A few years ago Microsoft set about building its own studio to carry Halo beyond Bungie's contractually obligated spin-offs ODST and Halo Reach. All 343 Industries ever had to do was match the quality of Bungie's games, and in that sense it's succeeded. Halo 4 is indistinguishable from a Bungie Halo. Unfortunately, the Halo it's indistinguishable from is Halo 2.
Halo 4 isn't just a another Halo; it's the Haloest Halo ever. It's good at mimicking the bits you remember best from past games to make it clear that, Bungie or not, this is the real thing. Level one is all grey corridors like Combat Evolved's Pillar of Autumn. Level two is a remake of the Chief's arrival on the first game's ring, complete with stunning vistas, arbitrary Warthog ride and a trip inside a Forerunner structure. There's a cross between Halo 3's jungle level and CE's 343 Guilty Spark, there's a Halo 2 gondola ride, a giant Covenant vehicle to bring down torn straight from 3's Scarab fights, a version of Reach's Long Night of Solace, and a recognisably Halo finale.
343 have replicated their favourite bits from other games in the series using an upgraded version of Reach's engine and Halo has never felt better. The guns have never packed more punch, its world has never been so beautiful and the enemies have never put up a better fight. It could be the perfect Halo - 343 are clearly capable of making it - but Halo 4's problem is the way it references Halo 2 more than any of Bungie's other games.
DOUBLE OR QUITS
Halo 4 picks up four years after the events of the third game, with Chief fighting a Covenant boarding party in the wreck of the Forward Unto Dawn. Caught in orbit around the hollow Forerunner world of Requiem, the Chief fights a zealot fleet before being swallowed by the planet, accidentally awakening an ancient Forerunner, and getting involved in lots of drama we won't spoil here.
Meanwhile, the UNSC ship Infinity traces Cortana's distress signal to the crashed Forward Unto Dawn and enters the planet's outer shell, where it becomes the jumping-off point for Halo 4's co-op campaign - Spartan Ops. Playing out in a series of episodes that will be released weekly, following the launch of the game, Infinity tells a complete side story. This free DLC series does a similar job as Reach and ODST's Firefight - each mission a series of simple arenas flooded with enemies, with enough space for four players to have fun without treading on one another's toes the way you will in Master Chief's rake-thin campaign.
Halo is at its best when it's epic; by comparison, Halo 4 is narrow and constrained
343's main story hits the same hardware bottleneck that throttled Bungie's ambitions for Halo 2. Halo is at its best when the game is about sheer scale and epic battles in colossal spaces but Halo 4 is narrow and constrained. Halo 2 is among the best-looking games on the original Xbox, but its campaign is also the series' lowest point. To look as good as it does, Bungie kept the path narrow and the walls high. The maps are small, levels offer little room to experiment, and the combat - evolved in Halo Combat Evolved - devolves in Halo 2's restrictive spaces.
So when Bungie had 360's power to play with for the third game, they built their biggest battlefields ever because that's what Halo is supposed to be. You like the Warthog? So drive one along miles of Tsavo's highway and into huge arenas loaded with interesting tactical options. You like Silent Cartographer? Here's a landing on an island flooded with Covenant forces and a new flying vehicle to play with. You like epic set pieces? Here's a fifty-foot Covenant Scarab you'll have to take down from the inside. You liked that? Good, now here's two of them at once.
Just like Halo 2, 4 is prettier but smaller. It's among the best-looking games on 360 but its scope is much narrower than Reach, ODST and 3. When you drive your 'Hog for the first (and potentially only) time on level two it's along a path barely wider than the 'Hog itself. When you fight the Covenant's carrier it's in a barren space populated with only a handful of enemies, and when you fly out for Halo 4's version of Long Night of Solace you're in for a long, lonely flight with little to direct your Pelican's substantial firepower at.