Interviews// Halo: Reach - Campaign Designer, Niles Sankey

Posted 30 Jul 2010 17:47 by
We're finally coming to the end of an era. For years we've journeyed through the Halo saga with not just Master Chief, but with Bungie, the studio that proved to the world that video games be as epic and relevant as any other medium.

As the team puts the final touches to its final entry in the series, Halo: Reach, I was treated to a demonstration of what players can expect in the challenging campaign mode. Telling the story of the planet Reach before its destruction by Covenant forces, the game puts you in the role of the sixth member of Noble Team, a special unit consisting of Spartans.

Watching the first few cutscenes shows just how much Bungie have improved its ability to highlight personable characters. The Noble Team warriors are all supersoldiers, yes, but they have their own backstory and reasons for serving the UNSC. Female member Kat has a ladylike swagger, while strongman Jorge ploughs through the vibrant green wildlife found in the mountains of this first mission.

With Noble Team investigating reports of a disturbance in East Valley, it's not long before the suspicion of rebel insurgents is ruled out as a surprise attack from the Covenant occurs, and the Spartans are on the back foot. This begins the wider campaign - how did the aliens manage to invade the planet, and what can the Team do to stop the inevitable planetary war?

After being treated to some gorgeous visuals and open firefights, I sat down with Bungie's Campaign Designer, Niles Sankey, to talk about the finer processes of crafting the studio's swansong blockbuster.

SPOnG: You mentioned in the presentation that the missions are designed in a 'sandbox' way rather than in a linear fashion. Could you talk about why you came to that direction and how that has affected Halo: Reach's design as a whole?

Niles Sankey: With a lot of the previous Halo games, especially Halo 1, we had a lot of larger levels which weren't necessarily linear. We've continued that in Reach so we can give players lots of options, particularly in multiplayer co-op.

We want to let people split up and explore the world around them and maybe tackle different objectives before meeting up later on. Of course, we also want people to go through missions together too, if they want to.

While offering that level of choice, at the same time it was important for us to tell the story of Noble Team, so we wanted to really focus on that too and make sure we told a solid story.

How we typically design that involves presenting certain stretches of the game world that are very open, but ensuring that the whole game isn't open. There are focus points where the whole game comes together, and we try to maintain a flux between open-ended gameplay and focused story moments.

SPOnG: How challenging is it to try and pull of something like that?

Niles Sankey: It's actually very challenging. I think that's why not a lot of games do what we do, certainly not in the realm of action-driven story games. But as difficult as it is, this is something we always wanted to retain for Halo games. It's hard to go into specifics in a mere few sentences, but the challenges involve a lot of trial and error the get the right blend between action, exploration and story.

SPOnG: This game focuses on Noble Team, who are a group of Spartans that we can identify with personally. You've given them faces and voices... there was a similar thing with ODST, but do you think that was less successful in terms of engaging the player like that than you've been able to pull off here?

Niles Sankey: Well, it certainly is difficult in lots of ways. The integration of that personality into the campaign for example. The campaign in Reach is more akin to the original Halo trilogy, where we decided to use more linear storytelling to pace the story a little better.

On top of that, honestly, the one thing that we really worked on - as you may have noticed - was the facial animations and rendering, as well as beefing up the graphics. I think we were able to bring a lot more life and humanity into the characters this time around, not only in cutscenes either. In the gameplay too.

We try to use the characters and the team unit concept in the campaign to a certain extent - as you see when you play through the campaign. There are different times when you split off with certain members of Noble Team, and you get a chance to learn who these Spartans are and their background.

Not only that but you depend on them in many ways in the campaign. For example, you encounter a pack of Elites in the mission I showed earlier. The Elites are back in Reach, and are obviously very formidable enemies. As you ratchet the difficulty up ? I was playing it on Normal and I almost died there actually, a stray grenade nearly knocked me out ? you'll be thankful that you're there with your squad of Spartans, because on many occasions you'll need to depend on each other. I think that creates a bond with the characters.
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