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The wait has been almost unbearable. Every few months Bungie's long-awaited sequel has slipped further and further out of our reach, and we were starting to wonder whether the game would even be playable at this year's E3 - it's been so closely guarded to date. But any fears of further slippage were confidently swept aside when Microsoft's Peter Moore strode onto the stage last Monday night replete with "November 9th" tattooed on his right arm. For his sake, we hope he's right.
The video presentation wowed the audience, but there was still a nagging sense of "we'll believe it when we see it" - and with the game not even being showed to the public on the show floor, we felt justified in wondering exactly what the Seattle-based developer had to hide. The answer, thankfully, wasn't too far away - tucked away, in fact, in a press-only theatre just feet away from the noisy throng.
Looking for clues
Slotted into a Thursday showing, we settled down among the 20-strong audience, we were treated to a 10-minute presentation of what to expect from the multiplayer side of the game. There was to be no clues as to the single-player experience, but we got a full tour of the demo map; what to do, where to go and some of the cool new features.
After that, we were sat down in possibly the most awesomely sculpted gaming chairs ever, reclining in ridiculous comfort, and played 20 minute's worth of Halo 2. Our time had come.
"When we were developing Halo in the first place, we knew people were going to like multiplayer - it was a fun game, though what we really didn't expect was the kind of cult of Halo that emerged from system link parties.
"People would drag boxes all over town, and they would move TVs to their friends' house, who would set up in basements and have these huge system link parties at tremendous efforts because the game wasn't online, but what that did was create an entirely new social fun experience that people really hadn't experienced before with consoles and so it was vital to us with Halo 2 to try and recreate that aspect of games on Xbox Live, so to do that we worked very closely with the Xbox Live team.
Fire up the old rivalries - on Live
"Some of the features that are in the latest iteration of Xbox Live are the direct result of collaboration between the two teams, so we have all the things you'd expect - we have voice communication, we have clans, we have stats - we have all that stuff, but bringing that system link felt to Xbox Live is vital to us so you can play with people all over the world but still enjoy the rivalries and friendships that you have with real people that you know. So we think that we've solved that, but we're going to tell you more later in the year - but that's just a tease. We're going to show off a bit of Halo 2. Because it's a Bungie game, plot is paramount.
"The year is 2552 and after a long a terrible struggle, the human's outer colonies have fallen and the Covenant have made their way to Earth. Today's mission is going to take place 20 clicks North North-East from the Covenant's primary point of incursion - an industrial outer district of the East African Megalopolis New Mombassa...
"The handful of Marines that survived the first wave of the Covenant onslaught called this place hell on Earth....we call it Zanzibar. The story might have been different if we'd had more of these guys on the ground. Spartan Cybernetic soldiers equipped with Mk6 Mkolnir battle amour. Each suit is highly customisable, from its colour scheme to the emblem you can see on its shoulder. Each Spartan is armoured as he sees fit, and as a matter of fact most squads choose to coordinate their appearance to help with battlefield recognition, but like we said, when the Covenant hit, they hit hard.
Spartans getting owned
"The Elite are better - these guys backed up the low level infantry of the Covenant, and they are the absolute iron heart of the Covenant military. Compared to a Spartan's armour the Elite's is at least as formidable. Energy shields are covered in an unknown alien alloy. Singularly capable of decimating an entire squad of Spartan Marines. It remains to be seen how an equal number of Spartans would fare.
"But before we get to the shooting we'll take you through some new battlefield tactics and weapons. I'm going to be assisted by the beautiful and talented Pete Parsons, who will be taking the role of Wort, our friendly Covenant follower. So this is Wort, as you can see, he's carrying a Covenant energy sword - it's quite deadly, and as you can also see he has beautiful armour that is customisable too, but we'll talk to Wart later.
"We're going to show you dual wielding. Lock onto the weapon you want to pick up in dual wield, look down, and if I press and hold X I will pick up a second weapon. If I press and hold Y I dual wield. Ok, left trigger fires the left weapon, right trigger the right weapon. Fire both at once and you'll unleash a devastating barrage -the needle gun causes more than diaper rash this time around. So, he's dropped his sword - I like it, I'm gonna pick it up and save it for later.
Vehicles of justice
"We're going to show you vehicles now - we've done some cool things with vehicles. Over there is a Ghost. Wart's going to bring it up and show us how cool it is. So, as you can see it's already pretty badly damaged, but it has a new feature - depressing on the left trigger and you will boost the right - twice as fast as before. Boosting is cool, but there are some problems with it - you can't fire while you're boosting and is difficult to steer, but it does prevent this from happening. Boarding, while you're behind a slow moving vehicle that is occupied, press and hold X and you steal his ride. You can board from the rear, or you can board from the front.
"Now Wort is quickly going to let me demonstrate how vehicle damage has further permutations. If I keep blasting his Ghost it'll blow up, but it has multiple stages of destruction. And it's not done yet. This thing can go critical. You don't want to go too close to one when it starts making that noise [Boooom!]And Wort is dead. Poor Wort.
"We have other vehicles in the game - Warthog is back. It too has damage permutations - like the Ghost they're specific...take out the hubcaps. So, the new Warthog includes a rocket launcher, it is pretty cool and it helps us show off our interactive terrain....lots of physics, lots of cool stuff to blow up... those are beautiful positional sounds and it's a lot more technically advanced than it was in the first game.
Beep beep, Warthog coming through
"I can't defeat the Warthog with this weapon, so I'll pick up something heavier -a little rocket launcher. It works the way you expect...Quick one in the mouth for Wort, but it's been changed too. Wort's gonna show off a new feature of the AI jeep. The Warthog has a horn, and there's a new feature of the rocket launcher too. If you zoom on a moving target, you'll see the reticule will turn red -this means you have a lock, and then we try tracking missiles...very useful. So Wort's really mad because I busted up his ride and I think he's going to drive the jeep "Spartan scum!", but he can't drive and we're gonna fully bust up his ride...and that is a dead Warthog. You have to be careful though because there's still a round in the chamber in the rocket launcher, and that'll kill you too.
"Oh... Wort is madder than I thought. So, I'm going to use the gift that he left me earlier - the Covenant Energy Sword, and it has a couple of modes of attack. The simplest a simple melee attack with the B button and it also has a powerful uppercut, but if you look at the reticule and you see it turn red that means you have a lock and that means if I hit the right trigger, Wort is all dead! That's enough weapons and vehicles, we're going to teach you a little bit about the map and the game style.
"We're going to be playing single flag CTF. It's turn based, it last three minutes or until someone captures the flag. Attackers are going to start on this beach. They're going to have to get into the base, beyond this sea wall, and we'll show you a little bit of the map. The attackers start here. You can head up on foot over the sea wall. There are weapons and secrets hidden in there, or you can take vehicles. Head back up the beach, turn this corner through this breach in the sea wall. This is the outer courtyard - you're very open to attack here but it's a great place for vehicle skirmishes. Beyond this windmill structure is the heavily defended inner courtyard. It has turret emplacements, but if they see your vehicles coming, they're gonna want to use some heavy artillery.
The sneaky bit
"If you're defending, run upstairs and get the rocket launcher immediately. Lots of ways in and out of the base: ground floor there are two front doors, but if you're feeling sneaky there's a breach in the back wall here. Creep up through here, head in through the second door, and you're going to find a control panel. This is the control switch for the main gate assembly. Press X to activate it and you'll open this gate. This means you can bring vehicles in and out of the base. It's also a quicker way to get out on foot. This is your primary objective - it is the flag. In Halo 2 you press X to pick up the flag - that's vital.
"As you escape, be careful - these fusion cores can go off in your face. Now, although the defences are pretty heavily armoured they're not completely impregnable. A well placed rocket strike or grenade can take them out entirely, so you're going to need a good midfield defence and offence. The first person to get the sniper rifle has a huge strategic advantage - the attackers have plenty of places to snipe from, and if you have the flag you can head back over the sea wall or through the gate you came in through in the first place, but, like any good level this one has a secret.
"Over here on the crane assembly you see a red flashing thing - what do we do with those? We shoot 'em. That's going to lower the service gantry. Now you can make your way on foot across here and get into their base across the roof top, but it's also the only way to get the Covenant energy sword. If you can figure out how to get down there, you're going to be pretty much unbeatable. So that's it for the intro....we're going to let you guys play now..."
And so we did. About time too. After some initial faffing around sightseeing, it was down to business. First we jumped into the cockpit of the Ghost, stormed the breach, loosed off a few rounds rather haphazardly before leaping out to try and storm the base in the intital confusion. Suffice to say we didn't last too long before being rudely dumped back to the spawn point. We're not too confident of our abilities over Live, if this is anything to go by.
Dual weapons is certainly a nice feature - in the half a dozen or so games we had time to play, it's a system that we were instantly at home with, although once or twice we had a few issues trying to swap over weapons in the heat of a 16-player battle. Whatever the tactical implications, the bottom line is it's ridiculously cool to be able to charge around with double the firepower. No-one could deny it's a great feature, and has some interesting tactical possibilities.
As much as we'd hoped Halo 2 to sport an amazing and unprecedented level of visual detail, it didn't look as much of a big leap forward. This says more about how far ahead the original was than anything, but from the multiplayer demo, all we could ascertain was that the damage modelling has received a huge amount of attention to detail, and apart from being fantastic to look at, also matters a great deal during the mass melees.
Too early to call
It would be foolish to get either too excited or be too cynical about what we saw in just 20 odd minutes. It's typical of Bungie to drip feed information so steadily, and keep us on our toes right up until the last minute. For now, this was probably the minimum they could get away with to keep us all excited about the main event, and to be completely frank, the total lack of single player information was a big disappointment for a game so close to completion. On the other hand, being able to come to the game fresh will make it all the more exciting when it does finally arrive through our letterboxes.
You can download the full video of the behind closed doors E3 presentation from our Eurofiles page.