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Halo 4

Halo 4: Welcome Back, John.

"We're nervous and scared." - 343 Industries Frank O'Connor.

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There's precious little humour to the Franchise Development Director's comments. Despite his history with Microsoft's franchise, he, his studio and even fans are entering uncharted waters: a brand new core Halo title not developed by series creator Bungie.

But whatever fretting and worry the last few years brought, there's no longer any time for doubt, as, he informs the packed room of journalists, Halo 4 is finished.

While he's overviewing this first hands-on with the game's campaign in London, back home the title - also the first time Master Chief's starred in a Halo title for five years - is hitting certification. "Bricking it" might be a more apt term.

Certification doesn't mean 343's closing the book on Halo 4's development. Post-launch support and a healthy DLC package including the episodic Spartan Ops will keep them busy trying to tackle Call of Duty for Xbox Live prominence. But today does mark an important milestone.

Not because the first stage of the multi-year project is finishing (though we're certain there's a few sore heads the morning after the expected completion celebration kick off) but, one studio visit trip by select press aside, this is the first time 343's lets the product of their last few years of hard graft into the media wild.

REINTRODUCING THE SUPERHUMAN

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What we play today is three missions. The meat of the hands-on is the first and third of the Master Chief campaign. Then we're onto a single one from the multiplayer Spartan Ops that, once all the downloadable episodes are released, form a complimentary secondary campaign to the first. We finish with a couple of competitive deathmatches. Everything points to one conclusion: this is Halo.

If you're a fan (and even if you hate it with a passion) you'll know that's not such an obvious admission. The interplay between the series's superhuman (or floaty) leaps, not-quite-whiplash turns, recharging shields and weapon balancing marks it distinct from the twitch-reliant battlefield brethren. 343 can put as much of their own spin on Halo's sci-fi plot, but blow the mechanics and fan anticipation will turn into cries for a lynching.

But 343 has obviously spent a long time (or maybe just a simple Copy&Paste job, who knows?) getting the control element just right. They've played it safe. Actually, more is the worry whether that slow ease into the stirrups of the franchise beast is too soft on the reins than too hard.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

MISSION ONE: DAWN

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The Forward Unto Dawn, left drifting in deep space after the events of Halo 3.

This is a reintroduction of sorts. While the story leads directly on from the ending of Halo 3, its plot ties are cut loose from the previous trilogy and the two other entries, ODST and Reach.

So, intentionally, the game's opening level echoes the original Halo: a Spartan super-soldier awakening from cryosleep as alien Covenant board his vessel.

The slight difference is that the Forward Unto Dawn is a tomb - a half-destroyed derelict due to the events of Halo 3 that's left its sole occupant drifting in deep space for four years. But as before, Master Chief's got to fight his way through the ship's hold to repel the invaders.

343 has played it safe, but that doesn't mean they've left Halo untouched in the transition. Run is now standard with a click in of the left-stick, the HUD's visually tweaked again with minor blacked-out areas and reshaped and recurved elements to mimic the interior of a Spartan's helmet. Covenant chatter is now even more harsh, guttural than before. Dual-wielding is still out, QTEs are in.

The last is prevalent through this first mission, but only factors into normal gameplay in opening blast doors (hammering X to yank them apart). Otherwise they're restricted to cinematic moments - and even then climbing a gradually-disintegrating lift shaft requires direct control with the left stick. How much more of this style is in the campaign entire though, is something we'll have to wait and see.

For this mission at least, we charge through the ship's interiors with hardly a glance at the objective marker or map, taking left and rights with an assured familiarity. An assurance so acute that the enticing question bubbles up - how closely is the layout of the Forward Unto Dawn's corridors mirroring the Pillar of Autumn's? Is this more muscle memory than quick wits? We make a note to find out.

Halo 4
Cortana's back, but her A.I degradation will play a big part in the story. Crazy A.I? Where have we heard that before?
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The first mission climaxes in a low-grav firefight on the ship's hull [left].

Combat with the Covenant is stimulatingly similar to before, and we're soon ducking behind bulk heads and swopping out Assault Rifles for Combines as we down Elites, Grunts and Jackals.

A trip out onto the ship's exterior in low-grav to activate cruiser defences expands the size of the killing field, muffles our audio receptors and makes us bounce like Armstrong across the hull. It also allows us a better view of the entity that's swallowing the heavens around us: a planet bigger than god.

Weapons, the lack of them that is, becomes an issue. Dropped arsenal floats alongside bodies in the vacuum. Nice effect, but makes it harder than it needs to locate and stockpile bullets to survive.

The mission ends with Chief, Covenant ships and the UNSC wreck being sucked into the massive planet as a blinding white light opens from its middle and draws everything into it.

The exact "who" and "what" is left unanswered as we skip cutscene and following mission, and we're into new territory. Territory that's still got hallmarks of the establishment: three-way battlefront, alien technology and environment, vehicles and Perks.

INTERLUDE ONE: PERKS

The collectable upgrades are back, though 343's ejected the circular icons for more subtle (and bloody hard to spot amidst the carnage of the frontline) V-shaped Forerunner attachment.

We dabble with two: a hard-light shield whose benefits remain completely mystifying, and the soon-to-be-essential auto-sentry. The shield punts the camera to third-person, as MC holds out a glowing shard of body-height mobile cover. But with limited charge and no offensive capability, it's selling itself as a support function for cooperative campaigns.

Maybe it's coming off Borderlands 2, but the floating auto-sentry proves an invaluable ally, drawing nearby targets' attention and allowing us to flank speedily. It remains a constant during our objective to shut down Forerunner arrays to enable us to contact another UNSC frigate, the Infinity, before it and its crew are pulled into the planet as well. (Spoiler: it is, and at least offers a story excuse for returning UNSC weaponry).

MISSION THREE: FORERUNNER

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The Forerunner planet is beautifully designed - colour schemes and jagged mountains give it an oppressive, violent feel.

Regaining contact with the Infinity is the focus of a multi-part task across the face of the planet, using a central control room to open warp gates to fast-travel to the arrays dotted across the horizon, racing the Covenant to each.

Again, there's echoes of the first Halo (notably its second level), as you head to different areas of the map and fight amidst alien technology and environments.

The planet, as glimpsed in the secret Halo 3 ending and guessed rightly by fandom for half a decade now, is Forerunner in design. Whatever secrets it holds or its final purpose, 343 isn't saying. But the studio does admit its managed to wrangle some diversity out of the ancient alien race's usually formulaic architectural structures.

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Forerunner tech lead to some boring level designs in previous Halos. Not so here.

It's done so by way of the planet's (un)natural formations. As much as Forerunner buildings laid hidden amid the lush surroundings on the original Halo rings, so to do walkways, control rooms, storage bays burst out of the natural environment here - it's hard to tell whether it's by design or the world's slowly swallowing them up. Either way it means much-needed variation - this mission taking us through dark purple valleys and mountain ranges, glowing cracks ripping the landscape so violently that it gives the illusion of some great angry volcano ready to erupt.

It looks like nothing else on earth, and as such 343's nailed that beautiful yet haunting alien visage that's been absent since the 2001 original. Yet where Halo felt uncomfortably still and sterile, this planet feels alive and volatile. For those that follow the fiction religiously, Halo 4 may parallel Mass Effect 3 in giving us a closer look at a fully-operational Forerunner facility.

INTERLUDE TWO: WEAPONS

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Another plus in 343's favour is by way of weaponry. We get to grips with a handful of Forerunner guns, and the game takes its time on introducing each as you grab them for the first time. They're beautifully crafted, separate non-descript sections floating into place before snapping together into a killing machine. On firing they give impressive kicks - energy-fuelled ammo that doesn't feel weak compared to UNSC hardware.

The Forerunner version of the shotgun, the Boltshot, is a particular favourite, as ammo shards bounce off walls with Tron-esque right-angled light trails. At the opposite end is an energy grenade that signals much too early its imminent dispersal with a "get-the-hell-out-of-here" red sphere. We're still working out the strategy for that one.

Again, ammo is scarce, forcing you to continually scavenge for replacements (there's even an on-screen text nudge). Likely 343 want to peel players away from sticking to preferred load-outs and play with new toys.

THE THIRD PLAYER

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Prometheans make up the second threat on Halo 4's battlefield. Or as you'll soon call them - "complete bastards". They fight in coordinated groups, differing from the rush attacks of the Flood.

As it is, we're still working out the best way to take out new foes. Canine-like Crawlers would get mouthful of shotgun shells if they didn't dodge so swiftly, while the Promethean Knights have a punch to rival hammer-swinging Brutes, and an annoying tendency to teleport to higher ground.

Watchers are the worst: floating sentries that can deploy hard-light shields to cover Knights, and repair abilities to resurrect downed allies, these soaring drones small size and ability to absorb most barrages cause them to be critical in deciding a battle's outcome.

Together in combat they're a hardier, more intelligent bunch than the Flood, but we say that with a decade's worth of experience in bursting the virus with borrowed shoes, and only an hour's worth of initial engagements with their replacements.

It's a taught series of battles that fulfils our needs. This is definitely Halo.

MULTIPLAYER

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The Spartan Ops mission felt somewhat barren with the location, though it meant plenty of space to run through Covenant lines,
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The dust bowl [left] was centre for Spartan/Covenant clashes as the mission reached its climax.

But a patchy Spartan Ops mission, offering a sandbox ruckus that plays more Firefight than story-driven objective, curtails the buzz somewhat.

The massive sand-coloured valley that's the stage's playground lacks character, and the mass amount of Covenant vehicles handily dropped in to track from one end of the map to the other gives this the feel of a design testing ground than a proper Halo level.

It seems a poor choice, but we recall the strength of the E3 build, and the silent suggestion is this particular section has been picked specifically to let us blow off some steam after a tense bout of SP. A quick foray into competitive multiplayer, now umbrellaed under the title Wargames, is so brief that we're holding back on a more detailed analysis other than "plays like Halo."

LAST STAND

Every aspect of Halo 4 will be under studious review by critics and fans alike. The campaign needs to deliver the fiction, the multiplayer the experience that has the (armoured) legs to last and match COD for longevity.

And even this close to release - just over four weeks away - we still feel we know precious little about Halo 4. Given this is the biggest game in what could be Xbox 360's last big Christmas push, there's a lot of important questions still left answered. 343 can't just deliver a good Halo game. They have to resurrect a legend.

The original Halo begat an entire FPS generation on the first Xbox. But Master Chief and Halo return as dusk settles on this era. This successor needs to be strong enough, great enough, to carry on until this generation's close. Soon enough we'll find out if the game, and 343, have the strength to shoulder that burden.

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