Monday, 2 September 2013

"Halo 4" Review

by Alex Hill


Halo 4 is not the worst video game. It is the worst TYPE of game. An unbearable, spineless endeavour that can't even be bothered to be obscene. A design-by-committee Frankenstein's monster of cribbed video game fads, and franchise-destroying change for its' own sake. Not even Halo: Reach struggled to reconcile what its' audience needed from the most basic controller input. This is a travesty even for the people who made Windows.

The most boring character ever made shoots bad guys. That's not a summary. That's the entire plot of Halo 4's campaign. Several hours of expensive cutscenes accidentally brush against themes that should have been explored five games ago. But it's mostly just more childish pretend gunfights. The Master Chief doesn't have anything more meaningful to say or do than shoot bad guys. This time he's shooting the Covenant, even though they were completely wiped out in Halo 3. Because shut up. He comments that "These new Covenant seem more fanatical", after seeing them behave exactly the same way they have since 2001.

But then a new foe arrives, the last of his kind. He growls that "The Forerunners have returned!". Unless he can reproduce asexually, that would be a very stupid thing to say. He seems intimidating enough, but then he fucks off for the rest of the game, only showing up for a quicktime-event at the very end. And then we're supposed to learn something, I guess?

Although the Magical Girl transformations were a nice touch.

Developer interviews I've seen have made it clear that they want this game to be taken seriously. Part of that involves making a cast of characters who have depth and meaning, and some personal investment that is earned from the audience. 343 Industries decided it would be easier to just SAY their game has meaningful characters than to actually earn them. A presentation that's trying this hard to be legitimate can't hold onto something as anachronistic as the Master Chief. He's a remnant of an age where we didn't need complex avatars in our shooty games. Someone so empty could never hold up a story. You can't get blood from a stone, and you can't get emotion from the Doom Marine.

Their solution was to draw desperate sympathy from Cortana, his digital, inexplicably sexualized mommy-figure. They are mistaken if they thought I would shed a tear for the most annoying video game character in creation. Even more pathetic is how much they cheat at their own rules to get to a sappy goodbye. Not even Neil Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi's soundtrack is enough to make me care about Navi 2.0.

But at least we get to look like a prolapsed anus!

To get an understanding for how pointless this "big, important" story turned out, I've honestly forgotten if the game included Hunters. One of the more iconic, exciting enemies from the franchise, and I'm not even sure if they show up. There are no memorable set-pieces, no intense moments of quick-thinking and fast-reflexes. It's a steady, unbroken routine of the same enemy types and formations over and over again. It never feels like anything is really at stake. I've beaten this game more than once, and I honestly couldn't tell you if anything happened in it. What exactly were they spending all of that time and money on, if it's all just a blur of low-rent violence?

I've made it sound like this game is merely forgettable. And it would be, if it were simply a matter of the single-player content being a boring non-event. But it's not just the story mode. There's also the delicate matter of the online multiplayer.

I have always tried to like the Halo series. I really do think there is something here that could have been great. This is a franchise brimming with potential, buried under developer arrogance so thick, so pungent, Steve Jobs was furious it was bought out from under him. Time and again, developer Bungie Studios and publisher Microsoft snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Mistakes ought to teach a craftsman experience, yet time and again they kept making glitchier, uglier, more lopsided toys. Even the brats in online matchmaking have gotten worse. Calling the Halo fanbase a hive of scum and villainy would be an insult to Jar-Jar Binks.

This is yet another boring slog that can't decide if it wants to be itself or Call of Duty, with the exception that a round fired in Call of Duty does not have magical teleporting properties. An unresponsive network experience, unreliable do-nothing updates and a psychopathic audience render an already miserable experience into something excruciating.

"Hit detection? QA testing? That's for nerds!"

Halo 4 is like driving in rush-hour. You're trying to get to your destination in one piece, and then some jerk cuts you off, or drives at five miles per hour. Everyone's crashing into each other because they're not paying attention or playing their radio too loud. Everyone's shouting at each other, nobody takes responsibility, some people go way past the speed limit. They're in the wrong lane, they make illegal u-turns and some people just stop their car in the middle of the road and block traffic for hours. And when you complain to the city council about potholes, they either ignore you or make the road conditions WORSE. This game is a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

And in all my years, I've never seen more godawful character designs. This is as bad as it gets, folks. Which is bizarre, because the environments at least look pretty, so why are the inhabitants so repulsive? There are thousands of combinations of armour pieces, and perhaps four of them were designed for a human. This is one of many series changes, major or minor, made with the express purpose of being more annoying and less convenient for the player.

Why is every single multiplayer arena so unremarkable and gigantic? Why is every stage built for games of 12-16 players, even in gametypes with fewer than half that many participants? Why does "Infection", a free-for-all gametype put everyone in an ugly snot-yellow team colour? And why is the hit-detection and lag worse now than it's ever been? Why can't we play as the aliens in multiplayer anymore? Why have they removed a lot of the strategy from Capture the Flag? And why can't I change these self-defeating "additions" in Custom Games? Why is the menu layout so much more confusing than in previous Halos? Why do I have to press in the left thumbstick and then manually select the Recent Videos section in Theater to watch previous matches? Why are good weapons from previous games replaced by bad weapons that don't do anything new or interesting? Why is there no countdown timer when selecting a map, when it was there in Reach? Why can't I change my vote on the map selection screen? Why can't I take screenshots or save films in the story missions?

If you think I'm being harsh, understand that this is a game with a Join-In-Progress system... that won't let you join a game already in progress. YOU HAD ONE JOB!

I don't understand how these games keep getting worse. 343 Industries did not have the time or budget constraints that doomed previous games in the series. When a game's pre-order bonuses are as big a disaster as Halo 4's, that is not a rookie mistake. This is weapons-grade incompetence. You'd think with that many hard-working, determined people, someone might have accidentally made a video game.


  1. Well aren't you a big bundle of sunshine.

  2. Goodness. You really did not like this game.

    We've discussed this a little bit on Twentysided, so you know I ended up liking it more than I thought I was going to. In terms of play in general, I personally have hard time criticizing the game for playing almost exactly like previous iterations. At the same time, the fact that the gameplay hasn't gone anywhere is definitely one of its larger problems, so my feelings towards that aspect varies depending on my mood on a given day (from "meh" to "this is stale; this is a problem"). But I do agree that the Covie AI does absolutely nothing to reflect that these are a bunch of religious crazies who can’t accept that their way of life was a lie this whole time (which should also be tragic, in its way). I also agree that the visual design for characters is an absolute mess--specifically armor and enemies; tied into this are the Promethean Knights, which you and I have gone over more extensively. Combined with lackluster music and poorly integrated systems from CoD that don't jive with Halo's systems and play philosophy, you really do look at this (though I look at the Knights and music almost exclusively) and think "What the heck happened"?

    In doing research for my H4 and Promethean pieces, I stumbled upon these two articles interviewing the 343i devs on the Knights, and it REALLY gives insight into the behind-the-scenes, at least partially. But what's big is they basically come out and talk about how during development, they grew from a handful to over 300 in a short period of time and there was no real communication between designers and artists--not to mention they apparently had no clear idea of what exactly these new enemies were supposed to be. The Knights apparently went through several makes, scraps, and remakes before becoming what we see now. That's a lot of wasted time, and doesn't leave enough left over for something clearer, more concrete, or even consistent.

    So when you think about it (and some of this is me extrapolating based these events with MS, 343i, and Bungie), 343i is trying to expand on what is really an undeveloped (and important) aspect of the mythos--the Forerunners. So they're trying to figure out who exactly these guys are while coordinating with Greg Bear for the Forerunner novels (a trilogy that won't complete until after the game's release (please also note that Bear, good as he is imo, is vague on details, descriptions, and doesn't really stop to explain various aspects or terms of the world he was writing in)), and also while trying to build and expand this brand new studio. ALSO keep in mind when it comes to all these new artists and designers--even if they're fans--they're not all going to be well versed in the various aspects of the mythos (especially obscure stuff) and they're all going to have very different ideas and visions they want to bring in. Add in the afore-mentioned rapid growth in development, and lack of communication, and it's a freaking hurricane.

    The summary of the plot I don't really agree with as it's not really true, but I do agree (and it is true that) the gameplay itself doesn't go beyond lots of shooting, and that doesn’t always jive with its narrative (we could go into more detail over this later, if you like). But as I said on Twentysided, the plot does feel weird, and it really feels like they tried to do too much. It’s like they took a proper novel and left out or condensed a bunch of stuff.

    EDIT: Good grief! Blogspot put a character limit on my comment! Okay, this is going to be a two-parter...

    1. Part II:

      Another problem with that game that shows in your review here (and in others) is just how poorly the lore is integrated into this (and honestly the other) games. Not just the lore even, but what's happening in the actual freaking narrative (that was marketed as perfectly stand-alone, I might add). They spread their butter over way too many different types of media, and didn't properly account for the fact that not everyone read (let alone /studied/) all the Halo 3 terminal content. Stuff that should have been in (or referenced in) the campaign proper was relegated to:

      H3 terminals, as stated

      Halo Anniversary terminals (maybe only a particular terminal or two)

      Two book trilogies (Bear's Forerunner Saga and Traviss's post-humie-Covie-war trilogy--33% to 67% of those not even published by game release)

      Eric Nylund's three novels, if we REALLY want to be picky.

      A short YouTube series (Forward unto Dawn) which explains an in-game character and how Chief knows him.

      Spartan Ops--a multiplayer "campaign" you can't even play if you don't have internet, but that's also vague/underdeveloped.

      With this mess, it doesn't help that other aspects of H4's narrative (some of it I wouldn't treat as optional goodies) are hidden in certain levels with no indication that they are there. So what really should be goodies--in the spirit of the others games, I might add--only ends up exacerbating the problem in the end: video terminals, audio logs, and probably something else I'm forgetting.

      I didn't think Halo 4 was atrocious, but 343i really does have a mess to sort out, in addition to the general "room for improvement" comment another dev might be given by their fans.

      So yeah, hit me up on plot and related stuff, if you like. I never get to talk about this stuff.

      PS: Yeah, the Hunters are there.