“Halo 4,” the first game in Microsoft’s series of space Marine shooters not developed by Bungie Studios, can feel like a giant compromise.
On the one hand, new steward 343 Industries no doubt has dozens, if not hundreds, of ideas to freshen up a series that’s on the cusp of feeling old-hat. But they also have to weigh the “Halo” series’ massive fanbase’s expectations of what makes a “Halo” game. 343’s unenviable task is to take the series in a new direction, but without upsetting anybody.
Given that balancing act, “Halo 4” is a strong first effort. The new, more personal focus of the game’s narrative humanizes Master Chief, making him feel like less of a cardboard cutout super soldier designed to appeal to kids.
The new class of Promethian enemies is far more sophisticated than the zombie-like Flood race it replaces, and the exotic Forerunner weaponry will subtly freshen up the series’ online multiplayer modes.
“Halo 4,” actually the sixth or seventh game in the series, depending on whether you count real-time strategy game “Halo Wars,” is the first since 2007’s “Halo 3” to feature Master Chief, the largely mute star of the original trilogy who went into hibernation after saving humanity.
The game opens with the Chief being awakened by his artificial intelligence companion, Cortana, just before his damaged ship crashes onto Requiem, an undiscovered planet that once housed members of the franchise’s ancient Forerunner civilization. On the planet’s surface, players will contend with Promethians, ancient protectors created by the Forerunners, as well as the Covenant, the coalition of alien religious fanatics who have long served as the series’ main enemy.
While much of the plot evolves into standard, save-the-world fare, the best parts revolve around Master Chief’s relationship with Cortana, the holographic AI who’s been the voice in Master Chief’s head since 2001. While Master Chief’s been sleeping, Cortana has aged well beyond the lifetime of a typical AI and has started to deteriorate. As she explains, she’s literally thinking herself to death.
Journeying through the game with Cortana at times feels as heartbreaking as watching someone battle dementia. She’ll snap at you unexpectedly for no apparent reason, or suddenly lose her bearings at a critical point before apologizing. Master Chief’s patient, sympathetic responses to these episodes humanize him in a way typical video game tropes such as flashback sequences, journal entries or soliloquies could not.
Gameplay-wise, the campaign still looks and feels the way “Halo” fans expect it to. Though diverse, most of the levels are large and open, to help make room for the series’ tried-and-true blend of on-foot battles and vehicular mayhem. Campaign level design was never Bungie’s strong suit, and 343 Industries seems content in this first effort to get out of the way and give players large sandboxes in which to battle aliens.
As with all “Halo” games, “Halo 4” has lots to do once you finish the campaign. A new multiplayer mode, Spartan Ops, replaces the Firefight game type popularized by “Halo 3: ODST” and “Halo: Reach.” Playing as customizable soldiers who make up the crew of a ship called the UNSC Infinity, teams of up to four Spartan Marines complete episodes comprised of five brief missions. There’s one episode on the disc, and nine more will be available on a weekly basis, free to players who buy the game new.
The mission structure and weaving together of Spartan Ops objectives into a loose narrative reminded me a bit of much-maligned first-person shooter “Brink,” a game I quite liked.
It’s hard to tell from one episode if the story will be worth keeping up with in the long run, but the effort to do something new is laudable, even if some of us will miss Firefight mode.
Other than Firefight, most of the “Halo” series’ popular multiplayer offerings return. Slayer, Capture the Flag, Griffball and Flood will be familiar to most veteran players.
A new Slayer-based game type, Regicide, awards more points when players kill the current leader, while Infinity Slayer riffs on “Call of Duty’s” popular kill streak system, doling out rewards to more skilled players who can stay alive longer while racking up kills.
With conflicting goals and expectations looming over 343’s first game, “Halo 4” was never going to be the best “Halo.” But it’s a worthy first effort, and one that should have franchise fans excited for the next game in what’s planned as a trilogy.
For this review, I played “Halo 4” (rated M, $60 for base Xbox 360 version) for two days in a controlled environment at a San Francisco hotel. I completed the campaign on Normal, played through all on-disc Spartan Ops scenarios and sampled other multiplayer modes. I also played a retail version of the game provided by Microsoft at home.