Whatever significant changes Bungie is making to the single-player campaign in Halo: Reach, be they squad-based action or the story's we're-all-doomed-from-the-start prequel setting, I can assure you after spending half a day with the game's multiplayer beta that Reach's online action feels 100 percent like Halo. That doesn't mean this is just a rehash of Halo 3's online mode with more maps (far from it). It does mean Bungie has evolved and modernized that signature Halo multiplayer formula to the point that I'm suddenly really interested in playing a new Halo game online. That's honestly not something I ever thought I'd say again.
Next week we'll have scads (scads!) of videos from the beta, but for now, let's just break down the high points that make Reach look like a worthy successor to the Halo multiplayer throne.
Armor Abilities and Loadouts
Reach has a pretty neat-looking character progression system that lets you unlock snazzy new armor pieces for your character a la Halo 3. But it's nowhere near as deep as the equipment unlocks in Modern Warfare, as all the gear seems to be purely cosmetic (though it does carry over to your character, Noble 6, in the campaign).
That doesn't mean there aren't gameplay-relevant ways to customize your multiplayer dude. There are, and they're called armor abilities. These are sort of an updated version of Halo 3's pick-up equipment, except you don't, uh, pick them up anymore. Instead you pick a loadout every time you spawn that determines which ability and which two weapons you start with.
On the spartan side, you can pick a basic sprint that gets you from A to B really quickly at the cost of lowering your weapon. There's also armor lock, which makes you duck and engage an energy shield that makes you invulnerable as long as you're using it. The tradeoff is that you can't move while you're armor locked, but a fully charged armor lock seems like it's just sufficient to recharge your shields before it switches off. As a bonus, if you hold armor lock long enough, you'll release an EMP blast that nullifies the shields of anyone standing too close.
Not surprisingly, elites get the Predator-looking shimmery stealth camouflage they use in the Halo campaigns. In addition to making you almost invisible for a few seconds, stealth camo also jams the radar of anyone nearby, filling their scope with ghostly trails . Elites also match the spartans' sprint with a dodge maneuver that lets them get the heck out of the way really quickly. The animation for this makes the elite look like he's doing some sort of somersault, but from your perspective you just sort of... dodge to the side.
And then everyone gets jetpacks. JETPACKS. Yes, you can fly with the right loadout, though a full charge will only keep you in the air for a few seconds, and the jetpack takes some time to lift you up into the air. Definitely a tool that will require some finesse, but essential on the vertical maps.
Spartans Versus Elites
I suspect this will be a divisive change: spartan and elites are dramatically different now, and not just in terms of which armor abilities they can use. Elites are faster than spartans, and their health and shields will both recharge after taking damage. Spartans' shields recharge, but they have to pick up medkits to restore health, Halo: CE-style. Weird, right? Elites are also bigger than spartans, though, making them a somewhat easier target at range.
In most team-based and especially objective-based games, you won't be able to mix and match both kinds of characters--it's spartans versus elites, period. A lot of the regular multiplayer modes, however, will default to spartan-on-spartan action, and it's worth noting that in custom games you'll be able to mix things up however you want. On paper, it looks like the elites have a distinct advantage to me, but I didn't get to spend enough time with the game yet to get an impression of the practical difference between them. The spartans' unique armor abilities might be a little more useful, though. Time will tell!
Odds 'n Ends
Bungie is making a ton of big and small changes under the hood to gameplay and matchmaking, probably more than I can even call to mind right now. Here are a few of the more prominent ones that stood out to me.
- Tweaks to melee. Melee damage is no longer a one-hit kill. Now, the damage stops when the shields drop. If your target has any degree of shields, your melee will only drop their shields and not touch their health, so you'd need a second melee hit to get a kill. Like that's going to happen. So melee is best reserved until you see their shields pop.
- Dirty sneak attacks. The answer to that melee change is the assassination, which forces you to sneak up behind and get a melee hit on someone whose back is turned to you. That's an instant kill regardless of shield level, and the camera pulls out to show you one of a bunch of different kill animations depending on what side you hit them from. Assassinations leave you exposed for a second or two while you do them, but they're pretty awesome for bragging rights and humiliating for the victim.
- Better voting. Pre-match voting is more than just a matter of voting down a map you don't like and getting stuck with the next one in line. Now you'll be presented with four map/mode choices with the chance to pick one. The one that the most people want to play, wins. It's an idea so simple I'm surprised we haven't seen more of it before now.
- More matchmaking filters. In the final game you'll be able to customize the types of players you get matched up against based on a whole lot of weird criteria. You can prioritize normal factors like connection speed but even control things like what language they speak, how often they use voice chat, and how competitive they are, too.
- Forge still coming. Just not in beta, but expect all the now-standard Forge options to exist in the final game, along with Theater, saved films, and all that other stuff you'd expect to be there.
Of course, those are just the nuts-and-bolts changes to the core Halo gameplay that you'll be seeing when the beta launches on May 3 (provided you've got a copy of ODST in the drive). Again, be sure to check back next week for a big fat video preview with lots of footage and info on the new modes and weapons, as well as an interview with Bungie multiplayer designer Luke Smith.
We'll also be giving away a batch of early-access Reach beta codes starting next week that will get you in and playing days before the general beta. Keep your eyes open for that!
So how many of you out there are rabidly waiting to get back online with Reach? I'm curious what the anticipation level is for a new Halo, now that Modern Warfare 2 has come along and kind of taken the championship belt for online multiplayer. Sound off, if you please.