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Critical Consensus: Halo 4

343 Industries takes its chance to shine with the Xbox poster boy

As a few reviewers have pointed out, five years is a long time to be away in games. Whilst we've had a couple of very well received placeholders in the intervening years in the shape of ODST and Reach, Halo 4 is the first game starring Master Chief since Modern Warfare revolutionised Call of Duty's output.

It is, as Eurogamer's Simon Parkin points out so succinctly, "time for an old hero to take back old ground." But the Xbox poster boy is in fresh hands, his creators working in pastures new and varied - will 343 Industries bring back the magic which defined a generation of shooters?

For the majority, it seems, the answer is yes. With a Metacritic score of 91 per cent after a well-observed universal embargo, Halo 4 is so far equalling Reach, beating ODST and falling just short of the series' other core entries. Interestingly, it seems to have been both penalised and given praise for its appearance so late in the 360's lifecycle - lauded for squeezing so much from ageing hardware but somewhat criticised for sticking to a perhaps slightly too familiar formula.

It's fitting that, with the return of the helmet that launched a million console sales, Halo 4's storyline injects a strong serum of personal concern into the series' universe-saving flesh and blood. Once again stranded on an alien installation with only Cortana the AI for consistent company, Master Chief is not only looking to prevent the firing of yet another cataclysmic stellar MacGuffin but also to deliver a friend from a very personal fate.

"So you must save Cortana but, in the end, it's Cortana who saves Halo 4."

Simon Parkin, Eurogamer.

For Parkin, awarding Halo 4 an 8 to put Eurogamer at the joint bottom of the score table, Cortana's influence and 'human' element is what makes 4 an interesting prospect, giving enough emotional depth to what can otherwise be a fairly mechanical experience at times.

"Not for the first time, Halo's scriptwriters turn to Cortana for the answer," Parkin writes. "Master Chief's luminous AI companion, the damsel-in-distress within. Her voice has always been the steady hand on Halo's tiller, guiding the player through space and time - a mostly reliable narrator who offers exposition at every turn and, most importantly, brings a human voice into a soundscape otherwise filled with explosion and death.

"Cortana is dying. More accurately, she is descending into rampancy, a form of AI Alzheimer's. Her deterioration - wonderfully articulated by actress Jen Taylor - is the driving force behind a story that is otherwise bulky but weightless, a tower of myth devoid of meaning. So you must save Cortana but, in the end, it's Cortana who saves Halo 4."

For Parkin, this makes a curious counterpoint to a game where a "lack of humanity is hidden in plain sight," because "For a game so focused on saving the universe, the Halo series is curiously devoid of people to save."

The new Mantis mechanised suit offers a new slant on the series' traditional vehicle-heavy sections.

Weapons and foes are present in impressive numbers, however, with old favourites returning alongside new enemies the Prometheans. Parkin is less keen on these new adversaries than others, calling their Elite analogue's "ability to warp and irritating combination," but acknowledging that 343 have developed "the universe conservatively, as if hoping to learn imitation before attempting true extension - at least in the single-player campaign."

Because of this, Parkin feels that "your assigned tasks are over-familiar. Much of the game is spent racing from one location to the next in order to press some crucial button or to destroy some important shield generator. These objectives always come in threes, the repetition artificially extending the length of what is a somewhat short campaign."

Little space is given to multiplayer in Eurogamer's coverage, despite "a tightened focus" and an adoption of some of the persistent RPG features from Activision's CoD which result in the loss of "some of its purity."

Halo's competitive online modes are given more coverage in IGN's glowing 9.8 review by Ryan McCaffery, who sets out his stall with the bold assertion that "No console shooter has a richer, deeper, more revered multiplayer history than Halo."

"Halo 4 might not have its instant-classic (a la Halo 2's Lockout), but this is an impressive collection of outstanding battlegrounds, with a seemingly greater emphasis placed on the large-scale, vehicle-inclusive levels that are Halo's bread-and-butter."

Ryan McCafferey, IGN

For McCafferey, Halo's conceit of "wrapping its multiplayer in an unexpected narrative context," and its "immaculate weapon balancing and gun-for-every-situation combat strategies," mean that the various modes on offer here, played out across a number of maps which evoke the best of the series for IGN's writer, are a high point of the experience, balancing a strong but somewhat short single player.

"Exile leads the vehicle-heavy Big-Team Battle complement," McCaffery writes. "Ragnarok shines as a Mantis-showcasing remake of Halo 3's Valhalla, and Haven is among the series' all-time finest small and symmetrical levels. Oh, and one of the official Forge constructions, Settler, is a smaller, crazier evolution of the franchise's most famous map that I absolutely love: Blood Gulch.

"Halo 4 might not have its instant-classic (a la Halo 2's Lockout), but this is an impressive collection of outstanding battlegrounds, with a seemingly greater emphasis placed on the large-scale, vehicle-inclusive levels that are Halo's bread-and-butter."

Spartan Ops mode, a co-op experience for up to four players which will be episodically drip fed to Gold XBL membership owning players over the coming weeks, also gets the thumbs up from IGN. Here, the reviewer finds the lack of "replayability and score-based incentives of the Firefight mode it replaces," balanced by a more engaging narrative framework and background illuminating cinematic intro.

Interestingly, McCaffery sees Halo 4 as a well baited hook for Microsoft's next generation console, enticing fans into a new trilogy which will see its conclusion on the publisher's next machine.

"Halo 4 is a masterstroke everyone can and should celebrate," McCaffery concludes. "Its two guaranteed sequels instantly make the next-generation Xbox a must-own system, with Halo 5 its most anticipated title. Halo has been rebuilt. It has been redefined. And it has been reinvigorated. The Xbox's original king has returned to his rightful place on the throne."

Halo 4's new Promethean enemies posses new abilities such as short-distance phasing, but their weapons are largely analogous to those of the Covenant or UNSC.

For Polygon's Arthur Gies, settling on 9.5 for Halo 4, it's not so much this bridging forward that's deserving of praise, but the game's acknowledgement of what first pushed the series to the forefront of so many minds. By capturing Combat Evolved's sense of place, of alien exploration and sheer otherworldliness, says Gies, 4 regains a great deal of the original's magic, whilst also making the series fresh anew.

"It possesses a striking sense of scale," Gies writes. "There are new mechanics. It's a technological achievement that most have assumed was outside of the reach of Microsoft's now seven-year-old console. But it's more than that. Halo 4 is a return to the series' roots of discovery, of wonder and, at times, of awe. It helps that it might be the most consistently great game of the series to boot."

Like Parkin, Gies is keen to point out the cleverness of the human angle which is projected onto this story of two almost-humans, welcoming an emotional resonance which the FPS genre often eschews.

"The omnipresent AI companion's impending mortality adds more emotional weight to Halo 4 than previous entries have seen," he adds. "It sounds silly, the joke that Halo is a love story between a cyborg and an AI, but 343i sells that relationship in a surprisingly respectful way. Cortana has always been the more human of the pair - which Halo 4 also explores - and her arc over the course of the game resonates more deeply than you'd think."

Despite this praise for overarching narrative engagement, Gies and some other reviewers have found some problems with the somewhat slapdash and assuming way in which the game disseminates much of its storyline and backstory, finding that there are more than a few gaps in proceedings for those who haven't followed the series' many narrative branches and paths as obsessively as others.

"Death feels less punitive than it has before, which makes for a friendlier, more approachable Halo game for people outside of the shrinking core audience for the series, without dumbing anything down."

Arthur Gies, Polygon

This problem is alleviated somewhat by the hidden videos which can be uncovered at various spots in the game, albeit via an immersion-breaking visit to the Waypoint system which archives so many of the franchise's achievements and factfiles.

Gies also points out that Halo has learned more than a few lessons from Call of Duty for its multiplayer offering, the UNSC battleship-based War Games which focus on speed and a rapid respawning to maintain levels of adrenaline and enthusiasm.

"The point, it seems, is that you're always playing, always doing something" Gies opines. "Death feels less punitive than it has before, which makes for a friendlier, more approachable Halo game for people outside of the shrinking core audience for the series, without dumbing anything down.

"The playing field feels more level as well, thanks to on-screen indicators for power weapons and the addition of ordnance drops in Infinity Slayer. Despite these improvements, it's Dominion mode that stands out, and is easily the best thing to happen to Halo multiplayer since Xbox Live."

Overall, there's little deviance from the opinion that Halo 4 represents a truly spectacular achievement in terms of its technical accomplishment, squeezing what are undoubtedly some of the finest visual moments from the autumnal years of the 360. That 343i has so confidently dealt with what must have been a daunting preposition in being given such a valuable and well-loved ball to carry, bodes very well for the fifth and sixth chapters, but a lack of real experimentation proves perhaps that even the best executed Halo is unlikely to win across any fans which the series hasn't already entranced.

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