‘Halo 4′ review: Master Chief is human after all

Nov. 06, 2012 | 5:00 a.m.

Master Chief, left, and Cortana in a scene from "Halo 4." (343 Industries / Microsoft)

Technology-enhanced super-soldier Master Chief has always been efficient, even by military standards. Drop the “Halo” protagonist on any alien-infested setting featured in the last three games and he can make it safe for human colonization.

For “Halo 4 ” though, the first in the blockbuster Xbox series to be developed entirely by Microsoft, the game’s action hero is suddenly confronted with a problem that can’t be obliterated by human or alien weaponry: loneliness.

Master Chief, who is essentially to the Xbox ecosystem what Mario is to the Nintendo universe, begins the game adrift, lost in space, with nary a response to his ship’s distress signal.

It’s where “Halo 3″ left off, and Microsoft’s 343 Industries adds new facets to the narrative by infusing a sense of humanity to the line-’em-up, shoot-’em-down franchise instead of simply altering gameplay. Though “Halo” lore has been explored in novels, comic books and more, a “Halo” game has never before focused so squarely on the mythology and emotions driving Master Chief, the quiet, solemn hero at gamers’ behest.

His relationship with the curiously fetching Cortana, an artificially intelligent computer program who looks born from a sci-fi version of “America’s Next Top Model,” is the central driving facet of “Halo 4.” Cortana is suffering from rampancy, a sort of reverse take on planned obsolescence in which the software starts to disintegrate from becoming too smart and too sentient for its own good.

Cortana in a scene from “Halo 4.” (343 Industries / Microsoft)

It’s an imagined future where your Windows operating system or latest iPhone starts to crumble for becoming more intelligent than you. “We literally think ourselves to death,” Cortana explains mid-game to Master Chief. His motivating factor is to save his companion while struggling with his own emotional attachment to her.

As Cortana becomes more lifelike — she has, it’s worth noting, the ability to navigate unfriendly terrain via teleportation but not the foresight to program herself some clothing — 343 Industries has slowly redirected the franchise into one that’s starting to grapple with bigger questions than what the alien Covenant Empire is after. The topics may be familiar to sci-fi fans, but it’s telling that “Halo 4″ begins with a dialogue-heavy scene that questions the military ethics behind the program that sprung Master Chief.

Microsoft’s 343 Industries could have tried to assert itself by making “Halo 4″ more complex, adding gun upon gun, armor trinket upon armor trinket and action sequence upon action sequence. Instead, “Halo 4″ remains blissfully simple in its accessibility. Master Chief can hold two weapons, and there’s an assortment of vehicles and hover craft to try out. While playing the game at its highest difficulty setting is a chore, “Halo 4″ puts cinematic fluidity ahead of inventory-management madness.

Even the music seems remade to reference modern action films. Composer Neil Davidge, who works often with British trip-hop collective Massive Attack, moves away from thematic and orchestral flourishes to focus almost exclusively on atmosphere, crafting a score that fits this introspective “Halo.”

Microsoft in the past has attempted to make a big-screen version of “Halo,” but “Halo 4″ is more primed than other titles to make that jump as noted by everything from its Hans Zimmer-esque music to a more simplified focus on character.

This isn’t a review of the multiplayer aspects of the game, but it’s worth noting that 343 Industries has attempted to make the online components more welcoming. “Spartan Ops,” for instance, is part game, part serial TV series, and these short, 20- to 25-minute missions will be released for download in coming weeks.

Designed for a multiplayer experience, the few episodes included in the game are available to Xbox Live Gold members. They’re straightforward missions but acknowledge the presence of a more casual gaming audience not able to devote hours to a title at once.

Nor must one be up on all the “Halo” terminology. For in “Halo 4,” the poor Master Chief, while still an ace member of the military, seems increasingly out of place even among his United Nation Space Command team.

Thought left for dead at the end of “Halo 3,” Master Chief is greeted with the dismissive, “I thought you’d be taller” by a fellow soldier. He has no response but has the last laugh when slipping into the giant, rocket-launcher-equipped Mantis tank-like suit.

Make no mistake, this is a sci-fi war game, and it is again presented in all its “Star Wars” meets “Starship Troopers” glory. Still, it’s more than a quarter into the game before the central villain appears. He is the Didact, and he looks like the sort of evil that Captain Picard dealt with in “Star Trek: Nemesis,” but his arrival is largely just a nuisance in Master Chief’s quest to get Cortana home.

Doing so means first having to explore the alien planet of Requiem, and “Halo 4″ traverses the planet’s core, its forests and its deserts. There are lava-drenched caves to sneak around and fog-ridden greenery to navigate.

Developed in-house by a Microsoft team and coming near the end of the console’s life cycle — a new iteration of the Xbox is expected in the next year or so — it’s not a surprise that “Halo 4″ takes full advantage of the system’s engine.

A scene from “Halo 4.” (343 Industries / Microsoft)

What’s striking is how gorgeously smooth it all unfolds. Playing through the game’s eight campaign missions resulted in nary a glitch, and though there are times when the map-less Master Chief will run in circles around the landscapes, “Halo 4″ uses shading, lights and the presence of enemies rather than the customary go-here arrows to point the way forward.

Already 343 Industries has spoken of having “Halo” titles mapped out for a potential 15 or 20 more years, and “Halo 4″ boldly reinvigorates the series by what it doesn’t change. All the controls, for instance, are comfortably familiar to anyone who has a played a prior game.

Yet by the time “Halo 4″ reaches its conclusion, it’s in unknown territory for the franchise. Like Cortana, Master Chief suddenly seems capable of thinking himself to death.

Earlier in the game the stoic and confident Master Chief tried to calm her, assuring her that he will indeed cure her. And if not, she asks? For the first time in the “Halo” series, Master Chief isn’t just a man of few words, he’s speechless.

– Todd Martens

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Comments


20 Responses to ‘Halo 4′ review: Master Chief is human after all

  1. @techjeff101 says:

    This is a great review. I am thoroughly impressed.

  2. guest says:

    God I can't wait to get off work today!!!

    • guest says:

      Saaaaaaaaaaaaaaame here.

      • Guest says:

        im sitting at work waiting to go home and play :(

      • Dustin says:

        Hopefully its waiting in the mail for you, i pre-ordered mine from walmart 3 months ago and they failed to get it to me today. i called them on it and they couldnt get me a copy today, and said if it arrived tomorrow they would give me 5$ off. i was like REALLY?? THATS IT?? search drwellsforever on facebook, twitter and google+ u can see my posts on it. its an OUTRAGE.

    • guest says:

      I was up till 8AM playing. Getting off work soon, cant wait to play !

  3. This is very cool!!!

    DangerMan

  4. Vin says:

    I particularly like the paper thin asteroids in the asteroid ring in one of the forge maps. Nice attention to detail there….

  5. Armen says:

    WHO WRITES THIS CRAP!!! THIS MAKES NO SENSE OR VALID POINTS!!!!

    His relationship with the curiously fetching Cortana, an artificially intelligent computer program who looks born from a sci-fi version of “America’s Next Top Model,” is the central driving facet of “Halo 4.” Cortana is suffering from rampancy, a sort of reverse take on planned obsolescence in which the software starts to disintegrate from becoming too smart and too sentient for its own good.

    As Cortana becomes more lifelike — she has, it’s worth noting, the ability to navigate unfriendly terrain via teleportation but not the foresight to program herself some clothing

    WHO WRITES THIS CRAP!!! THIS MAKES NO SENSE OR VALID POINTS!!!!

    • Dave says:

      It's called English, in the sense that it's well written and explains the key story points. If you can't understand then it questions the whole reason that you are reading the article.

      • Spartan 161 says:

        That’s the thing: Cortana putting on a pair of pants has absolutely NOTHING to do with the story.

        And UNSC AIs don’t get “Too smart and too sentient for their own good”. They’re created on a crystal that only has so much space. Once they fill up that space, they go rampant. They get caught in thought loops, wierd paradoxes in their heads and similar problems. I’d compare it more to dementia or schitzophrenia.

        Research the universe before you make statements.

      • Gigaguy777 says:

        You honestly expect him to research every aspect of the game and it's lore? This is a review, do not expect anything other than a review. Plus, the data fills up from the A.I.s thinking so he's not even that far off.

      • Master Chef says:

        Uhh… read Halsey's comments (Halo: Fall of Reach) on how Smart AIs like Cortana can 'literally' think themselves to death aka rampancy after seven years.

        Looks like you are the one who did not do research. How embarassing.

  6. Grant says:

    Finding the Chiefs humanity is one thing, but there is no Halo without the Master Chief AND Cortana. 343 better know that or else their iteration will be met with public outcry. Starting with my own.

  7. Berlina Golle says:

    but what happens after they take his suit off?

  8. Mark says:

    Well grant they are going off of the books you can't blame them

  9. John-117 says:

    Halo is a great game and is my favorite. Cortana can think her self to death but that can also include getting stuck in a loop in ur head ya idiots think about it go master cheif

  10. shane thompson says:

    I am master chief and I am lonely.

  11. Poop says:

    I need to go to work lol I'm only 11

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