Great soldiers come and go. Some die as legends. For many, Master Chief is one of the greatest soldiers to ever walk the digital plain. In Halo 3, he became humanity’s savior, after squashing the threat of the Covenant and the Flood. Simply referred to as “Chief” by some soldiers, he’s a battle-hardened fighter who approaches every combat scenario with grim purpose. Perhaps that is his biggest failing. While he’ll risk everything to save the human race, the Chief has always had a problem finding his own humanity.
Halo 4 begins some four years after Halo 3. Master Chief, John 117, is missing and presumed dead. Although good heroes may die, lucrative franchises never kill off integral lead characters. That’s why Batman recovered from a broken back, Superman came back from Doomsday’s killing blow and Captain America returned from beyond the grave.
When the Chief awakens in year 2557, he is a slightly different soldier. You’ll never see his face, but you feel his weariness. War has taken its toll. Unfortunately, time never works in the Chief’s favor. He doesn’t have a spare moment to focus on personal thoughts. Cortana is in trouble.
From the beginning of Master Chief’s journey, his trusty AI companion Cortana has always been with him. While the Chief may be singularly focused on a battle’s end game, Cortana has always rounded out the story. She may be an AI, but she regularly had a very human opinion to share.
In Halo 4, her importance to this legend is defined in an ostensibly new way. 343 Industries, who took over the development reigns on the franchise from Bungie, turned Master Chief’s relationship to Cortana into a Blade Runner story. In Blade Runner, Deckerd (Harrison Ford) develops an emotional bond to Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental replicant. Replicants are artificial life forms that look just like humans, but have four-year life spans. At the end of their four years, Blade Runners, a special police squad, are tasked with “retiring” (or rather killing) replicants.
Cortana is suffering from “thinking” sickness in Halo 4. In this universe, AI is only designed to have a limited lifespan. After a few years, the AI begins to deteriorate and become unstable. Instead of decommissioning Cortana, Master Chief begins his quest to save her life. Unfortunately, throughout his quest Cortana is slowly falling into madness as her system degenerates.
For the first time in the franchise, Halo begins to explore broader themes. What is life, who deserves to live and can you love AI? Cortana and Master Chief develop a “lovers” relationship, similar to Doctor Who and his Tardis (in the Matt Smith era). It creates a richer game, with a more meaningful story arc. This isn’t simply another alien invasion story or a fight to save the human race. Halo 4 is Master Chief’s journey to save his love – if he can save the human race too, all the better.
Cortana is brilliantly portrayed with human emotions. You never get the sense that her eyes are dead, which keeps the illusion of life very real. For a game, the acting is top notch.
Needless to say, the Covenant shows up to complicate things. The whimsical Grunts who love to deplete your shields with their plasma guns or kill you by suicide bombing are back. Also, the Elite show up to roll around and dodge your attacks. 343 made sure to keep all of those lovely combat mechanics that made Halo great in the game.
Newly introduced are the Prometheans. They’re a little more exciting to fight than the Flood. The Prometheans all have an orange glow. The Knights are the Promethean version of the Elite. However, instead of rolling around, they have the ability to teleport. The Prometheans introduce a new set of weapons to the Halo world. Their weapons, which also have an orange glow, tend to transform and disintegrate their targets. For multiplayer gamers, these weapons become a boon in War Games (the new name for the multiplayer mode).
Halo 4 doesn’t offer much in the area of new settings. Everything feels like a place that would exist in the Halo universe. Perhaps that’s why some boards feel like you’ve played through them before. Mountainous regions are reminders of Halo 2, while alien ships and planets are all the familiar glowing environments with sharp points and spires. There is a fog-covered jungle region that feels somewhat new. It introduces the Promethean Vision as a new armor ability, which allows you to see through walls and through the fog. There is also sentry ability, which functions as a floating auto turret.
For many, the Halo is all about the multiplayer gameplay. Halo 4’s maps feels like a return to the great maps of Halo 2. As you level up your Spartan, you will also be able to unlock new weapons and abilities that can be put into custom loadouts. Building on Halo Reach, it’s a nice change from the days when you had to run to a certain point to grab the power weapons. Gamers who were new to the maps were always at a disadvantage.
Deathmatches are based on points instead of just kills. This opens up the game to more team based strategies. Assisting your teammate, getting a revenge kill or avenging someone’s death all work in tandem to boost your score. Players also rewarded with more powerful weapons as they earn more points. Objective games feel more balanced thanks to the loadouts and refined maps.
Newly introduced to the Halo franchise is a Spartan Ops mode. This additional mode provides a tangent story to the single player campaign, complimenting the events in Halo 4. Each Spartan Ops Episode has five chapters. The experience you gain within this mode carries over to your multiplayer character.
Halo 4 is a triumphant return to a classic franchise. The core gameplay remains unchanged, but the story has evolved in a bold new direction. The multiplayer mode rekindles the old fervor of Halo combat. Smartly tied into the Spartan Ops mode, War Games is an instant win. Nothing feels tacked on in this release, which sets this game above other shooters that are either shallow on story or weak on multiplayer.