Monday, March 30, 2015

"You Look Terrible, Snake" #2 - Halo 4

"Don't make a girl a promise... if you know you can't keep it." - Cortana (Halo 2)

The release of Halo: Reach marked the end of Bungie’s exclusivity contract with Microsoft, and the end of their days developing Halo games, as they looked towards new frontiers with their next project, Destiny. But Halo was destined to remain a property under the ownership of Microsoft, who had created a department specifically for continuing the Halo storyline, dubbed 343 Industries. 343 Industries would be tasked not only with the development of future games in the bestelling series, but weaving tales for novels, comic books, and live action series that helped to fill the gaps between games. During the Bungie era, there were a number of Halo novels written that provided greater context to the Spartan program, the UNSC vs. Insurrectionist conflict that preceded the Human-Covenant War, and explored other Forerunner artifacts that Doctor Halsey had examined prior to the crew of The Pillar of Autumn stumbling across Alpha Halo at the beginning of the first game.

As part of the buildup to the 343 Industries-directed Halo 4, which would signal the start of the new ‘Reclaimer Trilogy’, two novel trilogies were launched. The first dealt with a UNSC team known as Kilo Five, and took place in the then-present day of the Halo universe, bridging the gap between Halo 3 and Halo 4, and exploring the fragile peace that existed between the Human race and their reluctant Sangheili comrades. This trilogy would go on to explain how some of the Sangheili grew restless in the post-war peace time, and opted to splinter off into their own faction to continue their warrior-like ways in seeking out Forerunner artifacts, thus setting the stage for Master Chief’s unexpected encounter with antagonistic Elites and Grunts early in Halo 4. The other trilogy of novels went far back in time to provide a direct narrative of the last days of the Forerunner empire, setting up for Halo 4’s major plotline that saw the return of the Ur-Didact and his desire to wipe humankind from the galaxy, under the belief that they proved the greatest threat to its stability in the absence of The Flood.

Many of Halo 4's highest points come courtesy of the Didact being such an intimidating villain.

While I personally found the Forerunner trilogy to be among the best Halo tie-in novels released to date, there was something exceptionally odd about their being so contextually important to the events of Halo 4. The same went for the Kilo Five trilogy – sure, I had read these precursor texts as my anticipation for the new game built, but in the grand scheme of things, only a small portion of the Halo fanbase would go out of their way to acquire and read these novels. Previous Halo novels like Ghosts of Onyx, Contact Harvest, The Fall of Reach, and The Cole Protocol did well to expand upon the existing universe, but not a single one of these was necessary reading in order to grasp the context of the games. Anyone could play from Halo: Combat Evolved up through Halo 3 and successfully gather the core of Master Chief’s story – the aforementioned novels provided further backstory to other characters and events, the majority of which preceded the events of the games by many years. But both the Forerunner and Kilo Five trilogies were so tightly connected to the narrative of Halo 4, I find it a wonder the delivery of the single-player campaign managed to come across as well as it did.

Consider this required reading material.

Halo 4’s campaign is incredibly short-lived, even when compared to the games that came before it. Yet, it hits high notes from start to finish, with Master Chief’s race to stop the Didact’s plans standing strong as the core conflict of the game. It’s quite surprising, in fact, that this smaller-scale and more personal battle between two men out of their own time handles so convincingly in a series that has long been about a large-scale conflict between an alien conglomerate and the human military. The game delivers a satisfying conclusion that wraps up its own story without too much in the way of cliffhanger content, yet leaves enough doors open the ensure future games and associated media have sufficient material to draw from.

The combination of the campaign being so brief, yet so well-written, certainly left me with somewhat complicated feelings toward it, and perhaps more importantly, toward the future of the franchise under the banner of 343 Industries. But with Bungie veteran Frank O’Connor relocating to the 343 Industries team, I was hopeful that Halo 4’s story was more a reflection of the studio wanting to play things safe during their first proper outing than a signifier that the series would teeter toward the realm of Metal Gear with a highly complicated narrative than would be as spun up in the core games as it would any and all spinoff material. While the former may very well have been the case for the campaign mode, the online multiplayer and Spartan Ops modes revealed an uglier truth.

The Halo games have provided me with a ludicrous number of hours of entertainment in online play. From Halo 2 onward, friends and I would take part in a variety of Slayer and objective-based matches, from the close quarters of Lockout and Turf, to the vehicular carnage on Valhalla and Sandtrap, to the new game types of Invasion and Headhunter introduced in Halo: Reach. Halo retained a unique identity in the online multiplayer scene. While Halo 3 and Halo: Reach both offered players the option to alter the appearance of their multiplayer Spartan avatar, these were purely for aesthetic purposes, and no restrictions on unlocks were associated with any weapons or ability loadouts. Halo 4, however, painted a much different picture – one that wandered a tad too far into the realm of every other first-person shooter on the market for my own tastes.

Highly-detailed Spartan armor cannot disguise the huge steps backwards the competitive multiplayer took.

Better weapons and abilities were unlocked at higher levels, and this sucked a large amount of the fun from the multiplayer experience. Ordinance drops of heavy weapons rewarding the winning team even more of an edge over the competition led team matches to feel incredibly lopsided. The map layouts either evoked rather direct memories of their Halo 3 and Reach predecessors, in that their designs deviated so little from what had already been established, or were too outlandish and impractical for more than one or two game types. While I abhor the competitive multiplayer format of practically every other major first-person shooter, I think it is worth mentioning that I actually performed quite well in the majority of the Halo 4 Slayer matches I did play. But the lack of enjoyment I found from them led me to abandon them so quickly, that my objective with Halo 4 became solely focused on completing the campaign, a feat which was completed in a grand total of three sittings – and I was by no means attempting to rush through it.

Spartan Ops was an abysmal series of short missions that lacked any inspiration in either design or narrative, asking little more of you, the player, than to kill every enemy along the path from point A to point B. To think that Spartan Ops replaced the spectacular horde mode that was Firefight boggled my mind, especially considering how well-received Reach's Firefight was by the Halo community. Maybe the later updates that Spartan Ops received offered more interesting missions, but one playthrough of all the default missions left me with a foul opinion of them. Perhaps if they had been included alongside the Firefight mode, I might not have received them so poorly.

Spartan Ops: for when you want to team up with friends to tackle repeatedly lackluster missions.

With all of these factors combined, it was abundantly apparent to me that 343 Industries had lost sight of what Halo was really all about somewhere during the development of this new game – at least with regards to every facet of this project outside of the campaign. But even there, the lack of consideration to how easily audiences would be able to settle into the new narrative was a significant oversight on the part of Halo’s new management. Since the release of Halo 4, 343 Industries has gone on record as stating that they will do better with the next installment in the series, though what specific points they intend to improve on remains to be seen. The push for current storylines in both tie-in novels and comic books to emphasize rebellious factions of both Sangheili and Humans leaves me concerned that Halo 5 might see Master Chief fighting other human soldiers as opposed to the Promethean Knights or some other kind of Forerunner combatants.

While I wasn’t particularly hot on the notion of fighting Elites and Grunts again for the sake of convenience in 343 Industries not having to design a whole new slew of foes, I understand that something familiar needed to be retained to avoid wholly alienating longtime fans. But the potential for future games to teeter even further into the realm of Call of Duty or Battlefield by having Master Chief fighting militarized human forces is a truly upsetting notion. With any luck, the team at 343 Industries will recognize how much the Halo community loved the old multiplayer format, and return to the series’ roots with Halo 5: Guardians, as Halo’s online component has always accounted for a good half of its identity.

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