Though 343 Industries may have been the primary custodian of the million-selling Halo franchise for almost half a decade – following the departure of creator Bungie for pastures and planets new – talking to senior staff at the studio you get the impression that it's still thirsty to prove itself worthy to hold the keys to one of video games' most illustrious brands.
"Halo has a very prestigious legacy," franchise creative director Josh Holmes tells Red Bull. "Everything we make, from video games, to live-action entertainment, to consumer products, is held not only to that standard, but also a personal standard for the studio that is born from our passion for Halo."
Having already produced its own entry in the form of Halo 4 – the Master Chief's Xbox 360 swansong – and remastered his adventures for a next-gen audience with The Master Chief Collection, 343 Industries has recently completed work on its next big release, which has to rank as the most significant Xbox One exclusive thus far.
Halo 5: Guardians is a massive step forward for the franchise, and not just in technical terms. It introduces a new playable lead, a story that has the iconic Master Chief on the run, a revised online component and much more besides. If there was ever a game that could prove once and for all that 343 Industries is the master and commander of the Halo universe, this is it.
"We built Halo 5: Guardians from the ground up to take advantage of the power of the Xbox One and the cloud, and this has enabled us to create a campaign and multiplayer experience that we've always dreamed of," says Holmes. "For campaign, it gave us the ability to create worlds and battles on a scale more epic than ever before, while allowing seamless drop-in, drop-out online cooperative gameplay through the use of dedicated servers. The campaign for Halo 5: Guardians features enormous, complex levels designed to support more enemies and bigger firefights, enhanced immersive audio and sound, sophisticated teammate AI and much more – all running at 60fps."
While it's true that Halo's true next-generation debut dazzles on a purely technical level, what will arguably have more impact for seasoned fans is the inclusion of a new playable lead in the form of Spartan Locke.
Introduced via last year's live-action feature Halo: Nightfall – produced in collaboration with none other than acclaimed director Ridley Scott. Locke is a powerful super-soldier like the Master Chief, but finds himself in the unenviable position of having to hunt down the legendary hero as the game's narrative unfolds.
"The introduction of Spartan Locke is challenging because he is a new character to fans and someone they are unfamiliar with," explains Holmes. "As creators, we need to develop a character capable of sharing the spotlight with someone as iconic and beloved as the Master Chief and that's no easy task. At the same time, that lack of familiarity has its advantages, particularly for the mystery that unfolds throughout the story of Halo 5: Guardians. It motivates players to get to know Locke, who he is and what he is capable of."
The conflict between the two powerful leads is given additional emotional weight thanks to Locke explaining that Master Chief is the reason he wanted to become a Spartan in the first place – an admission that is sure to resonate with Halo fans everywhere.
The game's twisting campaign isn't one you'll have to experience alone, and like previous instalments in the series it offers co-operative play with other Halo fans – although with increased scope this time around. "For the first time in franchise history, the Halo campaign experience is being built around teamwork," Holmes continues. "You can play online with up to three friends through seamless drop-in, drop-out online co-op on dedicated servers, and experience the unique character narratives of your Spartan team."
For those of you who like an involving campaign experience, the good news is that this latest title trumps its direct predecessor. "The length of Halo 5: Guardians campaign is nearly twice that of Halo 4, based on average playtime in user research testing," says Holmes, before adding that gameplay length will of course vary based on difficulty level and individual play style. If you want to uncover all the secrets then you should expect to invest a substantial amount of time.
The bad news is that despite the success of Halo 3 spin-offs such as Halo 3: OSDT and Halo: Reach, no stand-alone episodic content is in the pipeline for Halo 5. "While we're always looking for new ways to expand the Halo universe, we do not currently have any plans to release future campaign content for Halo 5: Guardians," says Holmes.
That news shouldn't come as too much of a blow when you consider the jaw-dropping scope of the game's multiplayer mode. By harnessing the power of Microsoft's current console, and its cloud-based computing talents, 343 Industries has created what it hopes will be seen as the ultimate online battle mode: Warzone.
"It features the biggest maps in franchise history, and the highest player count ever in Halo – 24 players – as well as objectives such as base assaults, boss encounters and more," explains Holmes. "All Warzone AI is computed in the cloud, filling the map with dozens of AI characters in the form of friendly and enemy soldiers protecting their bases, Covenant and Forerunner enemy troops deploying across the map and incredible boss battles that alone can change the entire tide of battle."
Featuring maps three and four times larger than the series has seen before, Warzone could be seen as a campaign mode in its own right. Players will have the freedom to take on multiple objectives, working alongside other players, and tackling computer-controlled opponents in firefights that should remain just as challenging thanks to the cloud-based AI. "All of this is linked together through the Requisition System – or REQ System – Halo 5: Guardian's unified reward system that provides players with weapons, armour, vehicles, power-ups, skins and more," says Holmes.
More so than ever before, Halo 5's online mode will feel like a progressive and evolving experience, rewarding players who put in the hours to unlock content and earn bonuses.
Of course, there will be fans who will point out that 343 Industries has little excuse for not providing the best online mode in the history of the series, given that it released a multiplayer beta for Halo 5 alongside The Master Chief Collection last year. Holmes reveals that this beta provided the team with a wealth of data, much of which has been incorporated into the final product.
"Releasing the multiplayer beta last year was an important step in that it was the earliest ever we released a multiplayer beta in our history," he says. "It was a treasure trove of data that we were able to use to not only improve core gameplay aspects, but also our network performance as well. We continue to do extensive testing internally and externally to ensure this is the best experience at launch possible. In February, we announced several changes based off this feedback.
"Some of the biggest changes included an increase in the base speed and strafe acceleration, making for faster default movement, as well as a decrease in the top sprint speed, reducing the overall effectiveness of the sprint mechanic. We also reduced the effectiveness of automatic weapons when used in Smart Link mode, as well as general tunes and bug fixes for all weapons."
One aspect which sadly had to fall by the wayside is the split-screen multiplayer option, something which has been a part of the franchise since the days of the original Xbox. According to Holmes, ditching split-screen wasn't as easy choice to make, but it was ultimately the right one given the epic nature of the undertaking.
"The decision is driven by our desire for scale, fidelity and focus that will ensure Halo 5: Guardians is the biggest Halo game to date – an epic campaign built upon massive level design, and intense multiplayer across both our all-new Warzone mode, and the traditional Arena multiplayer experience."
Given that in split-screen, the hardware is having to render different scenes simultaneously, it's easy to grasp why it was ditched, and the lay of the land has arguably changed over the past decade – more people than ever are gaming online, making local multiplayer less of a selling-point.
Post-launch, 343 Industries will be supporting Halo 5's online mode with a raft of content, which will keep players locked-in and engaged for the rest of 2015 and beyond. Holmes reveals that in addition to more than 20 multiplayer maps available at launch, there are plans to release an additional 15 by June next year, for free. Maps crafted by players will also be added, and hundreds of unique sets of armour, weapons, texture skins, visors and emblems and more will be coming to the REQ System post-release. In this regard, 343 Industries could be seen as taking inspiration from former Halo steward Bungie, which has supported its popular online shooter Destiny with regular item drops to keep players interested.
With so much going on in both the story campaign and the game's robust online modes, the challenge of keeping the action ticking over at a steady 60fps cannot be understated – even with powerful new hardware in place. Thankfully, the talented folks at 343 Industries have some tricks up their collective sleeves.
"Ensuring we run at 60fps across the entire game – campaign and all multiplayer modes – is our primary focus to ensure silky-smooth and responsive gameplay," insists Holmes. "60fps gameplay is supported by a new progressive resolution system that allows us to dynamically scale the resolution at which we render the game – up to 1080p – based on the needs of the scene. This enables us to deploy resources where they have most impact on the experience across a diverse series of experiences throughout the game while still making this the most visually stunning Halo game ever."
343 Industries and Microsoft aren't merely content with ensuring that Halo 5 is a critical and commercial hit in the home – they want to take on the big names of the eSports world as well.
"Competitive multiplayer is an important part of Halo's DNA and something we're very passionate about," states Holmes. "It's why we decided to have the Halo 5: Guardians Multiplayer beta focus on our roots – the competitive Halo arena shooter experience, which was core of Halo multiplayer in Halo 2 and continues to be a central pillar in our Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer experience. All the additions we've made to the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer come from this goal of ensuring the experience remains balanced competitively. From the new competitive skill rating system, maps, modes and weapons we're designing, to the empowering new movement and combat abilities Spartans will be equipped with, everything is being developed to deepen the gameplay and provide players with more options and room to experiment while preserving and refining the skill gap among players.
"To show our dedication to eSports, we announced earlier this year the Halo World Championship. Beginning later this year, the Halo World Championship will focus on Halo 5: Guardians’ hyper-competitive Arena multiplayer experience and feature over $1 million dollars in prizing," he says.
One of the biggest gaming launches in recent memory and a vital weapon in Microsoft's arsenal as the highly competitive festive season approaches, Halo 5 could well be the title which allows 343 Industries to step out of Bungie's imposing shadow and prove itself as the studio best equipped to take the franchise to new heights
"We love Halo and we love our fans," concludes Holmes. "The expectation that both deserve only the best from us is what fuels our pursuit of perfection in everything we do."