Never before has a Halo title had so much scrutiny before release as Halo 4. Not even ODST, which cast players as a band of mongrel shock troopers instead of the Master Chief, was as closely watched and nervously anticipated. With previous lead developers and franchise creators, Bungie, no longer at the helm, the trilogy concluded and Microsoft eager to push their exclusive no matter what, many worried the sequel would come unwanted and unloved. 343 Industries had a heavy burden and millions of fans looking over their shoulder, but the end result is nothing short of magnificent.
Halo 3 finished the war with the Covenant once and for all – or at least erected a paper-thin truce – and left the last Spartan soldier and his artificial companion floating silently through space. Four years later, the Chief is awoken by Cortana after a strange intelligence scans their ship and a gigantic metal planet looms into view. Without giving away the details, a lot of time has passed and a galaxy that was starting to feel familiar to longtime fans is certainly revealed to be full of surprises. Your primary mission to begin with is getting home, partly because floating in the void of space is boring, but mainly to save Cortana from her increasing AI deterioration. It’s an unsettling wrinkle in the established status quo which sets the stage for things to come.
There’s a strange mix of familiarity and the very alien all through Halo 4’s campaign. 343 have done a practically seamless job of reproducing the universe, characters and general designs of the series. And yet so much is new, just waiting to be explored by intrepid Master Chieftains everywhere. As someone who values the story of Halo, I was pleasantly surprised how well told the game is; it has pacing any action film or game would be jealous of, and still manages to remain character driven.
Not that there’s any slouching in the action department. Right from the start you’re thrust into endless chaotic action sequences, as Covenant forces attack your ship. Yes, the Covenant are back, as if there was ever any doubt. For reasons I won’t go into, you’ll be once again put up against Grunts, Jackals, Hunters and Elites as you try to make your way home. Years of being decimated by Spartans must have toughened them up, because they are formidable opponents this time around. All the established tactics are there – Grunts will flee if you take out their local Elite, Jackals snipe from behind their shields – but the aliens overall feel much more nimble than previous games, forcing you to be a little more tactical and a little less of a bullet dispenser.
The new enemies this time around – a selection of artificial intelligences of various shapes, sizes and skills – are an even bigger problem. Unlike the Flood, whose modus operandi was to run at you like a big, ugly wall of bullet-absorbing meat, these robotic creatures are smart and well equipped. Small, dog-like creatures crawl over the walls and ceiling, spitting machine gun fire from their mouths and sneaking under your field of vision for a melee attack. Promethean Knights are big and well shielded, carry a variety of weaponry and can teleport around the field of battle. They can also eject tiny flying robots which act as support to other units. These floaters will erect shields, toss your own grenades back at you and even resurrect the dead.
The many combinations of these foes on the battlefield has a transformative effect, making the usual Halo fracas a more considered affair. Often I found myself halting before pushing into a group of enemies, trying to work out the terrain, cover options and enemy make-up first to ensure my victorious survival. And they look fantastic, with digital skulls leering out from under metal helmets, energy swords pulsing and alien facial features laid bare. It’s hard to believe this is the same console Halo 3 came out on all those years ago.
No matter how pretty they are, shooting has to happen. The first thing you’re likely to notice about the guns in Halo 4 is how satisfying they all sound when they go off. Projectile weapons thunk and spray metal all over the environment, lasers scream outer space with every round and digital weapons sound appropriately otherworldly. The shooting itself is top drawer, and any unfortunate deaths are likely to be the result of poor planning or bad luck rather than any fault with the game.
The sheer variety of weaponry is a little staggering, with the combination of all the human and Covenant weapons plus a new set for Knights. Old UNSC favourites like the assault rifle (and the battle rifle, take your pick), Magnum and shotgun are joined by the SAM machine gun and a portable railgun. The Covenant have their pulse weaponry and needlers, while the Prometheans have suppressors (a different sort of assault) and light rifles, which are similar to carbines. And that’s without even getting into heavy weapons. This all plays nicely into Halo’s two weapon system, constantly forcing the player to reevaluate their choices and try new strategies.
Beyond weapons you also have armour abilities, which will be familiar to Reach players. Classics like the decoy hologram and jetpack are joined by new tweaks like a robot sentry which attacks enemies for a time, promethean vision which can see through walls and a horizontal jet burst for quick maneuvering. The latter is the least useful of the new toys, at least until you realise it can help you take out Hunters in a few seconds. The ever-popular and ever-abused armour lock skill has been replaced by a hardlight shield that can be projected while walking but only protects the front of the player. It’s definitely less fun than the lock, but it can save you in a pinch.
All these skills and weapons are revealed to you through the course of the campaign, woven delicately into the fabric of your experience. But where you’re really going to get the most out of the abilities is in multiplayer. Halo has always been as much about multiplayer modes as it is about story, and Halo 4 is no exception. Although they have managed to link it up in an interesting way.
The Infinity is a gigantic human vessel which Master Chief comes across during the course of the plot. It’s also the hub for all your multiplayer activities. You can customise your Spartan (very simply at first, but more options unlock as you increase in rank), then jump into either War Games, Spartan Ops, Forge or the Theater. War Games is the main multiplayer area, and includes a bevy of modes like the classic Slayer, Team Slayer, Oddball and Capture the Flag. Everything you’d expect from Halo online play is here and running smooth and crazy. Despite the addition of an unlock system for the various abilities and weapons, Halo remains a relatively even playing field. A newcomer with a bit of skill can still take down someone who’s been busy unlocking all the heavy ordinance. There’s also a system in place which gives you access to a personal supply drop once you rack up some kills, ensuring that one low level player can quickly be running around with an incinerator cannon strapped to their shoulder.
Spartan Ops is a curious experiment, and one that will be ongoing for some time after launch. Split into a series of episodes, Spartan Ops tells the story of operations leading up to Infinity’s run-in with the Master Chief. Players can watch the episode and take part in the missions, either alone or in co-op. Episodes will be released periodically, with one available right off the bat. These small missions aren’t as engaging as playing through the entire campaigns of previous games with friends, but it is nice to get involved in another aspect of the Halo story.
Every aspect of Halo 4, from the multiplayer maps to the weapon effects, reeks of professional polish. This is by far the nicest looking Halo game and is probably one of the best looking games to grace the Xbox 360. Of particular note is the facial technology. Many times I found the characters to be close to indistinguishable from the real thing, and certain emotionally-charged scenes in the campaign were pushed to their limit by the realistic expressions. Technology design is also amazing, making me mentally spend money on scale replicas of the many ships in the game. It’s all held together by a gorgeous soundtrack, which runs the full gamut between high-energy action sequences and quiet moments of sad reflection. I firmly believe that the Halo series has some of the best musical scores in video games, and this might be my new favourite set.
Halo 4 is an absolute joy to play. It’s exciting, intriguing, well-written, fun and it makes you feel like a bonafide space hero. If you’re a fan of Halo and you were worried about 343 taking over, this is your dream come true. It’s exactly the Halo fans have been in love with for years, but polished and improved by a group of people who clearly care about the universe. Beyond that, it’s just a great game all on its own. The gameplay and characters are infinitely approachable, and I’d urge anyone to give this a try. 
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsft Game Studios
Developer: 343 Industries
Players: 1 - 2/16 online
Classification: M – Fantasy Violence