Halo 4 Review

Spoilers ahead.

I’ve played all the Halo games, and the one thing that never, ever stood out to me was the story. Sure, Master Chief is cool in an unstoppable-badass sort of way, and the books expand on the lore, but each game’s plot can be boiled down to one sentence: A group of aliens hates humanity (presumably because their satellites stumbled upon reality TV), but luckily, we have this one dude who’s basically an alien armada wrecking ball. Standard “he’s our only hope” military sci-fi. Even Halo: Reach, which featured six other Spartan super soldiers as its protagonists, quickly devolved into a “who-can-have-the-noblest-death competition,” as Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw put it in his review. You couldn’t swing a dead grunt in that game without knocking over clusters of action movie cliches.

Yet Master Chief’s stories have always relied heavily on dialogue, of all things. Specifically, the banter between Chief and a flirty AI named Cortana, whom he’s carried around in his helmet since unstoppable-badass orientation day. Their commentary is a staple of the series, and new developer 343 Industries dismantled my expectations by focusing on that relationship. The resulting yarn is less standard military sci-fi and more harrowing character study. Except with guns and bombs and stuff.

Of course, they didn’t totally go off recipe. You’ll still be following floating waypoints and blasting through hordes of aliens just to flip a switch or blow up a generator. If that’s your thing, don’t worry, the objectives are still fairly mindless. And don’t get me stared on the final boss “fight.” The journey itself, however, is different. A few story elements are as silly as ever, such as a needlessly antagonistic commanding officer who says things like “recon will just slow us down!”, but the emotional core of the plot is Cortana’s descent into rampancy, a degenerative madness that affects AIs in the Halo universe after seven years, degrading their processes as they start thinking themselves to death.

So, as you’re running around blowing stuff up — business as usual — you’re also listening to this character slowly lose her mind. It’s unsettling, probably because she’s been the voice in our ears throughout more than 10 years of gaming, and we didn’t realize how much we, like the game’s protagonist, had come to rely on her. She grounds Master Chief, reaffirming his humanity not only to us, who see alien worlds through his eyes, but also to the stoic, lonely man himself. It’s chilling to watch that slip away from him.

But that’s always been an unnerving part of the Halo series, one that’s rarely been addressed before now. Hell, I’m not sure Bungie even realized it was happening. Master Chief was a human once, before he was enhanced and modified and encased in powered armor. He left the human race behind, and though he never stops striving to protect it, he can’t ever be one of us again. You see it every time he joins a squad of normal soldiers, which happens frequently in the games. Unless you’re insanely skilled at escort missions (or playing on easy, I guess), those ordinary men will fall, one by one, to the same fire that merely glances off Chief’s armor. He mows down their murderers and always presses on, with only his digital companion waiting for him at the finish line. Halo 4 asks the player, what happens when she falls, too? What will be left of him then?

I might be digging a bit deep into a game series that’s essentially Rambo in space — or, at least, one that started out that way back in 2001. Halo 4 has made the series into something more. The combat and multiplayer modes are still a blast, but for the first time ever, I enjoyed the single player campaign more. It wasn’t just something there to help me relearn the controls while waiting for my friends to buy a copy and hop online. It told me a story of humanity hanging on by a thread, a story of loss beyond death, and it’ll stick with me much longer than I expected. And that makes Halo 4 one of the best things you can encounter in modern media: a surprise.

 Featured Image: Some rights reserved by Corrinne.Yu.

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