LOS ANGELES - The holiday-shopping season arrival of Halo4 will mean more than a one-shot return of Xbox hero Master Chief. A new free weekly episodic series will keep fans of the franchise interacting for months.
The initial episode of Spartan Ops will be immediately available for download when Halo 4 hits stores Nov. 6 ($60-up, for Xbox 360; Xbox Live Gold membership required, $60 for one year; not yet rated). Each entry has a short cinematic video, then segues into five new missions, playable by one to four players. Each episode and mission expands on the storyline of the Halo 4 single-player game; many of the same characters appear in the game, videos and missions.
Other games such as Call of Duty and Fallout 3 have offered downloadable content, but Halo 4's weekly offerings go beyond past ventures. "For the first time ever, players are able to propel the story of the Halo universe forward within a multiplayer experience," says Josh Holmes, creative director with Halo 4 development studio 343 Industries.
This is a fresh start on many levels for the Halo franchise, which has sold more than 40 million games worldwide since its debut more than a decade ago on the original Xbox. Halo 4 is the first project for 343 Industries, a studio created by Microsoft exclusively to manage the Halo franchise after original developers Bungie moved on to new projects.
The game's introductory cinematic scenes and first level will be previewed publicly for the first time today here at the Electronic Entertainment Expo game convention. At the end of Halo 3, conquering hero Master Chief goes into cryogenic sleep. He is awakened by his artificial-intelligence sidekick Cortana to face "a new threat in the universe," says executive producer Kiki Wolfkill, a former art director at Microsoft Games Studios who worked with Bungie on Halo 3.
"He is waking up on this ship that is frozen and has been floating in space," she says. "He is not entirely sure where he is."
In the distance is a planet called Requiem, "a new alien world," Wolfkill says. "We really wanted to get back to that sense of mystery and exploration of the first Halo."
To court newcomers, the designers will catch players up on previous adventures in the game's introduction. "We're also making the game feel a little more accessible," Wolfkill says. "We would never do anything that would disappoint our core fan base, but there is a lot of opportunity for people to experience the game who may have felt like (it) was too far into the franchise for them to jump in."
And Spartan Ops is an attempt to get players who focus on the single-player story campaign to go online, or players of the online multiplayer combat modes to try the cooperative modes, Holmes says.
At the outset, players create their own Spartan super-soldier (Master Chief is a top-level Spartan). Achievements and attributes earned in Spartan Ops carry over into the multiplayer modes and vice versa. "Players build a Spartan character that represents them and their own personal play style online," Holmes says. "It's one persistent character and career that spans both the competitive and cooperative experience."
With a full-fledged story, cooperative Spartan Ops and multiplayer modes, Halo 4 promises to be anything but spartan. An early look reveals a beefed-up Master Chief with improved animations and smoother movement, a sexy Cortana and intricately rendered environments.
"The new developers have enough Halo experts and veterans on staff that the transition will be as smooth as it could possibly be," says Dan Hsu, editor in chief of GamesBeat, the games division of VentureBeat.com. "That said, there are a lot of intangibles that made Halo what it is today. The games all played extremely well - only Call of Duty can really compete - so we'll have to see if the new gang can get those little things right."