In less than 24 hours, the beta version of Halo: Reach goes live for all Xbox Live Gold members with a copy of Halo 3: ODST in their possession. Playing the beta will be a simple matter of firing up the ODST disc, downloading the Reach beta client and going to town. We've spent some time with the beta over the past few days, so here's a quick overview on what to expect.
After downloading the beta (it's a little over 1 gig, so make sure you have the space for it), you are presented with a quick introduction and then the Reach title screen. Relatively Spartan in nature (no pun intended), players are given the option to start playing or enter the theater.
Jumping into matchmaking offers up options to customize your personal Spartan, including color, armor type and player tag. Armor type is superficial — swapping out different pieces isn't going to change how your character moves or impact your health bar — but it does allow for the creation of a distinct look. After all, one of the best parts about kicking ass is making sure that everyone knows who's doing it.
The matchmaking is a fairly standard affair, offering up multiple game types on two separate maps: Powerhouse and Sword Base. Based on early feedback from other players, Powerhouse appears to be the favored map of the two, offering a varied mix of indoor and outdoor environments. In terms of layout, Powerhouse is a relatively horizontal map, with a vertical tower and a natural hill providing some height near the rear of the play area.
When playing a free-for-all map, the combat tends to focus on a central, arena-style shallow water area, with players duking it out at ground level as well as running around the top edges attempting to pick off those down below. In the CTF maps, combat switches to the small buildings that dot the map as they provide additional cover, as well as choke points with which to set up an ambush.
Sword Base is currently more polarizing with beta players, as the map takes place entirely within a large vertical tower. There is a large, open shaft in the center of the tower (obviously crafted to encourage jetpack users), which contrasts with the small, tightly spaced rooms that dot either side. Even though the map is large, the small rooms made it feel somewhat cramped in an eight-player match. On the other hand, Powerhouse, which probably has about the same square footage, often felt lightly populated with the same amount of players.
Part of the reason for the early dislike of Sword Base may be due to the fact that many players still seem to be playing as if Reach were Halo 3. It's not. There are some new mechanics to learn, and once you realize that Reach is its own beast, things seem to click a little better.
Playing with the airborne loadout, which equips the jetpack, is one of the biggest changes as it allows players to really maximize their vertical movement. Yeah, non-jetpack players can still get height thanks to the traditional jump pads, but the jetpack offers a greater deal of control. For example, on Sword Base, rather than stick to the narrow corridors, a jetpack user can simply jet from side to side, taking advantage of open entryways on every floor.
Stalker gives you an active cammo invisibility shield. It is short-lived and not the greatest if you're running in guns a-blazing, but it offers a huge benefit if you're a fan of melee action. Playing with the stalker loadout makes it a lot easier to sneak up on unsuspecting opponents and land a solid melee hit or execute one of the fancier assassination animations.
Choosing to play as a scout offers up a sprint ability, which will likely be popular for those who just want to get into the thick of things as quickly as possible, while playing as the guard gives you access to armor lock. The armor lock ability is similar to a one-man bubble shield. You can't move while it is active, but you are also temporarily invulnerable. Woe is the player who tries to melee a guard in armor lock. To be sure, it's not something you want to use all the time, as a skilled player is going to simply pull back and wait for the lock to expire, but armor lock can easily save your ass when the grenades come flying in.
Speaking of grenades, they are the weapon with the most noticeable power upgrade in the beta. When they blow, they blow big both in terms of power and range. Because guards are the only player types that can effectively counter a thrown grenade, they seem to be great ways to clear a room. Toss in one or two, and the opposing players will either flee or be blown to smithereens.
Another notable weapon is the needler rifle. An upgraded version of the classic handgun, it allows for some long-range shooting with a great deal of accuracy. The classic SMG is still here, but the Spartan's pistol gets a surprising amount of love as well. It may be small, but the pistol seems to be tops in the accuracy department, which makes it a good weapon in the hands of a player who doesn't feel the need to spray bullets.
As far as complaints go, there are a few, and unfortunately, human stupidity is at the top of the list. Despite playing in the limited "Friends and Family" beta, we hadn't played for more than a half-hour before running into a teenage player that couldn't resist spamming, "You're all fags," over voice chat because we voted to choose a game type other than Slayer. Alas, this isn't something that can be controlled by Bungie.
On the other hand, there is a tweak that needs to be made, and that has to do with the CTF flag carrier. Reach explicitly lowers the running speed of the flag carrier in a CTF match, ostensibly to encourage team play rather than one-man speed runs. Slowing down the flag carrier also evens up the sides a bit, as it gives the defending team a chance to catch up and get the flag back. The problem here is that the slower run speed can be bypassed simply by "juggling" the flag — something that beta players quickly discovered.
If you're carrying the flag, you can quickly drop it and then pick it up again to avoid the speed penalty. Wash, rinse and repeat as you run for the safety of home, and you're given a distinct advantage. We can't really fault anyone for using the technique in-game, as it is allowed by the game engine, but it does seem to break the planned gameplay mechanics. Here's hoping that Bungie can eliminate flag juggling in the final release.
Last, but not least, is the exclusive avatar award you get from playing the beta. It's a small token, but it is a neat way to show that you got your hands on the game. After playing a round in Reach, exit to the dashboard and fire up Halo Waypoint. Have Waypoint scan your career, and it will unlock a Reach hoodie for your avatar to wear.
The Halo: Reach beta is just a small snippet of gameplay, and what's here may very well change before the game hits stores this fall, but it is already noticeably more than just a graphical upgrade on Halo 3 multiplayer. What's here is born out of the Halo DNA, but it isn't bound by everything that went before. It'll be interesting to see what the final product is like, but until then, enjoy the fragfest.
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