After a four-year hiatus, Microsoft's flagship series returns to our screens with Halo 4, the first entry to a new Halo trilogy, this time developed by newcomers 343 Industries. Despite Halo 3's thin claim to have 'finished the fight', Master Chief, our super-soldiering, world-savioring, helmet-wearing protagonist is once again called out of his stasis sleep to battle an alien threat, this time in the form of the Prometheans, a race of arcane insectoids and robot dogs.
Master Chief - or John as he's known to his mum - may not have gained any weight while in cryogenic sleep, but he has undergone a number of changes that long-time fans of the series will immediately perceive. For one, he's a little heavier on his feet, 343 having added significant weight to his movement. You'll still be leaping over enemies' heads in long, arcing jumps, but this hero has never felt more like a marine when racing at full pelt into the battle's throng.
At the start of the game Master Chief crash lands on the planet Requiem, a beautiful world of lush, green swamps, bronzed mountains and futuristic looking underground lava pits. As soon as he's gained his composure he's joined by a friendly ship, filled with marines also crash-landing on the planet who, over the course of the 8-hour campaign, go on to fight alongside him. While you're tasked with protecting these soldiers, saving these comrades isn't your only task.
Cortana, Master Chief's ever-present AI companion is also dying - succumbing to a form of computer disease known as Rampancy, which effects all AIs after seven years of service. It's this task that proves the strongest motivation to continue the fight as you race through the world in search of a way to save Cortana, the human voice that has guided your footsteps for all these years.
343 has played it safe by basing many of its new levels on familiar stages from past games, and the routine tasks can be somewhat tiresome - especially when you're tasked with destroying three generators for the fourth time in a row. But the diversity of environments makes up for the lack of invention in the mission tasks, pulling you along when the story fails to.
Playing To Spec
Indeed, Halo 4 is a beautiful game, perhaps the best looking on Xbox 360, 343 Industries squeezing every last drop of potential from the system's aging silicon. But it's in the hands that the game dazzles, even if its basic systems are familiar from previous games, gently tweaked and adjusted, but never fully overhauled. As ever you have just two weapons to choose from at any one time. Come across a new sidearm and you'll need to discard one of your current pieces. This forces tactical decisions as you choose what to take and what to leave behind. A huge array of weapons makes these choices particularly difficult, the Prometheans' new, exciting weapons joining the cast of familiar battle rifles, shotguns, Needlers and rocket launchers to provide a range of tactical options.
Outside of the main campaign - which can be played with up to three other friends - 343 has created a number of Spartan Ops missions, 15 minute-long co-op tasks for four players to complete together. These expand the story of the Halo universe and, while there are only five of these included at launch, each week new missions will be made available for players to download for free.
Friends In High Places
Once the single-player content has been exhausted it falls to Halo's famous multiplayer battles to provide longevity. A smaller number of game types is made up for by a greater flexibility in your load-outs (your choice of guns, perks and armour options). A somewhat awkward leveling system awards you with currency with which to purchase new guns and load-out options - and this imbalances the game in the early stages (as those who have played for the longest generally have the best gear). But at the upper end of the spectrum everything is finely-balanced, as Microsoft hopes Halo 4 can become a serious e-Sports title.
Halo 4 is a familiar game. It has next to no invention in its pixels, merely improvements and upgrades to existing ideas. But as these ideas have been proven time and time again, what remains is a robust, enjoyable playpen for shooting aliens, one built upon solid foundations, and proving that 343 has the chops to carry Master Chief forward into the future.
- Focused, balanced multiplayer
- Sumptuous visuals
- Master Chief's improved 'feel'
- Level editor can be difficult to get into
- Story takes a while to gather momentum
- Dearth of secrets