The harrowing saga of legendary super soldier Master Chief continues in the first-person shooter Halo 4 (Microsoft Studios and 343 Industries, rated Mature, reviewed for Xbox 360, $59.99).
After a five-year absence in a starring gaming role, the green-armored and shiny-helmeted legend is back in the first of the three-part epic, the Reclaimer Saga.
Along with the main sci-fi-fueled campaign that takes up to four players into nearly nonstop combat, the multiplayer component returns, loaded with challenges for the virtual United Nations Space Command (UNSC) solider to train and save his fellow comrades.
Story: In 2557, after the Halo event, Master Chief awakens aboard the crippled frigate Forward Until Dawn and, with help from his faithful artificial intelligence companion Cortana, ventures into a mysterious new world to discover an overpowering ancient evil. With humanity's fate hanging in the balance, the Master Chief and Cortana are thrust into a desperate mission against overwhelming odds to save mankind from the threat of imminent extinction.
Play the role: As a player controls the Master Chief, John-117, a very familiar world of Halo opens up to jog fond memories of games past with its controls, enemies, vehicles, jargon and mythology.
This is the purest of Halo, devoid of handling Orbital Drop Shock Troopers and controlling second-rate Spartans, and delivers the saga of one social recluse who managed to single-handedly save his race but is on the verge of losing, his only friend.
Within minutes of waking up to the voice of a distressed Cortana, the hero of few words is armed and back to a roller coaster ride of action, first escaping from a ship under attack and landing on a hostile planet with a mysterious inner core.
His encounters with the evil, mixed-species forces of the Covenant include run-in with spit-chin Sanghelli (Elites), reptilian Kig Yar (Jackals) and those pint-sized Unggoys (Grunts).
More importantly, this time out he also faces the Forerunner guardians called the Promethean Knights, a newly introduced part of a cybernetic species. These glowing, gangly teleporting warriors often look like Lego Bionicles (remember those Master Builders?), even shoot out flying assistants from their backs and wield such special artillery as incineration cannons.
Through a satisfying, eight-mission campaign, a player roams such locations as the planet Requiem, sort of a lush Middle Earth with swamp lands looking like Dagobah and red rocky canyons (think a John Ford Western) and the massive metallic hangar bays of the starship Infinity.
Get to the action: In the open world of Halo, new missions allow varied strategies based on terrain and equipment.
The options continue as a player can simply scour areas for weapons and shoot out pockets of alien enemies, jump aboard a nearly uncontrollable Warthog vehicle to roll over foes, take flight with a Covenant Banshee and strafe enemies, or climb aboard the massive bipedal mech called the Mantis to blast away at opposition of almost any size.
A satisfying collection of firepower exists from the UNSC and fallen enemies and includes a semi-automatic carbine, purple-spiked Needler, Concussion rifle, Shade turret gun, M395 Marksman rifle, Suppressor, Boltshot and an Elite energy sword. It's a wonderful variety of weapons, though always short of ammunition, but ready to get the job done.
However, remember Rambo, friendly fire will kill your comrades in arms.
Memorable moments (in no particular order): Master Chief's hand shaking as a fully powered Rail Gun unloads on a Wrath; my first encounter with a powerful Hunter; scattering the remains of Promethean Crawlers while walking through a swamp; observing a firefight between Covenant and Promethean forces; playing a game of chicken with a Ghost; watching a defeated Promethean Knight melt into glowing shards; stomping on a Grunt while in a Mantis; walking through a snowstorm of falling embers; getting a spectacular view of Requiem on top of the Mammoth; and targeting a troop carrying Phantom vessel with an air strike.
Violent encounters: It's no secret that Master Chief is a zero nonsense, one-man killing machine. I had little problem with spilling the multicolored fluids of the Covenant and Promethean factions.
Still, I can't get used to killing those cuddly Grunts (more lifelike than ever), who just follow orders to their death. Watching a Grunt covering his eyes so he thinks he's hiding from me was outright sad.
As always, Master Chief has a health shields that degrades as he is fired upon and once exhausted, he will fall like a rag doll and temporarily die — and in my case, often.
Read all about it: Marvel Entertainment gave fans an origin overview of the Master Chief by adapting Eric Nylund's popular novel with the four-issue, sequential-art series Halo: Fall of Reach. The trade paperback ($16.99) compiles the series from 2010 and features the slick artwork of Felix Ruiz.
Pixel-popping scale: 8.8 out of 10. Even with the overtly familiar Halo design elements slathering every corner of the screen, 343 Industries manages to deliver a fresh-looking and surprisingly pretty Halo game, maybe the best eye candy in the franchise's history.
Overall, Master Chief fights in a breathtaking, active world with multicolored caverns, intense fire effects, vines that gently hang above dense forests, mist that accumulates over a waterfall, and he uses weapons that each load in a unique way with some even venting steam.
I was especially thrilled with the animations of character models such as a Promethean Knight reacting to a plasma grenade stuck on its leg and the beauty of the cut scenes, especially the introduction of Master Chief's prime adversary the Didact, a guy with the hubris of a Star Trek villain.
Star power: The musical score deserves recognition as it helps keep a player very aware of his plight and impending dangers. Musician Neil Davidge delivers the goods with a somber compositions that reminded me of Battlestar Galactica and The Terminator.
Extras and Unlockables: Waypoint, the online social hub of Halo, continues and provides a one-stop learning shop for a comprehensive look at the mythology.
Its interface overloads with videos, text and photos exploring topics including ships, key events, technology, species, toys and games tied to the Halo universe.
Players also get a painstakingly-detailed breakdown of their accomplishments in screens that deliver enough data to make a statisticians head explode.
Multiplayer: Besides on up to four-player, co-operative campaign, the core of the Halo experience has always been tied to its multitude of online battles and 343 Industries overloads with options.
It's Infinity concept incorporates living the life of a Spartan IV aboard a massive UNSC vessel with two levels of multiplayer action to keep players sucking the Mountain Dew for extended play sessions.
First, newly created Spartans get the more traditional training in War Games presenting nine game types with 10 maps to fight upon for up to 16 players.
It's everything from death matches to capture the flag to Regicide (one player is king, can he stay alive?) and Oddball (which team can hold the skull the longest) to fighting the Flood (with the imminent possibility of turning into one). War Games is complete with customized weapons loadouts, support extras, armor mods and plenty of ways to increase experience and collect Spartan Points to upgrade stuff.
Next, the new Spartan OPS offers solo and co-operative, episodic online action tied to the soldiering life of a player's customized Spartan warrior. Specifically, five episodes with five missions each released online weekly (starting Nov. 6) offering a story dated six months after the events of Halo 4.
Additionally, the map creating toolset within Forge is back for players to build and challenge their friends in customized terrain.
Final thoughts: Despite being weighed down by one of the most-hyped, genre-defining franchises in the history of gaming, Halo 4 manages to maintain a wonderful sense of adventure and excitement throughout its bountiful package. It not only gives fans an emotional journey but what they most wanted, control of Master Chief, while pushing the envelope in the evolution of gaming cinema and its dramatic storytelling.
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