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Beta Impressions: Halo Reach
by Tom Acres

Oh Halo, the hours and hours I've lost to your stupidly addicting online multiplayer. Halo: Combat Evolved on the PC had incredible multiplayer; Halo 2 was amazing on the Xbox; Halo 3 topped it; Halo Wars was surprisingly good; and I sunk many an hour into ODST's excellent Firefight mode. However, along came a game called Modern Warfare 2, quickly followed by Left 4 Dead 2 and an obsession with FIFA 10 that led to me rather neglecting my Halo games. Then, on May 3rd, Bungie dropped the multiplayer beta for Halo: Reach, and I was sucked right back in again for the 16 days it lasted.

Now, there are some pretty significant changes in terms of the way Halo works now. There's a class system for a start and they all have their own starting weapons and unique abilities such as a jetpack, invisibility, a dash move, a shield and some other neat and useful ones. The way these affect the gameplay is noticeable in all the game modes that were available (Slayer, Team Slayer, Free-For-All, Crazy Kings, Oddball, Capture the Flag, SWAT) but are most useful in the new game modes created for Reach.

First of all you've got Headhunter; a fast and frantic mode in which everyone in the game carries a flaming skull which they drop when they die. The other players have to collect the fallen skulls and take them to a capture point to score points. The points are constantly changing, and what makes it even more challenging is that the number of skulls you're carrying shows up above your Spartan, making you a more likely target for the opposition if they see you have a nice collection of skulls. I had 6 skulls at once one time. I died quite quickly.

Stockpile was the next available new mode, which tasks you with picking up neutral flags from all over the map and taking them back to your team's base. It's basically capture the flag on steroids, and it's a hell of a lot of fun. You can't use your class abilities whilst your carrying the flag, creating a challenging game mode, but making it a shame that you can't jetpack your way across the map, holding a flag aloft.

The final two modes are kickass to say the least; Generator Defence and Invasion. These are both setup as Spartan vs. Elites (you can't be an Elite at any time like in Halo 3; only for these modes) and each team has different weapons and abilities available to them. Elites can run faster at normal speed but Spartans can sprint; Elites can become invisible but Spartans have jetpacks; Elites can do rolypolys and dash but Spartans can power up a shield. It's perfecly balanced and both modes are great fun.

In Generator Defence, the Spartans are defending and the Elites are trying to destroy the generators. The Elites have to destroy all three generators within the allocated time, but the Spartans should be okay as long as they can save at least one generator.

Invasion is the real big daddy of the Reach multiplayer experience (unless Bungie announce something even better). The Elites' objective is to assault a giant industrial complex, fight their way to the rear, steal a data core and take it to a waiting Phantom for removal from the area. The Spartans have a time limit in which to stop the Elites from advancing to each stage of the map. The Elites basically have to complete objectives to push the Spartans back and eventually capture the data core. Each time the Elites advance, more weapons and vehicles become available and the classes upgrade. It's really, really good.

The base gameplay is very similar to Halo 3 but the abilities really push it up a few notches. What helps are the new weapons too; there are some really awesome new guns in Reach and there'll be plenty more in the full game. Some of my favourites from the beta were a Needler/sniper variant for the Elites, a grenade launcher for the Spartans and, best of all, a plasma grenade launcher for the Elites. Using that against a Warthog is ridiculously satisfying. Games seem more tactical than before too, thanks to the new modes and abilities. It feels like a nice mix between Call of Duty and Battlefield, which is no bad thing at all. Having said that, it doesn’t feel as viscerally brutal as rival shooters such as Modern Warfare 2. Instead, Halo Reach multiplayer plays like a peculiarly violent sport, perhaps a little like if Sky Sports decided to give tazers to all the players before Arsenal took on Chelsea.

Reach's matchmaking and menu systems are also upgraded to the extent that they're actually worth mentioning. It's incredibly easy to hook up with friends, with no need to enter the Xbox 360 dashboard: just nudge your analogue stick to the right and you get a list of all your friends online, represented by their custom-made Spartan. You can see what they're playing and invite them into a match as easily as pressing a button.

Speaking of custom Spartans, the feature has been expanded a little for Reach too. The new armour pieces are purely cosmetic, but there's more satisfaction in how you earn them compared to Halo 3. Master the new weapons and game modes and you’ll amass in-game points that can be traded for new bits of armour. Colours and emblems are also available. However, you cannot customise your Elite, but as you can only play as them in 2 modes (and you might not even play as them in these modes anyway) it wouldn't be a worthwhile feature if you were able to.

Graphically, the Reach beta was more impressive than Halo 3, but not quite by the massive margin that Bungie had led us to believe. Fair enough, it's a beta with a while until release, and it's multiplayer, so the single player will probably look better, but I was still a tad disappointed. Whilst the Spartan models looked really good, everything else was a bit bland and underpar. However, the sense of scale is something that I haven't seen online outside the Battlefield series and that was something especially impressive in the Invasion game mode.

By the time the beta was over, I was very impressed. The additions are really fantastic and, at the end of the day, it's still Halo and therefore still very fun. Of course, this is just a portion of the online multiplayer, and Bungie have shown hardly any of the campaign or the co-op. With four months for Bungie to polish and perfect, I'm confident that this could be the greatest Halo game yet.


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- Tom Acres

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