343 is trying to revive Halo 2's infamous 'Earth City' E3 demo

Halo 2 cover art
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Halo has taken many forms throughout the years, and left scraps of those development paths going all the way back to when it was supposed to be an RTS on Mac. This week, Halo caretaker 343 Industries announced a massive project to pick up those scraps, working with modders to bring cut content back into The Master Chief Collection.

In a beefy blog post titled Cutting Room Floor, 343 revealed that a secret "Digsite" project has been working on not only collating cut content, but fixing up half-finished assets to make them work within the current Halo MCC entries. Working with modders like General_101, Con, Num0005, Scruffy, Sean T, Ludus, and Zeddikins, 343 has split Digsite into two teams—Digsite Alpha for pre-release Halo: Combat Evolved content, and Digsite Delta for Halo 2 development scraps.

Between the two, the cut content includes scrapped Halo 1 vehicles like the Spectre and Kestrel; old Master Chief models from the game's RTS roots; previously-unseen NPCs, levels and weapons; and a teeny tiny Warthog called the "Piglet". But it also plans on making a notorious part of franchise history, Halo 2's famously impractical "Earth City" E3 2003 demo, playable for the first time ever.

If you're old enough to remember Halo 2's stunning gameplay debut, you'll mind that it sported some then-cutting edge lighting techniques that never made it to the final game. A 2018 Digital Foundry video dove into how exactly the Earth City was accomplished, but in short, Bungie used a whole load of smoke and mirrors to achieve effects in the demo that turned out impossible to expand into a full game. 

I can confirm we are working on a rebuild of the original E3 Earthcity scenario that makes it playable in modern retail Halo 2," explained senior franchise writer Kenneth Peters .

"This was NOT a trivial process, and we should probably layer on a whole page of caveats that come with taking a demo map for an engine that no longer exists and getting it to not blow up the current lightmapper (among other issues that come from letting people go into areas that were never intended to be seen)"

343 is also working on remaking another cut Halo 2 mission dubbed Alphamoon, and while campaign levels are "several orders of magnitude more work" to rebuild than multiplayer arenas, the team has found early success in that Arbiter-fronted campaign level. But Earth City was never really meant to be played beyond a heavily-scripted marketing demo.

"In many ways this is harder than Alphamoon to work on, as it was never made to be played 'off script.' Oh, and the scripts. Well over 3400 lines of barely documented haloscript originally written under an insane time crunch almost two decades ago, which itself was made to work around various bugs of the engine at that time. Not a joy to decipher and translate into the modern engine, to say the least."

A shot of Halo 2 covered in debug text

(Image credit: 343 Industries)

More successful are 343's attempts to bring assets from Halo's 1999 Macworld demo into Combat Evolved, with several weapons, vehicles, NPCs and even ambient wildlife coming close to being ready for release. 

The goal with this content isn't to start dropping cut content into the standard MCC campaign set. Rather, 343 wants to get these assets polished up and added to the collection's files so that modders can add them to their own projects. The collection now offers official mod tools for Halos 1 through 3, and while major seasonal updates may have ceased, it's extremely cool to see 343 not only support modding, but actively work to give modders access to more assets from the series' archives.

This story has been updated to include the names of modders working alongside 343 on Digsite.

Natalie Clayton
Features Producer

20 years ago, Nat played Jet Set Radio Future for the first time, and she's not stopped thinking about games since. Joining PC Gamer in 2020, she comes from three years of freelance reporting at Rock Paper Shotgun, Waypoint, VG247 and more. Embedded in the European indie scene and a part-time game developer herself, Nat is always looking for a new curiosity to scream about—whether it's the next best indie darling, or simply someone modding a Scotmid into Black Mesa. She also unofficially appears in Apex Legends under the pseudonym Horizon.