- Developers: 343i/Certain Affinity
- Publisher: Microsoft Studios
- Platform: Xbox 360
- Release date: 6 November
- Price: TBC
Halo 4 Preview
It was never going to be easy for 343i. Not only does it face the task of trying to the please the most virulent, demanding fan-base on the internet, it also needs to draw in a new generation of Halo players.
Things have changed since 2001. When Combat Evolved hit the original Xbox 11 years ago, sprawling, vehicle orientated shooters had only ever been seen on PCs. Now, barely a decade later, Halo's pioneering brand of big console multiplayer is an enormous hit, for DICE and Battlefield 3 especially.
It's not as if the Halo servers are empty - Reach is still pulling would-be Spartans in by the thousands - but the word on the street is that the series is past its best. Battlefield and Call of Duty are the first-person squires of today; how can an old dog like Halo, which has lost its original development team and spawned too many sequels, still be expected to pull any new tricks? What's the point of Halo 4?
Amid a sweep of lopsided, multiplayer driven first-person shooters, Halo 4 feels like the avenging angel of campaign mode. No seventh-generation shooter series has poured as much time into its single player as Halo and in this latest iteration, that much, at least, hasn't changed.
The environments are huge - Silent Cartographer huge, Assault on the Control Room huge - and the jagged bows of mechanical architecture are more alien than ever. Plot details are very hush-hush right now, but Master Chief's latest one-man crusade has a clearly different feel.
Awoken from stasis, four years after Halo 3, Master Chief soon finds himself stranded on Requiem, an enormous artificial planet run by semi-robotic creatures called Prometheans. You're no longer part of the military; from what's been shown so far, there isn't a single Aussie-accented marine or Pelican there to help you. You're an interloper, not an invader, and Halo 4 is given to a much creepier vibe.
Lost on the edge of deep space, with nothing but the ever more erratic Cortana for company (come Halo 4, she's suffering from Rampancy, an AI equivalent of dementia) 343i's first Halo proper is a suitably unnerving.
Loud too; if the derelict spaceships and weird, alien structures are borrowed from Dead Space, then Halo 4 owes its gun noises to Battlefield. All the new weapons, as well as the old favourites, have had their reports turned up to eleven, and if the claustrophobic locales don't rattle you, the sheer volume of Halo 4's many, many gunfights certainly will.
Combat feels more solid than ever: The sound of Chief's boot-steps and the weighty, amour plated swing of the X-axis perfectly complement 343i's ear-for-sound design.
For most, Halo will always be about multiplayer, and 343i has got two, big, new ideas. First is Dominion, a new game mode geared toward flag capture, but with a twist. Teams compete over three different bases scattered over the map, and the longer a base is held, the more defensible it becomes.
Automatic turrets appear, shields get stronger; eventually vehicles will spawn. It's motivation to get everybody into the thick of fighting, and an ideal solution to the notorious campers that Xbox Live users can't stand.
The other multiplayer surprise is Spartan Ops, a brand new concept which Halo 4 designer Frank O Connor calls "a TV show that you can play." Weekly 'episodes' will appear on Halo player's Xbox dashboard, and will involve them teaming up with three friends to complete a series of quick, co-op based objectives.
In the first episode, 'Land Grab', four players must destroy a set of radar jammers, and then hold the line against waves of Covenant until an evac ship can arrive. Each episode is contextualised by a fully CGI mini-series that O'Connor and the rest of 343i promise will expand the Halo universe even further.
At the moment, Spartan Ops feels like a strange, possibly unnecessary concept. It's hard not to imagine players bunking Spartan Ops off in favour of the more complete multiplayer experience, and bigger narrative of Halo 4 itself.
Nevertheless, Halo 4 is shaping up. Undoubtedly, it'll make a worthy addition to Bungie's longstanding franchise of games, books and action figures; from a financial perspective, Halo 4 is a guaranteed winner.
But with fifth and sixth entries already planned in the new saga, it's down to Halo 4 to inspire enough fresh converts, and wizened, cynical fanboys to let the series have another go around. It was never going to be easy for 343i, but from what we've seen so far, it's winning the uphill battle.