A large part of the reason why blockbuster films because so popular is because, most often, no matter how complex their story may be, it can always be distilled into a sentence or two. They don’t require any prerequisite knowledge of the film in question, of the universe, or even of the film itself - you can turn up cold, walk into a cinema, and enjoy a good film. Despite the giant galactic war and bastard children (Luke, not Anakin), Star Wars was still a story of good versus evil, Darth versus Luke, that anyone could follow. Even the Matrix, with its sub-plots and conspiracies galore, was still understandable – and that had a story about as complex as they come. But Halo? Were it so easy.
Like the games that came before it, Halo 4 is a sci-fi themed first person shooter that puts you into the space boots of Master Chief, our green armoured protagonist who was (at least formerly) the last remaining Spartan – a genetically modified super-soldier and all round hero that acted as humanity’s defenders. At the end of the last game [HALO 3 SPOILERS] poor old Master Chief ended up being dragged through a wormhole of sorts, finding himself trapped, millions of light years away from home [/HALO 3 SPOILER]. Missing presumed dead, and without much hope of a passer by coming across him any time soon, Chief puts himself into stasis, and leaves his holographic AI companion, Cortana, to keep watch. “Wake me when you need me”
As if by magic, “when you need me” happens to coincide with the start of Halo 4, when the ship the Chief is held in stasis in (or what remains of it) is boarded by the Covenant, a coalition of sorts of intergalactic religious nutters, who’ve been your foils for the previous few games. Within the space of a few levels, you’ll discover you’ve ended up in front of a forerunner planet, there’s a guy called the Didact who flies around in some sort of personal Death Star, and a librarian who wants to talk to you about humanity’s “ascension”, a mantle, and a “composer”, which is going to somehow end the human race, despite the Didact apparently using it in the past to save all life in the galaxy but end the humans, and something about blurring the digital and biological realms, and your personal evolution. Phew.
If you’re a little bit confused now, you’re not the only one – and that’s the most disappointing thing about Halo 4. Much like Reach that came before it, if you want to follow the story here, you’ll have to have graduated as Professor of Halo from the Halo department at the UNSC university, as without an incredibly in depth knowledge of the series, its characters, and universe that goes even beyond the games, playing Halo 4 will be like hitting your head against a plasma wall. If you haven’t read every graphic novel, studied every book, and if you don’t spend your day alternating between halowaypoint.com and the Xbox 360 app of the same name, the story will likely be almost completely impenetrable to you. All of which is really disappointing, because under the surface, they have a story here that anyone can connect with – it’s just buried under needlessly complex details.
You see, having been in stasis, Master Chief has worn the years pretty well – but sadly, the same isn’t true for his AI companion, Cortana. Near the start of the game, as she starts to break up mid-sentence, lose her train of thought, and crackles, she nervously explains the problem – “I was put into service eight years ago. AIs deteriorate after 7”. And that’s what should be at the centre of the story. Your AI, your friend, Cortana is going through the AI equivalent of dying – and it’s up to you to save her. If you can find a woman named Dr Halsey, you may be able to save your companion of past four game’s life - but you’re trapped on a planet with no way to escape, and no easy way to locate the doctor.
Much like the games that came before it, Halo 4 is fully playable in split-screen co-op, both through the story, and online – although sadly, only two players can play through the story on the same console. Great for families, partners and friends who want to play together – and great for you, because you get a helping hand – the co-op has always been the highlight of the Halo experience. Whether you’re finding your way around the brushed gun-metal corridors of a spaceship, or exploring the surface of a monolithic planet, everything’s a lot more fun with a second player in tow. It’s easier, too – which is lucky, because Halo 4 is noticeably harder than the games that came before it.
Despite the fact you’re some sort of genetic super-hero, Chief is a lot weaker than he was in previous games. While he still has a shield (which recharges when you aren’t taking damage), you’ll find you can’t absorb quite as much punishment as you used to. When faced with a particularly large group of Covenant, more often than not, you'll end up having to run, hide, and pick enemies off from a distance, which kind of takes some of the shine off being a super hero.
Luckily for you, if you’re playing in two player co-op, dying doesn’t matter quite as much as it would if you were on your own. Should you happen to be killed in co-op, instead of being reset to the last checkpoint you passed, you'll instead be able to respawn next to your co-op partner - so long as they can stay alive, and find a relatively safe space. And with so many different types of enemies, all vying for the same thing, you’ll be appreciative of the help.
The enemies you'll come across on Halo are as varied as they are numerous. Coming at you in groups, each "type" has their own personality, skills, and abilities, that makes taking on a group a challenge indeed. On the Covenant side of things, the majority of the forces you’ll come across are the strange badger-wearing-a-gas-mask-alike grunts, who’re short, a bit useless, easily spooked, and are quick to scarper at the first sign of losing a battle. Things get a little bit more interesting when you come across the jackals, whose giant energy shields make them harder to hit, and predisposes them to preferring to snipe at you from a distance. The “generals” of the Covenant forces are the Elites, which bare a passing resemblance to the Aliens from the Ridley Scott films, and also have a bodyshield, like Master Chief, letting them absorb a fair amount of ammo before they even start to take damage, while the tanks of the Covenant, Hunters, whose thick armour leaves only a few points on their body vulnerable to your fire, are thankfully few and far between – which is a relief, as they’re so tricky to take down.
New for this game (but again, where they've come from is pretty poorly explained) are a group known as the Prometheans, who have fewer, less specialised variations, but can still pose a challenge. Promethean Knights are the Elite equivalents – large, intelligent, and with a bodyshield, while Crawlers are weird, four-legged creatures that carry guns in their mouths (see above left). The worst the Prometheans have to offer, though, is the Promethean watchers, which fly around, resurrecting fallen comrades – and making your job a heck of a lot harder.
It’s at times like this you’ll be especially thankfully for your co-op buddy, who can lend you an extra gun for the biggest battles, and, if nothing else, can at least serve as a distraction for enemies – but it’s not only on foot that your co-op partner comes in handy. A large part of Halo, and indeed Halo 4, is a focus on vehicles, and the latest game doesn't disappoint. From the second mission, which drops you into the oddly-named Warthog (an armoured jeep that seats three people, with one riding shotgun, and another in the back on a minigun turret), the vehicle sections regularly punctuate the action, from hovering around the landscape in a Ghost, to taking to the skies in a Banshee.