As you’ve no doubt surmised by now, Halo 4 is a great game. Our very own Marshal Ellison awarded the game 5/5 for a whole host of reasons so you should probably go read his review. As for myself, the “number 2″ Halo fan ’round these parts, I agree wholeheartedly with Marshal’s assessment: it’s an amazing experience.
But now that the needles have stopped flying and the Covenant have been beat back once again (for now), it leaves one lingering question: where does the series go from here?
Warning: Story Spoilers Past This Point. You’ve Been Warned.
In my opinion, Halo 4′s campaign is the best since the original Halo: Combat Evolved (with Halo: Reach at a close second); it had all the elements that made the first game so great — a new, alien world; heretofore unseen enemies, using powerful weapons and technology; open environments filled with vehicles, guns, explosives, and multiple pathways with which players can utilize to take down their enemies. Everything that makes Halo a great series.
But Halo 4 comes with its own identity, and its own ideas. Specifically, 343 Industry has brought character development and cinematic narrative to the forefront. Now, if you know anything about me, you know how I feel about cinematic story delivery in videogames; specifically, I don’t like it. But Halo 4 was to strike the special median between story and gameplay that only games like Red Dead Redemption, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Mass Effect have for me in the past. Seeing Master Chief grow over the course of this latest campaign was actually much more compelling than I was expecting. At the end of Halo 3, Master Chief was essentially the same thing he was from the first moments of Halo: CE: a killing machine bred for war. He was a badass, and had his own character quirks (he’s got more than a fair share of luck on his side), and has always been immediately recognizable, but he hadn’t grown much.
By the end of Halo 4, however, we see an entirely different man. Notice the use of the word “man.” For a long time, people wondered if our favorite Spartan II was but a machine, or perhaps a cyborg, with little personality and single-minded in his devotion to his mission *cough*Solid Snake*cough*. But by the end of Halo 4, it is clear he is no machine, but a human with emotions and a devotion to his only companion through the past 4 games: Cortana. In Halo 4, Chief’s primary goal is to keep Cortana safe, and get her home so she can be fixed. We spend hours behind the visor, sharing and taking on the urgency of Chief’s mission. But while humanity may have been saved once again by the super soldier, Cortana dies in the end. This is the first time we’ve witnessed John fail his mission. Ironically, after an event that would leave any other man cold and hollow, John 117 shows more humanity than we’ve come to expect from the Spartan. Visibly distraught, even through all that armor, it is clear this is not the “Master Chief” we’ve come to expect, nor “John 117″ the soldier; he’s simply a man named “John” who has lost the only person he ever cared for.
Clearly, there’s a lot of story analysis to be had from the few hours of campaign. Hell we haven’t even scratched the lore-surface, nor the massive scenario implications of the events that take place in Halo 4. In brief, having beat back both Covenant and Forerunners alike, humanity now stands as the dominant force in the galaxy. Throughout the story, the Forerunner mastermind, the Didact, makes allusions to, and grand accusations of, humanity’s rise to dominance. What exactly this foreshadowing means isn’t clear, but it isn’t the only subtext going on here either. In the opening cinematic, Professor Halsey is detained and being questioned about the nature of the Spartans and Master Chief’s true purpose. It is once again reinforced (after having been slightly explored in Reach) that the Spartan II program was set up to breed super soldiers that would quash rebel insurrection around the galaxy. Chief was made to kill other humans; We just got lucky he was there to protect against the Covenant invasion.
The point of all this is, it opens up a lot of doors and makes me wonder: where does the series go from here? It’s been stated by 343i that Halos 5 and 6 will be darker in tone. ODST, Halo: Reach, and Halo 4 are already significantly darker than the original Halo trilogy, so I’m curious just how “dark” it’s going to get. But considering all the new wrinkles made in 4, we could be in for quite a surprise story-wise. We’ve got a beaten and broken Master Chief, humanity on the upswing, and the threat of both a human rebellion and/or a psychotic Spartan II meltdown on the horizon.
Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves behind chief’s visor, this time taking orders from Prof. Halsey (in order keep Cortana’s voice around), but perhaps pointing our DMR’s at rebellious humans before ultimately taking on the Prometheans/Forerunners, and perhaps finding a way to restore the lost Cortana. Of course, I’m just speculating and this reflects my own personal hopes for the series, but let’s face it: Halo 4 ends with the galaxy in a very different place than we’ve ever seen it.
So what does that mean for the gameplay? Well, hopefully, it means we’ll see something completely different.
This is a somewhat difficult point to articulate, but Halo 4′s greatest strength is also it’s biggest weakness: it feels too much like Halo.
Halo 4 is amazing in that it not only looks like Halo, and plays like Halo, it also feels fresh and new at the same time. But this was 343i’s only chance in hitting that perfect mix — the fans wanted more Halo, but can we really take another 2 full games worth of the same ideas and gameplay? 343i has their work cut out for them, and find themselves at a crossroads: more Halo, or find a new direction?
I worry that 343i’s intention is to simply keep the series at a constant pace, despite the new directions taken in 4. However, I also wouldn’t be surprised if this was a transitional experience, giving us enough of a mix between new and old ideas so that we have a point of reference for the next game; “It’s a lot different from Bungie’s Halos, but it still feels a lot like Halo 4” is something I’d like to hear come games 5 and 6. Specifically, I want to see 343i put their own spin and identity on Halo. We’ve already got a new art direction, new music, a new story, new enemies, new technology, new lore, a new threat, new weapons *deep breath,* a new dimension to Chief, an opening for a new AI character, and new faces to recognize NOT TO MENTION a new take on multiplayer…
So specifically, where do I want the series to go?
For starters, really pair down or nix altogether the use of the Covenant. Yes, that’s right: give the Covies the boot. Why are we even fighting them again in the first place? Why are the Elites with them? Where are the Brutes? What became of the Arbiter? Look, we’ve spent 6 games fighting these suckers. I know it’s an odd thought not seeing their iconic silhouettes or using their familiar weapons, but just look at how well 343i integrated the Prometheans in Halo’s universe and gameplay. Sure, the Covies got a visual overhaul, but they fought in the exact same way as they have for the past 6 games, and with the same weapons (which, by the way, no longer sound like the used to). I was actually disappointed when we learned a few months after the E3 reveal that the Covenant were going to be featured heavily in the story. I want to see what Halo can do with new enemies, and to me, the Promethean were proof the series doesn’t need the covenant to be fun or “feel” like Halo.
So let’s get some new enemies to fight. I’d love for the Promethean Knights and Crawlers to return, maybe this time alongside Forerunners or other Prometheans. Or hell, the aliens from Marathon, or have us fighting other Spartans– I don’t care, just give us something new to fight! And while you’re at it, some new weapons as well.
Finally, I’d like to see the level formula mixed up. Reach and 4 gave us larger arenas to fight in, as well as memorable set pieces and a wide array of weapons and explosives, and Halo 4 especially had some new level design ideas to take advantage of the Promethean’s new tactics. But for the most part, we were doing the same things we’ve always done: take warthog to installation, enter installation, escape, enter massive battlefield, take out key points, rinse, repeat. Besides a few clever vehicle moments and some sweet behind-the visor QTE’s, Halo 4 fit mostly into pre-existing level design philosophies. Which, to be fair, is extremely impressive and a triumph for 343i, but let’s face it: Halo is 11 years old. It might be time for some new ideas.
What if we were given even more freedom? What if the battlefields were truly massive? I could imagine a game where there was an open “over world” of sorts, with smaller, more focused areas where the gameplay would resemble the level structure of previous Halos. I’m not talking Skyrim or GTA, but perhaps the team could further utilize their Metroid Prime talent and inspiration to allow for more exploration, some non-linear gameplay, and maybe even the “find a new weapon/ability to access new areas” paradigm. I know this is all just what if’s and daydreaming, but seriously, there are some really cool places 343i could take the series without sacrificing the soul of the series. And I didn’t even touch on the ways the multiplayer could evolve.
To be fair, it’s possible with Halo 4 being on the Xbox 360, 353i had to stay within the constraints of the hardware, not to mention meet certain expectations of the fans. Hopefully, the transitional elements of Halo 4, paired with the switch to next-gen hardware, will not only make for an even prettier Halo experience, but facilitate some creativity as well.
At any rate, Halo 4 is probably the best Halo since Halo. As it stands, it is on the top of my short list for Game of the Year 2012. 343i has taken one of the most beloved franchises to new heights, and I look forward to (and sincerely hope for) a new, exciting future of Halo.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts as well, on everything from the story, to the multiplayer, to the campaign, to the future of the series — what are your thoughts, reactions, hopes, concerns, etc.? We here at Power Cords love talking about Halo, so please, indulge us!