Halo 4 review: A blazing return for gaming's greatest space opera

An overwhelming excess of science-fiction sights and sounds is the name of the game for Halo 4. As one of the best-looking blockbusters ever made it is an utterly compelling experience.
With a budget rumoured to rival the hundred-million-dollar receipts of the biggest Hollywood movies, Halo 4 is a near-perfect game that pioneers a new future for console shoot ’em ups.
The story marks the welcome return of seven foot tall super-soldier the Master Chief, but this time a new alien race threatens humanity. Once again, Chief shoulders his assault rifle, checks his ammo and steps in.

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Halo 4 is the first among the main Xbox series (excluding strategy game Halo Wars) to be forged by anyone other than its founder studio Bungie. Worth mentioning, if only to point toward the frightening combination of fanaticism and accomplishment that has emerged from new developers 343 Industries.

Halo 4 is immense: an event comprising an exceptionally lavish and bold ‘Campaign’, and two genre shaking multiplayer components dubbed ‘War Games’ and ‘Spartan Ops’. Your career as a Spartan IV super-soldier is developed by committing time to all three. There’s also upgraded level editor ‘Forge’ for those of you keen on building multiplayer Halo locales for others to play in.

Predecessor Halo: Reach was an origin story, an aside to the saga of the stoic Master Chief and his artificial-intelligence ‘blue fairy’ Cortana. Halo 4 marks their return to centre stage, exploring their curious human versus synthetic relationship against the backdrop of a new threat to mankind. This new menace, an ancient race called the Forerunners, dictates all that’s fresh in Halo 4.

Forerunner ‘beings’ and their technology, elegant and powerful, bring a cunning new enemy class together with a to-die-for range of new weapons, equipment and abilities. The first major win for 343 Industries is that the Forerunner factor complements the fine-honed Halo basics so very well.

Both in story-driven Campaign mode and the additional episodic Spartan Ops, your mettle is tested by Forerunner warriors known as Prometheans. At the top of the tree are Promethean Knights, equal to the Master Chief in terms of strength and smarts. Their synthetic servants include lizard-like ‘Crawlers’ that swarm their prey while suppressing fire, and ‘Watcher’ personal defence systems. For you to progress it’s important to break down the collective Promethean methods before taking aim at individual types. To help you through this, the Chief gets to claim Promethean abilities of his own. 

Halo is famed for its ‘sandbox’ approach to a gun fight, and the Promethean threat makes this free-form battlefield feel even more alive. Familiar Covenant enemies from previous Halo adventures continue to amaze and bemuse as bothersome Grunts scurry before their commanding Elites and monstrous Hunters. You still get this in spades. However Prometheans significantly raise the bar.

Halo 4 Campaign is never less than dazzling. There may be moments where hardened fans debate the pros and cons of certain design decisions, but these are so minor as to be insignificant. Just be sure to challenge yourself with a suitably stiff difficulty setting to savour what’s in store.

The Spartan Ops are the surprise package – 50 additional missions across ten weekly instalments, complete with a short but sweet CG movie. In Spartan Ops, as with War Games versus multiplayer, you lead a personalised Spartan IV warrior to the fray instead of the Master Chief. They are bite-size missions designed for replaying with a team of friends. Production values are not quite on the same level as those within Campaign, but the initial five offered top-notch strategic shooting sprees.

Finally the War Games suite provides the ultimate versus hang-out for Halo fans old and new. The full complement of Human, Covenant and Forerunner tools and weaponry are available to exploit. This means the return of the Battle Rifle absent from Halo: Reach, alongside the introduction of such beasts as the Incinerator Cannon. The Promethean abilities featured in Campaign are carried across too, granting Promethean Vision (see through walls) and Auto Turret (temporary rapid-fire support) to anyone dedicated enough to earn them. All Spartan IVs start out fresh with no frills, but the game cleverly recognises many aspects of performance, granting points to spend on your armoury.

Microsoft would have us believe that Halo has become the Star Wars for a new generation. While we often resent having words put into our mouth, the truth is the last time anything felt so magical was while following the trials of a certain Luke Skywalker.

The earnest drama at the core of Halo 4 could get right under your skin or soar clean over your head. Fans embroiled in the many facets of Halo fiction, which includes many best-selling novels, can look forward to participating in some kind of seventh heaven. Yet even given the latter scenario, there is enough explosive action to keep trigger-happy gamers richly entertained for months, possibly years.

5 out of 5

Halo 4 is released in the UK on Tuesday, November 6.