They're all dead. Everybody is dead. Everybody dies. Reach is glassed by the Covenant in August 2252. But maybe Team Noble, the pack of scrappy Spartans who star in Halo: Reach, manage to find a way to survive for future sequels. Everybody else dies, though. Dead. Dead. Dead.

Maybe I'm not making myself clear enough: Reach will definitely have an unhappy ending. But it also has quite an unhappy beginning, as Team Noble gets dispatched to find out why a farm's communications (and also the USMC force sent to investigate) has gone down. We all know why, of course - it's the Covenant. They're all on Reach and they're going to murder everybody - but on the plus side, this sets up an intriguing narrative situation where the player is far more aware of what's going on than the characters. "Don't look around that corner," you might wish you could say, "because you'll get totally murdered by an Elite."

It sounds like the perfect setup for a horror film, and Bungie embellishes the fact by setting the first level in a spooky farm that is completely desolate - other than the occasional Moah, a deer-like indigenous life form that is probably delicious. The scene is drenched in ominous mist, cut-off from the rest of society by deep, rolling valleys and shockingly bad signal. It's all a bit rural, actually, with hay bales, stony paths, pitchforks, rolling fields of green, green grass and steel-framed farm buildings. If the weather conditions were better you could probably harvest a good crop here. Bit of a shame about that Covenant swarm just about to destroy the planet, though.

So, yes, you look about a bit - around a few circular walkways overlooking a cliff, through some sandbag storage buildings and probably in some bushes - but nobody can be found. Nobody apart from a USMC trooper who's been brutally murdered and left in a nasty pose. Ouch. What could have done that? Oh, yes, it's the Covenant isn't it? Silly me.

Some decent scripting and music, the latter thankfully a far cry away from the riff-heavy guitar wailing that played over the E3 demo, competently handles the rising tension. We get to run into some civilians, feebly hiding away in a building and speaking in crazed gibberish. It's the first time in the series Bungie has been really able to flaunt the sheer size of their Spartan super-soldiers, and seeing the armour-clad, genetically-engineered monstrosities tower above regular people emphasises just how much killing you're going to do as soon as the Covenant show up.

You take on the role of Noble 6. This is your character's first mission with Noble Team, so it's a case of some on-the-job learning of your teammates. Here's the skinny: Carter's the boss; Kat is the woman; Jun is the sniper; Emile is probably going to die first; and Jorge is both a SPARTAN-II (which means he's cut from genetically superior cloth, like Master Chief) and probably a bit of a psycho. We can probably save the rest of the getting-to-know-you stuff for the SPARTAN Christmas party, to be honest.

Anyway, the Covenant make their appearance shortly afterwards. There are Jackals, some Grunts and even a Banshee. It all kicks off at this point, and the new weapons and targeting reticule require patient, focused shots to the head as opposed to Master Chief's uncanny ability to hit a penny from six miles away with akimbo SMG's. The onus on blasting away the aliens is set firmly on you, but the rest of Noble Team provides plenty of tactical support - distractions and softening up enemies, mostly. We've seen this kind of squad play in plenty of other shooters in recent years but the first time it's been properly (ODST doesn't count) incorporated into Halo.

Elites are also back, which is ace. They still do that annoying weaving thing when you try to shoot them, which certainly brings back memories of 2002. I've always preferred them to Brutes, and it's great to have their quadruple-hinged mandibles back on the battlefield.

They're harder to kill, too, which makes the game look a bit more difficult than the Halos of recent years. Noble Team splits up after scrambling up a waterfall, with Noble Six teaming up with Carter and Jorge to assemble a makeshift Warthog out of a civilian pickup and Jorge's massive minigun. That's indicative of Reach as a whole: it's the same Halo, just with a bit of a twist.

Firefight mode, Bungie's take on the co-op survival mode, has also been given a few new twists of its own. The team has added the series' ubiquitous customisation options to the mix, allowing people to fiddle around with all kinds of variables: skulls, enemy types, loadouts and match duration, to name a few. The default settings have been changed from ODST: Firefight matches now last for a single set, as opposed to when everyone gets killed, and Black Eye (which was very annoying) has been removed from the third round. A classic Firefight mode is included, alongside one where you're given unlimited rocket launchers and 'Gruntpocalypse,' where you fight nothing but grunts with the birthday party skull switched on, which causes their heads to explode into confetti and children to cheer.

There's also Firefight Versus, a game of offence and defence which pits two Spartans against two player-controlled Elites in a bid score as many points as possible. Spartans go about trying to kill waves of Covenant forces, and Elites try to stop them; after a round, the two teams swap sides. It's a simple idea, inspired more than a little by Left 4 Dead, but it's just the kind of thing you'll be able to play for much longer than you probably should. Xbox Live Matchmaking for all Firefight modes will help out when you're trying to round up an extra player, too.

So, Halo Reach. It's still ostensibly Halo, but I mean that in a positive way. Bungie has turned their FPS format into an artform, and there's absolutely nothing to suggest that Reach won't be a worthy sequel and a significant last hurrah for Bungie's tenure with the franchise. It's a slow, methodical opening that emphasises character over spectacle - a first for the series, and a confident direction for Bungie to be heading in.