"Bungie's greatest game ever and truly, in our minds, the defining Halo title from Bungie." Brian Jarrard, community lead at the Seattle developer, isn't mincing his words when it comes to this year's Halo: Reach. Neither is Marcus Lehto, art director on the previous games and creative director of this fifth sci-fi shooter in the Halo universe the studio created, which it firmly states will be its last. Lehto says it's a "darker story of honour and sacrifice on a scale greater than anything we've created before."
Protesting too much? From what we've already heard about Reach, and what little we see when the two men present it to the press at X10 - lots of moody concept art, some captured campaign footage and a live demo of a multiplayer map - there's no reason to think they don't mean it. You only need to see one of its huge vistas, topped by an astonishing, tempestuous skybox straight out of Turner painting, to know that this game has epic sweep written into every line of its code. Reach means business.
Then again, it's not stretching credulity to suggest that Bungie, Microsoft and Halo fans all had different aspirations for last year's Halo 3: ODST - and that led to mixed messages, friction and a little disappointment. It was a fine game, a modest and playful spin-off, but given the three thundering monsters that came before it could only ever be an anti-climax. Jarrard and Lehto are at pains to make sure we're all on the same page this time. And that page is page one.
Reach is a prequel, taking place just before the events of the first game in the series, 2001's Xbox launch classic Halo: Combat Evolved. It's set on the colony Reach, humanity's greatest stronghold after Earth, which was obliterated - or "glassed", its surface turned to molten glass - by an apocalyptic attack by alien zealots the Covenant. The iconic Master Chief of the original trilogy was trained and augmented as a Spartan super-soldier here, according to the fiction, and escaped just before the planet's destruction... which is where Combat Evolved began.
The connection between these two games isn't just a close narrative one, though. It has an element of poetry, bringing Bungie "full circle" as Lehto puts it, and also ending Bungie's last Halo game on a note of total annihilation. Is the developer, which first started talking about leaving Halo behind with Halo 3's launch in 2007, metaphorically burning its bridges on the way out? Lehto smiles at the suggestion. "Well, it's certainly made it encapsulating for us," he says.
More importantly, Reach is harking back to Halo: Combat Evolved in its spirit and its design. It's a deliberate attempt to recreate the free-flowing glories of a game many fans still believe to be the best in the series. Jarrard and Lehto namedrop it constantly, saying they want to "go back to the core of Halo CE", to recover its sense of wonder and exploration and of a world opening up, to recreate its wide-open battlefields and emergent, player-driven spectacle rather than the sequels' tendency to hustle players from one giant set-piece to the next. "Over time, Halo games got a little bit more narrow, a little tighter," Jarrard admits.
Isn't trying to recreate such mercurial near-perfection a dangerous game? After all, lightning seldom strikes twice - and people like new stuff. Lehto chuckles before dismissing the idea that Reach will rubbish the refinements of subsequent Haloes, saying it's more of a spiritual return.
"The irony of that is actually pretty hilarious to me," he says. "I mean, having known that we struggled so hard to get Halo: CE out of the door... and some of what you might think of as perfection was a total accident. As we've gone through and perfected some of the gameplay aspects and design, we've actually made a lot of things way better, from Halo 2, 3 and on into ODST.
"We're taking the best parts of all of those, and then kind of re-visualising some of them to bring back some of the spirit of what we had and what you saw, definitely, in Halo: CE, that is so important to us... Yes, it's definitely those more open, expansive, epic environments that you have a little bit more exploration throughout. You have much more options when it comes to your gameplay experience."
Beyond showing us some inviting expanses of rolling countryside, studded with colonists' homesteads, Bungie isn't offering specifics on what those options are. In fact, it's barely offering specifics at all. We learn that Halo 3's single-use "equipment" items - such as bubble shields - will be replaced with "armour abilities" like sprint or active camouflage that can be picked up and used indefinitely, but that you only have one slot for. Health packs are back. We're introduced to a new gun - the Needle Rifle, a hybrid of the Needler and Carbine that fires those explosive pink darts over longer range and in a less, er, effete manner, ramming them home and detonating them en masse with destructive force.
In fact, all the returning weapons have had an injection of testosterone. The Plasma Pistol's charged bolts hiss and slam and a reinvigorated Assault Rifle barks and roars, while the delay between firing and hitting a target has in many circumstances been reduced to zero. The Battle Rifle's in there, too. Bungie's clearly aware that, as respected (and rightly so) Halo's weapon set is for imagination, utility and balance, it needs to bulk up to match the through-the-gun force and sheer volume of rivals like Modern Warfare and Killzone 2.
You'll be wielding these half-familiar tools as the sixth member of Noble Team, a squad of Spartan-IIIs, the slightly less godlike (and less tall) successors to Master Chief's towering Spartan-II. This is where ODST's influence is most obvious - Bungie stresses it wants to tell a helmets-off human story of comrades in arms, not one of a gruff, Clint Eastwood-style lone gunman. Your squad-mates Carter (leader), Kat (second), Jorge (heavy), Emile ("darker") and Jun (sniper) fill out the cast, while you, as fresh replacement Noble Six, retain some of that abstracted anonymity that made Master Chief's huge boots so easy to fill. You'll be able to customise your warrior's appearance considerably for both campaign and multiplayer; in co-op, which supports four players online and two in split-screen once more, you'll play as a squad of Sixes rather than assuming the other roles.
Jarrard and Lehto and the video they showed at X10 make a big deal of Bungie's overhaul of its engine with regard to visual detail and animation, including motion capture for the first time. It's to bring the drama to life, they say, although it will also have significant gameplay implications, with the new animation rig giving AI characters much more flexibility and fluidity of action.
Nevertheless, we can't recall the last time a sequel was sold to us so emphatically on the promise of improved visuals and scale above all else. The (admittedly wonderful) new weapon and character models are pored over pornographically, and the words "generational leap forward", "upgrade", "complete overhaul", and above all "more" keep cropping up. Four times as many polygons in characters as Halo 3. Particles in the thousands rather than hundreds.
It almost sounds defensive. "Well... we realised that we needed to compete against quite a number of other titles," admits Lehto, the subtext being that Halo hasn't been a visual powerhouse for some years now. "It really did require us to rebuild nearly everything across the board."
Although some of the footage shown is rough, the improvements are clear, massive, and naturally very welcome. It has a strikingly different mood and colour palette to previous Haloes' neon tones - grittier and more muted. "The story we're telling is definitely darker," says Lehto. "So we'll use colour. We'll use it to really impact the player's experience and help drive their emotional response. And we definitely are taking more tonal control of that kind of thing... That said, it's not a drab or dreary look and feel. That's not Halo."
More exciting still is the increased number of AIs this engine can handle - four Spartans, the player and eight marines against thirty or so Covenant is given as an example. As long as the improvements come without any cost to the openness or scale of battle, Halo devotees can rest easy, and indeed Bungie claims to be pushing this further in most instances.
In perhaps the single most significant nod to Combat Evolved, the Covenant Elite is once more the principal enemy - always a more worthy and threatening adversary than the hateful Brute, with more cunning, elegance and power (if only in our heads). Cuddly allies by the time Halo 3 concluded, it's great to see them restored to fearsome status. They're joined by old, new and redesigned enemies, including a comically heavily-armoured Grunt and a feathery, much more aggressive cousin to the Jackal.
As ever, you can take all these creatures down with one-shot melee kills from behind, although these now trigger a short third-person animation. It adds impact in single-player, but its true purpose must be to make the melee a slower and thus more high-risk move in multiplayer.
Bungie's not saying much about gametypes - some returning, some new, naturally - or any kind of overarching structure for multiplayer. It seems unlikely there'll be a Call of Duty-style levelling system although Jarrard says there are plans to "foster and reward player investment". All the maps will be locations from the campaign, although maybe at different times of day and night. We're given a tour of Power House, a hydroelectric dam complex, and besides the obvious graphical improvement it looks like classic Halo map design - varied spaces, intuitive and easily memorised. We'll be exploring it and others come the public beta on 3rd May.
For all the technological hubris, Reach's X10 showing was oddly low-key. There was no silver-bullet feature or startling revelation - certainly not to match that old ham across the hall. Bungie's certain to be saving something special for E3, but it's not just PR planning. The fact is, the developer wants Reach to be the über-Halo, blending ODST's narrative humanity, 2's all-conquering multiplayer, and 3's online platform with, above all, the electric freedom and scale of Halo: Combat Evolved. In that sense - the best possible sense - we've seen and heard it all before.
Halo: Reach is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 this autumn and will be preceded by a multiplayer beta on 3rd May, available to anyone who bought Halo 3: ODST.