Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Early Christmas for Halo fans

Release marks new chapter in hugely popular video game

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TORONTO -- Kevin Grace was in line at midnight when the first Halo video game came out in November 2001.

Today, as the franchise manager for Halo at game developer 343 Industries, he helps keep track of the entire Halo universe, which expands today with the release of Halo 4.

"Every day I say, 'Yea and thank you,"' Grace, 40, said of his ascent from Halo fan to ultimate insider.

That first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, was a hit right out of the box, coming out at the same time as the original Xbox console.

Today, the franchise is the biggest star in Microsoft's gaming galaxy.

The futuristic first-person shooter has sold more than 43 million copies to date, generating in excess of US$3 billion. Microsoft estimates gamers have spent more than 3.3 billion hours playing the series online.

Halo 4 marks the beginning of a new chapter for Master Chief, the series' iconic hero. Set some five years after the conclusion of Halo 3, in the middle of the 26th century, the new Xbox 360 game starts with Master Chief in stasis -- lost in space on the damaged ship Forward Unto Dawn.

That is until he is awakened by his artificial intelligence partner Cortana. Mankind is in trouble, again.

"You could almost take one disc out for Halo 3, and put in another disc in for Halo 4 and take off from there," said Grace.

Still, plenty has happened between the two.

"There's a lot of mess still going on in the universe," Grace added. "That's when Chief wakes up, to find some of that mess."

Grace promises this game will shed light on the Forerunners -- an ancient, mysterious force in the Halo world. It also lifts the lid on what's happening in the rest of the galaxy and how humanity is doing picking up the pieces of a bloody war.

You'll also learn more about Master Chief, the enigmatic super-soldier at the centre of Halo.

"There are a lot of questions to answer," Grace said.

As franchise manager, Grace helped pull together the eight games, dozen or so books (which have sold more than nine million copies and produced nine New York Times bestsellers), videos, action figures and everything else that is part of the Halo world.

Frank O'Connor, who has been with the series since Day 1, was initially the lone man charged with overseeing the Halo universe. Then came Grace.

Today there are five others watching the Halo world. They keep track of everything Halo, from story to characters. It's a world that is constantly growing, thanks to new games and multimedia projects.

The Halo vault contains plenty of containers.

"It's a combination of databases, ridiculously large reference libraries and a lot of people who kind of eat, sleep and breathe Halo all the time," said Grace.

The Kansas native cites 343 Industries colleague Jeremy Patenaude.

"We actually hired him away from a website that he created that existed only to dissect -- in infinite detail -- all of our commercials, all of our stories, all the details in our universe," said Grace.

"That's what he did in his spare time and he did it to such a level and with such quality that we said, 'You know what? I think you need to come play with us officially.'

"We needed his brain."

Halo 4 adds to the franchise in several ways. In addition to the game itself there's Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a live-action made-in-Vancouver video series that focuses on a group of freshman cadets at the UNSC's Corbulo Academy of Military Science.

It's a prequel to Halo 4, set some 30 years in advance of the game and helps shed light on some of the characters.

"It's a really important moment in Halo history," says Grace.

Halo 4 marks the start of a new Halo chapter dubbed "The Reclaimer Saga." Grace avoids using the word trilogy, suggesting that there are many more stories to tell.

Grace, O'Connor and their franchise colleagues are part of a balancing act.

First they have to ensure the Halo franchise remains true to itself and that the timeline and stories mesh.

Then, while looking to add to the game experience via storylines in books and other material, they have to watch that a newcomer to the series doesn't feel overwhelmed when he or she sits down with a game controller to play Halo for the first time.

"We know not everyone wants to read a Halo book," said Grace. "OK, I get that, I respect that.

"It's finding ways for them to work together so we don't cut any fans out. We just find new ways to give the universe to new people."

Get it wrong or get sloppy when it comes to Halo details, says Grace, and you lose loyal fans.

"There are too many options out there for people to spend their time and money on. It has to be great. And I think the details are important to make it feel authentic and real."

Referring to events in previous games adds to the new game experience and "makes it feel like a real place."

Plus Halo buffs are quick to point out any errors or inconsistencies.

"We get constant feedback from fans," said Grace. "It's a interesting relationship that we're insanely lucky to have.

"We absolutely have fans that go over every single detail and rightly so and will holler at us if we do something wrong. And they should."

The five-part Forward Unto Dawn is available on the Machinima Prime YouTube channel and www.halowaypoint.com

A slightly different long-form version of the series, with bonus features, will also be part of the limited edition version of the game.

The game also offers bonus cinematic action, through a weekly series called Spartan Ops that serves as the backdrop for missions either for the single-player or four player co-operative modes.

Halo was originally developed by Bungie, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2000. In 2007, the two separated with Microsoft retaining the rights to the Halo series.

Microsoft entrusted Halo to 343 Industries, named after 343 Guilty Spark, a character in the game.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2012 C11

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