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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Halo 2

Journey to Earthcity with the Master Chief.

Yes, we know we 'only' gave Halo 8/10, but it was still one of our favourite games of the year, and continues to be the Xbox's biggest-selling exclusive title well over a year after it appeared on European shelves. Naturally, we're more than interested in how progress is going with Bungie's sequel, and the lucky sods at Official Xbox Magazine got a sneak preview of the eagerly awaited E3 demo, and have devoted a huge section of the June 2003 issue to reporting on the fact, complete with exclusive artwork and imagery from the game.

The first thing you need to know (if you're lucky enough to be going to E3) is that the demo will take place in a large enclosed theatre at the centre of the Microsoft stand and will be open to anyone prepared to queue for ages. Will it be playable? We bloody hope so. Apparently the 'theatre' will be much bigger in capacity than the titchy Doom III one last year, so at least we'll stand a reasonable chance of seeing it at an early point in the show [Half-Life 2 or Halo 2? We know where we're heading first -Ed].

A vision of dystopian Microsoft dominance

The demo level is set on Earthcity, a soaring skyscraper-ridden vision of the future, which according to OXM is a "towering Megalopolis, utopian in design, rendered dystopian by Covenant occupation," while the "scale, height and grandeur [is] more than just eye candy – it's part of the gameplay."

By the latter comment, we're hoping they mean that you'll be able to engage in some fierce aerial combat, jumping aboard one of the revamped Banshees or Ghosts, dodging between towering buildings and shooting up some Covenant scum like something out of The Fifth Element.

Apparently, the demo will last approximately eight minutes, and kicks off with a typically impressive cut-scene sequence, with the Master Chief in a Pelican with a squad of Marines flying over a "seemingly doomed Earth."

"It's a homage really," says cinematic director Joseph Staten, speaking in this month's OXM. "Remember when we first showed you the Master Chief flying into the beach level on Halo? We wanted to revisit that moment, but up the stakes to match the intensity of Halo 2's combat experience. This is an urban environment crawling with Covenant. The demo begins in a part of the city where the Marines are in particular dire straights, and really need the Chief to drop in and liberally apply boot to ass."

Cue bizarre red-hot poker/kerosene/sawdust quote

They're expecting something of a wild reaction. Lead producer Hamilton Chu enthuses in OXM: "We're using E3 as a red hot poker jabbing into the enormous mountain of newspaper, kerosene and sawdust that is the rest of the project."

But despite the feature's enormous length, Bungie gave very little away in terms of real gameplay meat, preferring to tease us with tiny nuggets. The developer knows full well it needs to drip feed info over the next eight months, and intends to milk us games journos for every column inch it can.

However, it does reveal one or two particularly nifty nuggets of information, namely AI nonsense, weapons, some GeoMod-alike elements, and of course blethers on at length about how much sexier it all looks now.

But first, and most interestingly, the NPCs can now pilot the vehicles in the game; apparently the Marines driving style is "utterly reckless and completely without fear", which allows you to man the guns (if available) and engage in some hairy moving combat – hopefully a cut above the kind of on rails shooting that we've been fed in games such as Agent Under Fire, Medal of Honor and Black Hawk Down. Meanwhile, the Covenant aliens' style will apparently be "a bit more controlled" than the loony Marines, but still "plenty wild" according to OXM. Good-oh.

It has been improved in lots of areas – SHOCK!

As you'd expect [from every game ever made, evah evah -cynical PR-bored Ed] the AI has been improved, which on its own is an enticing prospect, given that the original's was rather excellent. OXM claims there will be "even more aggressive and intelligent infantry, from rooftop sniping to up close melee combat".

And in an interesting twist, the two weapons that you hold can be used simultaneously. "It's been done before," admits lead designer Jamie Griesemer (again, commenting in the June 2003 issue of OXM), "but what we're doing is letting you use two different types of weapons. For instance you can be carrying the SMG and the plasma pistol. You could use an overcharge blast from a plasma pistol to blast an Elite, and after his shields are knocked out, use the SMG to finish him. Instead of simply doing twice as much damage, you get to use the weapons in true combo style. You use the left and right triggers for the respective weapon; the second weapon takes the place of your grenades." If this works – and we have no reason to suspect it won't – then it sounds like an immensely good idea.

What about new weapons, and will the old ones be changed in any way? Griesemer continues: "We're taking some of the old weapons and making them a little more nuanced. We're introducing new weapons of course, but we're really adding layers of use to all these weapons. And most of the stuff you use, you'll see the Marines using too."

Lovely dynamic lighting

As we touched on earlier, the game will, of course, look even better than the (still delicious) original, and the main area would appear to be in its use of its revamped lighting engine, as art lead Marcus Lehto reveals in OXM: "One of the things our new lighting engine will let us do is destructible environments. We couldn't really do that before because the scenes weren't dynamically lit. If we'd blown something up or moved it, its shadow would still be there.

Development lead Chris Butcher chips in: "We're going to have a lot more infantry combat that revolves around destroying and creating cover. And it looks a lot cooler after a battle because you have all this destruction and chaos," which basically translates that once you've destroyed your enemy's cover, they will run away and find new cover. Nice. Let's hope this works in practice; pardon the cynicism, but so many developers have made this exact same claim before that our eyes actually bleed every time we read it...

So that just about wraps it up for now. If you want to see the feature for yourself in all its glory (with tons of exclusive images, blah blah), we suggest you nip down to your local paper shop and demand a copy of Official Xbox Magazine. Naturally, we'll be bringing you our first impressions of Halo 2 once we've had a touch and feel in a few week's time...