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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE ENEMY: CLASSIC AND NEW
The Covenant have had a minor upgrade: Grunts and Jackals get mini-jet packs, and on Heroic every clutched plasma pistol is on full charge, strikes wiping out shields and working as miniature EMPs on vehicles, stopping rides dead in their tracks. it reinstates the lower end of the alien forces as more than just target practice.
Elites are as bastard hard as ever, though a decade of fighting them has finally ground down the fear in facing the hulking warriors.
The odd cloaked assassin or plasma sword wielder aside, Elites have lost some of their menace. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why the towering aliens feel somewhat neutered here, but there's a lack of respect when squaring off against them. Perhaps that even though they're back to the one dimensional thug role, there's a subtraction of threat due to the patsy character they were revealed to be in Halo 3.
And with no Brutes to content with (exorcised at the end of the first trilogy) it's left to the Prometheans to make you sweat on the battlefield. Introduced via a handy plot device, they swiftly become the third point on Halo's patented trio of combatants, only for the campaign to throw you a curveball very quickly and things become two-sided once more - with the odds stacked very badly in your favour.
Knights take up the space vacated by the Brutes, hefty fighters clutching power weapons and favouring short-range teleports over leaps to close the distance. But while the size overwhelms initially, twelve years of battle strategies quickly formulates the quickest execution method - an entire rifle clip at close range enough to knock shields down and destroy.
They still can surprise though - nothing will scare you shitless like looking through a scope, only to watch a Knight perform three quick teleports in a blinking of an eye and materialise right beside you. And when, come late on in the game, a variant shows up wielding the most powerful weapon in the Halo series yet, shootouts become nerve-wracking.
The massive Knights come in multiple flavours, as do the fast-paced Crawlers - four-legged beasts with huge jumping arcs and laser cannons for heads. There's a joke somewhere that the glowing headpieces work brilliant as bulls-eyes, but bursting each Crawler with a single well-aimed shot while whole packs are around makes for a dangerous but satisfying firing range.
Yet it'll be to the skies you'll first aim for, as Watchers soar to the top of the food chain. Capable of spawning laser turrets, resurrecting downed and dismantled comrades, and producing hard light shields to protect ground troops, these hovering nightmares will see you continually slip between grudging respect at their design, and frustrated roar as they zip behind cover and out of your sights.
THE WEAPONS: RETOOLED, REFITTED
Some classics are retooled and tweaked with new designs and audio. Small things, but the differences are commendable, even if they'll cause debate. DMR and Battle Rifle get the biggest makeovers, while their audio makes it a pleasure just to pull the trigger. You can feel the bullet explosion thumping in your chest. We noted a new whine with the Covenant Carbine's reload as the clip spins into place. The excessive bloom on Requiem rubs off onto the Needler - the Elite killer's barbs are almost eye-wateringly bright.
343's new additions are a mixed bag, though their slow introduction over the course of the campaign is a smart move on the part of the studio, and like the reintroduction of armour abilities, their purpose and benefits are grounded in the story, while the arrival of the massive UNSC Infinity starship, and its cargo holds of munitions onto Requiem, solves that potential problem of explaining human weaponry on a Forerunner planet.
Promethean arsenal, while uneven, receive introductions that you can't help but marvel at. On first grab of each, disparate metallic sections float around each other, before finally locking into place to form alien versions of standard weapon types. The Supressor proves even advanced alien races can't create assault rifles any more useful over point-blank range than what the UNSC delivers. We're still grappling with the right use of a charged Boltshot, a mix of Plasma Pistol and Magnum.
The Scattershot's a shotgun with ricocheting bullets (and given the rarity of the UNSC version, quickly becomes a favourite in corridor sections), while the Lightrifle's a weaker mix of Battle Rifle and Carbine. However the Prometheans offer the two most powerful weapons in the game - a rarely found Binary Rifle with a visually-sickening payoff, and the Incineration Cannon, which spews multiple flaming grenades. You'll fear this weapon - and covet it.
The expanded UNSC arsenal delivers. The automatic Saw takes a step towards COD ferocity, and threatens to shake the controller from your hand, the Sticky Detonator is a hand-held mine launcher, while the Railgun has a similar charge time to the Spartan Laser but without the obvious indicators signalling what you're about to unleash. It's also rarely spotted in the campaign, but makes for a fearsome gun in ordnance drops during multiplayer.
There's a glaring oversight in the reintroduction of Halo's own perk system. While the abilities are nicely conceptualised in Halo 4 as Forerunner concoctions - now silver batarang-style add-ons - there's no glowing icon to pinpoint their location when on the battlefield. Aside from some beginning areas that let you swop them in and out, you'll more than likely stumble over them by accident.
That said, 343's decision to form story contrivances to introduce and emphasis each's use in the campaign is commendable, giving each each its due, such as the heat-seeking Promethean Vision, which brings with it one of the highlights of the entire game, with a tense fog-covered forest run as you try and outwit, and spot, enemy patrols.
As with weapons and enemies, they're a cocktail of old and new. Holograms and Active Camouflage sit beside short-range Thrusters (good for dodging and terrifying in the hands of infected come the Flood multiplayer) and the Hard Light Shield. In our first hands-on we cried foul with the latter - but its proved an excellent accessory for moving between cover points during campaign and rebounding grenades in competitive. The Auto-Sentry continues to prove essential in flanking enemies when going solo as Master Chief.
But aside from set-pieces, is fairly easy to forget their existence in the main campaign entirely: their true value is found during multiplayer.
INFINITY: WAR GAMES
Forming a story reason for multiplayer works perfectly within context of Halo. The illusion, a city-sized ship housing the newest generation of Spartans, all learning to be the best of the best, makes it connected to the universe, and for those that care about the fiction, gives you added incentive to rank up in War Games.
All multiplayer excursions add to your XP (though map tinkering on Forge or screen-grabbing on Theatre is barely acknowledged on the XP bar), so everything funnels towards letting you unlock new weapons, armour abilities, specialisations, and customisation options for your Spartan. While the multiplayer is located on a second disc, installing its content on your HD allows you to access it from the first disc, so you've everything in one place.
We've been playing competitive multiplayer over the past week. 343's rotated through game modes on a nightly basis, though with time differences we haven't gotten as much time as we'd have liked testing them.
We've resorted to digging into the team-based Infinity Slayer daily, which continually has a small gathering of press and other parties playing in mainly 4v4 matches, and testing other modes with smaller groups that don't quite match the numbers to get the most enjoyment out of what's on offer. Though that said, 2-on-1 Flood (Infection with new skins for those afflicted) came into its own quickly - a challenge of quick reflexes and life-spans measured in seconds rather than minutes.
As seems traditional, Slayer's voting system has seen us locked in to a trio of the maps available. The white-washed Haven, with its two-tier platforms and focused round a central circular platform has been a mainstay, but the space-station Adrift (with Mantis factory in the middle) has proven equally popular, with tight corridors inside and man-cannons boosting around the exteriors offering a decent range of strategies. Complex was a distant third on the rotation As an early warning - camp out on the roof and you'll have a clear 360 view of most of the map. In the matches we played it became a hotly contested spot.
Incorporation of armour abilities adds obvious tactical edge to matches. As with everything else, you've got to earn Spartan Points through ranking to unlock them, but 343's offering different individual cost prices. It means you do need to get acquainted, and as a result, recognise the potential, of even the low-level purchases.
That's caught even experienced players out as we've used it to test out corridors and draw out attackers, while active camouflage with shotguns (you got to earn a lot of SP to buy them) prove a hellish combination, breeding corner campers to catch the unwary. Heat-seeking Promethean Vision balances that strategy out, and gives you a leading second to start unloading bullets into a foe as they turn a corner towards you.
The weapon fest of Halo 4 is currently dominated by the DMR in matches, a complete shame given the versatility of the rest of the guns. Those power weapons in use are being handled by the higher ranked players, the effect of locking out the better caches until you've earned enough points. Better players will rank up quicker, and therefore dominate the matches. As stated in the full review, it's something immediately apparent in the small groups playing, and hopefully will disperse come the influx of thousands of gamers come launch next week.
And that's us (for now). We'll be reporting on Halo 4 in the months to come as the online community develops and new DLC content arrives.