Halo 4 review: Our new Chief Operating Officer

Halo 4 is adamant about proving its competence and convincing you of its necessity. You don't often see a monolithic franchise putting up a fight for fans, but the departure of Bungie has awakened doubt – enough to incur a fierce response from Halo's new custodians at 343 Industries. And so the developer launches the best kind of protest, which is to wave an impressive, throbbing shooter in your face.

The speed at which that uncertainty evaporates is the real surprise. You enter with a fair fear of Halo being stale; then Master Chief exits the cryogenic casket like a crisp piece of let-us-start-killing-things. Meanwhile, his companion Cortana skirts around fatigue, madness and Microsoft metaphor – the inevitable fate of software that's been in service for much too long. But she too comes out stronger, more endearing and heroic than ever before. Maybe she's just been inserted into one too many alien plinths over the years.%Gallery-169920%

Chief's alarmed awakening in the Forward Unto Dawn, a ship misplaced and beset by invaders, is at once a perfect remembrance of Halo: Combat Evolved's opening and an ideal showcase of 343's quickened approach. The game waits for you to advance, as most games do, but the rousing music and implied degradation of the environment makes a leisurely pace seem ... wrong. Halo 4 is an expert at making you play along with the unfolding spectacle, and makes sure you're never ensnared by it.

Even this early level is littered with powerful weapons, and a harsh restriction of ammo forces you to loot, drop and juggle them whenever you can. There's a faster, harder edge to combat now, and the Covenant sect that boards your ship seems more fanatical and wily than you're used to. The increased difficulty shakes you out of playing Halo on auto-pilot, though it might make it tough on those who aren't familiar with the amorphous encounters or cunning AI.

Once Chief lands on Requiem, a vividly realized planet and vector for a new villain's vengeance, he enters a breathless push from one urgent objective to the next. Halo 4 can be haphazard in filling in the gaps between plot and lore, but top-notch acting and jaw-dropping facial capture pair up for entrancing presentation. 343 is also wise to avoid the easy callbacks, so don't expect to set foot on yet another ring world.

The introduction of challenging new enemies – the armor-clad Prometheans – is a major alteration within Halo's intricate and iterated combat. Whereas the Covenant evoke responses that border on muscle memory at this point, the Prometheans will trip you up for a good while. The airborne Watchers can shield their companions and return your grenades, while the hulking Knights can disorient your aim by teleporting. If they finish you with a brutal hit, it's because your shields were whittled away by a pack of canine-like Crawlers, who wield all sorts of guns in their mouths. No bees, though.

You're a good match for the Prometheans once you learn their stellar weaponry, but they're another symptom of what could be Halo 4's biggest problem. I've never concentrated this hard in "Heroic" level Halo. I'm split between thinking that success under pressure is inherently rewarding, again and again, and suspecting that "again and again" will be how some players describe their deaths. It irks especially when the story calls for climax and triumph, while the game kicks you back and restarts the music's fanfare. Nothing deflates drama quite like the protagonist's ignominious death.

But it's rare to bite into these hard, unheated popcorn kernels, and they can't come close to undermining a proper blockbuster campaign. Exploring the deserted, vibrant realms of Requiem is like walking through the matte paintings of an old sci-fi film, albeit one that costs as much as thirty of those. The immense levels open up when Halo's mammoth vehicles come in to play, and subtly hem you in when it wants more claustrophobic shootouts. Later, an arid canyon envelops a jet-packing Chief in the campaign's best moment – an escort mission that doesn't suck in the slightest. In terms of consistency, scope and player motivation, this is the best Halo campaign yet.

Once Master Chief's mission concludes, the operatives in the Spartan-IV program – Chief is only a Spartan-II, remember – carry on in the game's ambitious co-op mode (offered in addition to the campaign co-op). The nature of Halo's fighting, which is to push back just as hard as you prod it, translates beautifully to a four-party team, but it's the method of delivery that makes the Spartan Ops mode exciting. Every week a new episode will add five missions, exploring the fallout of Halo 4's events and giving direction to your slaughter of the alien hordes. If you find less and less time for games in your life (i.e. you're an adult), this bite-sized commitment is ideal, and well worth being bossed around by the voice of Jennifer Hale. And yes, we should start calling her Jennifer Halo.

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There's a literal connotation to the progression of multiplayer in Halo 4. The introduction of an XP-driven system of gameplay unlockables is risky, and perhaps a call to dutifully invite comparison to other shooters. But this concern also disappears in 343's vicious war against doubt, this time coinciding with the first, kick-ass KERPLUNK of new ordnance being dropped from the sky. Fine-tuning loadouts and unlocking new abilities introduces a mesmerizing array of strategies to the frantic shooting, and changing them on the fly can help you stay fluid with every map's layout.

There's an addictive sense of discovery with each new weapon and ability in your loadouts (which is why it's best not to list them here), and perhaps some educational value in toying with them piece by piece. The slick, easy interface keeps things orderly, and respects the time you'll spend coming up with sets that empower long-distance fighting, close-quarter scrambles and diversionary tactics. The aforementioned ordnance drop, a choice of weapons to summon once you earn a string of kills, is a thrilling reward for playing well, and it meddles with Halo's gameplay as much as any of the unlocks do: it adds rapid-fire choice and complexity to moment-to-moment fighting, but doesn't wobble the pillars of Halo's refined systems. Way down there at the bottom, it's still about dropping shields, exploiting grenades and using melee attacks at the right moments.

Halo 4 is Halo – a surprisingly successful, mandatory step for 343 Industries. But the game strives for more than competence, giving it a forceful march and a decadent show of strength. Our doubt and questioning of Halo's continued existence has, in some small way, helped deliver one of the best games in the series and one of the finest shooters in years. Of course, if we want to use this tactic for the next one we'd better start now.

Halo 5 is going to suck!

This review is based on a final version of Halo 4, played at a review event hosted by Microsoft. Any associated costs were paid for by Joystiq. Additional testing was done using a retail copy of Halo 4, provided by Microsoft.

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