PAX: This morning Bungie had what is likely to be their final public discussion of a Halo title prior to its release, as we're now just 10 day away from the release of their Microsoft exclusive swan-song, Halo: Reach. With that in mind, their panel this morning at this year's PAX started off with the bittersweet reminded that the music the audience was hearing was a taste of the last music composer Marty O'Donnell would be contributing to a series to which he contributed quite a bit of identity. After these reminders though, Bungie dove headfirst into discussing the development and pre-production of Reach, and they hit on a few important points in particular.
First, the design leads went on at length about the importance of building out playable levels as early as possible, demonstrating a number of pre-visualized sections of Reach from early in 2008. These roughed out sketches served as a way for the design teams to build a game first and foremost. This isn't new to Reach - old-timers from Bungie mentioned that they originally built the world of the first Halo using their Myth engine, creating miles and miles of playable world to develop the game's mechanics.
Second, the team explained that the story of Halo: Reach was intended to exist by itself, and to feel different than previous Halo titles. This started with the drastic departure indicated by a cast of Spartans that players would get to know, and whose faces players will get to see - something originally played with in ODST. Bungie claims that they wanted the team of Noble Six - who were originally meant to be Nobel Seven, Bungie revealed - to feel instantly recognizable, that, like the world of Reach, they had existed and lived before the player has ever had a chance to meet them in the game.
To do this, they cast a wide net for vocal talent, searching for various ethnicities and backgrounds for their new Spartan team.
As a fan of the now departed television series The Wire, I was particularly excited to see Jamie Hector, known for his role as drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield, voicing lines as Noble Four, though Halo fans will probably be more excited to hear the return of Jen Taylor, who gave the character of Cortana life and personality in the main Halo Trilogy.
This was further elaborated during Bungie's discussion of new animation systems in Halo: Reach, the most important of which is an entirely new facial animation system that the team calls "face-over." They showed footage of a voice actress laid side by side with facial models of what looked to be Kat from Halo: Reach; as the actress spoke and emoted her lines, the in-game model duplicated her expressions in what seemed to be real time, adding a degree of believability that previous Halo titles have struggled to achieve. This is particularly important given how often Bungie depicts the Spartans of Noble Team sans helmet in Reach.
The team closed out with footage of several prototyping experiments from the development of Reach that didn't make it into the final game, including a more robust version of space combat that featured UNSC and Covenant craft engaged in multiplayer battles above Reach's atmosphere. They also showed a boat and watercraft prototype that appeared pretty limited in how far it was developed before being halted, as well as a very early "Giants" prototype that featured enormous Brute-like creatures and a "Boarding" prototype that featured a Spartan more or less hijacking an Elite and sticking it with an explosive device.
Bungie explained that moving backward from Halo with Reach actually allowed them to break out of old patterns and requirements developed over three Halo titles to try new things. Gamers can see exactly how much the familiar has changed when Halo: Reach launches on September 14th.