Given the way Halo 3 ended and that state of the franchise, it’s hard to not find Halo 4 at least a little bit disappointing. The third game ended with the Master Chief adrift in space, heading off to new adventures. Series creator Bungie put out O.D.S.T. and Reach, two fun side stories that basically wrang all the fun out of the war with the Covenant and old-school Halo gameplay. When 343 Industries took over the franchise, it seemed everything way poised for a new direction for Master Chief. But when the game begins, Master Chief is exactly where you left him, rocking his classic assault rifle, and quickly fighting the Covenant again. This game’s aspirations are right in the title, it’s simply Halo 4.
I’ve never been a big fan of the Halo lore. The game’s stories are usually unnecessarily confusing, especially since a lot of the storytelling seems to be done in media outside of the games themselves. That said, I am firmly against people calling Master Chief, ‘John,’ which sadly does happen a few times because it seems this game’s aspiration is to humanize the series’ chief character and his AI buddy Cortana. It turns out that AIs go “rampant,” or crazy, after a certain number of years and Cortana is past that deadline. So, along with fighting off the Covenant and the new aliens they find on the planet they were orbiting, Chief needs to get home to save her from herself.
That central theme is strong, but the rest of the story is confusing, at least to someone who forgets the story between games like I do. There’s lots of talk about Forerunners, Precursors and Prometheans, and I’m not sure I ever really understood what it was the main bad guy was trying to do – or even why they call him what they do. It’s like the meet him, he doesn’t introduce himself, and they all decide to call him a word that I’m not even sure is a real word. Instead of starting with a clean slate, 343 dove right back into the well, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to climb out.
So what’s new? There are three new Promethean enemy types that will join the familiar Covenant species as targets for you to shoot in the head. There are a few new guns, most notably the Promethean ones, which serve as really cool versions of the basic pistol, SMG, assault rifle and sniper rifle. There’s a new mech you can pilot, way more powerful than even a tank. There are some new armor abilities. Not too much, but enough, I reckon.
The campaign is probably about eight hours long on the grown up difficulties, which is fine. It still mostly feels like a Halo game, meaning you follow a strictly linear path, but most of the combat takes place in open arenas where you have more freedom than you would in a lot of modern FPS games. I’ve read that some people felt Heroic, the “true Halo experience” difficulty level, seemed harder this time around, but I was alright with it. Hard enough I wasn’t embarrassed every time I died, easy enough I didn’t die every skirmish. Along with all the shooting there are the requisite vehicle sections, which are neat and keep things a little bit fresh. But honestly, I’m really sick of shooting these same guys. The new enemy types don’t add enough. I’m tired of killing the same aliens that I’ve been killing in these games for the past 11 years.
What I’m not tired of is Halo multiplayer, which has taken a definite Call of Duty influence. Leveling up still unlocks cosmetic armor upgrades, but not players also have loadouts to customize. You choose the weapons you spawn with, armor abilities, and even perks, such as a fast shield recharge or better radar. It seems like a big change, but no, not really. The weapons you spawn with are just the base-level ones, you’ll still have to go find a Spartan Laser or sniper rifle on the map if that’s what you want. Competitive multiplayer is basically what you’d expect from this franchise, just a little COD-ed, since well, those games are popular and people have come to expect things to be like this.
On the cooperative side, gone are the Firefights of old and in are Spartan Ops. What are Spartan Ops? They are vaguely story-driven missions doled out as episodes on a weekly basis. They even come with neat CG cinematic to set up each episode (and add even more lore that the people who aren’t playing these will later find out is important, maybe). I like this a lot, and if 343 keeps to their plan of adding seasons to this mode, I think it does a really great job extending the lifespan of this title for people like myself, who get weary of the matchmaking.
By the way, this game looks really good. The Xbox 360 is an old ass machine, and frankly, Halo 4 should not seem as pretty as it does. The sound design is also top notch, the guns have a lot more punch than I remember them having. Even the new music is pretty great, super cinematic. I guess what I’m getting at is: this game probably cost a lot of money to make.
And games that cost a lot of money to make, especially one that has the power to change the destiny of a huge franchise, probably aren’t going to take that many risks. So what is Halo 4? More of the same, a little different. The story has more heart than any of the other Chief-centric games, but the lore is still off-putting. There’s a fair amount of new stuff, but it doesn’t really change anything, and especially doesn’t get in the way of the old stuff. And in the end, if you want to wear cool space armor and shoot lots of dudes, this is still probably your best bet.