Sunday, February 5, 2017

Game Talk #7: Halo 4

Oh boy...Halo 4...

How the hell do I even begin this one?

Like I said last time, I enjoyed 343i's first effort at a game. The Anniversary Edition of the first Halo game was well-handled and, despite the fact that a lot of people were uncertain about Halo being handed off to a new company, I was optimistic.

I mean, 343 Industries was put together specifically to handle the Halo series, and it was being led by a former Bungie employee, Frank O'Connor. I mean, Microsoft was pouring hundreds of millions into this, and why not? It was their fucking flagship franchise! Halo was a fucking money printing machine for them. So of course they would only hire the best and the brightest to continue work on it? Right?


Well, apparently fucking not.

So, let's start at the beginning. The information coming out about Halo 4 looked good. I liked the promos, the posters, the trailers. I was wanting to believe that this was going to be a good game, a good continuation of probably my favorite game franchise to date. I bought the game as soon as it came out. And, in preparation for it, I went through the campaigns of every other Halo game to date (with the exception of Halo Wars).

I was ready.

I played through the campaign by myself. I always do that when I get a new game: I play through the campaign on normal difficulty with no other worries. I simply want to enjoy the experience of the story the game designers have crafted. It's pretty easy for me to get sucked into a story, so the first time I played through, I wasn't really noticing a lot of the problems. But then, when I went through the game with my wife and I saw everything a second time, I realized that something was up. Even in the first run through, I could subtly feel that something was off, something had gone wrong. Then I played a third time with a friend of mine.

By then, I spotted several problems.

Let's get started, shall we?

Okay, so, the first thing that immediately jumps to mind. The Didact, the main antagonist. How did he manage to trick the Master Chief and Cortana into releasing him? When he's released, there's just a very brief hand-wave of 'he's mimicking the Infinitiy's signal' and then OH GOD HE'S RELEASED. And then he has The Force. I'm not joking. The main antagonist of a Halo game has The Force. He uses it on Master Chief as soon as he's released and...for some reason doesn't immediately kill him, despite the fact that he easily could.

Or hey, maybe we should talk about the past? Maybe we should talk about the fact that, according to the history, the humans used to have a massive, galactic empire over a hundred thousand years ago. Then they started warring with the Flood. After who knows how long of warfare, the Flood started infecting Forerunner worlds, and the humans show up and burn the worlds because of the infestation. Apparently, the Forerunners take this as an act of war and go to war with humanity for ONE THOUSAND YEARS, ultimately almost wiping out the humans and discovering, far too late, the humans were only trying to save them from the Flood. And then the Flood proceeded to begin wiping them out, thus forcing them to build the Halos.

Does this not make sense to anyone?

So we're supposed to believe that somehow the Forerunners, those occupying the worlds that were infested by the Flood, which takes some time, (not a lot, but SOME time), NEVER ONCE tried to communicate the threat to the rest of the Empire as they were being overrun?

Or the fact that, apparently, the Human-Forerunner War went on for A FUCKING THOUSAND YEARS and not once, during that entire millennia, did A) The humans somehow never manage to communicate the threat of the Flood to the Forerunners or B) The Flood, who had up to this point been infesting Forerunners worlds, thus causing humans to burn them, thus triggering the war, apparently...stopped infesting Forerunners worlds? or C) The Forerunners somehow never figured out that the Flood was even a thing until it was too late?

This strikes me as a half-baked fan fiction devised last minute at three in the morning while drinking too much coffee, or booze. Seriously, this is like something someone shat out and just never tried to polish up even in the slightest. This is fucking stupid.

But it gets stupider.

Then we discover that the Master Chief is actually the direct result of a hundred thousand year long plan, set into motion by one of the last Forerunners. Somehow, she set into motion something something evolution something something you are the chosen one Master Chief. Seriously, apparently the Forerunners were powerful enough that they could engineer events a hundred thousand years later to make it so that she could awaken a power in Master Chief. The power to NOT turn into an insane screaming robot powered by a digitized human soul. Seriously, that was the gist of it.

Sound familiar?
So here's a question.

If the Forerunners had the ability to do ALL THIS SHIT, why didn't they just, I don't know, DO LITERALLY FUCKING ANYTHING ELSE? Why not fucking kill that crazy asshole Forerunner 'Didact' instead of just letting him go into stasis? Take ten seconds to ask the humans, 'Hey, why the fuck are you attacking us?' and then figuring out that the Flood is a thing?

Not to mention, I have a huge problem with this idea. Apparently, Master Chief is The Chosen One. Basically, all this shit he's done is because of destiny, because he was preordained to do be who he was and do what he did. Does anyone else see a problem with this? How about the fact that it basically diminishes Master Chief's accomplishments down to nothing? He didn't do all those things he'd done because he's that good, that skilled, that dedicated and determined. No, he did it cause that's what's supposed to happen.

It's complete bullshit.

Now let's talk about Captain Del Rio. This character is very strange. He's an asshole...but he doesn't really need to be one. Every time he flips out and starts yelling at the Master Chief or growling at him through gritted teeth, it comes out as very forced. The first time I played it through, I hated this asshole. He was trying to stop the Master Chief and Cortana at every turn when they were CLEARLY in the right. WTF was his problem? Even his own officers thought he was a dick.

Then I started to realize that something was wrong. Why was he flipping out all the time? Did he really hate the Master Chief that much on...what, on principle? Because he's weird? Different? When I thought about it, I realized that he kind of had a point. In the larger scope of things, he was technically wrong, but the logic behind his actions weren't really all that strange given the situation and the information he had access to.

I read an article that I really wish I could find again, a review of the Halo series in general and one of its bigger problems that became extremely prominent in Halo 4. The series had become about Master Chief and Cortana. It didn't start that way. In the beginning, Halo was about...well, Halo, and the ancient Forerunner-Flood War and dealing with the remnants of that war due to the incompetence/ignorance of both the Covenant and the humans.

But that began changing. Ultimately, the series became about Master Chief and Cortana and...I've got to admit, the Master Chief is not a good character. He's a good video game character, in the sense that he's someone you want to play as, but not necessarily someone you want to get to know. I actually liked the idea of developing the Master Chief's character more, and this could have been done without necessarily making him the focus of the story. I get the feeling people will argue that Halo 4 was about the Didact and the Protheans, I mean the Prometheans, and yes, they were the main antagonists of the story. And it could have worked, except that in this version of events, Master Chief and Cortana are the only ones in the whole galaxy that can possible stop this evil threat!

I can also see the argument that, well, that's how it's always been. But consider the first Halo. At the end of it, Master Chief and Cortana were eventually the only ones who could stop the Flood because at that point, they were literally the only ones left on Halo, the only ones left to get the job done. Not because they were preordained superheroes who everyone should believe in with fanaticism rivaling even the Covenant's belief in the Prophets or the Prophet's belief in the Great Journey.

The reason for this is because the Master Chief and Cortana have become the center of the story. And in order for the story to continue, the Captain's justified concerns have to be glossed over by forcing him into being a foaming-at-the-mouth asshole who flips out over the slightest provocation.

So those are the largest things that immediately come to mind. Here's a few other things that bugged me.

A lot of people have bitched about how Halo 4 is 'going Call of Duty'. Well, they're not necessarily wrong. During the first level, there's a gameplay section that very much resembled a section right out of the newer generation of the Call of Duty franchise. And wow, the end was very reminiscent of the ends of the Modern Warfare games.

Here's the thing, imitating Call of Duty isn't necessarily a bad thing. Modern Warfare 2 remains the best First Person Shooter campaign I've ever played. The thing that makes it so great was the level of immersion the gameplay allowed and reinforced. Everything about it was meant to make you really feel like you were there. So I'm not against Halo imitating this part of CoD. The problem is that they really half-assed it. They lifted a scant few features from CoD because they 'looked kinda cool', (I imagine some fucking 343i employee saying this in a boardroom meeting or something), but failed to understand the basic concept of why it works in the context of CoD. This is exactly like all of those Hollywood producers that are suddenly scrambling to make their superhero movies rated R and 'edgier' with more cussing and slapstick humor because Deadpool did so well! While failing to fucking miss the actual point of why Deadpool did so well.

Here's something that I'm surprised no one talked about. Did everyone miss how Halo 4 tried to be Mass Effect? Here's the very first thing I immediately noticed that got me thinking about it.

Mass Effect 3: Eden Prime
Halo 4 Multiplayer Map "Complex"
Now, I'm willing to grant that Mass Effect 3 and the DLC pack this photo came from were released in March of 2012 and Halo 4 was released in November of 2012. Not exactly enough time for imitation, given how long it takes certain things to get done. Well...probably.

But this is just what got me thinking about it. Then I realized that I recognized the voice of the Didact. It's the same voice actor who voiced Harbinger, the primary antagonist (sort of) of Mass Effect 2. And then I got to thinking. Halo 4 is suddenly about an ancient evil rising from the depths of the past to start turning humanity in machine hybrid creatures 'for their own good'. Is this starting to sound familiar?
This didn't make any fucking sense either.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the sudden shift in tone and storytelling, the sudden obsession with the past, the Forerunners, an ancient, mysterious race of super advanced aliens that mysteriously died off, all of it seemed to be an attempt to update the face of the Halo franchise.

I get the feeling that, when they were sitting down for the first time, trying to figure out what the hell to do with Halo 4, they looked at what they thought was their competition, BioWare and Mass Effect, and decided, "Well, I guess that's what's selling nowadays! I mean, look at those sales figures!"

Again, ironically completely missing the point that Mass Effect didn't sell because it had an arbitrarily complex story and universe, but because it was actually a meticulously constructed, well-crafted, intricate story with a similarly well-crafted universe that could be enjoyed by both casual and hardcore players alike. If you didn't give a shit about codex entries or inter-species politics or galactic history or anything beyond the surface of the story of Mass Effect, you absolutely did not need it to enjoy the game as a whole.

So, 343i tried to suddenly cram a bunch of useless crap into the story without even seriously thinking about it. I mean, I remember thinking, "Who the fuck is this guy?" Because the story almost kind of acted like you should know who he was. Apparently there was some required reading. So...yeah, that was stupid.

How about the gameplay?

I'm not a gameplay expert, so this is all I'll say. I found myself running out of ammo and waiting for my shields to regenerate far too often. If you're the kind of smartass who has a lame, incredibly ignorant response of "I guess you should suck less" I invite you to go fuck yourself in the urethra. I didn't have this problem with any of the other games. What's worse, a lot of the guns just felt...weak. Not a great idea. Weak guns makes for unsatisfying gameplay in a fucking shooter.

Then there are the levels. For some reason, they went with the idea of "Okay, how about, instead of a reasonable number of appropriately sized levels, we just have fewer really big levels?!" This was a fucking stupid design. I know that Halo 1 and 3 only had ten levels apiece and that Halo 4 had eight, but apparently that makes a world of difference. I found myself just getting fucking bored, like "When will this level fucking end!?" It seemed to take forever to get through a level. I'd rather have twice the levels at half the length because they just dragged on and on and ON. I shouldn't be getting bored playing an exciting, action-packed FPS. Especially not one in a legendary saga like Halo.

And there's the multiplayer.

It's actually the best multiplayer of any Halo game.

Not what you were expecting, right? Well, I actually really liked the Halo 4 multiplayer. What little of it I played. It was fast-paced, felt well-balanced, with well-crafted levels and was just generally a lot of fun. And yeah, I liked the CoD knock-offs they added in.

The problem here was that I hated the campaign so fucking much that it just turned me off of the multiplayer.

And, of course, there were Spartan Ops. I remember being excited because the campaign felt pretty short. And then when I heard 343i actually admitting that the campaign was short and that they were going to make up for it by releasing free, story-expanding DLC, I was excited. I thought, "Huh, maybe they can pull this back from the brink? Maybe...? (Please.)"

But no, they didn't. I played through a lot of Spartan Ops and fuck, it was so uninspired, so boring, so repetitive, so generic that it wasn't even worth the trouble of making. All they did was chop up campaign maps slightly and give you incredibly generic mission objectives while sending wave after wave of enemies after you. This was practically Firefight but somehow more boring.

So, as you can tell, I hated Halo 4. A lot. The biggest problem is that it just didn't feel like a Halo game. It felt like another, lesser game pretending to be Halo. Another huge problem I had with it was that 343i felt that it was a good idea to explore the past, and by that I mean the Forerunners. This is just generally a terrible idea. Writing 101: Prequels don't really work. At first glance, that might not make sense. Let me explain.

Remember back when The Clone Wars was just this cool, mysterious thing that sounded so badass whenever it was vaguely reference in Star Wars? And then remember when the prequels came out and actually showed all that shit everyone vaguely reference and IT. FUCKING. SUCKED? Okay, granted mostly it sucked because George Lucas doesn't know how to write dialogue and had a hard-on for CGI, but the general idea here is that when you only show bits and pieces of something, it tends to be cooler than if you show the whole thing because everyone fills in the blanks for themselves.

Case in point: the Forerunners. For a long time, they were just this mysterious group of ancient aliens that built these immense, technologically-advanced installations. But, in spite of all their power, their galaxy-spanning empire, their tremendous technology, they still died off. The first Halo Trilogy very smartly never revealed too much about the Forerunners, and thus they remained interesting, because they were only half-glimpsed through the shadows of time.

Then, in Halo 4, we fucking get to see one. And...he's lame as hell.

The face of disappointment.
This just looks ridiculous. And the Librarian looks even worse. And obviously it's much more than just skin-deep problems. These characters are 'epic' in the way that a 14-year-old thinks of the word. Everything they say is overwrought and too dramatic. This can actually work, consider the first encounter with Sovereign in Mass Effect (major spoilers).

At first glance their motivations might be kind of interesting, but if you think about it for even a little bit, it just comes off as stupid. Like, they couldn't have thought of something better? This is HALO 4 for fuck's sake!

Personally, I think they should have just gone with something totally new. A fresh, brand new threat and not something from the past. Because that very rarely works out. I know it's difficult to come up with something basically brand new, but come on, no one ever said writing the story of a multi-million dollar franchise was going to be easy.

So yeah, Halo 4, I hate it.

One other thing I want to say. I know there's people out there who, for some reason, feel the need to say: STOP RAGGING ON HALO 4, I BET YOU COULDN'T DO A BETTER JOB! or something like that, as if, somehow, that proves I'm wrong. Here's the thing, writing stories for video games is not my job. It's not most people's jobs. And I know it's not easy. It's actually very hard, harder than writing books, (which is what I do, and I'm only semi-okay at that). But guess what, it is their job, and they have every motivation to actually do their job well instead of winging it given the millions upon millions of dollars Microsoft is pouring into the project, which is what it felt like they were doing.

But who knew that Halo 5 would make Halo 4 look like Halo 3?

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