Balancing old and new

'Halo 4' developer adds life and emotion to a new era of the science fiction franchise

Matt Miller / Game Informer Magazine /

New developer 343 Industries had a series of challenges in front of it when it began to create “Halo 4”: Take a beloved series from the original developer Bungie, maintain the legacy established through a decade of success, and reignite enthusiasm by delivering something new.

That is a daunting list, but 343 Industries was clearly up to the task. “Halo 4” is a thrilling adventure and takes the science fiction franchise headlong into the future. The magic formula is intact, but the new development team isn't afraid to put its own signature features into play, assuring that “Halo” is on a path to growth instead of stagnation.

Recent “Halo” entries felt ancillary to the core story. “Halo 4” returns to the resonant drive of the series — Master Chief and his unrelenting defense of humanity. For the first time, the story has an emotional core that grounds the fiction: the connection between John and Cortana. As the two characters face a reemerging threat to the galaxy, we finally gain insight into the mysterious Forerunner race hinted at since Combat Evolved. Along the way, 343 Industries plays around with some heady science fiction concepts, from the nature of artificial intelligence to the planned shaping of a species' evolution. While these ideas might be bewildering to newcomers, the story is the most cohesive and well-structured in the series.

As I played through that story, I was struck by the extraordinary production values on display. “Halo 4” is a visual marvel, with gorgeous environments accentuated by high dynamic range lighting and breathtaking particle effects. However, the experience is more than the graphics; I rarely feel the need to call out the sound effects of a game, but “Halo 4” is an exception. The first time I fired a gun, I was startled by the forceful burst, and the impression only improves as the fights progress. From the distorted static of a scrambled audio communication to the revving propulsion drive of a speeding Ghost, “Halo 4's” audio drags players into the game world by their ears. Several stirring new musical themes add to the effect, but those melodies are sometimes obscured within the sound mix.

Enemies have defined the feel of “Halo” gameplay since the beginning, and “Halo 4” balances familiarity and novelty. The Covenant returns (for reasons the in-game story fails to articulate), providing the classic experience “Halo” fans love — popping Grunts, zeroing in on distant Jackals, and furiously dueling Elites. Thankfully, new foes enter the picture before long. The Prometheans offer a robust tactical challenge, from the infuriating regenerative abilities of the floating Watchers to the savage Crawlers and teleporting Knights. Each battlefield becomes a tense puzzle as you decide which bad guy to engage first. That's why the widely spaced checkpoint placement is such a bummer; I love the searing difficulty the game exhibits on higher challenge levels, but “Halo 4” often sends its players too far back as a punishment for failure.

Master Chief has new toys to bring into the fight, including several powerful new guns. Added to the array already introduced previously, the armament variety is impressive, and trying them all out is fun. The game encourages experimentation by severely limiting ammo on most pick-ups. At times, the strategy succeeds by making players use all the tools at their disposal. However, frequently running out of ammo slows the momentum of the action as you're forced to scavenge for an alternative.

For many, “Halo 4's” excellent campaign will be secondary to the endless battles of the newly introduced Infinity multiplayer. An integrated cooperative and competitive narrative tracks the progress of your Spartan as he or she trains aboard a UNSC ship and then heads out on missions, ranking up and improving on the way. Advancing your character is a joy, as you unlock armor pieces, customizable loadouts and bonuses to boost performance in battle. The smooth and streamlined front-end interface is easy to navigate. Playing with friends is seamless; only time will tell if matchmaking can stand up to the rush that will hit after launch.

Whether I am watching a grenade explode a Promethean into a shower of sparks or charging with friends at my side through a cooperative adventure, “Halo 4” makes the series feel new again. 343 Industries' clear affection for the property shines through, leaving me thrilled to join Master Chief for another decade in defense of the galaxy.

'Halo 4'

9.25 (out of 10)

Xbox 360

Microsoft Studios

ESRB rating: M

Top 10

HANDHELD GAMES

The editors of Game Informer Magazine rank the top handheld games for the month of November:

1. “Sound Shapes” (Vita)

2. “Paper Mario: Sticker Star” (3DS)

3. “LittleBigPlanet PS Vita” (Vita)

4. “Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward” (Vita)

5. “Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask” (3DS)

6. “New Super Mario Bros. 2” (3DS)

7. “Kingdom Hearts 3-D: Dream Drop Distance” (3DS)

8. “Assassin's Creed: Liberation” (Vita)

9. “Pokemon Black & White 2” (DS)

10. “Code of Princess” (3DS)

Game Informer Magazine

In the news

iPad Mini vs. handheld consoles? It's possible

Fresh Newzoo consumer research of consumers in six Western countries shows that a month before launch, 7.4 percent of all Americans ages 10 to 50 were seriously thinking about buying the new mid-size Apple iPad mini device. Though, at the time, analysts expected a lower price point than presented by Apple in October.

The relatively low consumer awareness of the iPad mini of 22 percent is offset by a high buying intention rate of 36 percent, resulting in 14.3 million direct potential buyers in the U.S. alone. The device appeals specifically to families, illustrated by the fact that 63 percent of interested buyers have kids at home. These results confirm that this device will compete directly with handheld consoles. Already, 10 percent of Nintendo DS gamers and 12 percent of Sony PSP and PS Vita gamers want to get their hands on an iPad mini.

“The device is cool,” said Peter Warman, CEO of Newzoo. “What surprises me is the price. I realize that Apple is caught in between pricing of the iPod Touch and the iPad, and the fact that they keep selling the iPad 2 doesn't make things easier.”

— John Gaudiosi, GamerHub.tv