Halo 4: Old Game, New Guns

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I’ll be honest—I wasn’t very excited for Halo 4. I had run the gamut of games in high school, reveling in three-shot battle rifle kills and legendary co-op runs along with almost every other guy my age. Halo was like a social obligation to many of my friends growing up. It was simply what you did when everyone was hanging out at each others’ houses. The original Halo games were a trilogy, one that I finished a long time ago. But Halo 4?

With an entirely different team developing it, it was full of wild expectations for greatness, but I found myself not all that excited at the notion of killing Covenant and saving the earth one last time (well, three last times with the planned sequels).

But then press started leaking, and word came that Halo 4 was not just good, but great. Developer 343 Industries, the company named after a Halo character and created specifically to develop new Halo games, had actually done it. The flood of positive press talking up new developments in character and story piqued my interest.

So here we have Halo 4, riding a tidal wave of congratulatory thanks from fans and press alike for, well, making a Halo game. That’s more or less what Halo 4 is, just another Halo game. It happens to be the best looking one—it has a few new weapons and a few new mechanics up its sleeve—but by and large Halo 4 is so utterly Halo that it doesn’t try to escape the trappings of the series. Instead, it polishes up what was already there. This is by no means a bad thing: Halo games are good games. It’s just a mildly disappointing one, which pretty much sums up my experiences playing the campaign. It was never bad, but all that polish that 343 uses can’t help but seem a bit tarnished by the end of the game.

The campaign, so highly praised in reviews that I went and bought the game at midnight on a whim, does have a strong start. The first mission flips a familiar scenario from the first Halo on its head, forcing Master Chief to escape a crashing ship. Playing the first half hour or so was a thrill. As soon as the Chief steps out from a cryostasis pod and the player takes control, a million little minutiae about playing Halo games flooded back into my hands. I was in middle school all over again as familiar Covenant aliens fell under my crosshairs and a ship exploded all around me. The original Halo games achieved much of their success based on great mechanics, and there is something to be said about just how good this game feels to play. I quickly discovered that I was excited about killing Covenant and saving the earth yet again.

Unfortunately, around the three-hour mark I realized that I was doing the same thing I did in every Halo game: run into a room, kill a bunch of enemies, hit a button that advances the story enough to let me run into another room and kill more enemies. Rinse and repeat.

Where Halo 4 falls short is exactly where it needed to knock it out of the park: new elements. The new weapons introduced are mostly just slight variations of the old formulas, and though they look fancy and stylized they lose their luster quickly. The same can be said of the new enemies—the Tron biting Prometheans—who prove to be little more than shiny new bullet sponges beneath their chrome and neon lighting.

And remember that story everyone was so excited about? I don’t, because I failed to read the vast number of Halo novels that it takes its cues from. The plot of Halo 4 is steeped in information that one cannot derive from simply playing the game, or even past ones. Instead its main villain, the space-Dracula-looking Didact, was introduced in an anime short spin-off that was released on DVD in 2010. It is this kind of attention to detail that both strengthens Halo 4’s story line for those that are invested in the Halo universe and kills any interest in it for the casual, less committed players.

Halo 4 is a good game, and it’s a great Halo game. Anyone who enjoys the series for its sci-fi story and atmosphere or its incredibly tight controls and polished game play will get a lot out of Halo 4. Anyone looking for anything more than that? Well, there’s always Halo 5, but I have my doubts.

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