Few fictional weapons can drum up their own cult following. The cadence and rat-tat-tat ruthlessness of Halo's Battle Rifle is unmistakable no matter which side of the barrel you're on. It's a death sentence in the right hands, punctuated by an ellipsis of bullets ... and painfully described in overwrought, armament love letters built on phrases like "ellipsis of bullets." As far as iconic Halo bits and pieces go, the Battle Rifle seems almost as inextricable as Master Chief.
And yet the cyborg with humanity at heart skipped enough games for Microsoft to make a big deal out of his return in Halo 4. The new (ish) franchise custodians at 343 Industries are in a tight spot, where they have to shape a message not only around what's new, but what's coming back. The Battle Rifle's return is an easy way to establish the latter, then, especially to those fans who couldn't wrap their heads around the weapon's disappearance in the first place.
Speaking to Joystiq in an interview last year, former Bungie game designer Jaime Griesemer saw the weapon as a piece of deadly nostalgia. "It's not just a weapon, it's the weapon," he said. "For a skilled player, they spend most of their time using that one weapon. If you never miss, it's the most effective tool in the toolbox. So for them, Halo 3 is the Battle Rifle. All their Halo emotion and experience is tied up in it. So it isn't surprising to me when people react that way."
How daunting must it be to work in a space where a video game gun can reach beloved status? It's no wonder Microsoft is being sensitive and cryptic about Halo 4, which introduces what could be the biggest, most widespread (and controversial) change to the multiplayer in years. According to 343, Halo 4 will add customizable loadouts and abilities that are unlocked through a progression system.
I wish I could comment more on how that affects Halo's stable, accessible playing field, but important details are hard to come by at this stage. I can tell you health packs are out, that there's still no dual-wielding, and that over 200 developers are working on the game, building a new campaign and sophisticated multiplayer maps that aren't broken out of single-player scenes.
"Wraparound," one of two multiplayer maps that Microsoft has shown to press, exhibits sophisticated lighting and shiny, sparse hallways inside a forerunner shield world. The second locale, "Warhouse," is centered around a mech construction facility rife with catwalks and ramps (think: Sword Base).
Between these familiar scenes are promises of the new, like a "dark and ancient" foil for Master Chief, and a deeper exploration of the stoic half-protagonist, half-tank. But when I ask 343 if, say, sprinting is standard or still relegated to an optional ability, it's flagged as another game detail to be dripped out at an agonizing rate by the marketing machine. All I hear is, "Sorry, we can't talk about that right now."
For now, we talk about the trusty Battle Rifle, which is a good, reassuring component that worked well before. It shows 343 gets it, and that the development might just be populated by the kind of people who agonize over firing rhythm and making sure your trigger finger doesn't get bored between shots. They've established what Halo is, and now's the time to show us what it isn't, and what it could become.