It's rare for a video game to have such a hold over you that even a solitary image can increase the heart rate.
But that's exactly the case with Halo 4's single stark shot: it looks more like a one sheet for a cinematic sci-fi spectacular.
It's mostly black save for a few elements. A titanic vertical beam of white light cuts through the darkness, almost dividing the poster in two. It lightens two things. One, the curve of the planet in which it fires forth, and second, a drifting spaceship derelict caught dead centre in the beam. Spread across the horizon, three words: "Wake Up John."
It's also one of the very few hints we'll get today of Halo 4's story - and this is just a dramatic re-realisation of Halo 3's Legendary Ending.
This image's emblazoned onto a cardboard standee roughly a foot wide and perched on a long desk, a unconscious divider between it's two sides. On one, expectant journalists sink into thick leather chairs. On the other, a trio of Halo's new guardians from 343 Industries lead by franchise stalwart, Frank O'Connor.
What they talk about and show today is vague enough to frustrate as well as intrigue. We hear broad strokes of Master Chief's characterisation, new threats and tough choices, all bookended by two short trailers and a recurring singular in-game snap of the new-look John as 343 talk.
"Bit of a Reboot"
To say the studio's done a Batman would be too strong. But there's a more realistic look to Master Chief that visually explains the workings of Spartan armour that recalls the Dark Knight: every curve, every bolt. The bulk's gone, the shoulder to neck pads more curved and elongated, and the meshed fabric below the armour parts now has texture.
It's a streamlining thats applied to the multiplayer avatars as well, 343 ushering in the new era of the Spartan Mark IV. While multiple helmet designs recall variants in Reach, there's a chassis sleekness that reminds of the Play Arts Master Chief figurine and the Neon Genesis Evangelion EVAs. This is how a super-soldier of the 26th Century should look - a notion that'll be applied to the redesigned game HUD (though it looked relatively unscathed from previous versions come the multiplayer clips).
Curved armour or not, that's still 900 pound of warfare-trained killing machine. While Frank assures us in a post-presentation interview that players will be able to pick up the controller and have that familiar Halo feel, 343 talks about properly representing the Spartan's super-strength and weight within the game. Whether that's gameplay or not they're not saying. We do get a glimpse of an unfinished first-person cut scene shot as the Chief grabs and forcibly pulls aside metallic doors.
"What's Behind the Mask"
While 343 wants to emphasis the soldier part of Chief's designation, it also wants to dig into his personality. While he's been defined by others' interactions to him, Halo 4's "new threat" - something that he's never encountered before - will scratch away his confidence. Indecision will be a by-product of adaptation, as well as hard-hitting consequences from tough choices.
The proactive approach is due to an eagerness to reclaim character development back from other media such as comics and novels, but reading between the lines it sounds like Halo 4 will strip away the convoluted story that left heads scratched previously for a more personal narrative. A war story, even if it's on an alien civilisation's world.
Some things stay the same, others are clear improvement. Latter being mo-capped body and facial animations. One close-up shot of a face with exaggerated movements clearly showing 343's managed to squeeze some extra juice out of Halo's usually perfunctory facial capture.
"Vast Arsenal of Weapons & Abilities"
Familiarity is bred in weapons and vehicles - both a remodelled Battle Rifle with redone audio (a mite weak to our ears when a clip is unloaded in multiplayer) and the classic Warthog are shown. You have to wonder if both will be in short supply given the alien locale, or even if your wrecked remains of the UNSC's Forward Unto Dawn serves as warehouse for home-build equipment as you explore.
Concrete information is extremely sparse; we only see the Battle Rifle used in the multiplayer segment of the presentation, and while there are noticeable blue icons denoting weapons around the two maps, they're too small to pinpoint what types there are.
The matches shown are all fast third-person camera pans and brief flashes of first-person, while we're told there'll be reason given for the Red Vs Blue grudge matches (training exercises maybe?).
"Redefine Halo Multiplayer"
Multiplayer maps will be all original content unsourced from the campaign. We're toured through two: a human military facility called Warhouse, with curved corridors spilling out into a central factory floor in which sits a two-storey biped mech mid-production. Another hint what we'll see in this expanded universe? We've little time to digest that thought as we're turned to the highlight of the presentation, Wraparound.
This map is built on a singular visual hook - a floating orbital station. It faces a monstrous gas giant which cascades beams of white light across the level, bathing the chrome and silver platforms and man-cannons in an unearthly glow that's almost blinding to look at. The level's detailing is relatively simple - the etching on walls and ceilings aren't a huge advancement over Reach, but it looks stunning, and the two team colours stand out beautifully as a result.
"Abilities very different - evolution of what you experienced in Reach"
It's a vanilla Slayer match, but with huge text pop-ups as head shots are claimed, a design decision that keeps acknowledgement of your success immediate but with a jab at the eyes that's out of place with the backdrop.
Multiplayer Spartans leap around, though we can't accurately measure the distance to see if 343's interpretation of a Spartan's strength has tweaked the franchise's traditional exaggerated jump.
"Traditional" is the word that springs to mind with all that we see. It's definitely a conscious choice though. Microsoft obviously wish to reassure fans at this point that whatever new features they're building, it's still on familiar foundations.
Two other hints of what to come are mentioned. First, that the "Abilities are very different - an evolution of what you experienced in Reach", we're told with no further insight. Expansion or reinvention? Either way Reach's marmite addition the series remains.
Lastly the most vague comment of all, something - something - about the special community features that'll roll out with the game's release this winter.
Whatever that is, and one immediately thinks of COD's Elite, it's a logical growth for a franchise that's lost some ground online to other FPS games. But you've got to keep in mind that Bungie managed a master class of sublime functionality and unique features on its official site for years - it's be easy to imagine 343 taking the reins of that model and applying it across Waypoint, mobile devices and a self-contained social site.
It's easy to imagine, conceive - but what's true, what's real is outside our grasp, and we can only look to the long road ahead to E3 until we get proper answers. Expect the first showing of the campaign proper to headline part of Microsoft's pre-show conference.
As it stands we know little, but expect much. Despite losing ground to Gears of War this still feels like Microsoft's premier series - it's impossible to imagine 343 fumbling the delivery.
We ask Frank afterwards if he's tired of all the cloak and daggers and just wants to grab a microphone and tell the world the greatness of what Halo 4 is going to be. He answers only with a smile. A smile of man who's seen the secrets of the universe - and is happy to keep them so. If only for a few more months.
- System:Xbox 360
- Genre:Action, Shooter
- Developer:343 Industries
- Offline players:1-4
- Online players:1-16
- Age limit:From 16 years
- Release date:06 November 2012
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