Long before a certain modern warfare-themed title arrived on the shores of Xbox Live, another stalwart of online play was the king of kings. This game is, of course, Halo, and with an immense fanbase, and two (and a half, if you count ODST) games featuring some of the most successful online components to ever hit Microsoft’s online gaming service, there’s been little to touch the Master Chief’s dominance. Well, before Infinity Ward had its say, anyway.
Call Of Duty has since encroached severely on Halo‘s turf, there’s no denying that, and CoD is undeniably a far more accessible game for newcomers, but with the imminent arrival of Halo Reach, the landscape of Xbox Live is set to change, and I’ve been lucky enough to get some hands-on experience with the multiplayer beta ahead of the global 3rd May launch of this testing goodness.
It’s probably fair to say that Halo Reach isn’t a radical redesign of the Halo formula, as Bungie knows that it doesn’t need to fix what isn’t really broken. What we have here in the beta is a testament to the overall quality of the series so far, and a full-on refinement of the multiplayer component.
This is an attempt to polish and update the classic formula, and the core of the game, regardless of the many and varied new additions, is still the same as before. This is all about fast, skilful play and mastery of the maps and weapons. Battles can be extremely hectic, and can quickly swing to tactical chess matches in certain game modes.
It’s all impressive stuff, and even in the beta, which still includes some rough edges, as to be expected, Reach is looking like a damn fine title.
So, what’s new to the world of Halo, and does it work? Well, I should first start with the player, and the tools made available. Several changes have been made to the basics of the online component, perhaps in an effort to bring Halo in line with current industry standards.
I am Spartan!
For the majority of the game (certainly in the beta), you’ll be playing as a Spartan, and before you jump into the fray you’ll need to choose an option from the new loadout menu. These loadouts start you with set weapons and armour ability. These abilities, replacing Halo 3’s equipment pickups, include jetpacks, invisibility cloaks, a speed boost and a shield. These essentially give the game classes, as such, and it’s instantly gratifying to experiment with each one, and there’s an option for everyone here.
If you’re a tactical player, then the jetpack will allow you to reach vantage points from which you can take out foes, and the shield and ‘armour lock’ will allow players to become impervious to damage for a time, at the cost of mobility.
Stealthy players will lap up the cloak option, and this makes you almost invisible, making silent melee kills and the new and very satisfying ‘Assassination’ kills far easier to pull off.
These abilities are major improvement over Halo 3’s equipment items, as you can use them at anytime, and always have them, even if you get killed. You can choose a new loadout before you spawn, too, meaning you’re not stuck with a single setup for the entire match.
Each ability uses power, which drains during use, but this recharges when your abilities are dormant. The abilities do need some work in my opinion, though. The jetpack is used well enough, and so is the dash option, but the cloak lasts for far too long, and in the interest of balance, I feel its power use should be increased.
The armour lock ability seems to be a little useless in most matches, as it sticks you to the floor motionless, unable to move or attack. This does protect you whilst allies take down your attackers, but it’s a little clumsy, and I’m not sure how popular the option will be in the long run.
Some of the weapons on offer are surprisingly different from previous Halo outings, and others are very familiar. There are slightly redesigned versions of Halo classics, like the assault rifle/SMG and the sniper rifle, and the Magnum also makes a return, much to fans’ approval. Covenant weapons like the Needler also make a reappearance, as does the plasma rifle, retooled as the Plasma Repeater.
Other returning weapons may not sound as inviting. The much-hated Battle Rifle makes returns, this time called the Designated Marksman Rifle. I wouldn’t say I ever hated the BR, but I must admit, the new Reach version is far more accessible, and it really is a headshot magnet this time ‘round.
The collection of new weapons is going to attract the most attention, though, and Bungie has gone all out to give players variety.
The new human grenade launcher is a definite highlight, and is able to launch explosive death. Standard fire shoots out exploding balls of doom, which is nice, but the real meat comes from the alt-fire mode. This allows the user to fire a grenade, and then, by holding down the trigger, this grenade can be placed as a kind mine, taking out foes who get too close when you release the trigger. Toasty!
The Needler’s bigger, badder brother is present in the form of the Needle Rifle. This fires more slowly than the Needler, but is far more accurate, and includes a scope. You can execute headshots with it, and the shards also keep the explosive edge, and can still detonate your enemies.
Perhaps the most sought after weapon in the beta, however, has to be the new Focus Rifle. This monstrous Covenant beam weapon is reminiscent of the Sentinel beams in Halo 3, but has taken a mean dose of steroids. Guaranteed to strike fear into those coming up against it, this rifle fires a concentrated bean of energy that can cut through shields in seconds and is brilliant at picking off single targets. It’s balanced, though, as the focused beam means players have to turn their attention to one foe at a time, meaning it’s not a weapon to take on groups of enemies.
Of course, with any online games there’s always a risk of one weapon that people hate, weapons that people claim are nothing but ‘noob tubes’. Reach still includes ultra-powerful melee weapons like the Covenant Energy Sword and the Brutish Gravity Hammer, which will, no doubt, still cause many a heated exchange of un-pleasantries, but I can guarantee that the new Plasma Launcher will be despised as the beta rolls on.
This is a powerful and borderline ridiculous weapon. It’s basically a grenade launcher (the aforementioned Covenant alternative to the new UNSC grenade launcher), and it can fire up to four sticky plasma grenades at once. This sounds powerful enough, especially due to the sticky payload, but when you combine the slight homing ability of the grenades and the option to seed a location with explosives, you’ve got what I expect many will call a cheap-ass weapon. Bungie will surely fine tune it for the final release, but for now it’ll be a weapon many will despise (only when they come up against it, of course).
Made for modes
With a great selection of old and new weapons, there’s another important element: maps and modes. As there were only a couple of maps available at the time, I can’t comment on the overall quality of the maps Reach will feature, but from the ones I did get chance to roam around, it’s looking very promising.
Powerhouse is one is an open map with several indoor areas. Used for the beta’s flag-based modes, it’s a well balanced map that caters to different playing styles. There are tactical vantage points, cover for sneaky, silent types, and open battle grounds for those with itchy trigger fingers. Weapon placements are well thought out, and the chokepoints in the main flag building will require true teamwork to overcome.
Swordbase is surely paying homage to Unreal Tournament classic Deck 16, with several catwalks spanning a large, open courtyard, and other corridors spread around it. The centre is a wide-open haven for snipers, and stealth killers will lurk around the tight corridors looking for assassination kills. There are anti-gravity vents that shoot you upwards to higher floors, and there’s a real reason to opt for the jetpack loadout.
The game modes in Reach will be pretty expansive in the final cut, and will obviously include the usual suspects like Slayer and CTF. The new modes are going to be of prime interest in the beta, however, although I foresee some being liked far more than others.
Stockpile is an odd one that takes CTF in a new direction. Each team has a ring-shaped container, or base, on the map, and spread around the environment are flags. Teams need to grab these flags, place them in their base and keep them there until the timer counts down to award points for the number of flags they have. Flags can be stolen back before the time limit is reached, and carriers, although unable to use abilities or weapons, can execute a one-hit kill using the flag itself. It’s a novel concept, and one that is enjoyable, but I found many didn’t take a liking to the game type, so time will tell how successful it’ll be.
Headhunter is, no doubt, going to be one of the most played modes. In this players collect skulls from fallen enemies, and have to deliver them to a goal to score. Multiple skulls can be carried at once, but other players can see how many you have. This will make those with multiple skulls a prime target for opportunists, and will bestow a real risk and reward mechanic.
It’s in the details
The major improvements I’ve mentioned are the most noticeable, but there are also some smaller tweaks to take note of. Shields are present as ever, with shields being a little more robust than before, and this time there’s an actual health bar, which is depleted (very quickly) once your shields are down. This can be replenished by picking up Halo 1-style med kits strewn around the maps.
The radar is back, but can now show enemies above and below your position, and if using the active camo, the radar will be jammed, showing multiple contacts. This applies if someone is using it near you, or you’re using the camo yourself.
The aforementioned assassinations are a new way to humiliate foes. By silently approaching enemies from behind and holding down the melee button, you can execute a flashy assassination kill. During this, you can be shot by another player, stopping the assassination, and you’re open to retribution, but pulling one off is great, and is certainly more satisfying than tea-bagging someone’s head (well, maybe not).
A very welcome addition isn’t actually present in actual matchesn as such, but instead features in the lobby and matchmaking menus. The map veto system is greatly improved, allowing people to quickly vote for their preferred map and game type, and the customisation options return, with more options than ever.
It’s early days, and the meat of the beta is still to come, with new features and modes being made available as time moves on. The beta will run from 3rd-19th of May, so that’s plenty of time to get your fix of Halo.
In the short time I’ve had with it, I can confirm that Bungie has stuck to the strengths of Halo, and has delivered a truly epic online component once again. Halo Reach looks great, plays fantastically smoothly, with not a single bit of lag, and when it comes to balance, aside from a few niggles, Bungie is king.
As with previous outings though, this is by no means a newcomer-friendly title, and those just starting out on the Halo experience will be frustrated beyond belief as they empty clip after clip into foes without result, only to be taken out seemingly with a single shot.
It’s all about practise, and if you stick with it and put in the hours, you’ll be in for a good time.