"Wake up Chief. I need you." With Cortana's first words you feel like you are back to all of those hours of action-packed storytelling that filled the original Halo trilogy. The banter between Master Chief and Cortana as they seek out those attacking their ship just cements it. And then come the Elites and Grunts: your first firefight as Master Chief in years, and you know you are playing Halo.
But Halo 4 is shaping up to provide not just everything people have loved from the series, but even more than what you've experienced in the past. "It feels like Halo. But there are some subtle changes. We changed the HUD and we also added a sense of immersion--you can hear your breath as it sounds inside the helmet," said Frank O'Connor. O'Connor is the franchise director for Halo and has shepherded the series from original developer Bungie to Microsoft's 343 Industries.
Anyone who has been following the videos 343 has been putting out knows they have redone the series' sound, the music, and the graphics, but what you can't see is that it still plays like a Halo game. Running, jumping, shooting the battle rifle or pistol--it all feels very familiar. "It's definitely at a higher fidelity at this point. Our facial animation and motion capture technology are all going to make it look better."
How much did 343 change below the surface? They started with the Reach engine, but took it further. "Some of the core systems are still recognizable to what Bungie engineered, but every system has either been radically overhauled or completely written from the ground up," said O'Connor. "It has a different look--but it looks like a Halo game. If you were a wine connoisseur you would probably describe it as a completely different varietal."
Of course, that balance between improving the features of the game while still keeping that Halo feel has extended beyond the single-player game. The competitive multiplayer game has new modes; levels have new features; and the Spartan trainee players can create, level up, and purchase new armor and abilities. But the biggest change to online play is the Spartan Ops mode.
With this mode, players will engage in a co-op story with other Spartan trainees, not unlike the co-op of Portal 2. The difference with Halo 4 is that this story is episodic, with new missions being released each week. O'Connor said, "It's about the same amount of story as [a traditional] campaign stretched over weeks."
"Most people actually play campaign and don't play competitive."Besides giving players more bang for their buck, the Spartan Ops mode was created for another practical reason. Despite what a glance at the leaderboards seems to tell you, Halo players really don't play online. "Most people actually play campaign and don't play competitive. It's because the competitive landscape is really intimidating for people. So they prefer to play at their own pace," said O'Connor.
343 is hoping that Spartan Ops will get more gamers connecting online. O'Connor said, "It's competitive; [players are] competing for objectives and scores, but they are also cooperating to get the job done and experience the story."
The Spartan Ops story will stretch out for several weeks, but not months, according to O'Connor. And beyond that? "Season one comes free with the game. If we did another season we would be building that from scratch. Maybe that will be DLC; maybe it goes in the next game. We are still tinkering with that."
Speaking to Frank O'Connor, you get the sense they are still tinkering with other aspects of Halo 4, such as getting the feature set and the engine just right. "The Halo process is layering and layering and testing and layering off and on…it's really close to the ship date that you see what the final product looks like. We've gone pass the 'Can we do it?' to 'Can we do it better,' and that's what anyone working on a sequel should always be thinking."
So are there some surprises to come, like those in Halo Anniversary? "We are not supporting 3D TVs or Kinect for Halo 4," said O'Connor. "3D in Halo Anniversary was a benefit we got from the method we used to switch between classic and modern graphics, and we were able to use that area of the frame buffer to put out two sets of data at the same time."
And maybe O'Connor is right. The game may not need the flashy extras. 343 is already giving Halo 4 the largest levels the series has ever seen, the most feature-intense multiplayer yet, and a new online co-op campaign in Spartan Ops--not to mention richer sound and visuals. "We are still pushing more and more of the graphics. We had one guy at the showcase who thought this was the next-gen preview. I wouldn't go that far, but it does look good. There is still more and more to be squeezed out of the box," said O'Connor.
Because Halo 4 is the start of a new trilogy, why didn't they go next-gen with the game? "There are tens of millions of 360s this time around, and if you wait until the next generation you are going to start with a lower install base," said O'Connor. "Secondly, it's a sequel to a bunch of games that existed on one platform, and you want to take advantage of that momentum and reward the people who have already invested in the ecosystem of that console."
As I watch Master Chief take down groups of Covenant, or as I run through the halls of a multiplayer map, it is hard to argue that the experience has been diminished by the use of current hardware. It is Halo, with a new shine of polish and new facets, but still the Master Chief's story. 343 just may satisfy Halo fans old and new. O'Connor said, "You have to strike a fine balance between adding and evolving, and messing with and breaking the recipe that's already been successful. It's a fine line to walk."
Kevin Ohannessian is a freelance editor and writer covering the game industry. With a focus on the creativity and business of gaming, he's always up for a good interview or an intriguing feature. You can find him on Twitter @khohannessian'