Well, week one of the public beta for Halo: Reach's much vaunted multiplayer is underway and we thought we'd share a few first impressions of Bungie massive test run. At preview sessions and industry events, quite often there isn't really a huge deal of time to really get to grips with an upcoming game, but the joy of this beta is putting down roots in a comfy chair, cracking open a beer or five, letting the phone off of the hook and hunkering down for some fragtastic fun.
Let's face it, whilst the single-player aspect of the Halo series has arguably been in decline since inception, it's the incredibly supported multiplayer side of things that keeps people coming back for more time and time again. With that in mind, it's not surprising that Halo: Reach feels very familiar, this is a quintessential Halo experience, and feels very much in line with Bungie and Microsoft's legacy so far, but with a few upgrades.
Let's get technical first: the graphics are better far crisper than before, still not running at native 720p yet, and still a little rough around the edges occasionally, but this bodes well for getting a glimpse of what the campaign might look like. The texturing is very good indeed and, whilst Bungie have never been especially great when it comes to interior design, there's certainly been an improvement on the pre-beta build. It's also worth mentioning that the sound design has clearly been worked on. With Marty O'Donnell doing most of the work in-game with the rousing score, the sound design so often falls by the wayside, but here it's much improved with some excellent dampening effects, particularly when the armour abilities are invoked. We'll get to them in just a bit.
Getting into the game itself has had a bit of an overhaul as well, and the Matchmaking side of things (whilst occasionally a little bit glitchy, but then this is a beta after all) now comes with a few options and filters to better help you find the game and the players that you want. You up for some trash talking, ego-boosting all-or-nothing contest, you can tweak the search settings accordingly. Alternatively, if you're up for a quiet family game of Team Slayer (hang on...) with a bunch of players just up for a good time, then there are settings for that too. I've already experienced a little bit of covert hustling in this department, so it's not quite teabagproof, but for the most part I've found it pretty easy to differentiate between casual yet competitive games and rounds where I just get myself completely owned by raucously boastful eagle-eyed trigger fiends.
And so onto the gameplay itself. How does it hold up? Is it markedly different from the multiplayer to Halo 3? Well, the answer to those questions are 'well' and 'not so much'. The multiplayer gameplay of Halo 3 was incredibly good and, for all of its community faults, insanely addictive. Bungie haven't changed too much, which I feel is a good thing, but they have bolstered the gameplay up with some very interesting treats. The scoped pistol remains from ODST which will delight fans of the original game (although it's not quite as powerful as the one from Combat Evolved), grenades have a slightly larger blast radius than before, which again I feel is a good thing as combat should be as much about evasion as offence, and there are some new weapons to get your hands on.
The Battle Rifle from Halo 3 has been replaced by the Designated Marksman Rifle, a change that may well thrill some people and annoy the hell out of others who loved their BRs...like me. However, this is made up for by the Needle Rifle, which is essentially what the Carbine should have been. Excellent at mid-to-long range, it takes a little bit of getting used to, but will be the mid/long ranged weapon of choice for many thanks to its superior rate of fire and power against flesh. One thing that is a bit of shame, the Assault Rifle seems to have been noticeably powered down, meaning that at anything other than close-range a pistol will beat an AR hands down. Melee damage has taken a hit with the re-inclusion of both shield and health bars, which can be enormously frustrating. It's a shame dual-wielding has gone walkies too, but to be honest you won't really miss it much. You may, however, find yourself occasionally hitting the wrong button, as the controls have been shuffled a bit to accommodate another new feature: Armour Abilities.
A little bit late to the class-based party, Bungie have included defensive special abilities this time around that are based on the class you choose before you respawn: Scout (sprint), Airborne (jetpacks), Guard (shields) and Stalker (active camouflage). They all have their uses and your preferences will depend on the nature of the game at any one time, and your own style of play. I found myself enjoying the Stalker ability (no jokes please) the most, with the ability to sneak up silently on an opponent and knife them in the back, or taking up an invisible sniper position proving very handy once or twice. The Armour Lock ability of the Guard is a fantastic defensive move, although it does sometimes leave you prone to assassination so you have to be careful with the timing. I was most excited about the jetpacks, but ironically I found them to be the most disappointing of the abilities with poor acceleration and fiddly controls. This is tempered somewhat, though, if you're playing on the vertically-oriented map Swordbase, which seems to have been practically built around that ability. Sprint, however, is incredibly useful, especially for Capture the Flag style matches, or for when you're under heavy fire and need to find some cover fast. It can be invaluable for when your health bar is dwindling, or for those times when you need to stash a bunch of flaming skulls quickly in my new favourite mode: Headhunter.
The game modes, of which we have not seen all, are all excellent in their own right. Stockpile plays out like a multiple flag CTF and is rather more frenetic than simple one-flag CTF for that very reason. Like the bastard child of King of the Hill and CTF, it's a riotous blend of tactics and madness that proves to be barnstorming fun. Then there's Headhunter. A free for all mode where every kill nets you a flaming skull, there are collection points scattered across the map and it's your job to deposit your skulls there for points. Some players will get greedy and trawl for more skulls before they go to cash them in, but seeing as skull hoarders are flagged on your HUD, it also leaves them more open to attack. It's manic, headless chicken stuff for much of the time, scrambling to gather skulls whilst still fending off opponents, and I absolutely love it!
Finally, there are two new levels on show here: Powerhouse, which is lining up to be Reach's version of High Ground, and Swordbase, a narrow, two base map of interlinking catwalks, stairways and sniping spots. Swordbase's navigation is a bit of a mess, but it's perfect for team games like CTF and the vertical nature of it's layout creates some very interesting combat dynamics indeed. But Powerhouse is the winner here, combining open air, expansive combat with tight, indoor spaces and enough by way of noticeable areas and landmarks for communicating teammates to instantly know where their buddies are.
So what can we say about the Reach beta so far? Well, as yet Bungie have played it pretty safe and that's not hugely surprising - if it ain't broke.... However, the new gameplay elements - the armour abilities especially - are a wonderful touch and add a lot more depth to the Slayer experience. The new game modes we've seen so far a hugely enjoyable and I for one cannot wait to get to grips with Invasion. The tweaks and additions are an improvement for the series, then, but not groundbreaking in terms of the rest of the industry, and it will certainly be interesting to see how the other new modes and levels stack up and also how the single-player experience fits into all of this. Bungie have time on their hands, and a little more work to do, but one thing is for sure: this little teaser test is whipping up a Halo frenzy beyond the rabid fanboys that is sure to carry into the Autumn. An enticing, if not quite mindblowing introduction to Halo: Reach.
We'll be keeping you posted with our thoughts on Bungie's beta throughout the next fortnight, but what do you think of Reach's multiplayer so far? Let us know in the comments below!