For thousands of gamers around New Zealand, and hundreds of thousands more around the world, the long wait for Halo: Reach ends tomorrow.
Hailed by its developers as the product of 10 years of trying to make "the ultimate Halo game," the prequel to the blockbuster Xbox franchise begins the story at the very earliest point; 500 years in the future but before the Master Chief rose from his cryogenic sleep to defend Earth and its colonies from the Covenant's intergalactic religious crusade.
The game's story kicks off with the addition of anonymous sixth member (that's you) to the elite team of genetically-enhanced Spartan supersoldiers, known as Noble Team, as they prepare to investigate reports of an insurrection on the titular planet. Little do they - or their superiors - know that the violence on the ground isn't a result of the usual rebellion efforts that Spartans were created to extinguish.
The Covenant has arrived on planet Reach, and they're looking for something that could change the course of human history.
The campaign mode is easily the most challenging and varied of all the Halo games. Campaign design lead Chris Opdahl told nzherald.co.nz he expected that, if played in a straightforward manner, the game could be completed in about the same time as it would have taken to finish Halo 3. It took me about nine hours to complete the game in the Bungie-recommended Heroic mode.
The difficulty settings seem to have been skewed slightly, with Heroic being harder to play than in previous titles, while Legendary is actually a little bit easier for solo players even with some of the challenge-enhancing skulls turned on. This is a good thing - the more skulls you have switched on, the more armour customisation credits you'll get for knocking over even the smallest team of enemy Grunts.
Whether Bungie would admit to it or not, the success of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Battlefield: Bad Company games appears to have had a significant influence on Reach in terms of gameplay, cutscenes and non-player-character interactions.
The open-ended, sandbox nature of Halo's battlefield encounters that is the series' hallmark remains the best reason to play this game. If you can't waste that Wraith tank with a sneaky grenade into its engines, use a magnum pistol to rid the all-new Revenant vehicle of its driver and take control - plasma mortar capability on a vehicle with speed and handling similar to the classic Ghost? Yes please.
After a few missions on the ground, expect to be picked up by the new Falcon helicopter and man the turret to knock out distant enemies and vehicles as you may have done in Modern Warfare, and brace yourself for an all-out, zero-gravity dogfight with Covenant Banshees, Phantoms and Seraphs, far above the planet's atmosphere.
The weapons and armour abilities help players to cope with the challenges posed by the enhanced enemy artificial intelligence. The DMR battle rifle blasts out bullets with a satisfying pop, while the lock-on ability is back again for the shoulder-mounted missile launchers.
You will need all the help that you can get because your team might be made up of mankind's finest warriors, but the AI prevents them from being any use to you in a fight. Ironic, considering the opening cinematic shows Noble Six being told to leave the "lone wolf stuff" behind.
It is a shame that many of Reach's new toys are, for obvious reasons, not present in the older games. Players can justify that in their own way (the tech was native to the planet Reach and lost to history, that's my argument) but it only dates 2001's Halo: Combat Evolved and its sequels even more.
Elites are particularly adept at sprinting and diving for cover, extending the average firefight long beyond its normal life and giving the Reach campaign real guts.
Graphically, the Reach world is beautiful when it needs to be beautiful and downright ugly when the Covenant invaders begin to get a foothold on the planet.
There are let-downs in this department though. The human NPCs still look like they were stored at Madame Tussaud's in the middle of a heatwave, and a nightclub interior, seen later in the game, probably wouldn't have made it into Duke Nukem 3D. Not that it's too much of a crying point - the detail which has gone into Noble Team and, brilliantly, incorporating customised player characters into the campaign and cinematics means the overall impression is a very high thumbs-up.
The cutscenes are cleverly animated, expertly-detailed, well-voiced, and altogether less confusing than those in Halos past. There is nothing you don't miss - except what they don't tell you.
The storyline, for the most part, is solid and engaging. It is part of the series' lore that, by the time the initial trilogy begins with Halo: CE, the Master Chief is believed to be last soldier of his kind. NPCs in the original games are often surprised to see that one Spartan is still alive after Reach fell to the Covenant.
Not a spoiler alert: When you play this game, you are playing to lose.
You might start off with that in mind, but by the midpoint players can expect to have a strong emotional investment in the members of Noble Team and to really want them to win, or to at least survive the event which is the very reason for this series' existence.
Bungie, that crafty team, have made absolutely sure to develop the kind of player empathy for Noble Team that is as strong as the one between the Master Chief, Sergeant Avery Johnson and Cortana, the female Artificial Intelligence construct who serves as both advisor and companion to the Chief. Sci-fi it may be, but Halo's success as a story is in its human factor.
It is Noble Team's story that drives Reach forward, poses questions and gives players hope that somewhere out there, the team has avoided a terrible fate and is lost, waiting to be found.
The only complaint is that Bungie has clearly banked on players knowing what the Covenant is and why they've got a problem with mankind, because there is nothing in the campaign storyline to explain who the Covenant are. (To clarify, you know they're looking for something "central to their religion" but what's that all about?) Not one cutscene with a leathery old Prophet ordering a war cruiser into Reach's orbit, or scrambling to engineer a response to Noble Team's efforts. Nothing. The story is told from one viewpoint and one viewpoint only.
Verdict: You want to know if this is the ultimate Halo game? It is. Reach has a better and more varied campaign than its predecessors. It has better battle scenarios, a better narrative (though not flawless) and the multiplayer and customisation options are so broad as to border on ridiculous. It's all great fun.
But what about that Master Chief? If you've finished Halo 3 on Legendary, you'll know he's not dead. He's sleeping. Wake him when you need him. Will 343 Industries - the new protectors of the Halo franchise - set his alarm clock? We'll worry about that later.
If Halo 3's online multiplayer participation is any indication, you'll be playing Reach for years.
Format: Xbox 360