May 11, 2007 - Not that we're complaining, but the wait for Halo 3 has been a bit easier than the wait for Halo 2. First we had the Starry Night TV commercial offering clues-a-plenty as to what we'd see in Master Chief's next adventure. Then Bungie got all transparent, showering us with 'making of' video documentaries and souping up www.Bungie.net with stacks of content.
And now we get the ultimate antidote to those release date blues - the Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta. Hey, if you can't wait for the game to come out, why not just play it? In the console world it's a pretty novel idea, but definitely one we're a fan of.
So here it is. Three brand new maps. Seven brand new weapons. Four brand new pieces of 'equipment' that are deployed with the previously mysterious X-Button. One nifty new vehicle. And a new Saved Films feature that should cause true Halo professionals and clan members to go weak at the knees. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is just a demo - from Wednesday May 16 until June 6 the Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta will give you a ridiculously generous helping of Halo goodness.
You'll know that there are two ways to get into the Beta. Most people will access it with their copy of Crackdown (on Wednesday you'll be able to put the game in and download the Beta from the in-game menu), but some lucky punters might have scooped a free code in one of the community site competitions that ran before Christmas. Once you've got it all downloaded (the download weighs in at a hefty 900MB, by the way) you can get straight in and play without any mucking around, although there is a scaled-back character customisation suite that lets you choose your armour colours, emblem and a three-digit Service Tag to identify yourself. Bungie promise this will be much more extensive in the finished game.
Once you've chosen your outfit (there are no Elite models in the Beta, so it's all Spartans all the time) you're faced with three simple options: Play the Beta, View a Film, or Quit to Dashboard. Obviously you won't be doing the last one unless something extremely important happens and we'll talk about the films later, so let's look at what your play choices are. The Beta is matchmaking only - there are no custom, single-player, or offline play options at all. But you do have the choice to play Ranked Playlists or Social Playlists. Ranked Playlists let you get stuck into good old Rumble Pit you-against-the-world games, Team Slayer games, small team games (Skirmishes), or Big Team Battles. The maximum number of players the Beta supports is 12 on the Valhalla map, but the final game will go up to 16.
The first thing you'll notice is the slick new matchmaking system. Again, Bungie promises loads more functionality in the finished game but the signs are that you'll be able to find a game suitable for your desires and skill level quicker and more easily. Once the matchmaking system has hooked you up with some prospective teammates/victims, you'll be assigned a random game type and map. There's a new veto system that lets you vote to reject the game and map on offer, but it's democracy rules here. It seems like Bungie is being very proactive about making the experience as fair and as frustration-free as possible, something which is also evident in the ability to instantly silence annoying mic-monkeys by selecting them and clicking in the right thumbstick. This works in the lobbies or in the heat of battle. Ah, silence really is golden.
One last matchmaking thing before we talk about the game proper. There's a new 'Party Up' feature which lets you form parties whenever you want, like after a good match. So if you like the cut of someone's assault rifle or feel like you had stumbled on a cosmic team dynamic you can invite other players to be in your gang, then the whole party can stick together into other games. Interestingly, you can even Party Up with players in Ranked Playlists - although only players that you had on your team. It definitely helps make the experience much more fun and social and should be great news for groups of friends and clans.
Right. We're in. Lots to take in, so we might as well start with the controls. It all feels pretty similar to Halo 2, although the new bumper buttons on the 360's pad let you reload your weapons (independently if you're dual-wielding) and cycle between grenade types. The only other major addition is the X button, which is labelled 'Deploy Equipment' in the control scheme. More on that in a moment.
Next up, the graphics. Now here's a funny thing. At first glance it doesn't blow you away. It doesn't look a million miles away from Halo 2, really. And in terms of instant wow factor it certainly doesn't compare with, say, Gears of War. But start moving around and getting into the game and you really start to notice just how quick and smooth everything is. The visuals are unbelievably silky and there's no clipping, stuttering or slowdown at all. Particularly impressive are the textures when viewed up close, especially if you start plugging them with bullets or plasma projectiles. It's not an eyeball-melting experience (although the view out over the water from the guard tower in High Ground is pretty impressive), but it's built for multiplayer speed - and let's be honest, that's what counts when you're trying to circle-strafe a mid-air opponent and dodge an incoming Spike Grenade at the same time.