliberate design choice. Realistically, if you hated Halo before there’s not enough here to make you think “Yes, this is the game for me.”
Of course, because it’s still Halo, there’s a little quirk that you should be aware of. The game has a difficulty scale that goes Easy, Normal, Heroic, Legendary. Unless you want a game that’s tiresome with enemy AI that seems near broken then you shouldn’t touch anything below Heroic.
I made this mistake, and was briefly convinced that the Promethean Knights, the toughest class of Promethean in the game, were incredibly stupid and were significantly worse opponents than Covenant Elites. Switching the campaign up to Heroic fixed this in an instant and made the game much more fun because it felt like an actual challenge.
It’s hard to say that Halo 4 is the best entry in the series to date, largely because it’s the start of a new trilogy. It’s simply not going to have the drama of wrapping up the Covenant war in Halo 3, or the pace of the self-contained story in Reach. It also doesn’t have the benefit of being as shiny or new as Halo or Halo 2.
However, even putting those concerns aside, the variability of the game’s graphics and the minor issues with plotting do let it down to some extent. Add to that the fact that there’s little in the game that feels all that fresh, particularly compared with what was tried in ODST and Reach, and Halo 4 just can’t top the list of Halo games.