“Definitely not Covenant.”

Wandering through the lush jungle around the Forward Unto Dawn’s crash site, the AI voice of Cortana rings forebodingly in Master Chief’s ear as he encounters a mysterious (but no less deadly) enemy in Halo 4’s newly released gameplay demo.

Serving as the introduction for Microsoft’s E3 2012 press conference, the first conference of the day, the footage officially kicked off this year’s show (Nintendo debuted their new Wii U controllers on Sunday night) and gave us an all-new look at Halo 4’s combat, weapons, story background, and visual enhancements.

The conclusion of Halo 3 almost five years ago and ensuing reveal information for Halo 4 has set the stage for our protagonist in the realm of an ancient Forerunner planet. The Forward Unto Dawn has been sliced in half, Cortana’s identity and faithful companionship is beginning to erode, and the new development team at 343 Industries has a fresh start for their vision of the next Halo trilogy.

Presumably, the gameplay footage we’re seeing encompasses an earlier part of Halo 4’s campaign. With Cortana and Chief very much in sync – the AI providing helpful visual/situational ques and constant dramatic sentiment – it’s clear a major focus will be how her declining state plays out as the narrative progresses.

Halo 4 Gameplay Forerunner E3

In the meantime, though, Chief begins his walk through the woods by spotting a Covenant patrol through a new scope attachment on the Battle Rifle. Three headshots later and only an Elite remains. He makes a charge at Chief but is suddenly incinerated by distant energy blast. This is where the game heads into uncharted territory.

A minute later Chief encounters strands of an incandescent, animal-like enemy that’s unrecognizable to anything seen in the franchise before. The consensus is reached that these are no Covenant beings – Cortana identifies them as AIs with Forerunner elements in their makeup – and their vicious patterns of attack present a challenge for Chief in the early going. A number of times, he’s overcome; tackled and forced to use melee attacks or grenades just to keep the enemies at bay.

Anyone concerned about the aging appeal of Halo’s arsenal won’t have worry much this November. After fending off various crawlers, human-sized soldiers (Frank O’Connor later referred to them as “Promethean Knights”), and even an aerial drone, Chief snags a new Light Rifle powered by the same glowing Forerunner energy source. He’s easily able to vaporize the next batch of adversaries with a surging light beam and later finds a shotgun variant of the weapon. Unfortunately, he’s unable to use it: the video ends as Chief is surrounded by our new foes, who appear en masse through an infrared scan and knock the Spartan unconscious.

We’ll update the post as soon as pictures and full video become available [Update: see the full 8-minute trailer above.], but it’s clear that Chief has stumbled upon (by accident or not) an entirely new race – with entirely entirely new weapons, fiction, and high-end production values to boot .

Ranters, what do you think of Halo 4’s early E3 showing?

Halo 4 releases on November 6, 2012 for the Xbox 360.

Follow me on Twitter @Brian_Sipple.