Welcome to the new episode of the Awesome Friday Games Podcast! And as you can see from the title, this week it’s all Halo, all the time. There’s a little reflection on Halo’s significance on its release in 2001, then a look at Halo Infinite and how it compares to the divisive Halo 4. Enjoy!
Well then. A month before E3, Microsoft and 343 Industries have pulled the covers off the next installment in their key franchise. Due out Autumn 2015, it’s going to be a long road of promos and teasers for something that they desperately need to be a system seller.
I was once booked to play Charlie Chaplin in a commercial for a mechanic’s garage. (Context: I worked as a professional actor in Vancouver for two years before an incoming baby necessitated the need for regular income, i.e. not acting). It was a terrifying proposition. I knew that my years of training in physical theatre would come in useful for the signature walk, but Chaplin was always more than that. He had this very particular look in his eyes, one of innocence and reflection, which was so iconic it became placed front and centre in all of his posters. This was not a new character; this was someone who had a legion of fans from every age group and social demographic in the world. There was a good chance many Chaplistas would end up judging my facsimile, examining each and every gesture, comparing me not only to the real Chaplin but also to their emotional perception of him. So, I started where they already were: with every film and short I could find, slow motion frames on one side and my mirrored reflection on the other. In the end, I pulled it off; I often hate watching myself back – when is there ever anything that could not be improved? – but I was genuinely pleased at how authentic it looked. Of course, there’s someone, somewhere who rolled their eyes at some point, but that’s inevitable. It’s just the amount of eye rolling that you try to keep down.
With Halo 4, however, the tables are turned. This time, I’m the expert, the age-old fan who could talk you ragged about Master Chief’s armour, the effect of playing as The Arbiter, or the deep mythos that ties all the previous games together. Mostly, I’d want to talk about “I need a weapon”, or leaping on a Hornet just as a Covenant vehicle explodes, or even how Halo 3: ODST might be my favourite title in the series. I’m the one whose Xbox 360 game collection is propped up like this:
With series overlords Bungie finally walking away to line Activision’s pockets with the upcoming Destiny, it was down to Microsoft to assemble the best team they could find and wring some more Spartan cash out of the Chief’s thick green armour. However, as obviously talented as 343 Industries is, they had an impossible task – please all the Halo fans, all the time. After all, this wasn’t a splinter title but a direct numbered continuation of the series that, for many people (myself included), was solely responsible for the buying of whole new consoles. We would be holding up 343’s Halo to our own rose-tinted memories. It’s clear that 343 knew this, and Halo 4 directly references sequences from the older titles whilst introducing new features for the new trilogy. This approach leaves a paradoxical final game, one that can be two opposite things at once: exciting yet boring, precise yet sloppy, intense yet vague. It’s a schizophrenic campaign full of wows and what-ifs.
The ending of Halo 3 left the perfect jump-off point for a new game, and this is utilised fully. The last time we saw Master Chief, he was placing himself in sleep stasis after finally defeating the Covenant and Flood and destroying the control bridge for all of the Halos in the universe. Left alone in the remains of a ruined spaceship, he drifts through space with just the AI, Cortana, watching over him. Halo 4 uses this setup in its bombastic prologue, with the Chief rudely awakened not only by an invading Covenant force but also by the ominous scans from a nearby Promethean planet. Caught in its gravity, the Chief and Covenant forces are pulled to the ground and are soon joined by a human rescue team, before unwittingly activating the planet’s defence system in the form of New Enemy Types. Their leader, The Didact, is intent on getting a weapon to “catalogue” all humans, and Chief finds himself – apparently pre-ordained – to stop him. Cue beautiful vistas, a variety of weapons, and some moving targets to shoot in the face. Repeat for seven hours while attempting to make sense of the story.
The first thing you’ll notice – and will keep on noticing for the length of the entire game – is how stunning it all looks. Really, truly amazing, and further proof that next-gen consoles are going to have trouble to prove their existence if all they offer is shinier graphics. Everything has a tangible solidity, the world-building architecture is breathtaking, and incredible lighting makes it all feel so movie-like. It’s easily the most attractive game in the series, and going back to Reach feels like a leap backwards to a whole previous generation. The engine is largely flawless, the only occasional drops in frame rate (usually due to loading) are notable due to their rarity. Enemies flood the battlefields, on land and in the sky, finally giving series fans the kind of huge battles that we’d been dreaming of since the first title. The UNSC weapons carry incredible punch, the DMR and Magnum again proving an almost unstoppable combination in the right hands, and the few flying sequences are astounding in their scope and potential.
It’s tempting at this point to imagine Halo 4 turning into a series classic, with the old thrills intact but with a shinier gloss. However, as the campaign unfolds, the cracks appear and sometimes threaten to swallow you whole. The problem isn’t the artistry of the development team – there can be no doubt that they are totally fine in that regard – but more so that, while the nods to “classic” Halo largely ring true, the new elements added just don’t have the same impact. In fact, they go a long way to ruining the whole damn thing.
The main problem, unfortunately, is that Bungie made the original Covenant enemies so damn good. From their chunky design to the flank-happy AI routines, it was always such a pleasure to crank up the difficulty and face off against the various types, each requiring brains to outmaneuver before hitting them where it hurts. The UNSC and Covenant guns were varied and powerful, each opening up gameplay options for every single firefight. 343’s new addition is the Prometheans, an enemy again split into three main enemy types, but it doesn’t take long into your first encounter with them that you realise something is wrong. Covenant Elites are aggressive and intelligent, rushing you directly with energy swords or flanking behind you before exploding out with destructive brutality, but the Promethean Knights just shoot and run. They frequently warp out of sight, with their only rush attach a quick warping zig-zig that often ends in unavoidable instant death. They have flying support, who also fly out of range after one shot, and not only provide shields but also bring dead Knights back to life. You can clear a path only to find it reset in seconds, all because you missed one enemy. So, they are designed to be a long-distance attack enemy, and that’s usually fine, but the troubles increase when you run out of ammo for the DMR and Magnum (which happens quickly). The only other weapon in any kind of abundance is the Promethean Suppressor, a rapid-fire gun that’s fairly effective close-up but borders on useless from any kind of range. The beauty of Halo has always lay in its invitation to approach battles as you see fit, but that is lost here. You’re forced to charge wildly into the fray, finger firmly down on the trigger in the hope that they’ll die before you do.
The third new enemy type is a quadrupedal beast with a gun in its mouth, often arriving in numbers to chip away at your energy as the larger enemies once again warp out of view. It’s all a little reminiscent of The Flood at this point, with intelligent attacks substituted for overpowering rush, and it’s not a welcome addition. The negativity created by 343’s new elements doesn’t end there, but instead is exacerbated by all of the new weapons. Even without the disappointing fact that they are all basically reskins of each other’s – even though the human, Covenant and Promethean weapons were created aeons apart for different bodies – you can’t avoid the fact that they feel hopelessly weak and underpowered. This is made most glaring when you’re forced to change from the razor-sharp accuracy of the Magnum or Covenant Combine to the Boltshot or Storm Rifle. Suddenly you’re not the most advanced soldier in the universe but more of a Stormtrooper on his first day in the Death Star. It’s annoying, unneccessary, and completely breaks away any feeling of fun or enjoyment.
Unfortunately, this makes every level featuring the Prometheans one that is met with growing sighs and creative swears. However, as the campaign shifts into the second half, things get much, much better. There proves to be a very obvious reason for this sudden shift in quality; instead of forcing you through their new elements of the story, 343 focus on what made Halo the series it is – fighting alongside UNSC infantry, against Covenant Elites, under an azure sky. This really is Halo at it’s very best, the skeleton constructed by Bungie dressed in gorgeous new clothes. And explosions. So many explosions. As you move in a giant tank along a mountain path (which is uncannily reminiscent of the same sequence in Gears Of War 2), the old feelings come flooding back and motivation spikes. Enemies charge under and above you, tenacity winning over brutality every time. Things pick up even further as you head into the sky, first with Banshees, then to a Pelican, before a daring chase into a tunnel in a Broadsword, the ship that was flown briefly in Halo: Reach. Each of these levels are magical slices of escapism and thrilling to the end. In fact, the Broadsword level feel so much like the Warthog chase that closed Halo 1 and 3, it’s tremendously disappointing to find yourself back fighting the Prometheans on foot, once again having to destroy three of something before you can proceed.
However, the best is saved for last, with the Chief finally trying to secure the key weapon on an asteroid base above the third Halo ring. Of course, the Covenant want it too, leading to a busy set of combat arenas that don’t even try to pretend that they’re not reflections of earlier levels from the series. It’s a final move that, although successful, really brings the faults of the rest of the game into sharp, glaring focus.
Perhaps the most surprising element is how successful 343 Industries is with their telling of the story. Not in the complicated sci-fi premises it throws about (mainly in an exposition flashback that is truly bewildering), or in their inevitable decision to appeal to the Call Of Duty crowd with thankfully sparse Quick Time Events, but more in the focus on the Chief and Cortana as real, connected entities who may actually share something approaching love. It’s a very brave move, considering the established fanbase that they’re targeting, but their aims are achieved with surprising sensitivity and subtlety. Cortana, in particular, has been realised beautifully, her exemplarity facial animation revealing the desperation in her lost cause. The final endgame causes a separation that is genuinely moving, although this being sci-fi, you know perfectly well that no-one disappears for ever. I hope not anyway; Cortana is the key to the Chief becoming more expressive, and it would be a crying shame to not see that unfold even more.
So, in the end, you are left with a mixture of elation from the classic levels with the sourness of your experience with the Prometheans. It’s a shame that, in their bid to introduce new elements to the series, 343 Industries just shows how delicate the balance can be. What Halo 4 is, though, is a tantilising glimpse into what this amazingly talented collection of artists and coders can do to recreate the old magic, and it’s tempting to pin hopes on having even more of the good stuff in the next-gen Halo 5. Maybe, then, our own eye-rolling can be reduced to a minimum as we fight with the Chief, always pushing forward, back among the stars.
Note: This is a review purely of the campaign, but the game itself has a variety of extra one-off missions (Spartan Ops) and, of course, the ever robust multiplayer. However, as I don’t play any kind on online MP, I can’t really comment on it.