Halo 4: First impressions
Speculation regarding fresh Halo 4 information was rife well before media arrived at the Microsoft Spring Showcase in San Francisco.
As the itinerary was distributed among attendees, none seemed entirely surprised to see such a significant title on the list. The information listed barely covered a few of the questions many had regarding the game, and yet managed to simultaneously spawn a disproportionate amount of speculation. Not that anyone seemed to blame developers 343 Industries or Microsoft in the slightest.
The return of Halo 3's Battle Rifle, the talk of a renewed focus on multiplayer and the reveal of a perks system counted amongst the most significant information released, and while the finer details remained frustratingly elusive, the powers that be have pretty good reasons to hold back specifics.
The situation surrounding Halo 4 is tense. Every semblance, every trickle of news is immediately pounced upon by media, bloggers, fans and armchair critics alike. It is promptly overanalyzed, taken out of context and used as an opportunity to cast wild aspersions on forums, interspersed with hyperbolic declarations that it will either be game of the century or a disaster of Duke Nukem proportions.
Frank O'Connor, former Halo Community Manager at Bungie, essentially explained the lean details going forward with Halo 4. Following Microsoft's previous release of a short Halo 4 trailer featuring sound designer Satoro Tojima - sound designer for Metal Gear Solid and Castlevania, no less - the video was analysed by zealous Halo 4 forum members, allowing them to cleverly deduce that the Battle Rifle would be making a comeback. Although this was proved correct in their announcement, O'Connor also pointed out that there was further conjecture and speculation regarding the fate of other similar weapons in the game being replaced.
All this is to be expected when one of the biggest gaming franchises changes hands.
343 Industries is a studio created by Microsoft to act as caretaker of the Halo franchise. With 343's ability to produce a solid title seemingly cemented, speculation grew after narrative designer Ryan Payton departed the project, stating in a parting shot: "There came a point where I wasn't creatively excited about the project [...] The Halo I wanted to build was fundamentally different". Ouch.
343's first project, other than a Halo map pack, was the Halo re-make Combat Evolved: Anniversary Edition - a widely lauded release that carried with it a significant amount of risk.
The carry-over effect of Combat Evolved to Halo 4 is a "back to roots" approach, according to O'Connor. Halo 4 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill continues: "I would say Halo 1 was my favourite amongst the Halo titles, and we talk a lot about wanting to get back to that first experience and feeling that mystery, and awe of being in Halo for the first time".
"The two code bases have almost nothing to do with each other" says O'Connor. "But what Halo Anniversary did help us with - apart from just celebrating the legacy that Halo built - is really getting a fresh understanding of where our old-school fans were and where our new fans are".
A lot has changed in gaming since the first Halo, and there is certainly a self-awareness on the part of 343 that it needs to evolve with the times by building something innovative on top of a contemporary foundation, just as the original Halo did.
Wolfkill was quick to confirm that a renewed focus on story and character is a part of this strategy. Bringing on a creative team member from Mass Effect 2, as well as members of the Kojima team, says much about the intentions of the project.
On the other hand, as O'Connor states, there are those "...that are just interested in the competitive space, there are people that just love doing tricks in Warthogs, there are people that only care about the fiction". One could cynically think that these words are chosen carefully to avoid alienating the various factions of their fan-base.
Perhaps it's best put by O'Connor: "Halo fans are not monolithic. Halo 4 has to balance between legacy and innovation".
Exasperatingly, in the same breath 343 is quick to designate Halo 4 as a reboot. It's a continuation that "sticks to the canon".
As far as the story is concerned, although both developers swiftly remind the media that games are the "tent-pole" holding up the Halo fiction, the vast majority of world-building has been realised through novels.
Wolfkill states there is a movement towards "humanising Chief" through his AI companion, Cortana. O'Connor makes it clear they will not be slaves to the fiction of the other books, but they will throw a bone to the dedicated fans of the extended fiction by allowing the Spartan 4 to make an appearance in the multiplayer demo.
The biggest announcement was inevitable. There will be, as defined by 343, a "progressive system" that Wolfkill says allows players to ramp up in-game. References to the perks system found in many modern battlefields elicits frowns from the development team; they clearly want to distance themselves from such comparisons. The difference? Wolfkill claims "multiplayer is faster".
Finally, the shadowy new enemy. According to 343, whatever it is has not been seen in combat before, and has a higher purpose than to merely differentiate Halo 4 from previous titles. "It will change the way the game is played."
As to what that means; who knows? Vagueness with a hint of hype was the lingering theme. Halo 4 is clearly covering its bases as best it can, and is desperately trying to keep a broad player-base rather than only the series' regulars or the willingly nostalgic.
The tantalising tidbits of information, when put together, may not give a fairly accurate portrayal of the finished game, but will certainly be enough to keep people talking in the interim.