Halo 4 Goes Deep

Halo 4
Publisher/Developer: Microsoft/i343
Platforms: Xbox 360
Rated: M (Mature) for Blood and Violence
Parents should know (ESRB description): This is a first-person shooter in which players control futuristic super-soldiers who engage in military campaigns against alien forces. Players use pistols, scoped rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and futuristic weaponry to kill enemies in ranged combat; battles are highlighted by cries of pain, realistic gunfire, and large explosions. Stealth moves (i.e., “assassinations”) can also be used to attack enemies from behind (e.g., snapping their necks or stabbing/impaling them with bladed weapons). During one cutscene, a human character cries out as her body disintegrates, exposing layers of muscle tissue. Large blood-splatter effects occur when humans are shot; some sequences depict bloodstained environments.
Verdict: Safe for discerning teens and older.  I consider this a “safe M” game in that the mature language is minimal, there’s no sexual content, and the violence is not against recognizably human foes. Some parents will disagree. Those in doubt should watch some gameplay footage to decide for themselves. You can find the opening cinematic and some of the gameplay here and here.

In the current debate about gun violence in the wake of the Newtown massacre, videogames are back in the crosshairs as Public Enemy #1. Certainly, the industry could use a long period of soul-searching about the gratuitous content of some of the more hyper-violent games, but the idea that there’s a universal problem with “shooters”—-a popular genre in which players spend much of the time in combat, usually with firearms—needs to be checked. Some are a problem, some are not. Some, indeed, are capable of exploring complex and even profound issues in a unique, exciting, and even intelligent way. The Halo series is a case in point.

Halo is one of the most popular game series in history, and it puts to shame much of the tripe passed off as science-fiction in modern cinema and television. There is deep world-building, profound themes, superb storytelling, and excellent visual design, all of it wrapped in a fun and accessible interactive package. A movie has to cram characters, themes, and story into about 2 hours. Games have a more leisurely pace, spreading out to 10, 20, and even (in some cases) 100 hours of content. This provides a lot more room to work, if designers are so inclined.

Upon release, Halo 4 logged the kind of returns that would make Hollywood swoon: $200 million in 24 hours, and another $100 million over the next six days. Seven million copies sold, and a million people logged in to play online in the first 24 hours. Another million finished the campaign game in the first week, logging 31.4 million hours in that same week. And they’re not kids: the average age of a gamer is mid-30s, and 25% of them are women.

Halo 4 earns its following by delivering more than the tired run and gun action that characterizes the increasingly-tedious Call of Duty games. The gameplay certainly matters, and it remains quite good, but without vivid surrounding material, it’s unlikely people would keep returning.

The Story

Halo 4 marks the beginning of a new trilogy with a new developer. Bungie–the studio that created the games–has been split from Microsoft and is working on other things. Their last word on the Halo universe was the prequel Halo: Reach, and now new hands (343 Industries) are starting a new series (the “Reclaimer” trilogy) to continue the mega-selling franchise.

The first trilogy deals with the attack on humanity by group of fanatical alien races called the Covenant. These races worship an advanced alien race (the Forerunners), who in turn worship an even more advanced race (the Precursors), which share certain characteristics with angels. The Forerunners built the Halo Array: a series of ringworlds with orbiting circular superstructures designed to contain and study a parasite called the Flood. In the event of a breach, the Halo structures function as a superweapon capable of wiping out any life that might form a new host for the Flood. The idea was inspired by Larry Niven, but there’s also a bit of Tolkien in the idea of a “ring” which may be used for good, but is in fact a weapon.

Standing against this fierce array of enemies are the Spartans: engineered supersoliders represented by the greatest of them all: the Master Chief. A towering figure in full battle armor, Master Chief has become one of the most iconic figure in contemporary pop culture.

The new series brings us deeper in the world and story of the Forerunners, as Master Chief crashes on a Forerunner planet and has to confront an entirely new class of enemies.

The Themes

The game deals with the moral problem is at the heart of the Spartan program. These supersoliders were created in a controversial program that involved kidnapping and, essentially, brutalizing children. Halo 4 begins with an intriguing scene in which Dr. Halsey, the creator of the Spartan program, is interrogated about its morality, and the ramifications of creating super-humans. Indeed, the first line of the game is “Tell me about the children,” and we get a glimpse of the loveless lives young Spartans were forced to lead in order to defeat the enemies of humanity.

The interrogator later asks her, “Do you think Master Chief succeeded because he was … broken?” These questions about consequentialism are an interesting first step for the series. The name “Spartan” was not chosen randomly: these warriors are the product of eugenics and cruel training. Their “creator” sees them as “huamity’s next step,” and thus she becomes god: one of many false gods and God surrogates in the game.

Complicating the bioethical issues in the game is the existence of Cortana, an artificial intelligence who helps and guides the Master Chief in his missions. Cortana was created as a “smart” AI by cloning the brain of Dr. Halsey. She can not only learn, but also develop. This process has a limit, and as Cortana becomes more “human,” she begins to break down and die.

All of these issues provide an very deep thematic well that gives the game its resonance, in both ideas and emotions. The game opens with a scene questioning the very morality of the program on which the entire series is built. The emotional bond between Cortana and Master Chief, two broken products of science run untethered from morality, is unbelievably touching, particularly considering that one is a hologram and the other is never seen without a helmet. The writers are asking serious questions about the limits of technology, particularly in light of the ugly truth: without these engineered, brutalized soldiers, humanity would have perished. Was it worth the price? It’s impressive to even find such a question asked in a game.

Religious themes have always been part of the series, as you might well suspect from the name. The Forerunners are, of course, a God surrogate to the Covenant (obviously, a word with Biblical mean), but the Forerunners themselves had a God surrogate (the Precursors) who share the characteristics of angels. There are parallels to Daniel 11 in the plot of Halo 2, and the Master Chief’s full name is John-117, which is generally believed to be a reference to Revelation 1:17.  Brandon Vogt sees him patterning Christ in “taking the form of a slave” to save humanity in a cosmic struggle.

Also notable is the game’s extensive use of plainchant for its musical score, which evokes the deep belief held by the combatants in these wars. There’s even something of the holy warrior about the Chief: an isolated, presumably celibate crusader with a devotion to his mission.

The Game

One totally unexpected surprise in Halo 4 is the technical skill 343i brings the party. Nothing’s changed about the Xbox 360’s woefully ageing tech, but through some mysterious alchemy, the developer makes their game look twice as good as the last offering from Bungie. The lighting and texture work are a shocking advance over past entries, showing there’s still some juice left in the old 360.

Even better is the way 343i uses the tech to create grand new environments with long views over lush vistas, detailed jungles, stunning architecture, and beautiful animations. Halo has always been marked by terrific design work, but never anything as good as what we find in Halo 4. This new graphical prowess is on display from the first moments, with opening scenes showing off facial animations that are alarming in their lifelike detail.

While the artistry and tech reach new levels of excellence, the gameplay remains mostly true to the roots of the series. Doing your best to preserve the Chief’s armor while wielding a combination of guns, grenades, melee attacks, and special powers is still the heart of the game. (For those of you wondering: no, dual-wield has not returned to the game. Commence griping.)

Mixing up that formula is a new batch of enemies. The old Covenant forces are still around to give you a chance for that beloved pastime: Running over Grunts With Warthogs. But the new Promethean forces are what give Halo 4 that fresh flavor. They move and react differently, require unique strategies, and generally shake up the pacing and feel of combat encounters. The Knights are particularly formidable as they teleport around the battlefield, making them hard to handle with standard ranged weapons. Most of those weapons are familiar from previous games (and fans would be irritated if old favorites didn’t return), but a few new Forerunner items add some surprises to the arsenal.

The campaign game will only fill out about 10 hours of play time, so it’s in multiplayer that Halo games have their long lives. Four-person co-op campaign play is still a real treat, and this is being expanded by an ongoing series called Spartan Ops. These new episodes are free to download, and although brief they provide a nice IV drip of ongoing content.

Multiplayer has been tweaked a bit, with some modes renamed and finessed a bit. The only really new element is “Regicide,” which places a price on the head of highest-scoring player and rewards him with occasional powerups. “Dominion” replaces “Invasion” as a base-capture mode with a few new twists. There are more customization features and greater flexibility, including loadouts and plenty of MP options. It’s a strong suite of features that will keep H4 high on gamers’ playlists for a long time.

If there was any worries that a new developer would be unable to keep Halo running strong, Halo 4 blows that away with a game that may well be the best Halo experience to date. More to the point is that it uses action and sci-fi to explore complex themes.