The Halo series is arguably Bungie Studios' finest hour, resulting in a slew of critically acclaimed videogames.
From Halo on the original Xbox to the sublime Halo: Reach, each game has brought something new to the table, pushing their host consoles to the limit.
So it's only fair to say that when Bungie Studios announced it was moving to greener pastures, there was some doubt that Microsoft studio 343 Industries could take the series to new heights.
Come out swinging
Halo 4 is a new beginning in many ways, being the start of a new trilogy, but players still get to play as series hero Master Chief.
Chief's return is far from triumphant, being woken up from stasis when their starship is on the verge of being sucked into the inside of a Forerunner planet.
Once you've awoken from your artificial slumber, the first thing you'll notice is just how beautiful everything looks, with 343 Industries paying loads of attention to detail.
The Halo series has always been a technological showcase, especially when it comes to the sheer scale of the environments. But it's the little details, such as dust dancing in the dimly lit hallways, that drive home the fact that this is a labour of love.
However, you're not alone on the doomed ship, as you'll soon find out, with long-time enemies the Covenant on board too...
Beginning a new fight
Gunplay in Halo 4 is as engaging as ever, being familiar to anyone who's played the last few titles in the series.
For the uninitiated, this means that you're equipped with a recharging shield and carry two weapons at once, along with a variety of grenades.
The beauty of the two-weapon system is that you're forced to weigh up your weapon pick-ups. Do you keep the plasma pistol despite its low ammo count or do you pick up the slightly lacklustre but fast-firing Battle Rifle? Decisions decisions...
You'll be facing the aforementioned Covenant aliens again, ranging from the tiny Grunts and shield-toting Jackals to the formidable Elites and hulking Hunters.
But you'll also be facing some new enemies this time, in the form of the Prometheans, a variant of the ancient Forerunner race. After all, most of the game takes place on a Forerunner planet.
Much like previous Halo games, it's not just a simple case of spraying and praying, with each enemy requiring different tactics to kill. For instance, the Jackal has a hole in its shield which should be exploited, while the Prometheans often have floating sentry bots which need to be destroyed first.
Along with the new enemies come a slew of new weapons too, such as the SAW machine-gun, an entire class of Promethean weapons, vehicle-mounted Gauss cannons and a sticky remote detonator.
Of course, there are plenty of old faithfuls still, such as the stalwart Magnum pistol, semi-automatic DMR, battle rifle, assault rifle, rocket launcher, Spartan Laser and the usual plasma-based Covenant weapons.
The armour abilities from Halo: Reach have also received a slight overhaul, with players able to sprint from the get-go in the campaign and multiplayer. No ability needed.
The abilities range from the usual jetpack and hard shield to a sentry bot and invisibility. Much like Reach, you also have a cooldown timer, so you have to give your ability a few seconds to recharge first.
Of course, the campaign must end sometime and it was all over in about seven or eight hours. We were a tad underwhelmed by the time it took, but then again, those playing on harder difficulties will get a bit more time out of it.
Additionally, we were a tad disappointed with the rare quick-time event we'd encounter now and again, adding nothing to the game really, as a swift cut-scene would've been a more suitable option.
An audio/visual feast
The visuals don't let up through the game though, with the fantastical environments of previous titles intact. The Forerunner planet in particular is a fantastic vehicle for the improved graphics thanks to its chromatic buildings and variety of natural environments, ranging from jungle-lined valleys to windswept cliffs.
The lighting in particular is the star of the show in Halo 4, with rays bouncing off metallic surroundings and illuminating the environment. Much like previous games, blowing up a vehicle always results in a kaleidoscopic debris shower - a veritable feast for the eyes.
Scale is another element that Halo 4 excels in, whether you're emerging from the wreckage of your gigantic starship or on board the gargantuan Mammoth tank.
However, in saying so, it doesn't quite reach the giddy heights of taking on two monstrous scarab tanks at once as in Halo 3 or trying in vain to hold off the Covenant in Halo: Reach.
Still, that doesn't mean that there aren't epic sequences to be had, such as holding off an invading armada with a giant mech walker or anything involving the Mammoth super-tank.
However, special mention must also go to the audio side of things, most notably omitting the legendary Gregorian chants of previous titles. It's a brave move but the revised musical score works well, making it a suitable albeit not as memorable soundtrack as the earlier games.
Voice-acting is as fantastic as ever, with Jen Taylor doing a fantastic job playing Cortana, Master Chief's long-time AI companion who's slowly going corrupt. Her desperation to avoid corruption is one of the game's key story arcs and Taylor brings that emotion to the table, serving as a fantastic motivation for the player.
More than just a story...
But there's more to Halo 4 than the campaign, thanks to the ever-popular online multiplayer suite (called War Games) and the new Spartan Ops mode.
The multiplayer modes are as addictive as ever, with a comprehensive level system in place and the usual variety of match types. In a neat touch, it's possible to play online in split-screen mode too, letting you and a few buddies play on the same console while taking on other players.
However, the biggest addition to the formula is the ability to call on Kill-Streaks of sorts, in the vein of Call of Duty. In other words, you get to call on a bonus item or ability once you've killed a set number of enemies in a row.
But before you throw your toys, it's actually implemented pretty well, with none of this airstrike and nuclear weapon nonsense. Instead, you can get speed bonuses, different weapons and more. It's a fun incentive to score consecutive kills, but it's by no means an annoyance as with Call of Duty.
The multiplayer mode alone should keep you occupied for a while, but if you prefer a more cooperative or solitary experience, then Spartan Ops is for you.
In lieu of the wave-based Firefight mode, introduced in Halo 3: ODST, we now have the episodic Spartan Ops mode, playable by yourself, in two-player split-screen or over Xbox Live.
Sure, the loss of Firefight is sad, but the new mode is an infinitely more preferable addition, giving gamers a dripfeed of story-based missions, set six months after Halo 4.
You'll initially only have one chapter divided into five missions to deal with, but you'll get five new missions every week for ten weeks after the game's release. All in all, gamers will have about 50 missions at the end of the run, making it well worth the price of admission.
And these missions are no walk in the park either, making full use of the Halo sandbox, as a result, there are loads of enemies to contend with, as well as some fantastic set-pieces.
The maps are pretty open and well-designed, and with online and offline cooperative play being supported, it's well worth revisiting.
The beginning of a new beginning
The doubts about the future of the Halo franchise can be assuaged, as Halo 4 is in wonderfully capable hands.
From the beautiful visuals and epic audio to the new Spartan Ops mode and the action-packed Campaign, the latest Halo title proves that 343 Industries can take the series to new heights.
Sure, there are a few downsides, such as the lack of a Firefight mode and the occasional use of quick-time events, but that's not enough to sully what is an otherwise fantastic videogame.
Score: 9.4 out of 10