By Steve Wright
Where to begin with Halo 4? The latest from Microsoft -- and new, old studio 343 Industries -- has a lot to live up to. Being the first Halo game untouched by Bungie, does this newest iteration of Master Chief's exploits live up to his previous outings?
Yes... but you'd never know it at first.
When putting a Halo disc in your Xbox 360, you're normally greeted by an epic track from Marty O'Donnell. Instead, Halo 4's opening music feels flat and lifeless. Thankfully, that's the only non-Halo feeling thing about the title, as progressing into its campaign becomes a triumphant homecoming to a series I hold close to my heart.
From the first seconds of the game -- as always, jettisoning yourself from a cryo pod -- the game feels like Halo. Looks Iike Halo. Responds like Halo.
343 have done more than just try to copy previous titles, though. Gameplay feels different, but only in subtle ways. For this review, I played co-op in "Normal" difficulty, and solo in "Legendary." In co-op, I played Firefight-style, running and gunning, taking headshot after headshot, only pausing to reload or recharge my shields. Just like always.
In "Legendary," I didn't follow my usual tactic of staying as far back on the map as I could, only taking headshots when I could easily see them. Instead, I went Battlefield-style, moving up the map and taking cover, crouching and hiding, popping out occasionally to take shots. It feels like a natural progression of gameplay, and one I appreciate.
On the topic of other games and their styles, I got a real Mass Effect vibe from Halo 4's locales, new weapons and new enemies. Whilst obviously keeping the themes established by previous Halo titles, they come off as ultra sci-fi, and I love it.
The story of Halo 4 has that same super sci-fi vibe as well. Taking place directly after Halo 3 -- well, after some cryo -- Master Chief gets right into the thick of things. After reading the canonical Forerunner novels by Greg Bear and watching most of the "Forward Unto Dawn" webseries, I know exactly what's going on... but, I'm fearful that most won't. That being said, I don't have a clue what happened in Halo 2 or Halo 3... so it's pretty much par for the course.
Infinity modes -- comprising standard multiplayer War Games and episodic, co-operative Spartan Ops modes -- sure do make sense. Tying multiplayer in with the single-player universe was the best thing that 343 has ever decided to do to make their mark. Spartan Ops is tough solo on higher difficulties, but has the whole respawn thing going for it... so it's not nearly as frustrating as campaign can be. Getting new episodic content makes it that much better. War Games are sped up -- as we detailed in our Halo 4 preview -- and great fun. That being said: even playing with other reviewers, I noticed that some players had already found amazing camping spots in some maps. Be warned.
What I despise in Halo 4 is its unusual unlockables. I get it with armor components, but for the first time ever, I couldn't use the same player emblem that I've been rocking since my early Halo days. The progression system is a tad too COD for me, and I don't like it. Boo.
This game has cost Microsoft a truckload of cash -- that they'll clearly recoup -- and it shows. It's a highly polished game that does the series complete justice, and is an amazing A+ title that all 360 owners need as part of their collections. Well done, 343 -- and breathe a little easier, now.