Bungie's final Halo game is a "labour of love" that will "push the envelope as much as possible" without "ruining the core for fans".
That's according to exec producer Joseph Tung, speaking during a behind-closed-doors E3 presentation where Bungie played through the single-player campaign mission The Long Night of Solace, which featured heavily in Microsoft's press conference.
It was the big surprise in the E3 reveal of Halo: Reach, and Bungie used the session to confirm that space dogfighting will be fully playable in four-player co-op - appearing only in a single mission.
"It takes place about midway through the campaign," explained Tung. "At this point in the campaign the Covenant are invading Reach in full force. The situation's getting pretty dire, but the second in command of Noble team has figured out a way to bring the battle to the Covenant."
The mission begins planetside with some classic Halo scrapping against Covenant forces, ably showing off the game's substantially improved visuals. But the shock of the new comes upon boarding the cockpit of a Saber craft, which blasts skywards in a moody cinematic sequence and leaves orbit as control is handed to the player.
The mission was designed by Sage Merrill, Bungie's sandbox designer, whose previous work on Crimson Skies has clearly had an influence.
"We looked at lots of other flight games that were out there," said Tung. "We didn't want to make a flight simulator for Reach, we wanted to make a very accessible, easy-to-use and fun-to-play space mission. Sage did an amazing job in nailing the Saber in that regard."
The Saber boasts regular lasers and targeting missiles, with meters for shield, hull integrity and thruster heat on the HUD. Tense combat ensues in the shadow of the looming presence of Reach, and as a visual spectacle the set-piece is undeniably spectacular.
"The Saber is limited to Campaign," said community writer Eric Osborne. "The whole mission isn't Saber; and there's something after that we're not revealing." Tung added: "You can play four-player co-op and everyone will have their own Saber in campaign."
Reach is Bungie's final game in the series it created, and Tung admitted it is a "sad goodbye" for the studio. "The team is extremely proud of the game. There's always stuff that falls by the wayside, but I think we got everything in that's critical to the game and more."
The studio also confirmed that Reach will not offer Kinect support, Tung explaining: "I wouldn't say it's not suited, but for us Kinect came online when we were already a year and a half into production and it was impossible to think about integrating it at that point."
Once development wraps, Bungie is committed to supporting the game post-launch and, while refusing to be drawn on details, Tung said: "We expect to put the same support into Reach that we did with past games.
"Reach is absolutely a full-fledged project at Bungie. The number of features you're going to see overall is greater than any other project we've shipped."
Halo: Reach comes to Xbox 360 on 14th September.