Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Halo: Reach Beta Preview

On Wed. Apr. 14th, we saw the end of an era. That was the day that support for original Xbox games via Xbox LIVE was removed, and that was the day that we bid a fond farewell to Halo 2's Xbox LIVE multiplayer. The single most popular original Xbox game of all time had finally been retired, and while Halo 3 continues to be played regularly the world over, something new is in the air. Bungie, the developers behind the Halo first person shooters, are hard at work on a prequel to the Halo trilogy entitled Halo: Reach. The multiplayer beta for Halo: Reach kicks off on May 3rd, however on Wed. Apr. 14th, myself and a select group of others from the Canadian community were privileged to be granted some one on one time with a pre-beta build of the Multiplayer portion of the game.

Quietly held in a downtown Toronto press office and under a strict embargo that has now lifted, Jeff Rivait, Product Manager - Xbox Games and Accessories, gave us our initial "tour" of the beta with an as yet unreleased promotional video and then allowed us to take a crack at the pre-beta itself.

Set up in a conference room were eight LCD TVs with eight Xbox 360 consoles all system linked together for some multiplayer carnage, and there were game types both old and new. Before I get into those, however, let's talk a bit about controls. The standard layout you're used to from Halo 3 has been changed once again, specifically in the use of three different buttons. Reload/Use is now back on "X" where it belongs. I wasted so much Equipment in Halo 3 trying to reload with the proper button, and shame on Bungie for moving it in the first place.

So what's Right Bumper used for? Melee. This one's going to take some getting used to, but when you want to mash your opponent in the jaw or assassinate them from behind, you hit Right Bumper. So if Right Bumper now delivers a fist full of hurt, what does "B" do? Toggles your grenades, and we're back to basics here as well. In the pre-beta build we got to tangle with, you have Frag and Plasma Grenades, that's it. To be honest, while I'll miss Incendiary Grenades, the Spike Grenade always seemed redundant to me, so that one's fine to go. With only two Grenade types, your capacity has been increased to four per Grenade.

So if "B" switches Grenades, what does Left Bumper do? Well you can forget about duel-wielding, as that's right out. Yup, you read correctly: You will not be able to duel-wield in Halo: Reach. Instead, Left Bumper now uses your ability tied to your Load Out, and Load Outs add some nice variety to the game.

Some game types have Load Outs, some don't, and in this pre-beta build, every game type I played had a Load Out. So what is a Load Out? They're sort of like a character class for your Spartan. After you get past the pre-game lobby, as the match loads, you can pick between whatever Load Out is offered for that game. There were usually four choices, and they dictated starting weapons and Grenades as well as your ability. This ability could be Sprinting, a Jet Pack, Armour Lock, or Active Camo.

As you hold Left Bumper and use your ability, its metre, located above your Motion Tracker, drains, and when it runs out, you need to wait for it to recharge before you can use that ability again. During the course of the evening and the games I played, I used three of the four available. Sprint is just like you'd expect, allowing you to cover distances quickly but you're less maneuverable and unable to fire while doing so. Active Camo not only cloaks you, but also jams the Motion Tracker of yourself and every other player in range. If someone's using Active Camo close to you, you'll know, but the Stalker themselves needs to be careful as the faster they move, the easier they are to visually see. Armour Lock was my favourite of the Spartan abilities, as when you use it, you crouch down and are invincible for its duration. Not only are you impervious to damage, but you're also building up an EMP pulse. Release Armour Lock and anyone close to you gets hit with the pulse and loses their Shields, giving you one last chance to cap them before they finish you off. I never actually used the Jet Pack myself, but saw it used enough and it clearly makes traversing the environments faster and easier in short bursts, giving players a great tactical advantage.

Which brings us to the environments themselves. We became intimately familiar with both Powerhouse and Sword Base, and both maps were very detailed, and very different. Powerhouse has a lot of open areas around the ring of the central structure, giving a decent blend of indoor and outdoor combat. It's a gritty, industrial map in terms of its art style with a few different elevation levels, while Sword Base is very vertical with an open ground floor lobby and tight, multi-leveled hallways. There are bridges and levels to jump around, shafts to expedite moving from one level to another, and the whole environment is clean and polished in its art style. Personally, I preferred Sword Base over the two as I always enjoyed corridor crawls more than open areas, keeping combat close, which bring us to the weapons.

I already went over the Grenades above, and they function like you remember (though Frag grenades seem to bounce more), but let's talk guns. In each match, I always started with the Assault Rifle and the Magnum. The Assault Rifle functions more or less like you remember despite its cosmetic uplift, and the Magnum has a scope making it a great mid to close range killer (got tagged in the head a few times with this baby). As soon as I could though, I'd replace it with the Designated Marksman Rifle. Replacing the franchise's Battle Rifle, the Designated Marksman Rifle is a single shot, 12 round per clip weapon, scoped of course, and it's a thing of beauty. When I first tried using it, I tried going all gung-ho against my opponent and got creamed because unlike the Battle Rifle, it's not your standard fallback weapon, but keep yourself at mid range and you'll be capping opponents before they can reach you.

Both the Grenade Launcher and Sniper Rifle were present as well, but I never got to make use of them so I can't comment on their effectiveness or changes.

While that's the extent of the human weapons I toyed with, the Covenant aren't lacking in the ordnance department by any means. I love the Plasma Repeater. Replacing the old Plasma Rifle in multiplayer (though the Plasma Rifle is still expected to be in Campaign), it's essentially the Covenant's version of the Assault Rifle only it seemed to eat through Shields quicker and was my preferred close range weapon. Reloading it vents any heat it's built up, so make sure to do so between firings to avoid overheating at an inopportune moment. The Plasma Pistol functions just like it always has, and the Energy Sword seemed to require a little more finesse to lock on to an opponent, so I found myself dumping it for the Plasma Repeater instead.

For longer range, the Focus Rifle was absolutely devastating. Zoomed in, I fired on and killed my opponent in a matter of seconds to cries of "What was that!" Very powerful, very impressive. It really did feel like a Sentinel Beam with a scope, but with a deeper sound effect. I have to admit that I wasn't too impressed with the Needle Rifle, though I was originally trying to use it more like an Assault Rifle, which the weapon clearly isn't designed for. The original Needler is back and works in traditional fashion, and the Plasma Launcher is sort of like a Covenant Grenade Launcher on overdrive. You charge it up and at max charge, let this baby fly and four balls of Plasma race out at the target, attaching to them and detonating. Not so great to use in close quarters since you need to charge it up, but with some maneuvering room, your opponent is dead without cover and I imagine this'll be an amazing anti-vehicle weapon.

I say I imagine because regrettably, we didn't get the opportunity to try out any of the pre-beta's vehicles, simply because they weren't in any of the game types we played.

So yeah, let's talk about game types. Headhunter. I loved Headhunter! Kill an opponent, they drop Skulls. You walk over the Skulls to collect them, as many as you can, and then get to the drop-off point to add to your score. You're not actually holding the Skulls like in Oddball, you have your weapons available at all times and the number of Skulls currently on you is displayed via a counter towards the bottom of the screen.

We played Headhunter the most, but speaking of Oddball, we played that to and just so you know, with Oddball and Capture the Flag, using any of your new fancy abilities drops the item, so no Sprinting away once you have the Ball. Slayer and Team Slayer are all the usual fare, and we played several matches of those, but I wanted to play something we hadn't seen before, so I asked if we could see some Elites. We tried to get a game of Invasion going, but it wasn't working out so this sadly didn't happen.

Now, when you're waiting in the game lobby, there's no longer a Veto option, instead three game types are listed, and you get to cast your Vote for the one you want to play. Don't like any of them or the maps they're on, Vote for None of the Above. While looking at one group of choices that Matchmaking gave us, we saw a new game type we hadn't seen before: Covy Slayer. We assumed that meant Slayer using only Covenant weapons, so we loaded it up and were pleasantly surprised.

Elites! We got to play as Elites for that game, and they look very, very cool. There were two Load Outs to choose from, one with the Plasma Repeater and Plasma Pistol, the other with the Needle Rifle and Plasma Pistol. Regardless of which Load Out you chose, your ability was Evade, and it was my favourite ability bar none. You can use Evade a max of twice before it needs to recharge, but it's great for closing the gap on your opponent or for getting out of a tight situation. Simply being able to roll around opened up so many options, and I loved it!

Unlike the previous entries into the franchise, Elites are no longer just differently skinned Spartans, they actually play differently. Elites move faster than Spartans and they also have more Shields than Spartans. So what exactly do Spartans have over Elites?

I asked Jeff this very question, and he told me that Bungie's always working to keep things official to the universe itself, and as you all know, humanity is losing the Human-Covenant War simply because the Covenant are tougher and have better technology. So to answer your question, Elites > Spartans.

This is why Elites are only available in certain game types and can't be used in any game like before, and though we didn't get to play any Invasion games or Generator Defence games, Jeff tells me that Spartan players will need to be more crafty and make solid use of team work to overcome their opposing alien adversaries.

So what about Brutes? The Gravity Hammer was also present in multiplayer, but no other Brute weapons were available and no info about the Campaign was given, so whether Brutes and their items will make an appearance or not remains to be seen.

Graphically, the environments and character models are far more detailed than what we've seen before. The game features motion blur, including a soft blur around the edges, and of course HDR lighting. It's not perfect yet, this is still a pre-beta build so some textures did look flat and some areas could use improved lighting, but my overall impression is very, very positive.

As you play you earn Credits that you can use to purchase new armour permutations for your Spartan, which includes not only pieces like new Helmets, but also additions for that Helmet, such as a shade like the Master Chief has, or other attachments on the side. It was also confirmed that the credits you earn in the Beta will _not_ carry over to retail, so make sure to spend all your beta credits while the beta itself lasts.

So how long will the beta last for? Well, we don't quite know yet, as this will depend on how testing goes, but this will be announced in advance so you can grab as much Halo: Reach beta goodness as you can.

Taking many elements of classic Halo titles (Two grenade types, Health/Medkits, Magnum with a scope), refining them, and upping them with new game types, weapons, and experiences is what Halo: Reach's multiplayer is all about. Having spent several hours enjoying this pre-beta build, I can honestly say that I was impressed and am very, very excited not only for the upcoming beta, which of course is a pre-release testing product, but for the true, polished retail game due out this Fall.

The Halo: Reach beta will start on May 3rd, and you get access via the main menu of Halo 3: ODST, so you'll need a copy of that game to enter.

I'd like to thank Xbox Canada for hosting the Halo: Reach beta preview, and for allowing my fellow guests and I the opportunity to experience Bungie's latest offering in advance. The beta's nearly here kids, so get set for your combat drop!


Rodney said...

Hey Jux...thanks for the preview. I am going to pick this up.

I am VanishedNine on the xbox Canada forums.

Juxtapose said...

Nine, thank you very much for your comments and for reading my blog.

I'm glad you enjoyed my preview!