LIVING UP TO THE LEGACY

It's clear that 343 has just as much respect for all the millions of Halo fans as Bungie did, but walking the fine line between fan service and mass appeal involves a balancing act that would challenge the most talented studio—even with all of King Microsoft's horses and men behind it. Yet in almost every way, 343 has lived up to that task.

No one will argue that Halo 4 doesn't feel like a Halo game, even with all the new additions and modern changes. As with any Halo game, there are pros and cons: the new Promethean enemies are certainly different from the Covenant, but their tendency to teleport around and flee behind cover makes them more annoying as well. On the other hand, the graphics and sound design are, in every way, superior to every past Halo game. Even familiar weapons sound exciting and new, and the score from Massive Attack's Neil Davidge mixes much of the old with invigorating electronic themes.

343's love of the series is evident in the studio's impressive attention to detail. Cortana's tortured emotions are writ large upon her expressive new face (thanks largely to a great performance by Mackenzie Mason); the Master Chief actually uses his hands to press buttons. The Battle Rifle now challenges the DMR for multiplayer dominance, and the race is so close it'll almost certainly come down to personal preference in the end.

It's too bad that the plot feels like one giant fan-fiction, though not in the sense that it's been poorly conceived or executed. No, the narrative campaign is actually more cinematic and complex than what passed for story in past Halo games (the plot's always been better-told in the books). Yet despite its newfound emotional gravity, Halo 4's plot just doesn't feel like a story that needed to be told. 

Regardless, multiplayer is as compelling as ever, and I love that the leveling system is now tied to equipment unlocks as well as aesthetic ones, like new armor. The new Spartan Ops mode (which, regrettably, has replaced my beloved Firefight) promises free weekly content with an entire subplot of its own. Each weekly Op will be comprised of five mini-missions, and the ones I've played ranged from trivial to extremely engaging. And don't forget about Forge and Theatre modes, which in previous games were considered back-of-the-box features, and are now included by default—testament to just how much is crammed into this package.

All that and more will provide plenty of reasons for fans to keep returning to Halo 4. I say this every time a new Halo game comes out, but it's as true now as it was every time: Halo 4 is undoubtedly the most fully-featured and smartly designed Halo game yet. I was worried about the scepter changing hands, but I feel reassured now that 343 is in charge. And that's a relief; if the last eleven years have proved anything, it's that Halo is here to stay, and that's something that Halo fans and Microsoft can agree on.

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