Halo 4 had a lot to live up to. The decade-long partnership between Halo developer Bungie and Xbox One manufacturer Microsoft had finally come to an end in 2010. It was now up to in-house developer 343 Industries (343i) to take up the reigns and deliver the next exciting chapter in the Halo series. While Halo 4 was by no means a bad game, its narrative contained myriad unresolved plot lines, uninteresting characters and unimaginative locations. But how did a company as well versed in gaming as Microsoft manage to truncate the story line of its most successful series? What went wrong with Halo 4?
Halo 4 and 343 Industries Had Big Shoes to Fill
Despite setting their Halo games within the tried and tested modern FPS template, Bungie successfully crafted a rich and expansive fictional universe full of mysterious alien entities, unexplored planets and ancient, untold secrets. So naturally Halo fans and the game industry press were extremely curious as to where 343i would take the legendary series next.
Unfortunately players were asked to once again trundle through another Forerunner world complete with the same jungles, deserts and illuminated glass walkways to which Halo fans are well accustomed. Instead of providing a new and interesting Halo experience, 343i chose to play it safe and kept Halo 4 as similar to the original Halo trilogy as possible.
Halo 4: More Questions Than Answers
All three of Master Chief’s previous adventures were directed towards the ultimate goal of ending the human-Covenant war. The three Prophet Hierarchs are dead, the Brutes have been overthrown and every single Halo device has been rendered inactive. Yet the Covenant return as antagonists in Halo 4 for reasons unexplained to the player. Even the human-Elite alliance formed in Halo 3 has dissolved. Apparently there there is a reason broken truce, but we’re not allowed to know it. Here’s the precious few words Master Chief and Cortana exchange on the matter
Master Chief: I thought we had a truce with the Covenant.
Cortana: A lot can happen in four years.
Speaking of dialogue, Halo 4 is notable for the drastically increased amount of words that come out out of Master Chief’s normally tight lipped mouth. The need for extra lines of dialogue comes from the drama surrounding Cortana’s rapidly deteriorating mental stability caused by the terminal “rampancy” degrading her coding.
Master Chief is Empty and Unconvincing
Of course, Master Chief is very much upset about his “dying” AI friend, or at least that’s what the Chief’s supposed to be feeling. You see, DJ turned voice actor Steve Downes never had to squeeze out any emotion in his previous contributions to the Halo series, but Halo 4 highlights the glaringly obvious fact that Downes is incapable of doing so. Try as I might, I’m simply unable to empathise with Master Chief’s supposed distress due to his words sounding empty and unconvincing.
Empty and unconvincing. Halo 4‘s level design, audio, soundtrack, graphics and gameplay are all top notch. But the narrative? The web of interconnected events onto which the aforementioned, well made aspects of Halo 4 sit? The actual context, the reason behind the actions 343i asks us to perform?
Empty and unconvincing.
Microsoft and 343i are Terrified of Change
Halo 4‘s lacklustre narrative can be attributed entirely to 343i’s reluctance to stray away from the proven formula. The problem is that Bungie had already pushed the Master Chief-Cortana relationship as far as it could go in their previous Halo trilogy, so much so that it’s now bursting at the seams. There’s simply no room to develop these characters further; characters, it should be added, that lacked any real depth to begin with. Yet 343i knowingly went ahead and tried, and failed, to give Master Chief emotions while asking the player to smash the same Covenant faces with the same UNSC weapons without any reason aside from “They’re the baddies! Kill ’em all! Oorah!”
There’s new Promethean weapons, but they still fall into the same “pistol, machine gun, rifle, sniper, explosive” categories as every other gun; their only distinguishing feature being the added “red bits”.
Many players were also excited to learn about the mysterious Prometheans prior to Halo 4‘s launch only to find a brain-dead race of off-brand Transformers that have been forced to breed with Metroid‘s Space Pirates.
Halo 4: The King of Fragmented and Unresolved Narrative
Halo 4‘s main antagonist is of course the Didact, an ancient Forerunner warrior imprisoned for attempting to digitise all sentient life in the universe. This wasn’t explained in any understandable level of detail however. I personally had to look it up on the internet when performing research for this article as I had thought the Didact to be nothing more than a grumpy old dog-man that flew around in a giant egg and blew stuff up. The Didact’s presence is just one example of the many poorly explained plot lines with no satisfying conclusion.
Once scene in particular puts great emphasis on the fact that Master Chief represents the next stage in human evolution. This scene also features a dog-person named The Librarian who further accelerates the Chief’s evolution in order for him to combat the Didact. The actual result of his forced evolution is neither explained nor mentioned again at any point during the rest of the game. The Chief looks the same, sounds the same and has gained no obvious enhancement to his abilities or intellect. Once again, 343i disappoints by being too afraid to change Master Chief in any discernible way and leaving an unresolved plot line in its wake.
Halo 5 and Xbox One: Microsoft and 343i’s Second Chance at Greatness
There’s so much of the Halo universe that’s yet to be explored. Developer 343i could have easily focused on the state of Earth following the events of Halo 3, or featured more of our future government and society outside of the military. Halo 4 could have approached the topic of Master Chief’s past and the dark origins of the Spartan-II program. Alternatively it could have even introduced the home planets of any of the Covenant races including that of the Elite’s, and the Arbiter that resides there.
It’s a pity that 343i turned down the opportunity to take Halo 4‘s narrative somewhere new and interesting in favour of retracing old steps. However, with the new Xbox One on the horizon and E3 just around the corner, the announcement of Halo 5 as an Xbox One launch title is likely to follow.
Will we see the resurrection of Cortana and another unexplained human-Covenant war, or will 343i take the initiative and steer the Halo series in a bold new direction? In my opinion the time for celebrating the Halo series is over. Innovation and evolution are the only ways forward.
Don’t you agree?