“Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass.” Die Hard’s John McClane was making trouble for Hans Gruber and his international band of terrorists when he spoke these words, but the line could also apply to Halo 4’s taciturn hero, Master Chief John-117. That is, if Master Chief had a sense of humor. When we last saw this indomitable supersoldier at the end of Halo 3, he was floating through space, half-dead inside an even deader ship, his fate unknown to all but his artificial-intelligence companion, Cortana. Although he had won the day against the alien aggressors known as the Covenant, the natural assumption was that the Chief was killed in action.
But legends aren’t so easy to kill, especially when they’re wearing full body armor and subscribe to the “Shoot first, shoot again, don’t ask questions later, throw a few plasma grenades for good measure” school of soldiering.
Halo 4 is the first in the series not developed by Bungie, whose last installment was the prequel Halo: Reach. In that game, you’re a cybernetically enhanced “Spartan” warrior like the Chief, but not so much of a maladjusted loner. Your group is charged with defending and evacuating the planet Reach as it falls to a massive Covenant invasion. Chief himself has been missing in action since Halo 3’s release in 2007.
As Halo 4 begins, Cortana wakes the Chief from his beauty rest. How long has he been out? Four years? Not so long for aimlessly drifting through space, all things considered. As Douglas Adams wrote, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Then again, maybe it’s not big enough. It seems Chief’s wreck of a ship has stumbled upon a rogue faction of Covenant forces—and a stronghold of mythical space demigods to boot. And here’s the Chief having not shot a single living thing in four years. This party is about to get interesting.
Halo has always felt like a bit of an antique, a series I’ll forever associate with the first generation Xbox. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that the game’s design hasn’t dramatically changed since the original Halo: Combat Evolved, more than 10 years ago. Sure, everything looks a hell of a lot better, but you’re basically playing with the same interface you were back then, shooting panicky, suicidal Grunts and agile Elites; looting alien corpses for exotic weapons; and letting chatty sidekick Cortana do enough talking for the both of you. Chief starts the game with all the tools he’s going to need. There is no leveling up or weapon upgrades. The new development studio, 343 Industries, honors that spotty legacy.
Most of the campaign is spent on the artificial planet, Requiem, an alien landscape that follows the Tron school of interior design. Bridges of light and translucent pathways make Chief’s battle-scarred armor all the more conspicuous as the bodies pile up along its brilliant corridors. There’s a machine-perfect symmetry to it all, and the only blight is the Chief himself, Like a virus, he’s the hostile invader here, and the alien intelligence sends wave after wave of antibodies to root out and destroy him.
However visually pleasing it is, the environment can be a little repetitive, even sterile. But it also serves to highlight the levels that take place out beyond Requiem. One mission, for instance, has Chief riding shotgun on what looks like a heavily armed version of the Jawa sandcrawler from Star Wars. This hulking mobile base offers plenty of amenities and even some human company for the friendless hero. It’s the closest thing John-117 gets to shore leave, but clearly he’s not much at home among other sentient beings, even other soldiers. Toward the end of the game, a sympathetic human officer offers Chief his condolences and is met with stony silence. Somebody please just give the man a hug already.
But they don’t. They dare not. And so the Chief doesn’t go through much in the way of spiritual growth. There’s no catharsis for Mrs. Chief’s little boy. He’s this gun-toting cipher, a faceless incarnation of pure duty and ultimate violence. It says a lot about him that his only connection is with Cortana, a small, blue—admittedly plucky—digital projection. As her very existence unwinds due to preprogrammed obsolescence, Chief promises her over and over again that they will get home safe and all will be well. His monotone assertions, though, belie his complete inability to connect with whatever it was that made him human.
Because of this emotional disconnect, it can be difficult to stay invested in Master Chief’s odyssey. He’s doing this thing because protecting humanity is what he’s programmed to do. Same goes for his vows to save Cortana. If he had been trained instead to peel potatoes or clean the military’s latrines, I’m certain he’d pursue it with the same grim tenacity. It’s merely an unlucky turn for the bad guys that Master Chief is a relentless psychopath who is better at shooting dudes than scrubbing toilets.
The Chief’s solipsistic universe is a funny thing when considered alongside Halo’s status as a hugely social game. Whole communities have sprung up, not just around the ever-popular multiplayer modes, but also in the realm of fiction and online video. Halo 4’s multiplayer Spartan Ops mode wisely sidelines the Chief in favor of a separate, parallel storyline.
In the multiplayer modes, teams of customizable, upgradeable Spartans get dumped into firefights on maps derived from the single-player campaign. These battles are presented in the form of “episodes,” meant to give some backstory for Chief’s quest, and also for contextualizing the otherwise monotonous “kill as many enemies as you can as fast as you can” missions. There are moments of levity. Killing 50 Elites gets you the “I am the 99%” medal, and one mission pits you against another, unseen platoon of Spartans in a good-natured contest of mass alien murder. But the whole thing is too one-dimensional, designed to satisfy 343’s conception of traditional Halo enthusiasts rather than experiment in ways that might stimulate a new breed of player.
At the end of the day, Halo 4 succeeds in making the single-player campaign less of an afterthought than usual, but it still feels like a step back from Bungie’s rather gripping story in Reach. Until Master Chief is honorably discharged from duty, that may be the best we can hope for.