Thursday, November 1, 2012

Preview: Halo 4

There are plenty of games that have dedicated fanbases -- and the accompanying zealots that are always part of the package -- but no game has ever spawned such a community of fans as Halo. When Halo: Combat Evolved was released, people took notice: it featured major innovations to the FPS formula, things that have lasted even to this day, and ended up being a huge community-friendly title. Bungie, the developers, worked very closely with their fanbase in hopes of providing an even better and richer experience.

Throughout this process, many fans utilized Halo in different ways; for example, the team at Rooster Teeth created a machinima with Halo that grew hugely popular, so much so that the people behind it managed to start a company based solely on their idea. They tapped into the community surrounding Halo in order to get started and have now become successful in their own right, all the while keeping a close relationship with the developers of Halo. In a lot of ways, especially for aspiring bloggers and journalists like myself, Rooster Teeth is the success story that we can aspire towards.

Long story short, Halo is a very one-of-a-kind game; the community around the franchise is huge and has remained dedicated even when other games have stolen the main stage spotlight. But now we are on the dawn of a new era for Halo. Bungie is no longer in the picture and Halo 4 is arriving on Tuesday next week. Many people are wondering what the Halo franchise is going to become under its new direction and it's my job to keep you informed. So read on, dear reader! We have a lot to discuss!

Anything I Should Know First?

Because the Halo franchise is so long, I think it's probably best to start with a quick synopsis of the series until this point, detailing the story of each game in chronological order. However, due to space constraints, I'd rather not type it all out; instead, check out this well-done video from the Lore in a Minute series on Youtube. Beware, spoilers ahead!

What the video doesn't cover is what happens in the games; Reach was a prequel detailing the fall of the planet Reach, where the supersoldiers were created. You were cast as a member of a six-man squad of SPARTANs and tasked with the job of retrieving a vital piece of human technology (revealed to be Cortana, the AI that accompanies Master Chief through the rest of the Halo series). Halo: Combat Evolved, the first game in the franchise, followed the enigmatic Master Chief as the humans discover the first halo installation and as Master Chief ultimately destroys it.

Halo 2 had the Covenant unwittingly arrive at Earth, only to escape; following, Master Chief discovers a second halo installation and learns that the Covenant are trying to find something known as the Ark, a legendary Forerunner construct where all the halos can be remotely fired at once. The portal to the Ark is, of course, conveniently located on Earth; thus the surprise arrival of the Covenant.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the events of Halo: ODST unfold; even though some of the Covenant fleet retreated, they left many soldiers behind, so the ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) are tasked with getting rid of them. Eventually, a six-person squad captures a new species of Covenant that is both friendly and hyper-intelligent with the hopes that it will be able to aid the human effort against the Covenant.

Many people disliked Halo 3: ODST, but I actually find it one of the most compelling entries in
the series. Not sure why...
Halo 3 follows Master Chief as he returns to and defends Earth from the Covenant, trying to stop them from activating the portal to the Ark. Unfortunately, the Covenant still manage to activate the portal, and a group of humans follow, leading them to a Flood-infested Forerunner construct far beyond the reaches of the Milky Way galaxy. Here, Master Chief eventually kills the remaining Prophet and decides to activate a nearby halo installation in order to destroy all the Flood on the Ark; in doing so, he is left behind at the fringe of space, cut off from any way back to Earth.

And that's the story of Halo to this point!

Anything Else?

Well that isn't going to end well.
Beyond the plot stuff, the most important thing to know about Halo 4 is that, unlike the previous five games, the game is not being developed by the much-beloved Bungie. Instead, Microsoft created an entirely new studio called 343 Industries (a play on the name of a Halo character, 343 Guilty Spark) that was devoted to the caretaking and future development of the Halo franchise. Though 343i have developed a number of different Halo-related programs (Halo: Waypoint and Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, primarily), Halo 4 will be their first attempt at a fully independent game. Bungie is an independent studio now and, though many employees from Bungie left to work at 343i, they are currently developing their own brand-new intellectual property; as such, they will have had limited contact with the Halo 4 project, and only then as consultants.

This makes Halo 4 an interesting opportunity. As the first installment of the Halo series since Bungie parted ways with its brainchild, Halo 4 marks the turning of an era; it is the title which we will base the merit of 343i upon and how the fanbase will gauge how excited they should be about this new trilogy. Because, yes, Halo 4 is the first installment in a brand-new Halo trilogy -- this time planned as such from the very beginning, unlike Halo: Combat Evolved which was developed as a standalone game and then turned into a trilogy after the fact.

What Do We Know?

343i has remained fairly tight-lipped about the happenings of Halo 4; we know that Master Chief and Cortana return to action, we know that the game will take place on a Forerunner planet, we know that the human race has somehow adapted Forerunner technology for their own use, we know that a new alien race (possibly related to the Forerunners) is cast as an enemy, and we know that the Covenant will also appear. Beyond the broad strokes, however, most details have remained hidden from the public.

The game was featured heavily during E3 2012, showing a gameplay demo during the Microsoft Press Conference; you can check out the video below:

From what we've been shown, I imagine the game will feature Master Chief trying to reunite with the human forces who crashed onto this planet; however, it appears he will need to fight his way through both Covenant and Forerunner(?) forces in order to do this. The developers have also stated that the story of the Reclaimer trilogy (the name of the trilogy of Halo 4, 5 and 6) will focus more heavily on the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana; the two of them have been through a lot together, and Cortana has long surpassed her projected date of "death", meaning that she may soon enter a state of "rampancy".

The topic of AIs and their growing intelligence is something that Bungie covered in their past project Marathon, an FPS trilogy for the original Macintosh, but has not mentioned much in Halo. That being said,  the Red vs. Blue series is currently delving very deeply into the subject of AIs growing beyond their original constraints, and everything they write is set within the Halo universe (tongue-in-cheek as some of it may be). In basic terms, if an AI "lives" longer than it's projected "death", it could enter a state of "rampancy", wherein the AI starts questioning its meaning in life, directs its frustration towards the users who operate it and eventually attempts to find a way to become more than its core components -- in a word, it tries to become "human".

That guy might be big, angry and glowing, but I've got a sword made of
pure energy. He ain't got nothin'.
This is a subject touched on by a lot of sci-fi -- I, Robot, I'm looking at you -- but is relatively new ground for video games (Mass Effect and Deus Ex not withstanding). Thus, it makes an interesting path to take; if Cortana decides that she needs to grow beyond her means, what will that mean for her relationship with Master Chief and how will he be forced to react to her actions. It certainly creates a lot of speculation, and I'm pretty excited to see where it will take the story.

On the gameplay side of things, Halo 4 looks to feature a fair number of tweaks and additions, at least enough to make it feel like a new-yet-familiar experience. A series of new weapons have been added, most from this new alien race, and a series of new multiplayer maps have been added to the stable of tried-and-tested maps in the Halo catalog. Also added is a brand-new feature called Spartan Ops, the part of Halo 4 I am most excited for.

Spartan Ops seems to be an answer to the Spec Ops mode created by Infinity Ward for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2; in Spec Ops, players could play through scenarios with a friend as they attempted to complete objectives. This was my favourite portion of MW2, given it was the only part of the game that featured cooperative play, and was always an easy sell for my friends. Where Spec Ops had a series of standalone missions, some admittedly inspired by missions in the campaign, Spartan Ops takes that premise to the next level; each mission you play through promises to be filled with cinematic moments akin to those found in the campaign and will create its own storyline to follow in tandem with that of Halo 4.

Also, for cooperative gaming enthusiasts like myself, Halo 4 features four-person co-op in both Spartan Ops and the campaign. So get some buddies together and jump in for some crazy co-op action!

The multiplayer has been revamped to suit the current generation of gamers a bit better, and 343i has even devoted assets to creating a live action series based on the Halo universe to promote the game. This particular series, Forward Unto Dawn, is excellent and seems to be fairly reminiscent of the live action commercials shot for Halo 3: ODST. All in all, Halo 4 seems to be a huge production -- one that Microsoft is obviously banking on quite heavily.

Oh, and did I mention the new alien race kind of look like those Lego Bionicles from a while back? Because they totally do.

And I Care Why?

See? Totally a Bionicle.
As I mentioned above, Halo has long been a franchise that stands on the shoulders of its fanbase; without such dedicated fans, the Halo phenomenon would be nothing like it is today. That being said, Bungie turned Halo into such a fantastic series specifically because of the support given to it; because the developers listened to their fans and held themselves accountable to them, each entry in the franchise ended up being that much better than the last, until the magnum opus that was Halo: Reach was released to unbelievable acclaim.

Admittedly, Halo is no longer being tended by Bungie, so many people are cautious when approaching the prospect of an entry to the franchise from a new developer, but 343i was built on the foundations of Halo and features some of the original developers of the Halo series. It will be a true addition to the franchise and marks a new beginning for Master Chief. It will definitely be a title to watch.

What Do I Do Now That I Know?

The game is being released next Tuesday, so it might be a bit late to get a preorder. That being said, most people who plan on buying Halo 4 probably already have it preordered, so there isn't much to worry about. I'd still pay attention and see what sort of reception the game gets; even if you aren't a Halo fan like so many others, Halo 4 is an anticipated release for many in the industry. And, who knows; maybe this entry will mark the return of Halo as the FPS multiplayer shooter for this generation?

Last Remarks?

I didn't realize it until a week or so ago but I am actually quite excited for Halo 4. I often regard 360-exclusive games with contempt, as I feel the PS3 is the superior console, yet I have always had a soft spot for Halo. I'm not entirely sure why -- perhaps I'm just a sucker for sci-fi video games, or maybe they've just captured me with their intricate story. Or perhaps it's just because the franchise can claim a direct connection to Firefly, via half the male cast of the TV show. Regardless, Halo always makes its way on my list of anticipated titles. So yes, I am excited to step into the shoes of Master Chief and shoot some aliens one more time.

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