"If we lose our way with Halo, we lose our way with Xbox," Microsoft Games Studios vice-president Phil Spencer told OXM last August, shortly after the unveiling of not one, not two, but three new Halo games, together dubbed the "Reclaimer" trilogy. It's a significant choice of callsign if you're a Halo buff - "Reclaimers", after all, are individuals deemed worthy by the Forerunners of manhandling their technology. Nice to know that real-world hardware manufacturers hold our Spartan associate in similar esteem.
Spencer's identifying Halo as Microsoft's crown jewel suggests that we can learn more from Halo 4 than how exactly Covenant-human relations have progressed during Master Chief's long sleep, or the exact purpose and destination of the UNSC Infinity, site of the game's multiplayer component. Halo's future is, to some degree, Xbox's future - the platform's features and capabilities will evolve alongside the new trilogy much as Xbox Live evolved alongside Halo 2. So what does the future hold?
The FPS is still Microsoft's favourite genre. Probably.
It's easy to glance at the latest Call of Duty sales figures, throw your hands in the air and say the first-person shooter was destined from birth to reign over competing genres, now and for ever more. If only things looked that cut and dried in advance. Speaking to Industry Gamers last July, id Software co-founder and FPS godfather John Carmack aired his surprise that first-person had prevailed over third-person gaming, pointing to the cinematographical advantages of having an avatar visible on screen. "I was more or less expecting third person to be the more popular set of genres and indeed it was looking like, with Gears' success, that even in the serious action [genre], it might end up trending that way."
With that in mind, Microsoft's decision to announce three new first-party shooters for publication over the next few years - two of them all but guaranteed to appear on a next generation Xbox device - is a ballsy move. The manufacturer evidently sets a lot of store by first-person's appeal, and this speaks volumes about Xbox 720's software portfolio. "Halo and the importance of games like CoD and other shooters, that state of the art needs to continue to move forward," Spencer added. "And our team at 343 need to move forward with that. That's always going to be one of our success criteria." Halo-Wars-style trips off the rails should be few and far between, then.
Microsoft is putting cash back into first party
Platform exclusives have become rare over the past few years, as launch wave contracts elapse and third parties like EA quietly migrate their IPs elsewhere. It's tempting to say that the days of software exclusivity are over, but unique titles are an important way of shaping a platform's identity, and Microsoft's commitment to three in advance demonstrates its awareness of this. "It's important that our AAA first party titles help craft and shape how the platform evolves," Spencer insisted. "It's both a challenge and a luxury to be able to develop the two systems in parallel. Halo just by its sheer nature of size, of user base, as well as how important the FPS is in today's gaming world. has to play that role."
The next Xbox will be a hefty horsepower jump
This one's on the obvious side, but worth reiterating anyway. 343 says it's cleaned out Xbox 360. "We're out of space, we're out of horsepower, we're out of everything," founder Frank O'Connor told us at Microsoft's Spring Showcase in San Francisco. "If you're doing your best work that machine should be exhausted when you're done, and we're getting there." Principal engine programmer Corrine Yu describes Halo 4 as "the best looking game on Xbox and any other consoles [we've] ever made". Sounds rather definitive, though ruling hardware out is a dangerous practice - only this year, original Halo custodian Bungie admitted that its games grossly under-utilise the Xbox 360 CPU.