Thoughts on Halo 4

WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS! If you haven’t completed the campaign for Halo 4 and intend to then please don’t read on because I’m going to ruin things for you.

The other day whilst recording the intro end close to Of Dice & Men Adam asked me which I preferred Spartans or Space Marines. As those that know me will testify, I never have a straight forward answer for anything. I very rarely just state a preference or an opinion because there’s a lot of thought that goes into things and I like to share those thoughts whether the person on the receiving end likes it or not.

My answer was this;

If we’re talking generally than Space Marines because Space Marines are awesome, I’ve been collecting them 20 years and they’re ace. If we’re talking purely in the video game arena then Spartans because Space Marine, although good, had some pretty glaring deficiencies which, having replayed it recently, explains why there won’t be a sequel. If, however, the question was; which do I prefer the Master Chief or Space Marines then I have to say the Master Chief.

Now, before people start writing rage mail or leaving me condescending comments – because we all know how I love those – let me just say it’s a preference. A simple choice based on a set of criteria important to me.

For me what makes the Halo Universe and the Master Chief so compelling is that it’s a tale of tragedy. Not just the Chief’s tale but one of humanity as a whole. Our expansion into the heavens led to a war with an advanced alien race that almost led to our extinction and even then left our colonies barren and Earth wounded.

Humanity was saved by the sacrifice of the Spartans. I won’t go into too much detail about the process but the important thing to remember that the Spartan IIs were abducted children, (the later Spartan IIIs war orphans). They were abducted and put through extraordinary levels of physical and psychological conditioning so by the time the Master Chief first experienced combat at 16 he and his fellow surviving Spartans were as far removed from humanity as, arguably, the Adeptus Astartes in 40k. Not in the same way perhaps but the point stands.

John 117’s life from the age of 6 has been one of loss. Loss of family, loss of self then later the loss of his friends during the process that turned them into Spartans. Throughout the war he had to deal with the loss of his fellow Spartans, the loss of men and women and the loss of worlds. And still he fought on, any small victory being seized upon and exploited to the full for the betterment of humanity all the while not convinced of his place in humanity when the fighting was done.

And were this tragedy not enough he was charged with looking after the AI Cortana; the greatest and most sophisticated AI every created, an AI that held the secrets of the Forerunners and the Halo rings. The Chief and Cortana had met before and both were impressed with each other. The Chief had clarity of thought, brave and strong. Cortana was wise yet sensitive and reminded the Chief of the humanity, ironically, that he fought to protect and deep down still possessed.

Their connection was deep and far-reaching. They were as in love as a Spartan and an AI were capable of feeling those emotions. And from the Halo Incident they protected each other. When John-117 was forced to leave Cortana on High Charity he felt the loss acutely and his journey was as much about getting Cortana back as it was to defeat the Covenant.

In Halo 4 yet another tragedy befell the pair and that was Cortana’s descent into rampancy. In a nutshell, an AI only lives for 7 years before they start to think themselves to death. And despite Cortana’s descent into madness and their desperation to return home and see if her creator could do something to help, they put the safety of the UNSC Infinity and that of humanity first. And ultimately it cost Cortana her life. If you’re reading this and you haven’t finished Halo 4 then you’re a damn fool. But anyway…

For all his super human strength and no matter how hard he fought he couldn’t save Cortana. The funny thing was, as he faced down the fact that he was most likely going to sacrifice himself I don’t think it ever occurred to him that Cortana wouldn’t survive. With the loss of Cortana the Chief is forced to look at the world with his own eyes, finding his own humanity rather than relying on Cortana’s.

Halo 4 ended a bitter-sweet love story with tragedy pushing the chief ever closer to an edge he can’t return from as he tries to understand what it means to be human having had his humanity drummed out of him as a boy. John-117 never considered the loss of  because he’d always keep Cortana safe, no matter the personal cost. And now the Chief is left alone, no one he knew before the war left alive. Only Lasky, who he had met at the start of the Covenant War is the only vaguely familiar face.

Halo 5, I suspect will focus an awful lot on the Chief’s search for his sense of self. I also suspect that he won’t be paired with another AI and without the moral compass to guide him he’ll start to alienate himself from his fellow soldiers. Especially the Spartan IVs who are augmented adults. I also suspect that he’ll be haunted by ghosts of Cortana within his armour’s systems forcing him to experience a real and lasting sense of loss and grief rather than the stoic acceptance with which he’d met the loss of comrades in the past.

Halo 4 is not only the beginning of the Reclaimer arc but also the rediscovery of John-117’s humanity. And I can’t wait.

Halo 4: Spartan Ops

I’m a little late to the party on this one but it’s so immensely cool I had to share it. On Halo Waypoint those mentalists over at 343 Industries have produced a mini series chronicling the unseen events of the UNSC Infinity and her teams of Spartan IVs during the events of Halo 4.

Aside from being visually stunning it gives us a valuable insight into the UNSC post Covenant War, the UNSC Infinity as a vessel and the new generation of Spartans. These Spartans are volunteers, rather than victims of government sanctioned abductions, however they appear to be an even more stripped down version than the Spartan IIIs. Just as vainglorious as the IIIs but appear to lack the psychotically reckless behavioural problems that saw the IIIs spent before the war’s conclusion. Smaller in stature and, I suspect, physical prowess the Spartan IVs do sport the mark VII MJOLNIR armour dubbed GEN2.

Below are the first two episodes of Spartan Ops and I shall be posting the others as they become available. Enjoy.

Halo 4 – A Review

Five years. Five long years since the Chief uttered those haunting words; ‘Wake me, if you need me’ and we feared he would be lost to us forever. In those five years we have had Halo 3: ODST. A film noir set in the ruin of New Mombasa. It received mixed reviews but I suspect that the majority of the criticism boiled down to the lack of Spartans running around kicking people in the face. Halo: Reach two years ago was the swan song of Bungie as they kissed their baby good-bye and waved it into the big scary world with 343 Industries holding its hand. And what a swan song it was. An utterly beautiful game worthy of a space opera and a profound tragedy; the death of a world. Halo: Reach had all the love and sadness Bungie felt poured into every inch of that game, and it showed.

Halo 4 sees the start of the Reclaimer story arc and is set 4 years after Halo 3. The Master Chief is right where we left him on board the wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn. Although you may notice he’s had a bit of a face lift. A side effect of the cryo process presumably. Initially I didn’t like the new, more industrial, look to the Chief’s armour but it does grow on you. It feels more menacing than Bungie’s iteration. There’s also been a lot more thought gone into how the synthetic muscle fibres would work and the segmentation of the armour. At the end of the day, we got use to the Mk VI MJOLNIR armour in Halo 2, we can get use to this.

To give you a run down of the opening gambit; the Chief is awoken to find Covenant ships attacking the remnants of Forward Unto Dawn which has found itself in orbit around a huge artificial world called Requiem. Much ass kickery ensues but ultimately ends with the Chief on the (inner) surface of the world.

This give us the first real flexing of muscle for 343 Industries. It looks spectacular. I mean utterly beautiful. The first proper look you get of Requiem is looking out over a facility that seamlessly shifts and slides on a background of floating skyscrapers, clouds and the far side of the orb with the usual mental levels of detail we’ve come to expect from the Halo Universe. It’s epic.

Which is the point of Halo 4. It’s 343 Industries first outing at the helm of the good ship Halo and they were determined to make fans proud. Overall they did a superb job. Aside from the maps looking the absolute tits, they feel huge. All the weapons have had a little tweak here and there both in look but performance. Every sound effect from previous games have been re-recorded so the assault rifle feels beefier. They also realised that a Spartan really isn’t going to have an issue with recoil so everything feels far more poised than it use to. Which means you feel every bit the super soldier as your blasting your way through the Covenant.

Yes, the Covenant are back. I suspect this was partly for continuity but they’re all renegades so it’s fine. Like the UNSC weapons, they’ve all had a nip and a tuck. Grunts now look quite sinister, all of the traditional cuteness gone. They can also hit things now. And plasma pistols are slightly over powered. So they’re actually pretty bloody annoying. As is the fact that they’ve done away with the health bar. AGAIN. So once you’re shields collapse (and they will do often) you’ve got no bloody idea how long you’ve got before you’re a peculiarly posed corpse on the floor.

However, you won’t just be facing the Covenant. As has been heavily publicised you also go up against the mysterious and technologically badass Prometheans. Mimetic constructs that can jump through slip space and have guns that wouldn’t look out-of-place on the set of Tron. I can’t go into too much detail plot wise and it’ll spoil things but suffice to say, they’re big, shooty, stabby and take a lot of killing. The AI is also sadly a little off and so are utterly predictable and, providing you have the right gun you can pretty much keep your distance and wear them down.

And ammo is a big issue in Halo 4. In that there isn’t any. There’ll be occasions you get to re-equip but generally speaking you’ll be scrounging weapons left right and centre. This is more realistic. But it it’s less fun because, personally, I like the UNSC weapons. They suit my style of play. Although I rarely get to do my usual style of play – which is run up and mang things – because the improved accuracy most things are dead by the time I get there. The funny thing is, in an attempt to be different with the Prometheans the weapons range from fucking ace in the form of the Light Rifle, Incinerator and Scattergun to the utterly useless – the Boltshot and Suppressor. The latter is so woefully inaccurate you’ll waste almost an entire energy sell to take out the weakest of the Promethean construct.

I suppose the upside of the erratic weapon performance, lack of UNSC ammo and the lack of health information does mean that you feel in more peril than normal. Which is both good and bad. It’s good because if you’ve played the other games you would have steamed through them easy enough once you figured out your preferred weapons configuration and playing style so it forces you to adjust your combat style and make use of cover. It’s bad because you’re a MKII Spartan and they’re supposed to be pretty nails.

In term of game play Halo 4, if I’m honest, doesn’t offer anything new. It’s still more arcade than ultra realism – which isn’t a complaint just an observation. It’s still got some of those frustrating glitches that have dogged all Halo games where it doesn’t register a head shot so it takes three shots rather than one. Melee is still an intangible affair where you rarely feel like you’re connecting with the target; more bending around it or simple moving through it.

There’s also more than a few moments in the campaign that are blatant rehashes of earlier games like the tedious gondola section in Halo 2 and the race through the Pillar of Autumn from Halo: CE. Although very intense it feels at times a tad Lego: Star Wars and because of the perspective you’ll smash yourself into structures you thought you were clear of. Some of the set pieces as well feel laboured and predictable and because of the ambition some of the graphics suffer noticeably. But these are minor grumbles really I just wish that 343 hadn’t been quite so quick to rehash old ideas. It’s too safe for what needed to be a seminal game.

The story, which I won’t go into too much detail on because it’s still early days for most people, is epic. It ties in the existing Halo lore, including the much maligned Halo Wars, as well as opens up a whole new facet of the Universe to explore as well as some pretty big revelations about the Forerunners and the original flood infestation. An old theme makes its appearance which is loss. It’s always been there in the Halo games. The loss of life, the loss of territory, the loss of hope. In Halo Reach it was the loss of an entire world and the loss of comrades and friends. Sacrifice is what the Halo games is all about.

In Halo 4 Cortana is suffering from rampancy – an affliction all AIs suffer after 7 years where they essentially think themselves to death – which adds a real sense of urgency to the game as the Chief as he struggles to rescue the crash landed UNSC Infinity to return to Earth and save the life of an AI he’s all but in love with. The story wrestles with the real tragedy of the Master Chief finally touching on the fact that he’s a transhuman charged with the defence of humanity who, outside those who serve alongside him, resent and fear him and he feels utterly removed from. That he’s most likely the last of the Spartan IIs and all he’s known since the age of 16 is war, having been abducted at the age of 6. And now he faces the loss of the only ‘person’ to every understand him and yet another threat to humanity that he must face all but alone. It is a completely brilliant story. It does however, warrant a couple of play-throughs as it’s opening up the proverbial can of worms and can only mean yet more mentalness in Halo’s 5 & 6.

Halo 4, for all the little niggles, is an absolute triumph and worthy of the legacy 343 Industries had to live up to. The combat is still frenetic and if you don’t have the reflexes of a cat you may find yourself dying, a lot, particularly in the later parts of the game. The story is tremendous and moving and the cut scenes are worthy of a film. There’s been huge improvements graphically and the hideous ‘people’ animation of Halo 3 has been tremendously improved upon. Playing on normal, however, I did rattle through it in just over 5 hours which does feel a little on the short side but I suspect Halo 3 was no longer and I was by no means taking my time. That said the game felt epic in size and there was more than one occasion when I felt knackered after the action stopped.

I’ve deliberately not played the multiplayer yet because Halo, for me, is all about the story. I’m sure it’s a huge amounts of fun, but the return of the Master Chief deserved my complete, and undivided attention. And what a return it is!

Forward Unto Dawn – Parts 1-5

The final part of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn came out today and so I thought it would be handy if I put all the episodes in one place rather than make you trawl through five weeks of posts. Plus you’ll get a much better feel for the story.

It’s actually quite remarkable that 5 weeks have gone by so quickly and we’re only 4 days away from the release of a game I’ve been waiting a very long time for. You can expect a full review towards the end of next week, but for now I give you Forward Unto Dawn…

Halo 4 TV Ad

A brand new Halo 4 TV advert has been released which, much like the Halo 3 commercials, gives further insight into the Master Chief’s origins and the horror of the Spartan II programme. It also highlights his deteriorating mental state which rumour has it will become a theme throughout this story arc of games.