x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hail to the Master Chief: Halo makes a stellar return

The Halo hero makes a smashing return with art design, graphics and soundscapes that will make you remember why you fell in love with the series in the first place

Halo 4 mixes epic first-person battles with vehicular combat. AP Photo / Microsoft
Halo 4 mixes epic first-person battles with vehicular combat. AP Photo / Microsoft

Halo
4343 Industries
Xbox 360
*****

Combat Evolved and its sequels have been selling Xboxes since the original machine launched in 2001. But Halo's developer, Bungie, has moved on, leaving the franchise in the hands of Microsoft and its in-house studio 343 Industries.

Fans have been nervous about the prospect of a Bungie-less Halo but 343 has taken Bungie's blueprint and given us a title that reinvigorates the franchise.

The legendary supersoldier Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana make a stellar return in Halo 4, an excellent opening instalment in what 343 calls The Reclaimer trilogy. Boasting arguably the finest art design, graphics and soundscapes of this generation, Halo 4 should make anyone remember why they fell in love with this series in the first place.

Picking up several years after the events of 2007's Halo 3, Halo 4 opens with Master Chief in cryogenic sleep, drifting through space aboard the damaged military freighter Forward Unto Dawn toward an unknown world. Players will once again battle a Covenant horde and contend with a challenging new enemy in the Prometheans.

The plot is somewhat complex, incorporating elements from the larger Halo universe of novels and comics, and has plenty of surprises, so we won't spoil too much. But several scenarios humanise Master Chief and Cortana more than ever.

The pacing of the action is the game's greatest strength. Mixing epic first-person battles with vehicular combat can get tricky, but 343 has managed to find a perfect balance. Just when you've blazed your way through a first-person onslaught and feel the need for a change, there's a Scorpion tank waiting for you. After a trek through battlegrounds that may leave you desperate for ammunition, you get to pilot a Pelican dropship and wreak havoc from above.

The gunplay is some of the best the series has ever seen. Among the available arsenal are human and alien weapons, each with their own unique feel, and plenty of options to fit your play style. You can charge in with heavy weaponry or hang back and snipe away. The wealth of weapons and vehicles is staggering.

The enemy AI is reactive and challenging, even on the lower difficulty settings, and the mechanics are close to perfect. Moving Master Chief around is a very smooth experience, whether on foot or flying around with a jet pack. The old warrior can also take advantage of shield upgrades, "active camouflage" cloaking and infrared vision.

There's a versatile collection of competitive multiplayer modes with 10 built-in maps, as well as a separate "Spartan Ops" cooperative campaign. The revamped Forge provides plenty of great tools to manipulate physics when building your maps. With the franchise's strong history of multiplayer-driven content, rest assured you'll be battling it out on Xbox Live for quite some time.

Over the past few years, the Gears of War trilogy seemed to supplant Halo as the game that made the Xbox a must-own, but Halo 4 returns Master Chief to his throne.