Microsoft’s hoping the latest in its Halo series of video games offers fresh ways to play.

I’m sitting inside the armory wing of a Pelican dropship, more than 500 years in the future, getting ready to wage all-out war. The other Spartan supersoldiers, like me, are 7-foot-tall genetically augmented humans clad in 1,000-pound armor.

An arrow in my heads-up display tells me to approach a raised, hexagonal platform where the hologram of our commander briefs my fellow soldiers and me on our mission. She explains our objectives and shows us detailed 3D tours of the terrain we’re about to fight on.

We move to our battle stations, ready to strike our first blow.

In reality, I’m seated in an elaborate set on the show floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center — chilled by full-blast AC against the June heat — during the marketing extravaganza known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. I’m also wearing Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset, which analyzes my surroundings and floats 3D images before my eyes.

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This is the closest I may ever get to experiencing life inside the universe of Halo, the science fiction series that made shooting video games the most successful and beloved genre of a generation. Thanks to Microsoft, which owns the Halo brand, I’m getting a firsthand taste of Halo’s new look.

The illusion breaks when I remove the HoloLens and head off to an Xbox game controller to play Halo 5: Guardians. Due out October 27, the next major installment in the Halo series represents Microsoft’s big push to persuade players to plunk down about $350, £300 or AU$500 for its upgraded Xbox One game console. Blockbuster titles like Halo drive console sales, and Microsoft has waited nearly two years to deliver a game like Guardians.

If that sounds awfully weighty for a new game, think of it in cinematic terms. Halo is the video game equivalent of Star Wars. It’s a sweeping space opera about humanity’s ongoing struggle against hostile alien species. Players assume the role of Spartan John-117, also known as Master Chief, as he fights galactic battles with advanced civilizations. Over the Internet, gamers can mix it up in complex, multiplayer combat where an enemy player can up the stakes with a rocket launcher, a tank or a walking armored vehicle nearly two stories high.

The HoloLens adds a new wrinkle. Although Microsoft doesn’t commercially sell the headset — yet — it points to the future of video games: rooted in storytelling and delivered by technology that plunges us smack into the center of this alien world.

The trick is making sure players stay along for the ride.

Shining legacy

Three years in the making, Guardians will debut exclusively for Microsoft’s Xbox One. While it’s the fifth entry in the series, it’s only the second from Microsoft’s in-house studio 343 Industries, or 343i — named after an advanced artificial intelligence in Halo’s fictional world.

Microsoft created 343i specifically to shepherd Halo after the series’ creator, Bungie, split from the company in 2007 to make new games on its own. Microsoft’s studio released Halo 4 three years ago, receiving high marks from critics and earning $220 million the first day of its release and $300 million in its first week.

The newest Halo game ets players see through the eyes of a new character, Spartan Jameson Locke, who hunts Master Chief after Master Chief goes AWOL.

“With Halo 4, we were proving ourselves as a studio,” says Bonnie Ross, studio head at 343i. “But we [also spent] the last seven years laying the foundation to tell the Halo 5 story.”

It’s now up to Ross and her team to satisfy the series’ fans while creating something new and uniquely compelling with Halo 5: Guardians.

“How do we be authentic to what is Halo, and how do we want to push it forward?” says Ross, who has worked at Microsoft for more than 20 years.

It’s not a rhetorical question. Developers now spend tens of millions of dollars creating their next blockbuster sequel, which can live on for years as an online service. The new game’s success could determine if the Halo franchise maintains its rabid popularity and does its part selling more Xbox hardware.

The numbers tell the story. The series’ first installment, 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved — developed for the original Microsoft Xbox — is credited with transforming Microsoft from a stodgy creator of business software into an established console maker, alongside Sony and Nintendo. Both Halo 2 and Halo 3, released in 2004 and 2007, smashed records their first day of sales, at $125 million and $170 million, respectively.

People can’t seem to get enough. The Halo franchise has spawned books, comics, television shows, films and a dizzying array of merchandise. And gamers around the globe have spent more than 6 billion collective hours playing more than 65 million games sold in the past 14 years.

“It is one of the seminal franchises that have launched since the year 2000,” says Lewis Ward, an analyst at research firm IDC. “Particularly on the Xbox platform, you have to consider it the most important franchise.”

High-stakes play

Clearly, 343i can’t afford to screw things up. To satisfy its dedicated fans — and attract new ones — 343i is taking risks.

The entire plot of Halo 5 is split down the middle between two playable characters. Players can assume the roles of both Master Chief and the newly minted Spartan soldier Jameson Locke, who is tasked with hunting the Chief after the Chief goes AWOL.

The two storytelling lenses will allow “more characters to tell Chief’s story from different perspectives,” says Josh Holmes, internal studio head at 343i and former creative director on Halo 4.

Players of Halo 5’s story mode will no longer work alone. Instead both Master Chief and Spartan Locke will fight alongside three AI-powered companions already familiar to readers of Halo books and comics.

Hundreds of developers and designers work at 343 Industries’ studio in Kirkland, Washington.
Tom Mathews / Microsoft

“It’s a big deal to bring [these characters] back into the fold,” says creative director Tim Longo, who joined 343i from LucasArts.

The new group dynamic, for example, lets other human players join in over the Internet. And seeing familiar names and faces from the books and comics could draw fans even deeper into Halo’s colossal backstory and — if it all works as planned — create a richer storyline.

Or it might backfire. Too many plotlines and philosophical ruminations could alienate folks who just want to blow stuff up.

Writers introduced plot elements from the broader Halo universe that — for someone who has only played the games — felt like huge storyline bombs soaring in from left field.

“With Halo 4, we probably geeked out a little too much on the story,” Ross admits.

The balancing act between rich storyline and plot overload could prove even more challenging for Halo multiplayer, the primary lure to the franchise and the main reason players spend years with Halo.

That online draw keeps Halo addicts satisfied even without the constant drumbeat of new releases every holiday season — and gives Microsoft the breathing room to dream up new ways to innovate, says IDC’s Ward.

“The success of Halo is about online multiplayer,” says Ward. “Without all of the online stuff, it would be a much poorer franchise.”

Now, 343i is ramping up online play by adding unprecedented 12-versus-12 player games. Such complexity increases the likelihood that bugs and other problems can creep into the game itself. That’s what happened last fall, when Microsoft re-released a collection of Halo games for the Xbox One. The games were largely unplayable online until Microsoft issued several patches.

That means 343i’s “responsibility is to come out of the gate as flawlessly as they can,” Ward says.

Say it ain’t so

Over the years, Halo has evolved into a living, breathing universe that fans passionately care about. Sure, players like to blow stuff up, but even the most casual Halo fans get a rush when they become Master Chief, an experience that takes on new dimensions every three to five years with each new release.

Don’t count on it lasting.

Bonnie Ross

“Master Chief is an amazing story, but we can’t tell his story forever,” says Ross. “There’s going to be a point in time where his story needs to take a rest.”

A Halo without Master Chief would be akin to Super Mario Bros. without Mario. But it may be what Halo needs. And while we may not see the end of Master Chief’s story anytime soon, Microsoft is treating Halo 5: Guardians as a step in that direction.

Fans of the series should be prepared for anything.

“When we took on the franchise, we weren’t just thinking about the next game,” Ross says. “How do we tell hundreds of stories for the next decades?”

This story appeared in the fall edition of CNET Magazine. It has been modified somewhat for its online appearance. For other magazine stories, click here.

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