Review: Halo 4

Master Chief always seemed like Heinlein's ideal of a soldier: You never felt like he needed to sleep - just give him his ten thousand–mile check-ups and dust him off occasionally. In the opening scenes of Halo 4, Spartan 117 goes from sleep to trigger in a few moments, but that's enough to begin his journey to becoming human again. Previous Halos cast him as a savior - Halo 4 betrays that immortality.

The most obvious difference between Halo 4 and its predecessors is tone. Even though the overarching events have vast implications on the universe, Halo 4 never feels like a melodramatic tale of galactic destruction. We've been there, done that ad nauseam. Instead, the team at freshman developer 343 Industries has crafted something much more serious and personal: Halo 4 marks the first time the series doesn't feel like a guilty pleasure. Comparing it to the previous games feels like comparing SyFy's Battlestar Galactica to the original '70s show.

With the Covenant War over, Chief is no longer the hero once was; he's just another soldier, not the god (or demon, according to his enemies) of missions past. The once-rare Spartan super soldiers are relatively commonplace and fail to inspire awe among fellow enlisted anymore. All he has left of his past life is Cortana, the AI construct he swore to protect on the mission that set the Halo franchise into motion a dozen years ago. The characters' relationship - not the game's convoluted plot  -was always the most poignant aspect of the franchise. Halo 3 was about rescuing Cortana from an evil captor, Halo 4 is a mission to save her from herself. That everyone else from Chief's past is dead reinforces the urgency and weight of his task; he's going through this hell for Cortana and Cortana alone.

343 Industries tore into the Halo universe like a fresh piece of meat. Nowhere is that energy more apparent than Halo 4's stellar campaign. Just when I thought I'd seen all it had to offer, it would surprise me with something new. In terms of story, major plot points and characters are introduced briefly, but a lack of proper explanation of who they are or what this or that Macguffin does neuters much of their impact. By the time the credits rolled, I'd all but forgotten about them and was puzzled about what they meant in the grand scheme of things. Despite those niggles, this is the first Halo I've wanted to play through repeatedly since the series' maiden voyage in 2001. Everything feels brand new, yet retains what made me love Halo in the first place: tight gunplay, unpredictable enemy encounters and a constant sense of wonder.

Enemy types have been tweaked and pared back to only the most interesting races. As a result, they feel much more dangerous and, well, alien than in the past.Grunts squabbling over who got Chief's helmet as a trophy for killing him or Elites comically agonizing when stuck with a grenade again would've only broken the sober tone 343 was striving to create. So, like the Brutes and Flood, stuff like that's gone.

Weapons, too, feel more dangerous and realistic due in large part to the audio design; human firearms especially have a percussive and violent discharge. Keeping in line with the theme of sacrifice, Marty O'Donnell's trademark score was scrapped in favor of a soundtrack penned by Massive Attack's Neil Davidge. The larger focus on electronic textures, swelling strings and brassy chants of impending doom marries well with the narrative. Halo 4 has one of the most aggressive soundscapes I've ever heard, replacing Battlefield 3 as my shooter benchmark.

Long after the credits roll, the massive multiplayer suite will keep you busy for many months to come; it's the first time in half-a-decade that it doesn't feel like an afterthought. The franchise's best modes and maps –some returning, many new - play alongside the narrative-based cooperative mode Spartan Ops, which 343 promises to update - for free - with five new missions every week for a year. These missions take place after the campaign's events and cater to those of us with limited amounts of free time who don't want to spend our precious spare minutes being tea-bagged online by players much more skilled than we are. As of now, the story isn't as well developed and doesn't feel as important as the main game, but the mode provides a solid way to play online with buddies without being griefed by the general online public.

At every turn 343 Industries shames original developer Bungie. Halo 4 finally elevates the franchise from the campy Aliens knock-off ghetto, commanding the respect and attention the series has demanded - but never quite deserved - all along.