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Ryme of the Ancient Gamer: Halo 4

Posted on | December 7, 2012 | No Comments

I’m not what you would call a consistent gamer. Enthusiastic, sure. Veteran, maybe. But I have friends who are the real “preordering the collectors edition and waiting outside to be first in line while sleeping in a tent” types of enthusiasts and put my own intermittent efforts to shame.

But every once in a while a franchise comes along that holds my attention and keeps me coming back for more. When those games release not only do I buy the game (and often the collectors edition) rather than Red Boxing it, but purchase a pre-order to receive it very day the game comes out. And repeatedly for me one of those games has been Halo (and I have the collectors-edition Spartan helmet to prove it).

Now I know many people will think “Ha ha! FPS? What are you a frat guy? I’ll bet you even have a girlfriend!!”
I won’t deny that many First Person Shooters and similar titles play on rails, so they do little more than guide a player from one shoot-out to the next. Innovation in that realm tends to be rare (and failure can be ridiculed mercilessly). It’s a genre that’s often looked upon with contempt by the Role Playing Game and Real Time Strategy crowd. But every once and a while there comes something that lives in that simple, violent, and testosterone-fueled world of FPS that’s…well, not just special…

It’s more like a revolution.

Until the original Halo came along shooters were pretty typical: you have 9 weapons, one for every number key, some familiar and others exotic (one of my all-time favorites is Unreal’s 8-Ball Gun). You have objectives, challenges, puzzles (Half-Life remains king in that respect), and game-play. Overall, you get a generally fun shot-’em-up adventure.

But Halo was something different. It was as if someone took a distillate of all the positive aspects of an FPS game and decided to sit down and make the story down-right thrilling.

When you first load it the aria-esque opening music makes you feel like you’re beginning a religious experience (and for some they did). Grand vistas of space narrowed to show an obviously Human starship embroiled in battle with alien spacecraft, and then in the distance a huge Niven-spawned ring emerges from the dark void. As you take on the role of space-armored Master Chief you fight your way off the ship, crash-land an escape pod on the ring, and encounter hostile aliens and fight them with Marines at your side. And then you find a tank

It really went uphill from there.

From playing an armored cyborg with a Heads-Up Display, to having an on-board hot-girl AI talking into your ear with helpful instructions, the game kept the excitement fresh and new. You were limited to two weapons, which one might think a handicap but the extra challenge of careful gun and ammo management ended up adding to the experience.

Then there was the idea of recharging shields. Admittedly there was a need for health packs if you took too many hits when they were used up, but having your health restore by just sitting there, instead if desperately searching for medpacks all the time, changed game-play substantially. Not requiring health kits proved so popular that the need for them was done away with in Halo 2.

And there were the vehicles.

The Warthog was possibly the best vehicle developed for a video game, ever, until that point. Some wonderful hybrid between jeep and dune buggy, you could push the Halo kinetics engine to the hilt bouncing around on hillsides and leaping over the occasional chasm. Driving up and along cliffsides while a turret gunner in the back mowed down Covenant troops was more fun than a whole carnival of rides.

And the beauty of the Warthog (in Halo 1) was it’s near indestructibility. You could smack it into pretty much anything at high-speeds and there would be no damage, and once this fact was discovered the sport of “grenade jumping” (stuffing explosives under a Warthog and seeing how far you could launch it) came into being.

Then there was the Scorpion tank, the Banshee fighter, Wraith plasma mortar, the list just went on and on.

And with these new innovations came an adulation for the game which single-handedly revitalized the FPS genre. After the first Halo there came sequels, spin-off games, a fan-made YouTube series, merchandising by the metric ton, and even an attempt to turn it into a feature film.

Then came Halo 4, and with it, 343 Industries.

 

Halo 4 Master Chief

In every sequel his armor is made up of smaller pieces. Eventually he’s going to be wearing square-shaped chainmail…

Halo 4
The fourth game in the Halo series was more than just another game. It was a test, an experiment to see if the reigns of a game MegaFranchise could be handed from its creators, Bungie, to the newly created Microsoft division known at 343 Industries. The purpose of 343 (named after the 343 Guilty Spark character from Halos 1, 2, and 3) was to continue development of the game series after Bungie was spun off into its own company. It was a big deal, with many wondering if that unique game-play which made the series to special could be continued with new hands at the wheel.

And the result: good. Different, but good.

Plot
One of the better things about Halo was it’s pervasive story arc. Not only was there the expository information about what was going on from the characters within the games, but also terminals and notes one could come across during game play that hinted at things to come. There was also a series of novels published concurrently with the games contained many storylines that explained how events from the past shaped the Halo-verse.

Halo 4 introduced Forerunner characters that had been hinted at in Halo 3 and fleshed out more thoroughly in Halo: Cryptum, a book about the ancient Forerunner race which built the Halos.

Also we were shown the creator of both the Spartans and Cortana, Dr. Halsey. The actions she took to create the Spartan II program coming back to haunt her in a particularly vivid cutscene at the start of the game (yet more plot lifted from one the novels, this time “Fall of Reach”).

The game itself followed the typical Halo-shooter story arc: the Chief has to stop the bad guy, goes to a variety of locations to either flip a switch, blow something up, etc., etc. It was actually disappointingly repetitive. Even though most FPS games are rail-shooters by nature, it’s a poor showing if game-play is cyclical enough for the player to feel like they’re finishing a list of chores. In their defense, Bungie also had this issue with Halo 1 where rooms were repeated over and over again during the campaign levels.

However, without going to far into spoiler territory, I can say the ending was nothing less than what one would expect from the Halo franchise. It started what they’re calling the new Forerunner Trilogy, a Saga that will continue in two more games.

Graphics
After playing Halo 4 I went back to play the older Halo games, in reverse order; I was curious how 343’s handiwork would compare to Bungie’s. H3 had a look that was nearly indistinguishable from H4, save for two areas: textures and character animation.

Throughout the Halo games there have been subtle but definite improvements to the look and feel of each of them, particularly to the texture mapping on objects and environment. The big leap forward of course was when Halo 3 was built taking advantage of the more powerful processor in the Xbox 360.

The difference 343 brought with their own visual improvements were starkly apparent when the Halo 1 Anniversary edition was released. It was basically the same game as Halo 1, but with a whole new paint job (courtesy of 343). Everything from characters to Warthogs received their own surface and luminosity renovation. Due to the complexity of making any programming changes however, such as to the physics engine or cut-scene animations, the new texture maps were the limitation of their alterations, but what they did within those limitations was nothing less than amazing.

So looking at Halo 4 you can see what was accomplished with both the improved textures and a while new animation engine. Everyone you interact with has movements much closer to the Uncanny Valley than ever before, especially in the case of Cortana, whose features this time were based much more closely on those of a real person. The characters’ skin-tones and features, they way they’re lit and move, brings to mind that wonderful cinematic experiment Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. When the first cut scene starts we see a closeup of Halsey’s eyes as she is interviewed in a holding cell, her lines of age rendered delicately, her irises a piercing gray. Later we see that same face only smooth and ethereal blue as her alter ego Cortana speaks with the Master Chief, his armor glinting with a nearly Jade Green luminosity. It was easy to forget you were waiting for a video game to start and feel the temptation to just sit back and enjoy the rest of the “movie”.

Game-play
Confession time: I am not a very good FPS player on consoles. Put a mouse in my hand and I’ll fill a virtual graveyard for you. However only with practice can I adjust to the thumbsticks, otherwise I’m constantly overshooting enemies with my targeting reticle.

But even for as many times as I get my ass handed to me by my various deathmatch opponents I’m still be having a good time.

As far as game-play goes Halo 4 is a bit of a step backward. For some strange reason dual-wield is gone, and sadly as are many of the more enjoyable weapons. Perhaps because the only Covenant you encounter are “loyalists” there are no Plasma Rifles. Nor are there SMGs, which I find heartbreaking; there’s nothing quite as satisfying as creeping up to a Jackal holding an energy shield and opening up with both barrels until the clips run dry.

On the plus side, a bevy of new weapons were added. You could say the Promethean armory is new, but to be honest I found very little difference from what we’ve seen before. The Binary Rifle is analogous to the Battle Rifle, Boltshot the same as a plasma pistol, the Suppressor a cheap knock-off of the SMG, and the Scattershot a shotgun you can bounce off the walls and ground. Perhaps some of my venom towards those guns is unwarranted because…well, we had to use them too much.

After playing my way backwards through the Halo series, I noticed something very subtle done by Bungie with the way one procures their guns: no matter where you were on a level, there was always something new. Stuck in a random valley on the Halo with a bunch of Wraiths? Hey, there’s a crashed pelican with a SPNKR and a sniper rifle! You’re just about to go up against the Flood for the first time? Look! You’ve found a shotgun! It also switched back and forth for Covenant plasma-type guns too. If you’ve spent too long a stretch of time with UNSC gear while shooting up Flood combat forms, you’ll probably start coming across a few you end up killing carrying alien gear.

But 343 Industries didn’t seem to quite understand this. For most of the last half of the game you were continually using grabbed Promethean weapons or coming across Promethean armory crates. Occasionally you would kill armed Covenant, but only rarely did you come across one with a needler, (the only pick-up worthy gun they had) and even then it usually had little ammo.

On the plus side, a few very nice Human guns were added. The DMR, or Designated Marksman Rifle, was a long-arm that felt like a happy medium between the Battle Rifle and the Sniper Rifle. Pumping slugs from a distance at high-rates was immensely satisfying, especially when dealing with some of the more armored enemies.

The Sticky Detonator popped up later in the game while on a raid in a research facility, firing a grenade with an adhesive shell onto a bad-guy and then allowing you to command detonate it (see Hudson Hawk). It was kind of the Terran answer to the Covenant plasma grenade, only a bit more powerful.

The addition of a SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) was kind of overdue; the MA-5B rifle is a great weapon (dating all the way back to Marathon), but something that pumps out a serious rate of fire with some accuracy at longer ranges was a welcome addition. With the drum-shaped magazine it felt like you were firing the great-great-great-grandson of a Tommy Gun.

And as for the Rail Gun…when I first fired it, I hated the thing. You had to be so very accurate or you missed completely. For all it’s energy there was no splash damage whatsoever. And it took a second or two to charge, so much like the Plasma Pistol if you held down the trigger for too long it would discharge on its own.

But once you got the hang of it, accurately hitting Jackals and Grunts with from the other side of a ravine, seeing the energy slam into them then send a screaming figure arcing into the air hundreds of meters, it was all well worth the frustration.

Ending
I’ll be coy about the ending to prevent any spoilage, but if I were to compare the final scenes of the game to the many others I have played over the years, I have to easily give it 4 out of 4 stars. There was emotion, a race against the clock, the eponymous boss fight, and a satisfying conclusion.

Conclusion
Halo 4 has shown 343 Industries to be a worthy successor to Bungie as caretaker of the Halo franchise. They convey to us how aware they are of the importance of carrying the torch in an open-letter at the end of the game, perhaps showing themselves to be a little too penitent to the saga of the Master Chief, but a certain amount of modesty isn’t a bad thing.

I’d give this game an 8/10 overall. The score would be 9/10 if they hadn’t been for weapon repetition and falling into the same Bungie trap of recycling maps, but they did push forward the Halo saga with great story elements and wonderful graphics. All in all I’m definitely looking forward to the remaining two episodes of the Forerunner Trilogy.

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