- Developer: 343i
- Publisher : Microsoft
- Platforms: Xbox 360
- Release date: 6 November
- Price: £49.99
Who'd have thought a game with '4' in the title could feel so refreshing? Off the back of Call of Duty, Battlefield and the rest of the "realistic" cannon, Halo 4's 11-year-old brand of armour power-ups and plasma grenades is oddly revitalising.
It's still the same old Halo, but pleasingly new at the same time.
Shooting from the hip, instead of the de rigeur rifle beading is an empowering retro-ish thrill, Master Chief's bulky MJOLNIR armour suit letting you pile into the thick of fighting like Captain Price possessed. In a first-person climate of cover-to-cover scope warfare, 343i has done a wonderful job of reviving Halo's shoot-first gameplay, constantly topping up the pace of the action with new weapons and power-ups.
That's not to say tactics don't come into Halo 4. Requiem, the distant planet that Master Chief and Cortana find themselves on, is just as big and lustrous as any of the Halo rings, its rocky outcroppings and artificial structures making for some flanking manoeuvres.
It's gorgeous, too, lustrous green fields and blue skies giving way to enormous metallic towers and grubby cave networks covered in weird glyphs. 343i wanted to create a sense of exploration with Requiem, and although Halo 4's overly frequent gunfights prevent you from sightseeing too much, the environments are nevertheless gorgeous, evoking a sense of awe like Combat Evolved did in 2001.
The similarities between Halo 4 and the very first game are intentionally obvious. Chief and Cortana's opening slog through the wreckage of the Dawn harkening back to the Pillar of Autumn tutorial from Halo 1. Requiem, too, unwraps at a similar pace, your steady investigation of its surface and subterranean environment turning up new enemies and an apocalyptic alien plot.
It's five years since Master Chief and Cortana were sent adrift aboard the Forward Unto Dawn, and now, lost in deep space, they've come across a Covenant expedition force and a new, mechanical enemy called the Prometheans.
Remnants of the series' mystical Forerunners, the Prometheans come in several guises. There are Crawlers, basic cat-like grunts that scurry along walls and attack in packs; Watchers, pesky flying things that recharge other Promethean's shields; and Knights, nimble, electronic, teleporting kill-bots that are more than a match for Master Chief.
A joy to shoot nevertheless, the Prometheans are too similar to the original Covenant, Crawlers and Knights standing in for Grunts and Elites respectively. Their weapons, too, are simply variations on a theme; though jazzed up with Tron: Evolution style aesthetics, the Promethean guns are just shotguns, sniper and assault rifles with different names.
It's a pity. Where Halo 4 excels at offering a different pace of shooter to Call of Duty et al, it stumbles in never pushing the boundaries of what science fiction can do.
Resistance is a great example of how sci-fi and silly ideas go hand-in-hand, rounding out its arsenal with some seriously wacky guns. Halo 4 has none of that playfulness; it's as humourless and austere as its heavy, masked protagonist.
Sometimes that works - Halo 4 is a hulking behemoth of a game and its enormous, super-dramatic set-pieces demand a seriousness of tone. Other times, it doesn't. There are some major clangers in the dialogue and the plot, similarities to Halo aside, is the worst kind of blockbuster nonsense, rammed full of functional characters and boring MacGuffins.
Halo 4's production value is through the roof. It's beautiful, technically flawless and it sounds great - Chief's trademark assault rifle being particularly loud. But budgets that big rarely make for interesting literature, and Halo 4's script rates somewhere between Transformers and Harry Potter levels of meh.
Even Spartan Ops, the new and widely publicised interactive mini-series suffers from poor dialogue, its occasional drips of flag defence gameplay never making up for the ramshackle drama.
Halo fans will no doubt love it. Spartan Ops is choc-full of jargon and lore, a real crowd-pleaser and no mistake. Otherwise, it's redundant and gimmicky, and just another unnecessary layer on the already overwritten Halo universe.
But Halo 4 is great, it really is. 343i has somehow managed to walk the tightrope between fan service and new ideas, delivering a game that's both new and familiar at the same time.
Multiplayer is exemplary of that, with painful features like over-powerful melee attacks taken out, but the same, tremendously fun arenas kept in. Halo 4's maps are masterpieces of deathmatch architecture, their multiple levels and open spaces making for a huge variety of gameplay and loadout types.
Again, it's nothing brand new, but with the ever more polished Reach engine humming away under the bonnet, playing Halo online has never felt so satisfying.
The only real stumbling block is the campaign's main story, which borrows too heavily from Halos past and takes itself too seriously. Of course, with the Scrooge McDuck levels of capital behind Halo 4, 343i can be excused for not joking around.
But Halo used to be at least a little silly, its nattering Covenant grunts and Aussie-accented Marines chipping in with killer one-liners from time to time. Halo 4 is not that. As a series re-launch, its setups and payoffs are not nearly original enough, too many levels relying on straight shooting sections which, though fun, are not enough to sustain such a big game.
A set-piece aboard a gigantic, troop-carrying tank thing is about as varied as the first three hours of Halo 4 gets, with the rest of its playtime strung along by repeat shootouts.
But what shootouts. Despite every other complaint you can level at Halo 4, 343i has managed to take the oldest game mechanic in the book and make it feel fun again. As much a breath of fresh air as Combat Evolved was in 2001, Halo 4 is a huge-budget alternative to Warfigher, Black Ops and the other war shooters of the past two years.
It's just fun; despite its boorish, serious tone, Halo 4 is great to pick-up-and-play.
Overly derivative of its predecessors and a little hammy, Halo 4 is nevertheless a miracle, bridging the gap between traditional series' gunplay and new creative ground. It's great to see Master Chief back at the helm - Halo 4 is a gorgeous, unapologetic guns first blockbuster.
- Gameplay - 7/10: Though refreshing when compared to other shooters, Halo 4's gunfights lack variation
- Sound - 8/10: Some great music and wonderful sounding weapons are held down by bad dialogue
- Graphics - 10/10: Gorgeous. Halo 4 pushes the 360 even further
- Replay value - 8/10: Spartan Ops is not much good, but the perfectly rounded multiplayer and co-op are worth weeks of fun
- Overall - 8/10: A refreshingly pure shooter that's great fun to play, Halo 4 is a perfect start to 343i's new saga