With 11 weeks to go before release, Microsoft and Bungie showed off Halo 3's single-player campaign for the first time at the E3 Media and Business Summit. The demo, held behind closed doors, showcased the graphical improvements in the sequel, which is one of the most highly awaited games of the year.
Bungie showed off the first level of the game, titled Sierra 117. Not wanting to spoil some of the plot developments revealed at the beginning, the action picked up about one-third of the way through the level. What's interesting is that the Master Chief and the Arbiter have now teamed up, and they and a small escort of Marines must make their way through a Covenant-infested gulch to rendezvous with Sergeant Johnson and a couple of Pelican transports.
Though the opening level lacks what Bungie's Frank O'Connor said are the large-scale vehicle battles of later levels, it still packed an intense amount of action as the Master Chief and his friends battle their way through waves of opponents that included grunts, brutes, and what looked like to be some elites. The presence of the grunts and elites alongside the brutes is a bit puzzling considering the fractured state of the Covenant at the end of Halo 2, so we imagine that the answers are to be found in the exposition that we skipped over.
A number of things just stuck out to us as the battle unfolded. First, the combat looks to be as wild and dynamic as in other Halo games. The artificial intelligence of both the enemies and your allies pretty much guarantees that each battle can unfold differently. Second, the amount of intelligent chatter going on does a lot to add atmosphere and humor to the game. You hear the alien grunts cry, "What a world!" before a grenade explodes next to them, or another remark "I'll revenge my brother!" as he throws a plasma grenade at you. The chatter is constant and with the cacophony of gunfire and explosions, it makes for a symphony of battle. Speaking of symphonies, the music was missing in the work-in-progress version that we played, though it has been composed and recorded and is awaiting insertion.
So how it looks is a question that's undoubtedly a question on millions of Halo fans' minds. Keep in mind that after some grumbling by fans about the graphics in the recent multiplayer beta, Bungie stressed that what was seen did not represent the final look of the game. Well, what we saw wasn't quite final, but the graphics were undeniably better and more advanced than those seen in the beta. The game pops out right at you. The visuals are clear and crisp, as well as bright and colorful. There's a lush quality to the forest gully, with lots of ground clutter and towering trees. Most noticeable is the almost lifelike sunlight poring through the forest canopy. Halo 3 makes considerable use of high-dynamic range lighting so that shadows look dark, but at the same time, sunlight looks almost saturated. The animations and character models are also well done. The Master Chief encountered alien brutes in green camouflage armor that looks really cool and plausible, and it's possible to strip a brute of his armor with gunfire or explosions.
After battling through a section of the forest, the Master Chief and allies make it to a riverside clearing where the Pelicans await them. Unfortunately, a horde of Covenant is also there, so a desperate battle erupts to clear the landing the zone. However, it's all for naught as one Pelican, looking to avoid ground fire, collides with another, sending one crashing to the ground and the other spinning in a different direction. Your new mission: locate Sergeant Johnson's crashed Pelican; so it's like Black Hawk Down, only with aliens. An alien Phantom suddenly appears and hovers over the river, laying down suppressive fire, so O'Connor, playing the Master Chief, grabbed a canon off of its mounts and used it to shoot down the alien craft. Another large-scale battle erupted between arriving brutes and the Chief, and that's where the demo ended.
Bungie next showed one of the neat multiplayer features of Halo 3, which was the ability to record and play back gameplay movies of both multiplayer and the single-player campaign. While this was a feature that was somewhat crippled in the multiplayer beta, we got to see the all-but-final version of the film system. Basically, Halo 3 records game data as you play, and then when it plays it back, it reenacts all the events. Only now, you can move the camera around anywhere to change the angle, as well as pause and slow the action
To demonstrate, Bungie showed off a five-versus-five multiplayer match that was recorded last week on the sand-trap multiplayer level. We watched as the battle was reconstructed and replayed. The members on one team boarded Warthogs and Brute Choppers, which are basically hoverbikes on steroids and had a head-on clash with the opposing team on their vehicles. The action was then paused and explosions were caught in all their fiery glory. It looks awesome, and even better, you can take high-resolution screenshots of your finest moments. You can then take screens or movies and upload them to a special shared space on Xbox Live so you can show off. This is going to be a great feature because it has implications for everyone, from whether you want to rub it in to your friend about a certain kill or you want to make machinima to or user-created movies.
Bungie has the next couple of months to polish and bug fix, though what we saw looked to be almost ready for primetime. All we can say is that it's going to be a long 11 weeks until September 25.