Way back at E3 in June, 343 Industries promised they would divulge a bit more info on just-announced Halo 4 during this year’s PAX Prime/HaloFest, and they did just that.

At this weekend’s long-awaited Halo 4 panel, 343i confirmed that their new Halo saga kicking off in holiday 2012 (which will begin, but may or may not finish on Xbox 360), will be known as The Reclaimer Trilogy — this is a focus on Master Chief, Spartan 117.

“Halo 4 is a direct continuation in a way of the events of Halo 3. … it will deal with the fate of John and Cortana. There’s a lot of speculation about Cortana’s mindstate. There’s a lot of relationship between those two characters. Character is something we’re focusing on very strongly this time. Halo to me has always been about enigma and exploration and wonderment and scale. You’ve already seen a little bit of the artwork, and it gives the sense of incredible grandeur and scope. To me the story has that scope and that grandeur, too. Having three years to think about the story and plan it, and to commit to a trilogy right from the start, is a luxury even Bungie didn’t have with Halo 1,” said franchise development director, and former Bungie staffer Frank O’Connor.

“A lot of what this trilogy is going to focus on is exploring the character of Master Chief and what it means to bring him back, and really getting a little bit closer to that character than we’ve ever experienced before in any of the past games. There’s a lot of depth to John that exists primarily in a lot of the other fiction we felt we wanted to explore more deeply and lay a journey for him that would transform and evolve him as a character and a man,” creative director Josh Holmes added.

The new title, and indeed the trilogy, will take players to yet-to-be-named world(s) with a heavily Forerunner-inspired design, and there won’t just be “abandoned structures” like we’ve come to adventure through over the past games.

You’ve lived with inert, static Forerunner abandoned structures. It’s going to be really interesting to see a different aspect of Forerunner engineering and Forerunner architecture when it’s not completely inert and dead and empty,” commented O’Connor.

Ken Scott, senior art director says the team is “investing heavily in the look and feel of Forerunner. The thing that connected people initially way back in the first Halo experience is that mystery; that’s where a lot of our pressure on the art team is going right now. We want the player to feel that initial experience of discovery.”

Speaking on the actual gameplay, which was ever-so-briefly mentioned, Holmes said, “It plays like Halo.” He was quick to reiterate what O’Connor has explained before, and that is 343i are taking what Bungie established, and running with it in new directions. Expect experiments, tweaks, and evolutions on familiar mechanics, as well as all-new features.

It was important for us to have the courage to take risks and evolve the gameplay feel so it is fresh and different. It’s this constant question of balance for us we’ve wrestled with since the beginning as a team. How do we maintain both what is the core of Halo, making sure it feels like Halo, while at the same time adding new weapons, new abilities, new experiences you’ve never had before in a Halo game?

This included things like “maintaining that commitment to the sandbox nature of Halo gameplay,” and “empowering players to make choices in how they approach each problem, instead of giving them only one solution.

You will see things that are familiar from past games but also things that are new,” O’Connor noted. “When you’re building a sequel to a game you have to add things, evolve things and change things up. One thing that’s important about the Halo universe is it’s a really big universe, and you’ve seen a palette of things. As we think about things we’re adding to the game, we’re looking not just to the past or investing in future stuff, we’re saying, what other stuff would the UNSC use? What other stuff does humanity have access to?

A tricky particular for Halo 4 is it takes place post the discovery of Forerunner technology. So we’ve been beaten back and beaten back and beaten back by the Covenant and haven’t had the time or the luxury to invest in research. Well, Karen Traviss’ novel Halo: Glasslands is going to touch on how the human race, when it’s not being rocked back on its heels, is actually a fairly formidable force. Given time and given the scientific curiosity we have as a species, all of this stuff is going to be really interesting in terms of how we can advance our technology. But the UNSC stuff will still be gritty and war-like and very human. But there’s lots more to come.”

The team also addressed the design of Master Chief’s new armor, seen in the CGI trailer from E3, which has already been confirmed to have received enhancements. The look is not final, and 343 has gone through at least 4 iterations; what will ship in the final version hasn’t yet been decided upon.

The Chief you saw in the teaser is not the final Chief. We understand how important Chief is to this universe and the people who play him. We’re probably on iteration number four right now.  … The focus for him specifically was wanting the player to feel like him, sell that fantasy of, I’m a bio-engineered superhero wearing 800 pounds of tank and jet fighter. Hopefully once we cross the finish line and you are playing it, that will read to you.”

But all of that was for the campaign; what about the multiplayer?

You look at the Halo community, it’s such a diverse community. There are so many different perspectives people bring to the experience. It was really important to us as a team to try to represent all of those perspectives and play styles and make sure we’re striking the right balance between them, and giving different players a different experience depending on what they’re looking for,” said Holmes.

Further, Forge mode will be returning as “a big part of what we do in Halo 4“, and “co-op is a big part of the Halo experience and something we think about throughout the crafting of our campaign,” Holmes interjected. “As our mission designers are building the campaign experience it’s always top of mind.

Whether a public beta is made available hasn’t yet been confirmed (ten bucks says there will be, and probably around next summer), but there “definitely will not be” an invitation to one with this November’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, as rumored online recently.

As for when we’ll see/hear more about Halo 4, that was left up in the air. No doubt next E3 will be all about Xbox 360’s star player, but if past games have established any reliable marketing timeline, it’s likely we’ll be getting details and early images way before that.

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