It's not an overstatement to say that Halo has changed the face of modern gaming. The series wasn't singlehandedly responsible for any particular major development, but what it did do was grab several different gaming elements by the scruff of the neck and drag them kicking and screaming into the new millennium. Bungie's community-based approach to multiplayer helped develop one of the most complete online packages available on any medium and provided other developers with a template to use when putting together their own multiplayer content.
It wasn't just the online death-fest that catapulted the Halo series from relative obscurity to the top the gaming food chain; the narrative and the characters had just us much to do with it. The story that pins it all together is a compelling tale of humanity's struggle against the odds, and let's face it, we all love an underdog. The story of Master Chief, Cortana and Captain Keyes struck a chord with gamers ten years ago and started a gaming dynasty that shows no sign of dissipating.
For the uninitiated amongst you, here's the crux of the story: An Alien alliance of religious zealots known as The Covenant have declared war on Humanity and are, quite frankly, kicking the shit out of us.
The Covenant worship the ancient technology of a long-dead species called the Forerunners, but the artifacts they venerate are, in fact, a series of weapons designed to wipe out life in the universe should a race of intergalactic ‘zombies' called The Flood ever return. Obviously if the Covenant were to activate the weapon then, instead of ascending to God-like omniscience as they expect, they will inadvertently end all life as we know it (Jim). It's down to you, the last Spartan (a genetically modified super-human called John 117, or simply the Master Chief), to stop them.
I could, if I wanted to, spend the rest of the article just detailing the plot of the game; it's incredibly complex. However, all you really need to know is that at the end Halo 3, Master Chief and Cortana are left stranded out on the edge of the galaxy at a facility called the Ark. John 117 ends the game telling Cortana to "Wake me, when you need me". Halo 4 picks up the story from here.
The newest installment to the series is going to be the first part of what is being called the Reclaimer Trilogy (humans are ‘reclaimers' - the species meant to inherit the technology left behind by the Forerunners). However the content or narrative isn't likely to present a major departure from what we've already seen. Perhaps the most significant difference between the first trilogy and the second is going to be the behind the scenes.
As you all know Bungie made the original trilogy, with the first installment coming out 10 years ago (check out our review of the remake Halo: Anniversary). Recently though, the studio has stepped out from under Microsoft's shadow and has struck out on their own once again, leaving Halo under the watchful eye of their old paymasters. The studio now responsible for the franchise is 343 Industries.
343 has assembled a team from across the industry and has had hundreds of people working on the game since the release of Halo 3: ODST two years ago. They seem incredibly confident and until given a reason not to believe in them, we're prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. At this early stage one thing is clear; they know Halo.
Details on both the campaign and multiplayer are very sketchy. We know that the game will retain the ‘Halo' factor that made the series so successful. We know that the main protagonists will be Master Chief and Cortana. We know that they're stranded on half a spaceship that is floating in space. We know that we're going to see much more of the Forerunners. Lastly, we know that we can't rely on the fragments of knowledge we've garnered from the teaser trailer (as 343 has admitted that the details featured - like, for example, the Chief's armour - are likely to change considerably by next year).
Everything and anything else is pure speculation. There has been a lot of talk about the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana, so expect that to feature heavily. Also, it's worth noting that in the Halo Universe, AI's like Cortana can be prone to behavioral problems, so something along those lines is also a very distinct possibility. We fully expect to see much, much more of the Forerunners, though we have nothing to back that assumption up with. With a franchise like this it is important to keep things moving; stand still for too long and people start getting bored. With this in mind we expect to see some new weapons and vehicles, possibly of Forerunner origin.
Details aside, when it comes to the core gameplay experience, it's very difficult to say exactly what we're going to get next year when Halo 4 arrives. There is a lot of apprehension amongst fans now that 343 have taken over the reigns from Bungie; will they be able to deliver a game worthy of those that have come before it? Ultimately that is the million dollar question.
On the other hand, there is plenty of room for optimism. 343 is made up of established industry professionals and ex-Bungie employees, so they have the experience needed to succeed. They're also completely dedicated to working on the Halo franchise, so won't be distracted by other titles. The foundations that Halo 4 are being built on a incredibly solid and the universe surrounding the game is rich and detailed. Whilst the series may have already peaked with the release of (insert your favourite Halo game here), the chances are that 343 is going to serve us up an entertaining game. Just how good it will be remains to be seen.
Keeping the established Halo community intact and happy is surely the key to the franchise's continued presence at the top table of gaming. Making games that satisfied both hardcore and casual gamer alike was the key the Bungie's success. Can that formula be replicated by 343? The answer is an enigma. And exactly why the game is so hotly anticipated.