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When Microsoft’s “Halo 3” was released for the Xbox 360 in September 2007, one of the biggest complaints people had was that it didn’t seem like much of a visual upgrade over “Halo 2,” by far the best-looking shooter on the original Xbox.

Side-by-side screenshots of the two games say otherwise, but critics of “Halo 3’s” graphics had a point: As a brand new installment in Microsoft’s premier franchise, “Halo 3” should’ve been the best-looking title on the Xbox 360 when it hit stores. But it didn’t even come close to clearing the bar set by Epic Games’ “Gears of War,” released almost a year earlier.

During a press event for “Halo: Reach,” due out this fall, the game’s creative director, Marcus Lehto, mentioned up front that Bungie rebuilt the engine it used for “Halo 3” from top to bottom for “Reach.” A slide showed the evolution of what characters looked like from the first “Halo” up through “Reach,” and the difference between “Halo 3” and “Halo: Reach” was pronounced. The increased detail in the character models can be used to show emotions as well as battle scars, and Lehto seemed aware of his newfound storytelling power.

While none of the “Halo” games has really been known for a story that resonates emotionally, the tragic loss of the human colony of “Reach” would be a great place to start upping the narrative ante. “Halo: Reach,” a prequel to the original “Halo: Combat Evolved,” takes place amidst humanity’s greatest military defeat at the hands of the Covenant, the theocratic coalition of alien races that bedevil humanity in all the other “Halo” games.

“You know the end — Reach is going to fall,” Lehto said. “We’re gonna delve into the characters, see what they saw…” The game will follow a squad of Spartans, the genetically engineered supersoldiers who trained on Reach.

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Unlike past “Halo” games, however, it sounds like “Reach” might end up being a story with a scope wider than any battle you fight in. Lehto talked about the planet Reach’s status as humanity’s last bulwark against the Covenant, a planet “home to 700 million innocent people” and said he wanted players “to understand these people and their culture.” One of my big beefs about “Halo 3” was that, even though the game featured a Covenant invasion of Earth, the stakes felt pretty low. Despite the award-winning, emotionally stirring ads for that game, you never really saw terrified civilians or gained a sense that anything was lost beyond the generic, computer-controlled comrades who died by your side. Humanity seemed to have become this fascist, war-mad race where nothing mattered outside the military.

Whatever happens with the story, “Halo: Reach” should look great. As I mentioned earlier, the faces this time out will have a lot more detail. Additionally, Bungie has motion-captured actors for the first time to make characters’ movements more realistic. In the brief glimpses of gameplay, including a demo of one of the game’s multiplayer maps, the lighting and particle effects in the game looked noticeably improved. Grenades seemed capable of sending thousands of glass fragments shattering every which way, and each burst from the plasma pistol was its own dynamic light source.

The world of “Reach” promises to be an upgrade, as well. After the dark, bland corridors of “Halo 3: ODST’s” single-player campaign, players will be relieved to discover that “Reach” marks a return to the massive, open outdoor environments of the first “Halo.” Lehto spoke of the feeling players had during the first “Halo” game, when they stepped out of the escape pod into a massive, outdoor world that seemed to stretch on forever. As a gamer who remembers that sense of awe I first felt when a coworker at The Press Democrat loaned me his copy of “Halo: Combat Evolved,” I’m stoked to hear this.

Like “Halo 3,” “Reach” will feature four-player cooperative play. But unlike past games, “Reach” will be designed differently. Each player will essentially create his own customized Spartan, and you’ll play as that Spartan all the time, whether you’re playing in campaign mode or in online deathmatches. One thing Lehto was clear to point out was that pretty much every feature and game mode from past “Halo” titles would be appearing in this sequel. That means we’ll once again get the Forge level editor, which allowed players to collaboratively modify the game’s multiplayer maps and share them online. We’ll also be getting an upgraded version of the Saved Films feature. In follow-up questions, I had a tougher time nailing Lehto down on how the game might incorporate “ODST’s” popular Firefight mode, but I got the impression it’d be in there, too, plus more stuff Bungie won’t talk about yet.

We’ll get a small taste of what “Halo: Reach” has to offer on May 2, when a free online beta test goes live. To get in on it, you’ll need to have a copy of “Halo 3: ODST.” It’s possible that other ways in may open up at some point, if the beta test for “Halo 3” is anything to go by, but buying “ODST” is apparently a sure bet.

As someone who felt pretty let down by “Halo 3’s” campaign, I’m hoping Bungie can turn things around again for “Halo: Reach.” (It’s probably worth mentioning here that I actually liked the plot of “Halo 2,” with the exception of the poorly handled cliffhanger ending. Playing as the Arbiter was a blast, though.) It’s widely expected that this will be the last “Halo” game that Bungie, now independent from Microsoft, will create. It’d be nice to see them turn their baby over to Microsoft robust and healthy.

To queue up the video shown to press at X10 to be downloaded to your Xbox 360, head here.