Master Chief is back, and after 5 years (4 years in-game) of being stuck in space he is more than ready to jump back into the FPS arena. Joining him is his faithful A.I. partner Cortana and tons of Halo fans that have been waiting to don the green Spartan armor, grab their UNSC standard assault rifle and kick some major Covenant butt. The return of John 117 sees a new developer at the helm, raising the question: can 343 Industries appease long-time fans of Bungie’s trilogy, and still appeal to newcomers to the series? In the end, Halo 4 does feel like a true Halo game, maybe even too much so.

Halo 4 picks up about 4 years after Halo 3 ended, with Master Chief in cryo-sleep abroad the remains of the “Forward Unto Dawn”. As the game begins, Cortana wakes up the Chief minutes before Covenant forces start attacking the Dawn, that in turn is on a collision course with the Forerunner planet Requiem. To cut a long story short, Master Chief and Cortana make it to the surface of the planet where they encounter an even bigger threat to humanity – The Prometheans, lead by a powerful Forerunner warrior called The Didact. Halo 4’s story is your basic Sci-Fi plot: the hero is the only one who can save humanity from certain alien doom – but a hell of a lot more convoluted. The game throws at you so much information without any real explanation of what’s going on, and expects you to make sense of the whole thing yourself. It would at least be nice to understand Master Chief’s motivation for killing all these aliens, apart from them being in front of his gun.

The story remains as incoherent as in previous Halo games, despite Halo 4’s clear intentions of starting a brand new trilogy from the ground up. It would have been nice to see Master Chief go on a fresh new adventure with a fresh new developer and story, but that is not the case. Even the gameplay stays exactly the same, without any new features or ideas whatsoever (well, maybe apart from a short sequence inside a giant mech). Sure, there’s a new type of enemy and some new weapons, but that’s about it for the new stuff – it’s basically 343 Industries trying to make as little changes as possible to the Halo formula as to not upset the fans. So Halo 4 feels a lot like a Halo clone, which is kind of weird.

That being said, Halo 4 is still a fun FPS to play, especially with a friend (or three) by your side. Two players can play side by side on the same console, or up to four players in online co-op, a feature that can make the single-player campaign a lot more enjoyable in higher difficulty levels. It’s always nice to have someone with you when wandering the endless futuristic corridors and rooms, shooting everything in sight and occasionally speaking with Cortana to figure out what to do next. It’s a little too straightforward at times, but then again, Halo 4 is a pretty straightforward shooter.

The action does get surprisingly more exciting and varied when John 117 finds himself in big open environments. These big set pieces offer more options to get about a level and to take down your enemies – going head first with a powerful alien weapon, perching above with a sniper rifle or even riding in a massive tank. It’s those parts that turn Halo 4’s campaign from being merely serviceable to flat out adrenaline dripping fun.

The multiplayer is exactly that – fun. Unlike the single-player, 343 Industries really invested in the new War Games mode (that’s how the multiplayer is called now) with versatile maps and modes. Each of the 10 standard maps has a unique feel and design: some are big open spaces where all-out mayhem can ensue; some are filled with dark corridors fit for close quarters combat and some are built for vertical battles, with multiple levels. Of course, you can always create your own maps using the powerful and user-friendly level editor Forge, or just download new maps other people have worked on. The competitive multiplayer modes stayed pretty much the same since Halo: Reach, with the addition of a few new ones like Regicide, a free-for-all mode where the leading player becomes the target, and Domination, where teams fight over three bases and the bonuses they provide. Halo 4’s multiplayer is probably the best one in the series, and that says a lot.

Halo 4 also introduces loadouts to the competitive multiplayer, lining up with most modern shooters out there. Players can customize their Spartan as they see fit, in both appearance and gear, from the color of the Spartan armor to its special ability. There are also two new slots for new, perk-like attributes that can grant a certain edge during battles. As you rank up, more items, weapons and slots become available (you know the drill), so there’s always something to strive to. If you’re not that into customization, there are pre-determined loadouts for you to choose from and jump straight into the fray. All in all, 343 Industries manage to keep the familiar Halo multiplayer experience, improve on it and bring its mechanics up to speed with modern multiplayer standards.

If you don’t feel like exercising your competitive muscles, and have already breezed through the campaign, Spartan Ops is a new co-op mode you might consider trying. I say “might” because it isn’t very good. Oh, it has plenty of action and you can sure score some big XP awards for your custom Spartan, but that’s about it. Spartan Ops comes in an episodic format, and follows a group of Spartan IV’s on their mission on Requiem. The story, which picks up some time after the main campaign, isn’t all that interesting, and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the actual gameplay. It is well presented with impressive cut-scenes and voice acting, but it is hard to ignore the disconnection between what is seen in the cut-scenes and what is actually happening when you play. Then again, each episode is available as free DLC, and offers a nice, if a bit short, gameplay experience to share with up to three friends, so there’s no real reason why you shouldn’t try at least a few of them.

There’s no denying Halo 4 looks great. The game’s graphics are probably among the best of 2012, at least technically, from the clean architecture of the Forerunner’s huge buildings to the lush jungles of Requiem’s surface. Master Chief, Cortana and all the supporting characters look and sound really well, as do all the weapons and vehicles. The only real problem (if you can call it that) lies with the game’s visual style: it’s just too clean. Everything feels a little plasticky and fake, almost like every character or vehicle came out of a toy store. It’s not something most people would mind, or maybe even notice, but it can sometimes ruin the immersion, especially during cut-scenes.

Halo 4 looks, plays and feels like a Halo game, from beginning to end. The multiplayer is by far the game’s strong suit, with diverse and exhilarating competitive modes, and the lukewarm (but free) Spartan Ops missions. Halo 4 could have been one of the best games of 2012 if not for a boring campaign that lacks anything original and truly innovative. Halo fans might be pleased to hear that their beloved franchise is safe in the hands of 343 Industries, and that Halo 4 is pretty much the same as Halo 3 or Reach, but those expecting the series to evolve will be sorely disappointed.

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