Does the Master Chief's return live up to the series' legacy? The final verdict on 2012's biggest shooter right here...
How do you follow on from perhaps the biggest science-fiction shooter trilogy in the history of video gaming? It's a question that 343 Industries no doubt asked themselves in the early days of development of Halo 4. Their answer, however, proves wholeheartedly that the developers know exactly where they hope to take the franchise in the Reclaimer Saga, providing us with a powerful sense of confidence and enthusiasm for future instalments.
If last year's sensational HD remake Combat Evolved Anniversary wasn't enough to prove it, 343 show off the utmost respect and passion for both the Halo lore and gameplay instalment in their first new entry. As you'll have definitely seen in the trailers, the Master Chief is woken up four years after the events of Halo 3 as the Forward Unto Dawn's wreckage is sent hurtling into the Forerunner Shield World of Requiem. Here, the Chief will face an all new kind of enemy, the Prometheans, commanded by a force who will stop at nothing to gain revenge on humanity, while dealing with his AI companion Cortana's impending Rampancy along the way. As ever, the core narrative of the main campaign is handled masterfully, filled with tension, action and raw emotion that remains a constant source of compulsion and excitement in the 8-10 hour set of eight huge missions. The Chief has never been run through the mill as much as he is here, and yet there's a lingering sense that things can only get darker here, a welcoming thought if ever there was one.
Elsewhere, Halo 4 finds itself with additional narrative elements in the form of the UNSC Infinity storyline. Split across the War Games online modes and the Spartan Ops co-op DLC campaign, this spin-off narrative gets introduced in the main campaign with a few thoroughly compelling characters who'll definitely be back for more in Halo 5 and the trilogy finale. We'll have to see how the Spartan Ops pilot season plays out for a full judgement on these extra offerings, but the signs on this matter are very promising so far, so it'll be great to watch it all develop!
Fans worldwide will undoubtedly recall the classic Halo gameplay which made the first three instalments, ODST and Reach such a joy to play, and this is heavily intact here. Thankfully, though, the addition of the various Promethean classes to the enemy AI allows for some strong variation in the battles ahead of the Chief, something we really couldn't say in Reach in particular and which gives the sense of a true overhaul to the difficulty level. Whereas a playthrough on Normal in past entries would be a breeze for veterans, the AI feel a lot more intelligent this time around, which adds to the challenge of the whole experience in ways we might never have expected. No longer is it safe to merely hide behind cover until your health bar regenerates, allowing us to get cleverer in order to match and adapt to the new threat. And trust me, there's no surprise Flood-riffing enemy to get on your nerves midway through the campaign, either- those infectious enemies only appear in the War Games modes this time around.
It's safe to say that 343 have made a stunning first impact on the Halo universe. Their initial storyline here is deeply compelling and emotional, taking the Chief to new levels of empathy and feeling in ways that Bungie simply never could in the Covenant War. It's multi-layered stuff, with just a few hints at what's to come (stay after the credits!), but on the whole this is a standalone adventure, a fact that really works in the title's favour. Meanwhile, the gameplay is at its absolute best and better still, with the new and improved AI classes helping to add a sense of innovation to the engine that's felt lacking since Halo 3 in 2007. Truly, there has been no better first-person shooter on the market in quite some time than Halo 4, a stunning reclamation of the sci-fi saga from 343 Industries that ensures the series is in very safe hands for the future. Do we really have another Game Of The Year contender within the space of a month? You'd better believe it.