Halo and I go way back; all the way back, in fact, to the very first. Bungie's new universe thrilled me from the very start and, despite hiccups with the Library level in the original game, I've stuck with it, and anticipate every new entry in the series like few other franchises that still exist today.
So it's fair to say, then, that I had a few thoughts going through my mind when I stepped into the lobby at Microsoft's headquarters in Sydney, just moments away from a multi-hour Halo 4 marathon. Having already played the game at a Halo-themed party in LA earlier in the year, certain expectations were already set in my mind.
There was also a small amount of apprehension that, despite having seen their work (and being impressed by it), the new Halo-dedicated 343 Studios were up against it, taking over developmental duties on Halo games going forward.
Hours later, when i once again stepped into the 30+ degree Sydney heat, one thing was crystal clear: Halo 4 is going to blow everyone away. It was, without question, one of the most amazing hands-on experiences I've ever had.
But let's start at the beginning.
My first experience was of Halo 4's singleplayer story mode, which sees the welcome return of series protagonist Master Chief. Last seen at the end of Halo 3 where - spoiler alert - he went into stasis for the long journey home, he awakens to find things are not as originally intended. Don't worry, I won't spoil the story any further for you; just know that it immediately feels very much like a Halo game should. The guys at 343 clearly get Halo, and these opening minutes helped to very quickly put my mind at ease on that score.
Something else that struck me immediately was just how technically impressive the title is. Materials look every bit like they should, levels are rich with detail, and the polish on display is second to none. Particles float through the air, helping you appreciate when you're under the effects of gravity, vacuum, etc, and the lighting effects look simply stunning.
Dead Space 3 developer Visceral might well be shooting for something above and beyond what we understand a "triple-A" game to be, but if what I've seen so far is in anyway indicative of the product as a whole, Halo 4 may well pip them at the post. It looked stunning.
Part of our singleplayer experience was our introduction to the Prometheans, Halo 4's new enemies. You might have seen these guys in action when they were first shown at E3 earlier this year; I was impressed by them at the time, but even knowing they were coming simply did not prepare me for what I was to experience.
These guys are badass and quite unlike anything I've encountered in a shooter before. Their weaponry adds welcome variety to Master Chief's arsenal, too, and the way they animate into place when you equip them for the first time further underlines the level of polish and panache that 343 are employing here.
After playing a couple of story levels, in which some very interesting plot revelations were made, we headed over to play some multiplayer - starting with the game's traditional deathmatch modes. We played several maps, but my favorite was a fairly simple and quite tight outdoor area with a large number of vehicles on offer - including a two-legged mech. These fairly indomitable vehicles trigger a key strategic shift in the experience when they're deployed, and must be dealt with by enemy players as a priority, or they'll completely own the battlefield - as my opponents swiftly found out.
Other levels continued to reinforce the vision - and budget - behind the title, with exploration leading to all sorts of nooks, crannies, and fun gameplay opportunities - and the emergent gameplay experiences that come with them. I was often finding a neat little hideaway, from which I'd happily snipe away at my fellow journalists, only to be blown to pieces by the gun atop a giant tank - which some other clever so-and-so had found tucked away in some corner of the map.
Our next stop was the game's outrageously generous Spartan Ops, Halo 4's cooperative campaign. Replacing firefight from Halo Reach and ODST, Spartan Ops will be released in five-mission chunks, once a week, for ten weeks after Halo 4 itself appears on shelves. Each episode comes with a cinematic, too, driving the narrative-based season along, and each of the fifty levels in total can be played by 1-4 players, online or off. Generous? Unlike most DLC, Spartan Ops is included in the price; that's right, a 50-mission bonus campaign, that you can play alone or with friends, for no extra charge.
Price is important, sure, but if the content isn't worth playing, at best it will gather dust in some forgotten corner of your hard disk; at worst, it will distract the developers and impact the quality of the rest of the game. Fortunately, as you might have guessed based on the generally glowing impressions this article has already given of the title, you have nothing to worry about here. While it's likely that the missions will take place on maps you've already seen, the designers have otherwise free reign to do as they please (within the game's toolset), to create new objectives and experiences therein.
We played through the first part of an episode and, while my compatriots were somewhat less keen to play it as a team as I was (boo, hiss), the experience oozed Halo. Every critical element of the experience was there, and having chums to kick around with - even if they're not team players - only heightened the enjoyment I got from my time with it.
It's easy to get jaded when you see high-profile games day in, day out. It's easy to slip into reviewer mode, and to start looking beyond what you're seeing, to the flaws that lie beneath. What's rare is when, while looking for faults, you can't find any. Or that, after playing the same game for hours at a time, you're still grinning, still keen for more, and willing to fight with that PR person should they attempt to wrest the controller from your grasp.
Yet that's exactly what I experienced with Halo 4.
Without question, it's now the game I'm most looking forward to for the rest of the year, and if you have any interest in the series at all, I suggest that you, too, mark November 6th on your calendar.
The Good: Everything. The developers clearly love Halo.
The Bad: Getting shot by the guy sitting next to you
The Ugly: Having to wait - even a few weeks - to play it again