It's hard for an established franchise to surprise you, especially one that's more than a decade old. Styles calcify and assumptions are set. We expect a platformer to be a platformer and a racing game to be a racing game.
So it's a surprise that "Halo 4" turns out to be a tear-jerker, of all things. That's like discovering Mike Tyson sewing his own clothing line or Donald Trump volunteering at a soup kitchen. It defies our preconceived notions. Yes, we expect the first-person shooter to have action (there's plenty), explosions (I counted at least 15) and a few one-liners as Master Chief faces certain death. But making fans weepy? That's a hidden talent.
It's an auspicious start for 343 Industries, the new studio in charge of one of gaming's most popular franchises. ("Halo 4" hits stores Tuesday.) The developer gives the series a much-needed revamp in terms of visuals, presentation and story. As part of a new "Reclaimer Trilogy," Master Chief and Cortana return four years, seven months and 10 days after the events of "Halo 3."
They face a new foe who lures them to a Forerunner planet called Requiem. That's where a majority of the campaign takes place as the Chief and Cortana race against time to uncover the antagonist's plans and stop them. Although it seems straightforward, the plot's finer points are convoluted. Players will need to know the mythology to put it together, but the campaign wraps up with an emotional punch that will satisfy fans.
On the gameplay side, "Halo 4" adopts many ideas from "Halo: Reach." The Chief can swap abilities that produce such things as drones or hologram; plus, there are a new set of weapons to master. 343 Industries captures the essence of (former developer) Bungie's stages and improves on it. Players still get those grand-scale battles, corridor gunfights and occasional vehicle excursions, but the developer eliminates the redundant level design. Passageways don't wind down forever. Players won't have to double back and fight a slew of enemies again.
It lowers the shooter fatigue that creeps up in "Halo" games. With Bungie, there was a point when my eyes would glaze over and parts of the game felt like filler, but throughout "Halo 4's" nine-hour campaign, each encounter seemed essential. Although stages rely too much on destroying targets or pressing switches, there's enough variety in terrain, combat and foes to keep the shooter moving along.
A big reason for that is the folks at 343 Industries are just better storytellers than their predecessors. They took risks by putting the Chief in situations where he has to hang off ledges in one scenario or fly a warplane through a "Star Wars"-like bombing run on another. They present the adventure in a much more interactive, cinematic style.
But ultimately, it's the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana that the new team gets right, and that's what carries the game. The bond between the super soldier and artificially intelligent construct is the soul of the series and what sets it apart. Fans are more invested in the Chief and Cortana than any other duo in gaming, and their journey in "Halo 4" will touch players. That's remarkable because so many games try to establish a friendship between characters but so few do it this convincingly. Beyond the campaign, 343 Industries takes its new vision to the multiplayer realm. It finally updates the multiplayer formula by adding a true progression system where players can choose from three types of perks. The more they play, the more armor pieces and abilities players unlock.
But the big change 343 Industries brings is the Spartans Op feature. It's a set of cooperative multiplayer missions that boast some above-average production values. They're narrative driven with their own scenarios, and Microsoft plans on making these missions episodic. They promise that it will essentially be a TV series you can play.
The first few missions are OK, but the developer needs to mix it up more and give players better objectives than seek and destroy or defend. There needs to be more character development if they expect players to stick with it for a season.
It's ambitious, but that can be said for a lot of what 343 Industries is doing. They're aiming for the stars, and fortunately, they have the talent to take players there.
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Platform: Xbox 360