Halo. It's really all Microsoft had to say. The franchise is a core element of the Xbox ecosystem, and it's not going away anytime soon. Yet, for all the certainty that there would be a Halo 4, Microsoft and 343 did an excellent job of keeping all the details close to the vest. Even having seen an early version of the engine running (and make no mistake, it was just the engine), it's still difficult to say what to expect from the next iteration of Halo.
What we do know is that Halo 4 is seen internally by the team at 343 as starting fresh and laying the foundation for the next series of games. According to Frank O'Connor, the Franchise Development Director at 343, pre-production on Halo 4 started three years ago.
"Effectively, we are restarting the franchise," said O'Connor.
Despite it being 343's first official Halo game, it's not as if the team is unfamiliar with the franchise. Many of the faces at 343, including O'Connor, were involved when Bungie was still at the helm. As a result, the biggest challenge the team faced wasn't trying to understand the soul of the game, but rather how to move forward with it. The first thing they decided was that Halo would continue to focus on Master Chief.
During the presentation, O'Connor made it clear that Halo 4 will be a direct follow-on to Halo 3 because, "everyone wants to know what happens to Master Chief."
As far as details, there wasn't much to go on. We were told that Master Chief will face a new threat and new challenges. Master Chief's past enemies are fairly well understood, so Halo 4 will introduce a brand-new enemy, described only as "massive." Both Cortana and the Covenant forces will make a return; however, the focus is going to be on the new rather than the old.
Visually, the team is striving for a more cinematic look with Halo 4. Master Chief has been redrawn with more detail, while at the same time returning to his roots. The classic battle rifle is back, and that's sure to please long time franchise fans. The story is promised to drive both the single-player and the multiplayer portions of the game. This alone has the potential to make multiplayer more interesting.
Instead of simply fighting it out as generic Spartans, multiplayer will have you suiting up as a Spartan IV. Not only does the Spartan IV have a distinct look, it will also be highly customizable. The customization extends to skills and abilities, so it's not just a visual makeover. How you equip your multiplayer character will have an impact on how it performs in-game. Why you're fighting against other Spartans? All we got is a promise that the game's story will explain it all.
In Halo: Reach, one of the big complaints about multiplayer was that it repurposed single-player content for multiplayer. Not so here. All of the multiplayer arenas in Halo 4 will be specifically designed for multiplayer and not pulled from another part of the game.
"We took a lot of heat for reusing [Halo: Reach's] campaign spaces in multiplayer," said O'Connor.
Two of the multiplayer arenas were on display during the demo. It wasn't actual gameplay, but rather a real-time flythrough designed to highlight the look and feel of the levels.
The first was Warhouse, a human military industrial complex and is in orbit around a gas giant. Although the architecture was new, the in-game textures were distinctly Halo-looking. Because it's a human base, there appeared to be plenty of corridors and narrow spaces designed to force high-intensity firefights. Based on first impressions, this probably isn't the map for the claustrophobic.
Interestingly enough, the one element that really stood out on Warhouse wasn't the level itself, but the sound of the Spartan's footsteps. Rather than just a basic clanking of metal, there was a heavy bass sound with every single step. You can chalk it up to increased gravity around the gas giant, but the effect was impressive. Just hearing the rhythmic thud made the player character seem massive.
The second level we saw was Wraparound. This was a Forerunner facility that was centered around an artificial sun. Yeah, they were creating an artificial star in order to mine it for solar energy. Unlike Warhouse, Wraparound looked like a very open level, complete with man cannons ready to launch players across the map. A central area (where we presume the best weapons will spawn) looked like it would be a popular location for bloodbaths.
From a technical perspective, just about everything (lighting, rendering, etc.) in the engine is new. We asked about the resolution for the pixel counters out there, and the bad news is that Halo 4 will not be 1080p native. The good news is that it is already 720p native, and the team plans to hit that target with the final game.
Wrapping up the demo, we tried one last time to get a hint of the story out of O'Connor. He stayed mum, saying only, "The chief is in orbit around a mysterious world."
Expect to hear more about that "mysterious world" come E3.
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