After spending the past month with Halo 4, here’s some updated impressions on 343’s first addition to the franchise.
Over the past couple weeks, a nagging feeling has crept it’s way into my brain. A feeling that Halo 4 is not quite everything it should be. I’m still playing and greatly enjoying Halo 4’s multiplayer. Spartan Ops has failed to capture me in terms of its narrative, but the gameplay experience is still a blast. But the campaign… there is something missing from the campaign.
Now that I have several campaign runs under my belt, a certain “hollowness” has become increasingly apparent to me. Halo 4’s campaign is filled with set-piece scenarios and hardcore fan service. 343 knows exactly what how to get Halo fans excited. You’ve always wanted to fly a Pelican, right? Here you go! You want more space combat? We’ve got that too. Remember the “Elephant” from Halo 3? Here’s something even bigger!
Halo 4 has plenty of great setups, to be sure. But the payoffs are either strikingly familiar, or they just fail to deliver their full potential.
Here’s a Mammoth filled with friendly Marine forces… just don’t expect it to do anything. Here’s a heavily armed Pelican for you to fly, but you’re only going to use it to travel between checkpoints. Here’s an outer-space arena, with nothing in it but a few turrets.
Never before in a Halo game have I been surrounded by so much “stuff”, yet felt so isolated.
As the humongous Mammoth begins to roll through mission 5, I’m thinking “oh man, this is gonna be great!”. All the ingredients are in place for a truly spectacular gameplay experience. We’ve got a mobile base with missile turrets, deployable warthogs, loads of heavy weaponry, and a full compliment of marines. But the mission squanders much of its potential, because these elements don’t really come into play unless the player takes direct control. The player is forced to single-handedly deal with entire enemy platoons, while the Mammoth just sits there. The friendly AI might as well not be there, because they don’t shoot at anything, they rarely use the turrets, and when they do try to use one of the Warthogs they get themselves blown up instantly.
Playing this mission co-op gives the player a taste of the potential fun to be had. The Mammoth becomes a living, breathing part of the environment, with Spartans taking marine-loaded Warthogs out onto the battlefield while other Spartans man the turrets or snipe from the roof. It brings a dynamic element to the mission that simply isn’t there when played solo.
There are times when 343 comes close to matching Bungie’s knack for creating highlight moments. The Mantis vs Banshee battle during the 7th mission and the Scorpion fleet at the end of the 5th mission both have that true “Halo” level of scale, while making the player feel like they are part of a larger battle. But never does Halo 4 match the Gauss-Hog segment of Halo 2, the mongoose rush in Halo Reach, or the Scarab battles of Halo 3.
In many cases, Halo 4’s most memorable moments are purely visual: watching the Chief float through the debris field towards Requiem, emerging through a cave and seeing the vast Forerunner planet before us, or watching the mighty Infinity rip through the clouds and surge towards the surface. The game is better at showing these key climactic moments than it is at doing them.
That is not to say that Halo 4 isn’t fun to play. It is loads of fun. But the fun is very familiar. There is nothing wrong with that, I just wish there was at least one or two moments that would make me say “I’ve never had an experience quite like this before”.
My hope for the future is that 343 will focus less on reminding the player of all the great moments in past Halo games, and create some new ones instead. Halo 4 is a very enjoyable game, but if I were not already a Halo fan, I doubt the campaign would capture me the way Bungie’s Halo games did. Still, 343 has shown huge amounts of potential. They’ve laid a strong mechanical foundation for themselves. Despite all my complaints, I love Halo 4. But it doesn’t blow me away… not quite.