Happy Friday and welcome to the Bungie Weekly update my friends. Would you believe that we have a mere eight more updates left between now and the release of Reach? The project is steadily winding down but that doesn’t mean we’re winding down on things to talk about. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
It’s been a busy week and after a helping hand from Luke last Friday (who also steps up in a big way today), I’m back in the saddle and ready to quite possibly drop one of the biggest and most jam packed updates in Reach history. Get comfortable, we’ve got a lot to cover! (honestly, probably TOO much to cover, but seeing as this is the last update I’ll be spearheading for a while, I’m pulling out all the stops so Urk can’t possibly top this down the road).
First off, let me give you a quick update on where we are with Reach right now. The majority of the team is more or less finished working and participating in a variety of ongoing playtests either at home or at the studio. It isn’t quite time for everyone to vanish on vacation since a rare bug could pop up that warrants immediate attention but you can definitely tell that time is just over the next hill. Critical bugs are becoming more and more a thing of the past and the real end is in sight. The test team is still working their asses off as they close out bugs, lock down our release candidate and get a build ready for certification, all the while feeling the pressure of the "Eye of Harold" bearing down on them. Luckily they have the chops and expertise to close this baby down. Hang in there guys, just a little bit longer.
We had another huge milestone completion in the early hours of Thursday when the audio team signed off on their final mix for the game. This was a major accomplishment signaling 100% audio completion for Reach. All music, sound effects and dialog is not only fully implemented but perfectly tuned to the exact balance and level that Marty and his team are happy with. As Dave would say, "Pi Rutsu" guys!
Meanwhile the bulk of the team is having fun just playing the game. In fact, today is a formal playtest “challenge” that promises prizes and fame to teams of people who are able to complete specific objectives during their campaign runs. I’m told it’s highly classified as not to skew the playthroughs but imagine that people might win fabulous prizes for finding a big bug or successfully completing a slew of daily challenges. People have teamed up to tackle specific conditions such as playing 4 player on Heroic in Spanish or in the case of Mike Buelterman and Tom Burlington, playing the campaign together on Legendary with ALL skulls enabled.
In Halo 3 and ODST this wasn’t anything to sneeze at but with Reach’s scaling of the enemy AI to account for additional players on top of the core difficulty settings and skulls, it has the makings of something far more challenging. I watched these guys for a few minutes as they were nearing the end of the first mission of the game, nearly 90 minutes from the time they started. They put post-it notes on the TV screen to keep track of their reticule (with “Blind” on you’ll get no such help from the game) and according to them, their strategy has been to take it all very, very slowly and try as much as possible to let the AI Noble Team members absorb as much of the punishment as possible.
It’ll be interesting to see how far they get – in the portion I watched, they were pinned down in a hallway (the door closed behind them after they entered) and they were facing the prospects of taking down multiple Elites in close quarters including an Ultra with an energy sword. They were trading off plasma pistol overcharge shots at the Elites while hoping that Jorge could finish them off. This is easier said than done considering you have no indicator of how much ammo you have (or even what weapon you’re wielding) or how much health you’re working with. I hear there was a bet floating around that they wouldn’t even make it out of the first mission. (UPDATE: As I’ve been writing this it turns out the dynamic duo FINALLY finished the first mission - post game screen below!)
Last week we released a video prepared by our friends at Rooster Teeth in celebration of Bungie day. Apparently many of you have many questions about that – what does it mean? What’s beyond the canyon? How does that hologram work? What was up with that shot of Sarge flying incredible distances while carrying the flag?
Some of these mysteries will have to stay as such until Comic-con next week but I can shed some light on a few of the more pressing questions.
First let’s talk hologram. It’s simple to use – point your reticule where you’d like your holo-self to run and then press the left bumper to activate it. A spitting image of yourself, sporting the exact same armor, colors and weapon, will emerge and run directly to that point and persist for about 10 seconds or until killed. Your hologram can also do fun things like take a man cannon which can result in some crazy shenanigans. Holograms can be used in multiplayer, which has become one of my recent favorite things to do, in addition to tricking the AI in campaign or Firefight. The other day we played a game where pretty much everyone used holograms and it feels awesome to trick someone else but damn does it feel stupid when you fall for one yourself. I hear one of Sage’s tricks is to point straight down so his hologram stands perfectly still but then HE runs in a perfectly straight line to dupe his opponent.
Point. Click. Dupe.
Now many people have cried foul over the closing shot in the video that featured Sarge in a hilariously stiff animation flying much further than a jetpack should travel while also carrying the flag. Truth is, that animation was so-bad-it’s-good but it was also a bug and has since been fixed. No leet hax were involved though because the game includes custom settings that let you turn on infinite armor ability energy as well as decide if you want to let people use an armor ability while holding an objective (similar to the toggle for driving a vehicle with a flag).
This week we hosted a slew of worldwide media folks for a big hands-on preview with a huge chunk of Reach. During their stay our guests got to play two and a half campaign missions, several new MP maps, a new game mode and Forge. The bad news is that most of the fruits of that visit, including all of the campaign coverage, won’t be surfacing until the first week of August. The good news is that some of what we showed will actually be coming out next week including a boat load of new screenshots and even some direct feed video. Did I already mention that next Thursday was shaping up to be HUGE?!
It was really fun to have "civilians" in to play parts of Reach for the first time. It’s often hard to really gauge their reactions but members of our team quietly hovered in the background watching the likes of OXM, IGN and Gamepro get their first taste of the Reach campaign. At one point Joe Tung leans over to me and points out "hey look, all four of those guys are on the same part of the mission and each is using totally different armor abilities. That’s just awesome." Yeah, it sure was.
In fact, one of our guests from Europe was not a games reporter at all and had very little familiarity playing these types of games. At one point I noticed he was having a particularly hard time dispatching a Hunter pair near the end of the game’s third mission. After a few failed attempts I intervened to offer a suggestion. "Here, let me show you something different to try," I said. He handed me the controller and I quickly ran up the stairs where a stash of weapons, healthpacks and a few armor abilities were conveniently placed by the mission designer. I ditched Sprint and picked up Hologram. The Hunter pair arrived in their drop ship and immediately turned to engage me as I ran behind a large rock. I deployed my Hologram off to the left and as the Hunters gave chase, I flanked around the right and unloaded my shotgun in their vulnerable back-sides. Rinse and repeat.
The highlight of the visit for me though was the occasional chance to jump in as a seat-filler for multiplayer when a journalist had to step away to conduct an interview. I realized it was actually my first time ever flying the Falcon in multiplayer and man was it awesome. This particular map is huge and centered around an enormous spire that stretches up into the heavens. My battlebro spawned in one of the gunner seats and we began to climb. I hit "RB" to lock altitude and then we circled the tower, raining death and destruction on anyone foolish enough to step out onto the balcony. Finally our teammate yells "I’ve got the core, I need a pick-up!" Rather than wait for me to actually land, he jumps onto the top of our Falcon and proceeds to surf his way to victory. Great stuff.
It was also the first time I’ve really gotten to play some large action-packed games on that Blood Gulch remake you saw in last week’s video. And let me tell you – this was hands-down the most fun I’ve had with Reach multiplayer to date and dare I say even more fun than I remember having back in the glory days of the original Gulch. We played an 8 vs. 8 big team slayer game and I immediately commandeered the Scorpion parked behind our base. Dan "Shoe" (from Bitmob) hopped in the turret seat and together we went on a 35-0 streak and shut down the poor blues. Probably not the gracious host thing to do but damn was it fun. Earlier in the day Ryan from OXM had missed our first play on this map and was dying to fly the Falcon so we dropped in two Falcons and ran it back again. After all the build-up I felt a little bad seeing Ryan and his two teammates flying into view as I turned to get them in the sights of my Scorpion. No sooner had they lifted off than they were annihilated in a spectacular triple kill fireball. Welcome to Reach.
To me, those types of over-the-top yell-out-loud "OH -blam!-!" moments is pure Gulch play at its finest and damn was it fun.
I also got to play my first real game of “Race” in Reach and it’s just as sweet and fun as Eric has previously described. The version I played was actually a special variant Derek created called "Grand Tour" that truly lived up to its name and spanned the largest expanse of multiplayer ground ever to be covered in a Halo game.
The Copdahl Chronicles
Back when I wasn’t sure if we’d have much to talk about in the update I asked our fan community to pose some questions to Reach’s Campaign Design Lead, Chris Opdahl, who graciously offered to spend time answering them. I sent Chris almost every question posed, asking him to answer the few he felt inclined to answer, and he actually answered ALL of them. It’s actually too much to include everything in this already gigantic update so we’ll share some now and some later. Here are a few of the questions pulled from the forums of Halo.Bungie.Org along with Chris’ responses:
"Bluerunner" asks: What are your favorite missions from each Halo game? Is there a level in Reach that you think will be an instant fan favorite?
: Let's see, favorite levels from the previous Halo games: Halo 1 - Silent Cartographer, Truth and Reconciliation, Attack on the Control Room :: Halo 2 - Outskirts, Delta Halo :: Halo 3 - The Ark, The Covenant :: ODST Uplift Reserve.
One of the most exciting parts of Reach is that so many of the missions vary things up. This means that a bunch of them will be different people's favorites, based on their tastes. We have infantry missions, vehicle missions, exploration missions, slow burn missions, crazy action missions, and (if you watched the E3 presentation) there is a mission that takes you places you have never been in a Halo game. I expect there to be a lot of online discussions with greater than and less than carrots (< >) discussing Reach Missions. That said, here are some of the acronyms that are likely to show up in a lot of people's favorites:: TotS, LNoS, Ex, NA, LW (and another that would give away too much if I acronym-ized the title).
"The Alpha Elite" asks: “How is Halo Reach’s campaign meant to feel in relation to ODST? ODST had a very somber, lonely feel and I’m wondering if anything from ODST has influenced the atmosphere in Reach?
Chris: If we did our job right, Reach will feel heroic in the face of tragedy. We definitely learned a ton from ODST. It showed us that players can get behind a Halo story that is not about the Master Chief, how to build the big ambient moments in a mission, what a city (or planet) under siege might feel like, and Firefight!
"Leviathan" asks: What's the atmosphere in the studio as Reach nears completion? Or your personal feelings? Confident, nervous?
: The studio recently turned the corner from mad scrambling to get everything in the game, to wrapping it up and fixing all of the final bugs. This is when everyone at the studio has chances to really play through the game and get a sense of everything that is going in. So lately we hear people talking about all the moments they had in the game recently, about what they still want to fix, occasionally cursing the Committee for ‘wont fixing’ the bug they want to fix, and often laughing and having a good time with what they are currently playing. I am definitely very excited for Reach, and am curious to see what all the fans end up thinking about it. When you are surrounded by the talent at Bungie and have the time and resources that we had for Reach, it is pretty easy to be confident.
Some of the things I have heard from people at Bungie lately:
1) This is the best friendly AI driving we have seen in a Halo game.
2) (In a three player co-op game with multiple skulls on) Nearly every Elite kill requires teamwork with baiting, flanking and assassinating. It’s really interesting.
3) My Wife was incredibly invested in that character. (one of the engineers playing at home in co-op with his wife)
4) Goddamn this game is a lot of fun.
5) Cable's little tweak where the suicide Grunts get an upwards impulse before the grenades go off is a nice touch.
6) Where the *blam* did that Elite go?
That sounds pretty excited to me!
"GhaleonEB" asks: With Reach, you Bungie has taken a more intimate, "boots on the ground" approach to story telling, focusing the action around the characters and avoiding some of the epic sweep of the previous trilogy. At the same time, the story is set duringa massive battle on a planetary scale. Can you talk about how the team is approaching conveying the scale of Reach's broader context while also keeping the narrative focus more personal?
: Hey Ghaleon, from what I’ve read on NeoGAF about your feelings regarding what works for a Halo game, I think you and I are on a very similar page. Looking forward to seeing how Reach treats you.
Keeping the story on one planet (Reach) goes a long way towards solving this issue. By keeping it about one planet and one conflict we are able to spend less time telling the player where they are, and more time with the characters in the story. Not having to explain where the player is and why they are there before every mission helps to allow every line of dialog to be about the who, and not the where or the why. Add to that mix some really talented writers and story tellers in our writing group, you get the chance to make every moment count.
"SPU7N1K" asks: The first level of Halo 3 was pretty much a tutorial for newbies-- jumping over obstacles in the jungle and getting used to the controls. How will Reach cater to those new to halo fps?
: I think you always have to take into account a new player when you are making a game. And not just for the first mission. We have Armor Abilities, Assassinations, new enemies, new vehicles, and new weapons. And taking new players into account whenever you add one of those elements is very important. That said, you want to do that in such a way that it does not immediately feel like a tutorial. The more you can blend those elements into the feel of a mission, the better. Sometimes we do it by giving the player a fairly open space to practice with the new element. Other times we put the player in the encounter with other members of Noble Team, since those friendly AI can help draw fire and keep the player alive. Other times we are more heavy handed and give a series of tutorial elements for the player to play through before they proceed (this is especially true with the more complex or critical path elements).
When Halo 3 came out, Bungie sent Luke Smith and I to London for pre-launch European press work. I remember one of the magazines sent their ‘Home and Garden’ writer to check out Halo 3. The writer had never played a Halo game, and had likely not played many games at all. She had a heck of a time trying to learn to use two analog sticks to navigate the space. She could move alright, and she could look around alright, but put those two together and she was in trouble. So we broke it down so that she would move OR aim, and not try to do both at the same time. She was able to get through a few of the missions during the play through. Anytime I want to skip out on training for the player I think about that writer. Of course there is only so much we can do, since the more we have obvious training the worse of an experience it can be for the classic Halo fan (who only ever plays Legendary! amirite?) There is definitely a balancing act between catering towards those two ends of the spectrum.
"yakaman" asks: How did advances in programming efficiency, resource use, etc, affect campaign scope? Did the resource people inform the campaign people "you have X processing budget, use it wisely" or was it more like "we campaign people want to do X, Y, and Z, so give us everything you've got?
: We absolutely could not have made Reach without all of the Engineering magic that went on. The sheer volume of code changes and how much more we can do because of them is staggering. We have imposters, AI LOD, a new memory management system, networking (both synchronous and asynchronous), neuticle system, Big Battle flocks, new flying vehicle behaviors, stimulus system, new damage model, physics updates and improvements, perception models, lighting model upgrades… And that is just the few things off the top of my head. All of those together allow us to make moments that we have never been able to do in a Halo game. We are also able to achieve a visual fidelity for those moments (at the scale of a Halo encounter that you have come to expect) well beyond what anyone has done before on a console.
The process is a little bit of both. We start by planning out what we were thinking for the game, at which point we start to bring in all the people who have to sweat and bleed to make it happen, and have them pass along a sanity check. Is this possible to accomplish? What sorts of sacrifices will need to be made to achieve this? What sort of Engineering and Art resources will need to be dedicated to this moment? Is that moment worth those resources? We then answer those questions and begin to flesh everything out. Along the way we always course correct as elements get out of scope or the design changes or the initial idea needs to be fleshed out further. We are constantly evaluating and reevaluating what we are making over the course of the project. Then we get to the end and we make the hard calls (which often means cutting) to get everything working and under budget, and what needs to get cut or changed to make that particular moment (or the entire game) work.
"TravisSch" asks: Since you are mostly done squishing bugs in campaign, how much deja vu do you go through when playing the Reach campaign levels over and over again? Have you played the levels long enough to know exactly what is going to happen at a certain moment in the level?
: One of the most challenging parts of game design is the ability to keep a fresh eye on the game. One of the last tasks I did for Reach was to figure out the balance for Normal, Heroic and Legendary and then solve for 2, 3 and 4 player coop for each of the difficulties. It is very easy to play the game so much that everything feels too easy and you make everything a little harder, which is (obviously) incredibly dangerous. The best way to counteract that is to try to play the game in a way that emulates a newer player, and someone who had not played each mission 100+ times. Some of the tricks I try to use to simulate ‘worst-case’ players are:
• If I can play the game incredibly aggressively on Normal and still generally make it to cover every time -> the game is slightly too easy. I usually want the game to sometimes beat me when I get really aggressive, but certainly not every time.
• I should be able to beat the game on Heroic with just vehicles and the plasma pistol. I don’t get stuck on any encounter for long periods of time but dying times on any encounter is cool.
• Legendary should require me to really think about every encounter when I don’t pick up any of the hidden weapons. If I find myself in a location with a placed weapon, I pick it up. But I don’t go scouring the map for goodies. With that in mind Legendary should routinely kick my butt until I find the right strategy.
• Coop should have everyone who is playing yelling and laughing throughout the mission (including cursing the Mission Designer for the mission). People should still play the game on their normal difficulty level regardless of coop players, unless they want a challenge. ß tThis one is less about how I play and more about what I listen for when people are playing
- We played the third mission last week on three player coop, on Legendary, with a couple skulls on. And we had to really work together to make it through the mission.
The great thing about Halo is that I still don’t know exactly what is going to happen in most of the encounters. They surprise me all the time. I have a pretty good idea what challenge is coming down the pipe, but how it plays out will be very different this time than last, especially if I tackle it in a different way.
"Duncan”"asks: - When planning out the campaign levels, is there any push to recreate situations from the previous games? As in, "Ooh, we should have a level like The Maw run. Add in a Truth and Reconciliation level here." Or are those types of similarities more accidental in nature? How much effort is put into making new gameplay mechanics like Space Combat feel like Halo? Was there ever a point early on when it felt too out of place? If you could remake Halo 1's campaign using the Reach engine what would be your favorite change/update to make?
: It is definitely a little bit of both. We went into some missions with the intent to capturing the feeling specific missions from previous Halo games. We also talked a lot about what experiences and emotions we wanted to capture from the previous games. A great example of that isare the senses of wonder and the sense of exploration from Halo 1. You don’t need to necessarily recreate a situation to make that happen, but understanding what created that feeling from those missions is important if we want to recapture it.
Obviously there is a fair amount of Art and Gameplay Sandbox that went exclusively into Space Combat, and much of the AI systems were used in other parts of the game (like flying behaviors). My guess is that the amount of work specifically for Space Combat is on par with the work on the Scarab for Halo 3, but that is just a guess. We view Space Combat in very similar ways that we view the Banshee missions from past Halo games. It is a change of pace for the player and an opportunity to see something in the game that they have not seen before. My feeling is that the Space Mission not only delivers on the fun gameplay elements, but also opened up specific story opportunities that we would not have had available without it. Given that, it never felt out of place.
Man, I have no idea what I would change from Halo 1. I still view Halo 1 as one of the pinnacle moments of games for me, and who knows what terrible damage I would wreck cause by changing anything about that game.
This is only about ¼ of the interview between Chris and our fans so check back next week and we’ll put the entire thing together in the stand-alone story it deserves!
Spoiling the Spoilers
With the arrival of Comic-con next week we are entering into a period of the PR cycle when we’ll have playable builds at big shows with thousands of people getting hands-on opportunities. This inevitably means that some parts of the game, like the Armory, are at risk of getting combed through and revealed by determined fans. Since we can’t go through the technical task of removing a core system like the armory from these public builds, we’ve instead decided to just let it all out there today in a bit more official way than Jimmy’s cell phone pic on his blog next week.
First there’s this image which you might recognize from prior updates but this time you’ll notice the distinct lack of obfuscating pixelation.
For a lot more about the Armory and a few new juicy Achievement tidbits, here’s the Luke Smith
weekly update within the weekly update:
And on the First Day…
Below, Sketch has put together a giant, near-monolithic, bandwidth sucking image that contains a whole bunch of stuff from the Halo: Reach Armory. More stuff, in fact, than he’s ever showed before. So what exactly are you looking at?
You’re looking at – in condensed form – every item that is visible to players in the Armory on Day 1. The word ‘visible’ is particularly important because it underscores an important couple of notes about how the Armory functions in Halo: Reach.
More items become available as players Rank up.
As you Rank up in Reach – via Credit earn, not via Skill a la Halo 3 – there will be more customization options made available to you. Many of these aren’t even visible initially, but you’ll be able to see them as you progress.
Additional items become available based on Purchases players make.
You’ll notice in the below images that some Helmets don’t have attachments at all – well, they all do – you’ll just need to acquire the Base variant in order to see what’s available next. Furthermore, last Spring’s Halo: Reach Beta had the prices of helmets increase as you acquired more variants. In many cases, in the shipping game, the reverse is true – the initial Credit investment is in the base helmet, and adding augmentations to it is cheaper than the actual base variant was. That said, there are certainly some aug combinations that significantly change the helmet and those are priced accordingly.
Click this picture for a bigger, complete version!
Now seems like a good time to show off the free Avatar unlocks for Halo: Reach. The Helmets from Noble team will be unlocked via some actions in Halo: Reach.
The Noble 6 helmet below will be made available for free to lucky attendees at Comicon, PAX and GamesCom later this summer.
Multiplayer Achievements sure are a mixed bag, aren’t they? It’s pretty easy for a game to put out Achievements that have everyone running after a certain weapon, or getting into parties to ‘boost’ for Achievements. These can sometimes lead to undesirable outcomes. We’re hopeful that our Achievements in Reach don’t direct you to an undesirable outcome. They aren’t designed to have you play for a million hours to unlock (though there are a couple that will take some significant time), and we’re hopeful that they aren’t going to interrupt your gameplay experience significantly (by their very nature, the pop-up and bloop sound of an Achievement being completed is inherently interruptive).
Achievements in Reach were designed with a few principles in mind. We wanted to leverage the power of Achievements – they are something people will chase and pursue – to expose additional features, game modes and systems that players otherwise might miss out on. We believe a game like Reach, which enjoys an embarrassment of riches in the features department, benefits considerably from leveraging Achievements to expose some of those features.
In a world where we have a bunch of in-game Challenges (4 changing Daily and one changing Weekly), Achievements become more useful to leverages features like the File Browser and the Armory than “Kill 250 Elites” (fret not, we’ll be pushing you to kill Elites by the boatload all throughout Reach).
That said; let’s unpack the rest of the multiplayer-specific Achievements in Reach.
Be My Wingman, Anytime – Let a teammate spawn on you 5 times in an Invasion Matchmaking game.
- Invasion is a new game mode that we’re real excited about. Additional, co-op spawning is a new mechanic to Reach that we want to see players utilize. There are some obvious social and teambuilding benefits to this Achievement.
Skunked – Win a game of Invasion in the first phase.
- It’s like Steaktacular lite, but in Invasion.
What’s a Killing Spree? – Earn a Killing Spree in multiplayer Matchmaking.
- A return of a classic Halo 3 Achievement, with a new name mirroring the way we internally talk about Killing Sprees or any number of cool flavor medals. We think most players get a Killing Spree at some point or another in their Halo Careers.
Including Yes, Sensei from a week ago, that’s all four of the multiplayer-specific medals. There are other Achievments that can be earned in Multiplayer, or Campaign or Firefight.
Here are two more Achievements before Sketch reclaims the Update:
I Need a Weapon – Complete the 4th mission on Normal or Harder.
Your Heresy Will Stay Your Feet – Kill the Elite Zealot before he can escape during the 5th mission.
Before we wrap things up I wanted to expand something Luke touched on above. The summer is here which means a few tradeshows and some opportunities to see and possibly play Halo: Reach. Here’s a quick schedule of a few places we know for certain the Reach hype train will be stopping in the coming weeks:
Comic-Con – San Diego, CA - 7/22 through 7/25
In addition to having playable Firefight (and possibly some competitive MP at one point or another) in the Xbox booth, Bungie will also be conducting a Reach panel on Thursday 7/22 from 6pm to 7pm in room 6BCF. We’ll be showing off some new stuff including “going beyond the Canyon.”
Gamescom – Cologne, Germany – 8/18 through 8/22
Plans are still coming together but it’s safe to say that there will definitely be hands-on opportunities for Firefight and/or competitive multiplayer.
Penny Arcade Expo – Seattle, WA – 9/3 through 9/5
In addition to hands-on Reach in the Xbox booth, there will also be a Bungie panel on Saturday morning from 10:30AM to 11:30AM in the “Pegasus Theater.” We’ll share more details as we firm up our plans.
It’s highly likely there will be other opportunities popping up between now and Reach and we’ll be sure to let you know if that’s the case. We’ll also keep you posted on where the biggest launch celebrations are taking place once those plans get baked.
Beat that Quote
I didn’t get a chance to round up a “Blame Stosh” this week so instead I’m posting a screenshot I took back before E3 but never got an opportunity to release.
I've got your food nipple right here.
And that, my friends, is a wrap. Next week our Ginger Daddy Urk is back in the saddle and I’m off on my first of many Reach trips for the remainder of the summer. Let’s keep in touch, things are about to get crazy.