"There's a lot of stuff that Call of Duty does beautifully that we should do better," Frank O'Connor told OXM back in September 2011, not long after Halo 4 went public, "and that should always be everyone's stance when they see a new game." Hear that, Activision and EA? That's how you address the presence of a large and well-armed rival, not by making snarky comments about frame rates or telling everybody the other guy talks about your product more than you do.
O'Connor's take on the competition was a breath of fresh air during a period of more than usually mindless headline-level sniping, and thankfully, that's reflected in his game. See, while Activision and EA were hoiking rock-filled verbal snowballs at one another, 343 was perched on the sidelines, studying their habits with an eagle's eye. The result is a multiplayer component that's as intent on immediate, explosive gratification as Call of Duty, yet as mindful of the bigger tactical picture as Battlefield. Congratulations, Halo 4. You're the one they didn't see coming.
It's a great Halo game too, lest returning fans take umbrage - though as we noted in our Halo 4 review, a slight wont of new modes and features may disappoint those hoping for another, Reach-style case of thermonuclear excess. Whether you're dodging backwards and forwards over a dropped flag, waiting for the countdown to elapse, parking Banshees on faces in Big Team Slayer or taking a break from the mid-map frenzy, sniper rifle in hand, the base rules are familiar and simple.
The semi-automatic and single shot rifle dominate all. Grenade ambushes rule corner battles, providing they're well-timed. Special weapons are for short-lived flourishes, not prolonged carnage. And duels collapse in two halves - the part where you strip away your opponent's shield, and the part where you hammer home your advantage before his shield can recharge. Each of the old components has been extensively tweaked, as you'd expect, but the overall feel is the same. Where things get screwy is in the form of supporting systems.
Fond of Call of Duty's streaks, but not so fond of the massive chasm they create between hyper-skilled players and amateurs? Halo 4 is the game for you. There's a streak system, coughing up a selection of special weapons and gear when you string together three kills, but it's randomised - the most control you'll ever have over the offerings comes via an unlockable ability which lets you "re-roll" the contents of each "Ordinance Drop".
What's more, the goods aren't dumped in your lap. You'll have to collect them from orbital insertion pods, sweating in the knowledge that another player may beat you to the prize. There's nothing quite like running up a stairwell towards the winking green siren on your radar, only to gallop straight into the business end of your very own Incineration Cannon.
Pleased by Battlefield's attempts to foster team and objective play, but not prepared to spend entire matches doling out medipacks, suppressing people and hacking terminals? Halo 4 is also the game for you. The onus is still on duking it out mano-e-mano and revelling in your own lethality, but the fact that you now earn points for, among other things, creating a fatal distraction or being a surgical driver acts as an unobtrusive progress-cushion. All the new assists apply to actions and tactics that already exist in Halo multiplayer - the difference is that you're now rewarded for using them. It's considerate without ever feeling patronising.