In the first installment of what 343 Industries has dubbed their ‘Reclaimer’ trilogy, Halo 4 has certainly ‘reclaimed’ the best aspects of the Halo genre to date, and has taken great strides in making certain that this second round of titles is even more memorable than the first.
From a writing standpoint, Halo 4 is head and shoulders above many of its predecessors. While the continuation of the series wasn’t fully expected when Halo: Combat Evolved first hit shelves in 2001, Halo 4 is very consciously the first part of a new trilogy, and that self-awareness shows. It’s comfortable with leaving us guessing, more than happy to withhold information or explanation. On its surface, the plot of Halo 4 is intentionally reminiscent of the first game. Master Chief, the iconic armored hero of the series clad in SPARTAN armor, finds himself shipwrecked on an artificial world created by an ancient race known as the Forerunners. The presence of humans inadvertently releases an ancient evil–not the ravenous space-zombie Flood this time, but rather one of the Forerunners themselves, an apparently telekinetic humanoid of questionable dentistry called the Didact.
Very little has been ‘added’ from a gameplay perspective. The ‘sprint’ mechanic has been changed from a special power to an ability available to any style, a Call of Duty-esque adjustment that was nevertheless necessary. Armor ‘abilities’ have been brought over from Halo: Reach, with a few replacements or adjustments, and keep the same welcome level of customization that made Reach so satisfying without fully mirroring the micro-management customization of, again, a Call of Duty styled mil-sim. Enemy A.I. is noticeably smarter and more aggressive, raising the bar somewhat throughout the campaign.
Again, the basic overview of the story is pretty simple; the bad guy gets out, he wants to destroy humanity (who doesn’t these days?), and it’s your job to stop him, shooting your way through swarms of rogue Covenant and angry light-spitting robo-dogs in the process. What’s interesting is that much of this humanity-saving imperative seems almost secondary to Master Chief’s newfound internal struggle. Cortana, his companion A.I. who has acted as his personal Jiminy Cricket for the past three games, is turning ‘Rampant;’ a slow mental breakdown that occurs after an A.I. has been in service for too long. Cortana is fearful of her own demise, but is even more afraid to leave the Chief ‘alone’; at one point she remarks that he is more of a machine than she is. And while Master Chief will apparently accept the idea of fighting a revived hundred-thousand-year-old telekinetic simian without batting an eyelash, he displays a kind of vulnerable desperation when it comes to trying to defend Cortana’s increasingly irrational and unpredictable behavior.
There are strong parallels between Cortana’s behavior and the behavior of someone with a mental illness; her episodes throughout the campaign are unsettling, even frightening at times, made all the more heart-wrenching when she regains her senses and displays the exact kind of remorseful confusion that we would expect from someone in her position. The Chief, for his part, tries to comfort her but clearly doesn’t know how to handle the situation that is clearly out of his control. An introductory cutscene discusses the almost sociopathic traits of the SPARTAN soldiers and their difficulty expressing ‘basic humanity,’ and that characterization starts to reach crescendo by the time the campaign ends.
This is the strength of Halo 4 as a title in the main series. It’s incredibly refreshing to hear voice actor Steve Downes expressing the character in more ways than three-word sentences and pained grunts, and Jen Taylor’s emotional palette as Cortana to be expanded even further. This is only complimented by the high-detail CGI displayed in the game’s breathtakingly well-done cutscenes, a feature that has already been lauded with praise. While the shooter genre has always thrived on the use of faceless protagonists that a player can superimpose their own ‘persona’ onto, defining Master Chief as a flawed–and even tragic–character was a strong move in the right direction that the series is considerably better for.