In Brendan Sinclair's retrospective Xbox article Halo 2 is cited as the title that turned online gaming on consoles from a novel idea into an invaluable fixture. Without it, who knows what Xbox Live, let alone online gaming in general, would even look like now. The Halo series defined a certain era of gaming, its impact still felt. When developers Bungie decided to move on, 343 Industries had a large legacy to live up to.

For those new to the franchise, 
Halo follows the exploits of the super soldier Master Chief on his one-man alien genocide. Halo 3 ended with him in cryogenic suspension, having ended the alien threat ready to destroy the universe. Now, four years later, he wakes up in the middle of a battle on a new planet. Is Halo 4 a must-buy for the holiday season? Read on...

The single player experience of Halo 4 is fine, science fiction nonsense that does its job and pushes things along. The original trilogy tapped into an uneasy post-9/11 anxiety: the Covenant were a religiously fanatical enemy that performed acts of terror on Earth soil. While they make an appearance here, the new enemies, the Prometheans, are more nebulous in motive and less emotionally visceral.

It's best played in co-op mode with a friend. You can play the campaign, or a set of side-missions (“Spartan Ops”) this way. On the highest levels, the AI conspires to turn the skirmishes into little tactical puzzles, ones that will turn you into cold, calculating alien assassins, or a pile of shouting panic.

But we play Halo for the multiplayer - I don't think anybody would really say otherwise. It feels weird to talk about the multiplayer in such a legacy title. The rhythm of the game – caused by the need to hide behind cover and recover shields – has more or less been universally adopted. It can be seen in the regenerating health of the Modern Warfare series, or the cover-based mechanics of Gears of War. Halo's gameplay is so orthodox that to rail against it feels somewhat like getting the yearly Madden release and criticizing the rules of football.

343 Industries seems to feel the same way, preserving Halo's multiplayer in amber. Modes that long time players know well are here: Slayer (deathmatch), Oddball (hold the ball as long as possible), and Capture the Flag make a return, along with a slew of other modes and maps you remember from the old days. Dominion is a major new addition, asking players to capture points on the map while trying to take down the other team's strongholds. But in the games I played, the maps felt too small and the chaos too heavy. While team play is certainly within reach, the mode asks more from the player. It strays too far from the game's search and destroy roots. I'm banking that, given time, a core of dedicated players will emerge, but right now it feels like a mess.       

The new tweaks are relatively minor. The Prometheans bring along a new suite of weapons. Covenant and Human weapons handle differently and require different strategies, but Promethean weapons play like existing options. There's the Scattershot, which looks and works just like a shotgun, and the Suppressor, an assault rifle by any other name. They add nothing new to the game, and signal a not-broken-don't-break-it approach from 343. This can serve as a warning or good omen to the direction of the rest of the planned trilogy.

So, we're left with a game with a few changes, a few new modes and developers who see their job as keeper's of the flame, not radical innovators. Their approach is conservative, almost to a fault. In some ways, they even regress: aesthetically the game eschews the darker, foreboding look of Halo: Reach for something closer to the original trilogies' brighter pallet. But time has made Halo a unique commodity. Other games have taken its lessons and splintered off into new experiences, and nobody's really replaced it. 343 Industries' reverence for the original game has reminded me just how badly its void needed to be filled.

Rating : 4/5
Developer: 343 Industries
Designer: Josh Holmes (Creative Director)
Platform: Xbox 360

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