Halo 4The amount of weight on 343 Industries’ shoulders is colossal, to say the least. Halo is the biggest franchise in Microsoft’s arsenal, and with it, huge amounts of pressure mount to get it done right. Bungie leaving Microsoft didn’t mark the end of the Halo franchise, as a franchise this grandiose simply has to live on. To say that Halo 4 is a gamble for all involved is a massive understatement; one big mistake, and it could prove disastrous for Microsoft and the Xbox brand in general. However, the team at 343 Industries definitely knows what makes a Halo game great, and they don’t break the Halo formula for a second, opting to make it a better experience altogether. Make no mistake, 343 Industries knocked Halo 4 out of the park, showing that they know how to craft an amazing Halo title, although they stick too close to the source material for some people.

Humanity was resting on Master Chief’s soldiers when we were destroying the Covenant forces in the previous Halo trilogy, but when we last saw Chief, he was in cryogenic sleep, on his way to a mysterious planet. Back then, it was ambiguous, Bungie’s way of mysteriously letting the franchise go on, and if people wanted to take up the Halo torch, they could. Cut to now, where Cortana awakens Master Chief once Covenant forces start to invade the Forward Unto Dawn. Not long into the story, humanity enters the fray in the form of the Infinity, the pinnacle of human achievement, and what follows is a truly deep and personal story not just for Master Chief, but for Cortana, too. She’s an artificial intelligence, and after seven years or so, they start to lose their minds. Cortana is eight, so the problem is evident: she needs help. What develops is a fantastic, deep, and emotional story that really makes you feel for the man behind the mask, and Cortana, too.

Even though Halo 4‘s story takes fantastic twists and turns, it contains my biggest complaint with the campaign: it’s very presumptuous about how much of the lore is common knowledge, both on the Covenant and the Forerunner side. The player is supposed to understand why you fight mainly Covenant forces throughout a huge chunk of the game, and why the main villain is such a threat that everyone knows who he is except Master Chief.  The secrets lie in hidden terminals and outside novels, a terrible way to force a narrative in a game where lore is key. This doesn’t discredit how the game goes through its paces in a truly fantastic way, filled to the brim with exceptionally memorable environments and set pieces. With the new abilities Chief gets, the game definitely pushes a sense of exploration on you, not unlike Metroid Prime did a decade ago. Abilities like Promethean Vision, which lets you see enemies behind walls, are key to Master Chief’s survival. Make no mistake, the actual story and lore presented in Halo 4 are great, but the gameplay isn’t as varied as expected.

Halo 4‘s coolest abilities find their way into multiplayer, too.

The clearest change to the typical Halo tropes are the Forerunners, or Prometheans. Their origins and general lives were shrouded in mystery, only being present ever so slightly in the original Halo trilogy. They aren’t on the side of humanity or the Covenant; their goals are for their own sinister purposes, which you’ll get a taste of throughout Halo 4. However, fighting the Prometheans isn’t all that invigorating. You have your Elite stand-ins, your Grunt creepy crawlies, and a flying sentry robot that chucks grenades back at you. That is the full extent of the Promethean’s forces. It isn’t as varied as a brand new game by this new studio should be, and based on the E3 2011 demo, where those enemies were supposed to be the tip of the iceberg, there’s a sense of disappointment that you’ll be fighting most of the same forces you fought in Halo 2. Nevertheless, this is up there with Halo 3 as my favorite Halo campaign, and it sets the stage for great potential to come in the next few years.

In terms of aesthetics, Halo 4 is visual gold. I’ve never seen anything look quite this good on the Xbox 360 before, and it proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Environments look completely unique compared to the purples and grays found in earlier Halo titles. Cut scenes literally look like they are pulled from a film, and that’s no hyperbole. I’ve never seen facial animations or gestures resonate as human in this way, even in titles like Mass Effect where that aspect is crucial. 343 Industries has also opted to completely overhaul the sounds of the Halo weaponry. This doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but all of the guns sound meaner and grittier then ever before. There’s just an “oomph” to the assault rifle that hasn’t been there before. Halo is in 343’s hands now, and they’re putting out quite the show.

This is easily the most gorgeous looking game to grace the Xbox 360.

Multiplayer has defined Halo since the second game, and by Halo: Reach had been perfected almost to an art form. 343 has taken that art and molded it into something that’s classically Halo, but with all sorts of minor touches that really better the series. The whole multiplayer mode is set on the human ship Infinity, and what you’re fighting are basically simulations. Canon aside, the game really does shine in this aspect. The ten maps given are each unique in size, scope, and environment, and add a little more variety to the winning formula of Halo multiplayer. You have maps like Exile that mainly lend themselves to vehicular combat with enormous weaponry. Conversely, maps like Haven are built for close quarters combat, with shotguns and assault rifles given their spotlight. Halo 4 doesn’t shy away from the fun, crazy vehicles of the franchise’s past either. Fan favorites like the Banshee and Warthog make a triumphant return, while the addition of the Mantis mech suit spruces up Ragnarok, a remake of Halo 3‘s Valhalla.

Call of Duty has definitely caught 343 Industries’ eye, as the experience progression that’s been around since the first Modern Warfare has now crept into the Halo universe with Halo 4. It’s a way of keeping the Halo multiplayer relevant in a world where modern military shooters are dominating the sales, and it’s also something that makes it clear that 343 isn’t afraid to change the formula up, as this is something that Bungie was clearly against doing when they had the Halo property in their hands. Custom load-outs make their debut in Halo 4, and it fits well within the game, as you’ll want to change up what kinds of play styles you go for as you get deeper into the multiplayer. Depending on how a match is going, you’ll need various load-outs. The DMR and Battle Rifle work great for mid-ranged combat, while you may want to pack a Plasma Pistol to stun vehicles. Halo 4 has a spin on kill streaks too, in the form of orbital weapon drops. You’ll find weapons like shotguns, Needlers, and different grenade types from these drops.

Halo: Reach started the customized Spartan revolution, and Halo 4 pushes that aspect even further. There are so many different types of armor types for torsos, helmets, and even visor colors that you’ll quickly lose track as you level up. Even outside of matchmaking, the lauded Custom Games aspect of Halo 4 definitely continues the trend that the previous games had. Forge also returns, almost untouched by 343 Industries, albeit with a better way of connecting little things together. All of this culminates in what is simply the best multiplayer the Halo franchise has seen, and with the War Games Map Pass coming along as the months roll on, you can expect Halo 4’s multiplayer to stick around. But what shines equally bright is unique to Halo 4, and that is Spartan Ops.

Spartan Ops is a downloadable side campaign in Halo 4 that’s exclusive for Xbox Live Gold subscribers, meaning you’ll have to be online to even play it alone. They all start with a long introduction that doesn’t yet intertwine with the combat. The first series features five chapters that don’t take too long to finish, but what is clear is that this is meant for four people, as there isn’t a lot of scaling that goes on. As the stories get clearer and clearer, Spartan Ops has arguably the most potential of any of Halo 4’s new aspects. Plus, it’s a nice checkpoint to get your friends back into Halo 4 if it’s starting to get a little stale. If it isn’t for you, there are still nine more series’ to give a shot, all for being a part of Microsoft’s Gold service. Despite a similar name, don’t confuse it with Modern Warfare‘s Spec Ops mode. Spartan Ops tells its own story, and will continue to for the next ten weeks, as 343 plans to release an “episode” each week.

Halo 4 is undoubtedly worth your time (and then some); there’s no other way around it. The narrative shown in the campaign is spectacular, actually humanizing not just Master Chief, but Cortana, as well. I thought I was finished with the story after Halo: Reach explained the world before Master Chief, but 343 Industries definitely sucked me back in. With multiplayer being refined to near-perfection, and Spartan Ops bringing cooperative gameplay to a unique plain, the game is spectacular in its own right. Despite some of the enemy variety of the campaign falling a little flat, it’s definitely the hallmark of one of gaming’s biggest franchises. Seeing how 343 will top Halo 4 will be interesting, as it’s guaranteed to be featured on the next generation Xbox. Whatever direction 343 Industries goes, Halo 4 stands tall as one of the most grandiose, fulfilling shooters in years.

Learn more about the Halo 4 map pass here!

Visit the official Halo 4 site here!