Microsoft Game Studios
When we last saw Master Chief, he was lost, adrift and headed towards an uncertain future. Microsoft’s flagship “Halo” franchise has spent the last four years in much the same state. “Halo 3” was the weakest installment in its trilogy, and it was followed by a series of spin-off games (“ODST,” “Reach,” “Halo Wars”) that only further diluted the power of the brand. Even the immensely popular multiplayer feature offer by “Halo” was dethroned by “Call of Duty.” And then the series was passed from original creator Bungie to a new developer, 343 Industries, which as of this moment has only ever created a single game: “Halo 4. Fortunately for 343 Industries, that single game is one of the greatest first-person shooters of all time.
First off, the story is amazing. It focuses on the relationship between the Chief and his mentally and emotionally deteriorating A.I. sidekick Cortana, who passed her expiration date while the Chief was cryo-sleeping. Their quiet scenes together carry real emotional weight and juxtapose nicely with the epic grandeur of the rest of the narrative. The “Forerunners” were first mentioned in the original “Halo,” and the unraveling of their mysteries ultimately yields exciting new enemies called Prometheans as well as the first proper villain the series has ever had. Between the new Prometheans and the returning Covenant forces, combat winds up being the perfect mixture of innovation and nostalgia. Multiplayer in particular feels comfortably familiar while simultaneously feeling thrillingly fresh. It’s a difficult balance to achieve and probably a pricey one. Fortunately, Microsoft seems to have spared no expense. The graphics are the best the Xbox 360 has ever seen. The sound design is the best the 360 has ever heard. And most astonishingly, the gameplay is the best that “Halo” fans have ever experienced.
If “Burnout Paradise” and “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit” had a head-on collision at top speed, the resulting game would be the hybrid, “Need for Speed: Most Wanted,” possessing the former game’s open world, crash-encouraging races and the latter game’s relentless harassment by law enforcement. The more you race, the more you anger the cops. The more you’re wanted by the cops, the more you’re challenged by fellow street racers, leading to more races and angrier cops and so on. The escalation inevitably leads to spike strips, roadblocks and other police deterrents that will have you frequently swerving off road to explore paths you didn’t even know existed moments before.
Marvel’s “Secret Invasion” story arc acts as the backdrop for this Kinect-powered motion-controlled fighting game. As Kinect games go, “Battle for Earth” is commendably responsive, registering your commands a solid 90 percent of the time. Unfortunately, this is made possible by an embarrassingly limited move-set that robs the game of any potential depth. Still, there’s an undeniable thrill to pantomiming the moves of your favorite superheroes, and the power of your actions can be augmented with Kinect’s voice recognition, as long as you don’t mind hurling your fists in the middle of your living room while screaming, “Hulk smash!” CV