The mission begins on a beach… but not just any beach. Noble Team, the squad of elite Spartan soldiers sent to save the planet Reach, has just air-dropped onto a swath of sand so long and so wide, and surrounded by such epic scenery, that the double Scarab battle near the end of Halo 3 immediately feels tiny and cartoonish by comparison.
Huge rocks dot the terrain, and the Noble Team must put this cover to use, as at least a dozen battleship-sized Covenant air carriers are raining drop pods from the sky, each one carrying a snarling and highly detailed Elite. Our genetic superheroes may number four instead of the usual one, but they're still overwhelmed.
And though they're wielding weapons new to the Halo series – like a bouncing grenade launcher that wipes out an entire row of shielded Jackals, a triple-shot rocket launcher that obliterates a Wraith tank after a single pull of the trigger or nasty assassination moves that can instantly down an Elite – the Covenant ships are countering with direct turret fire and fleets of Ghosts.
My E3 demo is being directed and played by an expert developer at Bungie, however, so Noble Team survives. Their ultimate goal is a launch facility that, at the beginning of the mission, appears as a massive silhouette against the horizon, and by this middle checkpoint, towers above the squad with at least six or seven floors of enemy-filled hallways.
This is when I seriously start to notice how much realer – and grittier – Halo: Reach is than Halo 3 or even ODST. The gloomy sky of drizzly clouds and flashing lightning. The shadowed corridors, pierced by dust-streaked rays of waning sunlight. A briefing room that looks more like a crime scene, with fresh bodies piled in corners or slumped over the central conference table, and splatters of blood everywhere. And, in a moment that reminded me a bit of Modern Warfare, a Marine soldier angrily kicking and cursing at the lifeless corpse of a Covenant.
Inside the building is a launch pad, and on that launch pad waits some sort of rocket. If this was any other Halo game, I'd expect a cutscene to show the protagonist traveling into space and docking in a station or landing on a ring. Then I'd expect to play an on-foot mission. This is Reach, though, and the scale is grander, so when the cutscene ends, the player is still sitting in the spaceship – a UNSC Saber – and is back in full control. Halo has suddenly transformed into X-Wing or Wing Commander.
According to Bungie, you'll pilot the Saber in only this single section of this single mission. That's unfortunate, because what I saw was rather spectacular. The Saber protected a gargantuan battleship known as Anchor 9, and doing so involved an intense series of swooping, looping dogfights between the player and wave after wave of Banshees. They dueled through the stars, leaving neon vapor trails past your cockpit and bursting into purple sparks when destroyed. The Saber's machine guns and lock-on, heat-seeking missiles were taking care of most of them, but when much larger reinforcements – the Seraphs – showed up, the Anchor 9 battleship was forced to join the fight, blasting cannons and quickly turning space into a gloriously lethal fireworks show.
And before the battle had been won or lost, the demo ended. I asked if the scale of this mission was average – Bungie told me that it was, but that Halo: Reach also included sections that were "much more epic."
To see most of what I've just described for yourself, check out the video below:
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