(This review contains some plot spoilers)
There are few video game franchises that have succeeded in creating messianic figures that endure over the years. Half-Life and Metal Gear come to mind, as does Mass Effect. However, few have brought that messianic element to the foreground as prominently as Halo has. The advertising for Halo 3 (2007) included a series of videos that portrayed a diorama of the last battle between the alien Covenant and Human forces, with voiceover commemorating the Master Chief, Halo’s super-soldier hero. Halo 3 ended with the rather pointed Christian/Arthurian image of the Master Chief going to sleep in a cryo-chamber, lost light years from earth, and saying “Wake me if you need me.” This is the ascension and the boat to Avalon.
Throughout the first trilogy of games, the main character was messianic in a simply practical way. He was the one who saved humanity in its time of need. His actions as a seemingly insurmountable force of military might achieved victory for the woefully outgunned human race. If Master Chief was a savior, he was the kind of savior that a fireman or a policeman or a doctor is; he is capable and fit for the task at hand. But in Halo 4, the model has changed somewhat. Master Chief is no longer merely the best there is, but something like Paul Atreides from Dune, or Hal Mayne (or Donal Graeme) from the woefully ignored Dorsai series by Gordon R. Dickson. He is the result of millennia of genetic development. He is no longer “savior” in a practical sense, but something more like the Christian understanding of the way Jesus fits into the role of Messiah.
But we must distinguish between the popular understanding of “foretelling” and the actual Christian position. Part of the Christian witness, and we might say a very central part of it, is the observation that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were foretold within the Hebrew Scriptures. The idea is most explicitly contained in the post-resurrection encounter on “the road to Emmaus.” Luke tells the story that two of Jesus’ disciples were walking and met someone along the way. They explained to him the events of the previous few days (Jesus had just recently been crucified and risen from the dead), and the man who they met (who they would later recognize to be Jesus).
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (NRSV)
Now this unfolding of “Moses and all the Prophets” is a practice that then was taken up by the writers of the New Testament (Matthew’s Gospel is full of these kind of references to Jesus fulfilling the prophets). The practice is taken up even further in the Church Fathers, especially in a kind of interpretation called “typological” interpretation (rooted in Paul’s statement that “the rock was Christ” in 1 Cor 10:4).
Now all of this is to say that the elements of prophecy surrounding Christ are generally identified by Christ, though there are a few that seem to be identified before His revelation, such as the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. This stands in rather stark contradiction to the generally received tradition that there were many prophecies about Christ that He then fulfilled. Thus books that try to show how unlikely it would be for Jesus to fulfill all of these prophecies, and is therefore with mathematical certainty the Christ are rather mislead.
Thus, so are stories which try to frame heroes as the ones who are “long awaited.” This is where 343, the new company making Halo, has gone a bit wrong in their appropriation of messianic themes for the Master Chief. John 117, the Master Chief’s name/designation, appeared as a real agent in the previous games, and thus was responsible for his achievements. But the moment that he is simply “the one who is to come” or the “Kwisatz Haderack” he is merely the product of other minds and plans. The first is a hero whose success is due to his tenacity, his resourcefulness, even his relationships. The second causes him to be something of a tool for the heroism of others who long ago planted the seed to bring him about.
The story suffers for this, even if the playing of the game does not. There are other missteps in storytelling, such as the heavy dependence on stories told outside of the games themselves. Players must hunt for background, whether in consoles hidden throughout the game, or in books or videos. This is a weakness that, while it does not destroy the experience, does complicate it.
But ultimately playing Halo 4 is like playing any other Halo game. The combat is interesting, the weapons are varied, and the online experience is really second to none in a gaming world dominated by Call of Duty. Having played both games’ multiplayer side by side, I have to say that the Halo experience was the far superior method of extracting joy from my game playing time. However, the refreshingly free Spartan Ops is very clearly meant to be played with friends, since the episodes far too often resort to simply overwhelming the player with a multitude of enemies that swarm in rather ridiculous fashion.
I have enjoyed the mythological framework of Halo for years, the relationships of the characters, and the overall world that Bungie created and has now handed off to 343. With regard these, Halo 4 has moved boldly in several directions, all of which seem very risky. The questions remain as to whether they will move boldly into new gameplay, and whether or not these narrative gambits will pay off. But then, these are always the questions at the beginning of a new gaming trilogy.