Master Chief returns in ‘Halo 4’

When gamers last saw Master Chief, he and his AI companion Cortana were drifting through space aboard the not-to-completely intact UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn. The Chief was put into cryosleep, and Cortana went on standby mode.

There they were going to stay until the universe needed them once again.

As the credits to “Halo 3” drew to a close, we watched as the battered frigate lazily floated toward an unknown planet.

The Halo fanbase drew a collective breath, and the questions began. What planet was that? What will happen to the Chief and Cortana?

The answers didn’t come quickly. Gamers instead were offered two spin-offs and “Halo: Reach,” a prequel to the “Halo: Combat Evolved,” the first in the series. After “Halo: Reach,” Bungie handed the game off to Microsoft’s newest developer, 343 Industries, a company formed by a group of “Halo” designers who weren’t ready to put the Chief to bed just yet.

Now, five years after Bungie sent its farewell to Master Chief, 343i has delivered “Halo 4,” the first installment in a new trilogy of “Halo” games, dubbed the “Reclaimer Trilogy.”

“Halo 4” sets out to answer many of the lingering questions left in the wake of the closure of “Halo 3.” But the real question on gamers’ minds: Is 343i’s first game worth the return to the Halo universe?

Fear not “Halo” fans, it was worth the wait. “Halo 4” is a fantastic shooter, and the game breathes new life into the long-running franchise.

But it’s not without a few negative marks. The game is good, and brings possibly the best Halo multiplayer in years, however some familiar and stubborn weak points seemed to have survived the franchise’s exchange of hands.

Let’s not get into those points just yet. Instead, let’s talk about the campaign.

Master Chief wakes up four years after the end of the Human-Covenant war, and it becomes immediately apparent that things have not become easier for our big, green protagonist.

He soon lands rather roughly onto Requiem, the planet, designed by the ancient Forerunner, and thrust into a new fight against a new enemy: the Prometheans.

Right from the introduction it’s obvious that this isn’t your typical “Halo,” and I’m not talking about the lack of singing monks in the start screen.

The game’s story is darker than previous titles and features themes of fear, anger, love, desperation and loss. Master Chief has also shed his traditional “silent hero” persona and has become much chattier.

The decision to give the Chief a vocal lead was an integral decision by 343i, as the game revolves around the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana.

The four years floating through space have not been kind to Cortana. An AI construct, she is beginning to suffer the affects of “rampancy,” a term used to describe a fracturing of the AI’s “mind,” which creates a multitude of inconsistent behaviors including emotional outbursts and split personalities.

In the Halo universe, rampancy marks the end of an AI’s lifecycle, as the fracturing causes the construct to “think itself to death.”

Traditionally, Cortana gave humanity to the Chief, who stayed an emotionless gun-toting robot—something that had drawn criticism to the series.

But it is the “human or machine” theme that 343i latched onto when creating the story for “Halo 4.” The Chief, or John-117, starts to question that very fact.

Is he just a machine built only to kill his enemies? Or does he in fact have a soul? Through the campaign we watch as John’s personality begins to evolve as he begins to find who he really is, all the while struggling to keep Cortana from going over the edge.

I won’t spoil the story, but it should be noted that the relationship between John and Cortana, and the evolution of the Chief, highlights what would have been a rather bland tale.

“Halo 4” is the start of a new trilogy, and I had hoped that the game would see some changes in the gameplay. During the first half an hour, I felt that 343i was taking “Halo” to new horizons.

This wasn’t the case. After the introduction, the gameplay devolved into the usual “Halo”-style run-and-gun and activating switches to open things. The game isn’t boring. Quite the opposite in fact: The gameplay was solid from beginning to end.

I felt, however, that 343i had a chance to really evolve the series and go for a bold new direction with the 11-year-old franchise. Instead, the company merely skirted the edge of the idea, but never committed itself to take the plunge.

The game is a graphical powerhouse, and pushes the aging Xbox 360 to its limit. I won’t understate this point: “Halo 4” is probably the best-looking Xbox 360 game around.

Everything from the environments to the characters is polished to perfection. “Halo 4” ties the story together with excellent cut scenes that feature facial animations that rival even Rockstar’s best efforts.

All the audio behind the weapons and vehicles were scrapped for “Halo 4,” and it’s for the better; vehicles, weapons and ambient audio are outstanding.

The music, however, is a low point for the game. The score is by composer Neil Davidge, who provided a nice soundtrack, but doesn’t quite fill the shoes left behind by Bungie’s own masterful composer Martin O’Donnell.

The “Halo” series was once the undisputed king of console shooter multiplayer. Over the years the series’ stagnant, unchanging game mechanics forced it to lose its crown to the newcomer “Call of Duty.”

“Halo 4” probably won’t help the series reclaim the title, but that doesn’t matter, because the game provides one of the best multiplayer experiences around.

The multiplayer, called Infinity, allows players to build their very own Spartan-IV, and take it into battle in two different modes: War Games and Spartan Ops. The game also includes Theater mode and Forge.

Playing Infinity awards experience points which grants new levels. At each new level the player is rewarded with Spartan Points (SP), which are used to purchase new weapons, armor abilities and other upgrades.

New to the series is the ability to create your very own personal loadout, but don’t get too excited. The loadout is limited to a rifle-based weapon such as a DMR or Battle Rifle, and a secondary weapon such as a Magnum or Plasma pistol.

Because you’re offered a loadout, the 10 included maps don’t have any basic weapons. Instead, power weapons such as the shotgun or sniper rifle will spawn on a time sequence throughout the fight.

The biggest upgrade to the gameplay comes in the personal ordnance system. Get enough kills and you will be granted the ability to call down one of three random weapons or perks right on the battlefield.

The ordnance system completely changes the way the game plays. “Halo” multiplayer in the past revolved around weapon control, which meant hovering around power weapon spawns.

With personal ordnance, the balance can change in moments as power weapons can now enter the battle at the player’s will. Good players can get two or more ordnance drops in a game.

Spartan Ops replaces Firefight mode from previous games. Up to four players can jump in and play co-operatively to kill off swarms of enemies and complete a set of challenges.

The mode isn’t very impressive, however, and the maps are simply recycled from the main campaign. Spartan Ops is a simple distraction for players tired of campaign or War Games, but fans of Firefight will not find enough here to keep them interested, nor will anyone for that matter.

343 Industries was handed a monumental task, but somehow pulled it off.

From start to finish, “Halo 4” is a phenomenal shooter, and the multiplayer modes will hold your interest long after the credits roll.

Though the story could have been clearer and 343i could have taken more chances with the gameplay, the dialogue between John and Cortana is enough to hold up the campaign to its surpising and satisfying conclusion.

“Halo 4”  is just the first in the latest series of “tHalo” titles, and if it stands as any indication for the next two games, we should expect a triumphant return to form for Microsoft’s big green icon.