The Halo: Reach multiplayer beta test became available for the general consumption of ODST owners today, and as Heavy.com’s designated super-soldier (I’m made of shotguns and hate) it falls to me to report on the carnage. While the current selection of maps and gametypes is somewhat limited right now with none of that sexy looking team-based action we were seeing in the trailers, I can tell you this: it’s pretty carnage. Futuristic marines can kit themselves in all kinds of pastel color, alien superguns fire sparkly unicorn magic, and besieged airbases resemble like some kind of cyberpunk IKEA showroom. It’s a welcome change from the uninspired grit that makes up the bulk of generic bro- shooters post-Gears Of War and a nice shout-out to the comic book colours of 16-bit run and guns. Bungie have even seen fit to include a unicorn emblem to adorn your hard-nosed space pixie with if you feel the need to seriously bait the gross homophobic prepubescent lurking in 95% of all Halo matchmaking.
If that feels like too much work, Bungie have even thrown in the option to filter trash-talking bum goblins out of the matchmaking process in the gloriously clean and thoughtful menu system, but I’ve not had the chance or need to put it to the test yet. Servers are unstable and I’ve had at least one horrible crash that needed a full system reboot to clear, but hey! It’s a beta test of unfinished software! Software that is, as I write, currently so broken I can’t matchmake games anymore.
Action is punchy, snappier and just less frustrating than Halo 3, with more emphasis on fast turnarounds than whittling down shields. Two of the new game modes – headhunter and stockpile – allow for game-changing scores to be landed in a single touchdown which keeps games tense, enjoyable and winnable. It’ll be interesting to see how far the team objective games go with this philosophy – will there be the chance to turn it all around and score a win at the eleventh hour, or will half your team quit while the opposing team inevitably destroys you, again?
The big new thing is the loadout mechanic – when you die, you have four different classes of equipment to choose to spawn with, from sprinting and cloaking to limited indestructibility. Right now these are very generic and only vary your armour abilities, but in time these should extend to the weapons you spawn with. Not only does this work to vary your capabilities and approach, the option to change out your loadout turns death from a bitter annoyance to an opportunity. Another nice change moves the melee attack from the face buttons to the left shoulder bumper, making beatdowns and assassinations a more fluid, natural process. It’s very satisfying to pull off one of the specially animated third-person assassinations, especially if you’re both in mid air.
No vehicles yet, and only limited weapons (I’ve got my hands on one of the four-shot lock-on plasma charge launchers, but not seen the much desired EMP grenade launcher) but already this seems like a worthy, thoughtful evolution to one of FPS gaming’s most misunderstood but insanely popular franchises. More through the week! If it decides to start working again, that is.