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‘Halo,’ ‘Call of Duty’ reload storylines with jolts of innovative gameplay, fresh twists on shooter genre

Nothing gets gamers in the holiday spirit like super soldiers saving the world from behind a gun. At least that’s what Microsoft and Activision are hoping this year. Here are two games that will make people thankful that there are fictional militaries to save us every time the apocalypse comes around.

“Halo 4”

Developer: 343 Industries

Platforms: Xbox 360 ($60)

“Halo 4” had an uncertain fate since its beginning. The series creators at Bungie left this one to Microsoft, which started a new studio, 343 Industries, for the sole purpose of making “Halo” games. The new team had a lot to prove, but it has successfully shown that it knows “Halo” — maybe a little too well.

The ending of “Halo 3” saw space marine Master Chief and his artificial intelligence companion, Cortana, teleported to the far reaches of the universe. This was a great chance for the developers to change everything. But within the first minutes of “Halo 4,” the Chief finds himself shooting Covenant Grunts and Elites. Players eventually meet the ancient alien Prometheans, who take up the helm as new enemies, but about two-thirds of the game looks like the “Halo” they know.

On the bright side, this is the best “Halo” has ever looked. The lighting, weapon detail, massive vistas and everything else show that the 5-year-old Xbox 360 still has some tricks up its sleeve. As for the story, even when the new doomsday plot of the week seems forced, the exploration of Chief and Cortana’s relationship is engaging. Other additions, like missions in bulky mesh suits and high-speed starfighters, change the pace even more.

Multiplayer mode, now dubbed “War Games,” has simply made things more like “Call of Duty.” Previously, “Halo” matches were races to control the best guns, but the new system sets players up with a predetermined weapons loadout that can be upgraded by leveling up. The action remains the same, though, and fans of both series will enjoy the new bits.

The Firefight survival mode has been replaced with Spartan Ops, a short cooperative campaign that is updated weekly with new missions. As a campaign, it seems a bit lacking. But taken as Firefight-plus-story, it’s a good excuse to keep returning to the game.

343 Industries is set to make at least two more “Halo” games, and this is an excellent foundation for the future. However, I hope that next time around the team gets as adventurous with the campaign as it did with the multiplayer.

4/5 Fireballs

 

“Call of Duty: Black Ops II”

Developer: Treyarch

Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii U, PC ($60)

The first “Black Ops” was a welcome shift from the “Modern Warfare” side of “Call of Duty,” with its conspiracy theory-based storyline and bizarre-yet-popular Zombies mode. “Black Ops II” sees Treyarch continuing to carve its own identity into the franchise, but has COD fatigue started to set in?

The story mode follows David Mason, son of the first game’s hero, in 2025 as he tries to stop a terror plot involving the U.S. unmanned drone fleet.

For the first time in the series, player choices affect the direction of the story. Each mission has at least one objective, like protecting or killing certain characters, which can be failed as the story continues. It feels much more dynamic than previous campaigns, but none of the missions are fantastic, except for a late-game invasion of Los Angeles.

The setting does add fun to the multiplayer, giving players access to scopes that can see through walls and heat wave generators that keep enemies out of their radius. Players can now choose from almost any 10 items when creating classes. They can double-up on perks or even remove all guns in favor of just a knife, if they like. The core gameplay, though, is still pure “Call of Duty.” Aim, fire, earn experience.

The Zombies mode is mostly unchanged, with one added mode called “TranZit.” Here, players can board a robot-driven bus that drives in five different locations. They can then upgrade the bus with found parts, like a roof hatch to take zombies out from above.

The story changes are the biggest this year. But without the gameplay to back up its ambitions, the work falls to multiplayer and zombies, which remain well-built, but haven’t improved much. Eight games into this yearly cycle, it may be time to take a break.

3.5/5 Fireballs

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