Microsoft let me play a finished copy of Halo Reach on one of their Xbox 360s today. They even let me save my progress to my Gamertag.* I can talk about two missions, but I don't want to spoil things.
But, sorry… I can only be so vague. I will give away nothing of the plot but mention some skirmishes and some new weapons, abilities and vehicles. Deal with it, mighty Spartans. You're about to be bombarded with Halo Reach details from the Xbox 360's marketing machine anyway.
Beyond the opening missions, I can tell you what I experienced with my lady Spartan, the fierce fighter Noble 6, my Halo Reach heroine. (You can play as a male Noble 6, but that's so Master Chief. I've done that.)
The first mission Microsoft's people will let me discuss is Nightfall, which is the third or fourth mission in the game, depending on how you're counting. We're on the planet Reach, which, having played all the games but not read any of the novels, I will bravely say feels like any other piece of Halo game terrain. We've got orange rocky places to climb that could be in the American southwest. We've got beautiful valleys and vistas, huge skies and building complexes made of metal. Nightfall occurs at night and begins with Noble 6 armed with a sniper rifle and allied with one of the several Spartans on your team for this game. Ostensibly, the mission is stealth. I know this because my first enemy in the mission had his back to me. A character in the game whispered a suggestion that I knock him out. After that, you're soon in the thick of classic Halo combat.
For much of Nightfall, Reach feels like pure Halo, finely tweaked. You arrive at a blasted base, size up the points from where the enemy might rush, observe the elevations from where you might shoot, notice the cover and begin the juggle of shooting, jumping, grenade-tossing and in-their-face melee. I was playing on the recommended difficulty, Heroic, and the rhythm of the game was as fun and unpredictable as ever. The enemies are canny and, that Spartan ally aside, you're still pretty capable fighting as a one-woman Master Chief.
One of the Reach changes is that you sometimes fight alongside a bunch of other characters. In Nightfall you arrive at a pumping station where you encounter a militia, a group of weapons-smuggling men who will fight alongside you. You'll see the names of ally characters in the lower left of your screen. I noticed up to four slots for tag-along characters, all of whom are both helpful and potential cannon fodder. In a later mission I had named UNSC soldiers fighting with me. You add these people by running past them in missions. If there's an Achievement for keeping these kinds of people alive, I won't win it. I never kept them breathing for long, but their presence is helpful — let them get swatted by the Hunters while I pick my shots from afar! These add-on troops supplement the presence of whichever Spartan fights with you. The Spartans are better warriors and will flank and assist as you need them to, though there are no squad commands. From what I could tell, your Spartan ally is invincible. They won't die and cause a mission failure.
You may sometimes fight like a solo warrior in the Halo Reach missions I played, but the game is constantly showing you that you're not alone. That's a distinction for Reach, which approaches the scale of the real-time strategy game Halo Wars in providing the sensation that there is a lot of action happening all around, lots of fighting forces on all sides (Plus animals! The Reach version of the ostrich is too stupid to flee a firefight.)
Halo 3 introduced equipment to the Halo gameplay mix, letting players throw down bubble shields, drop jump pads and so on. People who tried the Reach beta this spring were exposed to the new game's expansion of that system, the armor abilities. In multiplayer, players choose a loadout that will grant them a special ability mapped to their left shoulder button — sprinting or a jetpack, for example. Each skill needs to recharge before it can be used again. In the campaign, you begin your mission with one piece of equipment but can swap them when you find crates that contain others. I was surprised to discover that my favorites were the beta's recharge move — which helps a solo player like me trigger a brief frozen moment of invincibility so that my shields build back up — and hologram — which lets me trigger a waypoint and send a clone version of my Spartan running toward it. Hologram is great. It lets you feel as if you are tricking the artificial intelligence of the enemies. Confront a nasty turret, as I did at the tough finale of Nightfall, and you'd best send a hologram of yourself running out to draw fire. Then snipe that guy in the turret.
The armor abilities are good, but they are not the only armament changes in the game. Reach is generous with new weapons. I had a needler rifle, a powerful concussion rifle and what seemed like a more intuitive version of the Spartan laser. My favorite new weapon, of the ones I can tell you about, is the
fuse focus rifle which shoots a steady beam of energy at enemies as long as you are squeezing the trigger. Part of why I like the focus rifle is because I took it from the corpse of a white Covenant Elite, one of the hardest new enemies in the game. I also loved/hated fighting the jetpack Elite and the Zealot Elites, all of whom are vicious combatants on Heroic difficulty.
The second mission I played, Tip of the Spear, was the grandest level of a Halo game I've ever played. We were out on rocky hills, dozens of Warthogs racing toward dozens of Covenant. Past an intro cutscene and into the playable action, my Noble 6 was in the thick of a firefight against a rush of Covenant troops. I looked toward the sky and counted at least 30 vehicles in combat in the air, UNSC craft vs. Covenant ships big and small. In the distance I saw rows of tanks against huge Covenant walkers. For part of this mission you're driving a Warthog that is armed with some very powerful rockets. You're dealing with massive enemy Wraith tanks and the new Halo Reach enemy vehicle, the Revenant, which is tank in its own right, bigger than a Ghost and smaller than a Wraith (it's in the bottom image of this post). In this mission a Halo game finally feels again like one did when you first hit land in the original Halo: it feels not like a battle but like a war.
I don't know how busy this mission gets nor how much more involved you can get in epic combat because I was unable to complete Tip of the Spear in the time I had to check out Halo Reach today. I was in a familiar Halo plight, wondering how I would defeat two bulky Hunter enemies, when the clock ticked late enough. My cannon fodder ally troops were beaten. My Spartan ally for this mission, the lady Kat, was in a skirmish of her own, and my Noble 6 was lying dead again. I was not the least dissatisfied.
Halo Reach is the last Halo game from Bungie Studios, the developers who started this saga. It won't be the last Halo game, but it feels like it can be a grand finale nonetheless. It's a war on solid gameplay ground, a war more crowded with friends, foes and tools for fighting. It's a fight that may not be a revolution, but what I played of the September 14 game's campaign today felt nevertheless like a march ahead, no falling back.
(*Don't go hunting for my profile online yet; I haven't synced my account to Live today.)