Halo Reach, Reaches For the StarsS

We see a desert plain, distant mountains and a sky so light blue it's almost white.

The ground too fades to white, from a dusty light brown.

In the distance there are mountains and what appears to be mining equipment.

Everything we see is real terrain. That means if you drive, walk or fly long enough you'll actually get there. No painted backdrops here.

The camera swivels to reveal a ramshackle base tucked into the scrub and twisted trees of the mountains. Absent are the blues and purples that came to be as much a crutch as an identifying color for the Halo trilogy.

But this isn't meant to be part of that trilogy, this is Bungie's Halo swan song, a way for the developer that created and nurtured the Halo franchise for nearly ten years to go out with a bang.

Or that's what Brian Jarrard, Bungie's community director tells me a few hours after I sit in on one of their demonstrations for the upcoming Xbox 360 shooter Halo Reach.

Their goal is fairly straight forward, he says.

"Let's end it with an exclamation point," he said, speaking of Bungie's involvement with Halo. "Let's leave our mark on this game.

"This is our last installment, where it goes from here it won't be up to us, but we will be really proud where we left it."

And, visually at least, it looks like Bungie is headed in the right direction.

Marcus Lehto, Bungie's creative director, tells me that the team started work on Reach as soon as they finished Halo 3, leaving a small team to work on Halo ODST. The larger team went back and examined the trilogy, pulled out all of the things that made it good and then worked on making them better for Reach.

They started by gutting the engine that drives the game's graphics.

"We used the Halo 3 engine as a spring board," Lehto says. "We essentially gutted the engine to rebuild every facet of it in order to accommodate this crazy huge vision we had for Reach."

My first real-time glimpse of Reach is impressive. Those distant, but reachable mountains. An attention to detail that gives the game more of a real world heft than the cartoonish quality of so much Sci-Fi fare.

The section of the map we are viewing is called Powerhouse, it's a multiplayer map, but as with all of Reach's multiplayer maps, it will fit contextually in with the single player campaign. When you run through this map on your own, in the game, it will be night. That's unfortunate, because you'll probably miss all of those desert flowers, and maybe you won't notice the quality of the water running through the camp or the dam that checks its flow.

"Water features take a prominent role in many of the campaign spaces as well as much of the multiplayer," Lehto says. "We're definitely playing a lot with water, making that behave physically, realistically within each one of the maps."

That also means atmosphere and dynamic weather, he said.

Reach won't have a Master Chief, this isn't his game, but it will have Spartans. Which only makes sense, since in the mythology of Halo, the Spartan program started on the planet Reach.

In the game, which Jarrard says will feature the dark story of "heroism, honor and sacrifice" that surrounds the fall of the planet to the Covenant aliens, gamers will play as the most recent addition to Noble Team, a group of five Spartans. You will be the sixth.

The Spartan shown in Powerhouse wears dented and scratched armor. The weapon in the Spartan's hands is minutely detailed with textures and moving pieces. The name of the weapon is spelled out across the gun in tiny letters. A second weapon is strapped to the Spartan's leg.

The sound of the weapons, when finally fired, is also greatly improved, they thump with each trigger pull, projectiles whining and ricocheting. Dirt pops into the air in tiny clouds as the weapon fires into the ground.

There are health packs again, which the Spartan finds attached to a wall, to encourage more exploration.

This time around some of the equipment found by Spartans can be reused, Jarrard says. He shows us one that allows you to sprint, depleting a sprint meter as you run.

While the live demonstration doesn't give us a chance to see the enemy Covenant in action, Jarrard says they too have gotten an overhaul.

"We wanted to give them a fresh new look," he says. "Make them feel like they are something we've never seen before."

The idea is to make the aliens more alien. No more talking English or sometimes providing almost comic relief in engagements.

Facial animations, we're told, are being captured for the first time in the franchise's history. The result is a face with a couple million polygons.

Last week's short presentation, taken up mostly by a canned video released later that week on Bungie's site, was meant to be a sort of gaming bouche amuse. There wasn't really any substance, but the folks at Bungie seem to think that what they're holding back will blow us all away.

"Reach, it is a three year project for us, it's Bungie's most ambitious game," Jarrard said. "I think it's going to be a big deal. I think fans are ready for the next big true Halo experience... I expect Reach will be back to that phenomenon level we saw with Halo 3, hopefully more so."