Halo 4 is half the game it should be

, | Game reviews

The Mammoth is glorious. This enormous wheeled vehicle is like a cross between a sandcrawler and that RV from Damnation Alley. It’s got a big-ass gun on top. Surely new Halo developer 343 Industries knows their Chekhov. When you introduce a big-ass gun at the start of a mission, you must fire it by the end of the mission. Maybe I’ll get to fire it. I hopped on board and couldn’t wait for the mission to start. This was going to be good. Probably better than that giant mechanical spider mission in an earlier Halo. Obviously better than the mondo truck mission in Gears of War. Maybe it will rival the crazy over-the-top sandcrawler sequence in Lost Planet 2!

“Chief, better get a jetpack,” one of the ancillary characters tells me.

A jetpack? What for? Why do I want a jetpack? Oh, in case I fall off. Good thinking!

The Mammoth starts rolling. It wends slowly through a narrow area barely wide enough to accommodate it. It’s like trying to park a Hummer in a space for a compact car. I get to shoot at about ten Covenant aliens off to the left. Then the Mammoth stops. I’m told I have to get off and go play Halo in an area to the right. I play a little Halo. The Mammoth waits for me patiently. Now it’s time to get back on the Mammoth. Then it wends its way a little farther down the very narrow path. Then it stops again for me to play a little more Halo.

This is how it plays out. The Mammoth will never fire its bad-ass gun. It will never drive anywhere other than along this closed in canyon. It’s an oversized bus taking me to bits of the same old Halo I’ve been playing for ten years. It is a massive fake-out, like everything else new in Halo 4: the Spartan ops feature, the storyline, the ancient evil awakening, the new multiplayer. Ponderous, familiar, and disappointing.

After the jump, what’s a Halo 4?

The last few Halos seemed to be stretching their legs. The jazz bar melancholy of ODST’s ruined city and the last-stand grimness of Reach had character. They seemed to realize you can only go so far with a faceless dude in a suit of armor. But now we’re back to Master Chief doing all over again what he’s already done before. There is literally nothing that happens in Halo 4 that hasn’t happened in one of the earlier games. There are no new set pieces, no new situations, no new beats in the gameplay. It’s all a retread. A slide down the same worn groove when you could instead be playing Borderlands 2, or The Darkness II, or Mass Effect 3, or the new Painkiller re-release, or even Halo: Reach.

In terms of new features, ODST had firefight, and Reach had even better firefight. Bungie’s games were at their best when you played them as tactical sandboxes, and firefight was the nearly perfect distillation of those sandboxes. You could flex and bend them however you liked. It was one of the best ways to show off the fantastic interplay of guns and aliens, minus the turgid storytelling. Halo 4 has no firefight. It has instead a set of five short missions, all on levels you played in the campaign, called Spartan Ops. The idea is that this is the first episode, and you can download more episodes later. It’s not a very good feature and it’s a particularly lousy alternative to firefight.

Furthermore, Halo 4 is missing the scoring mode that made the previous Halos so replayable. So what’s the point of the skulls that raise the difficulty level? The scoring system made this part of a risk/reward balance. They made the level harder, but they also raised your scoring multiplier. Why would I turn on skulls if there’s no scoring to be multiplied? Furthermore, you lost points when you died. In the pointless Halo 4, you just pop back up next to your buddy or at the last spawn point, none the worse for the wear, with no score to be penalized. Scoring was furthermore a great bit of instant feedback, along with all the little medals for feats. Halo used to be a gamer’s game. Halo 4 is just a game.

The new multiplayer progression is — stop me if you’ve heard this one — unlockable weapons and perks. As you level up, you earn points to spend on your various loadouts. This means the multiplayer isn’t just about getting beat by guys who are better than me. Now it means getting beat by guys who are better than me and who have better weapons and abilities unlocked. Otherwise, the competitive multiplayer is the same as it always was. Except now the infection mode is called Flood. What a horrible fake-out to see a mode called Flood and to discover that this is not, in fact, the Flood, but infection mode with a Flood skin. It’s worth mentioning that Halo 4, which visits a halo, has the perfect opportunity to reintroduce the Flood. No such thing happens.

Although the level design and the combat will be familiar to a fault, Halo 4 gets very Tron as it progresses. First come the Tron dogs, then the Tron guns, then the Tron robots, then whole Tron levels. The new guns are Tron versions of the old guns: battle rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, etc. Their components hover magically like a live action exploded view of a fake space gun. Then they slam together and you’re shooting orange laser beams where bullets used to be. The new stuff is all orange. Orange enemies, orange veins in the alien structures, orange laser beams. Orange is the new blue.

As with any Halo game, you’ll find plenty of tactical interplay among the enemies. Some of this is a little new, such as the flying robots who shield enemies or resurrect dead robots. They’re like amped up versions of the engineers from ODST. The hulking robots get a short-range teleport skill. But these new creatures have none of the personality or variety of the Covenant. There are basically Tron dogs, big Tron robots, and floating Tron support robots.

As a story, Halo 4 focuses on Cortana, now inexplicably sexied up as the hottest blue hottie this side of Avatar, and Master Chief, as bland and green as ever. Cortana gets bitchy and insecure. She blames her mood swings on rampancy. That’s apparently a thing. Rampancy. An AI thing. It was better when Shodan and GlaDOS did it. Also, AIs have a lifespan, like replicants. Didn’t you know that? In case you didn’t, Halo 4 is telling you now. By the way, Halo 4 says, AIs have a life span.

Since Cortana is going to go rampant as she nears her expiration date, Master Chief tells his commander officer, who is a douchebag anyway, to eff off. Meanwhile aliens something something something with an orc who lives inside a giant egg. Something something something artifact something something. On no, it’s headed for Earth something something! As near as I can tell, based on the skybox and my knowledge of geography, Master Chief saves Earth but Las Vegas gets zapped with a massive orange beam. Great news for Reno.

Overall, the story is slow, sentimental, and all too serious. It’s a narrative paper, rock, scissors in which orcs beat love, love beats nukes, and nukes beat orcs. Oh, and you can drive a green mech in a couple of the levels.

This is Halo 4. A shiny old dog without any new tricks. I got more out of the Halo 1 remake, which at least had the appeal of nostalgia. Playing through an updated version of the original Halo was at times tired or tedious. But it was also a reminder of the raw genius that launched the series. There is none of that in Halo 4, which is a drawn-out retread without any fresh perspective or energy, and furthermore missing a lot of what I need to pull me through a Halo game. Halo 4 demonstrates that if there’s one thing worse than more of the same, it’s less of the same.

1 star
Xbox 360

UPDATE: Before you comment, I recommend you read this FAQ about Quarter to Three’s review process, which will answer many of your questions and address many of your concerns. Also, I assure you that I am not editing or deleting comments. However, Disqus is dropping some of the comments in the pending box, presumably because it doesn’t like some of the things you’re saying. I will authorize these as soon as I see them.