X10, Microsoft's annual showcase of gaming wares, took place in San Francisco last week and played host to more than a dozen games set for release on the Xbox 360 later this year.
I've already reported on many of them, including Final Fantasy XIII, Splinter Cell: Conviction, and Lost Planet 2, but there were five fresh titles on display that I hadn't previously seen in person. With the exception of all but one, I was suitably impressed.
I'll get straight to the big one: Halo: Reach.
A prequel set shortly before the original Halo: Combat Evolved, the final Halo game to be developed by franchise originator Bungie will also be the Xbox 360's flagship title this fall.
In truth, I had lost interest in the series after the third game. It was a perfectly competent shooter with fine online play, but I found the increasingly Byzantine story and repetitive level design to be uninteresting.
However, last fall's semi-sequel, Halo 3: ODST , unexpectedly brought me back into the fold with its gripping narrative about a group of new heroes and a sandbox-ish world that lessened the franchise's typically linear feel.
Happily, Reach seems to draw more inspiration from ODST-though inspiration might not be the right word, as the two were developed in parallel-than the first three games in the series.
We're provided a new cast of characters in the form Noble Team, a squadron of SPARTAN III uber-soldiers who, I was told by Bungie Creative Director Marcus Lehto, are less technologically advanced than the Master Chief, a SPARTAN II, but make up for it with improved tactics and teamwork.
There are six members in the squad, each with a distinct personality, though Bungie says it's striving to avoid archetypes such as the "brainy guy" and the "muscle." They're a tight-knit bunch. Unfortunately for us, we take on the role of an outsider; a soldier sent in to replace a team member recently killed in action.
It looks as though the entire game will be set on the eponymous planet Reach, site of a famous pre- Halo battle that was detailed in Eric Nylund's novel Halo: The Fall of Reach. The parts of the planet I saw appeared lush and sprawling, potentially offering players greater freedom in how to approach their objectives.
Given the period during which the game is set, it will come as no surprise to franchise fans that our enemies will be the Covenant. However, Bungie has taken the liberty of making these aliens seem more, well, alien. They don't yet speak English, and character models have been updated to look more ferocious and exotic. When asked how that might affect such things as comic relief (much of which was provided by the goofy chattering of terrified alien grunts in earlier games), Mr. Lehto responded that Reach will, in general, be much darker than previous entries in the series.
We can expect art design to have a new feel, too. Mr. Lehto said that his team completely revamped the Halo game engine and hired plenty of new creative talent, resulting in a game that he says looks like "a next-generation title." I wouldn't go so far as to say Reach seems as though it belongs on Xbox 720, but the characters, weapons, and vehicles are certainly much more refined and animate more believably than anything seen in Halo 3 or ODST.
As for multiplayer, Bungie didn't show much besides a single, expansive outdoor level that will also be seen during the campaign. However, they did say that when the Reach beta goes live it will be a "much meatier" experience than most players expect, featuring almost all of game's weapons.
Expect the beta in May, and the game proper sometime this fall.
Next up, Alan Wake.
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