It's been 11 years since the Halo first-person shooter series exploded on the original Xbox console with sternum-shuddering impact. With its dark and deadly galaxy, apocalyptic alien technology, and utterly awesome multiplayer battles, it's become the most revered and successful franchise in Microsoft's gaming history - especially for online play. No surprises then that this is one of the most anticipated games of the year.
Halo 4, despite the title, is actually the eighth instalment in the series. It's also intended as the beginning of a brand new trilogy of games from the Halo universe, and the first to be developed by Microsoft's talented new studio 343 Industries, with original developer Bungie having gone their own way. Not that that should worry ardent Halo gamers unduly; this still looks the business, with plenty of surprises and great gameplay in store.
Wake Up John, We Need You...
Story-wise, it's certainly more plot-driven than anything that has come before. Marking the return of iconic super soldier Master Chief, Halo 4 revolves around a 'holy' planet, called Requiem, which was constructed by the ancient Forerunner race some 100,000 years ago, who designed it to protect themselves against parasitic Flood life forms and the unleashing of the Halo weapon. It appears their idea worked, because as your ship of human military forces land onto its hostile surface, you're confronted by hordes of 100,000-year-old alien 'Promethean' soldiers that you thought were extinct. They only have one thing on their minds, too - toasting you alive!
The hands-on-time at E3 showcased a new level from its episodic co-operative campaign, simply known as The Cauldron, where up to four human soldiers (Spartans) take on familiar alien enemies known as The Covenant. You're drop-shipped onto the planet, which exists inside a silver sphere and is given its light by an artificial sun. In turn, this delivers the game a beautiful sunburst new look, as enemies glow bright orange beneath glossy black armour. But don't be fooled by their pretty looks - these creatures kill...
Combat Evolved - Again!
Despite many gamers being concerned that Halo 4 would feature scripted sequences and its glorious free-form combat suffer - as was implied by its E3 presentation - the game, thankfully, appears to offer a similar level of freedom as its predecessors. You can attack in almost any way you see fit, impulsively employing different tactics as you work out how best to deal with the Covenant threat, who likewise, respond intelligently to your own attacks.
When we played it, our grenades bounced harmlessly wide and our bullets ricocheted off enemy shields. Clearly we needed to devise new ways of thwarting our intelligent, high-tech adversaries, who also possess the ability to dematerialise and appear in different places. This isn't about your chasing your aggressors, but predicting where they'll turn up next. And then also working out how to defeat the scary four-legged panther-like creatures that they seemed keen to unleash on you.
The demo hinted at plenty of other exciting things, including new weapons and armour abilities, such as X-ray vision. But ultimately, despite having a new developer behind it, this still feels and plays like the classic Halo we know and love, as well as also promising something excitingly new. Simply put, Halo 4 is shaping up to surpass even the series' finest outings. And that should be enough to grab anyone's attention.