Source: Game-biz information wellspring Gamasutra.
What we heard: Exactly two weeks ago, the game industry was shocked by Microsoft's announcement that it was shuttering Ensemble Studios. The news was especially surprising given the studio's solid track record of real-time strategy PC titles such as the Age of Empires and Age of Mythology series. The studio is also currently hard at work on the high-profile Halo Wars RTS game for the Xbox 360, currently scheduled for a late-2008 release.
Halo Wars' existence was first revealed in April 2006, when the then-flourishing Ensemble revealed it was working on a then-secret 360 RTS game. At the same time, it also confirmed a 2005 report that it was working on a massively multiplayer project, which executive producer Patrick Hudson said would eschew the genre's typical fantasy setting. "It's safe to say we won't be chasing the fantasy genre," he told Next-Gen (now Edge Online). "It seems like there are so many coming out [but we're] still pretty far out from even thinking of taking that prototype to a greenlight phase."
With the studio's sudden closure, it appears the Ensemble MMOG will never see the light of day. If Gamasutra's report is accurate, that will come as a major disappointment to the Master Chief's legions of fans. The site claims to have "discovered" the game was set in the Halo universe, and surmises that it was the "major project" that Shelley said was "canceled" six months prior in a June 2008 blog post.
The site also posted screenshots purportedly from a very early build of the game from an "Ensemble-linked online artist portfolio website." One of the shots (pictured top) shows an USNC marine in a tropical setting typical of the Halo ringworlds, with the chat box, health bar, and quick-access inventory and skill buttons typical of massively multiplayer role-playing games. Another screenshot features two wrecked warthogs and a third depicts a human dual-wielding energy blade weapons with what appears to be a female using some kind of energy field--likely related to the "psionic" bar in the first shot.
By themselves, the three unsourced screens are shaky evidence, as they could be merely convincing-looking mockups for a fictional game, which can be easily generated. However, following the post, Flickr user "goneisgone" posted 50 screenshots which appear to be of a Halo MMOG prototype. In addition to the previous three shots, the gallery shows a host of iconic Halo items, including Forerunner architecture, Covenant weapons, and UNSC marines (pictured middle). There are also more detailed game interface screens and images that name two character classes: "Rogue" and "Psion Female". The gallery also features a USNC-esque "Aardvark" vehicle and effects shots of psionic powers in action.
The official story: Microsoft did not return requests for comment as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: Looking not bogus. It's a fact that Ensemble was working on a massively multiplayer game in 2005 and mid-2006--a game that has not been heard about since. By its own account, the studio canceled a major project in late 2007. Are the two projects one and the same? And if so, is said game a Halo MMOG? The well-regarded Gamasutra says they are--but isn't naming its source.
[UPDATE] This afternoon, game-gossip blog Kotaku posted a slew of concept art reportedly from even earlier stages of the Halo MMO. Many of the images, which remain officially unconfirmed, show further character concepts for the game, which was reportedly code-named "Orion." The fact the new art gallery shows the same Aardvark vehicle (pictured bottom) as the Flickr photostream confirms the two are connected, making this rumor look more legit. Also included in the new gallery is the "Grackle" USNC motorcycle, which looks like a military version of the two-wheelers from the anime film Akira.