Halo-the-one-after-Reach-but-not-Five is your favorite Hollywood actor. Solid, dependable, and handy in a fight. Like said actor, though, Halo 4 is so solid, so dependable that it’s impossible to see it as anything other than an upmarket version of itself from over a decade ago. Halo has become Bruce Willis. Logic.
And like any obscenely famous thespian, any attempt to adapt themselves to their latest role is mere folly, as the character they’re paid to betray becomes them. Halo’s sixth incarnation is Combat Evolved with some added twiddly bits and a gap between the front teeth. Uncle Halo – fun, entertaining, but rarely spectacular by its own standards.
But here, that’s pretty damn good. 343 Industries did a Bungie without actually being Bungie. To say they made a game that feels like Combat Evolved in an incredibly pretty stage costume is a triumph unto itself. No doubt, Halo 4 could’ve been a complete and utter calamity.
And for me to do a Bruce Willis, I would actually have to be Bruce Willis.
They made a few improvements a long the way, too. Guns – even the Covenant pew-pew weapons – have a greater sense of impact. They sound like arm-slung killing machines, and not the light-weight, pellet gun feel of yestergames. Not one of them is a chore – even that godforsaken Plasma Pistol. Achievement Unlocked, 343.
From now on, then, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Halo’s future lies in arbitrary changes. And, of course, feature creep. New mechanics for the sake of change. For the sake of ‘depth’. No, Halo’s improvement lies in its narrative and its ability to portray characters – something 343 Industries has proven it can do marvelously.
So, as fantastic as these improvements are, it could be argued that they’re largely a matter of taste – they’re not pivotal to the success of 343’s fledgling efforts. They’re a component, of course, but they aren’t the whole story.
Cortana is key to the success of Halo’s narrative. 343 Industries’ decision to humanize her further, to give her elements of imperfection, elevates everyone’s favorite Purple Companion beyond precisely that. Indeed, Cortana’s face would’ve been a better fit on the cover. A machine with character – more character than the Chief could ever have. It’s by design, and it’s a master stroke.
Master Chief, a human with the exterior of a machine – more so emphasized by a ‘hardwared’ look – and Cortana, the artificial intelligence with a human exterior. The former, cold, calculating and relentless, and the latter, warm, considerate, adaptive and expressive. It’s this odd pairing, this unlikely allegiance, that is Halo 4’s most compelling aspect. That, and realizing that Chief can’t hold a conversation.
And it’s the interdependence between the two that makes their relationship compelling. Chief brings the brute force and the brawn to the party. Cortana is the brains, and, perhaps, Chief’s conscience. Like a couple meant to be, it’s impossible to see how one could operate effectively without the other. They need each other.
Mechanically speaking, then, Halo 4 is Bruce Willis. It does what it always has, and what it will always continue to do. But it does it so dependably, so consistently, and with just enough of a costume change, that it’s hard to find fault.
And so it’s Halo’s potential as a narrative – yes, as a narrative – and as a character-driven drama that position’s Bungie’s brainchild as one of the few high-profile shooters to tell a tale of people you actually give a crap about.
And that – that right there – is pretty damn good.
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