Release Date: November 6 Platforms available on: Xbox 360 Developer:343 Industries Publisher: Microsoft Genre: First-person shooter
Halo 4 is an incredibly important release for 343 Industries, the recently formed developer that's taking on the mantle of Microsoft's celebrated shooter franchise following the departure of creator Bungie. With a legacy of critical acclaim and colossal sales, this first chapter of three new Halo adventures has a lot to live up to.
It's a good job, then, that Halo 4 meets these expectations. The return of Master Chief takes us to an unexplored Forerunner planet, giving us a whole new breed of enemies, weaponry and abilities, and rounds it off with some excellently implanted changes to multiplayer.
As superbly paced, entertaining and visually jaw-dropping as Halo 4's campaign is, it ultimately adopts a familiar, comfortable approach that doesn't take too many risks with the established formula seen in previous Halo games.
From waking from stasis on a UNSC ship, fighting off hordes of Covenant troops to its climatic vehicular-based conclusion, the campaign has very similar beats to previous Halo campaigns, packed with sandbox shooting moments and ethereal locations.
While the combat shines, it's the vehicular moments that are real highlights of the campaign. One mission has you defend a gigantic rolling battle tank as it careens through tight valleys, then hijack a Covenant ship, setting it to blow before you jetpack away to safety.
Another has you sitting in the cockpit of a powerful new walking mech - dubbed the Mantis - towering over Covenant troops as they scurry away while you blast them to bits. The final mission, meanwhile, is another lone run against the odds, and stands as one of the game's most exhilarating moments.
Strong pacing is not only maintained by interspersing these vehicular sections throughout the campaign, but also by offering encounters with both the Covenant and new enemies the Prometheans.
This new cybernetic threat essentially consists of three unit types; dog-like Crawlers, which hunt in packs and can crawl up vertical surfaces and even ceilings; Knights, imposing soldiers that require some copious firepower to take down, and Watchers, hovering above the battlefield providing shields to other units, catching grenades and calling in support.
The addition of the Prometheans introduces two elements new to Halo's combat dynamic. One is the addition of verticality, thanks to the climbing Crawlers and most importantly, the Watchers.
The other is that, since all of them can (and will) fire at you from a distance, you have to move faster on the battlefield and use cover more often between attacks.
Combined with the long-awaited introduction of sprinting as a permanent ability, and that most new weaponry tends to be rapid-fire in nature, it means that combat generally feels faster-paced and more exciting, yet still offers that distinctive and remarkably tactile Halo feel.
The Covenant forces, on the other hand, remain unchanged. While they're still fun to play against, you face the same types of threat - from running suicide Grunts through to pairs of Hunters acting as mini-bosses - and so all your old tactics apply in the same way, too.
We'd have loved to have seen more changes with the Covenant, especially since they still constitute a large part of the campaign, which is why that even with the Prometheans in tow it still feels very familiar. But all-in-all, combat is challenging, engaging and still demands constant experimentation, especially on higher difficulties.
Another important element to combat is armour abilities. These debuted in Halo: Reach, but now introduce a vision mode that sees through walls, a thruster pack that propels you forward at high speed, and a turret that's perfect for crowd control and distracting groups when playing alone.
These abilities add another layer of tactics and provide the means to fight your own way, especially since you're usually given a choice between two or three at any one time in the campaign.
Like the campaign, the story itself also has its ups and downs. It establishes from the outset that this is very much a personal story for Master Chief and Cortona, and by and large, does a great job at exploring the individual plights and pressures of their prolonged service in the UNSC.
The Forerunner threat, meanwhile, is certainly intriguing, but is made less potent by a poor central villain who isn't well characterised, rarely appears and really isn't all that intimidating.
But like the campaign, the story is also superbly delivered; the voice acting and first-person story sequences are a pleasure to sit through, and it has its fair share of interesting twists and turns which no doubt have repercussions for future games, making it very entertaining regardless.
Elsewhere, Spartan Ops continues the story six months after the events of the campaign through a TV-style format, with the first episode available on day one and subsequent episodes available to download after release, and are free to those with an Xbox Live Gold subscription.
Each chapter drops you and an optional multiplayer squad into areas repurposed from the campaign. It's essentially boiler-plate Halo stuff, with simple objectives and clearing swathes of enemies.
Going by this first hour-long episode, the story barely plays a part outside of the highly-produced cinematic at the beginning, relying on the occasional burst of radio chatter to provide what crumbs of the story there actually is, as well as your next objective.
After the tightly crafted campaign, it's a little disappointing. While not nearly as entertaining, it's enjoyable enough with friends, and as a means to offer more a campaign-styled story after release, Spartan Ops is most certainly a welcome addition.
Experience earned from this mode ties into your War Games profile, which is Halo 4's vast multiplayer suite, featuring Forge, Theatre and traditional multiplayer.
Competitive multiplayer is by far the strongest part of the package, introducing a number of features seen in other shooters and making them work effortlessly within the established Halo template.
Players can customise load-outs, equipping active and passive skills as well as campaign-style abilities into battle. Experience earned from matches - as well as daily and weekly challenges - boosts your ranking, which lets you access a wider selection of weaponry and further customise your armour cosmetically.
Meanwhile, inside the match itself, notching up a number of points from kills or objectives will offer you a 'kill streak'-style ordinance reward, which is usually a powerful weapon or a power-up.
The spoils from both of these elements thankfully don't upset the traditional balance of play. Load-outs essentially start you with whatever standard weapon pleases you, and still restricts the more powerful few - such as explosives - as hard-earned ordinance rewards.
Since such weapons could simply be found on the battlefield in previous Halo games, it actually now feels that this system is a little more balanced that it was before.
Combine this with lots of little tweaks that improve the experience in many ways - from instant respawns to the introduction of killcams, quicker and less fussy matchmaking and the addition of sprinting - then you have multiplayer that's less frustrating and intimidating for newcomers and far more exciting, fresh and faster-paced for long-time Halo fans.
War Games takes crucial steps to offer features in line with other shooters, all the while retaining the fundamentals that makes Halo multiplayer so revered and so incredibly rewarding to play. In short, it's the best it's ever been.
Halo 4's combination of modes offers a very impressive package. The campaign offers a familiar but genuinely captivating ride, while Spartan Ops and War Games both take multiplayer in some welcome directions that'll undoubtedly hold your interest in the coming months.
Despite the risk of handing the reins to a new studio, 343 Industries has done good with such a revered franchise, by not only respecting and retaining the essence of what makes it unique, but also by having the will to take it forward in some smart and satisfying ways.