Monday, June 30, 2014

Halo 4 - Thoughts

There was little love lost when I heard the Halo franchise was switching hands from Bungie Studios to 343 Industries. Some people swear by Bungie's work while they were still attached to Microsoft, revering the Halo games as the pinnacle of console FPSs, but the sci-fi shooter has never... clicked with me. I've rarely been interested in competitive multiplayer games and the Halo series was no exception; the scant few times I've played against others did little to change my mind. Therefore my experience with the games (1,2,3 and half of Reach) has been colored foremost by the campaign, and each entry has honestly left me feeling lukewarm at best.

The release of Halo 4 brought forth a bundle of criticism and controversy from fans that piqued my curiosity (although I wouldn't pick up the title until two years later). I was optimistic in what I assumed would be a significant change to the series, after hearing wild accusations that the mechanics had being CoDified and the new enemy designs were too Metroid Prime-y (neither of which stood out as particularly egregious for me). I was hoping to find myself thoroughly enjoying the campaign rather than shrugging off the experience as I had done with the previous entries, but what I played felt very much like Halo, though of a slightly different flavor.

Perhaps I should preface this section by explaining that I've never played any of the games to completion on Legendary. A common argument against the series' detractors is that they should engage with the combat on harder difficulties in order to discover the deeper systems behind gunplay and enemy behavior, but the issue for me has always rested on the fundamentals. I felt that the weapons had no weight or impact, the enemies were too bulky, the Chief felt sluggish, and the vehicles were incongruous to the on-foot fighting. The sections of combat that stuck out to me as entertaining were veering around in a Ghost sideways while peppering scrambling foes, and thrusting an energy sword into an elite for instant evisceration (such fancies were often short lived). And here in Halo 4, my impressions felt very much the same.

This is largely due to a common face seen in the game that I thought had run its course. You see, I'm tired of fighting the Covenant. I haven't fought them just once—I've fought them over four times across about 35 hours. If I wanted to fight more of the Covenant and use their purple weapons and drive their purple vehicles, I'd go back and play any of the other five entries prolifically featuring the humanoid zealots. When I met them once again in Halo 4, I think I was understandably unenthused to engage in rote combat; I hoped the additional race of enemy aliens would provide a much needed change in these encounters I knew all too well.

When the Prometheans showed up I was definitely excited—they were strange new foes pulsating with resplendent energy, and I was eager to test out their weapons and challenge their ranks. But rather than encountering a different army with a different style of play, I found rough analogs to the Covenant in these electronic abominations: Crawlers are wall-scaling Grunts and Knights are less nimble Elites with a couple of tricks of their sleeves. Even their arsenal mirrored both the UNSC and Covenant archetypes (pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, rocket launcher), though there were slight changes for each one. Nevertheless, I did prefer to fight the Prometheans as opposed to their cool-colored cousins, since it felt like a fresher experience thanks to both the visuals and audio effects (especially on the weapons). To some it may be a case of "if it ain't broke don't fix it", but for me the similarities drew out a staleness in the battles that had worn gossamer thin.

That's not to say I didn't have fun—there were plenty of times where I found myself gleefully enchanted as I perforated the face of an Elite with a Promethean rifle, and smiling every time I killed a Watcher as it was attempting to resurrect its host. Yet most of the game was spent in a lull, being unmoved by the lore and annoyed at how plentiful & durable the enemies were (higher difficulties would serve to stimulate that irritation I think). There were even a few scenarios that became outright grievous, like a section near the end littered with Banshees and turrets that took forever to chew through, until the game started quicksaving me as I hid curled against a corner looking for rockets. The Hunters further stirred this agitation into anger as the tanky meatshields ate up all of my ammo and forced me to backtrack and scavenge for energy pistols while they brainlessly patrolled a small circular area.

Gadzooks does the game look gorgeous though. 343's artists employ a wide use of colors, smart handling of bloom and they build some of the largest, sleekest structures to have ever graced a console FPS. Many of the vistas tend to blur together (as the backdrops and architecture in Halo usually has [other than the iconic ring]), but it's still fun to run around and gawk at the enormity of it all. The game also runs wonderfully on the aged hardware, a testament to the team's technical prowess... it's just a shame the rest of the game didn't impress me enough to allow full immersion in the experience.

Take the story for instance—good lord, that story. I'm a big fan of narrative and character development in video games (admittedly a foolish plight at times), but akin to the combat, Halo wasn't something I could get my fix at. It often prioritized military lingo and objective discussions over plot commentary on the situation or interesting developments between characters (the Arbiter was mildly fascinating, but the cutscenes barely gave me more than a glimpse into the Covenant culture). I know there's a lot of lore there for the series, but each game—especially this one—had done nothing to pull me in.

In fact, sometimes it does the very opposite. Midway through Halo 4 there's a plot dump akin to the one at the end of Matrix Revolutions, filled with unexplained jargon like "Reclaimer", "Mantle of Responsibility", "Contact Essence" and "Genesong". People lambast Final Fantasy XIII for its expansive lexicon but at least I could check the datalogs to buff up on what each of the terms meant (which, once you get past the repeated use of Cie, it's relatively easy to keep track of). Here I spent the entire game unsure if Forerunner, Precursor and Promethean were the same thing, or how the Prometheans were related to humans, or why the Covenant were even here (were they drawn into the planet, or looking for the Didact, or hunting after Master Chief?). My questions went wholly unanswered by the end; the game was more intent on looking inwards towards Master Chief and Cortana's relationship and how it was changing with her dwindling state. But since the Chief has the in-game personality of a plywood board and Cortana pathetically referred to herself as a "girl" any time she needed help in order to stroke the male ego, the relationship was quickly lost on me (while it concluded competently, by then it was too little too late).

Overall, I don't even know if I enjoyed this entry any more than the other Halo titles (I think I did but it's been years since I touched 2 or 3). It's likely I should distance myself from the series to avoid burning out on the franchise, similar to how I've treated Call of Duty and Gears of War since each installment feels like a minor adjustment on its predecessors' legacies rather than a revision. I'm not skilled enough to spot what 343 Industries has done to sully Microsoft's most prestigious IP, though I guess I would've had to sink days and nights into both Halo Reach and Halo 3 well before I could make that kind of assessment. For now though I feel I can only shrug and resume saying that Halo is too far from my tastes, and that my time is best spent elsewhere.

Images obtained from:,,,