Microsoft and Bungie had a treat in store for journalists attending a Halo 3 event held in Sydney, Australia, today: some hands-on time with the single-player portion of the game (on a new map to boot), plus the chance to try out the game's co-op feature.
But before they let loose a whole room full of eager games writers, Bungie writing lead Frank O'Connor and multiplayer designer Lars Bakken took the crowd on a guided demo to showcase some of the co-op gameplay people can expect when they team up in Halo 3. The mission they presented took place on a location named Tsavo Highway, which apparently is the third level in the game's campaign mode. Tsavo Highway, O'Connor explained, is actually an Earth location that leads to New Mombasa, and is Halo 3's first vehicular-based level. The mission--which O'Connor played on Heroic difficulty--started in a darkened underground bunker, with Master Chief, the Arbiter, and several UNSC marines apparently needing to escape. In a nearby room were two Warthogs. The Chief (who was being played by Bakken) took turret duties, while the Arbiter (played by O'Connor) drove, followed by another Warthog full of marines (one of whom we heard yell, "Glad you're on our side, Arbiter!"). After a brief journey through an underground tunnel, the Warthog reached the surface and immediately encountered some stiff opposition from Covenant grunts, brutes, and jackals.
As the pair drove on through what seemed like a dirt road flanked by steep-sided hills, the debris of crashed ships could be seen everywhere--we're presuming that's where many of the Covenant soldiers had emerged from. The Warthogs eventually reached a large, open area that contained a sizeable number of enemy troops, including a hovering Phantom with grunts sniping from turrets. Anti-grav platforms also dotted the area, and were primarily used by jackals to snipe at the Chief.
After several failed attempts (demonstrating the game's tougher difficulty on co-op), the two Warthogs eventually made their way past that particular chokepoint, only to come to a large concrete road leading into a mountainside tunnel. The heavily protected tunnel mouth had a large, blue force field erected in front of it, and disabling it required one of the two players to get off the Warthog. This area also turned up a new enemy: the insect-like drone flying creatures that were the size of grunts. Taking them down proved to be more annoying rather than tough, due to their quick movements. The Covenant were also seen to use a new weapon here: a flare-like grenade that had the effect of whitening the screen completely.
When the guided demo was over, we finally got a chance to sit down with the game. We jumped on a three-player co-op game via System Link on three Xbox 360s and played through the same level (Bungie wasn't showing split-screen on a single 360). The controls were, as we experienced in the multiplayer beta, smooth and instantly familiar, while the look of the game itself seemed more polished than our previous multiplayer hands-ons. There was no lag at all, but we didn't really expect much, given that it was a system-linked game. Playing with two others was a blast, although it was hard to coordinate attacks because the three 360s we were playing on were set a few metres apart; headsets will be a must when playing co-op online. And coordination will definitely be a must: the Covenant opponents we encountered seemed quite organised, particularly the brutes, who seemed to intelligently deploy personal shields to their best advantage.
Playing through Tsavo Highway was also our first chance to take a ride in a new vehicle for the Halo universe: the Brute chopper. This motorcycle-esque one-person transport features two large rotating cogs at the front, and had the similarly floaty handling of the Covenant Ghost (as well as two plasma cannons mounted at the front).
Co-op, new enemies, and new weapons aside, the bottom line was that this single-player experience felt typically Halo--news that will surely please fans of the series craving for more.