Our first, brief look at the next Halo was a narrowly focused slice of a game that is meant to redefine a storied franchise.
Last week's Microsoft Showcase was a controlled release of information designed to both prepare fans for the coming of Halo 4 and ease those long-time gamers of the series comfortably into a game that tears down everything they know and starts from scratch.
"What we showed today is in some ways really traditional," franchise director Frank O'Connor told Eurogamer. "Some of the more revolutionary stuff that we're going to be doing is going to create more fuss, and I think it's going to be mostly positive fuss, as it's all been carefully thought out and considered."
While Halo 4 promises to provide a deeper story and more exploration, O’Connor told Vox Games last week that their take on Halo will remain a shooter.
"Certainly there will be huge emphasis on sandbox, exploration and renewed and enhanced emphasis on storytelling, but the addictive heart of Halo is still there – moment-to-moment combat that’s going to be just as challenging against real-life opponents as fictional sci-fi ones," he said.
What we've been shown and told hints at some of those big changes. Halo 4 kicks off developer 343 Industries' Reclaimer trilogy, a darker, more human story than the trilogy that launched Bungie's series. Weapons, armor, vehicles and enemies have all been updated with the game's more detailed, grittier graphics. The audio was tossed out and started over. The game's multiplayer, too, gets a reboot with new maps inspired by the game's campaign, but not seen in the story-driven gameplay. And there will be perks, a new way to customize your Spartan IVs armor changing not just the look, but their balance.
While these armor upgrades were seen in Halo 3 and Reach, they're no longer solely cosmetic. Perhaps in deference to the booming trajectory of the Call of Duty titles, for the first time, a Halo game will feature a persistent upgrade system that directly affects gameplay. While the developers refused to divulge much in the way of details – for example, whether there would be weapon based abilities, or whether weapons would be unlockable – this is a significant shift for the series, and should make for a much different online experience in Halo 4.
While the system may sound a bit like Call of Duty's perks, O'Connor told Eurogamer that their decision to include this form of customization in the Halo Universe was not in reaction to Call of Duty or Battlefield.
"What we do take very seriously is changing player habits," he said. "So rather than chasing Call of Duty or Battlefield and trying to do their thing and doing it poorly and doing injustice to it, we're trying to do our own thing, and do something fairly original but still something that's completely compatible with the Halo universe.
"Halo's not Call of Duty. Halo's a sandbox game about really emergent things. A lot of things that worked great about Call of Duty – and don't get me wrong, I was addicted to Black Ops all of last year – they do player rewards really well. We're not trying to do the same thing, it's as simple as that. We're trying to do something else, and to push our game forwards and not theirs."
Last week O'Connor told Vox Games that 343i was also looking at ways to expand Halo Waypoint, the free service that allows fans of the game to track their in-game experiences outside the world of Halo. O’Connor said there are no plans to follow in the footsteps of Call of Duty Elite’s premium content and start charging for that service.
"Halo 4 will feature deeper integration with Waypoint than any previous Halo game, and we have long-term plans to continue growing and evolving the experience in new and innovative ways. That said, we have no plans to charge players to use Waypoint beyond the standard Xbox Live Gold subscription needed to access the service."
The day's look at Halo 4 also included a peek at two multiplayer maps: Wraparound, a looping arena-like structure with a lot of verticality, and Warhouse, an abandoned military base with a mech being built in the center of it.
These early glimpses of multiplayer, and the rumblings of big changes coming to that online gameplay, did little to inform the single-player experience of the game.
What we know of Halo 4's story is that it picks up where Halo 3 left off and that it will delve into Master Chief's humanity and what makes him tick as a character.
O'Connor points out that most of what we know of the Master Chief as a person comes from the stories told in other mediums, not video games. That's going to change with Halo 4, he promises.
The deeper, story-driven game will be driven by a much more robust graphics engine and more varied scenery. The end result, O'Connor told Official Xbox Magazine, is a game that pushes the Xbox 360 to its limits.
"We're out of space, we're out of horsepower, we're out of everything," he told OXM. "If you're doing your best work that machine should be exhausted when you're done, and we're getting there."
343 Industries is delivering Halo 4 to Xbox 360, "Holiday 2012."