As anyone who’s been paying any attention to this blog knows, I’m pretty excited about Halo 3. A few weeks ago, my wonderful girlfriend DG got me my very own copy of Crackdown, which included access to the Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta (fortunately, Crackdown is a great game too—you can read my review of it here). The Beta is not a demo of the regular game, which is due for release on September 25. Rather, it’s only a test of the game’s multiplayer component, which allows players to battle one another on three maps (such games are colloquially referred to as “deathmatch”).
(Warning: Halo 3 gameplay spoilers to follow)
When I first started a post about the Beta a few days ago, I began it with a bitter tirade about how I hate deathmatch. And traditionally I have, ever since the days of Doom or, more importantly, Goldeneye 007 in college. What I loved about Perfect Dark for the N64 was that it allowed my roommate and I to play on the same team against bots. I disliked deathmatch mostly because I was too competitive and not good enough to win with any frequency, making deathmatch a frustrating and occasionally embarrassing experience (particularly when playing with friends).
The situation didn’t improve much with Gears of War, which has the added indignity of no respawns, meaning that once you’re killed, you have to wait until the next match to play again—many games, including Halo, throw you back into the fight immediately. Some of my friends prefer this aspect of Gears, claiming that the constant death-and-respawn cycle of Halo et al is disturbingly nihilistic. Personally, though, I prefer to respawn; that means I get more play time, which is important to me since I paid for the game and I’m paying for the bandwidth. And because I simply don’t like sitting around waiting for the match to end.
But I digress. Though eager to experience anything related to Halo 3, I assumed I wouldn’t really enjoy the Multiplayer Beta too much, as I had never really enjoyed deathmatch before. I had recently started playing Halo 2 for the first time and was constantly slaughtered, so I had no real hopes this time around.
But something odd happened over the course of the week. I actually started to get kind of good.
Oh, I’m nowhere near the skill of any of the diehards. But in the space of a few days, I’ve become better than a newbie, and maybe even better than your average casual player. Looking over my stats you can definitely see an improvement.
The upshot of all this is that I’ve learned to enjoy a component of online gaming that I didn’t before, and so it is with great enthusiasm that I can give you a glimpse into the Beta.
Let’s start with graphics. Yes, it looks better than Halo 2, especially in high definition. No, it does not look as good as Gears of War, nor will the finished game. There are a few reasons for this, all of them described in this this article, but the short version is that Halo 3 has much larger, open areas and more going on at any given time than Gears of War, which means there just aren’t enough resources for GoW-level graphics too. And GoW tends to cheat a little, shrouding much of its graphics in darkness, shadow, and filth, whereas Halo has always been about bright, clean-looking spaceship corridors and sunny or snowy pastures.
As of right now, the graphics are essentially an expansion and refinement of the aesthetic design Bungie developed for Halo 2, but have a feel that’s reminiscent of the first game too. It’s also important to remember that the Beta probably doesn’t have the highest-resolution textures, since it does need to be downloaded off Xbox Live, after all (it’s nearly a gig as it is).
Now let’s talk about gameplay. The Beta offers a number of modes familiar to veteran Halo players, including Rumble Pit (every man for himself), Team Slayer (deathmatch games of four-on-four), and Capture the Flag. I’ve also seen one game of Oddball and a couple Territories (in which you have to defend a number of small areas through the maps).
Aside from graphics, there are three things of primary interest in the Beta: maps, weapons, and equipment.
The maps are called Valhalla, Snowbound and High Ground. Let’s start with Snowbound, because it’s my least favorite. I initially didn’t even get to see Snowbound until I’d played about a dozen games, but once I did, I was disappointed. Snowbound is clearly the bastard child of the three maps. I had hoped it would evoke memories of Sidewinder, a snowy map from the original Halo and one of my favorites, but no. Snowbound is a confusing map, with two bases connected by an underground tunnel. Most of the action takes place either on top of the bases or in the underground tunnel. But the tunnel is maddening in Team Slayer games, because it’s dark with a blue James Cameron-esque tint, which means that both red and blue players look blue. I’ve both shot at teammates I thought were enemies and been killed by enemies I thought were teammates in that stupid tunnel.
There are two interesting things about Snowbound. Since it’s in a broad tundra (rather than being enclosed by cliffs), they have to keep you on the map somehow, and that somehow is a series of gigantic cannons that blast you to smithereens if you try to run out of the map. The other interesting thing is that the doors to the bases have an impenetrable energy shield a la the Bubble Shield, which allows for some interesting strategies when you’re on one side of the door and your enemy is on the other.
Then there’s Valhalla. For those who don’t know, Valhalla is the mythological home of the Norse god Odin, where the souls of dead Vikings are said to fight every day for all eternity, returning to life every time they are slain—obviously a very appropriate title for a deathmatch map. In the Beta, Valhalla is a gigantic map in the spirit of Blood Gulch and Coagulation (from Halo and Halo 2, respectively), but it’s not a remake like Coagulation was. It’s similar to Blood Gulch; it has two bases enclosed in a rocky valley, and it’s enormous.
But the similarities end there. Valhalla is a fascinating map with countless strategic options. My personal strategy is to grab the sniper rifle, find a nice spot and go to town (mouseover the sniper medal—I’m Poe). But Valhalla also features a Warthog (or a Banshee) at each base, three Mongooses, a turret (more on that later), and the so-called mancannons, which are gravity lifts on each base that fling you clear across the map.
Depending on how good the teams are, games on Valhalla can last five minutes or fifteen. Unlike maps in the first two games, Valhalla seems to be varied enough that there are no real guaranteed-win strategies. I’ve had games where my team won with a number of one-on-one duels throughout the map, while another time I drove a Warthog while the gunner racked up eleven kills on a single run (eleven kills in a four-on-four game—not bad).
Unlike Snowbound, Valhalla is fun. Really fun. Blood Gulch fun, but thanks to the mancannons and the Mongooses (Mongeese?), it’s a lot easier to get right into the fight. Obviously, it’s even better on Big Team Battle (eight-on-eight), though it’s a lot harder to snipe in those games—someone always tracks you down.
The third and final map is High Ground, probably my favorite map. It’s a work of genius. Unlike Valhalla or Snowbound, it’s an assymetrical map featuring a base on a low hill leading down to a beach. In a team game, one team starts on the beach while the other starts in the base. If you’re playing Capture the Flag and you’re the beach-based team, it’s your job to infiltrate the base and get the main doors to the base open (via a switch on the inside of the base) so your team can get through with the flag (if the doors are shut, it’s a lot harder). It’s difficult to describe the map, but suffice to say I’ve never had so much fun playing a Halo map as I have with High Ground.
Now let’s talk weapons. In my opinion, the best new twist is the return of the standard assault rifle from Halo. Its clip size has been halved but it has a slightly increased range; if you can aim at all, you have a chance to win with it in most close-to-mid-range combat situations. It’s much, much better than starting with an SMG. Also, it sounds badass.
(A side note: all the sound in the game is badass. When you’re playing a big level like Valhalla, you can hear the sound of distant weapons fire that actually sounds like distant weapons fire, instead of just a quieter version of whatever sound the gun makes. You have to hear it to understand, but suffice to say, Bungie definitely nailed the sound on Halo 3.)
The shotgun is back and is more or less the same, though it perhaps has a bit more punch. It’s still worthless from more than five feet, but at close range it’s an instant kill if you know what you’re doing (I usually don’t).
Functionally, the sniper rifle is also more or less the same from Halo 2, though there’s still no nightvision, which drives me crazy (and makes no sense for the in-game universe—why would the military remove such a useful feature? This is the 2500s, after all!). But, as with all the weapons, there’s far less auto-aim compared to Halo 2, meaning you have to aim carefully and lead a bit for a really long-distance shot, just like in the first game. Once again, sniping has become something I have to perform almost intuitively, rather than just sticking the reticle in the general direction of the enemy. I love it.
The Battle Rifle and the SMG are more or less the same. I’ll often pick up a BR if I don’t have a sniper rifle, but if I’m carrying anything else (except a shotgun), I’ll usually stick with the assault rifle rather than the BR. No one uses the SMG because we all hate it from Halo 2. There’s a new weapon called the Brute Spiker, which is basically an SMG with two big knives on it for melee purposes; you’ll sometimes see someone using two of those, but I think that’s more for the novelty than anything else. Functionally, the Spikers are about as useful as the SMGs and really only work when dual wielded, and personally, I prefer to have grenades handy (you can’t throw grenades when you’re dual wielding a weapon).
Speaking of dual wielding, the Plasma Rifle is still the crappy version from Halo 2. If it’s dual wielded it’s okay, but I don’t often see people using it (it’s only on Snowbound for the moment anyway).
The rocket launcher no longer locks on and is pretty much the same weapon from the first game.
My favorite new weapon, even more than the turret, is the Spike Grenade. It looks like a giant metal bowling pin with nails sticking out of it, and when it explodes the nails go in all directions. But the greatest thing about it is that, like a plasma grenade, it will stick into your enemy (with a satisfying, bone-crunching thwack) before blowing them to smithereens.
Note: neither the pistol nor the energy sword has shown up in the Beta yet. Personally, I wish the sword were gone forever (it’s not). I hate that thing.
Now let’s talk about the machine gun turret and the Missile Pod. The turret is similar to the Marine turrets that have been seen in the previous games, except now you can pick it up and carry it around Predator-style. When you’re carrying it, the camera switches to a third-person view and you move slow as ass. While mounted, the turret has infinite ammo, but once wielded it slowly runs out. Like a real chaingun, it starts out firing slowly before hitting full speed (and when it does, you can hear that thing pop clear across Valhalla). After the Spike Grenade, the turret is probably my favorite new feature in Halo 3.
The Missile Pod functions similarly to the turret except it can’t be mounted, fires missiles (obviously) and can lock-on like the rocket launcher from the second game.
Finally, there’s the Spartan Laser. This is the new BFG of the Halo world. It works a lot like the Torque Bow from Gears of War; after a few seconds of charging, it fires an enormous burst of energy that can easily toast a player or a vehicle. The trick is managing the charge time. I know a few players have been complaining that the weapon is overpowered, but so far I haven’t even been able to get two kills in a row with it.
To sum up, my favorite weapons in the Beta are the assault rifle, the sniper rifle, the turret and the Spike Grenade.
Equipment is the new gameplay addition Halo 3 brings to the franchise. Since the Xbox 360 controller has two more buttons than the original Xbox controller (the “bumpers” above the triggers), Bungie remapped reloading and picking up weapons off the X button and put it onto the bumpers. The X button is now used to deploy equipment, whatever that equipment might be.
In the Beta, the equipment you run into most are the Power Drainer, the Bubble Shield, and the Gravity Lift. The Power Drainer creates a small dome of energy that sucks away at an enemy’s shields. The Bubble Shield is exactly what it sounds like—a big igloo-like shield that protects you from any kind of weapons fire but allows anyone (including enemies) to run in and out of it. The Grav Lift is essentially a portable trampoline that lets you get into those hard-to-reach places.
So far, I haven’t made much use of equipment. On occasion I’ve used the Bubble Shield; some players are dumb enough to run in after you inside the bubble, at which point you can slap a Spike Grenade onto them and get the hell out of there. The grav lift is useful for getting into the tower on High Ground, but I’ve never successfully deployed the Power Drainer. And I’ve never come across the Radar Scrambler, which prevents enemies from seeing you on their motion trackers. I’m not sure it’s even in the Beta.
There are a few other new features worth mentioning. The game now chooses an MVP for each match, though how the MVP is determined is still a mystery. As you play the game, you advance in “rank.” If you’re not that great a player but you play a lot (like me), you advance in the “enlisted” ranks, but if you’re very skilled, you jump into the “officer” ranks (I suspect I’ll have to start killing more often than dying before I get anywhere close to being an officer).
Also, you can now save a film of any given match. Right now, the film just shows you exactly what you saw as you played the match, but supposedly the final game will allow you to pause the film, rotate and examine a scene from all directions, and so forth. This is a really neat feature that will not only help machinema creators, but allows you to study your technique and see where you did things wrong.
Phew! That was a huge post, and I haven’t even covered everything, like the great new “party up” option that lets you stay with a team of strangers if you seem to be working well together. Suffice to say, I love the Beta, and I’m now looking forward to Halo 3 more than ever.