It’s a law of nature that eventually every long-running gaming franchise will have a special entry that gets tussled over deviates too far from what made it so fun in the first place. Your Super Mario Sunshine, your Dragon Age IIAssassin’s Creed III, and so on. Regardless of whether that opinion changes more favorably over time, the initial specter of negativity will forever hover over it. Microsoft’s Halo is no exception, except that negative specter has not hovered over a particular game, but an entire studio.
Halo 4 was released for the Xbox 360 on November 6, 2012, and was the first full-length entry from developer 343 Industries. The studio became the official custodians of the franchise after Bungie bowed out Hello Reach 2010 and before that halo 4, made Reach map pack and leader development on the 2011 remake to Halo: Combat Evolved. For what was the beginning of what would come to be known as the “Reclaimer Saga”, 343 wanted to put a greater focus on the story than Bungie’s games, which they achieved by bringing forward the series’ deeper Forerunner lore found in the previous games, but not the big focal point.
For a franchise whose previous entries could best be summed up as “guy in a helmet kills aliens”, and as the gaming industry began to put a greater focus on characters in their single player offerings, you can see why 343 would follow suit. With that in mind, it makes sense why Halo 4 chooses to interweave Master Chief and Cortana’s efforts to return to Earth amid the latter’s deteriorating mental state and subsequent death with the arrival of the Forerunner Didact, who wants to transform humans into robotic Promethean warriors under his rule to conquer the galaxy. If it’s something like that Halo could fit for, it would be a deeper exploration of character, and if one chooses to watch Chef and the dynamics of Cortana like platonic or romantic, there is something there it has made their adventures worth following over the years. But while the campaign does its best, the end result ends up being kind of a mess.
Undoubtedly, there are some highlights: the opening where Chief and Cortana try to escape from the ship they’ve spent years in cryosleep on while invaded by the Federation is chaotic and dizzying, and the moment when the pair crash-land on the world of Requiem and Chief looks up at the floating skyscrapers giving a similar sense of grandeur and awe as when they stepped onto the Halo ring in the original game. Likewise, the penultimate mission, which is essentially a Death Star race, can’t help but feel fantastic, thanks in large part to strong musical backing from the co-composer Kazuma Jinnouchi.
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But the biggest problem with Halo 4’s campaign, and Reclaimer Saga overall, is that it sticks too easily to the series’ already established mythology, or just piles on new lore without doing a good enough job of establishing why it’s different from what’s come before. Amidst the Chief-Cortana story, which features some of the series’ best writing for the characters, the prequel to it all starts to feel like it’s bogged down in too much terminology to be accessible to anyone not already deep into extended media. And it’s a shame to say this, because Halo 4 contains one of the series’ most interesting additions that have come to define 343’s future gameplay, and also Halo TV series.
Halo 4 has standard co-op similar to its predecessor, while introducing a new mode called Spartan Ops. Taking place after the events of the game’s campaign, up to four players with their own customizable Spartans would participate in missions with their own narrative hooks and weekly release schedule. That mode did not last beyond the first season, and narrative events previously intended for future seasons were turned into monthly series that served to bridge the campaigns of Halo 4 and Halo 5. But its spirit lived on in 343’s sequel: Halo 5’s co-op puts players in the shoes of three named Spartans on the respective teams of Master Chief and Jameson Locke. halo infinite, while it follows in the footsteps of other live service games by featuring narrative events in its seasonal model, it couldn’t have gotten there without Spartan Ops lays the groundwork for the franchise to explode.
Among the pantheon of Halo developers, 343’s employment has not been without problems and controversies, both overall and specific to certain posts. As said at the jump, it’s the bane of any long-running franchise: the idea of what it is is held so tightly by fans that anything that deviates from it is seen as a gross betrayal. In this case, the top of the franchise would be Halo 3, a juggernaut so large that it brought in players who never gave the series so much as a glance at the time. At best, anything else that comes after can only hope to reach second place or perhaps seen as a close enough equal, depending on one’s appreciation of a particular game.
For 343, its Halo games feel like they’re getting so close to perfection. Halo 4, 5, and Infinite have their respective strengths and weaknesses, and each feels like they’re getting a piece of what makes the franchise so beloved and why it deserves to stick around. But every time the developers try to fix what didn’t work in a previous entry, the cracks in the franchise’s identity start to show, and it starts to get to the point where they either need to get a whole new armor or move on to a new journey.
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