Halo video game franchise moves forward

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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 Sept. 14,
is an unusual game and a major turning point for the hugely successful
series, which has sold more than 34 million copies and generated
roughly $2 billion in sales.

“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 Marcus Lehto, the game’s creative director.

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 Bellevue, Wash.-based
developer that created the franchise and has made three sequels and
spinoffs (one other spinoff was made by a different studio).

As part of an agreement reached when it spun off from former owner Microsoft
in 2007, Reach is the last Halo game that will be made by Bungie, which
is turning its attention to a new game that it will own and control. A
prequel that ties into its first game lets Bungie have its final word
on the property while also leaving story threads from 2007’s Halo 3
open for Microsoft,
which has created a new business unit called 343 Industries (named
after a villainous robot from the games) to oversee the franchise.

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 Microsoft’s
video game business. The series has been the most successful for the
company’s Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles, providing the impetus for players
to spend hundreds of dollars on the hardware and $50 per year to play online.

“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 Bonnie Ross, general manager of 343 Industries. “Our focus is to make sure that in 30 years Halo is still relevant.”

The only video game brands that have made it close to that long are Nintendo’s classics from 1980s, such as the Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and Zelda. What Microsoft
is attempting to accomplish with Halo may be most akin to television
series that have continued when key talent departed, such as “The
Tonight Show” without Johnny Carson and “Seinfeld” without co-creator Larry David.

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, Microsoft
isn’t talking about what it has planned next for Halo. “Whoever is
tasked with making Halo games in the future will have to live up to the
standards set by Bungie, without a shadow of a doubt,” said Frank O’Connor, 343’s creative director.

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 (The New York Times
described the plot of Halo 3 as “a lot of things get in your way and
you kill them”) — is its story. “It’s so important that these games
have a heart and soul and players see that there’s more to his universe
than the war going on in front of them,” he said.

Inspired by science-fiction novels such as Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” and movies such as “Starship Troopers,” the first three
Halo games depict humanity’s efforts in the 26th century to save itself
from the Covenant. Players control Master Chief, a space marine in the
military’s elite Spartan program.

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 Tobias Buckell,
who wrote the novel “Halo: The Cole Protocol” and consulted on a Halo
encyclopedia. “Halo stood out because it’s a richly constructed world
that you can really dig into.”

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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