This is gonna suck.
No, but seriously -- this has nothing to do with Call of Duty. (Doubly so because I have no intention of playing online multiplayer of my own volition.) No, this is about the story. Is it a little foolish of me to expect some glowing revelation from a tale that I imagine I’ll have mostly forgotten in a month? Probably. Is it foolish of me to expect something substantial from a game that’ll become legend by dint of its player-to-player interactions in the rogue-laden wastelands of Xbox Live? Probably. But damn it, Microsoft and 343 Studios put in effort, and that effort deserves to be judged accordingly.
And you know what? A part of me feels like I’m in a good position to give my thoughts on the story. I don’t think there’s anyone more neutral about the Halo games than I am -- I don’t hate them, but I don’t love them. I see the merits, but I see the faults. I’ve cracked jokes at its expense, but I’ve defended it a couple of times in the past; as I’ve said elsewhere, the Halo universe is actually pretty fascinating. Even a cursory glance at the novels reveals a canon bustling with activity, character, and depth. I’m serious. If nothing else, go pick up the Eric Nylund books -- they’re more than just tolerable, they’re compelling…up to a point. And I’m pretty sure you can guess what that point is.
But first…wheat lands, swathe me with your divine protection! Barrier!
The problem with Halo -- with Halo 4, and the canon as a whole -- is, always has been, and likely always will be Master Chief. For the life of me I cannot understand why anyone thinks he’s a cool character, or a badass, or a hero, or anything of the sort. I would have gladly finished the Nylund books if not for the presence of Master Chief; the best parts of the book are when he’s not around, or at the very least isn’t the Chief we know and “love”. In the interest of not repeating myself, I’m going to hold off on my rationale for why I don’t like Master Chief -- because you see, I get the feeling that the issues I had with him back in 2007 are the same issues I have now. That said, I want to say upfront that in spite of the complaints I’m about to make, Halo 4’s campaign DOES do some things very well, in my opinion. Surprisingly well. But will those things be enough to balance out the rest? Only one way to find out.
So once again, let’s take this step by step. Gameplay, story, let’s hit allllllllllll the high notes. Well, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, I don’t have the Nevan on me right now; thought I’d take on Beowulf with Agni and Rudra just for kicks.
Oh, and SPOILERS. BIG FAT JUICY SPOILERS. But then again, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s familiar with my work. (They’re delicious, is what I’m getting at here.)
1) Halo 4 is a beautiful game.
I mentioned this when I talked about Cloud Atlas, but I could care less about fancy graphics. My favorite gaming system is the DS, and it’s been getting its ass kicked in the graphics department almost since its inception (though to be fair, it kicked the PSP’s ass in terms of quality titles, sales, and general worth). I recognize that for a visual medium, you need to look good, and I appreciate the amount of work that goes into doing that -- especially in the HD era. But throw some billion-dollar visuals at me, and I guarantee you they’ll bounce off my head like a badly-thrown Frisbee.
But enough of that. My brother says that Microsoft gave 343 Industries a blank check to make the best Halo game that they could. And it shows. The cutscenes are pretty much movie-quality (maybe beyond), the character models are better than they’ve ever been, the facial expressions are high-quality, and at several points both my brother walked off a cliff because he was busy admiring the horizons. It’s no accident that every time someone -- reviewers, forum posters, etc. -- bring up the game, they’re all itching to bring up how beautiful the game looks.
With that in mind, beautiful graphics are not automatically a selling point, and barely a point in a game’s favor. Halo 4 is no exception, but apparently nobody told 343 that. I get the sneaking suspicion that there are moments in the campaign designed specifically for showing off the new graphics; there’s a moment where you’re walking toward a canyon, and way in the distance there’s a sprawling set of towers perfectly illuminated by the sun…except that’s not even where you’re going (yet) -- it’s just a sight to see shortly after entering the area. There’s a section where you get to fly around in an airship, but it’s as much a venture to the next area as it is a chance to show off the sky and some spires. It gets especially egregious in the last level, where you get catapulted through the air in slooooooooooooooooow moooooooooooooootion so you can see the core of a ship in all its intricate alien glory. And really, “intricate” is the word of the day when it comes to Halo 4; you visit areas that look like something straight out of Tron Legacy, and you visit your fair share of -- hope you’re sitting down for this -- gray hallways. But they’re so regularly full of glowy bits that there’s just enough to keep you stimulated. Just. I’d rather explore big, nature-filled open spaces or the exterior of military bases, because nothing says “epic adventure” like claustrophobia-inducing tubes.
Maybe if you play the game, you’ll get more out of the graphics than I did. As for me…well, it hasn’t even been a week, and I’m already starting to forget some of the areas I visited.
2) It may be 2013, but it’s still Halo at its core.
I’m a fan of Zero Punctuation. While Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw may have an overwhelmingly-negative spin on most games, he frequently raises some good points in his videos (and lately our opinions seem to be lining up, so either I’ve gotten more discerning or he’s a really bad influence). It’s always been a shame that his reviews of games come up to two weeks after their release -- what with being in Australia, and his own timetables -- but every time his video pops up, he cuts down the top-scoring games in ways nearly every other reviewer can’t. I’m practically counting the hours until his Halo 4 review comes out.
So in the meantime, I’ll gladly take potshots at the storied old franchise. I’ll admit that the first Halo game I played in earnest was Halo 3, but I’d like to think I have a general understanding of how the game works: move your reticule over the landscape. If it turns red, pull the trigger until the reticule turns blue again. Repeat until all enemies are dead. Hide behind
chest-high walls UNSC-approved snack dispensers to
get your health back as needed.
It’s not a broken formula in the slightest. You run, you gun, and you occasionally introduce aliens (many of which I’m wholly convinced are mistreated orphans) to the business end of your forearm. You hide behind something if you’ve taken a beating until your health/shield recharges. You clear one firefight and move on to the next area, and maybe get a cutscene. Do it again and again and again as needed.
I think the allure behind Halo -- and to some extent other shooters -- is the wave of relief that splashes over you when you survive a firefight. You’re one step closer to clearing the game, and more importantly you’ve managed to take a stand against hordes of hostile enemies and orphans. And of course, even in the midst of a firefight there are those moment-to-moment successes -- maybe taking out an alien with a well-placed shot, or blowing up a handful of them with one grenade toss. It’s the kind of gameplay that you can just sit down and get into without any planning, strategizing, or busywork -- and it’s full of moments where you can brag about your no-scoping to your friends.
Also, there are mechs in this game, so it’s kind of hard to fault it for that.
3) Unfortunately, it’s still Halo at its core.
I’m not very good at shooters. I tend to overturn while aiming, I always forget to aim for the head (and as I recall you shouldn’t aim for the head in real life anyway), and when I’m under fire it takes me an extra five seconds to even think about facing whoever’s shooting at me. To say nothing of the fact that my fondest memories of shooters include getting shot in the back and staring at the respawn screen.
That said, on its standard difficulty Halo 4 is kind of easy. And my memory’s hazy, but I feel like the other Halo games I’ve played -- 3 and Reach -- weren’t exactly taxing either. I assume that there is SOME strategy to surviving each firefight, but all I really need are the basics -- shoot at enemies until they’re dead, and take cover when you need to. I mean, there are different enemies in the game, but the strategy is almost exactly the same; there are guys that try to rush you and slash you, but outside of the occasional heavy attack they’re not that much of a threat. And there are flying ring things, but you can shoot them down easily. And there are guys that resurrect other guys, but I have a hunch you’re more likely to see Halley’s Comet than one of them…and even then, you just shoot them before they can revive their pals. And you can equip power-ups you find in the field, but honestly? I don’t think there was ever a time when I thought “Whew! I sure am glad I had that energy shield! Thank you, o wise and noble developer gods!”
And there are new weapons, too, but, again, they don’t have quite the impact or game-changing qualities I expected. There are glowy, Lego-constructed Promethean weapons, but they don’t change much either besides giving you different sound effects and magazine sizes. There’s a gun with a scope that’s reminiscent of a Covenant gun with a scope. There’s a rapid-fire machine gun that’s reminiscent of a UNSC rapid-fire machine gun. There’s a shotgun and some kind of rocket launcher and a pistol, but there’s already been a shotgun, some kind of rocket launcher, and a pistol. In a world where Ratchet and Clank exists and you’re likely to have a gun that shoots a three-course dinner with corrosive cranberry sauce, it’s baffling that this game -- this 2012 game made with a blank check -- changes so very little. But since I’m assuming that at the time of this writing it’s earned enough money to buy Europe, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
By the way, a conversation that happened the other day:
Friend: “So what’s different in this game? Like, what makes it better than Halo Reach?”
Bro: “Well, it’s got better graphics…and, uh…uh…new guns.”
Friend: “Is that it?”
Bro: “New multiplayer maps.”
Friend: “Are they all new?”
Bro: “Not all of them. Some are, you know, from the old games.”
Friend: “That’s lazy! They just copied the old maps and gave them new graphics!”
Bro: “No, it’s a throwback. I kinda like it.”
Friend: “So they added new graphics and new guns and new maps…and that’s it?”
Bro: “Well, there’s a new story mode, and…new multiplayer modes…and…uh…”
Friend: “So that’s it?”
Bro: “Uh…uh…uh…” *pushes eject button and rockets through roof*
4) If you’re playing co-op, get ready to be treated like a non-entity.
I’m used to playing in the 2P slot -- and honestly, it’s a role I’d rather be in. Ignoring the fact that most baddies are inexplicably attracted to Player 1, it seems like playing as someone besides the main character is more rewarding and beneficial than playing the lead. Playing as Dom from Gears of War is much more satisfying than playing as Marcus; the same applies to playing as Guy from Tales of the Abyss instead of Luke. I’m not opposed to playing as Master Chief, but I had more fun playing as The Arbiter in Halo 3.
In Halo 4 (like Reach before it), Player 2 plays as a clone of Master Chief. Not a clone in a storyline sense; more like a shadow, or a doppelganger, or more aptly an imaginary friend. Yeah, let’s go with imaginary friend; it’s much easier to interpret Player 2 as a negative extension of Chief’s psyche, a means to escape the crushing loneliness of both his prestige as a war hero and his isolation over the course of four years. (It’s a little troubling that Master Chief would give a potential best friend a mirror image of his armor, but let’s set the blatant narcissism aside for now.) The important thing is that outside of combat, Player 2 doesn’t exist…and sometimes, even in combat. Sometimes doors won’t open for you. Quick time events can and often will be done by Player 1 alone. When P2 walks by NPCs, they won’t register his presence; only when the original Master Chief passes by do they give him recognition. There’s even a point where P1 takes off in an airship, and P2 sits in a gunner’s seat -- and because that gun is on the side of the ship, it means P2 can’t shoot anything for the entire sequence. Enemies only appear in the front, and only P1 can dispatch them. Gameplay!
Actually, there is one good thing about having a second player around: it makes Master Chief’s job easier. And that job is…
5) Master Chief exists only to press buttons.
I’d just like to make it clear that I’m not biased against Halo 4 or shooters in general -- I’m biased against games that rely on stupid-ass decisions. I’m not making anything up here, or hating on the game just because it exists; I played through it, and what I say here is mostly just a report of my experience. And my experience -- my takeaway from this game -- is that Master Chief is a manual garage door opener at the beck and call of the military.
I’m serious. That’s all you do in this game. That’s all you do. Oh, sure, you get to have firefights and pilot mechs and such (except for one instance where only one mech spawns, so P2 has to follow closely behind and NOT play MechWarrior), but your objective at least eighty percent of the time is to activate switches and operate machinery. And it’s often three switches, or you have to operate three machines, or go here and bust that up, or go there and relay that message. I’m sorry, but am I…isn’t Master Chief supposed to be some kind of war hero? Isn’t he a veteran in the field? Isn’t he the only hope for humanity’s survival? Why does saving the universe from alien threats so regularly equal going here and pressing that? Is this what super soldiers were made for? And is it not possible for anyone to activate these switches remotely? Hell, even Cortana could probably manage it; plug her into one device, and with her cyber-magic that makes everything work she could probably access every terminal on the planet while downloading every music video ever created.343, if you’re going to sell Master Chief as a one-man-army, don’t make him do menial tasks that the average grunt could handle. Also, don't let him strap a nuke to his ass.
On second thought? Actually, yeah, let Chief palm all the consoles in the universe. He doesn’t even matter, really. Know why?
6) Cortana is the real star of Halo 4.
This is it. This is the reason why Halo 4 works at all.
Cortana is, bar none, the best part of the campaign. She’s not just competently handled, but enjoyable and meaningful. This is her story; this isn’t a game meant to trumpet the triumphant return of Master Chief to the battlefield, but to highlight just how vital she is, and how much her presence would be missed if anything happened to her. If at any point Master Chief didn’t have his inexplicably-naked blue cyber-girlfriend plugged into his neck (and they say anime is weird…), then there would be no game. Chief wouldn’t be able to do anything. He’d just sit there after a firefight, fingers twitching around a smoking gun as he stared blankly at a locked door.
There are people who go gaga at the sight of Master Chief, but even so this is still Cortana’s story. She’s passed her expiration date, and is slowly but surely deteriorating. As she puts it, she’s in danger of thinking herself to death -- an overload of information and perspectives and emotions she’s kept under the surface by virtue of internalized norms and cautious judgment. But the cracks start to show, and regularly. She flies off the handle at several points, damaging some machinery in the process. She starts badmouthing people as violently as she can. She gets buggier than Fallout: New Vegas on release day. But most of all, she becomes aware of her mortality…and with it, her impending death. And in spite of it, she soldiers on and does what she can to prevent the Didact from wreaking havoc.
If not for Cortana, I wouldn’t have cared about Halo 4 at all. But 343 did a commendable job with her, and I’m happy to have experienced her story arc. But with that in mind, I want to make an even bolder claim.
7) Cortana is the real star of the franchise.
If not for Cortana, Master Chief wouldn’t have succeeded in his Halo 4 mission. But now that I think about it, I have to wonder: was that the case with all the Halo games? Did Cortana make impossible situations possible? I’ve only played 3 and Reach prior to this, and given that Reach (a game notably without Cortana in person) ended with everybody dying, I wonder if the Spartans are all just overgrown super-children who need an AI mommy to do all the housekeeping.
I’m guessing that Cortana has been with Chief since the beginning, so it’s safe to assume that they not only have a history together, but are the franchise’s most notable names. But here’s the funny thing: at several points in Halo 4’s campaign, I thought to myself: “Why doesn’t Cortana get a spinoff game?” Ignoring the fact that she’s got more personality -- and likely credibility in world-saving antics -- than everyone’s favorite gun-toting refrigerator, I can see the possibilities. Her game could be like Rez, where she dives into cyber-worlds to battle enemy programs and unlock doors -- or maybe it could be like Mega Man Battle Network, fusing tactical gameplay with the well-worn gunplay. I want a game from her perspective, showing her exploits in making victory even remotely possible, and the emotions therein. I want to see her relationship with Master Chief from her position. I want to…
Oh second thought, scratch that. I don’t want to learn more about that anytime soon.
8) Cortana’s biggest failing? Her “relationship” with Master Chief.
Halo 4 left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, and I think I’m starting to figure out why. This game is getting uncomfortably close to aping Twilight -- and if not Twilight, then something just as creepy.
Let’s see if I can raise some red flags for you. Cortana is an AI whose primary mission in life is to serve Master Chief however and whenever she can -- and she’ll do so while wearing “clothing” that would have the average stripper ask her to cover up. Over the course of her adventures with Chief (throughout the franchise, but for now let’s focus on Halo 4), she continues to support him and be the closest thing to a friend and lover he’ll ever have. She’s effectively dying, but continues doing all she can for the Chief, up to and including making it possible for him to beat the Didact. It’s plainly clear that she loves Master Chief for reasons I can’t even begin to comprehend; is it because they’ve spent so much time together? Is it because they’ve been through a lot together? It sure as shit isn’t because they have an emotional connection; I spend a lot of time wearing my headphones, and you don’t see me caressing it gently. But I’d sooner get a confession of love out of them than Cortana would get even a sign of affection from Master Chief.
And it’s because of that little fact that their “relationship” is downright unsettling. Cortana is making everything possible for Chief. Everything. She opens the doors. She sets the waypoints. She makes the communications. She activates the machines. She generates the portals. She prepares the EMPs. She sets up the nuke. She teleports Chief out of the nuclear blast. And throughout all of that, Master Chief doesn’t even give her a thank you. Not a good job, not a thanks, not a good idea, nothing. He’s just barking orders at her, from start to finish. Oh, sure, he’ll reassure her and tell her that they’ll find a way to reverse her condition, but in the context of things what does that mean? Cortana can continue being the perfect little slave, ensuring that Chief can be the hero and perfect soldier? Or maybe it’s because little old Master Chief doesn’t wanna give up his most favoritest widdle toy, and he’ll throw a temper tantrum while trying to keep her all to himself? All while denying her the emotional support she needs, now more than ever?
Look, I’ll admit maybe there’s a deeper layer to this relationship. Maybe this is a deconstruction of Master Chief, showing just how mechanical and unsuited for human contact he is underneath a ton’s worth of armor. That’s a very possible reading. But it’s just as easy to read it as one of the most messed-up relationships in the history of gaming. Cortana deserves better. I mean, I know Halo has a reputation for being a male power fantasy, but next time, could you maybe dial back the horrific implications a bit, 343 Industries? Just a little bit? Please?
9) Master Chief is the same as always…and that’s the one thing 343 couldn’t afford.
This was it. This was their big chance to take Master Chief in an exciting new direction. 343, Microsoft, whoever -- even if they were destined to make enough money to build a stadium the size of Alaska regardless of whether or not the game was good, this was the time for them to show that they’d turned the page in Halo’s book. This was a chance to evolve, and prove to the detractors that this game -- and this character -- could be more than just the patron saint of teabagging.
Did they do it? Did they finally put in something worthwhile -- something to signal a new era for Master Chief, Halo, and one of the pillars of the gaming industry paradigm?
Engineer, you wanna take this one?
There is nothing here to grasp about Master Chief -- nothing to boost our opinion of him, and prove that he’s worthy of the bank-busting sales his games have garnered. Master Chief is still the same blank slate he’s always been, barring the deconstructive interpretation I mentioned earlier…and honestly, I’m convinced that even that was an accident. Chief doesn’t give a shit about anything; every firefight is like a distraction to him, keeping him from pressing the next button on the horizon. People talk to him, and a part of me wonders if he’s even listening. No emotion, no opinions, no character growth -- barring some very slim threads at the very, very end of the game -- no reason to identify with him, no reason to sympathize for him. Nothing.
If the plan was to make Chief’s personality and development subtle, 343 overshot it. Making a stoic character isn’t an automatic death sentence, but in exchange for that lack of reaction, you have to give something back. Something to latch onto, whatever it may be. But there isn’t. Not here. And I’m starting to suspect that’ll always be the case.
10) If you aren’t fawning over Master Chief, you are wrong, stupid, and evil.
Almost like clockwork, you can expect every NPC you pass by to get stiffened trousers at the mere thought of Master Chief. They’ll follow Chief’s orders, follow Chief’s plan, and willingly break the rules to give him the chance he needs. I understand why: it’s to make the player feel like a hero, obviously, and lend some credibility to Chief’s legacy of button-pressing.
But they take it way too far. Ignoring the brown-nosing that other military folk will do in the presence of the Chief, there’s an official you meet that takes things to wall-banging levels of stupidity. I think his name is Del Rio, but as I’ve already started forgetting details about the campaign and can’t be arsed to check, let’s call him Del Rio for now, if only to reference wrestling superstar Alberto Del Rio. As a high-ranking official on the downed ship, the Infinity -- that’ll teach you guys not to give your vehicles such pretentious names -- it’s his job to ensure the safety of his crew and not take any unnecessary risks; it’s a point that actually has some merit, and he actually brings that up to Master Chief early on. Unfortunately, the next time you meet him he’s turned into a snarling pissant; unwilling to believe Chief’s story that there’s a new threat in town, he throws a tantrum and starts mouthing off to the Spartan…you know, the war hero. And he says that Chief didn’t see anything…in spite of, you know, the exact opposite happening and Del Rio lacking any proof. And Master Chief being there and having a witness in Cortana. And the fact that Chief has no reason to lie (is he even capable of lying?). But that doesn’t stop Del Rio’s hissy fit, demolishing his credibility so Chief can look better. The safety of his crew? Pshaaaaaaaaaaaaw! Just do what Chief says, and everything will work out fine!
Did I mention that a sizable section of Earth gets blasted by a laser?
11) They might as well rename him Messiah Chief.
It’s not even ten minutes into the campaign before the game reminds you that Master Chief is pretty much the new Jesus Christ. It’s said in no uncertain terms that Master Chief is “the only hope”, and that those like him are “mankind’s next evolutionary step.” Over the course of the campaign, Chief meets some phantoms from the past, declaring that he’s the lynchpin for saving the world from destruction, and that he has to become more powerful. Sooooo…apparently, having reflexes that border on precognition and enough strength to punch through concrete weren’t enough?
All right, Halo 4 -- I’ll bite. What makes Master Chief that much better than anyone else? Because he’s a Spartan? You mean one of dozens of super-soldiers that you tried to mass produce in a process with such a high failure rate that it’s nigh-useless? You mean the last of his kind, and since then has come in contact with at least one other Spartan soldier who’s likely as advanced, if not more so? Even if he is a super-soldier, he is only ONE super-soldier. If anything happens to him on the way to his objective -- like a sufficiently-powerful bomb blast, or dropping him off a cliff, or warping him to another planet -- then what happens next? What makes him any better than the average soldier, or better yet droves of soldiers? Just because he can take a beating and has recovering health? No, that can’t be it; I played the game, and it was by way of Cortana’s actions that Chief even managed to get through the front door. Does he fire guns harder than any other soldier? Outside of grabbing Promethean or Covenant weaponry, he doesn’t have any unique guns. So why is this guy so special? Why is he “the next step in evolution” when he’s pretty much a fluke? Is the next step supposed to be a race of seven-foot tall, socially-inept soldiers brainwashed for the battlefield? Is Master Chief supposed to be the messiah because he’s the best there is at what he does, or because he’s got some secret written into his DNA? Are we just supposed to forget that every other character in the Halo universe makes it even remotely possible for Master Chief to get within a state’s distance of his objective?
See? See that? This is what happens when you try to make a savior out of your lead character. If you don’t have solid answers, you’re gonna get the shit nitpicked out of you.
12) The Didact sets himself up to be a real threat…
You know what? For all my talk and love of heroes and heroic characters, I’ll gladly admit that it’s a good villain that shapes a story as much as -- maybe more than -- a hero. Not having read anything about Halo 4 prior to release (at least not in detail), when the campaign fired up my question was, “Okay, who’s the big baddie this time around?” And the answer came in the form of the Didact.
In case you were wondering -- I sure was at the start of the game -- “Didact” is the noun form of “didactic”, meaning “designed or intended to teach.” It’s a fitting name for such an imposing villain; the Didact is bigger than Master Chief, capable of disintegrating his cover with a wave of his hand, has a commanding knowledge of ancient technology, and has telekinesis that lets him fling Chief around like a used dishrag. He’s a man with a plan, and while he’s more than a little talkative, he’s certainly harrowing. He can do some serious damage if left to his devices. And you know what? I find it very interesting that he wears armor reminiscent of Chief’s, albeit far more sinister. It drives the point home in a good way; he’s the villain that’ll push our favorite Spartan to his very limits, demanding every last shred of strength, skill, willpower, and thirst for justice that Master Chief can muster.
13) …And then this happens.
Watch this video. Drop everything and watch this video.
Heh. Heh heh. Heh heh heh. Hey, that’s funny. Really funny. You know what? It’s very reminiscent of other games. Remember in Chrono Trigger when you beat Lavos by playing Simon Says? Or Super Mario 64, when beating Bowser came down to doing a tongue twister? Or The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker when you triumphed over Ganondorf thanks to a fast-paced game of Tic-Tac-Toe? Eh? What’s that? That never happened? You remember epic, memorable fights that pushed you to your limits against incredibly powerful foes, testing you and standing between you and the happy ending you so desperately wanted?
Hmm. Oh, yeah, I guess you’re right. I do remember those fights now. I’m sorry, I guess my memory was just a bit hazy on account of HOW INCREDIBLY FUCKING STUPID IT IS TO END YOUR GAME ON A QUICK TIME EVENT!
What in the hell were they thinking? It’s 2012, you’re being funded by one of the biggest companies on the planet, you build up this villain to be the baddest motherfucker in the galaxy, and you end with a quick time event that doesn’t even last for a minute? You beat this big bruiser of a boss by sticking a grenade to his chest and letting him stumble into a portal? Why? WHY? You don’t even get to shoot at him -- Cortana does all the work for Chief, AGAIN, and watch him lose in a cutscene! A cutscene! Did 343 just give up at that point? Did they just phone it in to meet a deadline? Did they run out of ideas? Did they panic because Chief would have had to fight in an arena without walls to hide behind? WHAT?! This is stupid! Complete, utter, pants-on-head, dunce-hat-crowned, railroad-spike-in-brain BULL. FUCKING. SHIT. This is unacceptable -- NOBODY is allowed to give this moment a pass. I want to see people posting this at the top of their “Worst Moments of 2012” lists. I want to see reviewers revising their scores and knocking the grade down just because of this. I want people to get pissed off, because they deserve to be pissed off. I want every single member of 343 Industries’ staff to go on the air, get on their hands and knees, and give a sincere apology, and then start slapping each other as hard as they can.
I don’t care if the Didact survived and you’ll fight him in Halo 5 -- I wanted to fight him in Halo 4, even if -- no, ESPECIALLY if it was a hopeless fight. It could have been a wake-up call for Master Chief, a moment for him to realize his weakness and mortality, and inability to complete the mission. This was their chance to show that, yes, Master Chief really IS the only one that can save humanity. But they didn’t. They just wanted to turn their game into a movie -- and all it cost was shooting their game’s finale in the goddamn eye.
Deep breath…deep breath…deep breath…okay. Okay. I think I’m calm now.
14) The Didact could have been a better villain if not for his mishandling.
You know what? NO. I’m NOT calm now!
We don’t get to see the Didact do shit in this game. Oh yeah, sure, we get to hear about what he did in the past, and we know he’s up to no good, but in the grand scheme of things what does he do? Fly around in his Death Egg? Vaporize some NPCs? Trash-talk with Master Chief? That last point is especially aggravating, because it highlights the same problem with Handsome Jack of Borderlands 2 -- we don’t get to see the villain being a villain, but apparently he can talk to us whenever he wants to, taunt us, and tell us it’s all pointless. The problem with that (and with Borderlands 2 by extension) is that in order for that to work, the player character has to engage right back. They don’t. They don’t even try to tell him off, or block communications. It’s just a way to fill dead air -- and that just ends up being as welcome as a pre-diarrhea fart.
Also, riddle me this. If the Didact is aware of Master Chief’s presence and actions at any given moment, why the hell does he let him get within a mile of the Death Egg? Why doesn’t he kill him in their first (of pretty much two) encounters if he’s clearly more than a match for him? Why is the antagonist so far-removed from all but ten percent of the game?
…I wish it was the Wednesday after next so that I could watch Yahtzee eviscerate this game.
15) How is it that I played through 100% of the campaign, yet have only a hazy idea of who these people are?
Okay. Now I’m calm. Sorry about that little…outburst there. It’s just that the more I think about this game, the more it starts to piss me off. How can such a short campaign -- beatable in two sittings, maybe one -- be so wrong?
Whatever. We’re moving on. I actually own a few of the Halo novels -- The Fall of Reach, The Flood, and…another one. I got them for my brother years back, but they went unread; it wasn’t until I was cleaning one day when I stumbled upon the books and thought, “Eh, why not? I could use a new perspective on the canon.” And I got one. As I said, the best parts of the Halo universe are those that don’t have Master Chief in them…the problem is that the developers seem to agree, because there’s an almost impenetrable amount of prior knowledge needed to understand some of the particulars.
I was willing to let it ride, but a glance at the wiki suggests that you aren’t ready to play Halo 4 just because you’ve played all the games in the series. Who are the Prometheans? Who are the Forerunners? Who is Dr. Halsey? Who is the Didact? What’s the Forward Unto Dawn? What’s the Infinity? If you want answers, you’ll kinda-sorta get an idea of whom or what they are in the game’s context. But if you want to know every aspect of these elements, get ready to shell out some serious dough; you’ll have to get your hands on the games (the updated rereleases, preferably -- and you’ll have to look for transmissions in-game), the novels, and the accompanying anime. I’m serious; apparently the Didact’s first appearance was in the Halo anime.
I’m going to take the high road and not suggest that all this EU-material shows just how little the creators understand its target audience…but it’s really, really hard.
16) React! React! REACT!
I hinted at this earlier, but I want to make it clear: Master Chief’s biggest failing is that he doesn’t react to anything. There’s stoicism, there’s focus, there’s dedication to the mission, and there’s flat-out not having a character. Guess which one Master Chief has down pat?
I know I’ve done my joking and raging at this game, but I’ll readily admit that stuff happens. Important stuff. Stuff that could transform the canon forever. Yes, stuff beyond Cortana falling apart. The problem is that all those events aren’t given the gravitas and impact they deserve because we’re seeing everything through the lens of someone who couldn’t even give a damn -- and if he doesn’t, why should we? Chief heads to a research facility and tells all the scientists there to clear out, abandoning the data and mines and years of effort. A normal character (and to a lesser extent better pacing) would have explored the mines in full and registered the sacrifices that they made as well as the sacrifices he’d be asking the researchers to make for the sake of the world. But not Chief. In another instance at the end of the game, Lasky -- a member of the Infinity’s crew who helped Chief leave without permission -- is trying to consul the big guy about the loss of Cortana…but he shows more emotion than Chief does. Much more. Chief barely even moves through the whole sequence, or recognizes Lasky’s presence. And there’s still the matter of people (and states) getting vaporized. Does Chief ever address that? Does he even register the collateral damage that’s occurred in his quest to complete the mission? No and no -- and it’s because of that lack of reaction that there will always, always be a disconnection between the player, the character, and the game...and as such, the developers shoot themselves in the other eye.
I don’t buy that I’m supposed to be Master Chief. Not just because I don’t want to be; it’s because he’s his own “character”. I can’t project myself onto someone who has his own role -- and even if he didn’t, his utterly irreversible status as a blank slate is a detriment to his character. I can’t role-play as him, because his choices aren’t my own. I can’t identify with him, because his relationship to everything and everyone around him is virtually nonexistent. He contributes nothing to the story in terms of ideas or presence, and sometimes even his importance is arguable; he exists as little more than a puppet to send into the fray to shoot alien orphans and press switches nobody else feels like running to. What exactly makes him badass? Badassery -- no, courage isn’t defined by the absence of fear, but being able to act in spite of it. It is not -- I repeat, is NOT -- defined by how many aliens you kill, or how cool you look when you jump onto the surface of a planet, or being able to take as much punishment as an armored tortoise.
Master Chief is not a badass. He’s not even a character. He’s equal parts Edward Cullen and Bella Swan -- a beautiful but deadly god that everyone’s supposed to go starry-eyed over, with the added bonus of being our bland and downright heinous viewpoint character for the sole purpose of vicarious living. His only saving grace is that he has yet to administer any energy sword c-sections…though they could just be saving that for Halo 6.
17) Snarky one-liners =/= humor.
There are three things you can count on Master Chief saying consistently throughout the game. One: Mission objectives. Two: Giving Cortana (and others, but mostly Cortana) orders. Three: One-liners that would make Jean-Claude Van Damme snicker. And he was in this:
Really? I mean…really? One-liners? Master Chief will break out the one-liners, but he can’t be bothered to say anything meaningful to Cortana? You can’t come up with anything even remotely funny? You had to do exactly what Gears of War did, and fail just as badly? Is this how Master Chief expresses himself? Is this how everyone in an “epic” expresses themselves? Is this your idea of injecting levity into a game, 343 Industries -- and you as well, Bungie? You know, besides the general incompetence of your campaigns that make players laugh for all the wrong reasons?
Fun fact: every time Master Chief spouted a bad one-liner, I bobbed my head back and forth and went “Eh-heh-heh-heh-heh” in the fakest tone I could muster. Thankfully Chief cuts the tomfoolery a ways into the game (to be replaced with nothing), because otherwise my neck would be in a cast.
18) Once again, I care more about the side characters than the main character.
This is such a travesty. Would someone care to explain to me why I don’t get to learn more about these people -- in the games, not in expanded universe content that I have to travel across the country for -- when they so obviously have more interesting stories to tell than Master Chief?
I want to know more about Sarah Palmer, another Spartan who’s apparently just sitting around the base. She probably did more, but she tucked so far into a side pocket that she might as well have not been there. I want to know more about Thomas Lasky without having to sit through a miniseries; I want to see what life is like on a ship, especially through the eyes of a human rather than an unfeeling killing machine. I want to learn more about the research being done on that planet, and how it’s affected the lives of countless researchers. Why build up this sprawling universe based on a video game franchise, and then exclude all the savory bits in the video games proper -- a product in which any one of its releases can garner $220 million in sales on day one? Why punish anyone who hasn’t grabbed every last bit of Halo memorabilia, and build an impassable wall for casual observers of the franchise?
Whatever. I barely know who these people are, and yet I feel more of a connection with them than I ever could for the supposed hero. And I think I know why.
19) Faces go a long way toward proving your story’s case.
I’m of the opinion that FPSes in general don’t lend themselves to making players resonate with a character (though that’s a broad statement, and I know there are counter-examples out there), but Master Chief may have codified it. I’m having a hell of a time remembering anything substantial the Spartan said during Halo 3 outside of a few one-liners. True, actions speak louder than words, but that doesn’t mean words are useless. Even at their worst, silent protagonists like Link or several Shin Megami Tensei leads manage to create a character (Skyward Sword had Link’s personality conveyed through his expressions and reactions and a few dialogue choices; meanwhile, even games as low-budget as Devil Survivor had branching dialogue, and a few still sprites of the hero’s face). I think we can at least agree that a character, regardless of medium, needs to leave an impact on us. So why has Master Chief done nothing of the sort for me? Come to think of it, doesn’t “Master Chief” sound bland at best and ridiculous at worst? And with his real name being John (as far as I know), does that really help things? Was his last name Generic at one point?
It seems like there’s a pretty big divide, now that I think about it. For argument’s sake, let’s have a look at Link through the years.
Now let’s have a look at Master Chief through the years.
There’s no denying that one of them has seen a lot more different art styles -- certainly because he’s spent a lot more time kicking around. But there’s one advantage Link has that Chief has yet to tap: his face.
You never really realize how much you miss a face until it’s not there anymore. But supposedly, people are hardwired to recognize and find faces. It’s why we say there’s a man on the moon. It’s why as babies, one of the first things we learn to recognize is a face. It’s why there are disorders devoted to lacking an ability to recognize faces. They’re important. They show emotion. Thoughts, opinions, approval and disapproval. Now consider that part of the reason for The Wind Waker’s art style was to put an emphasis on Link’s expressions. Given that, consider that even in Halo: Reach, seeing one of Noble Team’s faces meant they were about five minutes away from death. Do you see why I might have a problem with Master Chief?
Even in Halo 4 -- ESPECIALLY in Halo 4 -- the gap between Chief and the other characters has widened. I feel for Cortana in ways that I never thought I could for someone in this universe. I sympathize; I feel her plight; I internalize her struggles, and wish her the best -- and when she doesn’t get her happy ending, it actually makes me feel like I’ve lost something important. Know why? Because she’s been conveying information to me the whole time, up to and including the use of facial expressions. I don’t need her to tell me she’s feeling sad, because I see it. I don’t need to have her explain her rage, because she shows it. Hell, even if she didn’t use her facial expressions, her body language speaks more than loud enough. She feels fleshed out, expressive, emotive, substantial, intriguing, and outright human.
Chief doesn’t have that. At all. No body language. No facial expressions. Barely even a face, outside a few teases here and there. The big guy has been kicking around in gaming for, what, a decade? Even if he were to start walking around without a helmet (and you know he’s not), the damage has been done. It’s too late for Master Chief.
20) The more things change…
You know, I had a feeling this would happen.
No, I didn’t think I’d hate Halo 4 before it even came out. This isn’t about predictions on the quality of the game. Remember, I was willing to give it a fair shake, just like I did with Final Fantasy 13, and Resident Evil 6. And I played through the game. And then I sat down and started writing this post.
I knew this would happen if I wrote this post. I was going to end this by saying “Yeah, Halo 4 has its weaknesses…but I can’t bring myself to hate it because it does at least one thing pretty well.” But I can’t say that anymore. I can’t excuse a game for its repeated failures and inability to evolve, just because it did one thing right. It’s net worth -- you have to add up all the positives and negatives, and score it according to the final output.
And so it’s come to this.
I hate Halo 4. And I’m starting to hate the Halo universe. It has the potential to be this living, breathing, fantastic world -- but as long as it’s tied down to one of the most abysmal characters I’ve ever encountered, it will never, ever be the story I envision. As long as it keeps pining to be this epic struggle with a scope as wide as a continent, it will never, ever give me what I want. It will never be anything more than a string of firefights and cutscenes, because it never has to be anything else. Anything more. Master Chief will still be a gaming icon. The games will keep on selling thanks to regular releases and the chance to shoot other players in the back. The campaigns will be little more than diversions -- displays of fancy graphics and set pieces and decorations to show off the power of the almighty dollar.
But you know what? I don’t blame Microsoft, or Bungie, or 343 Industries. Not entirely, at least. Master Chief is a character -- an enemy -- of our own creation, developers and reviewers and journalists and gamers. He is the amalgamation of the gaming industry’s consciousness; he is what we want him to be, or what we envision him being. He is a legend undeserving of his legendary status. He is a character that can’t be changed, cannot change, and will not change. And even if he did, the fact that it’s taken a decade -- more, considering that we won’t see the full effects of Cortana’s death until Halo 5, at the earliest -- to even begin gaining insight to this character in his home medium only goes to show just how hollow he really is. He may have a face and a body and flesh and blood under that armor, but as of this moment, I can’t bring myself to care. Not again. Never again.
Playing Halo 4 made me bored repeatedly, and angry occasionally. But you know what? Right now, I’m just…sad. Sad, and tired, and disappointed. Master Chief is back -- but where he goes next, I dare not follow.
I guess my journey ends here.