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REVIEW

HALO 4

Frankie: relax.


The franchise director's openly admitted to being worried over Halo 4's reception ("we're nervous and scared", O'Connor stated only four weeks ago at a hands-on session). After playing through the campaign, lost days to the competitive multiplayer of War Games, conquered the first episode of Spartan Ops and dabbled in both Forge and Theater modes, it's a relief to confirm that Halo's new guardians 343 have nailed what makes the series great.

In fact the biggest commendation we can give to Halo 4 is a level of disappointment. Disappointment as to the extent the studio's played it safe for its inaugural title. 343's delivered a good - great - Halo entry. Quibbles over certain additions aside, which we'll get to, many of the moments of brilliance we see are the rare times 343 firmly put their stamp on the franchise. Flickers of great gameplay elements and surprising emotional resonance are such that we're left genuinely eager to see the team do their take on Halo.

Halo 4

Halo 4 feels, plays, like a bridging gap between the five game-strong past and what's to come. It's a robust package, matching the multifaceted Halo: Reach for options. Within the Master Chief campaign is a eight level-strong story that, while it doesn't feel as epic in scope, ends far stronger than others before it, only outdone by Reach's and the original game's finales.

It's a solid, fast-paced science fiction adventure that, although it can't help submerge itself briefly in overwhelming Forerunner lore, is a more personal take on the series - and better for it.

There's a new mystery and foe, another powerful, earth-ending artefact and the extended chase to stop it - but there's little fat here. It's hard to beat a last-ditch effort to save earth, or witness a world ending, but 343 resolves Halo 3's cliffhanger, introduces its new pieces and manages a conclusive ending. Even if this is the first entry in a trilogy, you don't feel shortchanged. There's no Halo 2 "Finish the Fight" cliffhanger here.

What Halo 4 also manages to recapture is that wonder that came in exploring the alien environments in the original Halo. Requiem lacks the cold sterility of that first ring world, but it shares the same emotional hooks in its unearthly vistas - serene, terrifying and truly alien in its nature.

It's an effect captured through two elements. First is the redesigned HUD, now more than ever offering the illusion of peering out from, and being insulated in, a Spartan's visor and helmet. Whether taking a space walk or wading through exotic forests, you're happily aware of the thick armour between you and the planet's harsh locales.

Halo 4

Second is the design of the environments. Varied throughout, and proving there's still more power to drag out of the Xbox 360's engine, they're beautiful and emphasis the strangeness of the planet. Lighting bloom is used heavily. Initially uncomfortable and almost overcooked, until you realise that's the point, 343 hammering home the point that you're on an alien world.

There's thankful diversity to the locations, given Forerunner architecture has historically erred on the side of bland due to its formulaic structures. Alien facility runs are kept to a minimum, while exterior structures rip out of the natural environment to give a almost cancerous aspect to the pristine and cold technology. Even with the usual designs 343 manage unique takes: a mountain-side view early on will give you goosebumps.

It's good to see a studio not scrimping on story or main campaign in lieu of a robust multiplayer. And 4's MP is satisfying.

Infinity, the multiplayer half of Halo 4 and under which comes competitive modes and cooperative, story-driven missions, isn't as intrinsically linked to Master Chief's campaign as first thought.

Halo 4

That looser affiliation disembowels the importance of Spartan Ops, the game's 'second' campaign - the first five-chaptered episode of which (follow-ups will be delivered digitally as DLC to form a complete campaign) is on the disc. It's more an excuse to setup smaller chunks of gameplay and larger waves of enemies for cooperative runs - that the first few levels are remixed takes on the M.C campaign only underscores that point. A stronger, unique collection of scenarios would have went a long way in making Spartan Ops seem an essential download come its weekly roll-out. As it stands its one of Halo 4's weakest elements.

Competitive multiplayer pulls in elements that you'd expect from Halo's peers, but presents them in a way that's completely fitting to the franchise.

War Games links into the universe's fiction by way of competing Spartan teams competing on the battlefield. As such you've got to earn your stripes - from weapon defaults, armour supports and customisation, to load-outs - all need to be bought through Spartan Points earned by ranking up.

It's definitely not as diverse as other FPS titles, but is an improvement over Reach, and combining in the new armour abilities and weapons gives you a small pool of offensive options that, starting at least, seem evenly matched for strengths and weaknesses.

One issue we've seen developing in the days we've been playing is the quickly widening gap between pros and newcomers - win matches and XP rolls in, which gives you quicker access to the meatier choices on the load out menus.

Halo 4

Newcomers are nothing more than mincemeat, as default weapon load outs are heavily outmatched by tailored versions with wider arsenal choices.

It may be an issue with the small number of players pre-launch - around 30 or so currently, but it's something we're going to be watching closely when everything goes live to the public, and do a more extensive follow up piece on.

Even with that issue, matches have been cracking good fun, and the gameplay mechanics mean wins aren't so clear cut.

Competitive multiplayer aside, Halo's one of the increasingly FPS rarities in which the campaign is repeatedly played. We expect to rotate between solo and cooperative runs, and edge our way up to Legendary difficulties. So how does the campaign stack?

Bookended by two phenomenal, if short, cut-scenes (with production values that could fund Hollywood animations) the campaign missions are paced in odd fashion. A three-part structure of two parts: the opening act feeling like a separate story, a condensed version of a predecessor Halo replete with a vehicle escape finale. It's a symbolic cutting of ties between Bungie and 343 as the new studio gears up its own take from then on in.

Halo 4

Yet, there's a sense of safety here still. Of sticking to the formula. Switches come in pairs or threes, there's a fight alongside marines, space station runs and multiple vehicle sequences. Between and throughout each there's waves of enemies to encounter, weapons and strategies to adopt and chuck on the fly.

But it's still a winning formula. And the importance of Halo's scaling difficulties still deliver different experiences. Stick to normal and you'll feel superhuman. Go Heroic and each combat scenario becomes a mini-epic of survival. New inclusions, such as the Mantis mech suit (getting a near-level long set-piece), the increased arsenal and new enemy types, slot smoothly into place. Smaller adjustments and additions flavour rather than dilute.

Does it best what's gone before? For our money, no. Yet this isn't a poor imitation, but a set of levels that'd happily sit in the mid to top tier of Halo's entire mission rack. That Heroic feels easier than before can come down to experience. We've been coming to the same party for over a decade, yet in no way is that depressing.

There's expectation that Halo games are near flawless. As such, there's much more scrutiny, especially from those of us experienced in the series. 343 haven't delivered the unblemished sequel. But the issues with it are small. There's argument to be made about the pacing within some levels. We noticed the odd Elite stuck in running animation while hiding behind a rock. The first act escape sequence is frustrating, our Ghost occasionally bouncing off unseen edges and flipping us.

Halo 4

The biggest issue is in the game's climax, which spirals close to Halo 2's anticlimactic brawl. Halo 4's is more satisfying, but proves that a one-on-one boss fight is still to be done right in Halo.

The game returns to the QTE event, which debuted right at game's start and thankfully never re-appeared. Until this end conflict. The build up to then had been simply superb, Neil Davidge's consistently brilliant score building into something both meaningful and epic and making mechanic tropes feel fresh.

Then a disappointing end sequence that's more Call of Duty in execution causes the climax to falter.

We down our antagonist not with a satisfying burst of gunfire, but with contextual button presses. The nature of the demise also feels false to the main villain 343's spent the game building up - a near omnipotent creature Master Chief repeatedly fails to defeat until then. It's like watching the Emperor in Return of the Jedi slip on a banana peel and fall to his death. It's the only time as well that you feel the threads of the trilogy's future tugging in expectation of a proper ending at a later point.

It's an annoyance, but only because 343's done an excellent job in fleshing out the characters, and the worlds they inhabit. The inter-mission cut scenes are consistently high standard, amazingly acted,
brilliantly scripted. Believable. There's one in particular alone could likely gave the game its 16 PEGI rating - so surprising in its horrific violence.

In all, this is a solid Halo entry - as good as Bungie's entries, even better than some. 343's proved worthy stewards of the franchise, and its the biggest commendation we can give that we're eager to see them developing their own spin on the Halo universe, rather than the safe bet they've made here.

Frankie, relax. You and the team have done good.

Want more? We've still a lot more to talk about with Halo 4. Over the page you'll find the game's score. But if you're seeking more detail on the title, you'll also find more in-depth discussion about the game's specifics, looking at the enemies, weapons, armour abilities and multiplayer thoughts.

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