Halo (Photo Courtesy: USA Today)
Bigger-than-life Xbox hero the Master Chief returns in the new game Halo 4, out Tuesday, with a sparkling high-def sheen and a willingness to let players know what's going on behind his once-impenetrable mask.
In the years since Halo: Combat Evolved served as the Master Chief's debut - and helped launch the original Xbox system in 2001 - the cybernetically enhanced and armored space marine has been a man of few words. However, his preference for plodding forward and mowing down enemies has not hindered the series, which has sold more than 46 million copies and grossed $3 billion worldwide.
In crafting Halo's comeback, the new Microsoft-created studio 343 Industries decided that players would like to learn a bit more about what makes the Master Chief tick. At Halo 4's outset, he awakes from cryogenic sleep nearly five years after the events in 2007's Halo 3. An imminent interstellar threat has emerged, as has the potential demise of his longtime artificial intelligence guide, Cortana.
"You hear his voice more often and understand his link to Cortana in a more meaningful way," says Geoff Keighley, host of GameTrailers TV on Spike. "While you never see his face, I wonder if sometime we will finally get to see him take off the mask."
That doesn't happen in this game ($60, rated M for ages 17-up), but those who play in its most difficult setting ("Legendary") will be rewarded with a look at his eyes without his helmet on. As the first Halo release since the franchise-founding studio Bungie handed the creative baton to 343, Halo 4 has plenty of drama as well as action. "One of 343's goals was to tell more of Master Chief's story and make him into a person, not just a suit of armor," Keighley says.
Quickly after the Master Chief is awakened, he and Cortana find themselves marooned on the planet Requiem. The approaching seven-year limit to Cortana's life adds urgency to his search for an escape plan; in the Halo world, AI programs last only that long. "We wanted to place the Master Chief in circumstances that would force him to take stock of his own humanity and force him to change," says the franchise's creative director, Josh Holmes.
Complicating the situation: There are others on the mysterious planet, including forces of the Covenant, the aliens with whom humanity and the United Nations Space Command had apparently reached a truce at the end of Halo 3. The Covenant has discovered what appears to be an installation created by the Forerunners, an ancient, technologically advanced race credited with building the halo structures in the earlier games.
Despite these thematic threads from earlier Halo titles, 4 feels new, says Francesca Reyes, editor in chief of the Official Xbox Magazine. "The music feels like it's tailored to very specific moments, to draw out a response from gamers, and there's a retooling of how the weapons handle and sound," she says. "It's a very polished product, but that in itself isn't the game's biggest feat. It's more that they've used those technical accomplishments to support character, storytelling and keeping you immersed in the moment."
Beyond the game's story mode are new weekly Spartan Ops missions playable by one to four players and a new online multiplayer War Games mode that can handle up to 16 players.
Microsoft and 343 hope to captivate fans for a long time. "It's our job to ensure that we have a universe you can tell stories in over the next 10 to 20 years," says 343 studio head Bonnie Ross.
While some reports have Halo 4 as the first in a trilogy, that's not necessarily so. "I like to call it a saga," Ross says. "It isn't a set number of stories. There is a story arc that we are very interested in telling across multiple mediums."
Among the other Halo story devices:
-- A theatrical-quality trailer produced by David Fincher (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) shows the Master Chief as a youth, being indoctrinated into the Spartan program.
-- The five-part live-action video series Forward Unto Dawn (Episode 5 landed Friday on Machinima.com) unfolds an early episode in the Master Chief's career. He rescues several students whose academy is under attack; some will become well-known characters in the game going forward.
-- Weekly Spartan Ops episodes begin with the arrival of Halo 4 (free for Xbox Live Gold subscribers). Each CGI-animated story segment - the events take place after Halo 4 - segues into a new playable mission.
-- Novels, such as The Thursday War by Karen Traviss, released last month, explore the post-Halo 3 universe, while another series by Greg Bear looks at the Forerunners. His third book, Halo: Silentium, is due Jan. 8.
"We've been seeding those novels with information that ties into and sets up a lot of the story points in Halo 4," Holmes says. "This grand story design connects all these dots throughout the universe."
By Mike Snider