The parting between a developer and a franchise it created can be a dangerous one. Trepidation often enters the fans, will the new team "get it". While it was pretty much a guarantee that Microsoft would have sooner delayed Halo 4 extensively than allowed it to come out substandard, the fear remained that its soul might be lost in the process. Actually playing the game is enough to allay those fears. Halo 4 shows that in 343 Studios the franchise has found itself left in more than capable hands.
The campaign kicks off with the Master Chief waking up a few years after Halo 3, the ship he's on is quickly swarmed by a splinter group of Covenant aliens and is ultimately pulled down via gravity well into a strange new planet. To make a long story short the plot hinges on two angles, the new threat of another alien menace lead by a Forerunner referred to as "The Didact" and Cortana's onsetting "rampancy" threatening to drive her nuts then kill her. Altogether it isn't an overly complex tale, but the general cinematic direction is good and the decision to have actual dialog during missions makes it feel a bit less divorced from the levels it's interspersed into. The series maintains a solid standard of voice acting and even with the number of recurring characters pared down to just the Master Chief and Cortana the story remains about as good as you'll get from a modern FPS. Nothing mindblowing, but it'd be a lie to call it anything less than solid.
The actual gameplay remains as tightly designed as the series is known for. Halo retains its standard of eschewing the modern FPS design paradigm of the heavily scripted "roller coaster" for more self contained arena scnearios. Slight changes in approach yield vastly different firefights while strategies can still retain consistent results. This design ethos has served the series since its inception and it remains as fun as it was in 2001. Bits of excess and cruft have been dialed back with Covenant enemies primarily favoring classic grunt-jackal-elite formations while the new enemies the game has on offer manage to avoid being mere reskinnings of the enemies that were dropped or reduced in frequency. Careful pains were clearly taken to avoid losing the essence and tenor of the firefights in the series while still tinkering with the style and composition of them and it pays off.
Special note should be taken to highlight the art direction the game exudes. Games as a rule these days are pretty, it's becoing harder and harder for it to work as a metric to make them stand out unless they're an order of magnitude better looking than everything else on the market or they show a noteworthy degree of thought in their art direction. Halo 4 manages it though, with areas that show an odd almost Metroid Primeish look to them standing out and contrasting nicely with the more traditional alien geography in the series. The soundtrack is largely new but fits with the series mood and is overall quite good.
With the new set of enemies the game has on offer come also a new set of weapons, the forerunner weapons generally toe the line as a midpoint between human style weaponry and covenant style, while they don't go so full on alien as to not fit into a fairly standard set of archetypes (assault rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun etc.) their individual quirks are interesting enough to keep them from feeling like stale reskins. Sound and visual design is still well done enough to give them the proper level of kinetics and kick that seperates a solid shooter from a great one.
Multiplayer has never been my strong suit, so I must plead that it comes from a position of mild ignorance that I judge it, but what I played seemed like it should be enough to suit any shooter fan. The RPG elements of character advancement that have oddly become ubiquitous to the genre are present, accounted for, and addictive as ever. Multiplayer remains a haven of customization much as you'd expect. Everything functions as you'd expect so while it won't exactly completely redefine how multiplayer is done it isn't exactly wanting for content or skill of execution.
This isn't to say there's no disappointment to be found in the experience. Campaign co-op felt noticeably more laggy than the rest of the online experience, though not enough to cripple it it was a bit frustrating. On a more serious note, the game's big new multiplayer mode, Spartan Ops, is more of a bunt than a home run. The concept of a continous stream of new single player and co-op content is intensely appealing and while the missions offered aren't bad, they are much more boilerplate than an actual campaign. Go here, shoot this, go back, kill them. It's not bad, but compared to how much obvious potential such an idea has it leaves something to be desired. Instead of being something to anticipate daily, it becomes something you'll be more inclined to turn on every so often, dick around with until you get bored, then forget about until the next time you don't feel like chucking a skull or replaying the campaign again.
Halo 4 may have its minor missteps, but they can't tarnish what remains an excellent entry in a storied franchise. If this is the quality level to be expected from 343, fans have nothing to be worried about in terms of the future of the franchise. Hopefully the inevitable Halo 5 can make good on the missed potential of Spartan Ops.
E-Mail (Required, But Will Not Display)
PREVIEW AND REVIEW WRITE-UP - XBOX 360 REVIEW