HALO 4 Holograms: the ultimate forbidden love.

THE MULTIPLAYER OPTIONS in Halo 4 are varied and robust. Which is to say: They provide everything from a profound sense of accomplishment to the unique shame of being humiliated by some 12-year-old who is far, far better than you. Halo 4 hews to the scope of previous Halos: There's a universe-spanning threat, some vaguely Latinate, weirdly portentous words like "Didact" and "Cryptum," and the massive scale of both the environments and the missions is ridiculously grandiose. Since 2001's Halo, the series has been a blockbuster: big, fun, and polished to a spit-shine. But mostly just big.

Which is why Halo 4—developed by Microsoft's 343 Industries, rather than original Halo developers Bungie—is weird. Oh, it still delivers the well-paced, addictive shooting that's the series' hallmark, and that alone would've been enough to convince Halo fans the series was in good hands. But then 343 Industries did something more: They focused on the characters.

Indie games, and stories from studios like BioWare, focus on character all the time—but Halo? Not so much. And yet Halo 4's best moments are the small ones, between series star Master Chief and his A.I. companion, Cortana. Master Chief's been perforating aliens for 11 years, always with Cortana's voice in his head, telling him where to go and what to do. But Cortana has outgrown her programming—once reliable, she's now volatile, unpredictable, and angry. As Halo 4 begins, Master Chief vows to get Cortana to the people who can fix her. Naturally, an ancient alien jerk gets in the way, so there's some shooting and stuff too. But at the core of Halo 4's rewarding campaign is the oddly sweet relationship between a cybernetically enhanced murder machine and his super-smart hologram girlfriend. Who, even as aliens are trying to kill them, won't stop acting all crazy. Ugh. Relationships, right?

As a fun, bombastic, explosion-y shooter, Halo 4 does everything right. The fact it also attempts—and accomplishes—something more subtle and emotional is a hell of a surprise and a great sign of where 343 Industries plans to go from here.