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Halo: Reach campaign preview: Into Nightfall and onto the Tip of the Spear

In Halo: Reach you're Noble Six, the new guy -- the sixth man in an elite team of Spartans. So what's it like playing Halo alongside five other AI-controlled super soldiers? The truth is you aren't always flanked by a full team of the illest killers humanity has ever engineered. That would be unfair.

Instead, Reach often pairs you with just one of your new pals at a time. Such is the case in "Nightfall" and "Tip of the Spear," the fourth and fifth missions of the campaign, respectively, which showcase what executive producer Joe Tung calls the game's "breadth of experience." Realizing this phrase only vaguely suggests what might make Reach special, Tung offers a more precise comparison of the two missions: "They're different in tone."

Your objective in Reach, as in any Halo game, remains largely the same throughout: eliminate hostiles "by any means necessary" -- words barked in a trite line of dialogue during Tip of the Spear that rather neatly sum up what this game is all about. Of course, your means are never quite the same.

Teamed with Noble Three, Jun -- the sniper -- you immediately enter Nightfall in "stealth mode." This isn't a game mechanic but a mindset. This is the first Reach mission cast in darkness (perhaps the only one), and with sniper rifle in hand, you might immediately recall Halo: Combat Evolved's classic "Truth and Reconciliation" level. Tung explains this echo of the first Halo game is intentional. The Reach team reevaluated the previous games and looked for opportunities to recreate some of the iconic experiences -- and surpass them.

While linear, Nightfall slows the game's pace with the mystery inherent in darkness. You're on a recon mission: "Move in behind enemy lines and evaluate the opposition," says the menu synopsis. Not quite sure what you're out to scout and perhaps haunted by the unsettling foresight of the "Fall of Reach" (this is a prequel, after all), you creep through Nightfall, assured only by the presence of Jun, lurking somewhere over your shoulder.

For Tung and the development team one of the big challenges for Reach was creating the Spartan AI. How do you design a friendly super soldier who doesn't do the fighting for you, but still comes off acting like a Spartan? Interestingly, Bungie focused on delivering an experience that wouldn't force players to keep track of their Noble teammates -- they can't die, nor are they crippled in battle (you'll never have to, say, locate a downed Jun and inject him with a cure-all). Essentially, Tung explains, you can ignore them and just "run-and-gun" through the game, as some players have always preferred.


Pictured: Gueta; a native monster of Planet Reach. (Protip: Run!)

But if you want to play along, that option is there too. You're the new guy -- remember? You want to fit in, get to know Noble Team. Playing with Jun was at times surprising. Zeroing my scope in on an Elite's dome, I hesitated, knowing it would take one shot to disable the fiend's armor and a second to finish him off. I had to be quick. I fired once -- and immediately a second shot came piercing through the Elite's temple. "Woah. Nice one, Jun."

Moments later I was tracking one of those pesky snipers dashing about a rooftop dotted with cover. The Jackal darted into the open, and I tried to line up a headshot. But he was gone -- ducked behind cover. And then, again, a shot fired from the perfect flanking position. Through my scope, I saw the residual trail of the trademark sniper shot leading into the spot where the Jackal was crouched, hidden from my view. No movement. "Jun got him!"

I was feeling confident, trusting that I had a really smart sidekick. And then a funny thing happened. I became the sidekick. In Nightfall's climatic scenario a new objective appeared: Defend Jun. "Oh boy," I thought, "here we go." I imagined Jun would suddenly become vulnerable (he was planting a charge), as some impossible onslaught of Covenant descended on his position. The onslaught came, of course, headed by two cloaked Elites and a pair of Hunters. After getting just destroyed several times, I switched up my strategy: run -- run far away.

Not only had I abandoned Jun, but I had also deserted my militia. Reach adds a "Fireteam" mechanic that ties several NPCs to your character (these can be Marines or well-armed civilian militiamen). You see their names and health status by your radar, which essentially makes these allies true "characters," and not just Covenant fodder. Bungie had experimented with really basic commands ("come" and "go") for your fireteam, but eventually scrapped any micromanaging element. Your fireteam will stick with you, but as I found with my militia, they also stick with the mission: Defend Jun. As I skipped around with my tail between my legs, the militia fought back, and were quickly slaughtered. So Jun took on the Hunters -- and prevailed! He planted his charge. Mission complete.
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Tip of the Spear opens in the blinding light. You're leading a sizable charge of Warthogs, Scorpion tanks and Pelicans flying above toward a Covenant army. Actually, Noble Two, Kat, is driving -- you're sitting passenger (in this cinematic). A few moments of drama later and you're now lying on the ground, thrown from the Warthog as it had toppled into a rolling crash (after leaping a chasm, mind you). Kat urges you up and moves forward, taking cover behind what's left of the Warthog. A plasma blast comes raining down on her position and you wanna yell out to her as it blows away her cover. But she's already activated her Armor Lock ability (temporary invincibility), and you're reminded again that you're the rookie here.

Spear is one of those "big battle" levels, explains Tung. You know the type: tear across an enormous map in your vehicle of choice, charging headlong into skirmishes, big and small. Here in the somewhat open-world layout, I began to notice that the illusion of a truly Spartan companion was breaking down. Kat is not a good driver (outside of the opening cinematic), nor does she take to the strategy of each of us commandeering separate vehicles. I settle for the "ignore" option until I happen upon the new, zippy Revenant two-seater, which fires brutal plasma mortars and has a spot for Kat to ride shotgun.

The pacing is balanced by forced on-foot sections; one an optional sub-mission: Kill an Elite Zealot before he escapes (for a 25-point 'Cheevo). The "exploding barrel" is also introduced in this segment -- large fuel tanks that ignite after taking a few bullets and explode a short time later. These touches stand out against the almost subtle enhancements of Reach's improved technology. Spear is one of those just look how far you can see levels, almost bragging how good the draw distance is; or how many of those Covenant troops, each an individual AI, are all over place.

The mission culminates atop a towering "Spire" (think: Covenant Space Needle), and if you can manage to pause for a moment, from up there, you can really take in a terrific view, Tung says. Of course, I was facing the other direction, backing up toward the edge of the Spire's precarious outer deck, as an Elite charged me, his Energy Sword outstretched. "I have an idea!" I activated my Jet Pack ability and shot straight up, as the Elite passed under me, toppling over the edge -- falling, falling, falling, THUD!
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Reach allows for these moments, this so-called "breadth of experience." They're not scripted, but encouraged. They must be discovered. By any means necessary, right? That means approaching Reach's campaign as a playground. And there are many new toys to play with: the Hologram ability, the forklift, the ostrich-like Moa -- to name a few I encountered in these early levels.

Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that much of Nightfall and Spear was like revisiting a playground I knew well. Sure, a lot of work had been done on it since I was last here, but after a few hours, I was just playing Halo again. I feel this way as I deactivate the Spire's shield, ending the Spear mission -- where I will have to leave off our coverage of Reach's campaign until the review. And then Tung reminds me that in the next level I'll be blasting off into ... space combat! And I can't wait to get back to playing.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.