In the opening shot of the new 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, the new game tells the story of a crucial 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 leaving threads open for sequels, as every previous Halo has done. But Reach, which comes out Tuesday, 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 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 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.
Keeping Halo healthy is crucial 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 a 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 the 1980s, including the Super Mario Bros. and Zelda.
Like most publishers in the 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 working as art director on the first three installments, Lehto began leading a team of five people — which eventually swelled to 130 — three years ago to work on Reach.
The core principles, he said, were the same as on previous entries, but the least appreciated element of Halo's success is its story.
"It's so important that these games have a heart and soul, and players see that there's more to this universe than the war going on in front of them," he said.