Few can dispute the overwhelming success of Halo’s multiplayer. Ever since the LAN based escapades round the original Blood Gulch and Hang ‘em High, the boys at Bungie have refined the experience time and time again to take advantage of, and even push the boundaries of, Xbox Live – and create an online game that only Call of Duty has ever come close to toppling.
But if the steps leading us to Halo 3 were mere refinements, what Reach gives us is an evolution. The jump from Halo 2 to Halo 3 was mostly graphical with the broad doctrine of online play untouched (bar the inclusion of the create-a-level Forge); game types, weapons and play style mostly remained familiar, but what this beta test shows us is that, for its Halo swansong, Bungie are giving everything they have.
The biggest impact is the inclusion of Loadouts, significant enough to warrant capitalising. Gone are the deployable power-ups found in Halo 3 and in their place are abilities built into the very fabric of your Mjolnir armour: Sprint, allowing the Spartan a burst of extra speed; Armour Lock, the replacement for the bubble shield granting the user invulnerability; Active Camo, turns the wearer into nothing more than a heat haze to the casual onlooker; and Jet Pack, which does what it says on the tin. There is also Evade for Convenant soldiers which allows a quick tuck and roll to avoid incoming danger.
Whilst some may already sound overpowered and game breaking, each is controlled by an energy meter that, when drained, takes time to recharge. This not only means that players cannot constantly spam their Loadouts to the frustration of others but the wise amongst them will hold back until the optimal moment to deploy them. Each also has their own weakness, from the way the radar bugs out when Active Camo is triggered to the Armour Lock’s side effect of forcing the player to stand immobile when in use.
It seems there is a Loadout for each occasion. I favour Armour Lock and Sprint when attempting to defend objective, hoping to stave off or doge the grenade spamming that will surely come, and Active Camo and Sprint when on the offensive as I look to grab the element of surprise. Players will no doubt find them tailored to different weapons too as Active Camo is a given for snipers, whilst those wielding Gravity Hammers and shotguns should opt for the same – watch them jump out of their skin – or Sprint as you bid to catch up with your prey.
Prior to playing Reach, my biggest concern was with the jetpacks. Aside from the fact they seemed horribly at odds with Halo’s lore, in principle their inclusion seemed to break what made Halo Halo. All those times on Ascension (Halo 2) when my team held the tower so competently; would that then be dismissed as a folly as the opposing team suddenly strapped on rocket packs and wreaked death from above? Thankfully the Jet Pack Loadout is not as jarring. Firstly, there is fall damage in Reach, so if you do fly too close to the sun, expect a rude awakening when you reacquaint yourself with the ground. Secondly, the level design and limited fuel prevent the tool from becoming too dominant. Only the most skilled of snipers will be able to take the skies and dispatch their target before they either run out of fuel or become an easy target for opposing team member. After all, nothing says “shoot me!” more than a floating red Spartan.
There is much fun to be had with the new Loadouts, especially the death-mocking Armour Lock. Once, when tagged by the new heat seeking plasma missiles, I simply engaged the armour lock and watch the projectiles explode harmlessly off my crackling armour. When 30 seconds later a plasma grenade was stuck to my shoulder blade I again disappeared once more into my cocoon, laughing manically – only to emerge and pummel the foolish lobber of said grenade. There is no doubt that this, along with the new assassination melee move, will fill many players’ highlight reels.
Used subtly, the Jet Pack can be used as a super-jump, getting you to ledges that would otherwise have required either crouch-jumps or a series of leaps to reach. With your finger clamped down on the ability button and you can soar to unlikely heights, and to take advantage of this new verticality there has been a change in design ethos. Maps such as the previously mentioned Ascension would no longer play as intended but Reach’s Sword Base embraces this extra dimension with ledges and shortcuts for those wishing to take to the skies.
Almost reminiscent of Halo 1’s Boarding Action, Sword Base is set in two narrow buildings, separated by a large hall, criss-crossed with walkways. For those on foot, the walkways are your only way to navigate from ground to top floor, although there is a large gravity lift in the centre of the hall to give you a boost.
Sadly I found Sword Base a little uninspiring and a tad confusing sans-Jet Pack. Its bland setting doesn’t inject it with the distinct personality found in other levels from the series. Thankfully the other currently available map, Powerhouse, more than makes up for this deficiency. Set around a human hydroelectric plant and set in a dusty hillside, it bears similarities with High Ground from Halo 3.
Powerhouse uses its verticality in a far more subtle way than Sword Base. The giant circular structure at the centre of the map can either be accessed by a series of stairwells or by a quick boost from the Jet Pack. With the action taking place around this centre piece, huts, rocky outcrops and a main control room all offer places of temporary sanctuary or ambush depending on your goal. Its more open nature lends itself very well to the numerous rifles scattered across the map.
SWAT, CTF, Slayer, Oddball, King of the Hill and alike all return and are joined by a few new variations.
Stockpile is CTF for kleptomaniacs. Rather than retrieve just one flag, there are roughly half-a-dozen scattered across the landscape and your team must grab as many as they can, scoring for each flag that is in your target zone at minute intervals. All well and good until you consider that not only is the opposing team is doing likewise, but they’ll more than likely try and pluck your flags from the scoring zone seconds before the timer elapses, robbing you of the points in the process. There’s a healthy balance to be struck between collection and disruption, as a well timed Active Camo insurgent or grenade spam can play merry hell with your opponent’s plans.
Headhunter is the only other new mode currently accessible and see players trying to collect and deposit skulls into, once more, scoring zones. Unlike Stockpile, there is no time limit that impedes you from banking your skulls, but the only way to earn skulls is by killing another player. They in turn will drop a skull, plus any others they happened to be carrying at the time.
The two headline modes are yet to be activated but come in the form of an online league and a multi-objective game. The former, known as Arena, will rank players over the course of several days before allocating them into a division. There they will fight similarly skilled players over the course of a season to determine just where you sit in the Halo hierarchy. Promotion and relegation and no doubt involved but parachute payments when leaving the top flight are yet to be confirmed.
The latter, Invasion, attempts to combine Team Slayer and objective based team work as you gun your way towards victory. Your kills column is the vital stat here but securing objectives within the map will also lead to supply drops in the form of Warthogs, Ghosts and tanks. An alternate Invasion mode also sees eight Elites taking on the same number of Spartans in a bid to initially disable a batch of generators before making off with an UNSC data core.
As with Stockpile and Headhunter, none of the new modes are revolutionary but all see enough tweaks and variations on existing formulae to create new and exciting game modes in their own right. The very themed scenario surrounding Invasion should be a draw to hardcore Halo fans, whilst the competitive nature of the league structure found within Arena will no doubt prove to have long term attraction.
Overall, those who are well versed and indoctrinated into the ways of Halo 3 will undoubtedly have their complaints. They’ll find it too slow, write-off the “super powers”, churlishly mock the new game types, bemoan the removal of such generous auto-aim, and generally wonder what the fuss is about. There’s the change in weaponry balance to get used to, the shift in power towards rifles, and all those subtleties that were once brand new in Halo 3, too.
Each small change has combined to make one large movement that has shifted the series forward. It would have been all too easy to push out another slight tweak on the Halo 3 template, and seeing the wealth of possibilities presented to a player at the beginning of a level, you should type out a fresh email and thank Bungie that they didn’t. You may still be just another Mjolnir helmet in the crowd, but now you can specialise in more than just weapons. The Loadouts and more brutal weighting to certain weapons definitely give Reach a completely new feel. And more than that, they have wetted my appetite for the single player campaign with the various new ways to take on the Halo sandbox. Consider my pre-order cocked, locked and ready to rock.