This isn’t a heavily scripted, CoD-style shooter, but one where the gameplay emerges from the complex interactions between your actions, those of your AI and enemies and the weapons or vehicles you employ. It just flows. The big set-pieces are as huge and brilliant as you could hope for, but those sections of gameplay that string them together are just as entertaining. Forget any worries you might have had that 343 Industries wasn’t up to the job. Halo 4 is consistently exciting.
We can also talk about how the game looks. The short verdict is: incredible. It has Halo’s typically impressive design and production values, but with more detail, better lighting and more superb atmospheric effects than ever before. It has the stunning widescreen scenery of Halo: Reach but also the dazzling alien architecture of Halo 2 and 3, plus a whole new flavour from the Forerunner team. And not since Metroid Prime have we played a game that creates such immersive and believable alien worlds, with weird jungles, strange buildings and eerie, smoke-filled canyons. When the big set-pieces happen or the world is collapsing around your ears, the sheer spectacle is simply breath-taking. Being picky we might complain that the vegetation is a little lifeless, but this does for the Xbox 360 what Uncharted 3 did for the PS3: it shows a console at the top of its game.
And while we’re at it, we should also mention the sound. Neil Davidge’s score is phenomenally good, sounding all the right notes of bomb blast, awe and creepy quiet as required. The effects work – as much a part of the universe as the look – is top notch, and it all combines with the visuals brilliantly. This is how a blockbuster game should look and sound.
In short, the single-player campaign is astonishingly good. To be honest, we came cynical and ready to be underwhelmed, but have instead been knocked out and taken along for one heck of a ride. If you hate Halo then you’ll still hate Halo 4, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine anyone coming away thinking that this is anything less than an exceptional action game.
Multiplayer has always been a huge part of the Halo experience, and 343 Industries hasn’t messed too much with the successful formula. The competitive portion, War Games, delivers a solid mix of mostly team-based modes, and while none show a huge amount of imagination, a combination of great weapons, excellent maps and careful balancing ensures that Halo 4 is a worthy successor to Halo 3 and Halo: Reach. Persistent characters, experience and weapon unlocks do a little to change the nature of the game – and it’s a challenge as a newbie to scavenge new weapons from the battlefield – but they don’t spoil it. This is still Halo; fast, frantic and more focused on mayhem than on battlefield tactics or realism. Whether you’re playing on a tight, deathmatch-ready map or a more expansive map with Warthogs, Wraiths and Phantoms, It’s every bit as addictive as it has ever been.
You could accuse War Games of playing it slightly safe, but the co-op Spartan Ops mode gives us a whole new way to play Halo. A series of 10 episodic side-missions, complete with cut-scenes and an over-arching storyline, it’s designed to expand the Halo 4 narrative over the coming months. The first episode, with five chapters, lacks the verve and epic feel of the main campaign, but there’s potential for that to build in the remaining episodes and some interesting foundations are laid in place. We just wish it hadn’t come at the expense of Reach’s enjoyable, Horde-style Firefight mode.
By any yardstick, this is a fantastic return for the Master Chief, and proof that the spirit of Halo didn’t die when Bungie left the building. Halo 4 is a visually dazzling, consistently thrilling sci-fi shooter, and while it doesn’t do anything at all revolutionary, it adds enough new ideas and material to lay down sturdy foundations for the series’ future. Most of all, it raises an enticing proposition: if 343 can do something this good on current hardware, what an Earth can it do with a next-generation Xbox?