One aspect of Halo 2 did blow everyone away: multiplayer matches over the Internet. No console game had yet mastered online play. And Bungie worked closely with the engineers at Microsoft's Xbox Live service to make signing on point-and-click simple. In minutes, Halo 2 players could join a quick game of "death match" — kill others before they kill you — or assemble teams for rollicking bouts of capture the flag. Better yet, players were automatically paired with others at the same skill level, ensuring that they wouldn't be instantly slaughtered by crazily adept 12-year-olds in Texas.
Fans swarmed online. Halo 2 became a system seller again: Of the 6 million people who have signed up for Xbox Live, fully two-thirds of them joined to play Halo. Redmond was ecstatic. Online gaming had long been considered a vital next step for console makers and, thanks to Bungie, Microsoft got there first.
As I peer over his shoulder at the computer screen, Tom Doyle prepares to show off his new gun. Holding an Xbox controller, he walks Master Chief over to a menacing, garbage-can-sized weapon and cradles it in both arms. Doyle spins the in-game camera around, so that we're staring right down the barrel, and fires. A stream of white-blue plasma pours out. This is the Plasma Turret — a powerful alien weapon debuting in Halo 3 that can blast through your shield in about two seconds. Doyle designed it.
"A lot of the energy weapons in Halo 2 felt frail, like pyoo-pyoo-pyoo Buck Rogers lasers" he says. It made people not want to pick them up and use them. "This feels more deadly. You can almost feel the heat of the weapon, the ignited plasma beams." He chuckles. "You know this thing is gonna kill."
Bungie is determined not to repeat the mistakes of Halo 2. This time it wants to make the single-player game perfect. To this end, it has committed to a two-step process: First dream up the new weapons, levels, and situations. Then monitor hundreds of people as they play the hell out of them in Pagulayan's lab.
There are a few things to fix right away. One of Bungie's central goals is to restore the "golden tripod" of play. Working with Doyle and the other weapons artists, gameplay chief Griesemer tweaked the guns — for example, reducing the amount of ammo many carried — so that wielding two at a time won't always be the most effective way to dispatch an enemy. He then boosted the power of grenades and the "melee" punching attacks. Battles, he hopes, will once again become the sort of lightning-fast chess matches they were in the original Halo, requiring constant, on-the-fly decisions about which method of attack to use.