Action Button doesn’t seem to be posting any new reviews, so I guess I’ll have to write one instead.
Halo: Combat Evolved is minimalism: two guns at a time; recharging shields instead of health; 8 weapons and 2 power-ups, each with clear and distinct purposes; an announcer who could only count up to 4. There were no useless weapons in that first game. The plasma rifle froze enemies to a standstill; the plasma pistol stripped their shields. The best mid-range weapon was that ungodly pistol, the hellspawn of a marksman’s rifle and a Desert Eagle, the likes of which appeared in none of its contemporaries. And for unique weapons, you couldn’t beat that purple monstrosity with the spines sticking out of it. One grenade for bouncing, one for sticking; a sniper for long-range and a shotgun for short. There’s a whole button dedicated to hitting people with your gun. That was a hell of a revelation in the early 2000s. Halo was mechanically rock-solid.
Even the story was minimalist. The levels were reused and folded back on each other – the last three levels are actually reversed bizarro versions of previous levels. The characters generally fit into neat archetypes – respected leader, tough-as-nails sergeant, sassy black woman, voice-in-your-ear woman. Apart from the one cutscene that provides the game’s major reveal, Master Chief is never the guy putting together the pieces. It’s either HQ or Cortana telling you to go here, shoot that, press this. Every single level, you’re not quite sure why you’re doing what you’re doing, but you know that it’s fun.
There was backstory to the campaign, if you cared to pay attention. For all the telling-you-where-to-go that Cortana does, you still remember that her first lines betray a closeness with your character. The opening cutscene tells you that you’re running from somebody. You don’t exactly know why. The first time you encounter Grunts, you’ve got a hand-cannon, they’re all tiny, and after one dies they all run around screaming.The first time you encounter an Elite, you’ve got no gun, he’s as tall as you are, and he bellows in your face. Storytelling without storytelling. This isn’t to claim that Halo is a smart game, but to say that Halo is pretty smart for a dumb game. It knows what it’s doing.
So that’s why I like Halo. Tight mechanics, storytelling that doesn’t shit the bed. That’s the formula.
Halo 2 noobified it, and gave it brilliant maps for online multiplayer.
Halo 3 gave it grav lifts, trip mines and a sweet-ass bubble shield.
Halo 3: ODST gave it jazz music, no shields, no Spartans, no Elites, and still nailed it.
Halo Wars gave it a throwaway RTS spinoff.
Halo: Reach gave it one-dimensional characters, narrative cliches out the ass, “RETURN TO THE BATTLEFIELD”, the DMR, unskippable assassination animations, and Armor Lock.
Which brings us to Halo 4. Here are my complaints about Halo 4.
Reliance on (crap) supplementary material.
You quite literally cannot understand what is happening in Halo 4 without having read the more recent Halo books. If the last Halo books you read were six years ago, you will actually be more confused. Humans aren’t the descendants of the Forerunners like we used to think. All our speculation back in the day was either disproven or retconned in the years since. The Atlantic beat me to the punch:
I’m genuinely concerned that no one will understand what is going on, because to understand the plot you both need to be smart enough to follow the onscreen developments and dumb enough to have plowed through all of the supplemental material, and I’m not sure such a person exists.
Halo 4 is irresistibly up its own ass. It’s so enchanted with its own lore (as expounded in Karen Traviss’s widely-panned books, henceforth referred to as Travissties) that it doesn’t feel the need to explain shit to you, or at least give you the clues to figure it out. After achieving peace with the Covenant in Halo 3, you’re fighting them again in 4. Why? Read the books.* The Covenant ally with the Prometheans a level or two into the game. Why? Read the books. The Didact hates humanity. Why?
Read the books Watch the terminals. Etc.
The Didact doesn’t look like he belongs in a Halo game. He looks like he belongs on Philly sports radio. He looks like Karl Rove. He’s bald, he’s got crooked teeth, little pit-bull canines. He has two or three clear-cut chances to kill Master Chief, but he’s too in love with his Vader-esque force-choke to actually go through with it. When he makes his grand appearance, he does not introduce himself. Everyone calls him by name for the rest of the game. He’s fucking terrible.
Del Rio only exists to give the player something to hate. He doesn’t say a word to Master Chief that’s not laced with unwarranted vitriol. His sole personality trait is “asshole”. He’s fucking terrible.
Even Cortana becomes whinier and less fun to be around. Her rampancy causes half the problems of the game, and her personality see-saws between “hysterical girlfriend” and”crazy ex-wife”. I imagine it’ll be a bit of a chore to replay the campaign, knowing she’s going to cock up the end of every level with a well-timed bout of psychosis.
About half the characters in Halo 4 harangue Master Chief at one point or another for no fucking reason. I’d be pissed if I was him. Sorry I’m not tall enough to be your boyfriend, Palmer! Sorry I didn’t give you enough time to pack before evacuating your ass, scientist lady! It’s cool, Del Rio, I didn’t want any intel anyway! It’s not like I saved humanity or anything! Ungrateful twats.
There are a couple of surprisingly well-written sequences, especially near the end of the campaign. They almost drown out the laughably shit dialogue in the rest of the game.
Halo 4 has a few of the worst, most clichéd and poorly delivered lines in Halo history. To wit:
“I am ordering you. TO SURRENDER THAT AI! ARREST THIS MAN! ARREST HIM!”
“I WILL NOT ALLOW YOU TO LEAVE THIS PLANET!”
“Promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.”
I could sit here all day cataloguing every line that made me cringe, but instead I’ll move on to the things I was indifferent about.
The quintessential Halo experience is driving around in a Warthog with a friend or two, shooting a bunch of aliens. Halo 4 has a sequence like that. It has a level where you fight on a gondola, like in Halo 2. It has a level where you fight through a jungle, like in Halo 3. It has a jet sequence, like Halo: Reach. It has the “fly around to the waypoints” thing you do in the later games. Almost every encounter is derivative in one way or another.
It doesn’t help that all the objectives are either switches or generators. Way back in 2001, the eighth level of Halo had you overload pulse generators by walking into them. In Halo 4, you have to do the same thing, except the generators are now controlled by switches. It’s fucking Switchception.
One of the most fun sequences in the campaign, for me, was the part where you jetpack off of a crashing ship. Unfortunately, it’s preceded by a mind-numbing thirty minutes of escorting a Jawa sandcrawler through a barren desert. It makes me wish for the days of Halo 2‘s Scarab fight.
This isn’t to say that I hated the encounters; rather, it’s to say that, by and large, they inspired no strong feelings in me. [There were a few exceptions, notably the initial crash on Requiem, which I found atmospheric and well-done.]
Glitchy as fuck.
In multiplayer, you occasionally spawn without armor abilities or the ability to sprint. In multiplayer, you occasionally spawn without a weapon. In the fifth mission, a mission-critical ship refuses to spawn 40% of the time. You will have to restart the mission. In the sixth mission, your dropship sometimes gets stuck in the launch tube. You will have to restart the mission. You’ll run into a lot of glitches like this. None of them really kill the playing experience, but they do provide some good old-fashioned unintentional humor.
Scripted QTE sequences.
They’re sparingly used and would be fine without the fuckhuge “Press RB to Kill Elite” text.
I only noticed it in the last level and the menu. The menu theme is great. The ending theme sucks, and it’s repeated 50 times.
But far, far more important than the above issues are the things that Halo 4 gets right.
The maps don’t suck.
What makes Halo multiplayer good? Let’s break this down. What makes Halo different from your bog-standard military shooter? Let’s start with an easy one: jump height. In the process of playing Halo, most gamers find their characters bouncing around the map like gun-toting tennis balls. Therefore, terrain traversal is crucial to Halo. It’s not just what and who you’re shooting, but from where you’re shooting them. In campaign, we call this “encounter design”; in multiplayer, this means maps.
Despite Halo 2‘s issues, it sold millions of gamers on online multiplayer, thanks in part to a fantastic set of maps. My memories of Halo 2 aren’t moments, but modes of being: Rumble Pit on Midship, Assault on Turf, Team Snipers on Headlong, anything on Lockout. At the very least, none of Halo 4’s maps suck. In fact, some are already showing their potential for greatness. As new jumps and ways of getting around are discovered, maps like Haven gain strategic depth.
But aren’t you just talking about MLG crap? Who cares about “strategic depth”? I don’t want to be a pro gamer! I just wanna shoot stuff!
Why, thank you, hypothetical whiner, you’ve fallen for my clever ruse. Good game design isn’t about empowering the “pro” over the “casual”; it’s about providing avenues for player improvement. Even casual players want to get better at the game, because doing well is more fun than doing poorly. If your game handicaps players from getting better, it’s shallow. Shallow games die, because shallow games suck. Say what you will about the
perks specializations and the killstreaks ordnance; Halo 4’s maps aren’t shallow.
The shooting doesn’t suck.
The one word I would use for Halo 4’s gameplay is “kinetic”. All the additions work, for once. The armor abilities are well-integrated, and none of them seems to be overpowered. The new weapons are all unique, and none of them is useless. The Boltshot deserves particular credit, combining the rapid-fire of the pistol from Gears of War, the charge function of the plasma pistol and the shotgun-lite power of the Mauler.
Even playing Team Slayer Pro, which strips away the armor abilities and Call of Duty-esque killstreaks, Halo 4 feels more fun than Halo’s been since 2007, or maybe even 2004. Halo’s gone wrong when it’s neglected its focus on core mechanics, and the core mechanics here just plain work. One of the best ways you can tell things are pretty well balanced: everyone is complaining about something different being overpowered.