When the credits rolled on Halo 3’s Legendary ending back in 2007, I remember going for a walk with my best friend and talking about it. Would Chief ever be found floating in space? Will there be a Halo 4? Is Humanity best buds with the alien races that made up the Covenant? To my 14-year-old brain, there felt like there were infinite possibilities, and the last thing I wanted was the Master Chief to stay frozen in the blackness of space forever.
That’s why when Halo 4 was finally released five years later, I played through it on Legendary right away. I needed to know the questions I had been pondering for years. I needed to know where Chief’s story was going. But when the credits began to roll on the long-anticipated follow-up by the new head studio 343 Industries, I didn’t feel as awed as I had with previous entries. In fact, I didn’t have many memories playing through it at all.
I could only remember the ending. It would be years before I ran through it again, but I always struggled to remember the exact plot of the game. Now almost ten years after its initial release, I want to go back, in preparation for Halo Infinite, and experience 343’s first attempt at their own Halo game again. I want a refresher on the beginning of this chapter, and I want to see how 343 have grown or declined since 2012.
A New Era
Halo 4 brings players right back into the action with Cortana hovering over the activate button to Chief’s pod. We are jumping in directly where Halo 3 left off (at least in the Master Chief’s perspective). The Forward Unto Dawn has been floating through space and has found a strange forerunner planet with a fleet of Covenant ships loitering outside.
This here is already confusing for some people who may have thought the war was completely done and over with. The new Covenant forces are not explained well within the game, and I am fairly certain they were really only justified in the books. Cortana does say they seem more “fanatical,” whatever that means, but beyond that, the player just has to accept the Covenant is still a threat.
The first level feels similar to Cairo Station from Halo 2 as Chief fights off enemies boarding the Dawn and then launches a missile to destroy a Covenant cruiser. However, comparing it to the 2004 game, I feel like I learned way less about the world through the Forward Unto Dawn than I did Cairo Station. There weren’t any rooms or spaces that felt like they helped to illustrate life aboard the Forward Unto Dawn under normal circumstances, and it didn’t have any interesting set pieces.
But that’s okay. The first level is all about setting the stakes and getting us back into the swing of things. Requiem and Forerunner are the next two levels, and they certainly open up the gameplay more than the first level did. The second and third levels introduce 343’s real focus with the Reclaimer Saga: Master Chief and Cortana. Cortana is seeing a bigger focus as she is dealing with rampancy, a condition that happens to AI after being active for seven years. Cortana is now eight years old and struggling to perform her normal actions in a calm and collected manner. Chief is concerned and is actively looking for a way to protect and fix Cortana while trying to save the world again. Chief himself is reunited with the UNSC after being MIA for the past four years. However, after reconnecting with friendly forces, it becomes clear that the leadership of Infinity doesn’t hold the old spartan in high regard. Which can make sense. Spartans are controversial and hated among some of the branches such as the ODSTs. Halo 4 means to tackle Cortana’s humanity and Chief’s perceived lack of humanity.
Cortana and new character Lasky both ask if Chief doesn’t see himself as part of humanity rather than just a soldier or a machine. It’s something that is frequently brought up, but we never see Chief himself grapple with these questions of identity or purpose. He simply nods or looks away. Maybe the questions were originally meant to be expanded on in Halo 5 but that means we have these threads that go nowhere. Unless 343 begins to expand on these ideas in Halo Infinite, Halo 4’s largest innovation to the Halo franchise was a waste of time.
A New Fight to Finish
The Master Chief is given all sorts of new goodies in this new era, but not all of them land gracefully. Franchise classics like the assault rifle and battle rifle make a return and feel great. The pistol is one of my favorite variations of the weapon too. Then there are things like Promethean weapons which are the Forerunner type of weaponry that 343 added to the sandbox. These weapons often feel like less viable reskins of known weapons. The light rifle is a battle rifle but not as good, the suppressor is an assault rifle but not as good, and the pulse grenade is the worse grenade that has ever been added to the series so far.
Overall, all the weapons feel good with a much less floaty feel to them compared to older titles, but the new additions don’t add much and often just feel like filler. Halo 4 does manage to feel like a modern shooter, that’s for sure. Though, 343 chose to keep spartan abilities. The abilities in the campaign are next to useless and do nothing to expand on the Chief’s core mechanics. I don’t think I ever wanted to use any of the abilities except the jetpack. Sprint is fine, too, because it helped me run through a lot of the emptiness that are some of the Halo 4 levels.
The thing that has always stood out in most of the levels in Halo’s catalog is how the player(s) can navigate medium to large areas and formulate their own plans for how to best do so. A great example of this is in Halo 3’s scarab fight where you can choose to use a mongoose with a rocket marine, missile pod, the elevated crane position, or hijack enemy vehicles. There are multiple ways to play that are still relatively valid and can lead to success. Halo 4 often doesn’t have these types of open sections with the same level of freedom.
While the levels aren’t completely devoid of choice, they lack any meaningful differences in how a player can tackle a situation. There are several firefight sections throughout the game but almost none of them offer any type of variation over playthroughs. For example, the final defense of the Composer you most likely will just use the Mantis to defend it.
There are spartan lasers sprinkled throughout the map as well as a few turrets but for the number of banshees and enemies that are sent, there isn’t enough to make it different on repeat playthroughs. Plus, we already had a level where we used the mantis on Forerunner. It feels like 343 wanted to highlight their new vehicle but forgot that other playstyles and strategies would help boost the environments over time.
The areas where they provide the player with an opportunity to take different routes or use different vehicles/weapons are almost silly in their implementation. Like there will be little arenas that are made up of different platforms or one long bridge. Sometimes these platforms can be taken in different orders, the bridge has different levels, or there is even a banshee sitting somewhere to use. My problem with this is that these areas are too small to really emphasize these elements. It’s a fake choice with the same general player experience.
Reclaimer, on the other hand, I feel it does a decent job at least varying its objectives and gameplay. The level mostly takes place on the mobile base, Mammoth vehicle. Chief has access to jetpacks, sniper rifles, additional ammo, and warthogs. There will be times where you need to secure a designator, take out an enemy dropship, enemy shield encampments, and even go on a rampage with a tank. This level doesn’t need to give the chief as much control in navigating the environment because the entire level feels like a varied experience. I wanted more missions like this, but unfortunately, most levels had something much worse.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
One of my biggest frustrations with Halo 4 and even Halo 5 is how often missions rely on repeated objectives and repeated rooms. There are some levels that feel like they would fit right in with the Halo: Combat Evolved philosophy of reusing the same room a few dozen times. This is Halo 4’s biggest weakness, and it’s what keeps me from being too excited to replay it.
Requiem, Forerunner, and Midnight are just a few examples of levels that expect you to run around and complete the same objective over and over. They don’t offer interesting variations between the objectives or throw anything wild at you while you repeat them. A great example of a repeated objective is in Halo 3’s The Covenant.
In the level, the Chief needs to retake a second tower since Johnson’s team was unable. Before doing this objective, there is an epic hornet battle where you need to secure your own LZ, and then you need to take the tower, which is overrunning with a different variety of enemies than you dealt with in the first tower. It mixes up the gameplay while offering the same general template. That is how you reuse assets effectively.
There are even levels like Shutdown where you literally go through the same long stretch of battles multiple times with little difference between them except Cortana being agitated in your ear. These are the moments that make Halo 4 feel more rushed than it should have been. I’m not too familiar with the development surrounding Halo 4, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was turbulent based on such rough level design.
The Reclaimer Saga’s Art Style
When Halo 4 was initially released, I definitely had some harsh words for changing so much, but nowadays, I don’t feel nearly as strongly about it. Halo 4’s art style went for a slightly more realistic feel to it. The pieces that stand out the most in this regard are the Chief’s armor and how the Covenant forces look.
Gone are the flatter, straight and silly elements of those visuals. Instead, they look more like concepts from a gritty sci-fi movie with realistic textures and rounder assets. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. It is a little jarring having the character change his look after being stuck in space alone, but the Covenant almost always look different in some way between entries.
What does bother me is how Forerunner’s aesthetic is just blue lines and giant metal sculptures. The Forerunners designed the Halo rings which have a varied and beautiful look to them and even paired a lot of their installations with nature like the bridges in Two Betrayals. In Halo 4, the Forerunner installations are too clean. They feel like giant empty halls that Chief parades through fighting the same three enemy variants.
The over-emphasis on the sterile Forerunner aesthetic rather than using it sparingly like Bungie did is my biggest complaint with Halo 4. My favorite levels are usually the levels where the setting is semi-believable with fantastical elements within them such as Reclaimer and Infinity.
THAT BEING SAID: The aesthetic is really nice to look at but not to play and explore. I could see myself having some of the architecture as a wallpaper on my PC or as a poster. I realized the problem when I stared up at the ceiling on Requiem. The ceiling looked like something out of Blade Runner with sentinels moving back and forth. It looked like really cool sci-fi, and it stretched on forever. But all that did was emphasize how empty the game could feel at times when it didn’t tie the elements of Halo together with these new visuals.
The team at 343i managed to create a storyline with some interesting moving parts involving Chief’s role as a soldier more so than a person and Cortana’s rampancy making her wish for her own humanity. Then there is the leadership difficulties between Chief and Del Rio, which helps showcase the perception that some people have of Spartans. There is good stuff in Halo 4, but it is brought down by a mediocre ending and rough level design.
Halo 4 is much better than I remember, but it isn’t quite where it could have been. I hope Halo Infinite picks up some of the narrative threads that have been lying dormant for almost a decade because I still think Chief needs some self-care. He’s been through a lot.