One last Oorah
Of all the things I never thought I'd see in a Halo game, giant space ostriches would be right at the top, but that's exactly what came hot-footing its way towards us as we watched Bungie's Brian Jarrard demo the first level of Halo: Reach's Campaign to a bunker full of games journalists in subterranean central London.
The saga continues
Home to Winston Churchill's World War II Cabinet, the Churchill War Rooms was the perfect place to put Bungie's interstellar war saga through its paces and get our heads around all the new features – including those giant bipedal birds.
The Covenant are on Reach: It's the beginning of the end.
The Reach Campaign kicks off with you taking on the role of a new Spartan – yep, like the Master Chief (except these guys take their helmets off – MC probably hasn't cleaned his teeth in years...) – joining Noble Team, and in much the same vein as The Rookie in last year's Halo 3: ODST, you're swiftly thrown into the thick of things on the planet's surface as the squad set off to investigate a communication blackout from a far-off comms tower.
What they find there – after an epic plane ride offering James Cameron's Avatar-style sweeping vistas – is something straight out of their worst nightmares. The Covenant are on Reach: It's the beginning of the end.
The ensuing action was typical Halo - all vast, open-plan battlefields, roving vehicle combat and nip-dodging aliens spewing plasma - but looked better than ever thanks to Reach's improved graphics engine. Weapons included in the recent Halo Reach multiplayer Beta made an appearance - including the ultra-satisfying BR upgrade, the DMR - but the much-vaunted Armour Powers that let us all fly, shield-up, turn invisible or sprint a few months ago seem like they'll be to be drip-fed over the course of the story game if this first level was anything to go by; At this early stage, Spartan #6 was only able to employ the latter.
By the end of the Campaign demo – the highlight of which saw those aforementioned ostriches running alongside the Spartan's makeshift Warthog (one of them packing a chaingun, standing at the back of a rusted pickup) like something out of Jurassic Park – we were dying to get our hands on the game ourselves. However, our latest playtest was not to be with the story mode, but instead the beloved multiplayer, including the much-talked-about Firefight Mode.
It's typical Halo – all vast, open-plan battlefields, roving vehicle combat and nip-dodging aliens spewing plasma.
First introduced in ODST as a friends-only gametype, Firefight will be coming to Reach with full multiplayer Matchmaking integration – so even if your friends aren't online, you'll be able to fend of waves of Covenant alongside three strangers.
That should make for a much more robust, enjoyable and life-draining offering, and that idea was backed up by our playtest, which saw a number of new modes. The most instantly appealing included a Friefight variant of the Beta's Generator Defence mode, 'Gruntpocalypse', in which the enemies consisted entirely of those loveable (or irksome, depending on your opinion) Grunts, and Rocketfight; everyone starting with rocket launchers and infinite ammo. (Can you say 'Overkill'?).
Red Vs Blue done anew
The highlight though ended up being the all-new Vs mode, where two players control Spartans and seek to score as much as possible, while two rivals play as Elites, backed up by a horde of smaller Covenant. When the Spartans lose all of their lives or run out of time, the roles reverse - the objective being to score as many points as possible as the Spartans. It was good fun, especially battling against the odds as the human super soldiers, and a great way to demonstrate the lengths Bungie have gone to to differentiate the playability of the two warring factions.
Reach's Forge World will let players build entire maps with a dizzying, but easy-to-implement set of tools, rules and building blocks.
In terms of maps, five small-to-medium ones were shown for Firefight, with only Overlook familiar from the Beta. We spent the most time on Waterfront; a circular courtyard with small shacks surrounding an open middle, which made it perfect for the pot-shot-and-retreat tactics needed to survive as a Spartan in Vs mode. Outpost, meanwhile, evoked Halo 3's Standoff map by way of Halo 2's Burial Mounds – an open-plan deep orange expanse, with giant Covenant guns and hilly terrain. It was here that we got to witness Halo: Reach's version of the Hammer of Dawn from gears of War; a teammate painting a laser target on the ground and explosive fury raining down from the heavens.
Several epic wins (and losses) later and it was time for some 16-player Big Team Battle on the Reach Beta's Boneyard map. Not too much new to report here for anyone who played the Beta, with one exception – the new Hologram Armour Ability was usable, leading to players running after and wasting ammo on decoy versions of their enemies, then getting sneaked up on and assassinated for their troubles. Mortifying when it happens to you; hilarious when it's you on the offensive!
All of which just leaves Forge World to talk about. The evolution of Halo 3's map editor Forge, Reach's Forge World will let players create and share entire maps with a dizzying, but easy-to-implement set of tools, rules and building blocks – all in an absolutely enormous and gorgeous environment set on a Halo Ring, containing cliffaces, hangars, waterfalls, islands and even a canyon based on Halo 1's classic multiplayer arena Blood Gulch.
Don't take our word for it, though; try Youtubing 'Halo: Reach ViDoc - Forge World', then head on over to our Halo Reach multiformat page to see the latest Campaign trailer. This is how Halo ends; and it's going out with one hell of a bang.