Microsoft's flagship shooter series hits the frontlines again with the next week's release of Halo 4. It's more than just another sequel, however. Microsoft claims it's the most expensive game the company has ever made, and considering how rough game sales have been in 2012, a lot is riding on its success.
Even more nerve-wracking? Halo 4 is the first core Halo game to be developed by a team other than longtime franchise caretaker Bungie Studios. The new crew, 343 Industries, doesn't just have the weight of the world on its shoulders. It has the weight of an entire sci-fi universe.
But like iconic Halo hero Master Chief, 343 thrives under pressure. Currently averaging a 90 on Metacritic, Halo 4 is already a big hit with critics, opening a thrilling new chapter for franchise fans and taking pole position as the premier shooter of 2012. Master Chief is back, and he's better than ever.
Not that he starts out that way. When we last saw the Spartan soldier, he was floating through space in a demolished starship accompanied only by his AI companion, Cortana. Halo 4 picks up just a few years after Halo 3 left off, but quickly paves new ground with new enemies, new weapons, and new technical tricks that take it to impressive heights.
"Halo 4 is not only a success, but a bar-raising triumph for the entire first-person shooter genre," writes IGN reviewer Ryan McCaffrey, who was knocked out by the game's stellar single-player campaign.
"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." He gives it a 9.8/10.
"It possesses a striking sense of scale," agrees Polygon scribe Arthur Gies in a 9.5/10 review, who calls the game "a technological achievement that most have assumed was outside of the reach of Microsoft's now seven-year-old console."
"But it's more than that," he continues. "Halo 4 is a return to the series' roots of discovery, of wonder and, at times, of awe. It helps that it might be the most consistently great game of the series to boot."
[Related: Watch Halo 4's awesome launch trailer]
While you'll still trade bullets with the Covenant, Halo 4 introduces new enemies -- the wickedly smart Prometheans -- and several impressive new locations, like the lush planet of Requiem. To Joystiq's Ludwig Kietzmann, the game is significantly better for it.
"Exploring the deserted, vibrant realms of Requiem is like walking through the matte paintings of an old sci-fi film," he writes. "The immense levels open up when Halo's mammoth vehicles come in to play, and subtly hem you in when it wants more claustrophobic shootouts…in terms of consistency, scope and player motivation, this is the best Halo campaign yet." His score reflects the love: a perfect 5/5.
Most Halo fans, however, save their love not for the campaign, but for the franchise's legendary multiplayer. And again, Halo 4 delivers. IGN calls the game's multiplayer "golden," its weapon-balancing "immaculate," and its level design "outstanding."
"Advancing your character is a joy, as you unlock armor pieces, customizable loadouts, and bonuses to boost performance in battle," gushes Game Informer's Matt Miller in a 9.3/10 review. He also digs the game's "smooth and streamlined" interface and calls the game's dozen new multiplayer maps "impressive."
But even Master Chief's MJOLNIR armor isn't impenetrable. Though Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann is quick to point out that the new developers didn't break Halo, he's also a little miffed that "the game plays it a little too safe."
"At the opening of the game it feels like Master Chief and Cortana could be set off onto some great new mystery…instead you spend a lot of time fighting old Halo enemies," he gripes, though the great gameplay and multiplayer lift it to a solid 4/5.
Perhaps Master Chief's biggest challenge, however, will come from its launch date of November 6. Releasing a game on Election Day? Pretty gutsy, though it's clear you shouldn't be undecided about picking up Halo 4 on your way back from the polls.