But that's not how things shook out. Instead, Bungie left Microsoft entirely, and Halo was left in the care of 343 Industries, a studio created exclusively to shepherd the franchise going forward. Who would have guessed that the untested team would create not only one of the best games of 2012, but one of the best games in the entire Halo series?
The surprise comes not in the fact that 343 managed to cobble together a competent Halo game, but that it managed to eclipse much of Bungie's own work. The storytelling is some of the strongest in the series, bolstered by excellent facial animations and performance capture that brings characters to life. Cortana is finally endowed with the physicality and humanity to match Jen Taylor's pitch-perfect vocal performance. The Chief, too, hums with a new humanity, uncharacteristically breaking from the confines of duty for the sake of friendship, loyalty and love.
Of course, it helps that 343 crafted a fantastic shooter to go along with Halo 4's improved narrative chops. The Promethean enemies are at once refreshing and comfortable, both adding new dimensions to Halo's thoughtful combat and feeling as though they've been a part of it all along. The expanded arsenal brings just as much to the table, from the returning precision of the Battle Rifle to the messy, random destruction of the Incineration Cannon.
343 took on a herculean task in tackling one of the industry's best loved and most successful franchises, but the result speaks for itself. The studio clearly loves Halo just as much as we do, and every facet of Halo 4 puts that dedication on display.
Joystiq is revealing its 10 favorite games of 2012 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal picks in Best of the Rest roundups. The list so far: