Halo: Reach is a melancholy experience in more ways than one.

Bungie has been working exclusively on games set in the Halo universe for more than ten years. Reach is to be Bungie’s final instalment in a franchise that propelled the developer from a middling studio to one of the hottest commodities in the industry. After Reach ships on the 14th of September, Bungie will depart Microsoft to begin work in earnest on a new intellectual property to be published by Activision.

It’s not surprising that Reach’s executive producer, Joseph Tung, described the completion of the game as a bitter-sweet experience during a preview session in publisher Microsoft’s Auckland offices.

A prequel to 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved for Xbox, Reach documents the downfall of the titular planet to the alien Covenant, a confederacy of extra terrestrials with a mind to wipe humanity from the galaxy.

To assure you that things will not end well, the game begins at the end by panning across the defeated Reach before focusing on the pierced helmet of a fallen Spartan. Throughout, Halo musical composer Marty O’Donnell’s sombre choral score highlights the tale of human tenacity and tragedy that’s about to unfold.

The helmet belongs to you, or more precisely, Spartan super soldier Noble 6, whom you will control throughout the game. You’re the latest unwelcome addition to Noble Team, a motley assortment of military clichés seemingly lifted from a James Cameron sci-fi flick.

By design, the introduction to Halo: Reach is much slower than those of previous Halo games. Noble Team are first tasked with responding to a distress beacon triggered at a settlement that Reach’s central administration has lost contact with.

Arriving at the outpost, Noble Team enters into a language-barred and uncertain stand-off with a distressed collection of local farmers. On Reach, civilian non-player characters are making their first appearance in the series. Their inclusion is intended to emphasise the collateral tragedy of Reach’s fall.

Of course, it proves to be an assault by the vanguard of the Covenant armada. The true identity of the assailants is very gently teased – we catch half an unsure glimpse of a Covenant Jackal atop a ridge – a smart move by the developers.

Xbox gamers have been fragging the Covenant for the better part of a decade now. Their carefully orchestrated introduction in Reach, compounded by the terrifying impact they’ve had on the local populace, gives the Covenant a fresh coat of paint as a plausible foe. Even the squat, cartoonish grunts have put on their game faces for this outing – not once did we see the fodder of the Convenant army squeal “Enemies!” and waddle away in terror. Additionally, the dangerously clever Elites of Halo: Combat Evolved return to occupy the top tier of the Convenant ranks.

But the world of Reach itself may be Bungie’s finest achievement. The trend in the Halo series has been towards increasingly linear and defined environments. Reach harks back to the series’ roots, telling its story in a vast, much more open environment, begging for, and rewarding exploration.

The game engine far surpasses previous Halo titles. Halo 3 was able to handle a mere four dynamic light sources on the screen at any time. Reach soars at twenty to forty sources. Speaking of soaring, the sky has also been turned into an asset, as ships can now ascend into and out of clouds (instead of being painted on blue wallpaper). On the ground, the draw range has been significantly increased. Reach can also handle twice as many units on-screen as its predecessor.

That has also freed Bungie to create a comprehensive ecology for the planet Reach without having to compromise necessary military units. As the fight with the Covenant heats up, we see flocks of distressed Moa, large ostrich-like birds that share a striking resemblance with their New Zealand namesake, scattering in all directions.

Together, these elements charge Halo: Reach as a whole with a heightened sense of character, drama and immersion. Halo 3: ODST’s lacklustre and all-too-brief campaign left some of us wondering if the series was teetering on the shovelware sinkhole, and more concerned that Reach, which has been in simultaneous development with that title, may leave us disappointed. Will Reach be Bungie’s Halo swansong or a warthog, we wondered aloud as the multiplayer beta kicked off.

It’s looking more and more like a swansong.