'Halo 4' not a reboot

Cybernetic super-soldier Master Chief makes his triumphant return in

Cybernetic super-soldier Master Chief makes his triumphant return in "Halo 4," hitting the Xbox 360 on Nov. 6. (HO)

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:47 PM ET

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- "Wake up, Chief. I need you."

Beginning with those words, spoken by the sexy, shimmering artificial intelligence Cortana to the emerald-armoured super-soldier called Master Chief, Halo 4 will mark the return of one of this generation's most iconic video game heroes.

But even a guy as tough as the 26th-century cybernetic warrior Master Chief might be daunted by the expectations that are weighing on this game, launching Nov. 6 on the Xbox 360. With a new studio (led by a Canadian, no less) at the helm and a fan community that ranges from casual sci-fi dilettantes to ferociously competitive online warriors, Halo 4 will be one of the most-scrutinized and most-played games of 2012.

As if that wasn't enough pressure, Halo 4 aims to reboot the space opera shooter that fans have adored since 2001's Halo: Combat Evolved cemented the success of Microsoft's original Xbox console, and will be the latest game in a series that has sold in the neighbourhood of 40 million copies.

But Halo 4 isn't a reboot in the Hollywood sense of the word, said Josh Holmes, creative director of Halo development studio 343 Industries.

"Unlike Batman, we're not resetting the state of the universe, we're not starting the story over," said Holmes, who until 2008 headed Disney-owned and now-defunct Propaganda Games in Vancouver. "This is not the origin story of Master Chief. This is a very deliberate continuation of a story that's already in motion."

During a recent sneak peek at 343 Industries in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Wash., we delved into the backstory of Halo 4, chatted with some of the 250 people who are making the game and went hands-on with its revamped online modes. (QMI Agency was the only Canadian media outlet invited to this advance look at Halo 4.)

Halo 4 will be the first game developed by the Microsoft-owned 343 Industries, which took over the Halo franchise from original series creators Bungie Studios. It will pick up directly after the events of 2007's Halo 3, which ended with Master Chief in a cryogenic sleep pod aboard a crippled starship, under the watchful eye of his faithful A.I. companion Cortana.

From speeding up the game's action to expanding the emotional range of the characters to creating a weekly episodic online component to supplement the story, Holmes and company are making several carefully calculated changes to one of the most successful gaming properties of the last 10 years.

But with Halo 4 intended to be the beginning of a new trilogy based on the continuing story of Master Chief, the vision is a long-term one. Frank O'Connor, 343 Industries' franchise development director, says Halo can -- and ideally will -- last 20 more years.

"The technology will change, people's habits will change, we will kill off characters and resurrect others, and it won't be the exact vision that we have now," O'Connor said. "Our intent is to grow and nurture the franchise for as long as it makes sense."

What to expect in 'Halo 4'

From hollow planets to sexy tigers, there's a heck of a lot going on in Halo 4, the much-anticipated new installment in the blockbuster sci-fi saga.

I was the only Canadian journalist invited to a recent Halo 4 sneak peek at development studio 343 Industries in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Wash. And while the folks at 343 are keeping mum on many details before the game's Nov. 6 release, here's a sampling of what we know - so far - about the Xbox 360's biggest title of the year.

It picks up where 'Halo 3' left off

While 343 Industries has described Halo 4 as a reboot of sorts, it continues the story of cybernetic super-soldier Master Chief, who will be central to what will ultimately be a new trilogy of Halo games. But because nearly five years have elapsed while Master Chief was in cryogenic slumber aboard the crippled starship seen at the end of Halo 3, there's the potential for lots of interesting stuff to have developed.

The Covenant aren't the (only) bad guys

Halo 4 opens with our old alien buddies the Covenant boarding the ship that Master Chief and his A.I. companion Cortana have been stranded on since the end of Halo 3. Players will break in their trigger fingers on familiar Grunts and Elites, but a brand new type of enemy will be revealed before long. For the moment, 343 is keeping a lid on who the new baddies are and what they look like.

It will go deep inside

All hints point to Halo 4 taking place - at least in the early going - inside a high-tech hollow planet built by the ancient alien race called the Forerunners. I'm betting the Chief's crippled starship crash-lands inside this world, giving players all kinds of new environments to explore and baddies to fight.

It looks great

The graphics engine that drove 2010's Halo: Reach has been overhauled for Halo 4, and the visuals are noticeably improved. As well, there's more emphasis on the Chief's agility, with an early sequence that sees him climbing a ladder in an elevator shaft while dodging debris.

You'll go to Infinity (and beyond)

Halo 4's online multiplayer component will be set on the UNSC Infinity, a giant Navy starship Master Chief will encounter during the game (suggesting he won't always be working solo.) The Infinity will be home base for player-created soldiers who hone their skills in simulators on board the ship. Now it makes sense why a bunch of red Spartans would fight a bunch of blue Spartans.

It will be weekly appointment gaming

One of the most interesting additions to the Halo franchise is Spartan Ops, a weekly online CG series that will tell the tale of a group of soldiers on the UNSC Infinity. Five mini-missions will be spun off from each week's story-driven episode, giving players a chance to group up and tackle challenges together.

The online playing field won't be as level

Halo 4's online multiplayer component will let players earn game-changing skills and perks, standard fare in games such as Call of Duty but a first for Halo (and a source of controversy among some diehard fans.) "Probably the biggest challenge for us is making sure all those different elements remain balanced with one another, so there's no one winning strategy," said Halo 4 creative director Josh Holmes.

Aliens sound like devils and sex

The Halo 4 audio team visited wildlife reserves in Tasmania, recording animal sounds to use as the basis for alien grunts, groans and screams. The samples they recorded include enraged Tasmanian devils and a pair of tigers having sex, but Halo 4 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill assured us no animals were harmed during the audio sessions. (Somewhat ironic, given her name.)

Multiplayer feels fast, yet familiar

I spent a couple of hours sampling Halo 4's competitive multiplayer modes, limited to two game types on two maps. It felt like classic Halo, but with a bit of a kick. The action is slightly faster, with tweaks such as a recharging sprint ability and instant respawns after death. Tons of fun. (I had the most kills of anyone in our first five-on-five journalist deathmatch. Just sayin'.)

You can stop waiting for the Halo movie. For now.

Many fans got excited about a proposed Peter Jackson-produced Halo feature film, but the deal ultimately fell through. "Hollywood is often an exercise in perfect timing and perfect people, and if you don't get it all lined up, things don't get made," Halo franchise development director Frank O'Connor said. But don't give up all hope. "If it happens again and it's the right people and the right time then absolutely, of course we'd be excited to do it."

 


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