One of the more intriguing reveals of Microsoft's E3 press conference was a brief glimpse of a spacefighter combat level in the upcoming Halo: Reach. The Bungie team gave a longer look at it during a closed-doors demonstration later.
There will be only one spaceflight mission in the game, said Bungie's Eric Osborne. What we were shown was a truncated version of both the space combat and the ground conflict leading up to it. (It all matched up with the game's E3 trailer.) You will, as Noble Six (the game's protagonist) pilot a Sabre and help defend a cluster of UNSC space stations from a Covenant attack.
Straight away I saw no radar, just targeting reticules around enemy ships in view. That, plus the easy handling of the craft led me to believe at first this was on rails - it is not. You're free to roam over the available space, to bank right or left or, yes, do a barrel roll. It appeared you had a standard guns-and-torpedoes loadout, with a timed lock-on required for the latter. (Enemies may also do the same to you).
Osborne cleaned up the first wave of ships easily enough, and then the onslaught intensified. It wasn't clear to me if the stations were acquiring damage toward some mission failure point or if the level was just a kill-all-enemies setup not conditional to the story given. Teammate AIs assisted in the fight but weren't rockstar fighters.
Osborne said the flight controls will handle intuitively for those with experience flying Halo aircraft, and this mission comes about midway through the game, at a point where first-time players should be seasoned enough to handle it.
Preceding that battle, we saw a counterattack by Noble Six against a massive Covenant ground invasion. The battlefield transitioned from open-field combat against Elites jumping out of landing pods to industrial interiors somewhat reminiscent of the multiplayer beta's Boneyard map. The fight showcased some nice set pieces - a Wraith or a Ghost charging someone of your unit and getting wrecked when he goes into armor lock - as the score transitioned to an unconventional, driving guitar theme. Inside, an unsuspecting Elite conveniently presented his backside for an easy assassination. Noble Six was directed to get to the Sabre before the Covenant destroyed it, and he did, beginning the space battle.
Osborne said the mission was included to give players a taste of something extra and to bring them further into a part of the story without relaying its outcome to them secondhand. But this is still a first-person shooter. After this sortie, there are no more.
We were also shown the game's cooperative Firefight mode, a carryover from Halo 3: ODST, this time with matchmaking available, per tremendous demand by the Halo community . (Previously, Firefight was friend-list only.) Osborne walked through the menus, showing complete customization control over your firefight setup, with a la carte weapon and ability loadouts and skulls, the trigger points that deliver powers or modifiers to friends or foes. You can customize up to three.
Given that Halo: Reach is a prequel to the events of the first three games, we should expect this to end as a decisive victory for the Covenant. Osborne still promised surprises within an engrossing story that doesn't end as a downer.
"They're definitely heroes," he said of Noble Six's unit. "This will be about honor and sacrifice. And you still kick a ton of ass, you still blow a lot of stuff up." The game is due out Sept. 14.