When it comes to big names in gaming, you don't get much bigger than Halo. Bungie's sci-fi shooter took the gaming world by storm after its November 2001 release, and would single-handedly define the console shooter in the eyes of millions for the next two console generations. Bungie closed the door on the Master Chief's story in 2007 with Halo 3, but wasn't quite finished with the franchise yet - last year's Halo 3 ODST told a side-story about the grunts of the series. Next week, Bungie bids farewell to the series that put it on the map with Halo: Reach - and brings the franchise back to where it all began.
A group of Bungie panelists took the stage at PAX 2010 in front of a jam-packed ballroom for what may well be the last Halo panel they do at one of these conventions, and there was a distinct sense among the crowd (and the panelists) that this, like Reach, was a send-off for the series. With the release of the game just around the corner, the Bungie crew opted not to spend time simply hyping up the title, but took the opportunity to show fans where it had been.
Work had begun on Reach in October 2007, shortly after the release of Halo 3. While most of Bungie's Halo crew dove into development on ODST, a small team of just four people began to lay the groundwork for the last game the studio would create in the series. "We wanted to do a stand-alone chapter in the Halo 'verse after finishing the Chief's story in Halo 3."
The earliest work was exploration - sketching out images that could help define Reach (the planet) as a place. "Reach is one of the characters in the game," said one of the Bungie designers. It was the setting of one of the biggest battles in the human/Covenant war, it was a crucial military hub for Earth's space forces, and it was the birthplace of the SPARTAN program that produced the Master Chief. "We wanted to make sure it felt like a place that was lived in." From the very beginning, though, the Bungie team knew that this was going to be a game with a much darker tone than its predecessors, as it told a story of a battle that had already been lost in the Halo fiction - the last stand of the SPARTANs.
Bungie pinned down three distinct geographies for use in Reach that would give players some cool backdrops to play through in the campaign - boreal, badlands and temperate - and four architectural styles - pioneer, industrial, hyper-urban, and ONI - that the team could use to create "real, human-lived-in spaces." They constructed rough map outlines of how each mission would progress, with lines passing through bubbles like "Warthog section" to give a sense of how the game would flow.
Once that was done, and once the team had created a rough diagram of the game's plot and key moments - the player gets a pistol, the player sees their first Elite - it was time to start building the game's levels. From start to finish. In modeling program StudioMAX, not the game's engine. These were the missions in the "roughest form possible," says Bungie, but it helped the developers understand the levels - the views, the best spots for the ambushes, and good locations where they could inject competitive multiplayer arenas.