It was in a sunny late afternoon that Driftwood and I went to the French Halo Reach Beta presentation in Paris. It wasn't long before the weather turned stormy and it started to rain. A bad omen for a highly-anticipated game?
On time as usual, we are among the first to arrive. A cybercafe had been turned into a game room for the occasion. No presentation, no speech, we take a seat in front of one of the huge, freshly unpacked LED TVs.
Beginning with the classy lobby menus, we notice the efforts made by Bungie. The matchmaking options are numerous and the different screens are clearly displayed. But let’s focus on the new customization features. Similar to Halo 3 we are able to change some of the armour parts: the helmet, the chest, and shoulders. But now, you’ll have to unlock them by reaching higher grades and earning credits to buy them. Therefore, you'll need to get more and more frags in the different multiplayer modes. Of course you can still choose your armour colors and customize your emblem.
After having made a beautiful but not really discreet Spartan, the first game starts with classic team CTF in a spatial complex called Sword Base. You begin by choosing a class :
• The Expert Markman can run
• The Stalker becomes quite invisible
• The Operator generates a surrounding shield by hiting the ground
• The Airborne can fly by using a jetpack
Of course these capabilities are temporary and you’ll have to use them cleverly. Please note that you can switch to another class any time you get killed.
The game finally ends with a one thing being certain : we definitely don't measure up to Halo fans!
We finally try a new mode called "Headhunter" on the new Powerhouse map. Each player collects skulls spread all over the map, and then he has to drop it in one of the dropzones whose location is constantly changing. The first one who manages to drop 10 skulls at the same time, wins the game, otherwise the winner will be the player who has brought the most skulls at the end of the allotted time. Of course, don’t expect it to be as simple as picking flowers, and the other Spartans will shoot you with pleasure to retrieve the skulls you are carrying.
After some frenetic frags - and on organizers demand - we vote for the new Boneyard map, associated with a new mode: Invasion. And surprisingly, it's a futuristic quad race, reminiscent of the race mode in GTAIV. Indeed it's a checkpoint race and you can step out of your vehicle and spread chaos. I may as well tell you right away that the fans were in trance state!
A reach gameplay?
A new episode doesn't necessarily mean new features, but Bungie has undeniably worked hard to deliver just that! First, your Spartan moves slower and doesn't jump as high. Moreover you'll get fall damage if you drop from too high. Let's also note that it takes more time to get your shield and your energy regenerated.
About melee attacks, you'll first need to break down your enemy shield before killing him. But the key feature is the new Assassination move. To use it, you'll have to get close to your enemy from behind and press the melee button. It will result in a nice and humiliating animation!
The class choice also adds a strategic touch and should be decisive, depending on the game mode and the map. Moreover the powers are limited enough, and quite restrictive, keeping the balance of the game intact.
Regarding weapons, the beta includes two new ones that we unfortunately didn't have the chance to try: the grenade laucher and the plasma laucher. Some slight changes have been made to previously existing ones, in order to balance gameplay (reload time, range, rate, damages, etc ...).
Finally, in addition to Halo 3 modes, there are four new ones. The first two ones are detailled above, and the others are:
• Stockpile where each team have to drop four flags which appear randomly in random zones.
• Generator Defense which takes place in the Overlook map where three Elites have to destroy three generators defended by three Spartans.
The maximum number of players is still 16 (depending on mode), and the Theater Mode will still be present.
A luminous Halo?
Before considering the technical part, it's important to mention that the huge TVs with factory settings clearly didn't emphasize Halo Reach graphics. Some of them even had the 100Hz option activated (with image ghosting and other artefacts), and it seems that the consoles were badly configurated (bad resolution and bad cables).
Obviously, in these conditions it was really difficult to evaluate the efforts made by Bungie, and the game seemed quite close to Halo 3, with a better lightning model. Some textures are blurry, and the aliasing is very noticable (certainly increased by the TVs size). We cautiously blame the bad settings and the fact that it's only a beta version.
Nevertheless, in addition to lightning, the other nice touches regard character and weapon animations, which are more detailled and realistic. For example, Assassinations are really great.
Halo Wins ?
Before being jumped by Halo Fanboys, please keep in mind that I've never really enjoyed the Halo multiplayer experience, but I have to admit that the Bungie guys have outdone themselves to consolidate the Halo fundamentals while bringing some fresh new features. Concerning the technical side, it's quite difficult to judge, especially considering these bad conditions. But in my opinion, it won't be a graphical masterpiece, and it might even disappoint some of you (again). However, that didn't prevent Halo 3 from becoming one of the most played games on the Xbox Live service. So let's wait until May 3rd for those who has purchased Halo ODST !