So much of the discussion around Halo: Reach has been focused on the darkness of the game. We've seen trailers depicting weary-eyed Spartans amidst a muted gray color palette. We've pulled off bloody stealth executions in the multiplayer beta. Go on and take your pick--there's no shortage of indications that Reach will be a grimmer experience than previous Halos. But if there's one thing we came away with after a recent hands-on outing with a few of the game's early campaign missions, it's that Reach--while certainly dark in many respects--isn't all doom and gloom.
Consider a few scenes from our play-through. In one tense shoot-out, we popped out from behind cover in a last-ditch effort to kill a group of Elites that had drained nearly all of our health. Only, the first thing we saw was a comically adorable ostrich native to the planet Reach staring blankly back at us. There's nothing like the sudden appearance of a bird resembling Kevin from Up to break the tension. In another big battle, we tried desperately to flee from a pair of hunters when it became clear there was no option left but to resupply and recharge our health. So naturally, we hastily jumped into the first vehicle we spotted. What we didn't notice until too late was that we hopped into a forklift, of all things. Not a space-age, 26th-century UNSC infantry transport; just a hilariously slow-moving forklift that puttered along at speeds that would make a golf cart seem exotic. We could practically hear the hunter growl, "Are you kidding?" as he smashed us to death.
Yes, Halo: Reach is darker than previous games. But every so often, you'll find a reason to crack a smile, giggle to yourself, and remember that Bungie is a developer that knows how to have fun. (We're talking about the studio that brought us Rocket Race, after all.) The result, it seems, is a game of contrasts. Halo: Reach does more to mix things up--and buck labels--than previous games in the series, which is a trait that includes environments, pacing, and mood. The two new campaign missions we played were a prime example of this contrast. Nightfall, the campaign's third mission, took us on a nighttime, rain-soaked hike through Reach's rugged geography of mountain ridges and dry river beds. This mission was all about making stealthy approaches, using sniper rifles, and trying to get a jump on the Covenant forces we encountered along the way. Then, there was Tip of the Spear, the game's fourth mission, which turned the lights back on and painted the screen with the glowing orange hues of distant suns and purple/pink alien foliage. But beyond the more saturated colors, Tip of the Spear also ratcheted up the scale exponentially, with big set piece battles and long vehicle sequences.
Nightfall is definitely one of the more subdued Halo missions we've played. At least, that's how it starts. The mission kicks off with a select few members of Noble Team--the game's central cast of Spartans to which you belong--prowling through the darkness exchanging communications chatter along the way. You mainly play alongside Jun, a soft-spoken sharpshooter who seems to prefer methodical approaches over going in guns blazing. With Reach being the first Halo game to show Spartans minus helmets, there's clearly an effort on Bungie's part to build and explore these Noble Team personalities.
The basic gameplay in Nightfall was familiar Halo, with a few notable exceptions. In our experience, the biggest change came from the ability to use the armor abilities we saw in the multiplayer beta. (Remember jetpacks? Sprinting? Those abilities.) However, one of the new ones we didn't see in the beta was hologram. With this one, hitting the left bumper on the controller sends out a hologram version of yourself running in a straight line, directly where your crosshair is aimed. It's fantastic for drawing the attention of enemies. Imagine being pinned behind a rock with jackal snipers and grunts on turrets eager to put a few dozen holes in you and then tricking them by sending a flickering hologram of yourself running off to the right while you take the left path and sneak up behind them. Hologram was far and away our favorite new gameplay feature in this mission, adding some mental gamesmanship to Halo's familiar brand of straightforward shooting action.
As stated earlier, Tip of the Spear took that somber nighttime expedition and turned it on its ear. This mission was a bright, colorful series of vehicle chases and large-scale shoot-outs. We bounced among gunning from the back of a speeding Warthog, cruising around in the new Revenant (a two-seater version of the Ghost), and launching grenades from on high while in a UNSC Pelican. But what really grabbed us about Tip of the Spear was the sense of scale. You'll be driving near a mountain cliffside, and off in the distance, a swarm of Covenant and UNSC airships will be doing battle, somehow looking like flies compared to the gigantic UNSC ship that flies overhead and practically blocks out the sky. Later in the mission, you're tasked with destroying a towering spire powering the electromagnetic shield around a Covenant base. To give you an idea of how big it is, this base is used in a Reach multiplayer map, and according to Bungie, it's the tallest vertical play space it has done in a traditional map.
After all this, we had the opportunity to go hands-on with the E3 demo, which, if you'll recall, ends with a flight combat sequence in which you're piloting a ship called the Sabre in outer space. (Click here to see the video from our E3 stage show.) This seemed an appropriate way to cap off the demo. The two missions preceding it did a good job of taking familiar Halo gameplay and mixing up the pacing enough to make it feel fresh--why not finish off with a glimpse of something entirely new? That was our hands-on time in a nutshell: the contrast between the grim and the lighthearted, the new and old, the stealthy and the bombastic. We'll see if the entire game maintains such variety when Halo: Reach is released on September 14.