Microsoft have an awful lot riding on Halo 4. Their flagship gaming franchise, has been positioned as both a triumphant swansong for the Xbox 360 as well as the first entry in a new trilogy that will last well into the next generation of consoles.

That’s a lot of pressure for any studio but it must weigh particularly heavily on the unproven shoulders of 343 Industries, the newly formed studio taking the reins from the series original developer, Bungie.

We recently got hands on with the game and it was immediately apparent that 343 Industries have put their own mark on the series. A visually stunning game both technically and artistically, it looks far better than anything Bungie have ever produced while retaining Halo’s unique, utopian aesthetic.

One of the most noticeable graphical improvements comes in the facial animation, an area that Bungie either struggled or didn’t bother with, presumably because their protagonist never removed his helmet. Hopefully this focus on emotive animation will mean a more human approach to narrative, as opposed to Bungie’s epic but faceless space opera. Halo 4 pushes the Xbox 360 to its limits while retaining a solid frame rate, performing visibly better that previous instalments while pushing vastly improved graphics, it’s a technical marvel.

While the three pillars of Halo’s combat (guns, grenades and melee) are still very much in place, 343 have also left their mark on Halo’s gameplay. It moves at a considerably faster clip than any prior series entries, with the previously class specific sprint ability available to every player. By granting sprint to all players 343 have freed up the ability slot that was previously used for sprinting (the most useful but also disinteresting ability) by most players anyway.

With the ability slot freed up, 343 have introduced new abilities for players to genuinely customise their gameplay styles. These include Promethean vision which allows players to briefly detect movement through solid barriers; the thruster pack which gives players the edge in mobility (but is more vertically restrictive than Halo: Reach’s jetpack); and the Hardshield which protects players from damage while still allowing them some degree of movement. It remains to be seen whether these abilities will all be viable or, like sprint in Halo: Reach, one ability will be deemed superior by the majority of the player base.

Ordinance drops and support upgrades have also been added but these are considerably less intrusive and disruptive that Call of Duty’s killstreaks. They drop new weapons and provide passive bonuses like extended radar range or increased shield potential.

We are happy to report from our time with the game that 343 Industries don’t appear to have buckled under the immense pressure of taking on one of gaming’s most beloved franchises. They have produced a title that, while faithful to its lineage, is also a bold and experimental rebirth for the series.

Halo 4 is set to be released on 6 November 2012 and is available to pre-order.

Watch the trailer: