The build-up to the release of any new Halo game isn’t really like anything else in the gaming calendar. There may arguably be one or two more anticipated games due to be released this year – EA’s Medal Of Honor and the new Call Of Duty title, to name two obvious contenders – but they don’t hold a candle to the level of gracious excitement that is currently accompanying the run-up to Reach’s release. It’s an aura that’s pretty hard to describe, but it’s a brand of anticipation that has the relaxed and affable air of getting into a brand new pair of insanely comfortable slippers.

This is perhaps down to the fact that Bungie have never toyed too much with the core gameplay aspects that have always made the series so special, and whilst Halo’s world has never stopped metamorphosing, that irrepressible combination of tactical sincerity and hilarious communal folly has always been kept to the fore. Some may prefer one specific Halo game over all the others, but it’s a franchise that is comprised of nothing but classics, and it is thus impossible to go too far wrong.

The single-player campaign and its story are obviously still shrouded in secrecy, but our recent hands-on time with the multiplayer component gives an idea of what fans can expect from it. Although ‘classic’ matches are obviously still available – and an ever-present option to be voted for or against during online matchmaking – the changes that have been made to the fundamentals of the campaign mode have also added a fresh angle to the multiplayer.

These alterations come in the form of the new armour abilities, which form the main bulk of your loadout and can be changed mid-game each time that you’re downed. At the touch of a shoulder button, you can either boost into the air with a jetpack, sprint, trigger a brief spell of active camouflage, create a hologram of yourself to distract your enemies, or engage an armour lock, which pins you to the ground but makes you invincible for a short period of time – normally just long enough to replenish your health bar.

Being given this many tactical options should really have turned multiplayer skirmishes into a parade of chaotic headaches, but anyone who may be fearing that Bungie have let their ambition endanger the very core of Halo are whole-heartedly assured that nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than diluting the experience, these additions simply enrich it, and they allow for all sorts of different play-styles to be adopted whenever the situation demands it.

Our recent multiplayer session made it abundantly clear that each particular armour ability was only as effective as the person who was using it. During one gunfight, our opponent backed behind a corner and we immediately gave chase, only to be flummoxed when he dispatched a hologram of himself nearby that distracted us long enough for him to take us down from cover. Later, a three-way bout culminated in one player leaping from a balcony, leaving the remaining two of us to battle it out – only for him to return moments later with the aid of his jetpack to quickly dispatch us both.

In addition, the utterly outstanding Firefight mode makes its triumphant return after a hugely successful (if limited) trial run in ODST, and it has now been painstakingly refined and expanded. The mode now allows for full multiplayer matchmaking, and also implements a new versus mode, in which players take turns to play as Spartan soldiers and Elites, switching places at the end of each round. Rocketfight enables infinite ammo for the rocket launcher, and Gruntocalypse pits you against nothing but grunts, and enables ODST‘s hilarious ‘confetti’ skull.

So although the merits of Halo Reach’s single-player campaign are still to be determined, the multiplayer is looking downright definitive. This is going to be Bungie‘s final Halo game, and they have clearly gone out of their way to ensure that it is also the finest. The amount of options on display truly beggars belief, and the gameplay is as utterly formidable as it always has been, only more so. There appear to be a huge number of must-have titles on the horizon for the Xbox 360, but Halo Reach is nonchalantly sitting at the very top of it.

Watch the Halo Reach trailer here….

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