So, what can we expect from the forthcoming Halo: Reach, set for release in 2010? We can be sure that the AI won't disappoint. It's one of the core, defining elements of a Halo game. It's always been class-based, with a firm hierarchy between the various Covenant forces, and this is something we expect to see come into even more focus in the forthcoming game.
Assuming Bungie sticks to its existing canon, the Elites will definitely be there as a formidable force to be reckoned with, and it'll be interesting to see their "personalities" based on their own class system and reputation for honour. They won't be running away in the middle of a fight like the Brutes do, and neither will they panic, get angry and try to ram you, or indeed go suicidal.
Even more exciting is the notion that you'll be doing battle alongside other Spartans. The Master Chief was the sole survivor from the super-soldier corps in the wake of the Reach disaster, but if our reading of the Halo mythos is correct, there should be at least 16 Spartans still in existence during the Reach time period: a number that ties in nicely with the typical maximum amount of players in an Xbox Live multiplayer game...
The Master Chief sported Mark V armour in the original Halo, which was upgraded to the Mark VI for the sequels. That being the case, over and above the AI possibilities the Spartan inclusion brings about, it's also possible we'll see a next-gen rendering of the original Halo armour, and even some other prototype designs for Master Chief's comrades. Of course, so little is known about the game right now that there's no guarantee we'll actually be able to play as the Spartans at all, but the time and place are right - they should be included.
As seen by the creation of the Halo Waypoint website, it's clear that Bungie is sticking closely to its established timeline and canon, to the point where even the Master Chief's presence is felt, however briefly and obliquely, during the initial drop in ODST.
There's a very definite sense that Bungie was experimenting, to an extent, with open-world gameplay in ODST, as you can explore the city however you wish if you want to avoid the specific campaign missions, and there are also hints that this will play a larger role in Reach too, most notably because it's on the record that Bungie has advertised for staff dedicated to "sandbox" gameplay. Tying in with this is the notion of class-based characters for the player to choose from, hinted at in the Reach logo itself.
From a technical perspective, after three years of development, we would expect there to be massive leaps in the technology from what we see in ODST. Resolution-wise, we're hoping (praying!) that the sub-HD look that has characterised Halo 3 and ODST will be gone. There's room in the eDRAM to support Bungie's HDR technique at nigh-on full 720p without the performance-sapping tiling the firm seemed intent on avoiding on the current iteration of its tech. It's all about managing fill-rate and maintaining frame-rate, though the performance requirements increase significantly if the desired 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing is added. If indeed the game is open-world, and retains Halo's penchant for super-scale environments, that extra resolution is key in maintaining quality on far-away objects.
Over and above the speculation and returning to the actualities of what Bungie has been working on and has gone public with, there are clues to be gleaned from the firm's SIGGRAPH 09 presentation, concentrating on new lighting techniques. There's some discussion on atmospheric approximation (the transition from moving from space to the planet surface) and there's also talk of the company's pre-baked global illumination tech. It doesn't mean much, but it is stated that there are between five and seven million triangles in any particular scene. This number comes up simply to give context from a render-farm perspective on how the GI is calculated, as it's a very processing-intensive procedure. The presentation is also interesting in that it shows two prongs of attack that Bungie has been researching - the pre-computed approach, and the real-time angle.
And of course, finally, there is the elephant in the room. Project Natal. The motion controller itself is perhaps not best suited to a shooting game, but there is absolutely nothing to stop developers integrated some level of motion control support in addition to use of the standard 360 controller... or maybe even something different. Peter Molyneux's Twitter updates have also included talk to how the Natal field of vision can process additional handheld items; the Lionhead man talks about a cucumber (insert your own joke) but while unlikely, from a technical perspective, it could just as well be an Activision Blizzard-style custom controller.
One thing's for sure - the timing of Halo: Reach's arrival at retail coincides very closely with the expected launch of Natal. What better way would there be to get the Xbox 360 hardcore buy into an additional device mostly targeted at the more casual audience than Natal with a bit of Reach about it?
Many thanks to Alex Goh for his invaluable assistance in putting together all aspect of this feature.