Blog / Take a girl for a ride

I’m thrilled to be able to start a game review with a disclaimer. Ready? Here we go. Disclaimer: at the time of writing I am a contractor working with Microsoft and 343 Industries on Halo 4. My copy of this game was free. So you should take some of this with a grain of salt. Like the part where I say the Needler reload animation makes you believe in love at first sight. That’s definitely me exaggerating. Also the contest where the first person to collect all 50 detachable Grunt testicles gets their own decommissioned Space Shuttle. That doesn’t exist, and I’m not just saying so to throw everyone off the scent because I totally want the Endeavour. Okay?

Good luck getting that image out of your brain.

Oh, and there are huge spoilers herein. Made even worse by the fact that things actually happen in Halo 4.

One of those things is an interview with a woman, Catherine Halsey, creator of the Spartan program and Cortana the artificial intelligence. Apparently abducting children is still a faux pas in the future and some shadowy guy wants… well, it’s not clear what he wants. He wants the player to know who this woman is, and that the Master Chief might be more of a hyper-capable psychopath than a regular old super soldier. Mister Shadow, whose identity you never learn, says Spartans exhibit “mildly sociopathic tendencies,” which to my ears sounds like they can be morose after slaughtering an entire species. We’re all allowed to be a little withdrawn at times, aren’t we?

While we do get some insight into Halsey’s assertion that Spartans are humanity’s next step in evolution, nothing comes of the Chief’s supposedly “broken” character. At one point he refuses an order that’s basically “stop playing Halo 4,” but the guy who tells you that loses command of his ship, so nuts to him. Confidentially, things might have turned out better if Master Chief had obeyed that order, but we’ll get to that later.

Right now we’re going to drool over the graphics and sound. Like Gears of War 3, this is the Xbox 360 running at the peak of its potential. Draw distances are huge, the skybox is used to amazing effect, and character models have never been better. Halo 4 uses advanced facial mapping that allows characters to focus their eyes and clench their jaw during in-engine cutscenes. Frame rate slowdown is very rare, and load times and texture pop-in are nonexistent. Art direction on this game is phenomenal, especially the Forerunner structures.

Floating skyscrapers? Saaaafe.

More fanatical Halo fans than I could describe the new audio differences. While the traditional chanting is gone, the new soundtrack fits the action very well, especially the second half of “Revival”. The warthog sounds more guttural, more raw, like someone ripped off the hood and shoved in an angry badger. You can really hear your own footsteps. Clunk clunk clunk goes the Master Chief. He walks like a tank. And Cortana sounds like a real person.

That’s the other audio upgrade. Characters emote now. Cortana sounds afraid and alone, vulnerable and uncertain about confiding her problem to the Chief. Your Forward Until Dawn buddy Lasky is a pleasant military everyman, his captain a barely concealed nervous wreck. And though one quarter of Master Chief’s dialog is just the word “Cortana,” you can really hear him inflect it each time. Thank goodness they have interesting things to say.

While other Halo fans were worried about 343 failing to uphold Bungie’s famous gameplay, I was concerned about the plot. Please have it make sense. Please give us a compelling reason to push forward. Please make us care about Cortana, instead of just assuming we care about her and shoving a blurry blue face into our visor.

Prepare yourself for an onslaught of weepy Cortana fans.

I was not disappointed. This is some of the best writing all year. There’s the occasional science-y gobbledegook about what particular type of radiation Cortana’s detecting at this very moment, but the dialog is short enough not to bludgeon you with geek speak. People don’t go over the same thing multiple times. Cortana has snide quips that make me chuckle. Lasky comes across as honest without seeming like a tool. And restraint! The writers show restraint! There’s a magnificent scene early on Requiem that you get to take in all by yourself.

If you’re human, or programmed to look like one, you sound great.

Why yes, that was oddly specific. Halo’s first real villain is the Didact, an ancient Forerunner imprisoned on Requiem for some reason. Yes, his name is “The Didact” and not “Tim” or whatever. No, I don’t know why he was imprisoned (hope you’ve read Greg Bear’s Forerunner books!). He speaks as though all he had to watch for untold millennia was the Architect scene from Matrix Reloaded.

Like Bender from Futurama, the Didact’s goal is to “kill all humans,” but that language is too straightforward for him. It’s all “retain your nobility” this and “compose your evolution” that until my brain is dribbling out of my ears. I do love how he proclaims “the Forerunners have returned,” when really it’s just him. He’s the only Forerunner left. He does have a giant spaceship conveniently buried on Requiem, so that’s handy. Your arsenal includes seven billion guns and one insane artificial intelligence.

After eight years of being plugged into various alien computers, Cortana has been not-safely-ejected enough times to start going rampant. She’s going to die unless Master Chief can get her back to Earth and rebuild her neural net from her creator, Catherine Halsey, the lady being interviewed in the beginning. While Halo 4 has a solid plot in terms of events happening for logical reasons, there was an interesting moment when - had Chief obeyed Captain Del Rio - things might have turned out differently.

Follow me on this.

Some species is overcompensating for something!

Halo 4 starts with Master Chief and Cortana on a derelict ship called the Forward Unto Dawn. This ship crash lands on the planet Requiem. There, Cortana reveals she’s going rampant, and Chief wants to get her back to Earth let Halsey fix her. During their exploration of the planet they hear a transmission from the UNSC Infinity, another human ship that’s discovered Requiem. At the same time they also accidentally unleash the Didact. Soon Master Chief and Cortana are on the Infinity. Captain Del Rio repels the Didact, but wants to leave immediately and return to Earth. Chief and Cortana protest, saying the Didact must be stopped here and now.

With me so far? Setting aside the fact that we haven’t actually seen the Didact kill anyone, I was very surprised that Master Chief didn’t take this free ride back to Earth for Cortana’s sake. He doesn’t even weigh his options.

“On the one pauldron, save Cortana. On the other, save all humans everywhere.”

What? He's conflicted. Trust me.

Instead he charges after the Didact to keep him on Requiem and fails because Cortana’s rampancy interferes with their plan. Then he follows the Didact to an asteroid base where a Forerunner super-weapon is hidden, but fails to secure it from the evil alien. Finally he sneaks onto the Didact’s ship and rides it to Earth, where the UNSC Infinity and the rest of the human fleet are waiting, fully prepared to defend the planet. There’s been enough time to relieve Captain Del Rio of his command for being a tight-assed coward.

It seems to me that - had Master Chief gone with the Infinity back to Earth - nothing would have changed on the Didact’s end and Cortana’s rampancy might have been cured. You’d miss out on some great flying levels and a surprisingly emotional conversation with an old woman at the asteroid base, but I think it might work. Imagine a race against time to Dr. Halsey’s lab, or even a scene where Master Chief has to wait for Cortana to be repaired, all his power useless, pacing back and forth like an expectant father in a hospital.

Not that this is a knock against Halo 4’s plot. I’m amazed that this kind of what-if alternate scenario is even possible in a first person shooter.

Er, sorry, this isn’t a review of a sci-fi novel. It’s one of those games where the big guns take up half the screen.

New to the series is an entire set of Forerunner weapons that slot evenly into the usual pistol/shotgun/rifle groups. I suppose the Suppressor is unique, being the only sub-machine gun, but the new toys kind of bore me. They have wonderful names, especially the Binary Rifle, a powerful sniper rifle cognizant that anyone in its scope is either totally alive or fully dead. And it’s great to watch them piece themselves together like hyper-intelligent future space Legos the first time you pick one up. Weirdly, Master Chief isn’t the slightest bit surprised when he picks up a gun that assembles itself in his hand, nor does he need help to reload it. Spartans never die, and none read the instruction manual.

In fact, Master Chief knows how to do a lot more than he used to. Sprinting is available at all times, and armor abilities are far less silly this time around. You can have a jetpack, see through walls, deploy a huge handheld shield, or spawn a little turret. The only bad one is the thruster, a half-second burst that’s designed to get you out of the way of vehicles but is as disorienting as slamming your head on a desk. Activating the cloaking ability and sneaking up on a grunt is delicious fun.

Halo: Pelican Pilot. The spinoff I've always wanted.

Being invisible is great, but Halo 4 is at its best when you’re totally exposed. Your introduction to the UNSC Infinity is rampaging around its loading bay with a giant missile-firing robot, which fits nicely into the universe even if it feels like the mech is oiled with testosterone. Yet the best parts of the game for me are the two flying sections. Ever since the original Halo I’ve always wanted to pilot a Pelican, and Halo 4 delivers. Granted there isn’t much to do, but flying that graceful beast is a dream come true.

And then there’s the spaceship section in the last level, Midnight. It’s Ikaruga in first person, the most glorious trench run you’ll ever experience. During my first run I was shaking in my seat, whooping at the screen in joy. I long for a Halo-themed space shooter. All the pieces are there. Come on, guys!

Fear not, Halo fans. 343 Industries has made a proper installment in the Halo series.