... 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.
Anyway, THE DIDACT scoots around the galaxy in a giant steel ball with a neat magma inlay, and you've got to follow him around lest he do... something. The way you follow him around, half of the time, is you jump into portals that your computer program sidekick makes for you that transport you to reasonably near the giant steel ball. At times, when your computer program sidekick makes a portal she screams "PORTAL", so you will know to look for the get-to-the-next-area hole. I'm not sure whether to chalk this up to sass or consideration.
An aside. Now, I'm no level designer, but I'm fairly sure that in level designer college there is an intro course where one of the first things you learn is that "don't use portals, they're lazy." In the same way your short story shouldn't turn out to have all been a dream, you shouldn't use portals. Use an elevator, use anything. Anyhow at some point some clever smart-alecks decided to turn this received wisdom on its old waxy ear and make a game where everything you do is enter a portal. I'm like 30 percent sure this is how Portal got off the ground.
Back to Halo 4. There is no problem with the portals and the drab style and the lack of motivation as long as you keep shooting and driving. In those brief moments when you are not shooting, such as reloading, you get a bad feeling about the game. You notice the repetition, how structures seem to have been flipped on an axis in some computer program and thrown back up and populated with enemies. You think about how much like a minigame this makes Halo 4. Then, kachunk, you're ready to go again.
But then the feeling starts to creep into the good parts. At times, you have so little idea what's going on, and the spaces of the game are so repetitive visually and structurally that Halo 4 turns into a nearly abstract experience. You don't know why you're shooting or what you're shooting or where you're shooting, just that you are shooting, and it feels fun. Once or twice, in particularly bland metallic corridors, fighting particularly bland metallic enemies, shooting particularly bland metallic guns, I felt as if I'd entered an indie game that was attempting to deduce the very nature of the first person shooter. For whatever reason, this is a good feeling in the context of a $10 download and a bad feeling in the context of a game backed by a publicity push that involved renting an entire European nation.
Then again, we, my roommate and I, beat Halo 4 in two nights. From behind his closed door and through what I presume is a miasma of annoyance, my other roommate would have heard laughter, and shouting, and "Dude GET IN THE BANSHEE GET OUT OF THE BANSHEE" and "YESSSS!" As they say, we couldn't stop playing.
A version of this post also appeared on Kill Screen, an Atlantic partner site.