Halo 4 begins with a gorgeous CG cutscene that presents many of the series' key battles in a slick montage - the fall of Reach, the invasion of New Mombasa, you name it, it's probably there. Amidst all the jaw-dropping action and visual splendor, a comparatively low-key scene plays out: Dr. Halsey - the creator of the Spartan program, and thus the Master Chief, as well as his AI sidekick Cortana - sits in a shadowy room as an interrogator looms over her. This enigmatic figure half-heartedly accuses her of war crimes before revealing what he's really after - the keys to the Master Chief's success as an unstoppable killing machine. He explains that Spartans tend to exhibit sociopathy (though Noble team might have a thing or two to say about that), then asks a particularly juicy question:
"Do you think Master Chief succeeded because he is, at his core, broken?"
For a series that seemed to possess a steadfast determination to never address its numerous narrative criticisms, this single question presents a surprising moment of self-awareness. The Master Chief is indeed broken, not just in terms of personality, but in his general quality as a protagonist. It might always be a blast to take control of the series' signature 7-foot, impossibly strong android, but watching his story actually play out has long been an immense bore. Within this one small moment, newcomer developer 343 Industries sets a strong expectation - namely that, in the middle of the high-concept sci-fi grandiosity that fuels the franchise's muddled mythos, they won't forget to lose sight of the humanity that should be at the center of every great epic. This ambition is certainly striking, but 343's initial cognizance of the series' problems soon fades away, and the proceedings more or less revert to Halo as we know it. And while that may bode poorly for Halo 4's campaign and narrative, the franchise's mechanical perfection, along with immense production values and a great set of multiplayer options, allows the new team of creatives to get by with the series' exalted legacy very much intact.
Still, it's very hard not to feel let down by the campaign that follows such a clever opening cutscene. Perhaps the most disappointing part is that, for its first few levels, Halo 4 successfully leads you to believe that it's bolder and wiser than any of its predecessors, as the game's first act sees the Master Chief and Cortana surrounded with enticing and menacing unknowns. After being rudely stirred from a four-year cryosleep, the Chief soon finds himself contending with a whole host of obstacles, including a fleet of rogue Covenant and the planet Requiem, a mysterious and truly alien environment the likes of which the series hasn't crafted since the original Halo. The conflict that takes center stage, however, is the onset of Cortana's rampancy - the height of an AI's aging process, and the time at which their systems begin to fail. With Cortana's "death" seemingly imminent, the long-understated relationship between the series' famed duo finally takes center-stage as the Master Chief finds himself struggling to balance saving his partner and confronting a newfound menace.
This all adds up to clearly indicate that 343 knows what needs to be done in order to not only put their stamp on the Halo series, but to make it better than ever. Unfortunately, it seems they lack the daring needed to execute on these concepts in a truly compelling way. The driving plot involving a new alien threat falls into the typical Halo series pitfall of becoming overblown and convoluted pretty much the very second additional plot elements come into play. Ancient evils, secret weapons, evolution and genetic modification, Halos, Forerunners, Prometheans, and a whole host of other topics work their way into Halo 4's narrative, but none of them come together to form an engaging, or even coherent plot. The more personal subplot centered on Cortana and the Chief's relationship should've fared better, but the repetitiveness of its key moments, along with a climactic sequence that falls completely flat, make it lose every bit of its potential poignancy.
The action that surrounds these story beats is entertaining insofar as any Halo game is, but there are clear signs that the usual campaign formula desperately needs to be reexamined. To start with the good - or rather, utterly fantastic - the mechanics are still as perfect as ever. Every gun has a weighty feel entirely of its own, and punchy sound effects do a lot to sell you on their raw power. Movement and aiming is slick and precise, and 343 does well to maintain series signatures like a subtle but finely tuned bit of aim assist, and the Master Chief's superhuman leap.
Beyond these core elements, moment-to-moment gameplay is most reminiscent of Halo: Reach, as dual-wielding remain out of the picture and Armor Abilities factor rather heavily into firefights. Unlike its predecessor, however, every one of Halo 4's batch of Armor Abilities is a hit. Abilities like Armor Lock that didn't quite work are gone, while old favorites like jetpacks and holograms return, and new additions like the Autosentry, a hovering robot companion who aids you in gunning down your foes, and the Hardlight (read: riot) shield further change the dynamic for the better.
The new breed of foe you'll face in the form of the Prometheans also help to keep things feeling relatively fresh. While the smaller enemies mostly behave like reskinned versions of older baddies, the daunting Promethean Knights offer an invigorating challenge. Decked out with a long-ranged weapon, shields, crushing melee, and the ability to teleport out of harm's way, these aliens are some of the toughest foes in series history, and facing them down is always a riot thanks to their unpredictability. The bright, bold colors and sleek chrome look that defines these new enemies, though very clearly influenced by Metroid Prime's iconic space pirates, still provide a wondrous departure from the typical Halo aesthetic.
Unfortunately, the dynamism seen in this singular enemy type is nowhere to be found when examining the campaign as a whole. Though its reluctance to adhere to current development trends during this setpiece-heavy era of singleplayer gaming is commendable, the standard proceedings simply get boring after a while. As fun as the new weapons and enemies are, standard gameplay structures simply can't sustain an eight hour campaign, and repetitive objectives only exacerbate the feeling of sameness that sets in after the first couple of hours.
The game does subvert repetitiveness to some degree here and there. In Halo 4's most inspired bid at shaking things up, Requiem's bold, angular visual design is occasionally made a factor in gameplay. An early sequence, for example, sees players teleporting to different platforms in the middle of a vast, hollow globe of alien machinery is enthralling in its visual design to the point where the more immediate action almost becomes secondary. Beyond moments like this, the game also seems to acknowledge its relative lack of variety by including a number of vehicle setpieces in its last few missions. Aside from a gleeful rampage through a space station in the new Mantis mech, however, these moments are mostly retreads of old setpieces.
Though sandwiched between Halo 2 and ODST's more experimental campaigns, Halo 3 and Reach locked into similarly comfortable grooves with their singleplayer components. Halo 4 sticks mostly to their formula, offering a campaign built around the series' core gameplay and the long-running, immensely confusing narrative with a few decent setpieces and half-hearted appeals to emotion thrown in for good measure. The problem is that this setup works no better in this title than it has in the past, and while powering through the game's eight levels can be fun simply thanks to a set of thoroughly satisfying core mechanics, it's quite clear that a significant change must be made in order to craft a compelling experience once more. Halo 4's setting is the clearest indication of this notion; the metallic opulence of Requiem is pure, old-school sci-fi splendor that serves as a refreshing change of pace from the militarized planets seen in previous titles. In fact, this awe-inspiring new backdrop is realized so meticulously that it even serves to alter gameplay from time to time. Unfortunately, Requiem isn't a reflection of the rest of the campaign's ingenuity so much as a standout exception to its lack thereof.
It's rather odd that 343, despite showing a painfully apparent reluctance to break new ground with the Halo franchise's aging campaign formula, is willing to overhaul the series' exalted adversarial multiplayer offering in major ways. Taking cues from pretty much every major online shooter from the past couple years, Halo 4's suite of multiplayer options (dubbed Infinity) is exceedingly fast paced, and brimming with unlockable rewards. Though many fans have been skeptical, modern tweaks like killcams, split-second respawns, killstreaks, and a lengthy sprint ability fit quite naturally into the preexisting Halo dynamic. In fact, the healthy dose of twitchy freneticism they provide gives multiplayer matches a consistent energy and intensity, the likes of which wasn't necessarily accomplished in previous games' more emergent design.
Furthering this more structured approach is a swath of unlockables. Partaking in the matchmaking madness earns you new ranks, as well as Spartan Points, which then lead to the acquisition of a whole host of rewards. Some of them, such as new pieces of armor, are simply smoke and mirrors that seem to exist just to keep you hooked. Other unlocks, however, can be quite substantive. Perhaps the biggest revelation comes with the addition of loadouts. By allowing players to select their own starting weaponry, the usual lull that occurs as a game begins is entirely avoided. Having to dive into a match's first few firefights without any idea of what to expect from your opponents is immensely exciting, and helps rounds feel fresh and dynamic from the very second they start.
This chaotic and utterly exceptional combination of Halo multiplayer mainstays and post-Modern Warfare features is further amplified by Halo 4's ten incredible maps. At first glance, it might be hard to pick out one or two real hits out of the bunch, but it soon become apparent that each arena is a masterstroke of design. With varied visuals, perfect weapon and vehicle placement, and meticulously crafted chokepoints, Halo 4 features the best map lineup in the entire series. With any luck, this slew of fantastic arenas will cause the Halo community's usual tendency to favor one or two maps over all others to become a thing of the past.
Secondary modes like Theater and Forge, an accessible map pseudo-editor, make a return and provide pretty much exactly what fans would expect. Both features are as fleshed out and easy to use as they've always been, and sharing your works is quicker than ever. The Forge toolset has also seen a good bit of expansion, with three (rather than just one) base template to work with. At this point, it's likely that most players have made up their minds as to how much time they're willing to spend delving into these extras; some are devoted to building architectural wonders and Forge, some have turned the Theater mode into a sort of art form, while others ignore these features entirely. Players new to these features owe it to themselves to give them a shot, however, since the toolsets offered are among the best console gamers can get their hands on.
Perhaps the most radical upending of Halo tradition is the removal of the Firefight wave-defense mode in favor of a new beast: Spartan Ops. This new cooperative mode's main conceit is that it takes on an episodic format. A new episode is delivered each week, bringing with it five brief stages that can be cleared with up to four players. More surprisingly, however is that these pieces of content also provide gorgeous CG cutscenes that reveal new pieces of an overarching narrative. While these marvelous cinemas succeed in drawing you into Crimson Squad's perilous exploits, the ensuing gameplay doesn't do its part to support Spartan Ops' ambitions.
This is because, for the most part, stages are rather bland and unexciting. Players are usually tasked with shooting through a bunch of foes, accomplish a menial objective or two, then hold off as they wait for extraction. Though this might change down the line, Spartan Ops' first few episodes have clung to this ill-advised formula rather tenaciously, resulting in an experience that quickly runs out of steam. Compounding this issue is the fact that only the single most recent episode supports matchmaking. Thus, if you want to catch up on the story or play through more than just five fleeting scenarios, you'll be out of luck unless you can gather some friends together to power through the content you actually want to experience. This baffling choice to eschew easy connectivity for past episodes comes as a huge detriment to Spartan Ops, as it fails to incentivize experiencing the piecemeal narrative upon which the mode is predicated. Though 343 deserves some credit for trying to subvert the archaic blueprint laid out by Gears of War 2 a few years ago, the solution they've devised in Spartan Ops never quite comes together, and is ultimately less entertaining than a standard Horde-mode knockoff might've been.
Taking an all-encompassing look at 343's attempts to put their stamp on Halo's three main pillars of play - those being campaign, coop, and adversarial multiplayer - yields an amusing result. The campaign formula, which is in desperate need for a change, ultimately receives the least improvement, even if a story expressly built to tug on your heartstrings might attempt to convince you otherwise; the action is still plodding (save for a few setpieces), and the narrative is still insufferably focused on needlessly fleshing out a mythos that has already way overextended any immediate narrative's ability to implement its innumerable and absurdly complex plot elements in an interesting way. The cooperative component does well to move onto a fresh format that has nothing to do with waves or hordes, but 343's innovation only goes halfway; Spartan Ops suffers a number of problems that keep it from being the phenomenon it has the capacity to become, the most notable of which being its exceedingly shoddy matchmaking functionality.
Where the new developers see the most success, however, is in their revamping of player-versus-player combat. Though this side of the Halo franchise has always been addicting enough to reduce a quietly humming, freshly powered Xbox to a loud, clunking jet engine, numerous smart design tweaks have been made to bring the action to even greater heights. Why it is that a mode that would've still impressed if left alone receives the most attention is beyond me, but that doesn't keep the proceedings from possessing an undeniable fun factor.
Halo 4 is, essentially, the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule gone horribly wrong. The facets of the series that have been, to a certain extent, broken for years (a few of which get pointed out by 343 themselves) are left in their faulty state. Meanwhile, the Halo franchise's more time-tested strengths receive major overhauls. Fortunately, this perfect storm of confusion as to how to iterate on a strong IP never leads Halo 4 to fully underwhelm. The presentation, complete with a wonderful score by Neil Davidge and the best visuals you'll find on the Xbox 360, is thoroughly fantastic, the multiplayer is endlessly entertaining, and despite their being rough around the edges, there's still quite a bit of fun to be found within the campaign and Spartan Ops.
Ultimately, however, Halo 4's perpetuation of the series' masterful set of core mechanics allow it to remain a damn good game. In this way, Bungie has equipped their best-known franchise with a comforting anchor; no matter what direction any new creatives try to drive their sci-fi opus, the moment-to-moment gameplay will never fail to entertain. 343 Industries may use this fact as a crutch too often, but it nevertheless acts as a potent assurance that this is a series that will always be worth players' while.