A lot can go wrong when a new developer takes over an established and much loved franchise; just ask Crystal Dynamics about their run with the Tomb Raider license. Perhaps that's why Halo 4 was scary to a lot of people. For the first time ever, the established and million dollar franchise was leaving its home at Bungie after the developer signed a lucrative multi-platform deal with Activision, leaving an unproven studio at the helm. Now, after years of waiting and rumors, Halo 4 is here, and those fears were clearly unfounded -- Halo 4 feels like a breath of fresh air for one of Microsoft's most important franchises. Somehow 343 Industries has taken what Bungie created and made it feel refreshingly new yet familiar experience that sets the bar for console shooters all over again.
To be fair, it's not entirely accurate to call Halo 4 a reboot, especially when the last title in the series; Halo: Reach was so impressive. It's perhaps a bit more fitting to look at as a bit of a re-imagining. Taking place five years after the events of Halo 3, Halo 4 begins with the returning Master Chief awakening from his cryo-nap aboard the Forward Unto Dawn, when its attacked by the covenant. Before long an ancient evil awakens and Halo 4 begins proper.
What makes Halo 4's story stand out from previous games is just how dedicated 343 was to telling one hell of a story. The campaign paints Master Chief, always the strong-silent type as a man with issues, as a man questioning what he does, and what he stands for, as a man who cares about his AI partner and lifelong confidant Cortana as she begins to reach her expiration point. It's a story that stands well enough on its own, but there are a few parts; mostly those that reference events from previous games that could be explained a bit bitter, especially for those who are just jumping on.
All that's well and good and all, but it wouldn't be a Halo game if Master Chief didn't do what he does best, and luckily, his return won't disappoint. Much of Halo's core mechanics remain intact for the latest installment, so the game is easy pick up and play and still feels remarkably solid in most areas. You'll likely notice early on during your time with Halo 4 that it feels much more visceral than previous games, and everything from the AI to the feeling of the weapons you'll use has been given an overhaul.
New to the Halo series are a series of action oriented events that give take the game from first person shooter to Uncharted like action experience. There's one sequence early on in the game that finds Chief dodging falling debris as he's climbing up an elevator shaft. Now, don't read too much into that -- they're normally short set pieces that which then return to the gameplay it's known for. These events are used sparingly and give the game's biggest moments that much more dramatic effect.
Like every Halo game though, the campaign will only take it so far and its legs will be earned through the strength of its online multiplayer component. Much of the online suite remains the same, so fans will eat it up, but they're sure to question some of the Call of Duty style leveling and loadout features that 343 decided to implement this go-round, they're going to feel strange at first, but they're a welcome change and are sure to grow on you.
Also new this year is the Spartan Ops mode, which replaces Firefight from previous installments. Here, you'll still be taking on waves of enemies, but each level has a definite end point and a definite goal. It's a fun mode to play with friends, but I still miss the ongoing battles of previous games.
A lot could have gone wrong with Halo 4 -- it was from a new developer and comes out near the end of what should be the last year of The Xbox 360 being Microsoft's newest console, but to the surprise of pretty much everyone, Master Chief's return is done in astonishingly good fashion. It's a near perfect mix of emotion and badass, of new and old and of great ideas and established principles. It's not perfect, but it is a must play for shooter fans. Welcome back Chief -- we've missed you.