Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Review: Halo 4 (360)


Halo 4 does just about everything a franchise property should. It's big and loud, brash and bold; tosses soup bones in the service of fans; refashions the old, performs some new tricks; kicks-off a second trilogy of games in style; and features a naked blue woman who's actually a computer program that has a weird relationship with the protagonist, Master Chief.

As slick as the single-player experience is, cracks begin to appear almost immediately and I started feeling more like a pecking barnyard animal -- you know, those 7-foot tall, armour-plated ones -- tasked with running an uncomplicated maze and hitting a button. Or three buttons.

For some reason, Halo 4 delights in having the player perform actions in threes.

There's a point where Master Chief pilots a mech to clear out some Covenant enemies and eliminate a series of jammers -- there are three of them -- so the main ship's main battery can fire. This three-fold issue happens again and again, which only served to drag me completely out of the experience and thinking about how a series as pumped up Halo is, it's still a game with the contrivances the plague the industry (for example, a "kill room" then moving to the next). 343 Industries, and before that Bungie, spent a lot of time building out the lore and the sci-fi universe of Halo but then proceeded to tread some very familiar ground.

Case in point: the trench run. The original Halo's climax featured an obstacle course that Master Chief had to navigate before the ship Pillar of Autumn went kablooey. It felt a little like a nod to the "You are required to maneuver straight down this trench..." climax of Star Wars: A New Hope. Then it was aped at the end of Halo 3. Halo 4 does it's "trench run" early on, but then it has the temerity to repeat it.

Back to the pecking issue though. For all the enemies that Master Chief wipes out, from exotic locale to an all digital future, his principle objective seems to be to gently press a button or take a memory stick out of his helmet and plug Cortana into terminals. (After destroying three things, of course.) The whole story is over-the-top (and almost completely impenetrable if you don't follow the fiction outside the game) but Master Chief doesn't do anything more interesting than make hollow promises to his insane girlfriend. The game starts with such a bang and things we haven't seen in a Halo game before that when it gets into lock-step with its predecessors it's even more of a let down.

Master Chief is supposed to be a pinnacle of humanity. Poked and prodded from childhood to be the best of the best, ultimate super soldier (he's actually revealed to be humanity's last hope), one would think there'd be more of him just wrecking things. But he gets winded after short sprints and he has all the resistance of a traffic cone if a Wraith hits him.

There are still some bad-ass, "Did you see that?" moments and the occasional 3rd person melee kill to show glimpses of Master Chief's blunt power as a protagonist, but there aren't enough of them.

One glaring missed opportunity is that the equipment for the new race of robots is that the weapons have human and Covenant equivalents. The first time you pick-up a one of these "new" assembling weapons, it's a "That's kinda neat!" reaction which is squelched about 10 minutes later when you realize they're pretty much like the human and Covenant weapons Master Chief is used to, they just look different. There are a few exceptions, of course, but a new race could have blown the doors wide open to something novel and memorable. It shouldn't just be the Covenant Gravity Hammer making a cameo at a critical moment.

The relationship between Cortana and Master Chief deserves some special attention because for all the gravitas and effort put into cementing the weirdest love story just north of Lars and the Real Girl, I couldn't take it seriously. It's as if Halo 4 is the galactic parable of someone marrying an anime girl body pillow. Or that guy that runs his fingers along the hood of his car like it will shudder some kind of response to his loving touch. And that's the lens through which I viewed the entirety of the game. Master Chief exhibits some real emotion with Cortana, but c'mon, she's a computer AI. When it came to the emotional concluding point, when the car actually does shudder in response, I snorted derisively and waited for some kind of cliffhanger conclusion that might set-up Halo 5.

You can be forgiven for humming the Barenaked Ladies' cover of Bruce Cockburn's "Lovers in a Dangerous Time." Or imagining Cortana as a DLC character for Tecmo's Dead or Alive franchise.

Halo 4's multiplayer, at least, as of this writing and only being publicly available for a mere hours, delivers what previous Halo games have: fun. So far at least. No one has the maps memorized yet and the best tactics and strategies haven't percolated to the surface yet. That moment, when it happens, is usually when I bounce out of a game. Because somewhere along the way the gap between my skill and the typical skill of someone playing hours a day widens to the point where it's a gulf I'll never be able to cross.

That's a flowery way of saying: I suck at Halo multiplayer.

Fortunately, for players like me, 343 Industries offers "Spartan Ops" mode for a more cooperative environment and adds some story texture to the game. The development team will be turning out content for Spartan Ops for the next ten weeks (which is one addition per week unless I've done the math incorrectly). It'll be interesting to see what eventually comes down the pipe and what players come up with using Forge.

I have plans to revisit the online aspects of Halo 4 because this early in its life cycle, it's difficult to provide a critical analysis of the overall system and how things evolve (and are tweaked) in the long run.

After playing through the single-player on Normal difficulty, I'd be more inclined to attempt the campaign on a higher difficulty if I wanted to experience the story. Maybe there's some dramatic linchpin that I missed! But I was unsuccessful in keeping my brain from thinking about the problems and inconsistencies I see with the story and the relationship between Cortana and Master Chief the first time around, why would the second time be any different? Halo 4 has its moments, but not enough of them to make me forget about this stuff.

- Aaron Simmer

The Good:
- Looks phenomenal
- The "backpack" power-ups are cool, especially the jet pack
- Instantly playable for anyone with previous Halo experience
- Moments of bad-assery
- Multiplayer (so far) and Spartan Ops
- More Halo for Halo fans

The Bad:
- Hard time buying the Master Chief/Cortana love story
- Weapon variety is basically about the looks
- "You are required to maneuver straight down this trench..."
- A Halo game without the familiar theme is like Superman without John Williams

Score: 5.5 / 10