One of the most popular booths at the EB Games Expo was devoted to Halo 4. People were lining up for hours to get their hands on the next game in one of the most loved franchises on the planet. The fourth entry is the first title in the series to be developed by 343 Industries, which took over the mantle from Bungie following Halo: Reach. While at the Expo, I managed to score some hands-on time with Halo 4 as well as a one on one talk with the game’s creative director, Josh Holmes. My chat consisted of a little bit of fanboy fawning (I unashamedly love Halo, especially the extended universe novels) but mainly Holmes explaining some of the reasons that Halo 4 is set to be Master Chief’s best mission yet.
One of the first things I noticed about Halo 4 was inclusion of the Master Chief’s actual name, John, in the video game trailers. I asked Holmes if this indicated a more personal story for the Chief and he was happy to explain. “We set out to make Halo 4 delve a little more into the personal side of Master Chief and Cortana and to bring some of the story elements that have existed in the extended fiction that never quite appeared in the game itself. Then the journey he goes on in Halo 4 is certainly a more personal one. As you know, Cortana is going rampant (if you don’t know, in the Halo Universe, Smart AI systems such as Cortana suffer from something called rampancy after about seven years of life – basically they start to think themselves to death) and that plays a big part of the story and how the two of them come to terms with it and how they deal with it is important. It obviously plays over the top of a massive sci-fi epic and a broader story arc.”
Further on the topic, I was keen to find out if any of the previous minor characters from the series were going to show up. Would Sgt Johnson or Dr Halsey make an appearance? Holmes indicated that while there will be some familiar faces, two new characters are likely to take a lot of the attention. “Dr Halsey plays an important role, but there are some new characters we are introducing as well. A couple of those characters are Thomas Laski and Sara Palmer. Lasky is a character who is second in command of the UNSC Infinity at the beginning of the campaign and he goes on to play a pivotal role not only in the campaign but in the episodic Spartan Ops set after the main story. Sarah is the commander in charge of the Spartan 4’s. We put a lot of effort into developing both of these people as characters and in fact Lasky will be introduced to players in the Forward Unto Dawn live action web series which is a five part series, feature length in total. The part of Lasky is played by Australian actor Tom Green of Home and Away fame and he did an amazing job. He plays Lasky as a cadet and how he progresses through the ranks is in the series and further in the Spartan Ops Missions.”
Seeing as Holmes had already brought it up, I asked him to explain a little bit more about Spartan Ops. I was curious as to how it was connected to the story or if it was just a series of unconnected missions. “Spartan Ops is all connected and we think it is a new and exciting way of experiencing Halo or any shooter. I don’t think any other shooter has done this before and it is something we are really excited about. Basically it is a series where each week there is a new CG series, which varies in length from six to 10 minutes and they follow a group of Spartans aboard the USNC Infinity. As each episode is released there are five missions that tie into that particular part of the story. There is a 10 week season over the course of which you have this story that takes place months after the conclusion of Halo 4’s main campaign. It is really giving players a reason to come back each week and experience this story and drive this story forward” said Holmes.
I asked Holmes if this episodic system would be a problem for people who don’t buy the game until later. He assured me this wouldn’t be the case. “If you miss a week you can always go back and play the missions at a later date. If you join in late and all your friends are at episode 4 you can catch up quite easily. The CG series will also be available on Halo Waypoint for those that just want to catch up with what is happening without actually playing.”
My time with Halo 4 had impressed me. Some of the graphics were simply stunning. I asked Holmes about this and whether it was a brand new game engine that Halo 4 was running on. “If you go back through each of the Halo games they are all basically built on the same Halo Engine. There is the gameplay core that is at the centre of it and we’ve carried that forward but we’ve overhauled and rewritten massive amounts of that engine from lighting systems to physics and animation to achieve the artistic vision we had for Halo 4. A lot of the improvement comes from that artistic direction which comes from Kevin Scott and his team at 343 and they have managed to deliver a level of visual fidelity that I think is pretty stunning and that everyone is pretty proud of.”
One of the traits of the Halo series has always been its sweeping orchestral score, so I asked Holmes about what was in store for the fourth game music wise. Would it be similar to what we have heard in the past? “Halo 4 is a whole new world and there are a lot of elements of Forerunner culture that are brought to the forefront so to compliment that we wanted a dramatically different take on the soundtrack. We managed to partner with Neil Davidge who an incredible composer, well known for his work with Massive Attack and he sort of brings the digital and organic sounds together in a way that felt really appropriate for the game. He has created an amazing score for the game, but of course there are a few familiar tunes that pop up, but in large part it is a completely new score.”
That brought my time with Holmes to an end, leaving me with a solid impression of what is without doubt going to be one of the biggest games of the year. It is clear that this isn’t just a Halo ‘by the numbers’ and that 343 is doing everything it can to make this not just a great game in the series but a great game full stop.