343 Industries Just Saved Halo [Gamer On]

I realize that title’s begging to get torn apart but bear with me. Halo as a franchise has long been synonymous with outstanding multiplayer and a solid (if sometimes contrived) sci-fi story that garnered consistent praise from reviewers.

First, Some History

However, later entries in the series were beginning to teeter on the edge of shark-jumping territory with the critically
‘meh’ Halo Wars and the appreciated though in ways underwhelming Halo 3: ODST. Halo Reach was a welcome course correction with stellar Live play that satisfied, but the absence of Master Chief and graphics that were tolerable only in the silent light of a stable frame rate were like blood in the water for harsher critics. Then the bomb dropped- longtime developer and fan favorite developer, Bungie, would no longer be attached to the Halo franchise and the latest entry, nay trilogy would be helmed by Microsoft newcomer, 343 Industries. So were they able to fill the very large shoes of Bungie?

Yes, and not only did they do the Halo series justice, but they managed to take an established, nigh-religiously revered, franchise and made it their own.

Let’s start with graphics. There’s an old adage in video that says to make sure you’ve got the best possible audio recorded because audio is 50% of your video. Similarly, while almost every critic in the world has snobbishly sworn that ‘gameplay’ is the most important element of a game (the word’s right there at the beginning, you see), graphics and presentation are leaps and bounds more important than they’re often given credit for. Saying a game’s ‘feel’, for example is really a description of how well your actions on the controller translate visually on the screen. Technically speaking every game from Mario Kart to Doom ‘feels’ precisely the same; It feels like you’re giving tiny massages to itty-bitty pieces of rubber and plastic with your thumbs for hours on end.

That being said, 343 recognized that Halo just wasn’t going to be well received with the same engine. So, they stripped everything away, broke it down to the essentials and started over. From scratch. And it was a brilliant move because the series has never looked this good. That’s not just the gameplay either; the pre-rendered cut-scenes are polished enough to make Blizzard raise an eyebrow. Master Chief in particular looks phenomenal, with color saturation and
sheen that’s never been there before.

Speaking of Spartan 117, the story too has a depth that’s been lacking recently. Chief’s always maintained an air of mystery with even long-time fans remaining largely unfamiliar with his past. Even loyalists who went a step further reading the novels don’t wholly understand the depth of the character and that’s for the best because you are the chief. The same way Bella from Twilight is basically a lifeless corpse of a convention for twi-hards to project onto, Chief does the same though more masterfully (Heh.)

On a larger scale humanity faces a new threat with the Forerunners making the Covenant look like veritable pansies by comparison and on a more micro level, the Master Chief’s relationship with Cortana, his UNSC-issued A.I. is finally being threatened. With Cortana slowly losing her shit (I assure you that’s a legitimate psychiatric assessment) and on the verge of breaking down as she encounters a condition called rampancy, there’s a race against time for Chief personally as well as for his objectives as a soldier.

From single to multiplayer all of the combat has a great (forgive me) feel as a range of new weaponry is introduced from the new race. On top of that, the multiplayer interface is more streamlined than we’ve seen in prior entries and while it’s borrowing a little more heavily than I’d like from that other console shooter, it’s done so cautiously and respectfully in a knowing wink sort of way rather than a stealing-a-tv-out-your-back-door kind of way.

What 343 Industries has done here is absolutely nothing to scoff at. Its commendable at the highest-levels of industry lore, right up there with the medium’s unexpected twists like a portable system with two screens or the unexpected pleasures of rolling up everyday crap into a gigantic ball for your groovy dad to turn into stars.

Bungie faithfuls be damned; 343 just catapulted the Halo series back to where it belongs while setting a bold new standard for console shooters. Now can it keep the momentum up for the next two entries in the trilogy? Time will tell but as a first effort, Halo 4 is peerless.

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