An ancient formula lumbers along

The first 15 minutes of Halo 4 almost fooled me. Taking the fondly familiarized formula of a recently awakened Master Chief under siege and standing it on its ear, the opening moments of 343i’s first flight in the captain’s chair looked a lot like a revolution. Halo 4 comes out flexing like the Hulkster, showing off a drastically improved lighting engine, a pair of perilous interactive sequences, and a white-knuckle grasp of the elements that made the Xbox family’s flagship title what it is today. In fact, Halo 4 looked an awful lot like the future of sci-fi shooters.

But after the thrill of better visuals wore off and the eager anticipation for more non-shooting thrills went mysteriously unfulfilled, I was left with a frustratingly similar Halo experience that other top-tier shooters have long since blasted into the oblivion of dog-tired gaming conventions. And while many of the Forge faithful will breathe a resounding sigh of relief at the sameness of it all, I can’t help but wonder if yet another by-the-book romp was what we needed.

That’s not to say that 343 Industries didn’t give it the ol’ college try, as they attempted to infuse some emotion into the plot by leveraging the fan-favorite dynamic between Chief and Cortana. But beyond some brilliantly rendered cutscenes and an amazing performance from voice actress Jen Taylor as everyone’s favorite blue buddy, Halo 4 fell woefully flat in its attempt to grab me.

A large part of this problem stems from the fact that, unlike most modern games that claim to care about narrative, Halo 4 doesn’t seem interested in moving into modern storytelling via integrated objectives, causing the campaign to quickly degenerate into a rinse-repeat relay of pumping way too many bullets into the same half-dozen enemies over and over on your way to pushing some random-ass button or blowing up a shield generator—only to find yourself forced to backtrack through yet another sea of the same bad guys who’ve magically spawned in behind your position.

These low points are openly exacerbated by the series’ staunch refusal to get with the times when it comes to game mechanics and level design, ignoring obvious enhancements like big-ticket sequences and proper iron-sights mechanics in favor of their age-old addiction to slow, methodical combat in unnecessarily large environments. And while I get that 343i was deathly afraid to come in and mess with the elements most consider Halo canon, it’s a lot to ask of us who play other games in the genre to continue to stomach a core most left behind half a decade ago. Mind you, some folks might find the videogame equivalent of being forced to eat your vegetables a comforting alternative to Microsoft putting a dash of modern in their combat, but when stacked up to Dishonored, Far Cry 3, and Black Ops II, Halo 4’s campaign feels as empty and uninspired as its strong, silent protagonist.

Conversely, multiplayer’s one of the strongest efforts in the category in ages, offering full campaign co-op for up to four combatants, episodic co-op Spartan Ops missions, and the newly dubbed “War Games” in a vastly playable smorgasbord of violence. Also included are a host of intelligent enhancements and peer-inspired upgrade mechanics that make the ills of story mode seem like a bad dream.

So, with all that said, is Halo 4 a bad game? Not at all. It’s clearly an impassioned effort by a lot of well-meaning folks who wanted to give the fans more of what they’ve come to know and love. But the fact that they delivered on precisely that isn’t exactly evidence that they’ve built the game the series deserves. From where I’m sitting, “good” just isn’t good enough for Halo anymore. Chief has cracked enough skulls at this point, and I just won’t be blown away until his handlers find the guts to finally break the mold.

SUMMARY: It’s been an impressive run, but after a decade of the same basic experience, I can’t escape the feeling that Halo needs to try a bit harder. Fans of the game will have a blast here, and the multiplayer is something special, but if you expected Halo 4 to keep up with the Joneses, you might be disappointed.

  • THE GOOD: An excellent representation of the Halo franchise from “newcomer” 343i.
  • THE BAD: That representation is the same old formula we’ve played for years.
  • THE UGLY: The thought of anyone being romantically involved with the Didact.

SCORE: 7.0

Halo 4 is an Xbox 360 exclusive.