Game Reviewed: Halo 4
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: 343 Industries
A little bit of forewarning here. I’ve been trying to write this review for a couple of weeks now, and discussing it with a few of my friends, I have learned that it is a little controversial. Giving my honest opinion on what I thought of the game “Halo 4” spurs an automatic defense system in the dedicated Halo franchise fan. I don’t think I could call myself an avid “fan” of Master Chief, but I have played most of the Halo games (save for Halo: Reach).
The Halo franchise is one of the many “tried and true” flagships of the gaming industry (other examples of these “legacy” games would be Metal Gear Solid, Legends of Zelda, and Warcraft/Starcraft) that spurs broad adoration in fans that follow the journey these games take them on as they build piles of lore and history. Like film and television fan cultures, such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars fans, anything that might go against what fans have accepted as “canon” is met with poisoned arrows and the sharp ends of 2 handed lightsabers.
Like per usual in my blogs, it’s history time. Started by Bungie for the regular Xbox, Halo has been the general “go-to” Xbox system for the first person shooter experience. Bungie had stopped work on the Halo series after Reach. They sold the franchise to Microsoft who started 343 Industries and picked up the work for Halo 4. With the many games of the Halo series (Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo Wars, Halo: ODST, Halo: Reach, Halo 4), Halo has been loved by many players and gained Bungie many awards for the Multi-Player PVP First Person Shooter. Personally, I’m not a fan of PVP in most games. As I’ve stated in previous reviews, I tend to find the player environment rather toxic and anti-social (if not populated with an audience that is far to young for the game’s intended rating, good job parents). That said, for Halo games I like to stick to the first person or co-operative story portion of the game.
I will be honest, this review is going to have to be a little bit more SPOILING>> than usual. There are just some major issues that really need to be put out there for discussion. First, a little bit of back story behind the game and beyond the physical history above. Halo is a futuristic story about a clash between two warring factions. There is the marginally losing militaristic humanity vs. an a galactic army comprised of several alien slave species (One species conquers a planet and enslaves that planet’s race, forcing the planet’s people back into their army) known as the Covenant. Needless to say, there are many different members incorporated into the covenant making up the army from beyond the stars.
As a desperate darkness of defeat encloses around the now space faring human race, one beacon of heroic valor must become humanity’s strength. That’s you, the last hope for human survival against the onslaught of the overwhelming alien force. Unnamed (till later on in the games) and faceless, a genetically and cybernetically altered lab grown super solder wrapped up in the armor of a tank and the shields of a small star base, armed to the teeth with all the bullets you can carry and a disembodied female artificial intelligence plugged into the back of your scull, enter “Master Chief”.
The war rages on in the four corners of the galaxy where the two factions stumble upon a giant ruins of a long extinct alien race, chaos ensues. The relic, of course, is a giant ring shaped structure; thus the name of the game. One thing that has been a staple of the franchise, from the buildings to the landscapes, Halo has always been visually pleasing. From the buildings to the space ships, it’s always grand visual eye candy.
Now we get to Halo 4, which in and of itself is a “new” Halo game by every definition of the word. It’s even made by a different development team as mentioned earlier. Now, I’m not going to say this new version is entirely terrible, but there were parts in the game that, well, I really did not like… OK, let me rephrase. On the whole, it was rather painful to play through.
Let’s talk art direction. In the time of Bungie (Halo 1-Reach), there were rules on how the alien races that comprise the Covenant “looked”. Grunts previously were short, squat, had blue-ish skin, and wore very triangular armor. For the grunt, the one thing Halo 4 got right, was the “air tank” they wore on their backs. Next up are jackals (my favorite of the 3 races and wish they were playable characters) or “King Yarrs”. In previous incarnations of the game, they are featured to be slightly taller than the grunts, yet shorter than the towering elites. They should be impossibly skinny, long and lanky. Long bird like beaks and sharp needle like teeth adorns their distinct faces and their skin came in different shades of deep greens and blues, quite alligator like. Halo 4 displayed them very clunky and flat faced. Thick meaty hands just made them look like a slightly taller grunt.
Towering over the other aliens with their signature quad segmented jaws, they are the field commanders and the only rivals to Master Chief’s military prowess on the battle field. They are the elites. From Bungie, they were given a muscled swimmer’s build. Halo 4, they were blocky and thuggish, like more of an American football build (to be honest, at first, I thought that they were the brutes from Halo 3). All three of the aliens looked exactly alike in color and art direction. They all had the same color schemes, the same blunted faces, and overall aesthetics. Such is a far step away from the “many different conquered races fighting together” since the new art direction is far and away from that. Each race looks so similar to the others, that it could be argued that they are all the same alien race…which, as a die hard video game nerd, is a ludicrous notion. It’s like saying Luke Skywalker, Mr. Spock, and Daleks are all the same species. Absolute Madness.
Keeping on the subject of video game aesthetics, the color pallet of the whole game was very disconcerting. Almost as if they really couldn’t make up their minds to exactly where 343 Industries wanted to take us. A large section of the game is nothing but earth tones. The dirt on the ground, the grunts, the jackals, and the elites were all the same browns and blacks. Gone are the days of sky blue grunts in orange and yellow armor. Gone are the days of dark green alligator jackals hiding in threes with laser sniper rifles (well, the rifles are there). Gone are the navy blue to light gray elites starring you down with eyes of ire on the expanse of blood soaked outer space. In the middle of the game, we are thrust rather violently into several different environments. From outside dirt hills to volcano melting planes and mountains and through hexagonal based hallways with little to no transitions to bring it all together. It felt forced. And really, that sums up the whole game play experience: forced.
Speaking of forced, the main villain was probably the biggest upset and let down of the whole game. It was an OK concept, but quite an awful execution. A travesty, really. Biggest Spoiler right here: So get this; the long dead and extinct alien race, named “The Fore-Runners”, who built all the ruins and ring like structures all over the universe, invented space travel, builders and architects of the grand cosmos, had stuffed away one of their own in a “time-prison”. You release him on accident, like Master Chief does, lo and behold the Fore-Runners are “ancient humans”. I’m not making this up. Long ago before “earth” ancient super techno humans…. bald and their noses fell off as well with part of their lips, but other than having leprosy, billions and billions of long extinct aliens…nope, human. That is some bad writing. Nearly threw the controller at my screen and stopped playing…Greatest plot let down since the 1st edition ending of Mass Effect 3 (well… at least Halo 4 didn’t go “OMG WTF SPACE BABY!” to come talk to you about how he made all the Fore-Runners and that he really is the stupid citadel…).
Then it opened its mouth. Long dead, billions and trillions of years old alien right in front of you, and it speaks PERFECT ENGLISH. I call shenanigans. No subtitled mystery language of the elves and orcs, no strange clicking or guttural dolphin noises, no vocal filters, perfect American accented English. Don’t worry, it gets worse. Turns out, the Fore-Runners were fighting another race of “ancient humans” in a never ending techno war. The popular television show South Park used a meme from the History Channel that comes directly to mind with thinking on this subject. “I don’t know what I’m doing, therefore aliens”. So yeah, forget cavemen; we apparently had space ships and lasers instead of rocks and spears.
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A minor complaint of mine is the “New” guns and monsters as well as the lack of old guns and monsters. No brutes, no flying insects with guns, no space zombie balloons, no grenade launchers or shoulder mounted lasers. They had the tanks but no motorcycles. They did add a new “set” of guns that were visually pleasing, but functioned no different than anything else you have seen before. One thing that Bungie Halo did better than 343 Industries was give you a wide variety of different effects when it came to fire arms. It was a bizarre sense of rock paper scissors. Energy Pistol trumps shields, Melee trumps defenseless face, shotgun trumps close range — all great examples of this sort of intuitive dynamic. It was just “bullet goes fast and does damage” and “what is the right weapon for the right situation”. A game called Half Life does this as well (to a much greater extent…grav gun for the win).
343 Industries made some rather impressive looking guns (Promethean weapons), but a “Bolt Shot” is a pistol with an energy pistol charge, and the shotgun’s a shotgun. The SMG is still an SMG. There’s no interesting mechanics that makes them stand out more or less than any other gun. Previous Halos would shower you in different weapons and you get to choose a path which best defines your play style and situation. In Halo 4, they give you limited resources and force you to use what’s “available” regardless of what situation you might be in. (Granted, for tougher fights, they did give you plenty of “big” gun options, but on average, you’re left with using what ever the enemy just dropped). They are, however, very pretty to look at as most of the detail for the guns themselves are comprised of floating slats of metal all hovering some energy source and your hand/trigger.
The only new vehicle are mechs, that are more of a special mini-game, than an actual vehicle. The turret mounted skiff is gone. The fighter plane on the human side is gone. The motorcycle is gone. The mech is a strange contraption with a “one size fits all” choice of firepower. You have things for close range, long range, and plenty of missiles in between. It is by definition the standard “Noob cannon”. You sit in it, and you are both practically invulnerable and can handle pretty much all situations with relative ease.
Something in the story that just irked the crap out of my brain was the fact that the game had a very specific intro. It set up a ton of foreshadowing and played out like a military drama. In the first 5 minuets of the opening cinima you are left with the notion that 1) There is a scientist with questionable moralities, 2) Experiments run amok, 3) Did illegal experiments on children that worked out in the end, 4) might be facing consequences for number 2 and number 3, 5) You are a product of her meddling, 6) You should probably go back and visit. If anything else, it sets up that you and he have to clash at some point in the game. It forces you to believe that the climax of Halo 4 will be the confrontation between you and your maker. In a way, it was kind of poetic (if not cliche and expected) and I was kind of looking forward to that. Spoiler: Never happens. The intro of the game has nothing to do with the game itself.
Similarly, at the end, after the credits, there is a long speech by the defeated “bad guy”. It’s a pretty nice speech on how the human race is pointless and the ancient humans are #1 blah blah blah, but has nothing to do with what had just transpired in the previous 8 or so hours of game play. It’s “out of place” in the sense that the previous games have led up to points that were far beyond these strange and removed segments. All in all, it just wasn’t satisfying. The story throughout the whole game just didn’t line up to any real points other than a pissing contest between who’s the bigger jerk to Master Chief (admiral what’s his face and “I don’t know, Aliens”). << End Of Spoiler Section
All in all, what it really boils down to is this:
If you really like Halo and you love it’s PVP and quick combat scenarios in space with all your guns a blazin’, Halo 4 isn’t all that bad.
However, if you like the Halo series for its deep meaningful story and epic plot lines with crazy twists and turns in a jaw draping space adventures, you are going to find it leaves much to be desired. It’s almost as lame as Games Workshop suing science fiction authors over the phrase “Space Marines” (at least they don’t have rectangles with rounded edges…).