The coolest part of Halo 2 never made it into Halo 2. If you’re at all a fan of the series, you know exactly what I’m talking about: the “Earthcity” demo, shown off during Microsoft’s E3 presentation in 2003. That level never made it into the full release of Halo 2, but nearly two decades later, a playable build is in the works, 343 Industries announced today in a blog post.
Just to give you a sense of how earth-shatteringly cool this is, here’s my real-time reaction upon learning the news, copied directly from Kotaku’s Slack channel:
no fucking way
my face fell onto my keyboard
In the cold light of today’s fidelity arms race, you might not get this impression looking at the clip’s lo-fi visuals, but it’s hard to overstate just how spine-tingling Halo 2’s E3 2003 demo was. Two years prior, Halo: Combat Evolved—and this almost goes without saying—redefined the first-person shooter. But that game was set entirely off-planet, on a ringworld called Halo. The “Earthcity” demo showed a look at a broader Halo canon—the primordial ooze for a sci-fi universe that’s spanned decades of games, spinoffs, comics, novels, a canceled film, and a recently renewed TV series.
The general scenario of “Earthcity”—a human metropolis is getting attacked, you’ve gotta protect it—is more or less replicated during the second and third levels of Halo 2. And certain gameplay elements the demo shows off, like the ability to wield two weapons at once, were also included in the full game. But the plot details diverged. Near the demo’s end, Master Chief boards a ghost, a typical ground vehicle of the covenant, Halo’s primary antagonistic force. He tears it full speed down a highway. He crashes, and then the demo pivots from real-time gameplay (eye-poppingly impressive for the time) to a pre-rendered cinematic. A number of covenant drop pods fall from orbit, elites wielding energy swords emerge and surround Chief. He pulls out a plasma grenade.
“Betcha can’t stick it,” Cortana, Chief’s AI companion, says.
“You’re on,” he says.
In Halo: Combat Evolved, elites with energy swords were arguably the toughest enemy unit. Facing one or two was usually tough enough. But seven? In close quarters? The demo couldn’t have ended on a more precipitous cliffhanger. As a player, you knew how much danger Chief was in—and you needed to know how he, how you, would fight your way out of it.
Though there’s no release date, 343 Industries is planning on making the stage playable in PC versions of “modern retail Halo 2.” (Halo 2 was released as a remastered version in 2014, which is also included as part of Halo: The Master Chief Collection.) The chance of it being playable on console is totally up in the air, in part due to the high technical hurdles for this endeavor.
“We originally didn’t have a lot of assets lying around for the map from previous analysis of leaked builds and the like,” General_101, a modder working with 343 on this project, wrote. “Just the source JMS files for the BSP and a few scenery objects. However, once the source map files turned up it was only a matter of time before we had all the data we needed.”
Beyond Halo 2’s E3 2003 demo, 343 is working with modders to add a ton of cut content to Halo: Master Chief Collection. For longtime Halo fans, there’s a ton of other fascinating stuff in the pipe, including the original elite models and a number of other renderings that never made the final cut. You can read it all here.