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Halo 4: Trying to reinvent the ring. - Destructoid

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Hi, I'm Chris, though I've been going by nekobun and variants thereof for so long, I kind of answer to both anymore.

While I've kind of got my own thing going in the realm of indie coverage, at least in the form of playing through (and streaming) (and writing about) the huge backlog I'm developing of games gleaned from various indie bundles, I try to keep my more mainstream, game-related features here, as well as opinion pieces on the industry at large, out of mad love for the 'toid. When I'm not rambling here or trying to be clever in comments threads, you can catch me rambling on Facebook and my Twitter, and trying to be clever in the Dtoid.tv chat.

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360: Halo 4
PC: F.E.A.R.
SNES: Secret Of Mana

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(Yeah, another Halo 4 blog. At least this one isn't nearly as spoilery as my prior one, so enjoy without worry.)

It goes without saying that I'm kind of a Halo fanboy. With several blogs on the series over the years, one in just the past week, and release-day, limited edition purchases for every game but Halo 3: ODST (since it was just a controller pack-in) since the second, one could say I likes me some Covie-smashing. Being as immersed as I have been in the franchise for this long, Halo 4 is something of a dream come true, with content pulling from some of the extended universe and basing itself directly on obscura from earlier games themselves. At the same time, the more objective gamer in me is finding the latest Halo a bit ridden with mixed messages, given some of the things 343 Industries seems to be doing to bring in new playership and go head to head with BlOps 2, and I can't help but say something about it.



One of the foremost aspects of Halo 4 that bothers me is the campaign mode's incomplete-feeling story. Despite gushing over the treatment of the Master Chief/Cortana relationship recently, the storytelling outside of that feels kind of muddled and confused. There's always been a bit a clumsiness in the storytelling in previous Halo titles, or at least, a lot of material relying on external information for clarification, but H4 seems to have gone the extra mile by pulling two of the core players in its plot from the Terminal easter eggs in Halo 3. The back and forth between the Forerunners known as the Diadact and the Librarian, which led to both their appearances in the latest game, was covered in a series of text logs which were discoverable by players in the third Halo, but were completely optional and often far enough off the main progression path to easily be ignored. Sure, their tale is retold, after a fashion, via a new set of Terminals that unlock animated shorts on Halo Waypoint, but again, they aren't the most obvious things out there.

Even going through the effort to find said Terminals only clears up so much, as well; the Diadact's motivation seems a little off, given that what he aims to do has little point. If he succeeds at his task, there's little to no reason to exact the vengeance he would appear to be after, as doing so would give him a massive army with nothing against which to fight given the Flood's obliteration in Halo 3. Unless, of course, those puke-green little bastards are rolling back in from wherever they originally came from in 5 or 6, in which case, damn you 343 for making us think we were done with those pricks. Here's hoping the next two games in the promised new trilogy explain things a bit better, regardless.

Another source of confusion, at least for me, is why the Covenant are back. In some ways, I can understand that 343 may have needed a familiar enemy to help bridge the gap from 3 to 4, and a presence that would keep familiar Covenant weaponry in the game for veterans who expected as much, but there's little exposition as to why the Sangheili are at odds with humanity after their cooperation with us in Halo 3, or why they're still banded together with Jackals and Grunts, aside from Cortana's note that they're "more fanatical" than the Covenant from previous encounters. The Spartan Ops mode sheds a bit more light on things, citing that these "Storm" Covenant feel the shield world Requiem houses one of their gods, and it's further explained via intel on Halo Waypoint that the Sangheili fell into factions following the fall of the Prophets, some of which rebuilt the Covenant to pursue some of its original ideals, but you have to do a bit of digging to even find that much. Besides, after being betrayed by the Prophets, between both the lies regarding the Great Journey and their ousting in favor of the Jiralhanae (Brutes), why would Sangheili be the ones to embrace the teachings that once led them astray? Again, there are still plenty of Spartan Ops episodes on their way down the pipe, and two more games forthcoming that might explain it, but it's a lot left to question, especially for those of us who are veterans of the series.



Thirdly, what's up with the SPARTAN-IVs? Sure, they mention that they're around to replace the Master Chief and the rest of the fallen SPARTAN-II program. It's been four years, and advances in technology that gave us the Mantis walker and made the massive UNSC Infinity viable may also have made the augmentation process that killed half the original SPARTAN-II batch and disfigured a few more of those that survived a bit more viable, as well as applicable to older candidates. But what of the SPARTAN-III program, which we got to experience hands-on in Halo: Reach, and was covered somewhat extensively in books and graphic novels? They may have been more of an expendable stopgap, and perhaps the viability of what would become the SPARTAN-IVs forced the phasing out of SPARTAN-IIIs, but it's not really covered, and these new SPARTANs are kind of like guests who just showed up unannounced at your party, but everyone else there already seems to know and be friends with. Which, following the analogy, is a little bit confusing and awkward. There is a SPARTAN-IV entry on Waypoint as well, but it explains little more than the fact that these new SPARTANs are pulled from existing military ranks and beefed up to use the variety of new powered armors available. No reason as to why, whether they're fighting the resurgent Covenant, a renewed, post-Halo insurrection, or why there seem to be such a sizable number of them.

A common thread uniting the above beefs is the necessity of Halo Waypoint to understand what's going on, and that bothers me as well. While I love Waypoint's wealth of information, as it's essentially a proprietary wiki, and the meta-tracking of stats Waypoint does for all your series playtime since Halo 3 gives fans such as myself even more progress to whore over, it's pretty much just assumed that players will know to go there or already have it installed on their 360s. There's even an option to open up Waypoint on Halo 4's opening menu, but nowhere is there any sort of explanation as to what, exactly, Halo Waypoint even is. With the reliance on Waypoint's database to serve as something of an instruction manual and exposition fairy, and the rather well-done introduction video that was included for new players regarding armor customization and the different game modes, it would have been a good idea to explain Waypoint's function to Halo neophytes instead of just asking them to check it out blindly.

Now, I know, being the fourth core game and seventh franchise title (eighth, if you count Combat Evolved - Anniversary as a separate game) makes Halo 4 more intended for long-running fans than it does fresh meat, especially given the tendency for each title in the series to directly follow or tie into previous games, but plenty of other, big-name series have managed to be a bit more newbie-friendly in the past. The Saints' Row games are all playable independantly, with Saints' Row The Third pulling in plenty of new players, myself included. Plot-heavy roleplaying franchises such as Mass Effect and both of .hack//'s series both allowed players to jump in with new characters at any stage of the series and managed to make a fair amount of sense even without experiencing things from the beginning, though character import from previous games definitely made the experience a bit richer. Halo 4 on the other hand, seems much more rooted in its predecessors plot-wise, and does little to bring new faces up to speed outside of some mentions of previous operations, and a completely optional computer station tucked away downstairs from near the game's starting point, which offers a slideshow covering the core events of the earlier Halos and mentions why you're floating in space in half a ship in the first place. Seems pretty scant, given how much attention has been paid to the game's own plot, and how much the multiplayer has changed to seemingly draw in some fresh attention.

I'm not lamenting the new Halo multiplayer experience, mind you. I had reservations going in, to be certain, but it grew on me quickly, and I actually love how the game's been changed in many respects. While the whole grinding to open up access to loadout options is a bit of a chore, it's nice to have the loadout option once you've gotten a fair amount unlocked, and the early level progression is fast enough that it doesn't feel too burdensome to give yourself a decent arsenal within a few play sessions. The introduction of an ordnance drop function, which mostly replaces on-map weapon placement, has changed the overall strategy from the domination of item spawns that happened often in previous iterations to more teamwork and specialization based gameplay, as well as forced versatility.



Fighting over the Sniper Rifle, Plasma Sword, or whatever else has been mitigated by the chance of getting one at more advantageous time mid-match should you miss the inital rush for whichever one drops on the map, so long as you keep racking up the kills with whatever you brought in. The wide variety of unlockable armor options is not only an indication of level now, but also ties, in many cases, to Commendation progress, which can be a tell as to what certain players are good at. For instance, I recently got a green visor for maxing out my Splatter commendation, and as much as I love it, I'm finding more and more that at least one or two people on the other team show up with plasma pistols whenever I start Ghosting around a Big Team Slayer match. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that they've got the locked teaser for the same visor on their loadout pages themselves, and know I'm a driver to worry about. And the new modes, like Regicide and Dominion, which are more twists on old classics than completely new (Juggernaut and Territories, respectively), are pretty satisfying and worth checking out for those waiting for more of the classics, like Grifball and SWAT, to see a return to matchmaking.

At the same time, the new multiplayer structure, with its perks, kill-streak ordnance drops, and whatnot, does smack quite a bit of the progression system in Call Of Duty and other, long-running, military shooters Halo 4 seems to be going up against in the battle for multiplayer market share, and one can only assume it's a move to both attract players of other games who happen to be familiar with such progress systems, and to keep new and old players alike invested for a longer period of time by giving them more rewards than just new armor sets and a pretty icon next to their name for leveling, as in prior Halo titles. But again, with the bulk of weapon knowledge being relegated to the underexplained Waypoint app, especially with the ordnance offerings, and the dense referentiality of the Spartan Ops mode and the campaign, this attempt at infusing the player base with fresh blood seems a bit at odds with the game's fanservicey nature.

It's easier to jump in blind to classic, modern-day, and just-after-modern-day military FPSes given the rough familiarity of the bulk of the weaponry; you can ask pretty much anyone who'd play such a game in the first place what an AK-47 is, never mind most anyone at all you'd ask on the street, and they'd be able to tell you. A tank is a tank. Knives are knives, sometimes you can throw them. Grenades go boom. But with Halo's wide array of weird space pew-pews, energy swords with that crazy lunge distance, alien vehicles, and a whole new pile of weapons from the Prometheans that have their own set of rules and functions... there's a bit of a wall for new entrants to overcome outside of the somewhat familiar UNSC weaponry spread. Hell, I didn't even know the Boltshot had a charged shot function, until I got light-bukkaked several times in a match and it wasn't until the third kill cam that I noticed the guy's pistol was spreading out to the sides for some reason.



A beginner's guide, or perhaps a shooting gallery mode on-disc, would do wonders for indoctrinating new players in the subtleties of Halo's rainbow of gunny-shooty goodness, and avoid potential distaste and abandoment of the game by newblets who keep getting spanked by firepower they don't even understand. Such modes have been around as far back as Perfect Dark and its actual, hub-world firing range, if not earlier, and I distinctly recall encountering a basic training level in the first Modern Warfare modeled after a military training exercise, despite the aforementioned familiarity to many of current-gen, military hardware.

None of these issues are buzzkills, by any means. I love Halo 4 as much as I've loved any of the other Halo games, I'm having a great time, and in all honesty, I can't put it down. Though one look at my profile could probably tell you that much, what with the rank of SR-45, half the campaign and both Spartan Ops episodes done on Legendary already, and around 300 games across all modes under my belt already despite the game having only been out a week thust far. 343 just overlooked a few things in its efforts to live up to Bungie's legacy in the eyes of the sometimes rabid, fairly insular and very dedicated Halo fanbase, and as someone who'd like to see the Gospel according to John-117 spread to as many as possible, they could've made it a bit easier to introduce people to this new trilogy, and secure an even wider following for the fifth game's likely move to the successor to the 360.

If I had to put a number on it, these few shortcomings would knock my rating of Halo 4 down to a 9.5, maybe even a 9.0, but that's still the makings of an amazing game, and I encourage anyone and everyone to try it out, regardless of how deeply entrenched it is in its own mythos at this point. If you have any questions as to what's going on, feel free to ask me, I guess. It's not as if I like talking about Halo or anything.
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