A Reflection on Halo 4

When Bungie announced that they would be leaving Halo for good after they finished developing Reach, I prepared myself for the end of Halo as we know it. I was very pessimistic for the future of the franchise. I knew it was a very special property and I just could not imagine any other studio having the ability to carry it forward properly. I saw Reach as the end of my Halo experience, I moved on to other games assuming the series was now apart of my past. Then suddenly E3 2011 came out of nowhere. Somehow, I’d completely forgotten what time of the year it was and to my surprise, my visit to IGN that morning led me to some exciting Halo news. Halo: Combat Evolved was getting remastered and was due later that year. This was enough by itself to excite me but what really grabbed my attention was the announcement of Halo 4 and its subsequent trailer. All it took was hearing Cortana yell “Chief!” as the camera pans to our wonderful green hero waking up from cryo to put my hype levels over the moon. Halo was back and so was I. What could go wrong?

I watched the trailer time and time again, as I do with all new Halo trailers, pouring over every detail trying to guess at what the future might hold. November that year Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was released with enhanced graphics, terminals, skulls and other new features. I was pleasantly surprised how faithful the company was to one of my favorite games of all time. Halo ran great, looked amazing and played the same as it always had. Not only was my faith in 343 building, my interest in Halo 4 was as well. The terminals included in the remaster of the game shared the perspective of 343 Guilty Spark during the extremely long time he was left alone on the ring. It filled in a few gaps we didn’t know existed and spread a little light on the background of the Forerunners. Knowing the Forerunners were the cornerstone of the direction 343 was heading for the future of Halo I couldn’t soak up enough information to satiate my desire. I began to delve deep into the recently released Forerunner trilogy by Greg Bear which was wonderfully written and chalk full of background information on the mysterious Forerunners we’d known next to nothing about for the entire decade that Halo existed. Sure, I was initially thrown off to find out that the Forerunners were a Caste-based alien species since I’d always be more fond of Bungie’s original intention for the Forerunners to be ancient humans (I won’t talk on this further, as I’ve already covered it in great detail in a prior post) but the way in which 343 crafted this background and legacy for their version of the Forerunners was so well done I was on board.

The fall of 2012 approached slowly, as any passage of time does when your hyped for a video game, but I got there. I can recall having the entire warehouse I worked at during that time all bringing me their Mountain Dew caps so that I could turn them in for Halo 4 double EXP points. I didn’t even care about my online multiplayer rank but collecting these codes helped to tame the excitement. During this time I also made sure to watch all of the episodes from 343’s web series “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn” which did a spectacular job further increasing the hype whilst properly introducing us to a new character that would be heavily featured in the game, Thomas Laskey. Sure, the budget was low, and the film couldn’t hold a candle to what you’d expect to get out of a movie theater experience but it accomplished what it needed to.

It was finally time for Halo 4’s launch, the first effort to build an entirely new Halo game by an entirely new studio. This would determine whether Halo had a future, and if the series had staying power without the forces of Bungie backing it. I was in line for the midnight release, anticipation at an all time high. I picked up my copy, making sure to drive at least ten miles over the speed limit as I briefly gazed over at my copy sitting in the passenger’s seat. I had only just gotten off work an hour prior to the launch and I had to work in the morning, plus be up early to vote because November 6th, 2012 was voting day for the presidential election but I was determined I’d play through the entire campaign before sleeping. That’s exactly what I did.

The first mission of the game was exactly everything I had ever imagined. Cortana wakes Chief up from cryo and the two of you make your way off the damaged Forward Unto Dawn down to the planet below that was teased at the end of Halo 3. The graphics were jaw dropping for an Xbox 360 title, the weapons sounded better than ever and I was fighting elites again for the first time as Master Chief since 2004. When the first mission ended, I was extremely impressed, it appeared as if 343 had done it. I continued to the next level which was accompanied by a wonderful cutscene between Chief and Cortana discussing her rampancy. You could really feel the emotion between the characters in a way you’d never felt it before in prior Bungie entries. I made my way through the Forerunner shield world Requiem’s first level, discovering beautiful vistas full of mystery much like I did my first-time playing Combat Evolved. As I drove the warthog towards the mission objective Cortana begins to talk about potential ways we may be able to stop her rampancy. You can hear the hope in her voice, and the care that Chief expresses for this artificial intelligence that has become his best friend in the universe. It was quite shocking to see this level of characterization for the first time in the fourth main entry in the franchise. It’s not something I really thought was missing from Bungie’s games but now that I had it, I never wanted to go back.

I could articulate my thoughts on each level moment to moment but for the sake of time and proving my point more efficiently I just want to touch on the major beats. The next couple of levels introduce us to the new enemy faction, the Prometheans. As we all know these aren’t the Halo community’s favorite enemies to fight and for good reason. They don’t have anywhere near the artistic design that the different Covenant species possess nor the personality to go with it. While Halo’s Elites remind me of something akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien, Prometheans come off rather generic and uninspired. Promethean Knights basically function as giant bullet sponges who rarely do anything interesting other than the occasional teleportation, Watchers serve to aggravate the players last nerve by shielding the bullet sponges whilst throwing your grenades back at you and finally Crawlers exist merely as canon-fodder like the Grunts albeit much less interesting. Despite these harsh critiques I’m actually okay with their existence in Halo 4. They fit the narrative, offer variety against your standard covenant and despite the most common complaint,  they are fun to fight. Yes, that’s right. I believe that the Prometheans in Halo 4 are fun to fight, I am also of the opinion that a good majority of people who say they aren’t, are more influenced by their uninspired character design and lackluster personality traits. Covenant enemies are full of charm, I mean they just look cool as hell, something that cannot be said for the Prometheans. Looking past those large criticisms I still find myself enjoying the moment to moment gameplay involved with them over the course of Halo 4’s roughly seven-hour campaign.

Not long after being introduced to our new foes we come to the big reveal that all the trailers, books and extended material have been leading up to, a living Forerunner, the Didact. It’s at this time we get Master Chief’s first proper antagonist, someone that can actually go toe to toe with him or rather succeed him in one on one combat. I feel the introduction of this character was fairly well done. The proper amount of mystery, build up and time were spent in the game to lead us to the Didacts reveal. I’d like to think that most players were excited to see what this character was like and it acted as one of those “cool” moments you’re used to getting in Halo games like the reveal of the Flood or the realization that you are going to be playing as one of the Covenant Elites in Halo 2. While much can be said for what the Didact as a character was lacking, I think he stands tall as one of the best villains in the Halo franchise. He doesn’t have the depth of character you’d get from Batman’s Joker or Marvel’s Thanos but I don’t think every villain needs to have that level of development to be compelling. The Didact serves his purpose during our time in Halo 4’s campaign and is bolstered by what we know of him from Greg Bear’s Forerunner trilogy. This brings me to another one of Halo 4’s biggest criticisms, the extended lore. It is true that you will have a lot more to gain from playing Halo 4 if you’ve been invested in the proper expanded universe, but it’s not done in the same way that Halo 5’s campaign was. Halo 5 felt like you had no idea what was going on and you were effectively hurt by not having read the expanded material, while Halo 4 was good on it’s own only to be enhanced by what went on outside the game. Nevertheless, I am more impressed now than I was during my first playthrough of the Didact as a character. I miss the potential he had and what could have been done with him had he not been killed off in a side comic that no one read.

The campaign continues at full force as it introduces us to the UNSC Infinity and its crew. Characters like Sarah Palmer really failed to catch on while others like Thomas Laskey came in strong and cemented their place in the Halo universe. I feel like I am in the minority here as well but I really appreciated the character of Andrew Del Rio, not because he was super deep but because he was believable and properly served his purpose to build tension as we moved closer to the climax of Halo 4’s story. I’d say it’s fair 343 succeeded building exactly the kind of character they wanted because the fans despise him for how he treated our iconic two-ton hero. It’s because of Del Rio that Chief and Cortana are left to their own devices as they are told to leave the ship. This offers up the perfect opportunity for Laskey to build himself as a character we can all grow to love as he goes against orders to assist our main characters. It’s around this time we get another beautiful scene between Chief and Cortana as she stares out into the distance and reflects on her inability to feel despite her limitless knowledge. I really can’t thank 343 enough for moments like these because they are the type of scenes I always wanted more of in the original trilogy.

The story builds closer to its climatic ending as we head towards a station orbiting a Halo ring where the Didact’s composer is being held. This is probably one of the better if not the best mission in the game because it features a lot of Covenant, a larger sandbox, a small but charming new character and high stakes. 343 aptly spends much time developing the character of Dr. Tillson in this mission despite knowing she’s going to be dead by the end of it. They wanted to build a connection between the player and someone from the station so that when the Didact finally composes everyone in the facility we will feel something real. I know I did. Seeing Dr. Tillson’s flesh burn off as her body becomes a skeleton and then digitizes as Chief collapses reaching out for her was a well-handled moment of grief. This leads us to another cutscene where Cortana despairingly tells Chief they will pair him with another AI if she doesn’t find a way to cure her rampancy. Chief proclaims he won’t allow it as they take one of the stations longswords and chase after the Didact’s ship.

It’s here where we reach the conclusion of Halo 4 in its final mission, Midnight. I often forget that this mission starts with a ship flying segment akin to something you may have seen in a Star Fox game. It’s relatively simple but it mixes up the gameplay and serves as a fantastic set piece. The skybox here is beautiful and the level is setting up atmosphere in all the ways you’d expect a last level to feel like. If you didn’t like Laskey by now 343 does their best to make sure you will here. The Infinity comes to your aid to help punch a hole in the Didact’s ship led by Laskey himself as he tells you over your comms that he is now the captain and that Del Rio was demoted for abandoning you. A feel-good moment for sure. I don’t particularly like the design of the next half of the level as everything is so dark and orange. It makes sense, you are inside the Didact’s ship, which is comprised of mostly orange, but it doesn’t make for the most appealing aesthetic. It certainly doesn’t scream Halo in any tangible way. You’ll also be fighting Prometheans exclusivley for what remains of the game as you make your way towards your final showdown with the Didact. Having said what issues I have with the level itself I have much higher praise for how it all wraps up. Seeing a final showdown between Chief and Didact has all the tension you’d expect from the games climax. Cortana’s ability to split herself and physically hold down the Didact was unexpected to be sure, but thematically quite exhilarating. I think the concerns over the final moment of gameplay being a quick time event are fair, and I’d rather have more involved gameplay myself but it didn’t detract from the experience for me personally. It’s the final cutscene between our two main characters that steal the show. Their relationship to each other feels honest, genuine and heartfelt as we see them share their (supposed) final moment together. I’ll always be enthralled by the way they managed to make Chief’s face look sad in this scene despite him never taking his helmet off. I can’t really explain what I mean by that, but I hope you can see the same sense of melancholy that I do when he watches Cortana disappear into thin air. I thought they handled Cortana’s death masterfully. They did justice to her character and gave her the kind of send off I’d always hoped. I found the ending accompanied by the epilogue with Laskey on the bridge telling chief that soldiers aren’t machines to be moving in all the right ways. The game was over, and it did not disappoint.

As I’ve stated in other articles in the past I loved Halo 4 and actively became its biggest defender. I loved this game. I still do. The years following Halo 5 tested my resolve as it undid most all the interesting and endearing things Halo 4 created, but time has been forgiving as I’ve started to see Halo 4 for the outstanding achievement that it was. The fact that a new team developed Halo 4 as their first game ever speaks volumes of their talent. Halo 4 is an experience to behold, a game that is far better than it ever gets credit for. I think perhaps, the best way I can articulate it, is that the only thing holding Halo 4 back is that it was a Halo title. The game has all the ingredients for something truly special, and it was something special. I don’t know of many games that got an entire trilogy of novels written by an esteemed author built exclusively for them, and we know that wouldn’t have been possible were in not for the Halo branding. I still feel Bungie’s Halo’s are the superior entries into the series but that’s not to Halo 4’s detriment. Halo 4 deserves all the praise for being a truly deep, emotional tale that told a spectacular story in just one game, it wasn’t to it’s benefit that it was set in the Halo universe, but to its detriment. If I have any advice for people who are about to play Halo 4 or who are trying to get back into it on a second or third replay it’s to open your mind and try to find a way to allow this Halo entry to exist on its own. It’s a stellar game when freed from the shackles of it’s past. I’ll always give it its own special little place in the corner of my heart that’s reserved for Halo. It deserves that much.

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