Halo 2 Q&A - Examining the New District Level

Learn more about the exclusive new urban-combat level that will ship in the PC version of the blockbuster Xbox action game.

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When the Windows Vista version of Halo 2 arrives in the coming months, not only will it include all the content that was released for the Xbox version in terms of the original game and the separate multiplayer map pack, but it also will come with some extras. There's a new level editor, along with the ability to earn achievement points over Games for Windows - Live--the Windows Vista version of the popular Xbox Live service--and two new maps built for the PC version. We turned to David Mertz, lead designer of the Windows version; Matt Van Gorder, the content lead; and Kevin Weston, the network developer, for more information on one of these two new levels. Microsoft has said that Halo 2 will ship for Windows Vista before the first half of the year is out.

The PC version of Halo 2 looks a lot sharper than its Xbox predecessor, thanks to the increased resolution.
The PC version of Halo 2 looks a lot sharper than its Xbox predecessor, thanks to the increased resolution.

GameSpot: Halo 2 for Windows Vista will ship with District, a new multiplayer map made for the PC version. What was the thinking and inspiration behind this new map? Where is it set?

David Mertz, Matt Van Gorder, and Kevin Weston: The most memorable aspect of Halo 2's single-player for me was touching down on Earth in New Mombasa and getting to engage the Covenant not only on Master Chief's home turf, but in an urban setting as well. As a player, I always wanted to have that experience in multiplayer of speeding through the streets and alleyways of New Mombasa in a Warthog, having a running gun fight over the rooftops, and sniping at opposing players as they moved in and out of cover and ducked into alleyways on the intervening city streets.

The initial inspiration for District came from the starting areas in the outskirts of New Mombasa in the single-player campaign. I always thought the atrium area had a lot of great multiplayer gameplay potential, and this area served as my anchor point for the design and construction of the level. I am also a fan of the Turf multiplayer level, both in terms of gameplay and aesthetics, so my goal was to create a level that combined not only all of these great gameplay elements, but the various aesthetic elements as well.

GS: One thing that we noticed in District is that there seem be multiple layers to it, giving some verticality to the level. What are the key points throughout the level? There appears to be a parking structure, for example.

DM, MVG, and KW: During design and construction, District was broken down into several sections, each with their own aesthetic and gameplay style. These areas served as landmarks for navigation, which is very important in a map with an urban layout. For example, the atrium provides the player with a close-combat experience, with multiple exits and entrances in the form of a three-story building. Players can fight around the atrium, or on top of it and crash through the glass ceiling of the structure in order to reach their objective. It differs greatly from the parking garage area, where the player is offered a much more medium-range fighting environment around parked cars and ramps, and there is the constant threat of vehicles speeding around and between the floors of the structure.

GS: This is a pretty large map, conducive to vehicles and sniping. How will infantry cope in such an environment? Will there be indoor areas where infantry can hunker down safely?

DM, MVG, and KW: The playable area in District is about two-thirds the size of the playable area in Coagulation, or, it offers about four times as much playable area as Turf. While it is a larger map, the urban nature of the level really helps break up the playable space. This keeps the effectiveness of snipers in check and balances the gameplay between players in vehicles and players on foot. Players have plenty of cover to duck behind, as well as doorways and alleyways to dive into. In addition, players on foot have access to routes above street level, such as walkways and rooftops. These upper routes and shortcuts also help balance the level in terms of travel time to objectives. A player on foot can grab the flag and get back to his base just as quickly as a vehicle that takes the street routes. It is when players in vehicles try to follow players on foot through the tight alleyways, or try to cut them off as they emerge from the alleys, that things get really exciting.

The District has a mix of close-quarters and wide-open combat spaces.
The District has a mix of close-quarters and wide-open combat spaces.

During the design and construction of District, one thing we were very mindful of was making sure that the level was not confusing and mazelike. We wanted players to be able to quickly get their bearings, and we also wanted to make sure that players were able to hear and see where the action was in the level. Because of this, we kept areas fairly open, or at least made them seem open. Many of the areas are fairly enclosed but are still open to the sky, allowing players to see the surrounding building tops and cityscape. There are some building interiors that players can hunker down in, such as the atrium and parking garage, but even these structures are fairly open to prevent stalemates during objective-based games and to help give the player a sense of what is going on in the level.

Vehicles Everywhere

GS: What's the vehicle distribution in District? Will there be plenty of Warthogs and Scorpion tanks for everyone to share? Can we expect a lot of vehicular mayhem?

You can create a custom game that has up to 15 vehicles on the District level.
You can create a custom game that has up to 15 vehicles on the District level.

DM, MVG, and KW: You can definitely expect a lot of vehicular mayhem! District was designed from the very start to focus heavily on vehicles and on creating fun and interesting gameplay situations between vehicles and infantry. The Old Mombasa urban setting of District really lent itself well to achieving this goal. The streets provide natural routes for the vehicles to travel and patrol around, and there are many tighter alleyways that are able to be maneuvered by skilled drivers. Besides streets and alleys, there are other distinct areas, such as the parking garage, that lead to some really fun and crazy situations with vehicles. We have had a lot of great vehicle chases happen in District, as well as some very daring escapes as players have taken vehicles and jumped them off the third floor of the parking garage.

In terms of vehicle count and distribution, we wanted to make sure there were plenty of vehicles in all the standard game modes without things getting too crowded. We also built in expandability and flexibility that gave players control over the heavier vehicles. In standard team game modes such as capture the flag, players are going to have eight total vehicles cruising around--two Warthogs and two Ghosts on each side. So right at the start, players are able to put their entire team in vehicles. For game modes other than CTF, we added even more vehicles in the form of four additional Ghosts. Heavy vehicles such as the Scorpion tank and Wraith are not available by default, but we have put in three optional spawns for them in District, and players can add them into their games as they normally would through the settings menu. One of the more popular setups with the development team was to have urban tank battles by disabling all other vehicles and spawning three Scorpion tanks. By using the custom game settings, it's possible to get up to 15 vehicles in District, and that is not counting the two standard and two optional turrets we have included as well!

GS: Halo 2 will be one of the first games to support Games for Windows - Live, the PC version of the Xbox Live service. So this means friends lists and what else? Is there in-game voice chat in Halo 2?

DM, MVG, and KW: Being a Games for Windows - Live title brings with it a bevy of cool online features, including friends lists, achievements for the first time in Halo and on the PC, auto-updates, matchmaking, game invites, messaging (text and voice), presence, family settings, gamer scores, and gamer reputation. If you've already got an Xbox Live account, all you need to do is sign in and you will be good to go. The game supports in-game voice and text chat, so you can communicate with your team or rub it in someone's face.

GS: The party system of Halo 2 was one of the best party systems implemented in any game on any platform. Will the Vista version have the same party system, or has it been modified in any way for the PC? How does it work?

DM, MVG, and KW: Because of all the changes to the matchmaking system, the party system isn't nearly as important in Halo 2 for Windows Vista as it was in the original version. Now, you can join any game you want (and exactly the game you want), so you no longer have to form a party to ensure that you can play with your friends.

That said, we tried to maintain as much of the party system as possible. Of course, with all the general changes to how you find games in Halo 2 for Windows Vista, we had to make a few changes. You can still meet up with a group of friends in your own lobby before playing together. From there, the party leader can start a new game, matchmake the party into an existing game, or pick a specific game from the game browser. Once everyone is in the game, though, the party dissolves and each player is just part of the game.

GS: How powerful is the level editor in the game? How large a map can you make with it? For instance, could you create a gigantic battlefield that's on par with something like the Battlefield games?

DM, MVG, and KW: The level editor is powerful, as it is an adapted version of the internal tools we use to make the games. We don't place any restrictions on the scale of the map you can create. However, with the auto custom map downloading from the lobby, we expect the more popular custom maps will be small on disc to facilitate fast distribution. Also, the most popular Halo 2 multiplayer maps tend to be smallish.

Halo 2 for Windows Vista should ship in the next month or two.
Halo 2 for Windows Vista should ship in the next month or two.

GS: Mods are very popular with PC multiplayer games. How mod-friendly is the Vista version of Halo 2? Will you support the mod-making community with other tools?

DM, MVG, and KW: The level editor will allow users to create new geometry and textures and create playable multiplayer map types for the game. The format is not completely open, but it's still very powerful.

GS: Finally, has multiplayer been balanced so that everyone is on equal footing, regardless of the type of controller that they're using? Or will mouse-and-keyboard players have a distinct advantage versus gamepad players?

DM, MVG, and KW: We did some balancing to make the keyboard-and-mouse experience on par with the controller. Overall, we believe that the controller will prove to be a popular and competitive option for those that prefer it. When our team plays large multiplayer games, controller players regularly school the keyboard/mouse players, and vice versa.

GS: Thank you, gentlemen.

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