I have to be honest: by Halo 3, I was fatigued with the series. Human troops inspired by Aliens fighting a united swarm of technicolor baddies to perpetuate a wonderfully weird storyline had become a bit weary. That, and between games they swapped out Michael Wincott's role for Terence Stamp. Why did they do this? Was Wincott busy? In the years that followed, I skipped Halo 3 ODST altogether and only picked up Reach because it was free. With a new built-from-scratch studio at Microsoft handling the franchise – because original developer Bungie was obviously feeling pangs of the same restlessness – I was kind of excited to give Halo 4 a go. Setting out to create a whole new trilogy and please fans of the original games, each with record-breaking debuts, was no doubt going to be a daunting task for 343 Studios, but Halo 4 feels like a bridge to something new, rather than an exciting new adventure to call its own.
Picking Up The Pieces
As Halo 4 opens, your (quite bodacious) AI buddy Cortana is waking perennial sci-fi hero Master Chief from cryo sleep several years after the (literally) explosive finale of the third game. Your ship, or what's left of it, hangs in orbit around a large, mechanical Forerunner planet called Requiem while a splinter faction of the Covenant is getting up in your grill trying to mess with stuff. You wind up on the planet in search of an ancient Forerunner death ray called the Composer. Pushing the story forward are elaborately detailed, pre-rendered cutscenes that are leagues above the in-engine movies of previous games, but there was something so charming about Bungie pushing their technical chops to the max to get such cinematic cutlery out of their engines.
Had the Covenant merely been a gateway enemy in the first level or two to set you up with fresh-out-of-the-oven, arguably Metroid-inspired Promethean foes that might've been fine, instead you're tasked with fighting the same aliens, riding the same vehicles, and dancing amongst the same, angular ruins of the Forerunners that you've been dealt the past eleven years. Sometimes Halo 4 mixes it up and 343 really wants to show you its teeth, like in self-assembling Forerunner weaponry, but it just doesn't happen often enough. You can't mix things up too much or you end up with something that resembles the oversold and underdelivered Halo 2 and maybe that was a big fear for 343. The narrative, despite being beautifully produced, is uneven, perhaps mushy at times. On one hand, the game dumps way too much information and wraps up in such a way that it's hard to imagine how this sets up anything going forward. On the other, you always feel like there are missing elements of the story – like why does Master Chief have yet another set of armor from the last game despite being frozen in a tube for years? – and the game taunts you to visit any number of other entries in the Halo multimedia empire, or dig way deep to find hidden terminals, to really get a grasp as to why you're visiting all these different locales and fighting these enemies. Halo 4′s narrative feels like it's simply stewed in its own juices for far too long.
The presentation, however, is top notch. Everything looks and feels great. Legacy items and vehicles look better than they ever have. The previously mentioned cutscenes are probably a bit too fancy for what's on display, but they're pristine and gorgeous. Despite an abundance of lens flare, the in-game is easily the best in the series by far and it's an artistic marvel at all times. Well, almost all times: the game is more than happy to drop a few frames when the course load gets to be too much and you'll notice we mentioned this a few times during our Legendary run. It doesn't render the game unplayable, but it's very noticeable at times. The art direction is also fantastic, pulling from the original trilogy, but also featuring notes from TRON's neon aesthetic as you battle through Promethean facilities. Everything animates better than it ever has, everything shines better than it ever has. The music, by monk-free Neil Davidge (Massive Attack), is elegant, but like a score from the newer Star Wars films by a matured John Williams, it isn't quite as bombastic or memorable as previous games. Highlight? Your roommates aren't going to be humming bars of the Halo theme while you play. Well, hopefully.
Multiplayer, Because Of Course
Halo's multiplayer made the Xbox a formidable fighting force, a killer app against the dominance of the PlayStation 2 and ultimately a case study that compelling online experiences could be created on a console (yes, Call of Duty, you can thank Halo for all of it), so obviously this fourth Halo is going to have plenty to offer. The four-player cooperative mode is, in my humble opinion, the only way that the campaign should be played. While it's weird to only see one Master Chief in the storyline (each player assumed a different Spartan in Halo Reach, for instance), that's nothing to be concerned about. Playing through Halo 4′s campaign with three other players is a blast.
Spartan Ops is a new addition to the cooperative offerings. You work with other Spartans from the UNSC Infinity in a side story that takes place while Master Chief is scrambling elsewhere in the early campaign. Each episode opens with a narrative pinache that rivals the campaign, but the missions themselves are underwhelming and watered down in comparison. Sure, they have many of the same narrative hooks, but they're killing field missions. You wander from arena-style engagement to arena-style engagement until all the baddies with red arrows over their heads are eliminated. I didn't find it terribly compelling, like chicken soup made of meaty breasts dumped into a bowl of warm water, but there are plenty of levels (and more in the weeks to follow) to keep you busy if it ends up being your thing.
Standard multiplayer feels a lot like it always has. Halo's classic, slower-paced play doesn't register with the heart-pounding pace or reward drip of Call of Duty, but you can tell the series is inching closer and closer with each new installment. This isn't really my thing, so my verdict isn't swayed in either direction by it.
More Adventure Required
I really wanted 343 Industries to smack this one out of the ballpark, but Halo 4 feels like a bunt. Even if the end product gets them to third base, you know they were just trying to bridge gaps and not sacrifice record sales.
Guys, I'm sick of fighting Covenant. I'm sick of driving Warthogs and Ghosts and watching Elites and Grunts deploy out of Banshees. Get away from that. You guys have an entire universe to chase and a new lease on life. You don't have to throw away all that made Halo great, but stop fooling around with the safe plays. You are an immensely talented developer and you have an incredible ship to get out to the stars, why not take it? Why stow it in the garage? Make Halo 5 some mind-bending new approach to the universe. Heck, even drop Master Chief for a bit... just not for the Arbiter, kthx.
Halo 4 is a solid game with amazing production values and virtually endless content, but 343 needs to stop working inside Bungie's halo.