It has been a while, but the Master Chief is back. Halo 4 has finally been released and any concerns about the franchise being handled by a new developer have been dashed in a very big way. The latest game brings a superb ensemble of features to the table and delivers a tour de force of great Halo-style moments fans will truly love. We reviewed the game on the Xbox 360.

When you first fire up Halo 4, you aren't sure what to expect. Do developers 343 Industries have what it takes to continue where the folks from Bungie left off? How can this well worn franchise feel fresh, and what new enemies will assault the Master Chief? The game starts almost pensively, as you are brought back to life after a cryo sleep and find that you and Cortana, your holographic assistant, are alone on a wrecked UNSC spaceship.

Things fire up pretty quickly though, as a weird transmission sets you on a quest that ultimately sees you battling a malevolent new threat to mankind. Halo 4 is a delightfully accomplished game for a first time studio with one of the hardest acts to follow in the industry. Bungie have created such a brilliant body of work that their Halo games would intimidate many charged with taking over the reigns. Thankfully 343 Industries has proved more than up to the task.

Impressively, this time around each element we have come to know and love has been given even more polish. The narrative in particular has been tweaked so the focus is sharper, and the story feels more closely wedded to your actions. One of the criticisms of past games is at times the narrative has verged on being almost ancillary, as the action was always so simple you didn't need to know why you were shooting, you just had to keep that trigger finger primed.

This time around there are coiled narrative threads, with a number of parallel plot lines being explored simultaneously. Most importantly they “mean” something. The story carries weight and you will be drawn in by what is happening, not just be happy to blast wave after wave of irrelevant aliens.

Without spoiling the surprises, the core tale sees you uncovering a totally new alien force, the Prometheans, and this new evil is lead by an ugly and intensely hateful monster called the Didact. You'll get to know and be hunted by him over time, and this menace really adds something Halo has needed for a long time, a truly horrible villain for you to focus your energies on.

On top of this there is plenty of interplay between the Master Chief and Cortana. All is not well in this relationship, as your holographic companion faces her own technological mortality. We won't spoil it by saying too much, but this more introspective and at times deeply personal narrative thread really adds to the tension, as the big picture unfolds and you battle Didact. There is also plenty of chatter with lesser characters and even this is well fleshed out, so that consistent and entertaining personalities add to the picture. Simply put, Halo 4 tells a complex story with style and some great voice acting, and just like in the real world, there are several things happening to several people, all at the same time. This makes the game far more believable.

The narrative is also aided by some superbly slick segues that dovetail action stages and are complemented by first rate facial animation and solid voice-over work.

Halo 4 delivers some massive places to play and the environments are everything Halo fans have come to expect. There are pressure cooker firefights inside close-packed environments, long range sniper stages that let you enjoy a good dose of scoping, and everything in between. The game also lets you loose with a enviable selection of tanks, guns and other destructive hardware, with plenty of new toys and some great favorites of old returning as well.

There are Warthogs, Jeeps and the massive UNSC tank. These are complimented by the Mantis biped walker armed with a salvo of rockets, and the gargantuan Mammoth assault vehicle. This isn't so much a vehicle as a gigantic rolling base stocked to the gills with UNSC soldiers, vehicles and guns. You'll always be happy to see the Mammoth blotting out the horizon, just don't get caught in front of its stupidly large wheels.

The new kids on the block, the Prometheans, also bring a fresh range of weapons to the table and in keeping with Halo tradition, all of them happen to work perfectly in your capable hands. What a coincidence! These weapons assemble themselves from thin air, much like magnetic Lego. This looks pretty cool even if the Promethean weapon categories pretty much ape those available from both the Covenant the UNSC arsenals.

The Prometheans are also an intriguing lot. Apparently, they exist as half real, half digital “data constructs”, which is why they seemingly dematerialize into thin air when blasted. No matter what they are, they are fun to fight, with some great attack patterns and cool innovations, like supporting fliers that hover over heavy foot soldiers, “beaming down” impenetrable shields. The Promethean Knights are also lethal when they employ their instant teleport assaults and materialize right in front of you, ready to do some serious melee damage.

The game is masterfully paced. There are intense battles followed by a lull for you to regain your composure and then all hell breaks loose anew, as a planet blows itself to pieces under your feet. The one phrase that kept running through my mind when playing the game, especially during the first few missions that felt the most traditional, was that this was, “another welcome dose of familiar fun.” While there is plenty of challenge and some riveting set piece battles, you feel like you are still working within that brilliantly balanced formula that epitomizes Halo's gameplay. That said, because the action is so engrossing, you won't mind this familiarity one bit.

Halo 4 will keep you on your toes. The environments have all been built to both look good, but also provide a perfect playpen for the superbly scripted combat set pieces that are so much a part of the Halo experience. There are interdiction sorties, base defenses, pursuits and straight out head-to-head firefights and if you're anything like me, you'll love every minute of it. Ammunition is always just scarce enough to make you ensure that every shot counts as the last alien drops and your health bar is at critical.

What we are looking at is almost the perfect Halo 4 campaign experience. There are a few moments when you aren't sure where you should be heading or what your objective is, but most of the time Cortana chimes in with a timely prompt. The game also sometimes sees you stuck in the scenery if you explore the fringes of an area. This is at its worst in the jungle stages. However, the compensation for this is the sheer beauty of this stage, it is breathtaking.

Halo 4 also provides a co-op mode which we are yet to sample and a multiplayer experience which is looking every bit as brilliant as fans would expect.

Verdict

A solid candidate for game of the year and another “must buy” experience that will keep the Halo name at the top of many wish lists.

Gizmag Rating 9/10

Images provided courtesy of Microsoft