E3 06: Halo 3 announced, plot details revealed

[UPDATE]: We got a close-up look at the Halo 3 trailer--which is reportedly rendered in real-time--with Bungie representatives; its setting is a Covenant-occupied Earth.

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LOS ANGELES--Microsoft officially unveiled Halo 3 during its E3 press conference today, and the company released a trailer for its highly-anticipated sequel on the Internet and its Xbox Live service. Halo 3 will be the first Halo game designed for Microsoft's Xbox 360 console, and the importance to the company was highlighted by the fact that Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect, was on hand to help announce the game.

When the trailer was shown to the audience at the Grauman's Chinese Theater, where Microsoft held its annual games briefing, the crowd erupted. Halo 2 ended in a cliff-hanger, with the Master Chief, the hero of the Halo series, returning to Earth in the midst of a climactic battle between the Covenant, an alien coalition, and Earth's defensive forces. The Halo 3 trailer begins with a slow shot of the dusty African plains. Wreckage litters the landscape, and a woman's voice is heard. It's Cortana, the artificial intelligent construct that was the Master Chief's main ally. As the Master Chief enters into the frame (armed with what looks like the original assault rifle seen in Halo), she says in a distorted voice, "I know you. Your past. Your future."

Suddenly, Covenant Banshees and cruisers appear in the skies. The music swells, and in the distance, a huge hatch slowly opens in the ground. A bright beam of light begins to build, blinding the camera. Cortana then chimes in, "This is the way the world ends." The Bungie logo then flashes on the screen, followed by the text: "Finish the fight in 2007."

Bungie, the internal Microsoft studio that created Halo, also released the trailer onto the Internet, and a high definition version was put up on Xbox Live Marketplace, the online service available to Xbox 360 owners. To quote the accompanying text found on Xbox Live, Halo 3 is about Earth under Covenant rule: "With its defensive forces, all but obliterated, Earth has fallen to the unstoppable might of the Covenant. These alien occupiers have discovered something beneath the ancient African sands--something incredible ... something Forerunner." The Forerunners are an extinct alien race that built the huge artificial ringworlds called Halos, and the Halo games have focused on the mystery surrounding these strange objects.

The importance of a new Halo game for the Xbox 360 cannot be underestimated. The original Halo was a launch title for the first Xbox, and was easily the biggest hit, driving sales of that system. Halo 2, which launched in 2004, became a cultural event, with thousands of gamers lining up for hours for the midnight launch. Halo 2 made entertainment history by generating $125 million in sales in one day. However, Microsoft didn't mention Halo 3 at all during last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, and fans had been left wondering when the software giant would finally drop the big news. Well, the waiting for news of Halo 3 has now come to an end. Now they'll have to wait to 2007 for the game itself.

[UPDATE] Shortly after Microsoft's presentation, we had an opportunity to get a close-up look at Halo 3 with Bungie representatives. We spoke with Brian Gerrard, one of Bungie's community managers, as well as CJ Cowan, the studio's cinematics director. Cowan stated that the trailer was a good example of where Halo 3 is going, in terms of fiction. By that, he means that the story is epic in scale, but dark as well, and Bungie is going for a distinct mood, since Halo 3 will represent the end of the trilogy.

The Bungie representatives made it clear to us that the trailer was running in real-time on the Xbox 360. The trailer is set in the African desert, and it was taken from roughly a third of the way through the game. Cowan noted that the constant battling has taken its toll on Master Chief, and you can see that by the many scratches and gouges in his armor. The flashes of Cortana seen in the trailer fill you in on the state of her mind, and the Forerunner structure seen in the distance at the end of the trailer represents a pivotal point in the story.

We next met with Marcus Lehto, Bungie's art director, who filled us in on the technology as he gave us a fly through of the locations in the trailer. The crater seen in the trailer is three miles across, and it's all rendered in real geometry. Halo 3 has a new global lighting system that now lights everything uniquely from the same source, which explains just how that setting sun looked that good as it illuminated everything in the trailer. Halo 2, on the other hand, used a lighting system that lit everything separately. Meanwhile, parallax mapping is able to give depth to structures in the distance, such as the clouds above the crater. A new particle system offers different levels of light diffusion to take the quality of the atmosphere into account, and that makes for different layers of light.

The demo shifted away from the crater to the part of the level you see the Master Chief walking in from. He was controllable, which means that the trailer indicates just how good the game will look. Lehto was able to zoom in on the Master Chief with the camera, and you could see the many different ways light reflected objects onto him. For example, you could see light reflect off the ground and onto his armor. A new materials system shows the difference between his armor and the rubber undersuit. It's so detailed that if you bring the camera close to the Master Chief's visor, you see everything in front of him reflected in it, right down to the ammo counter in his rifle.

[UPDATE 2] An update to the official Bungie site, Bungie.net, also gave some hints as to why Cortana appeared to be making semi-sinister statements. "The Master Chief's AI companion Cortana is still trapped in the clutches of the Gravemind--a horrifying Flood intelligence, and a civil war is raging in the heart of the Covenant," read the plot description on the brand-new Halo 3 site. Following the abrupt end of Halo 2, it was unclear if Cortana had been corrupted by the Gravemind or had been destroyed altogether.

Cowan also talked about Cortana's ambiguous status in a Bungie.net article. "Given the variety of character and story arcs at the end of Halo 2, we wanted to boil down our announcement to a few key threads," he said. "Cortana and the Chief being a galaxy apart is a situation we haven't seen before, and is something that is a powerful component to Halo 3. We are using her transmissions in the demo to give the viewer a few subtle clues to her situation and state of mind, without revealing any specifics we want to save for the game itself."

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