The world ended with a bang, not a whimper back in our last Halo go-around. When we last saw Chief, he was hurtling through space with the indomitable AI Cortana watching over him, after uttering those now famous last words: “Wake me when you need me.” For the longest time, anxious fans were left wondering if their beloved Master Chief would ever rise from the ashes to continue the sci-fi saga. With 343 Industries stepping in to oversee the ambitious project a few years later, even though there was a bit of hubbub surrounding the change in developers, things finally picked up. Halo 4 was real – no more of the silly fan concept art. Finally a real life campaign for all the players clamoring for more! But for all the trepidation, anticipation trumped all as those of us on board with Chief since the very beginning were primed and ready for more.
Halo 4 has deployed, and it’s a (mostly) brand new frontier, expertly mixing old-world shooter sensibilities with new-school story-telling that should appeal to even the most jaded sci-fi fan. It’s a smarter, leaner Halo that definitely feels much different than prior incarnations. Still, it’s a must-play.
From the explosive beginning where Chief is forced to wake from his deep sleep by a now-approaching rampancy Cortana to the disconcerting realizations of the villainous true intentions of the Didact, Halo 4 is a roller-coaster ride through sci-fi shootouts and satisfying plot exposition that feels slick and polished beyond all Halos past, right down to the uncanny valley effect to most of the motion-captured supporting cast as the plot unfolds.
While the shootouts, locales, and most setpieces are the same though, this is a different beast with even less of a militaristic slant than ever before. Cortana’s dwindling efficacy and sanity is a major driving point for players to rush to the game’s climax, and while the aid of Lasky (seen in the Forward Unto Dawn miniseries) and other supporting characters is appreciated, Halo 4 as a whole is a very solitary experience that’s both hostile and uncaring. Captain Del Rio of the UNSC Infinity is quick to bark orders at Chief, pulling rank and choosing to treat the indomitable super-soldier like an obsolete piece of trash with a defective AI assistant rather than the hero he’s proven himself to be. And while Chief outwardly seems only slightly perturbed by this, as if batting away a small fly, it has much greater implications on the plot at hand.
Aside from these major changes, Halo 4 delves into further unfamiliar territory with the introduction of the Prometheans, a much more stalwart (read: obnoxious) set of enemies than the Covenant, who make appearances as well, but after grappling with Knights and their brethren, even kamikaze grunts become a sight for sore eyes. They’re ruthless and difficult to take down at times until you’ve established an effective rhythm for extermination, making some areas a special kind of nightmare – especially if you’re playing solo. Luckily a host of Promethean weapons may be utilized to help you. When Knights are teleporting about the map and you’re down to just a needler, you’re going to want to rethink your strategy a bit. Trust me.
I could go on and on about the brand new arsenal of weapons, armor abilities, and even the loss of some familiar abilities (armor lock and dual-wielding, which was absent in Reach as well), the skulls, hidden terminals, and additional content tucked away behind every nook and cranny, but to be quite honest it all pales in comparison to the narrative this installation what should be garnering more attention is the fully-realized love story that’s beginning to take hold. Cortana has long been a stalwart companion, even if more human than she should seem by the rules of science fiction, but Halo 4 is the first game in which she seems more like a human being in machine form. This raises more questions for players (and the characters themselves) – who’s the machine here, really?
The relationship between Cortana and Chief is one you’ll want to explore with reckless abandon when the game will allow you to between shootouts and bizarre run-ins with Forerunners and their strange technology. As Cortana is being eaten away (thinking herself to deah, as she describes rampancy) it becomes increasingly clear that Chief, in his rudimentary, almost childlike protests – “I’m not leaving you” – is coming to terms with his own humanity and the overwhelming desire to prolong Cortana’s “life.” It’s heartbreaking, the longing you can feel from the increasingly broken Cortana, and while you’re never allowed to forget that she’s still a machine, the level of real human emotion she exhibits is no different than that of a real woman mourning a loss she knows is in her future. Cortana has come such a long way. It’s a new frontier to see her in the new, more mature form she’s chosen for herself, and the snippets of heartfelt moments of dialogue between the tiny blue lovelorn Cortana and Chief are few and far between.
But when you see them, they’re precious. It’s a nice change of pace for the shooter, and an emotional augment that wouldn’t be unwanted in other sci-fi epics. It hasn’t yet reached Mass Effect levels of complexity, but it’s on the right track.
But the core Halo audience is likely less interested in how Chief feels and more in what he can shoot. Rest assured you’ll get your fill of this and more throughout the painfully short campaign (six hours for those uninterested in multiplayer affairs does seem criminal.) Once you’ve conquered the Didact (or have you?) and watched the credits roll you’ll move on to one of the expansive options for multiplayer content: Spartan Ops, the classic Halo online experience and a host of other options which you’ll no doubt gravitate to as a means to keeping hype alive for the next installment of the Halo saga. It’s a robust, full-featured set of options that takes up an entire disc to sate those multiplayer-hungry players bored by the whole “Chief-finding-humanity” thing. And that comprises a mighty portion of the Halo audience. They’ll be infinitely pleased with the extensive multiplayer maps, Forge mode, and rotating Spartan Ops campaigns – but like I mentioned before, it all pales in comparison to the narrative overhaul exercised here.
In many ways Halo 4, like fellow Xbox-exclusive stablemate Gears of War 3, is alien to the rest of the series in many ways. But rather than be disconcerting, it manages to hit all the high notes just right. Updated graphics, a completely retooled soundtrack, and an affecting cliffhanger of an ending are enough to rekindle interest gone by in the long-running franchise, and while aspects of it are not perfect, it’s certainly one of the most human Halo games we’ve seen yet. 343 Industries has proven the franchise is in the right hands, and who knows what the future will bring?