So now what?
After Halo series creator Bungie traversed the universe, told the sweeping trilogy tale of humanity's fight for survival, wrapped things up with hero Master Chief left frozen somewhere out in space … and then passed off the Halo gamemaking baton, what could possibly be left for the new Halo gamemakers, 343 Industries, to tell? Well … how about a love story?
At the end of Halo 3, the heroic and always armor-clad Master Chief, along with his faithful AI helper Cortana, were left adrift on a badly damaged UNSC ship—him in cryo-suspended animation and her holding watch in standby mode. The Chief was lost and thought dead, but humanity had been saved for the most part, and a new day was dawning. So he was a hero in absentia, and nobody much minded that little detail.
Skip ahead five years and, well, it's time for Halo 4. And time for Master Chief to start saving us hapless humans once again. A powerful scanning beam hits the derelict ship, alerts Cortana, and she, in turn, thaws out the Chief.
A Rising and a Falling
It turns out that our two heroes have drifted upon a new dire threat. This time it's not just that Covenant alliance of baddies from past games, but a supervillain rising from the ranks of the über-advanced and incredibly powerful Forerunners—a group of near-mythological creators the Covenant marauders worship. So it's once again out of the frying pan and into a much bigger fire than Master Chief has ever seen before.
And there is one more huge worry on the beleaguered battler's brain: Cortana is dying.
Cortana's UNSC creators built a seven-year expiration date, of sorts, into all their AI constructs. As their database grows, these sentient programs get to the point where they literally think themselves to death. It's a type of degenerating insanity called rampancy. Not only is Cortana a year past her normal operating end date, but since she was illegally cloned from her scientist maker's human tissue, there's a number of very human feelings she's wrestling with as well. Master Chief must overcome his newest threat and quickly get Cortana back to civilization if he hopes to save her.
This new layer of connection and emotion between the Chief and his tiny yet voluptuous (more on that in a minute) female AI friend not only adds an ever-present ticking clock to the action, but it also easily makes this the most compelling Halo story so far. It turns a simple space shooter into something of an involving, self-sacrificial love story. The Chief isn't just fighting for all of humanity, he's fighting for Cortana.
Ah, the Realism of It All
Helping all that enhanced emotion along is Cortana's enhanced realism. The graphics in this Halo game are at times spectacular and certainly the best they've ever been. But they also open the door for a few problems. For instance, the little 10-inch tall, virtually projected Cortana has shown up in past games as a provocative, nearly nude figure. But here she's very realistic—essentially the digital equivalent of a miniature Mystique from the X-Men—her curvy uncovered form only masked by blue coloring and circuit patterns. There's never any onscreen indications that her sensuality impacts the Chief, but that doesn't mean she won't have an effect on a young gamer behind the controls.
And that gamer will be impacted by the improved realism in other areas as well. Halo games have never been overly bloody affairs, but they are shooters through and through. And the relentless supersoldier Master Chief is given the job of blasting, bashing, stabbing, detonating and otherwise obliterating hundreds if not thousands if not tens of thousands of alien creatures.
While picking up and cycling through an arsenal of realistic and fantastical weapons—including various grades of rifles and scatterguns, pistols, lasers, grenades, energy swords and hammers, rockets, and weapon-equipped transports—players send torrents of enemies writhing and screaming to the ground throughout the game. Yellow and blue blood spurts with the kills, and sometimes the camera pulls back to capture a more dramatic view of the Chief viciously beating his foe to death. Sneak attacks provide the "opportunity" to break necks. In a cutscene, we see a close-up of a human woman's face disintegrating.
There's also a little bit of foul language tossed in the mix as characters spit out various derivatives of "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑," along with an unfinished exclamation of "mother of …"
But the gameplay is so involving, the fanboy side of my brain retorts. The heroism quotient is off the charts. Master Chief is a master of self-sacrifice. He loves Cortana! And in comparison to other M-rated fare, Halo's fluid gameplay and relatively dialed-down gore can make things feel quite tame, actually.
My parent/reviewer side responds: All of those great, positive things, some of them even, um, alien to M-rated shooters, make it almost too easy to overlook the fact that this game features quantities of near-nudity and revolves around players pulling triggers.