Following last night's sumptuous new Halo 3 trailer and live-action promo (you did watch both, right?), Microsoft sat us down in the alarmingly dark Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica to tour the first level of the single-player campaign. Picking up about a third of the way into the level (they didn't want to spoil anything), it took us through a wooded valley bristling with as much Covenant as flora, before opening onto a river battle involving a Phantom. Ironically, time concerns meant our compere wasn't able to finish the fight - but we still saw plenty.
Starting off in a cave-like tunnel, the dank air shorn of all light, Chiefy and a group of USNC marines emptied into the woods where Covenant grunts and jackals were resting up. A rifle butt to the face of the nearest grunt, slouched against a tree, set things off. The marines were upbeat. "Kill-stealer!" one yelled, despite, you know, the enemy's lingering threat to scorch our planet until it is but glass and all that. The air was thick with banter. Tackling enemies advancing up a hill, our demo-man's progress was thwarted once by a jackal sniper round from distance, and then by a shield-bubble deployed by a grunt. They can use any of the equipment we can. Combat developed predictably as our host toured the various rocks, inclines and mossy shelves of the kill-zone, giving us a chance to admire Bungie's game engine.
Although bolstered by the ability to wield vastly more power than in Halo 1 or 2, the opening level is initially short on spectacle - but it's not short on detail. The sun bursts fuzzily through flaring holes in the canopy overhead, creating areas of high contrast halfway up trees that are covered in flora. If nothing else, the shrubbery's evolved, blanketing the rocks - which retain that slightly synthetic, I reckon, and certainly likeably distinctive look - and softening the tension between tree trunks, rock and grass. The effect is a consistently believable carpet of life beneath your feet, while rocks and trunks dip and arc into a glistening stream. Weapons are strewn around, helpful for dispatching jackals in high places, and purple crates explode in plasmic splashes that send grunts soaring through the air in death. As the numbers thinned and the level moved on through checkpoints, each transition seemed to have its own colour-scheme, with light blue shadowy nooks to hide grunts followed by more woodland war and a flare-reddened descent toward the river.
Bungie wasn't prepared to confirm four-player co-op for the campaign, but the group that MC went to work against was certainly large enough to sustain the squad he had around him, and as the demo level - called Sierra 117 - approached its climax, the sight of a Brute Chieftain holding a marine by the neck, suggested the odds weren't all that favourable on this, Heroic difficulty. Hints were subsequently dropped about Arbiter control. After the flaring interlude, the action shifted to a riverside station where a pair of concrete buildings occupied by Covenant stood in full view of a pair of USNC Pelicans. Bursting down the hillside to the banks, where rusted metal contributing to the frayed look of the structures, something happened. What it was wasn't quite clear in the melee, although I later worked it out, but it saw one Pelican take a severe hit to the starboard wing, which erupted in flame. The Pelican tore off flying low over the water as the Phantom wot done it drew menacingly into its place, blanketing the now-reclaimed shores in purple death-rain. With little time left to spare, the Campaign was turned off, leaving us with the impression of a game as visually competitive as ever, and one that - not entirely unlike Killzone 2 yesterday, despite the huge differences in style - chose its battles wisely. As, after all, must you.
The final thing Bungie showed, touring back through the game's lobby menus (everything is controlled through lobbies in Halo 3 - even Campaign), was the Saved Films feature witnessed in the recent Halo 3 multiplayer beta. Accessed through the Theatre lobby button, it called up the action quickly while Frank O'Connor of Bungie Weekly Updates fame rattled off some details. Files will be about 6MB and record gameplay data rather than video, so you can not only upload them without having to take a nap while it happens, but you can also review their contents at any resolution. Presumably even in standard-def. The promise that it will all be machinima-friendly is probably relevant to few of you, but we expect you'll find the content - a large-scale battle on Halo 3's biggest map, Sandtrap - fairly interesting.
Starting off behind the gun of one of the players, Frankie detached the camera and rose above the dunes and huge sandstone arches that stood tall against the horizon, occasionally pausing the game mid-explosion (even the sound pauses, in a kind of single-bar repeat way) to show how things look as you rotate around the action at whatever speed you like. That's "pretty special", for the record. You can take screenshots of what you see and upload them to Bungie.net through the game interface, collecting them online in the same way you can already do with Forza Motorsport 2's similar feature, giving everyone the chance to share special moments, like the time a clutch of Warthogs and a Brute Chopper - a kind of rolling blade with cannons on either side, like something out of the Star Wars Attack of the Clones battle sequences - go at it. The Chopper's about the same size as a Warthog. And when it and half a dozen wheeled friends smash together, or get blasted from range and cartwheel across the sand enveloped in flame, it's easy to imagine yourself reaching for pause to capture it. Or removing the on-screen control buttons to better enjoy the moment.
You will, of course, be able to enjoy your own on 26th September when Europe gets to finish the fight. And to finish the preview, anyone know what a "Forge" button in the Saved Film lobby might refer to? Could just be a filename. Who knows? Answers in the comments.