Halo evolved: How 343 Industries took the flag and ran with it to create Halo 4
“The guns,” I told an attendee at the PAX Prime Halo 4 booth when asked what, if anything, I liked about the demo I had just played. “They feel like guns.” He let loose a deep sigh. “Oh, good. The sound guys have worked really hard on that.” He smiled and waved me off as I exited the queue. Working hard to create something may be a recurring theme among the Halo 4 team, and it shows. Creative director Josh Holmes and his team are developing Halo 4 into something new and fresh, and it's surprising to see just how much has changed. From the looks of Master Chief and Cortana to the feel of combat, there's something special going on here. I spoke with Holmes at PAX Prime to get a deeper understanding of 343's spin on the Halo franchise.
“We've really tried to go down to what we think are some of the core tenets of Halo and preserve those while at the same time bringing our own unique vision to the game and to the franchise. One of them is storytelling,” Holmes said. “We've really put a lot of effort into telling a great story, not only in terms of how we've developed a very deep and connected story across Halo 4, but all of the surrounding fiction.” Holmes listed how Halo 4's story weaves and intertwines across several mediums, including film and novels. Clues to Halo 4's story can be uncovered by reading the Forerunner Saga novels, while the live-action series Forward Unto Dawn leads up to Halo 4, and the game itself tells the stories of both Master Chief and the crew aboard the UNSC Infinity. The terminals in Halo: Anniversary Edition can also provide clues. Holmes said that Halo 4's single-player story is a personal one that will see Chief develop into a more unique character as opposed to the stoic, one-liner spouting invincible mega-soldier he has been portrayed as thus far. The story also dives deep into the character of Cortana. “We talk about this as Master Chief's story, but for me, a huge part of this is Cortana's story,” Holmes told me. “In a lot of ways, she is the most human character in the universe. She's always represented the humanity that, in some ways, Chief lacks.”Halo 4 will be taking the more serious approach of Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, as opposed to the thrill-ride design of the original trilogy. “Some of the things I love most about [Halo: Reach] were that melancholy feel you had that you were understanding the stakes of the challenge and things weren't necessarily going to end up all rosy,” Holmes said. “In approaching Halo 4, we wanted to bring a more sophisticated approach to the way that we portray Master Chief, the way we portray his relationship with Cortana, and giving him challenges to overcome, not only external, but internal, I think helps define him as a character.” The new 343 Industries ViDoc A Hero Awakens shows that not only are new directions being taken with Halo 4's writing, but cinematic presentation as well. Halo 4 will be the first in the series to do full motion capture performances. “We've really put a lot of effort into telling a great story,” Holmes told the Penny Arcade Report.
Facing the firing squad
“Another big tenet for us on the game play side is player choice, player freedom, the idea of sandbox, giving players a suite of tools they can use to take on any obstacle or challenge that we put in front of them, and sort of telling them what they need to do, but not necessarily how they need to accomplish those goals.” Holmes said. “We have managed to create both crafted moments that are very focused, as well as more open moments where you might be in a situation and here's a group of different vehicles, and you can choose to take a vehicle and assault the enemy force, or you can choose to do it on foot. You can choose to use a long-range weapon or you can choose to get up close and personal.” While single-player wasn't being shown, the opportunity to see 343's level design at work was available via demo kiosks showing off Spartan Ops, the co-op multiplayer mode that ties into Halo 4's main story. This mode is structured episodically, with CG episodes focused on a group of Spartan-IVs aboard the Infinity. These Spartans complete a set of five missions per weekly “episode,” of which there will be ten throughout Halo 4's first “season.” In our mission, we had to dig through enemy forces to recover and retrieve a Forerunner artifact. “The hope is that it will give players a reason to come back each week and experience this with their friends and hopefully become that watercooler moment that people are talking about, like 'Did you see the latest episode of Infinity? Did you play the missions?'” Holmes said. “It's a lot of content, a lot of work, and we want to see how fans respond to it.”
Halo franchise: Flag captured
The Halo multiplayer many gamers grew up with at LAN parties has been engulfed by armor customization, abilities, and custom loadouts, as well as new balances to game play. I had a couple moments before the match began to check out various armors, and there is a lot of new armor in Halo 4. Likewise, the list of abilities has been expanded; when I customized my loadout, I chose an ability that let me generate a riot shield made of light. For the first time in the Halo series, I could also choose my primary and secondary weapons. Once in game, I took a couple test fires of my weapon. The guns in Halo 4 are loud, and heavy, giving a more realistic feel to combat. Don't worry, iconic weapons such as the Needler still sound reminiscent of their original forms. You can now fire a pistol to defend yourself when carrying the flag. Music cuts in to increase the tension and reflect mood. Jeff Steitzer is back as the multiplayer announcer. Warthogs still swing and fishtail all over the place. All of these elements add up to a familiar, but updated experience. Holmes explained that everything in Halo 4 was made to feel cohesive and real, that even if you were just constantly playing Slayer, you should feel like a real Spartan-IV aboard the Infinity. “Whether you're playing in Spartan Ops or you're playing in our competitive mode War Games, all of the actions that you're taking, all of the successes that you're having are feeding the progression of your character,” Holmes said. “You're unlocking new abilities, weapons and other things that you can use to customize your character and then take that customized character into any of the multiplayer modes.”Marty O'Donnell's iconic score is nowhere to be heard. There's hardly a peep of chanting, and no triumphant guitar riffs come soaring through any speakers. Instead, I heard Halo 4 composer Neil Davidge's more romantic take on the Halo universe, full of strings, heavy thudding of percussion, and brass instruments. The music was reminiscent of epic films that focus on the archetypal hero's journey; films like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or the Matrix trilogy. “There's a lot of themes in the game that are kind of organic vs. digital, so choosing a composer that could kind of bring that sensibility to it, we ended up finding Neil Davidge,” Holmes told me. “I think Neil brings a very character-centric approach. He sort of talks about it as method composing, where he gets inside the mind of whichever character is in a particular moment or scene, and tries to think from the inside out of what is that character feeling and how can he express that through the music.” “It's been just incredible to hear all of his work, and have it layer into the cinematics, as well as the game play experiences because it just has brought a completely different feel to the whole game,” he said. Music, cinematics, multiplayer, storytelling, art direction: all of these things are being changed for Halo 4. This is the 343 Industries era of the franchise, and they're being careful to pay homage while also forging ahead with new ideas and a fresh feel. “We've obviously acknowledged all of the amazing work that Bungie did in creating and tending to this universe and we owe them an incredible debt,” Holmes told the Penny Arcade Report. “I hope that when the game comes out, they'll be surprised and delighted and hopefully enjoy our take on this universe that they spent so much time crafting.”