It's been five years since we last saw Master Chief, the super soldier protagonist of the Halo franchise, when he entered cryo-sleep at the end of "Halo 3" in 2008. Despite three Halo spin-off games in 2009 and 2010 to cover his absence, the Chief left behind some mighty big shoes to fill.
Since he's been asleep, the landscape of the console gaming world has changed somewhat, particularly on the Xbox 360: The Call of Duty franchise is now widely regarded for the best first-person shooter experience on Microsoft's gaming console; yet it was the Windows maker that felt the urge to wake Chief from his slumber.
Even though Halo's original developer Bungie split from Microsoft to become an independent limited liability company after the third Halo game, the intellectual property of Halo still belonged to the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, since it had purchased Bungie back in 2000. As a result, Bill Gates' company has hired a new development team to resurrect the multi-billion dollar franchise, which made the first two Xbox platforms must-have consoles after "Halo: Combat Evolved" released in 2001, so Master Chief can reclaim his proper mantle on the console.
For several years, Bungie slowly handed off the reins to the franchise to Kirkland, Wash.-based 343 Industries -- 343i, for short -- which, despite limited developing experience, has more or less received a blank check from Microsoft to "go nuts" on a new Halo trilogy that can begin on the Xbox 360 and conclude on Microsoft's next-generation gaming console.
After years of waiting, fans on Election Tuesday got their first taste of the Halo franchise and the return of Master Chief under the new management. And the original question of Halo 4, which was "Is it good enough to meet Bungie standards?" has now shifted to a new question: "Is this Halo game the best one ever made?"
Many Xbox 360 owners will be happy to know that most critics are addressing the second question, and almost unanimously, it sounds like 343i has really knocked this game out of the park in nearly every way, from the stellar storyline to the eye-popping graphics and gameplay.
As we prepare our own review of the game -- as well as our #IBTTalks discussion on Halo 4 set for Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 2 p.m. EST on Twitter -- we rounded up the best of what other critics were saying about the latest chapter in the Master Chief and Halo saga.
Ryan McCaffrey, IGN (98 out of 100):
"Resplendent set-pieces are ubiquitous during your quest, matched by what is inarguably the finest Halo sandbox yet. Halo 4 feels much more open-ended and organic than Halo Reach’s paint-by-numbers sequences because of its massive scale, scope, and freedom for possibility. Go it on foot, or take the Scorpion in front of you? Hop in a Ghost, or take the riskier strategy of trying to get to a heavily guarded Wraith? All of these choices exist in a moment, not a spectacular scene, allowing for emergent encounters dictated by the opportunities you seize.
"All throughout, the Halo 4 campaign is paced better than any first-person shooter this side of Half-Life 2, deftly mixing on-foot combat, vehicle sequences, quiet story moments, and key Chief-and-Cortana interactions. That pacing is most evident on Normal difficulty, where you won’t run into the patience-testing battles for the next checkpoint that define the Heroic and Legendary settings.
"After soaking in the new game, I am beyond thrilled to be so in love with Halo again, more than I’ve been since Halo 2. Halo 4 is a masterstroke everyone can and should celebrate, and its two guaranteed sequels instantly make the next-generation Xbox a must-own system, with Halo 5 its most anticipated title. Halo has been rebuilt. It has been redefined. And it has been reinvigorated. The Xbox’s original king has returned to his rightful place on the throne."
Ludwig Kielmann, Joystiq (5 Stars out of 5):
"There's an addictive sense of discovery with each new weapon and ability in your loadouts (which is why it's best not to list them here), and perhaps some educational value in toying with them piece by piece. The slick, easy interface keeps things orderly, and respects the time you'll spend coming up with sets that empower long-distance fighting, close-quarter scrambles and diversionary tactics. The aforementioned ordnance drop, a choice of weapons to summon once you earn a string of kills, is a thrilling reward for playing well, and it meddles with Halo's gameplay as much as any of the unlocks do: it adds rapid-fire choice and complexity to moment-to-moment fighting, but doesn't wobble the pillars of Halo's refined systems. Way down there at the bottom, it's still about dropping shields, exploiting grenades and using melee attacks at the right moments.
"Halo 4 is Halo – a surprisingly successful, mandatory step for 343 Industries. But the game strives for more than competence, giving it a forceful march and a decadent show of strength. Our doubt and questioning of Halo's continued existence has, in some small way, helped deliver one of the best games in the series and one of the finest shooters in years. Of course, if we want to use this tactic for the next one we'd better start now. Halo 5 is going to suck!"
Adam Kovic, Machinima (10 out of 10):
"What can I say about Halo 4 that hasn’t already been seen? The visuals have been massively overhauled to make this the best looking Halo, if not the best looking 360 game to date. With that said, this is a game on hardware that’s pushing seven years and the inevitable shortcomings of the console are definitely shown here. Some textures look low res up close and while the new lighting system is gorgeous, some might find the overuse of lens flares distracting.
"Anywhere the game suffers visually from its dated hardware is redeemed in the sound department. Sound effects that didn’t exist in Halo before—like the heavy crunch of your clunky metal boots hitting the ground—are now present, and just about every sound effect is beefier than past games. Every returning weapon has been audibly remastered with the human arsenal receiving some very obvious special attention. But now to the giant musical elephant in the room: the soundtrack. 343 has retained the spirit of Marty O’Donnell’s spellbinding original work while maintaining a cohesive theme throughout the game. It feels like a respectful evolution of the soundtrack and overall I’m happy with the direction composer Neil Davidge has chosen for the series.
"The arrival of Halo 4 is a bittersweet moment: it marks the end of an era, signifying the departure of the studio that created it while a new caretaker takes the reins, one that has some ambitious goals forHalo’s future. It’s clear 343 has not set out to reinvent Halo; the team just subtracted what didn’t work and added parts that do.
"Are there issues? Sure. Like any game I have minor grievances, but nothing so glaring that it takes away from my positive experience. But the overall question persists: do we need another Halo trilogy? The answer to that is a surprising no, for you, the general public that’s looking for nothing more than a minor multiplayer distraction. But from one dedicated Halo fan to those looking for an evolution in story, creation, and online play, yes, we freakin’ do. It feels good to finally say after many years that Halo is back."
Francesca Reyes, Official Xbox Magazine (9.5 out of 10):
"From an opening prologue that immediately dunks you deep into the game’s engrossing narrative to the moment Cortana murmurs “Wake up Chief, I need you” as the UNSC Forward Unto Dawncomes under attack, 343 Industries’ approach to the series is crystal-clear: storytelling is Halo 4’s shiny new weapon. With a brand-new trilogy underway and Chief’s return to active duty after lying in cryo-sleep for nearly five years, adrift in the deep reaches of space, there’s probably no better opportunity to really show what this universe and these characters are made of. And what a difference it makes.
"From the minute you pop the latch on your cryo tube, your journey becomes a mystery filled with questions: Where are you? What’s this planet you’ve crashlanded on? Will Cortana’s rapidly deteriorating state (she’s succumbing to a seemingly terminal fate where an A.I. literally “thinks itself to death”) keep you from saving her and escaping the planet? As an interactive, action-laden riddle of sorts, Halo 4’s narrative makes for compelling stuff. Between Chief’s cool, calm demeanor and Cortana’s increasingly slippery grip on reality, there’s plenty of meaningful interchange — and it serves as a convincing emotional anchor for the numerous subplots and new faces that surface throughout your quest.
"Halo 4 may be a tightly presented package with multiple ways to hook into the series’ fiction, but its star attraction is never really in doubt. With its revitalized focus on storytelling, characterization, and choice, the campaign manages to completely modernize the franchise — placing the importance of its tale on the same level as the tech and gameplay that make telling that tale possible. Whether it’s Spartan Ops’ fun-if-somewhat-thin peek into the battle-weary life of newbie Spartans, the satisfying, emotionally charged campaign, or exploring maps and slaughtering friends in all the War Games variants, this Halo’s the first outing that’s felt like a cohesive, bona fide experience in far too long.
"When, during a late-game cutscene, a plaintive Cortana quietly turns to Chief and asks him to “promise me when this is all over, you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine,” it’s clear that this isn’t the stuff of franchise past. Beneath its sometimes bombastic layer of blockbuster-level polish, Halo 4 hides a complicated heart filled with intelligent sci-fi and a surprising amount of humanity. Count us in for Chief’s next outing. We’ll be ready."
Matt Miller, Game Informer (9.25 out of 10):
"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 development, 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.
"Each of the multiplayer maps plus several variants can be fleshed out into wholly new levels inside Forge. I especially appreciate the new tools to make iteration easier, from magnets that click pieces together, to simple button taps that replicate your last object placed. Along with broadened options for environmental effects, such as gravity shifting, I can’t wait to see what the community comes up with.
"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."
Dustin Chadwell, Gaming Age (Grade: A):
"From an audio/visual standpoint, Halo 4 has some noticeable improvements and changes as well. It’s hard to deny that Halo’s soundtrack up to this point has been pretty iconic, there are standout themes that will always be instantly associated with the franchise, thanks to the excellent work done by composer Martin O’Donnell. One of the things that I actually enjoyed about Halo 4’s soundtrack, though, is that it’s largely made up of new, original material for the series. Only one track that I can think of harkens back a bit to the classic Halo theme, but for the most part new composer Neil Davidge has done an excellent job of crafting a unique soundtrack for this release. There’s plenty of standout tracks here, like the haunting ambience of Solace, or the fantastic menu themed provided by the track To Galaxy. Seriously, the soundtrack is full of great material, and well worth a purchase in itself.
"It’s also hard to deny that Halo 4 is a hell of a visual step up for the series. Part of that comes from the art design, featuring bright, neon like colors that infuse the new world of Requiem with inorganic life. But the texture work and character models are a step above what Reach produced, and help to show that that 360 still has a trick or two up its sleeve from a power perspective, even this late in the console life cycle. It’s easily the best looking Halo game to date, and certainly serves as a suitable pre-cursor for what we can expect from the series going forward, and moving into next-gen.
"Safe to say, I found very little of Halo 4 to be disappointing, and think that 343 Industries has done a fantastic job with taking over the reins from series creator Bungie. Halo 4 is a fantastic, open first person shooter worthy of the franchise, and something that both longtime fans, and newcomers, will definitely enjoy. Despite some mildly baffling changes to multiplayer matchmaking, this marks an excellent entry in the series, and something that fans won’t want to miss come November 6th."
Alex Osborn, Game Revolution (5 Stars out of 5):
"Let's face it, we don't just play Halo for the story, graphics, and sound design; ultimately, it comes down to the gameplay. If you were afraid that the additions of sprint and new armor abilities would ruin the experience, you can rest easy, soldier, this still feels very much like the Halo you've come to know and love, only now there's loads of new awesome additions that will ensure Halo 4's relevance in a post-Modern Warfare industry. Throughout the campaign, 343i never has you doing any one thing for too long, providing just enough variety to keep you constantly engaged—the pacing is excellent.
The slew of new weapons, mostly of the Promethean flavor, add a whole new dynamic to the experience. They really mesh well with the rest of the game's arsenal and are incredibly well-balanced. Each weapon has its own specific purpose, so familiarizing yourself with the game's entire suite of firearms will prove incredibly useful, especially if you plan to excel online. Thanks to the excellent sound work of Sotaro Tojima, each weapon feels extremely powerful and unique. Oh man, does firing that sniper rife send chills down my spine.
As far as online play goes, it is just as seamless as you'd expect, and while I'm not crazy about some of their design choices as far as the menus go, they're easy to navigate. There's also a whole new level of customization provided to the player, allowing you to tailor specific load-outs, armor abilities, and even 343i's version of "perks" (known as support upgrades and tactical packages) to your liking. So while, yes, this does mean you have to play to unlock things, it adds a nice sense of reward that has had players hooked on Call of Duty for the past several years.
And of course, I have to mention Forge. While I'm hardly an expert at map creation, Halo 4 provides the community with plenty of tools, which will undoubtedly result in some killer new game types. In many ways, 343i's first foray into the Halo universe is a neat, little bundle of fan service providing the ultimate community-driven game experience. Halo fans are a loyal bunch, and they'll be pleased to know that this game was lovingly crafted with them in mind.
But that doesn't mean Halo 4 is only for the hardcore fan. If you're new to the series or you simply have a passing interest, I implore you to give this game a look. Unless Black Ops II or Far Cry 3 manage to revolutionize the genre in astronomical ways, Halo 4 is the clear frontrunner for best first-person shooter of 2012. Heck, it may very well be the best game you play all year."