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Monday, October 13, 2014

THE FUTURE OF HALO

MASTER CHIEF MAKES AN EXCITING LEAP INTO THE NEXT GENERATION OF XBOX
Halo 5: Guardians is going to change your life. We’ve meditated on the power of the Xbox One, spoken with the High Prophets at 343 Industries in hushed whispers and equipped ourselves the power of clairvoyancy. We have looked into your future: gazed upon the sleepless nights and Red Bull-induced hallucinations that await you. We see age-old rivalries re-igniting as red Spartan warriors spill blue Covenant blood with the stab of an Energy Sword across beautiful 1080p battlegrounds. 2015 is going to bring a wild fragfest to your living room, there’s simply no escaping it: Master Chief is back with a furious vengeance.

But 2015 is bloody ages away. That’s why Microsoft has had the good sense to let us start and
finish the fight all over again this November, all from one convenient disc. You need to understand, Halo: The Master Chief Collection isn’t a stopgap, it’s an intriguing look into the legacy of Xbox’s most important hero, and a chance to relive Chief’s crowning achievements.



Halo is on the cusp of some pretty amazing things…I think we are at the turning point in a pretty exciting future.” Oh, Dan Ayoub, please tell us all of your secrets. 343 Industries’ executive producer was one of the few that knew what the future held for our idle thumbs and online personas. He has passed this knowledge onto us, and in turn, we pass it to you. That turning point he speaks of is The Master Chief Collection. It’sa way for the studio to rediscover how Halo changed the landscape of console shooters in the last generations, and an opportunity to test-run its evolution in the next.“As we started development on Halo 2: Anniversary it occurred to us that we’ve got a platform transition and we’ve got more power to play with. So we started thinking that we wanted to take advantage of that power,” says Ayoub. “We started thinking, well, with Halo 5 coming [and] a new generation, how do we bring all of these games and the next one together?”

The answer is The Master Chief Collection. It’s a package designed for the fanatics that know the differences between the MJOLNIR Mark V and VI armours. It’s for the new blood that never grew to fear the Flood in the now infamous 343 Guilty Spark encounter. It’s for the old guard that believed console multiplayer lived and died in the bloodied corridors of Lockout and Zanzibar in 2004.

“As we started looking at it, we [realised] we can go a lot further than just Halo 2: Anniversary,” Ayoub chuckled, perhaps only just coming to the realisation that the collection contains an unholy amount of content. “We can give fans  Halo 1-4 all on one disc, to not only let people bring their collections forward, but to also prepare for  Halo 5. I liken it a lot to binging on Netflix before a new season of something comes out, it’s a great way for people to catch up.”

As you look at modern games like Call Of Duty and Titanfall, they really owe their legacy to Halo 2’s multiplayer
343 has gone out of its way to produce the ultimate  Halo package. It’s a straight-up love letter to the UNSC soldiers battling it out on the Xbox Live servers. The Master Chief Collection  includes Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2, Halo 3  and Halo 4, all engineered to run on Xbox One at 1080p and 60fps.

Better still, the original multiplayer of each is intact glitches and all. That’s over 100 multiplayer maps and all 50 co-operative Spec Ops missions. The sheer thought of it is making us hyperventilate with anticipation. Halo 2 on its tenth anniversary is the most transformed, the centrepiece of the collection. 343 has done an incredible job souping up these games, the collection represents some of the finest FPS action from across the last 13 years.

Halo 2, in particular, is stunning. The space stations are crisp, the Covenant and Brute warriors are gruesome and gorgeous in equal measure, the weapons are brutal and the firefights feel more fierce than ever before. It’s Halo as you remember it, with the polish and visual flair you’ve come to expect from a modern triple-A shooter. The Master Chief Collection is the connecting piece between Master
Chief’s past, present and future, as it leads us by the hand into the next chapter of the Reclaimer Saga. You see, this isn’t just an opportunity for us to relive Master Chief’s past adventures; it’s being framed as a teaching tool for ONI’s new Spartan alumni, Agent Locke. He’s the brand new playable character you’ve no doubt seen plastered across Halo 5’s promotional material, not to mention the lead in Halo: Nightfall the episodic live-action show from producer Ridley Scott and Scott Free Productions also included in The Master Chief Collection.

Nightfall is going to introduce us to the self described “man hunter” and is set to track his evolution from badass ONI officer to new breed of Spartan IV. Locke has one hell of a mission on his hands. Chief’s old firing partner The Arbiter is back, and he’s been tasked with walking Locke through Chief’s past adventures in what we can only assume was a mega co-op LAN session for the history books. That’s how The Master Chief Collection itself is being slotted into the wider Halo mythos. Locke is studying the man, the myth, and the legend before he can complete his mission:
to return a rogue Master Chief back to the military structure he spent his entire life dedicated to.

“With Nightfall, it was about having the opportunity to explore this character of Locke differently,” says Kiki Wolfkill, executive producer and overseer of all things Master Chief at 343. “We want people to connect with him through the narrative differently than they might through the game, and hopefully that creates a more interesting experience in  Halo 5: Guardians.”

It’s an interesting idea, especially as we will need all the context for Halo 5’s story we can get. John-117 has been with us for most of our gaming lives; we don’t want to take him down if we can help it. If the guy wants to run wild in Covenant-occupied space to find Dr. Halsey to find a way to resurrect his AI compadre Cortana then more power to him. Still, it’s through Halo 2: Anniversary that we will be able to uncover Halo 5 story elements first-hand, through extended cutscenes and hidden terminal videos it gives us a whole extra reason to play through the campaign again. But as we drop into the shoes of Locke, much in the same way we did The Arbiter a decade ago, we have the feeling another icon is about to be created.

Here’s the thing, X-ONE reader. We aren't idiots, we know you know Halo. And we know you only care about two things when it comes to The Master Chief Collection, so let’s go ahead and cut the BS, shall we? You want to know if Halo 2’s multiplayer is as great as you remember it to be, and secondly, you want to know whether all these remasters will actually have any real impact on the future of Halo's all-important multiplayer.

It might surprise you to learn that both questions are answered in Halo 2: Anniversary. Six of Halo 2’s maps are being completely rebuilt in a brand new engine no doubt the precursor to Halo 5: Guardians’ own.

Dan Ayoub says that for the legacy player, returning to Ascension, Coagulation, Lockout, Sanctuary, Zanzibar and one unannounced map (our money is on Ivory Tower) in their re-imagined form will be “like going home again.”

And while that’s certainly evident after our hands on session, there’s far more at work here. The lessons the studio will learn through the redesign of its most famous multiplayer maps will come to define the next generation.

“ Halo 2 for me, as you look at modern games like Call Of Duty and Titanfall, they really owe their legacy to Halo 2’s multiplayer,” says Ayoub. “Going back to it has just been a fantastic stroll down memory lane. That was really the goal of the project. When we started, we said  we have got to get this multiplayer right, that’s what most people are going to associate with Halo 2. Which is why we have the entirety of Halo 2 exactly as it shipped.”
Halo 2 exactly as it shipped; we’ve got goosebumps. It was so clinically balanced that it could do nothing but encourage skill and strategy. Starting weapons were standardised; the fight for powerful alternatives was legendary. There are no power-ups to break the pace of play; Team Deathmatch victories were made through managing territory and tactics with careful communication and unwavering teamwork. Committing weapon placement and map navigation to muscle memory was crucial. Honestly, one X-ONE team member was almost suspended from school in 2004 due to more time being devoted to learning the layout of maps in  Halo 2 than on taking exams gaming was serious business back then. There are times when we all slightly regret the amount of time we’ve dedicated to games over the years, but after dropping into the remastered maps, after reigning supreme ten years later, we wouldn’t have spent our time any other way.

We rushed up the beachhead in Zanzibar the Warthog and newly christened Gungoose zooming past us and took advantage of a curiously placed gravlift. It took us directly to our trusty Sniper Rifle on the lower walkways, we’re in heaven. We trained our sights on the alcove hiding beneath the spinning wheel. Seconds pass and nothing. Then, suddenly, everything happens. “Double Kill!” the announcer takes great pleasure in declaring. Someone makes a rush for the hidden Energy Sword, the “Triple Kill!” announcement follows. The final blue Spartan makes a break across open ground and we catch them with a world-class throw of a plasma grenade. “Killtacular!” We're home.

Such victories would be rewarded in  Halo 2. The skill-based matchmaking was legendary, ensuring a steadily rising challenge awaiting any that dared try.

Seriously, if you thought Dark Souls was tough you’ve never known the pain of trying to pass the level 35 threshold, your rank rising and falling as you won and lost matches. It’s a stark contrast to the pat on the head most modern shooters take great pleasure in dishing out. Halo 2 seemed to delight in telling you that you’d gotten worse, announcing it to your friends and clan with a rank change. Learning Halo took time; its complexities were unlocked with patience and skill, not an XP grind. “The reason we chose six of those maps was partially for that new audience that haven’t played it before, to give them something that looked and felt like a next generation title [and] to give them that pure experience,” says Ayoub, cautiously, but we know what he means. That “pure experience” feels anarchic and archaic all at once. It feels refreshing and decidedly dated.

Returning to  Halo 2 has warped our view on modern shooters. The return to classic,
tight arena play has made us realise how far removed we’ve become from skill-based FPS. If these remastered maps and 343’s attitude is anything to go by, Halo 5: Guardians will bring the legendary Halo multiplayer experience to Xbox One and, more importantly, to a new generation of shooter fans.

“I think everything we do as a studio we learn from,” says Ayoub. “We’ve all got our bets as to where we think we are going to see the most population in these games. I think what’s going to be fascinating for 343, is that this is the first time that we’ve got everything sitting in one game. We can see where people are going, what game types people are playing, we can see what type of multiplayer people are enjoying.

This is going to be incredibly valuable to us. A lot of this game is giving power to the players. “That’s why we’ve unlocked everything [from the start]. For the first time, players are really going to be able to vote with their gameplay, and that’s going to be incredibly informative for us.” You hear that?

343 is watching. The studio will be analysing what maps players do and don’t respond to; it will be able to see what modes we gravitate to and what weapons players are using across the board. It’s also a fantastic way for 343 to address the concerns levied at  Halo 4. 

In many respects Halo 4 robbed the series of what made it great. As it introduced Call Of Duty-inspired loadouts and scorestreaks,  Halo’s notorious balance became less relevant, less integral to the entire experience. By throwing chaos into a clinical system,  Halo 4 felt like it was following trends, rather than setting them. If players gravitate towards the classic arena play of  Halo 1, 2 and  3, then we might finally see 343 reproduce that again. Nothing in this world can compare to the frenzy and fun created by eight Spartans staring each other down in the opening seconds on Ascension, the wild throws of your first two grenades, and the desperate count
to 25 for leaderboard supremacy.
We are always looking over the next ten years: What are the stories that we want to tell?
“You really get to see the evolution of Halo multiplayer through the course of the whole Master Chief collection,” considers Wolfkill. “When the Halo 5 beta hits, that’s the next step. For people that haven’t played Halo multiplayer, It’s an intriguing journey for them to take, and frankly, an educational one. I think it will be more interesting going into the beta having explored that evolution already. I think one of the things that’s interesting is that you really get to see the evolution of  Halo multiplayer through the course of the whole Master Chief Collection and then the beta hits that next step. I think for people that haven’t played Halo multiplayer before it’s an intriguing journey for them to take, and frankly, an educational one. I think it will be more interesting going into the Halo 5 beta having explored that evolution already.”

The Halo 5: Guardians beta is the final component of The Master Chief Collection. The beta will be made available to every player that purchases the collection, and it’ll go live for three weeks from 29 December 2014. It’s an opportunity to give direct feedback to the studio a full year before Halo 5 hits shelves.

“It’s celebrating the legacy of competitive gameplay that’s always been at the heart of Halo’s multiplayer,” said Josh Holmes, executive producer on  Halo 5 in a recent media briefing. “Having a beta this early this early in development is crucial because it gives us as developers the opportunity to react to the feedback we get from fans and take it into account as we complete the multiplayer experience for  Halo 5: Guardians.”

The beta will explore tight arena gameplay with a focus on intense 4v4 showdowns. A return to the ‘fair start’ system that sees players spawn with the same basic loadouts, returning the balance and competitive aspect to the heart of  Halo. Across seven maps, three game types and a variety of different armour sets, we will be able to play the future of Halo for ourselves. The feedback from the beta and across The Master Chief Collection will inform the direction of Halo 5 and perhaps even further into the future.

It’s a dangerous world, and we hope Master Chief never finishes his fight by the sounds of it, 343 has no intention of letting him. “There are all sorts of exciting things planned for Halo 5. But we are also thinking about what experiences we can build around that, and how we can keep Halo experiences coming out [faster] so there isn’t so much waiting,” teases Wolfkill. “We are always looking over, really, the next ten years: what are the things we want to do? What are the stories that we want
to tell? I think, especially with how quickly media, gaming and tech is all changing, we always want  Halo to be at the forefront of that.”

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