- “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!””— Ebenezer Scrooge
It was with fear that Ebenezer looked upon what his future held, and it was this fear instilled in him that made him change his miserly ways. But fear is the last thing that I am trying to instil in you, dear reader – for the future is as bright as the twilight just before the dawn. The dawn is coming – the light may not be here, but the promise of it is. We have but to wait for it. No, what I intend to do in this piece of writing is take these fears and allay them, as I did (almost) last year. There is much to be afraid of, and legitimately so – but there is also much to be hopeful for, and much to look forward to.
Another year has come and gone, and with it has come reason for hope. A black man is the new leader of the free world; the economy is pulling out of its nosedive, or so we’re repeatedly told; The Large Hadron Collider still hasn’t consumed the world in a massive black hole, despite all my fervent finger-crossing; and the Halo universe has welcomed some new additions to the family. As 2009 winds to a close, it is to 2010 that we turn our gaze in quiet expectation. Let us look back on what the past has given us, and what the future holds in store. But where to begin? 2009 has been a good year for fans of Halo, with countless additions. Perhaps Halo Wars, being the earliest, is the best place to begin?
Ensemble Studios, renowned throughout the gaming world for bringing us the likes of the award-winning Age of Empires series, took upon themselves the task of bringing us the first Halo game not developed by Bungie. There were a few pitfalls and hurdles along the way, but these were surmounted - if anyone could bring us a Halo game, then it was Ensemble. And when we finally got the game, it was a success - I don't mean in terms of financial profit or canonicity, I mean that it felt like Halo, which was all Ensemble really needed to do. There were a few small problems - unit variety, conceptualisation of the Elites, and so on - but these can be put down to Ensemble's relative inexperience playing in the sandbox they had dived into, and the monumental task of developing a game designed exclusively for the Xbox 360 console. These can be forgiven. And as their crowning achievement was ushered out of the door, Microsoft closed the studio. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, there arose an abundance of studios rising from Ensemble - Robot Entertainment and Bonfire Studios being the chief resurrected parties, but also Windstorm and Newtoy Studios. Will there be a sequel? Probably not for a good while. The crew of the Spirit of Fire will have to drift in space a little while, perhaps as long as the Master Chief.
2009 also saw the release of a new comic series; Halo: Helljumpers. To say that the last experiment in bringing Halo into a comic form, Uprising, had a troubled history would be an understatement - the delays that began to add up saw what was meant to be a pre-Halo 3 release prequel only conclude in mid-2008, unacceptably late. The actual quality of the art and storytelling was superb, though personally I saw little point to some aspects of it, but the sheer longevity of its troubled release made me worry about ODST. Thankfully, that seems not to be the case - the entire series is scheduled to conclude in 2009. I haven't yet picked up any of the issues, and eagerly await the hardback graphic novel collection, but from what I've seen Helljumpers seems to have learned a lot from Uprisings mistakes, and has put those lessons to good use. And come on - Dutch and Romeo so deserve their own series! They are, after all, my favourite two characters in ODST.
And then there were the recent activities of 343 Industries. Hearing that Microsoft still owned the rights to the Halo franchise even after Bungie's schism from it, and that they had established a studio to oversee its future development, I was naturally filled with alarm and concern. Were Microsoft going to farm their cash cow for all it is worth? I assumed yes, and planned for the worst. The hiring of Bungie employee Frank O'Conner did much to offset my fears, but I still worried - recent events, however, have done much to assuage that worry. The Halo Encyclopaedia may have a lot of mistakes and errors, but ultimately it was an attempt at giving the fans what they wanted - a comprehensive source of Halo information that wasn't nearly six thousand articles (I mean pages) long. Their recent unveiling of Halo Waypoint also looks to very promising - at the moment, HBO stands as the largest site for Halo and community news, and while I don't expect that to change, that 343 Industries are creating their own is a testament to the efforts of Louis Wu and other community members. And then, of course, the announcement of the Halo Legends anime shorts caused much consternation among the fanbase, with some declaring that Halo was being "RUINED FOR EVER." Of all things, the fact that they didn't use US animation companies, and went to Japanese animators, is the most ridiculous reason. Being a casual anime watcher, I held a different opinion - it was simply that they'd decided on a style, and went directly to the people who did it better. Not all anime is Pokemon or Dragon Ball GT, and people would do well to remember that.
And of course, last but certainly not least for 2009, we had the release of the much-anticipated Halo 3: ODST. To my mind, this is the greatest Halo game I've played since Halo: Combat Evolved - the new characters and their characterisation, the plot itself, and the game play are all outstanding, though there are some issues with Firefight and with the length of the campaign. If there are any plans for a sequel, I would vehemently support them - I am forced to conclude that Bungie does its best with standalone games. Halo 1 was a masterpiece, and Halo 2 was originally intended to be a standalone sequel. Most of its game play reflects it - but being forced to cut the last levels of the game and leave us with an unsatisfying cliff-hanger ending, the game falters at the end. Even Halo 3 doesn't escape this fate - without playing Halo 2, players are left with little idea about what's going on. But Halo 3: ODST breaks this unfortunate run marvellously.
And of course, speaking of standalone games, this brings us to the future. And what a future it is indeed!
There's just as much, if not more, to look forward to in 2010 than just being able to call it "twenty-ten" and dropping the extra syllables. Through 343 Industries, we'll be getting the Halo: Blood Line comic series, detailing the exploits of Spartans and Elites trapped together on a Forerunner installation. I'm looking forward to the temporary cooperation between Black Team and the two Sangheili brothers Reff and Thon. And there are the other Halo: Legends shorts to be released - I look forward especially to the Origins two-parter, and how they depict the Forerunner part of the series' history. And then there's the upcoming Forerunner Trilogy, by science fiction alumni Greg Bear - would I like another book by Eric Nylund? Sure. But this is Greg Bear, who is not only better known, but has a whole heap of award-winning science fiction novels under his belt.
And then, of course, there's Reach. How can we forget? It looms over the horizon of the future, as the sun does just before daybreak.
I don't pretend to know what to expect from Reach, and I hope it stays that way. The recent leak gives us some glimpses at the hawtness that will be Reach, but besides the appearance of multiple Spartans (which we already knew) and the introduction of at least one new weapon (which we took for granted would happen), it still leaves a lot to be guessed at. I hope that when I get to play the game, I'm pleasantly surprised - I may be at university by then, and distracted by my efforts to achieve a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History, but it is definitely something I plan on doing regardless of what I am involved with by then. Before Bungie opened the floodgates and unleashed the flood that was media exposure to Halo 3, the only idea in my mind was a barebones skeletal build of a Wraith drifting down a canyon lined by Forerunner walls – suspiciously like Valhalla. And even that was from a dream, though it would prove terrifyingly accurate. But what I envisage now comes from more than mere dreams - we have enough pieces of the puzzle at our disposal to try and piece together a picture of Reach as it could be - there may be a lot of pieces of sky, and the occasional cloud, but we have a few pieces of windmill. It's not a whole picture, but it's certainly better than nothing, and adds to the anticipation and mystery of Reach.
I recall a story about Marty O'Donnell sitting down to a lunch with two actors we should all know well - Jen Taylor, the voice actress of Cortana, and Nathan Fillion, who gave us Edward Buck. That in itself is mostly irrelevant - it may have even been just that, a quiet lunch together between friends and colleagues. But what it conjures to mind is their appearances in Reach, if they make any. Edward Buck has been tipped to make at least a cameo appearance for a while now, but Jen Taylor? According to The Fall of Reach, Cortana was already aboard the Pillar of Autumn at the time, and thus was distracted by space combat during the events of Reach. The natural conclusion is that Bungie is going to be rewriting canon - its about time some of the contents of The Fall of Reach got clarified and updated, but an appearance by the Pillar of Autumn where it shouldn’t be would be a change radical enough that it would call into question the entire novels canonicity. Hell, any divergence from the novel is going to result in a fan outcry so large Obi-Wan Kenobi is going to have a headache for a week.
Or, you know, NOT.
Remember, Cortana is a reflection of the original Doctor Halsey, "mother" of the Spartan-II Program, present on Reach during the attack. We have a reasonable span of time during which we have no idea what happens to Doctor Halsey, until she suddenly pops up at CASTLE Base in First Strike - this is plenty of time for her to put in an appearance elsewhere on the planet, and Reach may detail her interactions with the other Spartans and servicemen fighting on the planet before meeting up with Fred and the other surviving Spartans. Is this a guarantee? By the Great Old Ones, no. But its an educated guess.
And then there's the rest of the game. Reach was a disaster, in terms of military events, civilian mortality, and loss of UNSC infrastructure. It was also a calamity for the Covenant – beside the loss of the relic they were searching for in the first place (or at least one of them), the events of Reach would ripple outward, continuing to effect events months later. The destruction of Halo, the Covenant's discovery of Earth, and the Great Schism all had their beginnings at Reach, or the events it spawned. The third point in particular is interesting - in all the media since First Strike, we have never been told just how the Covenant found Earth. Did they find it on the Sigma Octanus relic? Perhaps. Did they retrieve it from terminals on Reach? Perhaps. Or did they find another Forerunner installation underneath the surface of Reach that lead them to it? Perhaps. The existence of Shield Worlds means that the ruins underneath CASTLE Base could be but the tip of the iceberg - and since the Halo series has a strong theme of Forerunner installations and artefacts, I wouldn't be surprised if Reach turned out to be another Shield World, or something else.
And, of course, there's the unveiling of more Spartans as characters, in the form of Sierra-320 and Sierra-259. Sierra-259, at the very least, is going to be a Spartan - this is something I would be confident betting money on. You simply cannot create a game about Reach and not feature the fate of the Spartans in at least some capacity. Sierra-320 I'm less sure about, but I'm still confident that she will be a Spartan of some sort. Exactly what type of Spartan is up for debate - there's an unknown number of Spartan-I's still out there, doing whatever it is they do, as well as three hundred Spartan-III super soldiers from Onyx. It would be interesting to play as an S-III - the general game play would be similar to ODST, though rather than a TACMAP perhaps the X button could engage a Halo 2-style active camouflage? The stealth aspect was played up by fans for ODST, and while there's a certain amount of leeway there, playing as an S-III would be an ideal way to introduce it. Of course, bringing in a character so young would play hell with the ESRB, though of course in terms of casting they wouldn’t be so restricted – the augmentations that Gamma Company went through made them physically identical to young adults, despite being between twelve and fifteen. And let’s face it, playing as a “child” in a war game is something that games should usually stay the hell away from. In addition, the return of the Sangheili as the major enemy unit is going to be…interesting, to say the least. Are the Jiralhanae going to disappear entirely? I doubt it. The build-up to the Great Schism was a long one, and was begun long before Reach. Reach may even show us the rise in tensions between the Sangheili and the Jiralhanae, and the machinations of the Prophets.
I have seen two possible gameplay aspects gain traction recently among game news circles – squad commands, and a Call of Duty-style perk system. Both of these are rumours, based off of a small leak from within the playtesters for the Reach alpha test, and I have to say they’re pretty poor ones. The much-maligned Tom Morello has claimed that the game will feature what he described as a “perk” system – immediately, all minds went to Call of Duty 4, and its use of an intricate and customisable class system. Later, however, he clarified that all he meant was that the player could pick up reusable items that provided overshields, active camouflage, or a speed boost – in fact, he was describing what I assume to be a renovation of the Equipment system already in Halo 3. As for the squad-command system rumour, that is equally baseless – the leaked images showed what looked like status indicators of fellow teammates beside the motion tracker. From this, they made the automatic leap in assumption that you would CONTROL those teammates. The leap is a huge one, and while I can’t rule it out as being an innovative addition to a Halo game, I doubt it. Halo just doesn’t need squad commands. If anything, these are going to be status displays – if not for multiplayer, then for cooperative play. At most, this just confirms 4 Player Co-Op. Exciting, but not exactly cause for alarm.
As for game play, Bungie has far more leeway than any of its games since Halo 3. Reach is glassed at the end, regardless of whatever happens in the game itself – that fact is unavoidable and inescapable. But it means that if Bungie wants to introduce weapons or equipment that aren’t seen in later games, they can simply state that these were either prototypes that never saw widespread service after Reach, or that the entire production line was destroyed in the attack, or that it simply wasn’t standard for combat units at the time and were specialist equipment. Some of this is going to be a necessity – with the reintroduction of the Sangheili as the primary warrior class of the Covenant, the Brutes are likely going to be taking a backseat in Reach. If they don’t appear at all, then it’s unlikely that their sandbox will play much of a role – and without that, Reach is either going to be missing a huge chunk of popular weapons, or it is going to be forced to create Sangheili analogues. They can even drop existing weapons from the line-up if they no longer fit into game play, claiming that they came into service later as part of emergency UNSC or Covenant preparations, either as hurried prototypes or requisitioned weapons already phased out – that’s right, I’m looking at YOU, Battle Rifle.
I doubt that will be all of the Halo news coming in 2010. 343 Industries sounds like it is going to be very busy in the coming months, and its likely we’ll get more comic series, novels, and so on announced, not to mention the rest of the Legends series. Personally, I hope Eric Nylund finally gets the go-ahead to bring us a novel about the further adventures of the Spartans, Halsey and Mendez in the Shield World, but that’s neither here nor there. And then, of course, we may be getting news about Bungies OTHER project, whatever it is. Then, of course, there’s the activity that will come from the community – Halopedia itself will experience a dramatic boost in traffic when Reach is released, as it always had when a game is released, and with it we will undoubtedly attract new members. Remember, before Halo 3 the community looked different to what it does now – the social layout of the community has changed with the arrival of new members and departure of old ones. And, of course, there’s other communities – Operation CHASTITY looks particularly interesting. With 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios being complete arses toward each other during the attempt to get an official Halo movie underway, the fanbase has decided that the bourgeoisie capitalist paradigm that drives Hollywood to produce utter crap every year is unfitting and unworthy of Halo, and is taking it upon itself. It’s a brave move, and I hope it’s successful for Peter Cooper, the project lead – and moreover, I hope it’s a fantastic movie.
A certain unfortunate Gotham District Attorney once said that the night is darkest before the dawn – but the dawn is coming. I can only hope that I am not similarly scarred by a psychotic madman, but for now, I can only say to you that the sun is rising. Its going to be a beautiful morning, and looks to be a fine day. I bid you all a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.