The former king of first-person shooters, before that pesky Modern Warfare business came along, hasn't exactly been absent from our Xbox 360s for the last few years, but its blandly iconic hero the Master Chief certainly has. After a two-game rest, the helmeted face that sold a million Xboxes is back and heading up this first in a new sci-fi shooter trilogy.
Always a commercial smash-hit, the Halo series hasn't always fared so well critically. It's surely with that in mind that Halo 4 (in fact the sixth in the series) consciously tries to revisit and create the large battle arenas, imposing backdrops and comparative freedom of movement of the very first game, not the oppressively restrictive second and third.
Superficially, this is achieved in terms of the often spectacular graphics and environments, which successfully convey vast alien vistas and pitched battles. Its sharp edges, huge draw distances and the lifelike faces in the super-detailed cutscenes make for a huge improvement on the earlier Halos in the technology stakes, and a strong reason to question the need for next-gen consoles any time soon.
More meaningfully, it feels good as well as looks good. This a nebulous concept to describe, but it's evident that at least as much work has been done on action satisfaction as it has on pixel shaders and animations. The speed and flow of movement and combat, the way each weapon has a defined purpose and a satisfyingly RSI-inciting feel in the hand, each enemy needs a specific strategy to be defeated and there's always a choice of angles of attack even if you do need to keep heading in the same ultimate direction.
After the cramped trudging of 2 and 3, this very much feels as though the roof has been taken off a dark'n'dingy building. And despite a few tweaks to align it more with Call of Duty (such as iron sights), it's a world away from that sort of witch-based shooting gallery. With the odds stacked against the player even on lower difficulty settings, emerging victorious in every skirmish against an assortment of differently-behaving alien foes old and new requires coming up with a quick-thinking plan of action in addition to being hot stuff at controlling a targeting reticule.
If all this sounds very familiar, well yeah. Halo 4 is in the hands of a new developer, 343 Industries, after series creator Bungie elected to move on, but this new lot do seem highly risk-averse even if they are impressively tech-proficient. No doubt there's some element of not wanting to rock a multi-million dollar boat, but if ever there was an opportunity to make ambitious changes to a decade-old formula it was this. Even the addition of a new group of enemies, robotic warriors the Prometheans, doesn't alter the balance of play outside of their requiring some new strategies and further expanding Halo's already towering arsenal.
Getting things back on track, restoring the sense of awe and excitement lost to the later Halos' cramped, hyper-linear environments and almost comically self-regarding storylines, was perhaps at least as important as moving them on, mind. Again, Halo 4 feels great: a fight feels like a fight, an exhausting Alamo stand against deadly enemies, not the perfunctory take-down of waves of dumb soldiers. Even the vehicle segments, that Halo mainstay, are smartly dropped in in a way that ups the sense of boy's own adventure rather than being abrupt, artificial-feeling switches.
Unfortunately, the game's pompously epic narrative doesn't manage to hit the reset button in the same way. The Halo series has long been tied up in its own elaborate mythology - far more of it than humans vs aliens ever needed - and amazingly Halo 4 disappear even further into its own ultra-nerdy lore despite in theory being a fresh start. No sooner is the Master Chief back in action than he's facing foes and picking up plot threads hitherto only documented in the many Halo spin-off novels.
Playing the previous three 'main' Halo games went help you much - if anything, 4's plot essentially ignores those in favour of returning to an earlier status quo but with a whole load of confusing new stuff added. It does attempt a human story too, as the Master Chief's AI chum/love interest Cortana threatened by a danger they mightn't be able to prevent, but sadly the emotional resonance is lost among the constant stream of bone-dry exposition and a chain of orders to go and press buttons or get on lifts.
The refinement not reinvention approach extends to Halo 4's multiplayer, which borrows the ranking/unlock model popularised by latter-day Call of Duties but retains the ever-thrilling guns'n'vehicles high-speed action of earlier Halos. As a result, there's perhaps more reason to care about kills and victories, but the purity of the frantic sci-fi war is a little diluted due to players' eyes forever being on the next prize rather than the satisfaction of a fight well-fought. The improvements to the graphical tech and the introduction of new weapons should ensure it becomes an Xbox Live mainstay for a couple of years, which is surely the real point - if it ain't broke don't fix it holds sway, but it's certainly keeping up with the Joneses too.
Same extends to the Spartan Ops co-op additional campaign, which offers multiplayer for those afraid of competitive play and a path to ongoing DLC. It rounds out a solid and high-spectacle package that very much makes Halo a current player rather than a dinosaur, even if it's shorter on ambition than we might have hoped.
While the multiplayer will earn a huge community who'll manage to do amazing things with the new toys on offer, that Halo 4 is such a solid and exciting singleplayer game is the real victory here - that side of things is increasingly given short, claustrophobic shrift by the big shooter franchises, but this is very much the real blockbuster deal despite its caution.