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The challenge of making Halo 4

Last updated 10:44 31/10/2012

Pressure is something that all game developers face but perhaps none are feeling it more than 343 Industries, the new caretaker of the Halo series. After all, the developer has been tasked with creating a new Halo series after the phenomenally successful games from Bungie.

With Halo 4 just days away, here's a story from an interview I did with Halo 4's creative director Josh Holmes. Enjoy

It's been five years since the Master Chief, one of gaming's most recognisable figures, took the fight to the alien Covenant but for fans of the series, those gamers who have followed the armoured boot steps of the Master Chief from the very beginning, the wait is almost over: Halo 4 is almost here.

And it was a daunting challenge, Halo 4's creative director Josh Holmes told me recently, despite the fact that 343 Industries was created specifically to be ''the caretakers of the Halo universe'' and contained staff who had worked on previous Halo games.

''As a new team coming to the franchise and the universe and trying to carry things forward it's definitely a daunting task but it's something that all of us were inspired by that challenge.  I think the character of the team, if you look at all of the people who signed on to be a part of this, was the sort of team that wanted to take on that challenge and thought they could defy the odds and build the next great Halo. It's daunting but it's also something inspiring.''
Holmes is under no illusions as to how important Halo 4 is to the fledgling development company.

''Halo 4 is massively important. This is our coming out party that we've been working on for 3 ½ and everyone that joined the studio joined with this purpose in mind. We've been pouring our hearts and souls into this game. The studio's feels a real sense of accomplishment in what we've been able to do.''

Holmes said while there was never any desire to stamp 343's own mark on Halo 4, the company looked at the game ''more from the standpoint on where do we want to take Halo as a universe and as an experience''.

''We looked at the different opportunities we felt that we could evolve and improve on while at the same time staying true to the core of what Halo is and maintain that familiar Halo feel. That was critically important from our perspective.''

Holmes said 343 wanted to present a more sophisticated narrative - and Master Chief - in Halo 4 than in the previous Halo games.

''We wanted to take an approach with the story telling that was a little bit more sophisticated, a little deeper, more character-focussed and particularly with the Master Chief we felt there was a character there who had been explored in interesting ways outside the games but largely within the games had remained an empty shell.

''And we didn't want to completely change him - he's not going to become intensely chatty and expressive or anything like that - but we felt that there was an interesting area to explore in terms of his back story and the impact his experiences would have on him and his psyche and how he would  deal with and relate to, in particular Cortana, who is ally who is so close to him and they have such an intimate bond, particularly with her going through such rampant changes in her behaviour.''

The relationship between the Master Chief and his AI companion, Cortana, is an interesting one. One is human, the other a computer construct but there is a bond between the pair that has developed over the series. Cortana, though, is nearing the end of her expected lifespan - a construct normally only lives seven years and Cortana is in her eighth - and is starting to experience rampancy, the AI equivalent of dementia. 343 Industries wanted to explore that developing relationship, said Holmes.

''In a lot of ways Cortana is Chief's closest friend and she is in some ways a mother figure. In other ways she is almost bordering on a love interest at times and if you talk to different players you'll get different reads on how they interpret the relationship, so there's a lot of depth and subtle nuance there and we wanted to explore that, but she's [Cortana] almost the more human part of Chief. He's someone who has repressed all of his emotion and brought his humanity in service of being a soldier and doing the things that need to be done. This is the most interesting human aspect of him because the pair share such an interesting emotional bond.''

Holmes said Halo 4 will put Master Chief into situations where he is forced to change from his normal behaviour ''and for a character like Chief even small and subtle changes can be pretty important. He's such a stoic character. He's been so reserved in everything that he has done so you kind of look at him like this rock that it he moves even an inch it's significant, so the circumstances of his journey within Halo 4 force him to take stock of himself and change in important ways.''

★★★

For those of you who are old enough to have played the original Halo on the original Xbox console, hark back to the wonder of that first moment you stepped out of the escape pod planetside and gazed on the view. That's the sort of feeling Holmes said 343 wants to ellict when you play Halo 4.

''There's a sense of wonder and an epic scale that is connected to the Halo experience and I strongly recollect that moment I set foot on the Halo ring and the impression it made on me of this world that was beyond my understanding, and it was so big that I couldn't take it all in. We wanted to recapture that same sense and spirit as the player explores Requiem, this brand new world, and really embrace the sci-fi element of Halo which I really think has been a core part of the universe and something that is a real strength.''

So is Holmes happy with the Halo 343 Industries has created? Has he attained the vision the company set out to make?

''This is something I get asked a lot: 'How do feel about how the game has turned out?' and 'How does it match up with the original vision?' and it is surprisingly close to the vision we set. Obviously every time you go through a creative journey there are things that change and discoveries that happen along the way and as you explore your vision you start to hone and realise the areas that you most want to focus [on]. And that's something that has definitely happened as you go across the story and the game play additions that we've put in [the Prometheans and new weapons]. All of those things are part of the vision we set three years ago and I'm really happy with the way it has turned out.''

Holmes agrees when I ask whether Halo 4 will feel familiar to fans of the series while at the same time be welcoming to new players to the series.

''We've been really deliberate in making the game accessible and welcoming to new players. There are a lot of nods to previous games for the fans - some subtle connections - but they're not necessary to enjoy the core of the experience - and that was really important to us. There will be some players coming to this game who were barely old enough to brush their teeth when the original game came out, so this'll be for many people their first Halo experience so we wanted to make it a great one for someone who hasn't had any experience in playing the original game.''

Other stuff you might be interested in: Game Junkie is on Twitter and you can email him here. He'll even answer your emails, not get some smart robot to do it. He also has another gaming blog here, which was actually updated recently. You should check it out.

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