In the opening shot of the new video game Halo Reach, a helmet with a shattered visor lies alone on the surface of a barren alien planet. It's a solemn vision signifying that unlike the previous five Halo games, this isn't a story of victory and triumph. As a prequel to 2001's original Halo, Reach tells the story of a critical defeat that leaves humanity on the verge of being conquered by an alien alliance known as the Covenant.
Sacrifice and defeat aren't typical in the world of video games, in which it's most common to end a story by giving players a sense of accomplishment while still leaving threads open for sequels, as every previous Halo title has done. But Reach, which comes out Sept. 14, is an unusual game and a major turning point for the hugely successful series, which has sold more than 34 million copies and generated roughly $2 billion in sales.
"Halo Reach is our way of taking the story full circle and describing the genesis of the events and actions that we have shown before," said Marcus Lehto, the game's creative director.
Bringing Halo to a fitting conclusion without bringing it to an end was the paradoxical challenge faced by Lehto and his colleagues at Bungie studios, the Bellevue, Wash.-based developer that created the franchise and has made three sequels and spinoffs (one other spinoff was made by a different studio).
As part of an agreement reached when it spun off from former owner Microsoft in 2007, Reach is the last Halo game that will be made by Bungie, which is turning its attention to a new game that it will own and control. A prequel that ties into its first game lets Bungie have its final word on the property while also leaving story threads from 2007's Halo 3 open for Microsoft, which has created a new business unit called 343 Industries (named after a villainous robot from the games) to oversee the franchise.
After more than a decade together, in other words, Bungie is preparing to go in one direction while Halo is going another.
Keeping Halo healthy is critical to the future of Microsoft's video game business. The series has been the most successful for the company's Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles, providing the impetus for players to spend hundreds of dollars on the hardware and $50 per year to play online.
"What Halo has done from the amount sold to fan awareness of our business makes it the most important entertainment property at our company," said Bonnie Ross, general manager of 343 Industries. "Our focus is to make sure that in 30 years Halo is still relevant."
The only video game brands that have made it close to that long are Nintendo's classics from 1980s, such as the Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and Zelda. What Microsoft is attempting to accomplish with Halo may be most akin to television series that have continued when key talent departed, such as "The Tonight Show" without Johnny Carson and "Seinfeld" without co-creator Larry David.
Reach is expected to continue the series' history of being a commercial blockbuster. According to market research firm Ipsos OTX, which polls 1,000 U.S. video game players each week, it's the No. 1 most anticipated title coming out this year.
Like most publishers in the secretive video game industry, Microsoft isn't talking about what it has planned next for Halo. "Whoever is tasked with making Halo games in the future will have to live up to the standards set by Bungie, without a shadow of a doubt," said Frank O'Connor, 343's creative director.
Nobody knows more about Bungie's standards than Lehto, the only creative principal who has been involved in every Halo game since work started in 1997. After serving as art director on the first three installments, Lehto three years ago began leading a team of five people — which eventually swelled to 130 — to work on Reach.
The core principles, he said, were the same as on previous entries: Halo was the first "first person shooter" — a type of action game that originated on PCs in which players see the world through the eyes of the protagonist — to succeed on consoles connected to televisions. Developers had previously thought it couldn't be done without the precision of a keyboard and mouse. But Halo disproved the conventional wisdom with its innovative mechanics, which have been repeated on each successive entry.
In addition, Halo 2 was the first hit online game for consoles. The series has always been known for its huge number of options for up to 16 people to compete, and even occasionally cooperate, over the Internet.
But Lehto says the least appreciated element of Halo's success — a part of the game that has prompted mixed reactions among critics ( The New York Times described the plot of Halo 3 as "a lot of things get in your way and you kill them") — is its story. "It's so important that these games have a heart and soul and players see that there's more to his universe than the war going on in front of them," he said.