Halo 4 marks the return of Master Chief, but the story belongs to his holographic Girl Friday, Cortana, the endearing exposition-bot who resembles Tinkerbell with more snark and less clothes. After three games’ worth of alien-bashing alongside the Chief, Cortana has exceeded her natural lifespan. She’s falling into “rampancy,” a synthetic dementia that causes emotional outbursts at narratively convenient moments. Halo 4 has high stakes – Earth might be destroyed, again – but it’s really a story about planned obsolescence, about a machine trying to outlive its natural end date.
This is also, more or less, the mission statement of Halo 4, a game that seeks to extend the life of the Halo franchise to infinity and beyond. 2010’s Halo: Reach marked the series swan song for original developer Bungie; 4 is the product of 343 Industries, a studio created in-house by Microsoft to curate all things Halo. The new game offers a host of opportunities for fans of the franchise to engage with the Halo universe. The campaign delves into arcane mythology from the Halo tie-in novels. There’s a new race of aliens with a new raft of weapons, and a whole galaxy of new multiplayer maps to explore with your friends. There’s also a new game mode, “Spartan Ops,” a kind of serialized campaign that will release new missions on a weekly basis.
But despite the knick-knacks – or, probably, because of them – Halo 4 is overall an empty, deflating experience. The graphics are fine and uninteresting. The gameplay is solid and unoriginal. The campaign is too short and is narratively incoherent, a huge step down from the legitimately unsettling Reach. We live in a media era dominated by franchises that never have to end. (See also: Lucasfilm + Disney = Star Wars VII.) As an act of curation, Halo 4 is a rousing success. As a bespoke social network for Halo fans, it’s essential, no different from a software update on your smartphone. As a videogame, it’s safe, flabby, and unoriginal: Everything the original Halo wasn’t. GRADE: C+
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Ask Darren stuff about his Halo tactics (rocket whore-turned sniper douche) or recent videogames (Dishonored, swoon!) or space marines (Johnny Rico > Master Chief > Bill Paxton in Aliens.)