... except for the gameplay, which—as with the first three multi-billion-dollars-selling Halo first-person shooter games—is really, really fun.
Has there ever been a great series of videogames that gets more wrong than Halo? Don't misunderstand me. I have played and played the Halos, and played them some more; the night I reached level 40 in Team Slayer in Halo 3 is in the top two or three adrenaline-saturated moments of my gaming life. But let's not pretend like these games are good across the board. Halo's art design is a consistent bummer, a monotextural paean to stainless steel. Its plot, an orgy of MacGuffins, asks you to follow two characters, the more sympathetic of whom is a talking computer program. The single-player level design does not compare well to any great campaign shooter made after 1998.
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And yet, none of this has ever really mattered, because the Halo games have always maintained an unwavering focus on the two elements that make them the best: the shooting and the driving. These are a short putt away from perfect, unquestionably stellar, the class of the medium, the reason multiplayer Halo is a cultural touchstone. Call it the Law of Halo: A transcendent playing experience outweighs every other bad thing a game can do.
Halo 4 feels to me like the ultimate test of this law. So unfortunate is what happens on the screen, with such frequency, that you start to question the excellence that you hold in your hands.
But let's be fair to the game, and begin with that excellence. The feel of Halo is very much in tact, and that is a wonderful thing. It's very hard to describe it beyond that, except that it is as natural and limbically gratifying as ever to carpet-bomb fleeing Oompa Loompas from your hijacked alien helicopter then chase after the stragglers with a pocket full of grenades and a bad attitude. The additions to shooting and running and vrooming and whooshing all succeed. Special recognition must be paid to the jetpack, which opens up heretofore unpondered worlds of possibility in the areas of sniping, rocketry, and laserplay. Also, you will greatly enjoy the mechs, because has anyone ever failed to greatly enjoy the mechs?
But then there is everything that happens while you aren't enjoying the mechs.
The plot is hysterical in both senses of the word, at the same time. Things are always happening, and there is always a blast door that must be shut on penalty of galactic holocaust, and there is a guy with evil intentions for humanity named THE DIDACT who looks like a dad in a bad Predator costume, but THE DIDACT may actually have understandably evil intentions for humanity, and your top-heavy computer program sidekick is going crazy, which for her means sometimes getting a bit sassy and turning red, which makes me wonder if I am going crazy, because I sometimes get a bit sassy and turn red, and even though you are eight feet tall and have repeatedly saved the world you have not received a promotion and no one trusts your instincts, and also your first name is John. John Master Chief.
The whole thing presumes a knowledge of the Halo universe that clearly exceeds having played the single player of every game, which I have. I'm genuinely concerned that no one will understand what is going on, because to understand the plot you both need to be smart enough to follow the onscreen developments and dumb enough to have plowed through all of the supplemental material, and I'm not sure such a person exists. Your computer program sidekick, at some point, attributes her encroaching insanity to something called "rampancy", the state of thinking too much. If we ever find the person who "gets" everything going on in Halo 4, I imagine he will not be long for this world, so advanced will be his case of rampancy.