Monday, December 10, 2012

Zrbo Reviews: Halo 4 (343 Industries, 2012)

Reviewing Halo 4 is no easy task. As the first in a new trilogy of an already storied franchise, reviewing Halo 4 is perhaps a good exercise for what critics will face when reviewing the new Star Wars movies when they inevitably arrive. Developer 343 Industries has the weight of a massive franchise to carry, with huge expectations to meet, and they mostly succeed.

It's nearly impossible to review Halo 4 without taking a look at it's reason for being. Franchise creator Bungie has moved on to develop its own new franchise (codenamed Destiny), leaving Microsoft, the owner of the Halo franchise, to find a new developer. Instead of hiring an established development studio Microsoft went ahead and created its own. Enter 343 Industries (named after 343 Guilty Spark, one of my favorite characters of the series). Microsoft was not stupid in doing this: Halo is its multi-million AAA premier franchise, and the folks there knew they had to get everything just right. They made plenty of good decisions. First, they brought on former Bungie member Frank O'Connor as the Franchise Development Director. Frank, or Frankie as he's generally known to the Halo community, has been deeply involved with the integrity of the franchise since Halo 2, the keeper of the never-seen "Halo Bible", ensuring story cohesion and integrity throughout the games. Next Microsoft poached some of the best talent in the game industry, bringing people in who worked on the highly acclaimed Metroid Prime games, former Bungie staffers, and as Halo 4 Executive Director the amazingly named Kiki Wolfkill to helm the project.

Seriously, that really is her name

On top of the burden of assembling a new team, there was the problem of finding a story to tell. At the end of Halo 3 the war had been won; Halo 3: ODST was a nice, moody side story; Halo: Reach was a prequel. Everything was wrapped up nice and tight. Again, going back to the Star Wars analogy, creating a new trilogy in the Halo universe must be what it's like over at Disney right now, trying to come up with a new story while honoring what came before. Luckily for 343 Industries, Bungie left them an out.

I've spoken before about how I thought the end of Halo 3 was a brilliant move. As in many blockbuster trilogies there's the question of what to do with the hero at the end. Do we have him (or her) make the big noble sacrifice, securing freedom and safety for the world through their death, or do we have them overcome the odds and win, coming home to a hero's welcome and living happily ever after? Bungie did neither. Series protagonist Master Chief saves the galaxy but instead of making it home to celebrate with everyone else, he's in a sort of limbo, adrift on a derelict spaceship thousands of light years from nowhere, sleeping in a cryosleep tube, with only his holographic Artificial Intelligence companion Cortana to watch over him. Those who were willing to go all the way and complete Halo 3 on its highest difficulty (or who were lazy and just went to Youtube) were treated to a tease of the derelict ship approaching some sort of planet. And that's exactly where 343i picks up the story.

We're not in Kansas

Halo 4 does two things incredibly well: the core gameplay is nigh perfect, arguably the best it's ever been in the series, and second, for the first time a Halo story has a strong emotional core.

Instead of opening on the adventures of Master Chief, the game begins with an exceptionally executed cinematic. We're treated to a scene of Dr. Halsey, the ethical boundaries pushing scientist who created  the supersoldier 'Spartan' program, of whom Master Chief was one of the first. Halsey is being interrogated by someone unknown. The scene has arguably more depth than anything in the Halo franchise before it. It not only gives us an understanding of who the Spartans are and why they were created, but provides the thematic thread of the story by questioning these soldiers' humanity. Are these Spartans saviors or brainwashed killing machines? Lastly, I want to point out the technical achievement of this scene. It may not come through on a Youtube quality video, but the CGI in this scene is incredible. I would swear that Halsey is an actual actress, not a digital creation. Simply phenomenal work.

The game proper picks up with Master Chief being awoken in his cryosleep tube by Cortana (who has never looked so well defined or... sexy). The derelict ship is being boarded as it drifts towards this unknown planet. Cortana, who has served as the series way of guiding you and providing details and insight, is going a little crazy. In the established Halo fiction Artificial Intelligences begin to deteriorate after a certain amount of time, entering a state known as 'rampancy' where they essentially think themselves to death. This provides the impetus for the rest of the story.

This is where things get interesting, as that motivation is kind of odd. While the first two entries in the series portrayed Cortana as your computer sidekick, Halo 3 began hinting that there was something more between this blue hologram and the cybernetically enhanced Master Chief. Halo 4 pushes this even further, moving the relationship towards that of a love story, though never quite going so far as to verbalize that, leaving players to ponder just what the relationship is that these two have. It's actually quite well done, and there's something about that never-actually verbalized love makes the relationship, and Cortana's deteriorating situation, that much more powerful. And it ties in wonderfully with that opening scene. While Master Chief becomes almost robotic in his killing, Cortana's increasingly volatile state seems to make her more human - after all, in order to be crazy you have to exhibit some sort of emotion.

They're in love... I think?

Eventually Master Chief and Cortana are sucked inside of the mystery planet, known as Requiem, which turns out not to be a planet at all, but a completely artificial hollow world built by the ancient long-vanished civilization dubbed 'the Forerunners'. The Chief fights his way through new and interesting foes, uncovering ancient secrets and mysteries. The game is quite fun, though at times the encounter design isn't quite up to par with previous games. Also, the story and your motivations become a little muddled, though I've found this to be an issue with all Halo games.

And a little muddled is probably what someone would feel like if they hadn't played a Halo game before. If you aren't familiar with the fiction, you would rightly feel confused as various elements are brought to light. In fact, the entire plot of the game is pulled from these hidden computer terminals you could find in Halo 3. These terminals provided a backstory that was arguably better written and more compelling than the surface story. They detailed the fall of the Forerunner civilization by simplifying that downfall in the form of two lovers, the Librarian and the Didact, penning letters to each other as a soldier might send letters to his wife from the front lines. There's a fairly exceptional scene in Halo 4 where this story is brought to the forefront, but, if you hadn't played a Halo game or read the terminals from Halo 3 you would have no idea what's going on. Even if you had found the terminals you might not understand what's going on as they progressively revealed more story as you played on higher difficulty levels, so you could only get the full story if you played through Halo 3 on the highest difficulty AND found all the secret terminal locations.

This leads me to a few of the game's faults. The story presented involves knowing the Halo universe in detail and often involves the player having to go outside the game to get more of those details. An example: once again there are hidden terminals in Halo 4 that provide access to short cinematics that fill in some of the backstory. But in order to view these you need to go to the 'Halo Waypoint' app or website, log in, and view them. Why these cinematics aren't on the game disc itself is beyond me.

Most of my other gripes are mainly concerned with technical issues. 343 Industries has revamped Halo 4's multiplayer (where most players spend most of their time anyways) to be more competitive with the juggernaut that is the Call of Duty series. While many of the changes are controversial (essentially adding in the perk-unlocking system that the Call of Duty series is known for) I have actually come to enjoy them. But in the process they trimmed some of the options that have become staples that the Halo franchise was known for. For example, 1-flag capture the flag has been removed (where one team is defending the flag and the other is trying to get it), precision editing in the Forge level editor has been stripped out, and the campaign theater mode is missing (which allowed you to rewatch your story-mode games, edit movies, and take screenshots). These features have become such a reliable part of the franchise that they've become known as 'legacy features'. There's been some talk that some of these features may be patched in later, but for now they seem like oddly missing gaps.

Another misstep is in the music. As I mentioned recently, Marty O'Donnell and his music are out, Neil Davidge of Massive Attack fame is in. The music works decently, and it does have a few memorable moments, but all in all it's just somewhat lacking. As one reviewer noted, the music seems much too reactive. I'll just go ahead and quote him as I think he says it best:
The music gets sad, exciting, or ominous in all the right places. But it is reactionary. It builds upon feelings I am already feeling. In previous Halo games, O’Donnell’s music would actually change the way I played. As The Silent Cartographer [level] begins, O’Donnell’s thunderous drums and pounding cello lines prepared me for a battle that wasn’t even on the screen yet. By the time my [ship] touched down on the beach, my adrenaline was already pumping. I hit the ground and slammed head on into the awaiting Covenant forces with everything I had. I played aggressively, because the music made me aggressive. This is the power Marty O’Donnell’s music commands, and it is noticeably missing from Halo 4.
The second thing of note with the music is how hard it is to hear. Someone in the audio department had a field day adjusting volume sliders. Mainly, the guns in the game sound loud, really loud. It makes them feel visceral and powerful. But no one bothered to turn up the music, leaving the score often times obscured by the sounds of really loud guns going off in your face. There's one brief moment when the classic Halo monks can be heard, while it's not until the credits that we at least get a reworking of the classic 'Never Forget', though it's oddly and unfortunately not included on the official soundtrack.

This is what we came for Neil

Overall, Halo 4 is a fairly amazing accomplishment. The team at 343 Industries had the unenviable task of being a new studio working on an established franchise with a devoted fanbase. They not only managed to create a game that feels like a Halo game, but they arguably created a much more emotionally engaging story than any previous Halo titles. On top of that, they created an exceptionally good looking game, pushing the boundaries of current generation console hardware. Seriously, those opening and closing cinematics would make Pixar jealous. There are some odd missteps however, mainly in the technical and audio department, though there's some hope that these can be rectified through patches.

Ultimately Halo 4 provides a terrific foundation for the new trilogy. The world has more surprising stories to offer, and I'm excited to see where they go with the work they put into character development, and most importantly, I can't wait to see where they take the Master Chief both physically and emotionally. Disney - the bar has been set, your move.

4.5/5 Zrbo points

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