With absolutely no introduction needed, the crème de la crème, if you will, of the multiplayer gaming world, Halo, returns in style this week with the Halo: Reach mutliplayer beta available now to play for those who have access to the ODST disc.
As Bungie's swan song to the Halo franchise, its now clear for all to see where time was spent in favour of multiplayer additions within last year's ODST. Here, Bungie have poured sweat, blood and tears re-igniting the competitive multiplayer flame that, whilst a steady burner, has seen some of its power dwindle in wake of FPS-behemoths Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 taking centre stage.
The launch of the beta was met with the customary server problems that still plagues the console online stratosphere whenever a big release hits the marketplace. In spite of this, my more relaxed approach to the beta meant I hopped on after those initial blips and got straight into the action. A quick change of the control layout from a new default to a more familiar 'Recon' setting led me into the main menu where I was greeted with a nice welcome message from Bungie which also reminds me I can customise my avatar. A quick dashing of colour, an edit of the service tag, and a customary randomised emblem design all superfluous as I engage Bungie's magic matchmaking machine. It's here where the initial changes from Halo 3's multiplayer template can be seen. The 'Veto' system has been overhauled with a more friendly voting system instead favoured. Here, three seperate map/game types are chosen by the matchmaking servers, with a fourth option to 'Vote for new' choices. Votes are cast and the leading game type is chosen, and finally, Reach's multiplayer can be experienced...
The first of many significant (and hugely positive) changes comes in the way in which you can choose a weapon load-out or 'armour ability' to enter the game, effectively replacing the pick-ups from Halo 3. Any one of four different suits can be chosen which range from the added ability to activate a shield, to sprint, to activate invisibility or give use of a jet pack for easy traversal of the map. Playing as an 'Elite' also grants access to the 'Evade' ability. The addition of such elements is huge, both in terms of adding huge variety to what could have been simply more of the same and offering complexity to tactical play. For example, the way in which a standard 'capture the flag' game can be turned on its head through the use of a team's clever dishing out of such abilities really ought to be congratulated. Defenders may want to remain invisible at the flag's capture point whilst offence may rely heavily on jet packs or the sprint ability to get to the opposing team's flag quickly. It really does offer something where other game's fall down, a simplistic yet hugely effective tactical incentive for player's to work together. Shield's still recharge as in traditional Halo fashion, however ODST's health packs also make a return, which can be picked up around the map if your armour is damaged, (signalled by a warning message below the health bar) to return armour to fully effective status.
Halo's run-of-the-mill assault rifle acts as customary primary weapon once again whilst new weapons such as the 'plasma launcher' and 'grenade launcher' offer huge fire-power for those lucky enough to grab one of the few lying around. These can be devastating if used correctly, the 'plasma launcher' emitting four locked-on, charged plasma grenades once fired! Elsewhere, the Covenant's 'needle rifle' and Spartan 'DMR', or 'Designated Marksman Rifle' are both effective in mid-to-long range and can deliver deadly head shots when the going gets tough. The 'focus rifle' meanwhile blends aspects of the 'beam rifle' with the 'sentinel beam' in a ferocious expelling of a highly concentrated beam of energy with all the effectiveness and zooming capabilities of a sniper, effective at long range. In addition to new and modified weapons, a melee insta-kill can also be activated with a hold of the 'melee' button behind an unsuspecting foe, resulting in a quick animation of the assassination. Whilst bringing nothing particularly spectacular, there's no doubt, like Gears of War's use of the chainsaw, that huge satisfaction can be earnt with this smug dispatch technique.
'Headhunter' is the first of a few game types that have been added to Reach. Available in single-player matches, skulls need to be collected and dropped at randomly generating drops. A skull is dropped once a player is killed, and in no uncertain terms does it mean only a few skulls are on the map at any one time. Your HUD highlights player's which carry skulls and how many, meaning it'll often mean a rush to those with more skulls in a bid to stop them in their tracks to the drop zone- releasing a fountain of flaming skulls with it.
'Stockpile' is a team game in which four flags are deposited on the map in one minute rounds. The aim of the game is to 'stockpile' more flags than your opponents within your base before the rounds timer dissipates. However many flags are stockpiled once the time hits zero is the number of points scored. The game ends once a team reaches 10 points in total.
The final game mode I tried was '3 plot' which is a variant of 'territories' and places three territories over the map as team's look to capture and keep hold of these areas as time builds.
The two maps that were available were 'Powerhouse', an industrial hydro-electric power plant. Offering interconnected outer buildings with open middle grounds provide hugely satisfying combat grounds. 'Swordbase' meanwhile offers verticality first and foremost. An indoor arena for carnage, with concrete corridors, cat-walks and open plan rooms forming the heart of the level. A jet pack wouldn't go amiss here, for sure.
No significant graphical improvement can be seen, although the improvements in audio effects are superb. A critical blow will result in a whistle of momentary silence and the muffling of environmental sounds. The use of invisibility also instigates a deafening silence that is unlike anything previously witnessed within multiplayer where the frantic fire fight usually ruptures speakers, or failing that, a ten-year old trash talks through your ear! OK, that still occurs. Other aspects that need to be mentioned include the award of 'credits' upon completion of a game for certain accomplishments, which can be used to buy armour upgrades and such like. The levelling system and rank tags return from Halo 3.
Overall, the beta has given me a new found enthusiasm for the Halo experience. I've been a huge fan from the very beginning but the mis-step that was ODST made me sceptical for Reach. Now, it's pre-ordered and I'm looking forward to what the full package can give!