Halo: Reach Beta Impressions

“Two men enter, the better man leaves. The lesser man is respawning, and that’s Halo.”

At its core is a simple game built around three simple things – guns, melee and grenades. Sure, there have always been extras thrown in, but strip it down to basics and those three are the only things that have ever mattered in Halo. Earlier, if you were good at those, you were good at the game; it’s been that way since Halo: Combat Evolved. Not anymore.

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The biggest change Halo: Reach brings to the series is in the form of ‘armor abilities’. Each armor ability has a different function; camo makes you invisible, jetpacks let you fly, armor lock makes you invulnerable, sprint lets you cover distance quickly, etc. They work the same way the suit powers worked in Crysis. You have a set amount of time you can use the armor ability for, and once it’s expired, you have to wait till it recharges before you can use it again. Each game type has its own set of armor abilities you can pick up and (like everything else that matters) they are all available to every player regardless of rank or experience.

They might sound overpowered at first, but each one has been balanced to perfection. There is no ability that trumps them all and every one of them leaves you vulnerable in some way. For example, armor lock might make you invincible for a short burst of time, but it also locks you down so that you can’t move. If used incorrectly, that will just delay your inevitable death by 7 seconds, but time it right, and you can deflect a rocket launcher, stall a vehicle, shrug off sticky grenades, etc. In classical Halo fashion, it’s not the ability that will win you encounters, but how you use it.

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A new set of game types were also introduced in the beta. Stockpile, Headhunter and Invasion, etc were all available in the beta. Stockpile – a more dynamic variant of capture the flag, and Headhunter – picking up skulls from dead opponents and depositing them at a point on the map to score, are pretty much perfect as they are. Invasion, on the other hand, needs some tweaking. It pits an invading team of Elites against a defending team of Spartans in an objective-based game type, with both teams getting their own sets of vehicles, weapons and armor abilities as the game progresses. Limited to 6-on-6 in the beta (confirmed as 8-on-8 in the final game), it has some breathtaking moments of absolute carnage, but it does feel like the Spartans have an edge due to better weapons and armor loadouts in the latter half of the game.

Also worth noting is that Elites now play differently than Spartans in multiplayer. They can jump higher, move faster, and have access to their own armor abilities. So when matched up against the Spartans in simple Slayer matches with a single loadout, you get the feeling that the Elites’ base traits make them a bit overpowered. Network Test 1, which was opened to the public in the last three days of the beta, probably might not make it to the final game because it was only used to test out Bungie’s co-op (and possibly Firefight) net code, but despite the (intended) input lag, it was quite enjoyable.

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Most of the maps in the beta were well thought out, but Swordbase needs an overhaul to better direct the flow of the game. It’s quite easy (and disastrous) to lose your way in a capture the flag match because of confusing map design. Powerhouse, on the other hand, is an excellent map, but some of the weapon placement in it could use a little bit of tweaking. The same goes for the flag rooms in CTF matches on Powerhouse and Swordbase.

The new engine also gives the game a major graphical overhaul, resulting in a much prettier game than Halo 3. The field of view has also increased and it feels like you now have more breathing room. The weapon and armor detail is downright jaw-dropping at times and the lighting system is just as good as you would expect from a Halo game. The frame rate is rock solid and all in all, even for a beta, it looks and plays exceptionally well.

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Weapon balance has had some changes as well. Dual-wielding is no longer in the game. Weapons are also balanced in a different way than in Halo 3. Instead of having one weapon that wins at all distances (the almighty BR), each weapon has a specific function and range. This generally leads to far more balanced weapon usage than Halo 3, where you would pick up a BR and only stop using it if you got your hands on a power weapon. Some weapons also have a reticule bloom where spamming the trigger causes your shots to go wild. It might sound like it introduces randomness and an element of chance to a game that had very little of it previously, but in the end, you will invariably find that the more calm and collected fighter will always walk out of the duel, while the spam-happy combatant will be looking at the respawning screen.

Network code has also had a major overhaul. Most of the weapons now are hit scan so you no longer have to lead your shots. General improvements in the background also make the game feel far smoother than any other multiplayer game out there that’s not on dedicated servers. With the exception of Network test 1 (which was intentionally laggy), I barely noticed any lag throughout the beta. Compared to Halo 3, this is a massive improvement.

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It’s not all smooth sailing though. Grenades are overpowered and the fact that everybody spawns with two of them often leads to a lot of grenade spamming. The Spartan movement feels fine, but jumping is nerfed to the point of making it useless. The targetting indicator on the HUD can blend into the background and there are some weird Assassination bugs when you assassinate someone mid-air. Spawning in Invasion can also be hit and miss. Often it’s delayed by a few frustrating seconds. At worst, it will (very rarely) spawn you someplace where you will die almost instantly. The pistol could use a few extra rounds and the reticule bloom on the DMR needs to reset slightly faster to improve combat pacing.

But that’s what a beta is for; glitches can be fixed, weapons can be balanced, and everything in between can be tweaked. But at the end of it all, the million dollar question remains, “Is the game good enough to replace Halo 3?” The standard for a great multiplayer game is different than that for everything else. What separates a truly great multiplayer game from the flavour of the month is timelessness. Unless you can see yourself playing it 3-4 years after release, the answer to that question will always be in the negative.

After spending 17 days, 40 hours, and 300 games with the beta, I think I am beginning to believe that the answer might be a cautiously optimistic “Yes.”

Title: Halo: Reach
Developer/Publisher: Bungie Studios/Microsoft
Genre: First-person Shooter
Rating: N/A
Platforms: Xbox 360
Release date: Fall 2010

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