Halo 2 Weekly UpdateAlthough there's more than a month of actual mind crushing work left, this week is a real milestone in my mind, and so we bring you a special, extended update, because Halo 2's campaign mode is not only playable, it's fun. Actually, fun is the wrong word – since some of the levels left me sweating, awed and terrified by turns. Caveat: As well as an employee, I'm still part fanboy, so read this with that in mind. BUS STOP I've been getting up very early, coming in and playing the latest test build. It's always full of surprises. One bizarre way to tell how advanced it is is to look at the buses. They started as large oblong crates, completely flat but with the candy-cane default texture that's used for unfinished objects. One morning I loaded it up and the candy cane texture was gone. Replaced with a sort of vaguely instructional "Large Dias" emblazoned across it. A few weeks later, it kinda looked like a crate with wheels. Then, a passable bus. This morning, it wheels, glass, and does something very cool if you lob enough grenades at it. It's a bus. Keanu Reeves would drive it. But like, you can't really drive it. Before you ask. Surrounding the bus, which I admit is kind of a boring thing to watch over a period of months, is some dramatically detailed city environment and architecture. You've already got some idea of what the landscape of Earth City looks like, thanks to the year and a half old E3 demo, but there are varied elements to the city environment, and there are plenty of graphical and environmental surprises in store for you. You'd be surprised what a difference a few power cables make. BUILD QUALITY The system kind of works like this: We have a general resource at Bungie where the latest builds of the game are located. One is recommended as stable by the test department, while others may have been built to test or debug a specific problem. The testers get the stable build and rampage through it, looking for any problems, "bugging" them (that is, saving their exact position in the game, noting what the problem was, and entering it into a database.) and then play on, looking for problems. Parsons has asked Brian and me to get stuck into that process as well. He thinks I'm basically stupid though, so while Brian has been asked to look for "clipping errors, instance geometry problems and physics anomalies," Parsons told me to "watch out for colors that aren't pretty," or "scary things that make you want to go wee." Speaking of Brian, he's getting married today. So congrats to Brian from everyone on the team, except the hardcore dudes who're all like, "Dude, you're gonna be so whipped man," and "this is the end of the party, brah!" Harold the test manager, who's as evil as Carrot Top's Y-Fronts , explained that he's basically been staying until 3am and then arriving again about four hours later. He's opening and closing bugs at a ferocious rate. One horrible thing he did this week to the test team was open 478 bugs at once, using an automated process. That far outstripped the entire output of the rest of the test team. You could hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Still, they were minor fixes. Hundreds more will be opened and fixed between now and the game's ship. MANUAL TRANSMISSION Speaking of ship – the game will leave these hallowed halls weeks before it arrives in stores. It takes a long time to manufacture and distribute that many games. I'm no logistician, but I reckon they're going to have to make DOZENS, no, HUNDREDS of copies of the game. With that in mind, I am pleased to announce that the manual, one of the few things pertaining to the actual game that I have anything to do with, is complete and going through its last round of revisions. The manual is a complicated beast, since it has to be complete before the game. So matching features and interface details is tricky. The UX team (User eXperience) in charge of manual production has been a dream to work with, and you can tell they're used to creating manuals for works of progress. The manual is also a good example of how detail-oriented Bungie is. It should, if we do our job right, be a cool thing in itself, with one or two surprises for people when they first open their copy on Nov. 9th. It's also been going through a ton of translations by our localization group. Occasionally I'll get email questions from other countries asking for detailed explanations, like, "What do you mean by 'Nipple'?" and "What does, 'Where the sun don't shine mean?'" Every major language gets its own version of the manual, and there are even four Nordic language versions of the text, so you can imagine how much work that takes. Be sure to let us know, if you're French, Spanish, German, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Norwegian et al, how cool you think it is in November. Or stupid. Whichever you decide. HEADSHOT HEAVEN Nathan and the animation crew are making final tweaks and modifications to the in-game animation – for example, there's now a very nice player reward for good headshots (not excited about saying this), but much of their work in the last stretch will be creating entirely new animation for the cut scenes and cinematics. Although all of the cinematics happen in the game engine, the cinematic events contain motions, movements and events that simply don't exist in the largely hand-animated game code. They've also been handling and managing the contract animators. So the animators have a hefty, but rewarding task ahead of them (with constant dips back into turning game animations) as they make the cinematics dramatic, foreboding and occasionally funny. Recently, the animation on the cinematics has increased exponentially. Characters that formerly slid down corridors now walk or skulk. Characters who once stood static above their script captions, are now eerily lip-synched to real, acted dialog. Poor old Joe Staten, he's been putting this cinematic stuff together forever, but he and CJ get no props in the weekly update, because everything they're working on is plot-related, and therefore secret. The voice stuff in the cinematics is astonishing. We've picked some brilliant voices for the game. My favorite voice sounds like (but isn't) John Hurt (we should ask Joe about this) and the sheer variety of voices is outstanding. This becomes especially important in scenes where there is more than one alien character – it becomes easy to identify who's speaking by voice alone, which in turn lubricates the drama. And it is dramatic, I guarantee it. It helps now that the voices are lip (or mandible) synchronized, and of all the graphical improvements over Halo, cinematics may have benefited the most – if only because they were done under fierce time constraints for the first game. MARKET THIS Cam and the marketing team have been going all-out, with new consumer events, trade shows and demos in the works. TGS is coming up soon and Bungie will be there in some form, showing off Halo 2 to Japanese press and gamers. Cam also had the pleasure of doing the first consumer gameplay demo at Leipzig in Germany. Brian and I did the second (kind of) with a mini tournament at an MLG event last weekend. Both events used the E3 Zanzibar build, which now looks kind of old and crumbly to us. Actually, we were very pleased by the reaction of the Japanese and Korean press when they played the beta build at a recent press event. I got the feeling they really enjoyed the competitive aspect of the game and would literally cheer when a skilled player pulled off some cool stuff, like vehicle-boarding or especially violent swordplay. Hopefully they'll enjoy the new multiplayer stuff we'll show at TGS too. I think the old stereotype that the Japanese don't like first person shooters is either fading, exaggerated or plain wrong – since some of the guys and girls who visited us from Famitsu and other magazines, were pretty good players. Cam's been tracking weird Halo 2 mentions in the media, and noted that famous chick magazine, "Jane" ran a piece on the game in its September issue (go buy it guys!) saying, “The Halo 2 game is finally here. Tough-chick Cortana is still calling all of the shots.” And running a nice little shot of everyone's favorite hologram. ART ATTACK Lorraine is SWAMPED. I mean, hardcore swamped. Since Zoe left (and moved outta town, and got her work ripped off by some jerk on eBay) Lorraine is the sole go-to girl for art needs. That means marketing, PR, advertising, internet and random jerks from the street all demand art and assets from Lorraine. She's posing 3D max models, fixing huge Photoshop files and still trying to find the time to make new screens for the launch time frame. She's been hustling on our coffee table art book, which should be available at game launch, and features lots of really cool concept art and stuff from Halo with a little Halo 2 thrown in for good measure. MULTIPLAYER MADNESS Chris Carney, he of all things multiplayer is, and Parsons will HATE me for saying this, nearly finished. Multiplayer is almost complete. From 2pm today, when some final lightmaps are applied, the multiplayer game will be all but content complete. That means the maps are finished, the layouts complete and everything after that will be fine-tuning and testing. Chris says that the multiplayer team will even have some time (a rare commodity) to go in and do some extra tweaks and additions they didn't think they'd have time to do, including res-ing up some textures, sharpening some graphics and improving some visuals just for the hell of it. Of course, there's still lots to do in terms of testing and tuning of gameplay on those maps, but some of the new levels are amazing. The use of big, big maps is going to make for some very interesting scenarios. One particularly massive map has enough indoor and outdoor locations for totally different game styles to break out. There could be Banshee dogfights going on in the sky, shotgun deathmatches in a building and sniper matches on the rooftops, all while Warthogs race each other around the same level. It is considerably bigger than the relatively large Zanzibar. There's even an indoor space big enough for vehicle fights and full of potentially explosive moving objects. Which ought to make for some interesting and pyrotechnic matches. And all told, the biggest spatial innovation in Halo 2 multiplayer, is the increased use of asymmetrical maps, which makes objective-based gametypes, like CTF, all the more fun. Also, asymmetrical maps tend to "feel" more like real places. The varied architecture and geometry in Halo 2 MP tends to be much more realistic than some of the very simple, older maps from Halo. Dave Dunn and the environment guys are also reaching a stage where they're not really creating new art or objects, merely fixing problems with existing spaces. Asked which of the levels was the furthest from completion, Dave paused, reflected, ran his hands over his plush new Mohawk, and said, "Well really, there isn't a space in the whole game that hasn't been 'touched.' There's a couple of things here and there, but mostly we're fixing bugs." PERFORMANCE TUNED The most visible ongoing process from here on out, will be performance tuning. Lots of things affect frame rate, stability and general performance, and these are going to be addressed until the last possible moment to make for the best possible experience. Increases come from all over the place. The engineers and designers are making very specific speed increases with code changes and tweaks. Moving objects, fiddling with AI, everything has an effect on speed and frame rate so performance increases are coming from all over the place. My favorite bit of performance overall, is the loading speed. Like Halo, we load bits of levels on the fly. In Halo there was a brief pause. In Halo 2, there's no significant pause at all, at least, not one that I noticed. MUSIC MAN Marty has been busy, stressed and busy. Now that the game is in a state where he can properly score it, he's been pretty much locked away in the studio. When he does pop out, he looks much older than his 26 years would imply, and it's usually to ask about paper towels – something that's becoming a sore spot around here. Anyway, there's music in the game. Music! For the first time, the compositions are being dropped into the missions and the difference is astonishing. A previously exciting and fun mission now takes on mysterious overtones as the music foreshadows events that are about to happen, or suddenly kicks into overdrive when the crap hits the fan. Before joining Bungie, I was a huge fan of the Halo music – not just the actual melodies, but the way they integrated with the pacing and the drama. I have to say, I'm a bigger fan now. Although there are some familiar cues (as with any good movie sequel) there's an awful lot of completely new music here, some of it associated with new characters, some with new environments, but all of it perfectly suited to what's going on. But lord knows, the last thing Marty needs is unqualified praise, so maybe I should point out something mean to even it out. Hmmm. Yeah, where's the Halo 2 ringtone Marty? Get on the stick you lazy communist. One last thing - A big shout out to the Fable team this week, as their game shipped to manufacture, and the first reviews started rolling in. It's getting great scores, and, speaking personally as somebody who never likes RPGs, I am loving it. Lots of action, and lots to explore, which is the way I like all my games. And one last thing. We're going to be at PAX – the Penny Arcade expo on Sunday, so keep an eye out for us there, and make sure you have a great time, it looks like they've got a lot of cool stuff lined up.