Platform: Xbox 360
Developers: 343 Industries
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
Having 343 take the reins for Halo: Anniversary Edition was frankly a brilliant idea - a warm-up test for one of the biggest development challenges ever. For better or worse, Halo is a series that attracts a certain amount of fanaticism, and therefore stepping into the large boots that Bungie left behind when they parted ways from Microsoft has led to an extraordinary amount of scrutiny from the community for 343, and rightly so. But the Halo 1 reboot at least showcased no small amount of technical prowess, and a strong eye for detail. It was an engaging experience, with one or two very nifty aesthetics tricks up its sleeves, and it formed a nice prelude to the main event.
But whenever the shining star for a console platform finds itself under new management, there are going to be worries. And make no mistake about it, Master Chief is the biggest (only?) icon that the Xbox 30 has got.
So it is that we've had deluge after deluge of assets, shots, explanatory videos, and detail dumps. We questioned whether or not 343 had revealed too much; we debated the form and features of the Prometheans; we ummed-and-aaahed at video footage from E3. It looked like Halo, but would it play like Halo. Now, having gotten some hands on time with Halo 4, we can answer that question.
And the answer is...yes.
The singleplayer campaign begins with an incredibly detailed Master Chief woken up by his AI Navi-equivalent, Cortana, who brings him news that the incredibly shiny UNSC vessel Forward Unto Dawn is falling apart and about to be boarded by Covenant troops. A rather inconvenient time to be having a nap, I'm sure you'd agree. No sooner has the Chief been issued some rudimentary controller reminders than it's time to lock and load.
The ship looks fantastic, Master Chief himself is more detailed than he's ever been too. The lighting effects are dazzling, the Covenant forces possessing a more serious aesthetic tone than perhaps before. There's a slight paucity of ammunition that makes for some rather more cautious gameplay than one might be used to in a Halo title, alongside a realisation that dawns swiftly once Master Chief moves into the low-gravity on the ship exterior to fend off hordes of would-be-invaders: Halo 4 is damn hard.
Much of this has to do with the new enemy types: the Prometheans. We engaged in some fantastic combat with three different types of these mechanical marauders: Watchers, Crawlers, and Knights. They're all fast, and they'll all do some serious damage up close, and they all work together. So it was that the Crawlers came first, ranging forth in a manner reminiscent of Transformers' Ravage. These mechanicals beasts were fast , and zippy, but went down with one headshot from a beefed-up, and incredibly satisfying DMR.
But they're protected, guarded by their floating gyrocopter angels, the Watchers, who are utter bastards. Nipping about in the air, never staying in one place too long, they'll pepper you with beam fire as they drop a shield in front of the advancing Crawlers and Knights. If you leave them to their own devices, they'll resurrect enemies you've already put down. In short, bringing the rain and busting those Watchers out of the sky must be the first priority. But it's tricky, because then there are the Knights - essentially stronger and faster Promethean versions of the Covenant's Elites, armed with shotguns and a Mary Poppins handbag full of grenades.
As a horde of community fans poured into a gargantuan, glowing basement in Covent Garden, though, multiplayer was the only thing on anyone's mind. Once again 343 had married up the old with the new - providing an opportunity to bash through a bunch of Spartan Ops missions, and also check out the fast-paced PvP of War Games. First stop: Valhalla. Yes, you read that right, the fan favourite will return in Halo 4 with a couple of minor tweaks, a name change to "Ragnarok", and one deliciously badass addition: the Mantis mech. It's slow, it's lumbering, it inexplicably has no thrusters so you can't ground pound, but I found myself cackling with barely contained glee as I spat minigun fire and ballistic rockets across the battlefield. You can even teabag people with the bipedal bringer of death.
A number of things have been taken from Reach and ramped up, with customisation at the forefront. Multiple custom loadout slots mean that you can tinker with your setup to your heart's content, mixing and matching UNSC, Covenant, and Forerunner weaponry. We loved the fire rate on the Suppressor more than anything else, though the DMR and the returning Battle Rifle also received a significant amount of love. Much of this was down to the sound design, which felt meaty and emphatic, every shot fired contributing to the sense of empowerment so fundamentally important to this franchise in particular.
The combat abilities return from Reach, although the roster has been altered a little. You'll still be able to flit about in a jetpack, or send a decoy hologram rushing out of your sniper camping spot, but there are some new ones such as the ability to deploy a hardlight shield, X-ray vision, or turn yourself into a regeneration point for your fellow Spartans. Additionally, there's an entire new bracket of tactical upgrades that offer you some small passive advantages from being able to wield a primary weapon in your secondary slot, to faster rates of fire, quicker regen rates, and unlimited sprint. The action felt fast and frenetic, and crucially none of the abilities ever really felt particularly unbalanced. Finding the right combination for your style of play, well that'll be down to you. Frankly, we're rather looking forward to nixing the lot and letting the game's core speak for itself in a mode akin to Reach's SWAT.
Spartan Ops, in all honesty, looked a little bare. We played three missions, all of them bitesized and less than ten minutes in length. The maps followed a point-to-point template rather than the arenas of death that Firefight ushered in, and the beginnings of a plot were less interesting than Reach's...which is saying something. Frank O'Connor has suggested that Spartan Ops will be a little like an episodic TV show that you'll play, but on this evidence it's looking a little thin on the ground. It was nice to have some objective-oriented co-op gameplay rather than simply blasting hordes, but we rather hope 343 ramp things up a bit after the first few levels. The opener did provide a arge battlefield and plenty of vehicles, but it then completely failed to toss in enough enemy ordinance to make things interesting. We want Scorpions and Scarabs and whatever massive mechs the Prometheus have stuffed in their pockets, but we'll have to wait and see if we get any of that.
So the long and short of it is that Halo is back. It feels, looks, and sounds like Halo. You get that adrenaline rush, that sense of unparalleled power and joy. The urge to fiddle and customise and tinker with looks and loadouts was immediate. But I think that the most telling thing was that, having not played a Halo game for over a year, it felt as if it had only been yesterday and I was instantly at home, even with the new elements and enemies. That's why, if you're a Halo fan, you should be excited for November 4th. It's going up against Black Ops 2 and Warfighter, and it has so much to prove. But I wouldn't bet against the Chief.