What We Know: Halo: Reach is inbound on a crash-course with nearly every Xbox 360 on the planet, and in nearly two weeks it's going to be tearing up the sales charts and burning up your free time. You play through the game as Noble 6, the newest member of Noble Team tasked with running special ops for the UNSC. The game is set during the fall of the Planet Reach, a key moment in Halo history that sets into motion the events of Halo: Combat Evolved.
What We're Seeing Now: Well, we're seeing quite a bit, as we've been able to play through the entire campaign, play around in Forge World, and skirmish in some multiplayer matches and take the updated Firefight through some paces. We'll have multiplayer and Forge World details tomorrow, but for now we're only allowed to discuss two of the campaign levels with you. Trust me, I'd go on for pages about the whole game if I could. Look for that (and I'll try to be concise) in a review closer to launch.
The campaign in Halo: Reach is set against the ever present, ticking clock of the the Fall of Reach. Which of course, is no secret. In the beginning of Halo: Combat Evolved, you discover that Master Chief is one of the last surviving Spartans following Reach. That means every time a date flashes on screen, you're inching closer to Very Bad Things. Through the campaign, you'll both witness and take part in these bad things, and the two levels we're talking about here, "Nightfall" and "Tip of the Spear," are both key.
In "Nightfall," you're alongside fellow Noble Team member Noble Three, or Jun-A266, known for his extraordinary sniping skills. You're dropped into nighttime, and you're meant to stealth your way through this level a bit, so activating the Night Vision on your helmet (thumb left on the D-Pad) is a very good idea. It presents everything in a greenish, grainy tinge, but pierces the immediate darkness like a plasma pistol through butter.
You'll notice a more than coincidental similarity between this level and the "Truth and Reconciliation" level in the original Halo, which was an intentional decision on behalf of the design team. However, what that original level didn't have were enormous, tusked beasts indigenous to Reach roaming around. These are Gueta, and they are nasty. While not the smartest creatures, they'll charge you and do significant damage if you get too close. Of course, like nearly everything else in the game, they can be killed ... or you can try your luck at sneaking past them.
Moving ahead, you'll dispatch Elites and grunts along with Jun, and eventually come to a Pump Station being defended by local militia. You'll need to protect them, using the structures as both cover and as climbing blocks for getting a bead on the approaching baddies. If you played the Halo: Reach beta map "Powerhouse," you will find that this portion of the level looks very, very familiar. As you're only accompanied by one other Spartan in this level (albeit a master marksman), things can get a bit hairy. Luckily, you'll find both the Drop Shield and the Hologram armor abilities, which give you some breathing room.
Of course, with most levels in this game, it's not just that simple. Objectives change on the fly, and you'll have to cover Jun while he plants a charge on a pylon in the area, and that becomes a bit tougher when you're attacked by cloaked Elites and a pair of Hunters. Keeping the heat off of Jun so he can complete his task is a bit easier if some of the militia are still around, and protecting him adequately for a certain amount of time propels you further into ...
"Tip of the Spear," where you're part of a massive UNSC invasion force: Scorpions, Pelicans, Falcons, and Warthogs are all leading a charge forward. You're in a Warty with Kat, which unfortunately crashes and burns, leaving you on foot until you can pick up another ride. You'll encounter the "Rocket Hog" (as Bungie calls it) in this level, armed with twin-mounted M79-MLRS Rocket Launchers and the Covenant Revenant, a smaller version of the Wraith that fires a slow-to-recharge mortar at enemies, and has slots for side-mounted passengers.
This actually highlights one of the worst things about Halo: Reach, which is the fact that the A.I. just cannot drive. If there is the slightest bit of debris in your path, your friendly driver will take every possible left-hand or right-hand turn to avoid it. This can result in delays so long that you'll need to consider leaving the controller behind to go make a sandwich. Seriously, they suck. Which is unfortunate, since your only chance to hop behind the turret in a Warty will be by letting Kat drive, and she really needs a license reevaluation test.
Thankfully, the Falcon pilot fares a lot better, probably because there isn't much to run into or avoid in the sky. You're turret-mounted in one of these for a portion of this level, although it's definitely not long enough. You'll wish that Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" was blasting from inside as you rain down death on the Covenant below. But there's a bit of a problem in the form of a gigantic Covenant power shield that obscures a huge chunk of the area, and it's powered by a large Spire in the center. Remember those force fields the Gungans could generate in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? It's like that, but on a massive scale.
Your Falcon makes the poor decision to fly through the shield, which results in your ride turning into a plummeting scrap of metal. Of course, that means your next mission is to take out the Spire, and with it, the shield. Thankfully there's a large gravity lift in the middle of the thing, making ascension a lot easier. This tips the next domino in the chain, and leads into the next level with a spectacular cutscene, and in the effort of keeping things (mostly) spoiler-free, you'll have to wait until you're gunning your way through this to see how it turns out.
Our recommendation? Play this on co-op, and make things a bit easier on yourself. Make no mistake, the A.I. in Halo: Reach is definitely improved, and that means enemies who are smart enough to avoid your attacks, and constantly move so they aren't sitting ducks for sniper fire. Noble Team is smart as well, and more than once we were saved by a well-timed sniper shot from Jun, or noticed Kat activating her Armor Lock ability to protect herself from a nearby grenade. It's just that the driving really is that painful.
But that's really our only nitpick. This game is immersive fun, and we hope this preview has you ready for more. Check back soon for our writeup from inside Forge World, and how we fared in some multiplayer matchups, and if we held our own in Firefight.