It has been almost two weeks since the latest Halo game, imaginatively titled “Halo 4”, was released and since I am a long time Halo fan, I felt that I was somewhat obliged to talk about it. As usual, this won’t be a review – that’s not my kind of thing and Halo seems to be one of those games/series that tends to polarize players. You either like the series or you don’t, and I do. I guess I still do, but the developers are making it harder and harder to do so.

As a science fiction fan, the original Halo captured my imagination with its broadstroke space opera, highly influenced by authors like Iain M. Banks and the like: enormous mysterious space artifacts, fascinating alien cultures and ancient secrets about to be uncovered. It was Aliens meets Forbidden Planet. As a first person shooter fan, it introduced a lot of ideas that would mold what people expected from the genre, such as having every weapon you’ve collected at your disposal all the time, regenerating health and enemies that required forward thinking. The day it came out – the launch day of the first Xbox – I watched someone else play it for an hour,  then had to go buy the console and the game. I haven’t looked back.

Halo: ODST – What future war against an alien threat might be like. (Click through for Video)

Since then, the series has had its ups and downs, as most do, but it has always managed to deliver on most points that was established in the first game. The sequel, Halo 2, was a tour de force for me – I was beside myself when the first person view sidled into the body of the Arbiter – but to most people with high expectations they saw more of the same and felt the ending pulled the game’s pants down. That ending was a good one for me – the writers ended the story they opened up with – resolution to the civil war between factions of the Covenant, but I will agree that it didn’t satisfy as much as it could have and seemed rush. Completing the game on the Legendary difficulty setting gave me the ending I wanted and I was hungry for more.   Halo 3 came and went and I got that “more of the same” feeling that others felt with Halo 2. It didn’t introduce enough to engage that deep sense of wonder that dragged me beneath the waters of imagination with the original. Multi-player was largely the same and left me cold. Even the Legendary setting seemed incredibly easy compared to the brutal thumb breaking, arthritis inducing challenges of the first two. For me, the series hit a high point with Halo: ODST – an original, well laid out game that introduced a whole other side to the series. The commercials alone obsessed me. I watched those things over and over, immersed in the vision of what a future paratrooper might need to be and do.

After that Halo really began to get on my nerves. I still played each one, but I was growing tired of the recycling and the ret-conning that the creators began to inflict on the series. Halo: Reach on paper was everything I wanted: go back to where the story began, get to set the whole thing in motion, fight alongside the heroes of the novel “The Fall of Reach” which took place in the same time/space frame as the game. But the Master Chief wasn’t there, though he was in the book, and instead there were new Spartans, the “enigmatic” Noble team, who were so appropriately named and died “noble” deaths – too on the nose for me. In the novel, IIRC, Master Chief makes it off Reach by himself, the sole survivor of the Spartan IIs and there’s no Spartan IIIs to be seen, but in the game, the last remnants of Noble team get a cryogenically frozen MC and the AI Cortana to the escape ship (the “Pillar of Autumn” from Halo 1) and then sacrifice themselves to ensure the ship gets away.  One supposes this is “refinement” of the content as the franchise has evolved, especially since the novel was almost ten years old. It should have been one of the coolest games in the series, but it felt flat and uninteresting, mostly retreading the same kinds of setups, aliens, environments of previous games. Then came the 10th Anniversary remake of Halo 1, which… well, it looked nice. It was Halo 1, no bones about that, and I still enjoyed playing it and the new content that came with it in the form of Guilty Spark 343’s journals.

So, the Forerunner’s Successor…

So, Halo 4. Here I am 700 words in and haven’t said that much about it. Well, actually, I have, because it really shares a lot of the same issues I had with the series earlier. It revisits the same ideas, same trodden tropes and doesn’t feel as revolutionary as it perhaps should be. Why is that?  Halo 4 represents the first original title done entirely without the original creator developer Bungie Software – this is a complete Microsoft/343 Industries shebang. They’re in a tough position, starting out a new trilogy for a series held in high-esteem that makes tons of dosh each year, that needs to be familiar to fans, but one that sorely needs an injection of new cool on every level.  This is their make it or break it point.

I have no doubt that the game will sell like crazy, and probably has already, but I felt it was still retreading the same water, only a slightly different colour. The same tropes are there: clash with the Covenant, crash on a strange alien artificial world, unleash a long dormant threat to the universe, go find the librarian, etc…  only instead of the Flood there is a new enemy – the Prometheans. That’s all well and good, these new enemies are challenging and interesting and best of all, different, but the way they are used is similar to the first series of games. The environments tread similar ground to the great Library and Sentinel Wall environments, except they are new and improved with 200% more Tron lighting and bloom post-effects. They lacked any sense of a unique identity.

Because these new features – the Dyson Sphere designated “Requiem”, the Prometheans and so on, are used in the same way as before, they feel like I’ve seen them before, even when I haven’t: they merely fill in for the Halo, or for the Flood. There is little mystery to them and I felt that was the biggest thing going in Halo. What were the installations on the Halo for? Who made them?  Now its “okay, another Forerunner artifact”, and another… Its pretty bad when your new ideas can be expressed in terms of the old ones.

Apparently, the Prometheans like to shoot the shit out of things with shotguns too…

Gameplay hasn’t really changed much either: same weapon set up, many of the same weapons, deployable power ups, etc… The same dual weapon limit system still works and makes for enjoyable tactics, but there is weirdness. The new “ancient alien” weaponry are dumb analogs of modern human weaponry: a machine gun, a shotgun, a pistol, etc. Some mystery there. These Prometheans can build gigantic artificial planets but their weapons are so basic in theory, even down to the shotgun needing to reload by means of “shells”: why don’t they have a single power source to power them? I know I know, its a gameplay thing, to control reloading and force the player to meter out their aggression, but still – this is a big name space opera universe here, one which some serious SF talent has had a hand in shaping, such as Greg Bear.  Surely, the Prometheans could have developed something a lot more weird and wonderful?

Another thing that cheesed me off was its lack of humanity. I think this was one of the original Halo’s greatest triumphs. On most of the levels there is a human presence – not the Master Chief – but the lowly rank and file of the UNSC, struggling to make it through an ordeal, hoping for YOU as the Master Chief to get them out of it. They were in the very first level, the second, third, fourth… In Halo 4, you don’t see a single chump till the fourth level. In addition, the language of the aliens is simply that, alien, rather than in English, which means the character and humour they supplied (not to mention tactical information, such as plasma grenades sticking to them), is totally lost. My engagement flagged for a very long time until I ran into the first human characters, who walked into the first encounter of the level and got promptly knocked off. I didn’t get a sense that they were dependent on me, or that I should be trying my best to help them out.

Is it a let down? Yes. Is it a bad game, I don’t think so. Playing through for the first time on Heroic has given me more than enough frantic moments and challenging sessions and I enjoyed them. If anything, my constant exposure to the series means that the game might not surprise me as much as it would others: I know the Covenant enemies weak spots and how to deal with them and no longer fear the Elites as I once did.

But I feel that this should have been 343 Industries chance to shine – inventing a whole new section of the universe, unchained to what’s gone before, since this was a new trilogy, they could have pushed themselves further, instead of limping along the same old racetrack.

All the money in the world, and they fell short of an idea.

Image Credits: Halo 4: Microsoft/343 Industries, ODST: Microsoft/Bungie, Cryptum: Tor Books, art by Sparth (nice one, man!)