A bright orange sun hangs in the sky over the planet Requiem. It's not real, says Cortana.
The holographic artificial intelligence, crafted to look, sound, and think like her human source material, the 26th century scientist Doctor Catherine Halsey, says she knows tens of thousands of reasons why that sun is a fake. But, for all her knowledge and all her capacity for learning, she cannot feel the difference between that fraudulent orb and the real thing.
All Cortana can feel is her loosening grip on reality as she continues to descend into rampancy. AIs are supposed to be decommissioned after seven years' service. This one is eight, and like a sponge that cannot keep from absorbing moisture, she will continue to learn and process and think - until she has quite literally done it to death. That is, unless her hero can find a way to save her.
She turns to that hero, Master Chief, who is dutifully maintaining his assault rifle - completely oblivious to his partner's mournful monologue.
"Before this is all over," she says, "promise you'll figure out which one of us is the machine."
After almost half a decade spent in a deep sleep, the Master Chief has woken up, and he is a broken man.
Yes, he is still mankind's deadliest son. He has no equal with a rifle or with fists, but for all he has seen and done in the service of humanity, John-117 is an emotional dead-zone. That's how he was raised, that's how he was trained.
"This tomb is now yours"
Halo 4 is the first title in the second Halo trilogy, which new production house 343 Industries is calling the Reclaimer Saga. It is a reference to the Master Chief's role in Forerunner lore and, fairly enough, it makes it clear where the focus of the next adventures will be.
The religious warrior zealots of the Covenant are back, and they're joined by an all-new class of enemies, the Prometheans. The Master Chief has been brought to their homeworld, Requiem, for reasons unknown at the outset of the game. Unraveling the mysteries as you play, you must fight both armies while searching for a way to get off the planet and save Cortana's life.
It is a harrowing journey that is as emotional as it is entertaining. Like 2010's Halo: Reach before it, Halo 4 successfully ties high-intensity warfare with soul-sickening drama to create something quite special.
"I need a weapon"
The play mechanics are largely unchanged from past Halo games, with the most impactful change being the addition of a permanent sprint function. This allows the player to assign a second ability to the left bumper button. Most of the armour abilities introduced in Reach remain, with new ones introduced by the Prometheans. The hardlight shield is excellent for backing out of a bullet storm in lieu of actual cover, the automatic sentry pops off shots at enemies for a limited time, and the awesome Promethean Vision allows you to see opponents through walls and other obstacles. It's already proven to be a gamechanger in multiplayer modes.
With the new enemies come new weapons, and there are assault and precision weapon options for all the game's armies. Some of the UNSC (human) and Covenant weapons have undergone tweaks, and some are entirely new. The best addition to the human arsenal is the SAW, a kind of tommy gun that cuts down enemies with absolutely no mercy. The Covenant storm rifle is an effective mid-range scattergun, and very good in a pinch.
The Prometheans win the arms race, however. The incineration cannon, their equivalent of the rocket launcher or fuel rod gun, not only packs a massive punch but it turns into a cluster bomb upon impact, bringing maximum damage and making those tight spots just a bit looser.
The binary rifle, which Prometheans use for sniper attacks, is arguably more powerful than its UNSC and Covenant counterparts. As a matter of compensating for this, there are fewer shots per magazine. Fair enough.
Obviously a tremendous amount of care went into creating balance between the three character classes and all of their weapons. No one weapon is a game-changer on its own, and no one enemy is unstoppable. All is as it should be.
In terms of difficulty, and campaign length Halo 4 is on par with its predecessors. A playthrough on the Heroic setting took just under ten hours, with only a scarce number of scenarios being so difficult that the fun almost went out the window.
One piece of advice for travellers: Don't bother with the Warthog cannon if you're playing the campaign solo. The friendly AI-controlled soldiers are worse than ever, and seem incapable of driving you anywhere. Best to walk.
Halo 4's multiplayer offering is refreshing and imaginative. In previous iterations, the game's deathmatches - called Slayer - have hinted at the kill-or-be-killed exercises as combat training scenarios. In the new Infinity Multiplayer, named for the massive UNSC spaceship where all-new Spartan warriors are aboard, the deathmatch and objective contests are classified as War Games.
As with Reach, accumulating combat experience credits opens up new armour customisation options. It also allows you to customise your loadouts for certain game types, allowing you to embark on a more personalised career path.
One big win for Halo multiplayer is Spartan Ops, which replaces the Firefight option from Reach and Halo: ODST, adding a full narrative in the form of episodes and chapters, with a weekly computer-generated series to add to the package. To be played alone or with partners, the Spartan Ops missions add good value to what is already a deep selection of extracurricular goodies.
Another big win is the introduction of the Mantis, a giant ED-209ish bipedal assault robot that packs a lot of power into its frame. It can be destroyed fairly easily by committed opponents, but the fun is in racking up as many kills as possible before they figure out how.
Visually, Halo 4 is a stunning effort, and the non-playable characters finally look like real humans rather than action figures carved out of potatoes.
In terms of the musical score, former lead composer Marty O'Donnell has left the franchise in good hands. Neil Davidge, best known as a co-writer and producer for British trip hop heroes Massive Attack, has built upon the orchestral groundwork done by his predecessor - orchestral pieces, booming or sparse - and created a soundscape well-suited for the unfamiliar and frightening planet Requiem.
Davidge succeeds by taking a pulse-quickening dose of electronica and injecting it right into the vein, creating a mix that perfectly compliments the intensity of the action and the fear of the unknown.
When the game reaches its final stages, with so much riding on the Chief's actions and so much drama in the air, the music takes another turn and guides the player into some pretty dark places. You'll have to play it for yourself to see what I mean, but it'll be worth the effort.
Combat evolved... again
With their first fully-original Halo title now complete, 343 Industries have succeeded in reinventing the wheel. Halo 4 looks like Halo, but better. It sounds like Halo, but better. It plays like Halo, but better. Anyone who has spent any time on the preceding games can pick this one up and play it competently.
For all that, it feels like nothing else before it. The storyline relationship between Cortana and the Chief has an incredible amount of weight and meaning to it, and will undoubtedly hit home for people who have experienced similar relationships themselves or seen them unfold before them. There's a maturity in the writing that is commendable; it's not about shock value, but about affecting the heart.
This is a game that is superior to its predecessors in every conceivable way, with enough action and emotion to qualify it as one of the great cultural works of the year, regardless of the medium.
Simply put, this is the best Halo yet.
Platform: Xbox 360