Halo 4 Demo Report

 

343 Industries has a big task ahead. During a March 1st Microsoft Showcase event in San Francisco, they lifted the lid on Halo 4, the latest entry in one of gaming’s tentpole franchises. Both pride and trepidation were written on the faces of the 343 devs as they launched into a presentation that combined video, powerpoint, and simple verbal explanation.

Singleplayer

Led by Creative Director Josh Holmes and Executive Producer Kiki Wolfkill, the 343 team explained the basics: Halo 4 will be the beginning of a new chapter in the Halo universe, “an epic new sci-fi saga” that will span an entire decade’s worth of releases. Halo’s 5 and 6 won’t arrive for a while, but they exist, at least on paper.

Having officially taken over the reins from Bungie, 343 is left with some difficult decisions, which they alluded to during the demo. Their first task was to decide how to effectively mesh the old Halo with the new, balancing the towering legacy of the extant games against their desire to innovate and improve. They also had to pick and choose material from the franchise’s various spin-offs, tie-ins, and novelizations, making sure not to disorient players who are only familiar with the games.

Halo 4 was described as a “reinvention,” though the 343 reps were quick to explain that this didn’t mean a franchise reboot or an origin story, two conventions all too familiar to modern sci-fi fans. The story of Halo 4 will be a direct continuation of the events that transpired in the first 3 games, picking up right where Halo 3 leaves off. To establish context, the devs showed video of the Halo 3 Legendary ending, which sees Master Chief return to cryosleep under Cortana’s watchful, virtual gaze.

Story is definitely the emphasis this time around. 343 promised a “darker, more sophisticated tone,” and also revealed that they were working on a story structure that would tie together both the singleplayer and multiplayer modes. The writers have also had to come up with a story robust enough to support multiple games.

Speaking in an interview with GameFront after the event, Executive Producer Kiki Wolfkill described her team’s approach: “I think story has always been a big part of Halo from the very beginning. As we approached the design of the environment, and the design of the new characters, the whole audio soundscape – it affected all of those pieces, because we want to be able to tell and move the story forward through all different devices, not just through cutscenes and cinematics.”

Wolfkill and her team have clearly devoted a lot of serious thought to the matter, even reaching some surprising conclusions: “I think part of the storytelling is the character development, but that’s not just more exposition around characters — it’s kind of the right exposition around characters. That does impact how we script the voiceover, and how we script the story, because I think sometimes its really easy for story to get lost in the complexity of it. We really looked at how we could simplify some of that.”

Other tasks were far from simple. In crafting a new story for Halo 4, one of 343′s principle tasks was to design a new existential threat to drive the plot forward. As is to be expected, they didn’t say much about it, only that it is very a) ancient b) dark c) different and d) new. In facing down this mysterious adversary, Master Chief will have to make decisions that define who he is “as a hero and as a human.

Despite their efforts on Halo: Reach, the assembled developers admitted to missing the taciturn Spartan. 343 plan to further develop his relationship with Cortana, who will serve as a “reflection for the player.” When asked about the challenge of developing a character who’s face is hidden by a helmet, Wolfkill was confident: “Animation and body motion and nuances of movement and gesture can tell so much.” Still, some hurdles remain: “Humanizing a character who doesn’t have a face in some ways is less of a challenge than the challenge of making sure we’re not taking away from the player experience, and part of that experience is how much they imbue themselves in the character…really the approach there is ‘how do we construct a story and situations and actions and context that the player sort of constructs around them, and they’re able to maintain sort of that sense of self with Chief, but also get some more exposure to him.’”

All complications aside, the design team’s stated goal is to “deliver on the fantasy of being a 900 pound Spartan badass.” To bring this fantasy to life in the game, 343 will endeavor to give the player a better understanding of what it’s like to be wrapped in 26th century technology. The design of Chief’s armor has been changed to look more functional, with more points of articulation and a carbon fiber underlayer that suggests greater freedom of movement, while also allowing for the kind of expressive animations that will help establish his character. 343 played video footage of motion capture actors hard at work.

Halo 4 will also feature a new HUD design, intended to deepen player immersion. Visible during the multiplayer portion of the demo, the new HUD is intended to look like the actual information displayed on the inside of Chief’s helmet — it sways slightly as he moves around.

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