Finish the fight. Five years on, the misguided marketing hook for Halo 3 still irks those who stuck with Bungie’s strung-out storytelling and cryptic iambic prophesying only to find that the climax didn’t deliver. The war might have been won (honestly, it was hard to tell) but our hero was left drifting in distant space. It wasn’t an end, it was an abandonment.
The most important thing that Halo’s new guardians at 343 Industries get right is a return to the fictional foundations of the original. Master Chief is our hero, Cortana is his unusually well-scripted AI companion, and he’s fighting a war for Earth and mankind that’s so unambiguous we needn’t worry about his own lack of humanity – we can just get on with the precise, technologically advanced killing.
At least we could if Halo 4 would let us. The Chief’s comeback might be a return to old ways – and a tacit admission that Bungie strayed into unsatisfying chin-stroking territory – but it also raises the issue of humanity early on, with a prologue cutscene regarding the original purpose of the Spartan programme.
It’s an issue that doesn’t go away. When we rejoin the Chief, he’s been in stasis for four years, while the unsleeping Cortana has developed signs of rampancy, a form of AI dementia. She is losing her mind, and the awoken Chief sets out to save it by returning her to Earth – the augmented superman and his artificial soul on an odyssey home.
The major obstacle to this homecoming is a Forerunner planet, which pulls the pair’s derelict ship to its surface, where they discover a great threat to mankind. It’s of the kind that’s big enough to merrily drive an uncomplicated narrative, and the sort that other sequels have lacked. Our heroes also encounter a new race of enemies called Prometheans. Their design parallels the three-tiered structure of the Covenant, with towering Knights looking very much like semi-digital Elites, joined on the battlefield by fluttering drones and, in the place of the comical Grunts, packs of canine units with weaponised heads.
The colourful Forerunner planet doesn’t feel like retreading old ground so much as a welcome reminder that in a series capable of taking us anywhere in the universe we should expect more than earthy brown and starship grey
As the image of exploding robot dogs probably gives away, the Prometheans are not an unqualified triumph. In their similarity to the Covenant, 343 has played it safe, and there’s something less than engaging about disposing of enemies made of energy rather than recoiling, crumpling flesh. That said, things improve when their backstory is revealed, and they are at all times more enjoyable than the happily absent Flood.
Not absent are the Covenant themselves, who seem to have returned out of convenience more than anything else. They’re here to wake Master Chief with a familiar face and give the delayed Promethean entrance a little more weight, as well as to ensure their range of plasma weapons remain available to our hero. They may tag along, but the game is still better for them, providing a reliable ingredient in the pitched battles set in rocky pathways, pristine corridors and open battlegrounds that are Halo 4’s central pleasure.