What is New is Old Again
(Warning, there be spoilers ahead)
When Halo 3 ended, it was left in a way that when someone was ready, they could really take the series anywhere they wanted. With a different developer being put to the task of making the next Halo trilogy and the freedom that Halo 3 left them with, you might have the feeling that Halo 4 is going to be something different, exciting, and everything you've ever wanted it to be. It turns out that that is not so much the case.
Where Halo 4 needed to differ the most was it's story. We're five games into this franchise and it's time to do something different from what we've done in those games. Not so much says Halo 4. You fight twice as much Covenant as you do the new Prometheans. The Covenant have completely reverted back to what they were in Halo 1, and you're on an alien world and very shortly after landing on it you hook back up with other humans and get back to shooting the Covenant, who join the Prometheans just 'cause. Sound familiar at all?
While Halo 4's story is a lot of the same, it does differ in some significant ways. Most notably and probably the best part about it is Master Chief. Master Chief is a character who doesn't try to be awesome or show how awesome he is, he just ends up being that way, even though he really doesn't care if he is or isn't. He was just a character with a job to do, and he just did it with an almost unwavering calmness. Of course the only thing that could break his calm is anything involving Cortana, which due to a lame plot device is going crazy and dying. This makes the Master Chief on edge and emotional, and as such he has a lot more to say, probably more than he has said in all the previous Halo games combined. Where the brilliance comes from is from some solid writing and Steve Downes fantastic voice acting. In situations involving Cortana, you can definitely tell that Master Chief is getting emotional and yet he still preserves being calm and collected. This is very difficult thing to portray and balance and yet either by accident or brilliance they pull it off perfectly. Master Chief gets more developed as a human character without becoming an overly emotional sobbing boy and retains what made him so great initially as a character in Halo 1. Halo 4 solidifies him even more so as one of the best characters in video game history and is the best part of it's story.
Another saving grace to Halo 4's story is that where you're going actually makes sense. Halo 2 and to some extent Halo 3 said you're going here just for the fuck of it. No God damn coherent good reason. In Halo 4, you don't stay on the alien planet for long, and it makes sense as to why you leave it and go to a research station, and it even makes sense why you're there as well, which is a very welcomed changed to the franchise.
What absolutely kills Halo 4's story though is it's over arching plot, which is true to Halo story telling, in that it is convoluted as hell. The main villain of Halo 4 is a Forerunner called the Didact, which you accidentally release at the beginning of the game and he starts wreaking havoc. As to why he is doing this is rapid fire explained to you by another Forerunner in one cinematic, giving you no time to process what she is actually saying. Even if she said it slower, what she actually is saying seems too abstract to make sense as to what is going on and why. This is reminiscent of "The Great Journey" of the previous Halo games, that says you should activate the Halo rings because they believe it makes you a God, though as to why or how you never fucking know. And just like the previous Halo games, in the end you have no real reason to care about who the Didact is or why he is doing what he is doing, but he's going to kill humanity and you need to stop him. Again, sound familiar?
While the story of Halo 4 differs in significant ways and not enough in others, the gameplay really doesn't differ at all in the campaign, and I think that's okay. The Halo series has contributed a large part of what shooters are today and it doesn't seem to be changing it up any time soon. You still throw grenades, melee dudes in the back, and have vehicle sequences that are pretty awesome. The difficulty has definitely be cranked up if you wanted more challenge from your Halo games, but at it's core it's still just the same. If you like Halo the way it is, don't worry, it's still Halo. If you wanted Halo to change in someway though, this isn't the game for you.
Halo 4's multiplayer on the other hand has drastically changed for the better. Taking cues from Call of Duty, you now have perks in the game. Some perks are unique to Halo, such as better resistance to EMP while in a vehicle, and some are synonymous to perks you've come to know in Call of Duty. The perks and classes, like in Call of Duty, allow you to play the game you want, though people end up pretty much playing the same way, as the weapons vary very little. The biggest core change though is your resiliency. In previous Halo games you were a walking tank that could take abuse like hell and firefights could last for minutes. Halo 4 firefights at most last seconds. They don't make shields like the use to and you die much more quickly. They find a nice balance though between Call of Duty's fragility and Halo's original resiliency. You have enough time to maybe escape and survive if someone gets the drop on you in Halo 4, but not by much. If you were on the fence between Call of Duty's multiplayer and Halo's multiplayer, Halo 4 is definitely something you should check out.
The increased survive-ability however is a double edged blade, and if you were firmly in Call of Duty camp wondering if Halo 4 is something you need to be a part of, the answer is no. While I do like the balance that they have found for survive-ability in Halo 4, this in turn leads to a bigger problem, higher team dependency. Now it might sound weird that if your going to play team based games that the team is something you need to accept as part of the experience, and while I can write pages about this, let's for now accept that the random people you play with are terrible human beings and coordinating and being an effective team isn't going to happen ever. In Call of Duty, this isn't that big of a deal because you are quite lethal. If you flank 3 dudes, you're going to get 3 kills. Even in Halo 4 though, if you flank 3 dudes, you might get a kill, but the other 2 will end you right quick unless you have someone bring in more lethality to the fight then what you have. Because of this, team dependency is far higher in Halo 4 than it is in Call of Duty, and because your average human isn't that great of a team player, it really ends up hurting the experience.
Lastly though is that third mode that needs to be in an FPS nowadays, which in this case is Spartan Ops. Spartan Ops is episodic in it's release, and each episode contains a cinematic containing a story which takes place after Halo 4, which is quite good actually, and then some missions, which are quite lame. You are thrown into an area from the campaign or a multiplayer level and then you kill dudes there, some more. It seems significantly more half-assed than anything I've ever played in a Halo game. Each mission generally just has you running to some way point that needs to be blown up and is just placed some where with a bunch of dudes between you and it, with the enemy and objective placement having no real thought put into it at all. The campaign on the other hand has everything that Spartan Ops has, but it is much more thought out in its design and it shows. The only difference between the two is that in Spartan Ops death doesn't matter at all, but if you need to play something cooperatively, play the campaign.
The production values of Halo 4, while still good, have definitely changed with the developers. The sound and graphics of Halo 4 are amazing, and is quite possibly the best looking Xbox 360 game period...when you're playing by yourself. If you try to play split screen anything with anyone, say good bye to your frame rate. I found playing split screen with a friend quite unplayable. Also, when I tried to play a co-op campaign mission with a friend on the same Xbox 360, the level broke and we simply could not play it. Halo 4 is still well made by gaming standards, but it isn't up to the Halo standards that Bungie has established for the series.
Halo 4 is different in a lot of ways. More development of the excellent character that is Master Chief, more choice in how you play multiplayer and a quicker multiplayer experience in general. But Halo 4 also needed to be more different than what it is. It needed the story to make sense all the way through, new enemies to be the front of what you're facing, and multiplayer that doesn't rely on the excellent Halo community. The production values aren't up to par with what Halo has been. In the end though, Halo 4 pulls off some significant changes that were needed that might sway you to play it. If you were in a completely different camp away from Halo though, Halo 4 isn't going to change your mind. It needed to be more different.