The Countdown has begun: In about seven weeks Halo 3 will hit the high streets around the world, and Bungie is moving into PR overdrive in the run-up to its release.
But while details about the multiplayer-maps have been all over the net for months following on from the beta, the single player portion of the game has largely been a closely guarded secret. Only at E3 last month did Bungie finally give us a chance to get a closer look at the first level (called "Sierra 177" ) - but playing it ourselves was strictly off-limits.
That all changed last week at a press-event in Amsterdam. Not only was the 4-player-co-op mode confirmed, but Microsoft finally let us get our first hands-on with its next big title.
Rather than simply give us the same opening level to play that it showed at E3, Microsoft gave us a chance to play a portion of the third level (known as Tsavo Highway - close to the Kenyan coast and on the way to New Mombasa). The level starts in some kind of bunker/garage, and Master Chief and his Marines jump into one of the Warthog Jeeps and drive out into a very typically Halo-esque landscape, with no real opportunity to deviate off a fairly linear path.
Playing tourist to the scenes unfolding before us, it was a clear contrast to the densely wooded environment of Sierra 117, with sparse vegetation, jagged mountains and some patches of grass here and there - all very Halo 2 in look and feel. Just as well you're driving so fast that you don't really have much time to dwell upon it.
Once you get to the actual shooting one thing's for sure: nothing much has changed about the fundamental feel of the combat. If you've played the first two Halo-games, you'll know the drill from the word go. Whether you're switching weapons, throwing grenades, or boarding vehicles, it hasn't changed one bit. That said, there have been a few tweaks which help deepen the gameplay in subtle ways.
For example, you can now access protection shields (and all other special actions) by holding down the X button. Each 'faction' in the game will have a slightly different type of shield, but one you'll know from the beta is the Bubble-Shield, and this was available to us for a short while during the level. Another element that has improved is the number of objects you can interact with - some of which can be used during combat to your tactical advantage.
In terms of the types of enemies you'll face, we came across nimble brutes equipped with jetpacks. These prove a real challenge to get a bead on, thanks to their exceptional agility and ability to fly almost straight upward into the sky and land just a short distance in front of you. These surprise attacks help give the game a much needed degree of novelty - and, more importantly, variety.
Next up you'll face Wraith Tanks (easily taken out by boarding them and using your stock of grenades), and then get to grips with the new Brute Chopper - a much easier vehicle to handle than, say, the Warthog Jeep, and one that benefits from better frontal protection against enemy fire. Better still, in tight environments, the Brute Chopper handles turning with ease - while steep inclines are also no problem for the galactic equivalent of the Harley Davidson. However, one thing you absolutely don't want to do is engage in a head-on collision with another Brute Chopper, as we found out. At best, you'll end up with a big, smoking pile of junk.
Elsewhere in our all-too-brief playtest, we disembarked the roaring two-wheeler and proceeded on foot, taking down energy shields and enormous barricades with plasma cannon emplacements at the tunnel entrances. Much ducking and diving later, we ended up fighting alongside a group of Marines taking on wave after wave of those huge Dragonfly creatures you might recall from Halo 2. It was intense stuff, and should prove a test for even the most hardened Halo veteran.
Sadly, that brought us to the end of our time with the Tsavo Highway level - portion of the game that left us with mixed feelings about what we saw. On the one hand, the lack of any big surprises left us feeling slightly unsatisfied to some degree, but we're also glad that Bungie hasn't chosen to mess around with the successful gameplay formula to any great extent. Hope remains that they can simply come up with a game loaded with memorable set-pieces and deliver a great game that will keep everyone happy.