November 16, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

Halo 4 marks the return of Master Chief, the armored space Eastwood who turned the fledgling Xbox into a success back in 2001. But the story belongs to his holographic girl Friday, Cortana, who resembles Tinker Bell with more snark and less clothing. Cortana has exceeded her natural life span. She’s falling into ”rampancy,” a synthetic dementia that causes emotional outbursts at narratively convenient moments. It’s a portrait of a machine struggling to outlive its own planned obsolescence.

This is also the mission statement of the underwhelming Halo 4, which dutifully seeks to extend the life of a decade-old franchise. The first game in the mainline series not produced by original developer Bungie, it’s an all-you-can-eat bonanza for Halo fans. There are new aliens with new weapons. There’s an entire galaxy of fresh multiplayer maps. There’s a revamped game mode, ”Spartan Ops,” that will release new missions in a serialized format every week.

But the game is ultimately an empty, deflating, even dull experience. Stranded on a distant planet, the Chief attempts to defeat an ancient alien — who, naturally, wants to destroy Earth. The graphics are fine but not compelling. The gameplay is solid but unoriginal. The campaign is short, repetitive, and outright incoherent.

As an act of franchise curation, Halo 4 is a rousing success. As a social network for Halo fans, it’s essential — no different from a software update on your smartphone. As a videogame, though, it’s safe, flabby, and uninspired: everything the original Halo wasn’t. C+

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