More impressions of Halo Reach

As Lehto explains: “We had a really big vision for what we wanted to do with Reach overall and we had to go back and take every component within the Halo engine and rebuild them from the ground up. The entire engine has been upgraded to accommodate some of the things we wanted to do.

“We want to be able to build bigger, more epic environments that foster exploration, and we want to fill it with twice the number of enemies, vehicles, and weapons. Those things technically were at odds with one another – because we’re still on the same hardware and that really did require us to do much smarter things with our engine to accommodate that vision.” So how hard are Bungie pushing the 360? “We’re spankin’ it!” says Lehto. “Spankin’ it for everything it’s got!”

Even on enormous battlefields Bungie can take the camera inches away from a Spartan’s gun and read the serial number on the side with crystal clarity. Taking us on a guided tour of the forthcoming beta’s Powerhouse map Lehto shows off the incidental details on every surface, the higher level of anti-aliasing, the real-time lighting effects triggered by every muzzle flash and plasma bolt, and the new sound effects which make Reach’s guns sound less like popcorn makers and more like hot leaded death.

But perhaps most telling of all: that Powerhouse map is an area lifted directly from the game’s regular campaign mode. Every multiplayer map is a space built for both campaign and multiplayer – they’ll appear in one half of the game with different lighting and weather effects, but they’ll be the same map with the same key features. If it sounds lazy, it’s anything but – Reach’s campaign maps are the first in the entire history of Halo to be polished to the same degree as its multiplayer counterparts, and it speaks volumes about the sandbox-style combat that every last space in every part of the game is a great place for a fight.

Those spaces will evolve over the course of the game; the shots look bleak and in-game it’s no cheerier, but this is Halo and colour is integral to the world. “We’re telling a darker story overall,” says Lehto. “From the beginning we know the end. Reach is going to fall, seven hundred million people are going to die on this planet so what we do graphically plays with that tone. Now, that said, this is Halo – this is not a drab, dreary, grey game. We’re not doing anything to destroy the foundation of what’s so important to us. We’re going to use colour to help your emotional responses, to drive your navigation through the environment, and to drive the story arc as you start out on the planet fresh and alive and you see the Covenant systematically destroy the world over the length of the campaign.”

It sounds grim but Lehto insists it’s a story with a happy ending if you’re far-sighted enough to see it. “You’ll get to know those characters and get to know what they did – their sacrifice. You’ll experience what they did that was so honourable that it allowed the actions after Halo Reach – the events of the Halo trilogy – to happen. Ultimately it’s a story of hope about what they did to save humanity.

“We’re building on a decade’s worth of experience with Halo 1, 2, 3, and ODST – putting all the good things from each one of those into Reach and then we’re putting new features on top of that. We’re going to make this the definitive Halo title.”

So what%26rsquo;s the deal with the beta?

Halo Reach’s beta kicks off on May 3rd, though a little bird tells us a secret closed beta for Microsoft and Bungie employees kicked off in early March. You can get onto the beta using your ODST disc and the duration is expected to be around the same length as Halo 3’s beta, making the last week of May the official ‘Return ODST to Gamestation Week’. “Our goals are very specific,” says Bungie’s Brian Jarrard.

“There are some metrics we need to get and a lot of back-end data mining that’s gonna have to occur so we’re going to build the beta duration around what our team needs to get out of it. You’ll see a few maps, you’ll see a couple of different game types – some old stuff that returns but also some new stuff that we haven’t revealed yet. We have some brand new multiplayer experiences that are big and risky and need to be in the beta to give us real stress testing and real balance testing. On top of that you’re going to see a huge selection of the weapons that the game has to offer and a pretty healthy amount of armour abilities.

“From a design perspective, those things have the biggest impact on how people are going to play Halo – hopefully in an awesome way, but also it’s the riskiest so we’re looking forward to that getting hammered on during the beta. Even though it’s just a beta we know people are gonna judge this game – they’re gonna look at our unfinished beta and that’s going to influence what they think about our final game in autumn, so we have to do as much as we can to make it awesome. It’s a fine line; it’s scary and rewarding and [Creative Director] Marcus [Lehto] is, I’m sure, terrified…”

Mar 30, 2010