Hands-on with the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta

By Johnny Cullen, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 14:00 GMT

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With the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta going live on May 3, you’re probably wondering what it’s like to actually play. We sent Adam Hartley to get some hands-on time with code at a Microsoft event in London.

If you are a Halo fan then you clearly don’t need reminding that the new multiplayer beta test for Bungie’s Halo: Reach – the ex-Microsoft studio’s final outing of the biggest gaming franchise on earth – launches worldwide on May 3. To get involved you need to own a copy of Halo 3: ODST (which of course you do, right?) via which you can access the beta next month.

However, if you don’t own an Xbox 360 yet, due to some unfathomably twisted and pleasure-denying logic still don’t consider yourself a Halo fan, then we can only urge you to go and buy a used copy of ODST (you will get one for a tenner or so at your local exchange) and set aside Bank Holiday Monday, May 3 to joyously assassinate some frighteningly large aliens with your bare hands as you jet pack away to freedom with a massive grin on your face. If nothing else, it beats trudging around B&Q.

For those that don’t yet know, Halo: Reach is the next major release in the series, due out later in 2010. The single-player version of the game is set to be a prequel, with events taking place before all the other three blockbusting games in the franchise, in which you will play as part of a very small special forces unit called Noble Team. We expect to see nothing less than an incredibly polished game that sets the bar yet again for attention to detail, character customisation abilities and the general high quality of gameplay that Bungie has built its rep around.

For now though, we want to concern ourselves with the online multiplayer aspects of the new game. VG247 put some ‘serious’ playtime in on the pre-release version of the Halo: Reach beta this week at a Microsoft event in London. Even after only half an hour or so of play it is pretty clear to see why Bungie’s fifth and final chapter is going to be remembered as the studio’s swan song. The team’s last great hurrah before it moves away from its beloved Halo universe to develop an entirely new IP (about which we currently know very little). Read on for our full and frank first impressions of what promises to be the biggest game of 2010.

No limits to player numbers

In terms of the limits to the number of players that can get involved in the beta test, one Microsoft rep at the London event informed VG247 that there are none. Indeed, Bungie’s multiplayer design lead Chris Carney and community director Brian Jarrard recently told The Seattle Times that the beta could well have something in the region of 3 million players.

“We know that we have passionate fans who we are going to encourage to try to break the game and find these issues now so we don’t have to deal with it in the fall,” Jarrard told them, indicating that the 3 million estimate was “fairly conservative… certainly there will never be a console beta of this magnitude.”

Hardcore fans can also breathe a sigh of relief at the news that Bungie has not implemented any kind of motion-controlled Natal element to the new melee assassinations in the game. When you first start to use these new attacks on opponents (which you will do a lot at first, purely to enjoy watching the many different types of kill animations which you get to stand back and admire from a third-person viewpoint) it is easy to see why the temptation to throw Microsoft a Natal bone might have been there.

Thankfully it’s not, because, as the Bungie man adds: “Reach” is very much a core, twitch game that really does rely on something that millions of people have spent about 10 years getting accustomed to, so we’re not looking to reinvent that right now.”

Why fix it what clearly ain’t broke? Additionally, while these kill animations are really only a minor new detail in what is a beautifully realised multiplayer game, the fact that they are done so well and in such a way that lets the player stand back from the action for a couple of seconds to witness yet another marvellous attack on an opponent – yet in no way lose any feeling of contact with the overall flow of the action in the game – is testament to the developer’s skill at putting gameplay first and showy detail second. (Somewhat strangely, my thoughts went to the abysmal Manhunt 2 as I first experienced this feeling in Halo: Reach – because where Rockstar failed to make its gruesome kill animations work within the context of a game, Bungie has shown everybody else how it should be done).

Halo noobs welcome

Those Halo noobs that haven’t spent the last decade immersing themselves in the games needn’t let all this talk of keeping the hardcore happy put them off either, because the controls in Reach have been crafted and honed to a point where they are incredibly intuitive and quick and easy to learn. Give it an hour or so and you will be fully up to speed. Bear in mind that you will, of course, have your bottom handed to you on a plate numerous times as you pick up the basics.

Bungie has clearly looked long and hard at Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and realised that it needed to up its game considerably to create an online game for Xbox 360 that can knock that particular big hitter off the top spot later this year. In my opinion, based on my first few hours playing around with the new features and content in Halo: Reach, I think they are easily set to achieve this goal. In addition to a number of cool new details in the game, such as the above-mentioned melee assassinations,

Okay, details.

The new armor abilities and game types are the most significant new additions to the game. Armor abilities are persistent, re-usable abilities that afford your character tactical advantages on the battlefield. These include ‘Sprint’ (a Spartan-only ability that does what it says, giving you short bursts of speed when needed); ‘Active Camo’ (stand still and you are invisible, the faster you move the less camouflaged you become); ‘Evade’ (an Elite-only ability that lets you roll out of sticky situations); ‘Jet Pack’ (awesome! our favourite by far) and ‘Armor Lock’ (makes your character temporarily invulnerable).

Players also now get to choose their special armor ability and their primary and secondary weapons before the game itself starts (or each time they respawn). This is a key change to the gameplay which works very well indeed, as it lets you focus on your game better than before. In team-based games, ensuring that your guys have a good smattering of different abilities and weapons is essential to securing a win. New weapons to play around with include the Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR), which replaces the Halo 3 Battle Rifle, a timed-detonation grenade launcher, a Covenant Focus Rifle and – perhaps most awesome of all – the anti-vehicle Plasma Launcher. Way more than enough to keep gun nuts and laser freaks happy for months to come.

As for game types, Halo: Reach includes plenty of classic multiplayer options such as Catch the Flag, Slayer or King of the Hill, as well as four brand new ones – Generator Defense, Stockpile, Headhunter and, everybody’s instant new favourite, Invasion. The beta also includes four new environments, each of which offers various game type options. ‘Powerhouse’ and ‘Swordbase’ are both ideal for party game types such as Headhunter and Slayer. ‘Overlook’ is ideal for Generator Defense games, whilst ‘Boneyard’ is an Invasion specific map.

Each new type of game works well. After time, you will no doubt find that you like some more than you like others, for sure, though we will no doubt be returning to all of them at various points time and time and time again over the next twelve months. There is no way that Bungie can be accused of merely throwing in new modes just for the hell of it, to make the game seem like it has more options than competing multiplayer titles. That said, Invasion was by far the instant favourite at the preview event and is surely going to be the one that many start playing as soon as the beta is opened up.

Halo Invasion and Headhunter

Invasion and Headhunter were the two new game types which seemed to be the initial firm favourites at Microsoft’s London press event. Invasion is described as a new “round based, multiple objective game that pits a team of Spartans against a team of Elites.” The Elites start on the offense and have to capture one of two objectives from their Spartan opponents’ high ground. In round two, a larger portion of the map opens up along with the introduction of vehicles into the action (no new vehicles announced – ‘just yet’) with three new objectives for the Spartans to defend. After that, if the Elites manage to make it to stage three, they then need to extract a data core from the Spartan base into a waiting Phantom to win the game.
Overall, Invasion is a fantastic wide-scale multiplayer game that feels almost pace perfect. The vehicle combat, in particular, generated a number of whoops and laughter from the usually quiet and reserved British journos at the preview. We look forward to tearing around the new Boneyard map in our Warthogs again very soon.

Bungie describes our other instant favourite game type, Headhunter as “a new ‘party’ game […] where the goal is to collect and capture the most skulls.” Funny sounding party game, but hey, it works! When you are killed, a skull drops from your dying corpse. The aim of the game is to scoop up as many skulls as you possibly can and then drop them into specially marked zones dotted around the map. Be careful, mind, because if you are holding a welter of skulls (which we are totally guessing to be the correct collective noun) then you will drop the lot if you are offed. After which you will swear, loudly. And if you have ten or more skulls then a big flashing star above your head will also help to attract undue attention…
Stockpile is another ‘party’ type game which combines Territories meets with Capture the Flag, so flags appear randomly across the map at pre-set flag-spawn points. While the fourth and final new game type, Generator Defense is a game where three Spartans take on three Elites, with the latter trying to destroy the former’s generators before the timer runs to zero.

Outside of Halo: Reach’s multiplayer gameplay, Bungie has also made a number of helpful improvements to the social, community and matchmaking features in the game, so you can get into a game with your own friends, or players at your level or in your region or ‘like-minded teammates’ (based on chattiness, motivation, teamwork and tone preferences) quicker and easier than ever before. Your team can also vote on what maps and game types they want to play, which is a very cool option to have. Unless you are an anarchist and hate democracy, that is.

Finally, Bungie has introduced a new matchmaking experience called ‘Arena’ which is purely aimed at the hardest of the hardcore “that values skill, ranking and bragging rights above all else.”

Noobs (and Activision): beware!

[Halo: Reach multiplayer beta opens on May 3. You can read beta impressions from other sites here.]

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