In the opening shot of the new video game Halo Reach, a helmet with a shattered visor lies alone on the surface of a barren alien planet. It's a solemn vision signifying that unlike the previous five Halo games, this isn't a story of victory and triumph. As a prequel to 2001's original Halo, Reach tells the story of a critical defeat that leaves humanity on the verge of being conquered by an alien alliance known as the Covenant.
Sacrifice and defeat aren't typical in the world of
video games, in which it's most common to end a story by giving players
a sense of accomplishment while still leaving threads open for sequels,
as every previous Halo title has done. But Reach, which comes out
"Halo Reach is our way of taking the story full
circle and describing the genesis of the events and actions that we
have shown before," said
Bringing Halo to a fitting conclusion without
bringing it to an end was the paradoxical challenge faced by Lehto and
his colleagues at Bungie studios, the
As part of an agreement reached when it spun off from former owner
After more than a decade together, in other words, Bungie is preparing to go in one direction while Halo is going another.
Keeping Halo healthy is critical to the future of
"What Halo has done from the amount sold to fan
awareness of our business makes it the most important entertainment
property at our company," said
The only video game brands that have made it close to that long are
Reach is expected to continue the series' history of being a commercial blockbuster. According to market research firm Ipsos OTX, which polls 1,000 U.S. video game players each week, it's the No. 1 most anticipated title coming out this year.
Like most publishers in the secretive video game industry,
Nobody knows more about Bungie's standards than Lehto, the only creative principal who has been involved in every Halo game since work started in 1997. After serving as art director on the first three installments, Lehto three years ago began leading a team of five people — which eventually swelled to 130 — to work on Reach.
The core principles, he said, were the same as on previous entries: Halo was the first "first person shooter" — a type of action game that originated on PCs in which players see the world through the eyes of the protagonist — to succeed on consoles connected to televisions. Developers had previously thought it couldn't be done without the precision of a keyboard and mouse. But Halo disproved the conventional wisdom with its innovative mechanics, which have been repeated on each successive entry.
In addition, Halo 2 was the first hit online game for consoles. The series has always been known for its huge number of options for up to 16 people to compete, and even occasionally cooperate, over the Internet.
But Lehto says the least appreciated element of
Halo's success — a part of the game that has prompted mixed reactions
among critics (
Inspired by science-fiction novels such as
Though Master Chief has no name or back story and never even takes off his helmet, a rich fiction developed around the games involving the history of the war, the religious zealotry of the Covenant and massive orbital structures known as Halos.
There have also been seven Halo novels, six comic
book miniseries and graphic novels, and seven short films.
"Traditionally first person shooters just gave you an arena to blow
things up without stakes or a driving narrative," said
In Reach, Bungie eschewed the galactic scope of previous Halo games and focused on a squad of six Spartans, known as Noble Team, in their doomed attempt to save a single planet. From the harsher music score to the darker color scheme to the fact that Spartans for the first time take off their helmets, the developers have produced a grittier experience. "We're not doing a big space opera this time," said Lehto. It's more like 'Black Hawk Down.'"
After proving that first person shooters can work on the video game console, that they can be played online and that storytelling need not take a backseat to technology, Bungie is ready to show that a blockbuster video game need not be an epic one.
And if Halo is a little less hopeful by the end of Reach, that may just reflect the mood of those who made it. "It's absolutely bittersweet," said Lehto. "There were points during Halo 2 and 3 when we said, 'We've got to stop,' but now that it's all wrapped up it's a sad thing to see Halo go out there in the wild."
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