It starts in a dark bunker with the rallying cries of an officer. The space flickers with the beams from our fellow soldiers' rifle-mounted flashlights, bringing out a dull gleam on the parked Warthogs in the shadows. Marines bellow bullish whoops before we mount up and proceed up a wide rough-hewn tunnel, intermittently lit by a chain of reddish floodlights.
This may not be the first level of Halo 3's campaign but it is early on. It seems an appropriate place to continue the adventure, given the ambiguous ending of Halo 2. The Covenant is splintered by civil war and Earth is under full attack from the remainder of its forces. Cortana has been captured by the mysterious Gravemind and Master Chief has announced his intention of "finishing this fight." But right now, in this grittily inauspicious bunker, all those plot complexities are moot. We're on reassuring terra firma, and allies are all around.
The game is taking place in the similarly dark, over-air-conditioned boardroom of Bungie's Seattle studio, which is a similarly inauspicious bunker-like building. A clutch of journalists from around the world are sitting ready, their faces illuminated by bright, new, LCD TVs. Behind them stand Bungie staff, arms folded and pensive. This is the first time anyone outside of Bungie and Microsoft has seen the single player focus of the game, the last part of a console-defining trilogy that began six years ago.
One by one, the screens brighten still further. Players are reaching the top of the tunnel. Before us spreads wide savannah under blue skies. Grunts flee before our thundering tires, up a gentle incline scattered with low trees and rocky outcrops. This is Silent Highway, the third level in Halo 3's campaign. It's a triumphant re-envisioning of Silent Cartographer's drop-ship beach landing -- a thrilling chase across open ground alongside your victory-hungry fellow soldiers.
And before we know it, we're back in the familiar instinctive, free-flowing combat that makes the Halo series so distinct among first person shooters. But though it feels familiar, it's not the same. The environments are more expansive than ever before, and they're spanned by fighting enemies and allied forces. Tens of Brutes and Grunts bearing varieties of armor and weaponry are visible and active at any one time, attacking both you and your fellow marines. The scale is immediately evident, and remarkable.
Naturalizing something only smoke and mirrors managed to achieve in its forebears has subtly changed Halo 3's battlefield. "In Halo 1 and 2 you'd have to spawn a load of guys at the front, and once the player has killed those guys, you'd spawn some guys behind a rock and so the entire battle would sort of play out the same way," says Jaime Greisemer, Halo 3's sandbox design lead, the man behind the new weapons and equipment, damage systems and AI behaviors. "But now we spawn a whole battlefield full of guys and have fun. If you want to engage these guys right up front, you can. If you want to stand up on a ridge, they'll start shooting back."
The result is a lot more variety. Encounters have even greater fluidity than before, organically ebbing and flowing with your actions. It's common to push forward too quickly and find yourself attacked from all sides, so apart from managing your weaponry, it's now important to tactically manage your troops. It's often wise to hang back and give support, allowing them to clean up less powerful enemies, and protect them by carefully taking out threats. In the same spirit, AI is the same, but more. A new group dynamic means leaders will audibly give their troops orders, such as to throw grenades, and they will, in an alarming barrage. Meanwhile, your troops interact with the environment with new sophistication. They'll hop over debris on the ground or kick it out of the way, and they'll open doors if you're in a vehicle.
The action flows through gullies, over hills, through installations and past crash sites, following the path of a raised highway. There's plenty of opportunity to explore the environment away from that central stream, too. There are wide vistas looking out over a precipice toward the Covenant excavation site (the vast crater seen in the first game trailer), and exploration is rewarded by extra dialogue and musical cues, plus the sight of a distant aerial conflict against the swirling cloudscape.
The highway is frequently broken. Shattered sections of road have fallen at angles into the landscape, forming spectacular crescents of mangled concrete against the sky. Such scenes show off the lighting engine: golden sun catches surfaces with subtle shine and contrasts with delicate pools of shadow.
It's easy to see that, visually, Halo 3 is a much closer expression of what Bungie's vision was for its predecessors, without departing in style from them one bit. It has far more detail -- the highway is littered with crashed cars and debris, and there's a lot more textural variety in worn human-made objects, lustrous natural features, and vivid Covenant war material.
Bungie's content manager, Frank O'Connor, later claims that the in-game graphics now closely resemble the original concept paintings. "I always think our games have something of a painterly quality because they're not photorealistic," he says. "It's a little risky because people, say, expect cars to look like the cars from Forza, but I think we've fulfilled our original vision, graphically at least."
As an introduction to vehicles for newcomers, Silent Highway's path steadily progresses from the Warthog charge at its outset to vehicle-to-vehicle combat against Brute Choppers, noisy, ugly motorbike-like vehicles with twin machine guns and enormous, appropriately brutal, front wheels that turn out to be good for mowing down anything in front of them. And then, during a subtly enforced on-foot section, it introduces a series of Wraiths that must be destroyed. They have been slightly tweaked from the previous games with a more explicit weak point -- an exhaust port on the rear with a cover. Two melee hits and they will blow -- if you can get in close enough.
And so the level ends. There's a palpable sense of relief from the crowded Bungie staff. "For the designers it's the first time they've seen people outside of the lab rats playing through," says community and franchise lead Brian Jarrad. He explains that the dev team had even been working on it earlier that very morning, a fact confirmed by the build date on the software we see on the menu screens. "It's a relief it's all working," he admits.
We take a minute with O'Connor in the studio's lobby, and he explains that the morning has been terrifying. "It's hard to explain to some of the guys here, but one of the processes of making a game is revealing it, and it's stressful," he says. "We've lost perspective, I think, on how it looks and how it plays. Multiplayer's fine -- everyone's confident about that. But the campaign in many ways has the most to live up to and prove." Why's that? "I think because of Halo 2's campaign, the fact it finished on a cliffhanger, the fact we didn't have time to do all the things we wanted to do. We certainly didn't have time to do all the testing and polish. This time around we've had all the time we needed."
Despite Microsoft's claims for the size of Halo 3's worldwide launch, and the forthcoming multimedia assault of publicity that it hopes will sell its console, O'Connor is adamant that the pressure on Bungie is from within. "Microsoft appreciates what we do and trusts us to do it," he says. "They don't ever come here to mandate and construct, just to learn and enjoy what we're doing. And they give us the tools, flexibility and freedom to do that. The only thing they communicate is: 'You tell us when you think you can ship the game, and stick to it'. They would have liked it to have been ready for the 360 launch or its first year, but they understand it's a big undertaking and that it's unrealistic to demand that. The pressure is creative and internal."
The second level follows on from the first. The Storm is set in the Kenyan town of Voi, and features a range of industrial environments with views of Kilimanjaro in the distance. The carefully segmented sections -- confined interiors through to enormous courtyards and large warehouses -- offer a good variety between close fighting and open warfare, and can be approached equally well on foot and by vehicle. The level's designer, Niles Sankey, describes it as a 'pure Halo sandbox'. "It's more of a true sandbox experience, where instead of going through each cell in a linear fashion you can play it many different times and in many different ways," he says.
Contributing to the variety is the addition of Halo 3's equipment, elements of which were seen in the multiplayer beta. The bubble shield and power drainer will be familiar, but the flare won't. Our first encounter with it arrives after climbing a set of stairs in a facility entrance hall to find three Brutes standing in a wider corridor. Suddenly the screen goes completely white, and we back away and fire wildly in panic. Vision returns a few seconds later, and we're miraculously unharmed, back on familiar fighting ground again.
Equipment doesn't work on the same level as Bungie's 'golden tripod' -- the gun, grenade and melee attacks that are always available to the player. Instead, it operates over and above normal combat, suddenly enforcing a temporary change of approach that can benefit and disadvantage each side in equal measure. The bubble shield might offer cover against fire, but it's suddenly blocking any chance you had of taking out that Brute Chieftain you've just noticed. And the power drainer will take out your shields as effortlessly as it does your foes'.
During a quick break, Greisemer describes equipment as 'tilting' the battlefield briefly. It's part of a subtle new design approach to Halo 3's combat. "The 30 seconds of fun has become 30 seconds of fun and five of total astonishment," he says. "So you'll be playing and suddenly some guy will throw a flare and you'll be totally blinded, and you know somebody will charge in with a hammer and you'll totally panic. And then the flare goes away and you go back to dodging and shooting. Almost everything we've added is orthogonal to the rest of the game like this -- surprises and changes to the rules, layered on top of the combat."
Later, he asks: "Have you got to the Scarab yet?" Re-entering the room we see a crowd of Bungie staff around one of the journalists. On his screen towers a vast spider-legged enemy, the same as the one found stalking through Mombassa in Halo 2. "It's the biggest character we've ever done," says Greisemer, explaining that there's a multitude of ways to take it out. "You fight with all the tools you have." Unlike the scripted Halo 2 original, this Scarab is AI-controlled. "We don't want to do boss battles -- it's just another part of the sandbox," he continues. It's hard not to think of the Scarab as a boss, but it's certainly a more open-ended, large-scale foe than the term usually refers to.
The staff want to see how people who haven't experienced the Scarab before will go about bringing it down The player dashes back to a high gallery that runs along the back perimeter wall. There are mounted ground-to-air missile turrets here, so he jumps on to one and finds he can target the Scarab's legs, and with a few shots, they buckle and collapse. But the ammo expires before he's finished, so he runs back down into the main area to man a Warthog turret to finish off the remaining limbs. The heaving body crashes down, close enough to the ground that he can jump into its interior, and inside he finds a couple of Brutes and a fusion core, ripe for a couple of grenades to finally end it.
Apart from the spectacle, the scene is distinctive for its power at showing just how much of a grip the Covenant has taken on Earth. It was an intentional aim of introducing the Scarab at this point -- though Sankey won't be held to confirming whether the campaign will feature more. "You can imagine what these Scarabs can do to Earth's cities," he says.
In fact, there's something rather affecting about these two glimpses of Halo 3's campaign. The sheer scale of action that revolves around Master Chief illustrates that this time he's part of something far more evocative than before. These early sections aren't about the cold, abstract threat of galactic apocalypse, but the more emotive idea of the explicit destruction of Earth itself, and he's not fighting it alone. Indeed, The Storm also contains non-soldier humans, workmen who will fight alongside him.
After a quick tramp out of the industrial installation and up a hill to defeat a force camped at its top, the level is over. But a sneaky glance through the build's menu options suggests that Bungie has a lot more to reveal. And, to prove the point, Jarrad asks for the lights to be dimmed once again for a demonstration of something he calls the Meta Game, a secondary way of playing the campaign. Fundamentally, it's a score system, but one supported by the use of skulls, a return of the game-rule modifying Easter eggs found in Halo 2. This time they're much more firmly integrated into the game. Found hidden in each area, collected skulls can be activated for new games to cause specific effects. Some will make the game harder, others just change the way it must be approached, and each will give Meta Game score bonuses.
Its main benefit will be for co-op matches -- the scoring system offers away of tracking performance in campaign mode, awarding headshots, speed of progression and the like with extra points. Jarrad loads up a co-op game with O'Connor, who as player two is the Arbiter, on a new campaign level set at a riverside jetty in a verdant forest. The iron skull is activated, which means that if one co-op player dies, both are restarted at the latest checkpoint. "The real ultimate task will be to beat every mission in Legendary difficulty with all skulls turned on in a certain time limit with style," says Jarrad. "That'll be what people strive for, to get the highest possible score."
After a little friendly fire, mostly at the cost of O'Connor, it becomes apparent that dying costs points, and killing a partner costs big points. It's a simple idea that gives new meaning and purpose to replaying, and offers new quantified detail in player achievement. Bungie is still unsure whether it will be able to include co-op play over Live -- it's easy to imagine that the amount of data generated by the intensity of battlefield action might be impractically large, but the possibility is mouthwatering.
The Meta Game might look as if it will provide Halo with a good deal of sustained appeal, but O'Connor thinks that it's Forge that will be the biggest contributor to the longevity of Halo 3. For Marathon fans, the clue's in the name -- it shares it with Marathon 2's level editing software, and it's a feature that truly raises Halo 3 from being merely the second sequel to an Edge 10 game. It's genuinely new, genuinely progressive. And it's going to be an enormous amount of fun.
Think of a cross between the standard Halo multiplayer match and LittleBigPlanet and you're about there. Players join a Forge session, locally or online, as they would a multiplayer match, and can run and gun around any of the multiplayer maps as they normally would. But with a press of up on the D-pad their display interface changes, and they transform into a metallic ball that resembles a Guilty Spark-like Monitor and is able fly around and spawn a vast range of objects as well as freely place them on the map. By flying close to objects they can pick them up to move them around. Each object -- guns, vehicles, crates, teleport and player spawn points -- has a certain cost, each map a global budget. And the properties of each object -- ammo levels, respawn rates -- can be edited with the same depth Bungie's level designers have.
With the ability to save to hard drive or to Bungie's Live servers, Forge can be used to tweak existing maps for multiplayer matches by, for instance, moving a sniper rifle to subtly change the dynamic. It can be used to block access to areas to adapt the way a game flows.
But, most interestingly, it can be its own plaything. Already, Bungie has developed its own impromptu Forge game-types, such as the self explanatory Jenga, and Grab the Mongoose, in which one player races around the map on a speeding Mongoose bike while all the others in editing mode try to move in close enough to catch it. And there's an adaptation of Team Slayer, in which each team has a Monitor player that supports by supplying it with weaponry, blocking the opposite team with objects or dropping fusion cores -- Halo's explosive barrels.
Each session we play begins with a plan and degenerates into a free-for-all. Two players start to see how high they can pile vehicles, building up a pyramid of grinding metal comprising Scorpion tanks, Wraiths and the new Mongooses. Multiplayer design lead Tyson Green and Jarrad stand behind. "It's going to all go wrong -- this is really going to break it," says one with some glee, but the system already seems incredibly robust. The players transform out of editing mode and start firing rockets to see the pile erupt in cascades of explosions that go on for several seconds, and we all giggle in delight. The scope for players to invent is immense -- by juggling spawn rates and positioning, you can see it's possible to create intricate perpetual-motion machines, impossibly teetering structures -- it's an enthralling prospect.
Green explains that the idea is the result of a fundamental principle the team originally wanted to achieve in Halo 3: they wanted to profoundly extend how customizable it could be, but wanted to make it collaborative. "Everything we do in Halo is really social, so the map editor should be multiplayer," he says. "In Halo 1 and 2 people had this rich sandbox and they just played in that environment, so with Forge we really want to support that, saying: 'Hey, here's an environment, here's all the tools in the sandbox. You can play with it all'."
Alongside the Theatre mode, in which replay data of game sessions can be saved, edited and uploaded to users' online shared spaces, Halo 3 is an expression of Bungie's awareness of how Halo players of all types have approached the games. Not just the likes of Rooster Teeth and its Red vs Blue machinima, or people who exhaustively spent hours finding Byzantine ways of getting out of maps. It's also for more casual players.
"Novice players can look up the Gamertag of the best players, or the Bungie team, and look through their shared space to download films," says Jarrad. "I think it's going to level the playing field because they'll be able to see the sure-fire tactics the best players use. And within hours everyone will have seen the video and seen ways of stopping it."
"Players will be able to grab the map settings from any downloaded Theatre clip for their own games and even view them in groups online. Content in players' shared spaces will be shown on Bungie.net, with the ability to post comments and queue clips for download when players next load up the game online.
In many ways, Halo 3 is a result of its fans-to-be. Every element is tuned for social interaction, acts of creation and idle play, and careful attention to the second-by-second experiences of simply playing the game. "Every game Bungie has made has in some way been about listening to what our fans have asked for," confirms Jarrad. "Within minutes of the beta starting there were Halo videos showing tactics, people trying to break the maps, doing things we never thought they would do. The way people can be creative in the game is exponentially greater than it ever was before. So our goal is to allow that to happen but not in a way that will negatively impact the game. For us, there's so much at stake with this game, so many new features and technologies -- I'm not sure we could ever not hold public betas in future games."
The level of such ambition has put huge pressure on Bungie. It could have simply updated the existing, proven components that already made Halo the legend it has become. "It's just the Bungie way," says Jarrad. "People here talk about Halo 3 being the Halo game they always wanted to make. We want it to be the definitive experience the guys here always had in their heads."
Halo 3 will be a game of depth and scale, of mechanics, of appeal and of ambition. It's meticulously focused, yet radiant with expansive possibility. And, with two months of obsessive polishing to go, it's already one of the most supremely confident games we've ever seen. "But nothing will ever be good enough for the people in this building," claims Jarrad. "We always joke that at some point someone will have to come along and prise the code out of our hands because we will tweak and tune right up till the final second. And each day it just gets more fun to play."