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Halo: Where does Master Chief go next?

343 talks about the future of Halo...

It's a bit like Master Chief throwing his Assault Rifle at a wet-behind-the-ears teen recruit and barking an order at him to go finish the fight. The power wielded by 343 Industries, the new Microsoft internal studio responsible for all things Halo, is frightening.

Few start-ups are given as much power right off the bat - and surely none are handed the keys to the world's biggest single-format franchise inside the first minute. After Bungie skipped off into the sunset to start a new life at Activision, Microsoft set about securing the future of their most prized asset.

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Creatively Directed by ex-Bungie big man Frank O'Connor and installed as custodians of the entire brand, not just future gaming instalments, 343's creative impresario revealed this month that the studio atmosphere is "a cool blend of start-up mentality, epic responsibility, dizzying excitement, and pants-filling terror."

Based at Microsoft HQ in Redmond, a glance at the 343's recruitment section reveals - a full two years after their creation - that they remain in full hiring mode, hunting down Lead Software Development Engineers, Technical Artists and Multiplayer Designers alike. And even though 343 are literally based a few blocks down from Bungie, there haven't been the expected raft of defections either.

"Honestly, I think we've had, like, a handful of people to date move over," says Bungie's Community Director Brian Jarrard. Nevertheless, there is some impressive headhunting going on: Gearbox engine boffin Corrinne Yu - the "female John Carmack" - has swapped Texas for Washington, as has Kojima Production's Ryan Payton, who worked on MGS4. If O'Connor is Chuck Norris, then this would be his Delta Force.

JOHN BON JOVIAL
The big question, then: what's next on the game front? O'Connor is on record as acknowledging 343 would "be the world's biggest assholes not to follow through (with Halo 4)", and that "we certainly haven't seen the last of Master Chief." Seeing as John-117 remains Microsoft's biggest anti-PS3 weapon, that his adventures will continue is the mother of all no-brainers.

Recent rumours have suggested a Halo HD remake using the Reach engine, which would make sense for a couple of reasons: one, it would be low cost and low risk, allowing 343 to bond quickly and efficiently with a cautious Halo community still mourning Bungie; and two, it would tie in with Combat Evolved's ten-year anniversary.

Or are Microsoft thinking bigger? Remember, Reach made $200 million on day one, propelling Halo into the realms of a billion-dollar franchise, and a remake, while fan-pleasing, may fail to bridge the gap to casual consumer cash. But even if CE HD ends up being a reality, one thing is certain: Halo 4 is being worked on, and it is on its way - financially, Microsoft won't want an autumn 2012 without the franchise.

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We know what isn't happening, at least, with O'Connor confirming that 343 are "not working on any side stories as games at the moment," meaning no return to ODST or Halo Wars. And depending upon how much you want to read into things, when asked what Master Chief's 2011 was looking like this month, O'Connor told us: "I imagine he will be chilling. Literally."

Does that mean the big man is suspended in cryo for now? It goes against whispers we've been hearing for a while, which is that, at E3 in June, there'll be a huge Halo announcement - and that Master Chief will be front and centre of it. But 343's remit doesn't just include games.

One of Halo's biggest triumphs revolves around its shattering of traditional cross-media boundaries, with Microsoft delivering a near-flawless blueprint in how to nurture an IP. Realising that Bungie had crafted a universe that legions of gamers had fallen in love with, they quickly started banging out books, comics and figures - with a movie still in the pipeline.

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