Is Halo 4 Microsoft's biggest-budget game yet? Yup. Does it show? Oh yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Every inch of the company's latest instalment oozes that rumoured $100-million budget, and that's good news for both gamers and Microsoft, which considers Halo to be a multi-billion-dollar entertainment brand. Simply put for everyone involved, Halo 4 – featuring the return of the Master Chief – is one of the best games of the year, at least for fans of first-person shooters.
But let's not get into a fan-boy-like gush fest here. Let's instead calmly and scientifically dissect the game into its parts to discern why it is, in fact, so good.
The most noticeable thing about Halo 4 are its visuals. While top-tier, big-budget blockbuster releases are expected to have fantastic graphics, developer 343 Industries – taking over for series originator Bungie – seems to have goosed a little more horsepower out of the Xbox 360.
The result is that jungles prowled by the Master Chief as he battles the Prometheans – a new, highly advanced alien race – look a little more lush than in any previous Xbox game. Similarly, the glowing light bridges aboard space stations are a little more brilliant that what we've seen before, with a little more J.J. Abrams-style lens flares thrown in for good measure. The space vistas viewable from aboard those stations, meanwhile, are stunning. Halo 4 is a gorgeous game that at times transported me, or at least my imagination, to those alien worlds.
343 Industries has also tweaked the sound design. The nifty Promethean lasers and pistols, which telekinetically configure themselves in your hand when picked up, sound suitably spacey, yet the Master Chief's own standard issue battle rifle sounds a little more like an earthly machine gun when firing than in previous instalments.
It's small details like this that subtly add to the story, which revolves around humanity ascending to its place among the forces of the galaxy. The game offers a balanced blend of realistic and futuristic sounds, slanted ever so slightly toward the alien. The sounds serve as a reminder that humanity is still a stranger to these parts.
The voice acting is similarly superb and an integral part of the story, which is considerably more personal this time around. During the game's prologue, we learn something of the origins of the Master Chief – including, gasp, his first name! – and his artificial intelligence assistant, Cortana. The main plot sees the Chief awaken from the cryogenic sleep he entered into at the end of Halo 3 , only to find himself embroiled in a battle with the super-powerful alien Didact. Our hero must stop the villain from acquiring a mega-weapon that can annihilate the Earth.
The more interesting sub-plot, however, features the degradation of Cortana. As an AI, she's only supposed to last a few years before disintegrating into so many bits. The Chief, however, has developed feelings for his companion over the course of several games, an understandable situation given how many times she has saved him. Not only does he want to stop the destruction of the world, he also wants to prevent Cortana from entering into that eternal electronic slumber.
The relationship is touching, helped by solid writing and that strong voice acting. We come to believe that the Chief, himself a scientific super-soldier creation, might actually love a virtual being. Cortana subtly points out the link between the two about halfway through the game in a missive to the Chief: "Before this is all over, promise me you'll figure out which one of us is the machine."
That said, no one but the most hard-core of Halo fans should attempt this game without first brushing up on the back story, because of the bewildering amount of lore thrown around. From Prometheans, Forerunners, Didact, Librarian and Composer to Covenant, Flood, Reclaimer and Requiem, it's awfully hard to keep track of the fiction that has developed and accumulated since the first Halo game in 2001.
To help, Microsoft has put together Waypoint, a separately downloadable hub for the Xbox 360 that features all things Halo. You don't need the game to take it in, as it features everything from fan-made photo galleries from the series to video tutorials and the latest information. Fortunately, there's a whole section that tells the series' story so far in short videos. I've played all the Halo games, but I kicked myself for not discovering this before starting Halo 4 .
So what about the action? The game itself, after all, is what really matters.
Here too, 343 Industries has done a great job. While many first-person shooters fall into formulaic traps – oh look, here's the sniper mission, and here's the part where I sit on a vehicle and gun away – Halo 4 does a nice job of weaving these stand-bys into the story. As such, it doesn't feel like there's a specific sniper section, only parts where using a sniper rifle makes more sense than a regular gun.
Similarly, in one memorable sequence, the Chief rides on top of a giant troop carrier. While you can stay on the vehicle and blast away at approaching enemies with its rocket launchers, you also have the option of jumping off and getting up close and personal, or even hopping into smaller vehicles lying around.
The biggest problem with first-person shooters is that they often feel linear, where there's only way to get through them. Halo 4 , however, often provides open arenas where choices like this are plentiful. You therefore have the option to play how you want, which powerfully personalizes the experience.
Multiplayer has also been a big draw for the past few Halo games. Indeed, first-person shooter fans have often been divided into two camps when it comes to online multiplayer – chances are good you were either a Halo loyalist or a Call of Duty fan. I must confess to always being partial to Call of Duty, which has generally been easier to get into. Halo, meanwhile, seemed a little more geared toward hard-core fans and therefore less accessible.
That's different in Halo 4 . The interface is clearer and simpler to use and the progression system is more straightforward: gain experience, spend points to unlock new gear. The maps – 10 at launch – also appear to be bigger and more smartly designed. Many are studded with nooks and crannies that, when used properly, can balance the tables for inexperienced players. With so many routes to sneak up on opponents, it's easier – or at least possible – to now take out even the super hard-core experts.
If there's one area that's still inaccessible to newbies, it's the Forge, or Halo's multiplayer map creation tool. It's deep for players who want to spend time making and sharing their own levels, but I still found it a little bewildering and didn't end up spending much time with it.
Topping off the multiplayer offerings is Spartan Ops, a series of story-driven episodes that can be done alone or co-operatively with up to four players. A handful of these are included in the game, with new ones being added weekly as free downloads. How long Microsoft keeps this up is a question, but it's another well-done bonus mode.
Each of Halo 4's parts are thus excellently done, but when they're all put together, a fully formed, cohesive whole emerges. It's rare that visuals, sound, story and action all gel and feed off each other, but this game pulls it off in grand style.
Each aspect complements the others, to the point where it's hard to find flaws. If publishers are going to spend Hollywood amounts of money on producing games going forward, they may want to look to Halo 4 as an example of how to do it right.