Games of 2012: Halo 4

It all comes flooding back.

For ten years Halo has been my favourite console game. I played the first one at university with my friends, as I imagine a lot of you did. After university I moved into my mum's new flat in Streatham, South London and bullied her, really, into not only getting the internet, but letting me run a ten-metre-long ethernet cable from my Xbox, along my bedroom floor, down the stairs and into the router by the kitchen, just so I could sign up to Xbox Live and play Halo 2 online.

I went to the launch of Halo 3 in September 2007 as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed reporter for my old website, then called Pro-G. It was a game I gave 10/10 to and played until my eyes bled. I interviewed a couple of developers from Bungie and asked them about virtual water.

But then the wheels started to come off. I appreciate Halo 3: ODST for being a bit different and, in hindsight, a damn good game in its own right (ODST is the Kid A of the Halo series), but I didn't keep up with it online. And then Halo: Reach, Bungie's final Halo game, which is great, a cheery wave goodbye to Master Chief and his chums in the UNSC, but it didn't grab me like Halo 3 did.

Now I'm older and wiser. I'm in my thirties. I'm married. I have a job that I love devoting most of my time to. I'm thinking about things I didn't in my twenties, like mortgages, schools, second bedrooms. I have opinions about lamps.

Halo kind of slipped away into the part of my mind where memories of World of Warcraft and Street Fighter 2 and all those other games I used to care about being good at sit around a camp fire singing old war songs. Halo is part of the old me, the guy who would stay up all night playing games just because, the guy who used to smash his fists and, on occasion, other parts of his body, into the wall like a petulant prick when he died.

Halo 4 brought that all flooding back.

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You again.

I was just like you. I thought, oh, no, not Microsoft. That wasn't born out of concern about Microsoft, but concern that it wasn't Bungie. God knows what Microsoft will do with Halo, I thought. God knows...

And then snippets of information. Master Chief's new threads. Cortana's sexy redesign (which, by the way, you forget about after the second cut-scene). The Forerunners, the Prometheans, the Librarian, the Didact and, then... load-outs.

I was just like you. I thought, oh no, not Call of Duty. Halo is the Street Fighter of first-person shooters. Each battle begins on a level playing field. There is no advantage at the start. To win: know the map. Know the weapons. No scope with the sniper rifle. Drop shields with the plasma pistol. A burst of the Battle Rifle. A head shot. Boom. TrueSkill.

Now, with Halo 4, experience points, load-outs, kill streaks and perks. Care packages! No thanks, Microsoft. But then I played the game. I played it and I loved it and I still love it.

The truth is the load-outs aren't that bad. They just aren't that bad. Yes, you no longer start on a level playing field. You no longer begin with an assault rifle and a magnum - the same two weapons as the other guys on the other side of the map - but the early levelling-up game is quick to grant you new toys and it's great fun getting them.

The truth is the orbital drops aren't that bad. They're a great addition, actually, and serve as short, sharp bursts of pleasure whether you win or lose the match. Orbital drops quickly join the bloodstream that pumps relentlessly through Halo's heart, jolting you into action every now and then like self-made adrenaline.

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These guys.

And the maps. Some of Halo 4's maps are instant classics: Complex is a bombastic kill box for the run-and-gun (and Ghost) fanatic. Haven is breathless, two-storey carnage that, once mastered, is your spider's web, ensnaring victims who, you hope, are smashing their pads into their bedroom walls in unison with each shot of your DMR.

Halo 4 is not without its problems. The DMR is a tad overpowered (it's a bit like using Barcelona in FIFA), the matchmaking sometimes makes me scratch my head and the campaign plot's desperate attempt to make me care about Master Chief's relationship with Cortana fell short. But these are flaws I easily forgave.

The most important thing to note about Halo 4 - and this is 343's greatest achievement - is that it's true to what Halo is. The studio didn't let the opportunity it had to stamp its authority on the series go to its head. The best bits of the campaign are when you step up into a bowl of an arena, marvel at the enemy AI knocking lumps out of each other then jump in firing your assault rifle and throwing grenades and running behind rocks.

The best bits of multiplayer are when you score a triple-kill because you're just that damn good with the sniper rifle and you've just run over the enemy team with a Ghost. What's great about Halo 4 is what's great about Halo; despite the inevitable inclusion of more modern shooter features, it feels pretty old school.

This is why I'm incredibly excited by what 343 does with Halo 5 on the next Xbox. I expect it will deviate even further from the Halo formula, but the studio has proved that it's smart enough to keep the magic intact. Master Chief's floaty jump, his shield, the 30 seconds of fun, the plasma pistol, the vehicles, the teabagging...

I love Halo 4 because it rekindles memories of playing Halo in my twenties. Call it misguided nostalgia. Call it bias. Call it whatever you want. Halo made me, and Halo 4 refuses to let me forget it.

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