Halo, Halo ... it's good to be back

By Peter Griffin

With a handle like "Master Chief", you'd expect the star of the best-selling Halo video game franchise to be able to take on the world and win.

But in the third instalment of the sci-fi epic, which is only available on Microsoft's Xbox 360 games console, he is again the central player in a fierce battle between a few human super-soldiers and legions of alien invaders. How will the whole saga end? Will Master Chief make it through?

The anticipation of the game's release is akin to that preceding the final episode of The Sopranos. Halo's maker Bungie Studios, is adamant about one thing - the long-running computer generated drama will end with a bang.

"You can take this one to the bank. In Halo 3 we take all the gunpowder in our armoury and throw a match on it. It's the closing chapter in the trilogy. We're leaving no stone unturned," Frank O'Conner, who worked on the initial story script for Halo 3, told the Herald last month.

That will mean little to those who haven't played the first two Halo games or laid their hands on an Xbox 360 console.

A quick history lesson then. Halo was the game that launched the original Xbox in 2001. Back then, the graphics weren't as good and the Xbox was a heavy black box. Video gamers weaned on Sony's PlayStation had nothing but contempt for it.

Halo helped to change that.

The first-person shooter follows the story of Master Chief, the last of a breed of human super-soldiers who, in a bid to save Earth from the Covenant (a species of aggressive aliens), blasts into space hoping to lure the aliens after him. He ends up on Halo, a strange disc-like creation in outer space which harbours its own dark secrets. Halo proves to be the staging ground for the epic battles with the Covenant that follow.

Helping Master Chief along the way throughout the Halo trilogy is Cortana, a sort of HAL-like artificial intelligence with a female voice that can bypass security systems and dispense crucial information from afar.

On release, Halo quickly won praise as the best first-person shooter in the history of the genre which is the staple diet of the core video-gaming market - 18-34 year-old males.

If Halo's mix of fast, violent gameplay, moody artwork and cryptic storytelling proved a successful combination. Microsoft wasn't prepared for the commercial smash hit Halo 2 would prove to be on its release in November 2004, when it notched up sales of US$125 million ($178 million) on its first day of release.

The formula changed little for the second chapter of Halo, but improvements in the physics engine the game is built on gave a more realistic feel to it.

New characters, vehicles and weapons wereintroduced and the mysterious storyline was carried on. By 2004, Microsoft's online gaming platform Xbox Live was in use, but it was the online multi-player function built into Halo 2 that kickstarted the online video game craze. Previously it was PC gamers who played online.

Halo fans all over the world began to meet in the virtual world to do battle in specially created sci-fi landscapes. Players needed to have the Halo 2 game disc to play online, so the sales momentum built. The second in the trilogy has now reportedly sold in excess of eight million copies.

Expectations are therefore high for Halo 3, which will round out the story of Master Chief, the Covenant and Halo, and include sweeping battles played out on Earth and in space.

As the first Halo instalment tailor-made for the Xbox 360, the graphics are expected to be vastly superior to what came before.

Early reviews of the playable demos and high-definition video clips are positive. A new feature of Halo that builds on the YouTube trend towards making your own digital content, will allow Halo players to save clips of their Halo missions and share them online.

With over a million copies of Halo 3 pre-ordered, the game is likely to prove another big earner for Microsoft. Then there's the Halo industry that has emerged around the games - from graphic novels and toy figures to the popular instrumental scores and, perhaps most importantly, the film of the game.

Peter Jackson signed on to executive produce a Halo movie and The Beach author Alex Garland penned a script for it. Since then, the film has been put on hold, but if it goes ahead it will almost certainly draw on the visual effects talents of Jackson's Weta Digital production team - once James Cameron's epic Avatar has been fed through the Weta pipeline. Jackson will also write and produce a new Halo instalment and already has a team in Wellington at work on it.

"[Weta] sent me photographs yesterday of the Warthog in Halo 3, it's a 4WD with four-wheel steering. It was doing donuts in their parking lot. The relationship we have with them is incredible," said Bungie's O'Conner of the Weta Halo team.

However Halo 3 pans out in terms of Master Chief's fate and the game's commercial success, the Halo machine will march on. It's too lucrative a venture for Microsoft to let Master Chief hang up his helmet now.

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