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Halo: Reach Beta Impressions

Halo

The Halo: Reach beta is now open to those of us who bought ODST. Feel like taking another Halo game for a spin? This might be your last chance – or at least, your last chance to experience Halo the way Bungie intended. The studio, who recently signed on with Activision (boo hiss etc.) says it’s moving on after Reach goes retail.

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Until then, however, we have this beta to toy with. At the moment there are a handful of maps and modes available; soon, though, a bigger map featuring vehicles and more game types will be available. For now, we’re free to play a slew of Slayer and CTF variants. The most interesting of these are the Stockpile and Headhunter modes, which both require much more defensive backpedaling than Halo has ever really needed before. Killing people to collect piles of flaming skulls may be zany, but making it to the dropoff point to earn your score requires a surprising amount of skill.

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One of the most dramatic changes to the game is the loadout system. Spartan players can now choose from four different special classes – Scout, Guard, Stalker, and Airborne. The Scout can sprint, making Halo feel closer to Call of Duty than anything else. It’s practically a standard move in shooters these days, and feels natural in Halo. However, it might not make that much difference, because the other three choices are much more unique.

Guards have an ability called Armor Lock that curls the player into a ball and hardens the Spartan shield. Players are invulnerable for a few moments in this mode, and if they hold the pose for long enough, the shield sends out an EMP blast that knocks out nearby shields. It’s a strange gameplay mechanic, and most people (so far) in the beta can’t really make heads or tails of it. Still, some extremely skilled players are using it to distract enemies in a firefight, protect flags in CTF, or just get plain lucky and win one-on-one encounters with clueless foes.

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Stalkers make use of the classic Active Camo that Halo has featured for so long. However, the camo is much, much better in Reach than it was in previous games. Spotting a Stalker in the heat of the moment can be difficult, and the stealthier players will probably make the most of the new assassination animations. The odd thing with Stalkers, though, is that their camo also masks sound – completely, at the moment. Even by Halo logic, magically getting rid of gun sounds minus a silencer is just bizarre. It’s even more annoying in split screen, where it covers everyone’s gunfire.

Airborne players get jetpacks. Jetpacks jetpacks jetpacks. That’s all there is to it, really. They’re silly, they’re fun, and they can either make you a deadly air warrior or a floating target. Flying headfirst into the enemy base is the first thing most players in the beta seem to be trying. I know I did.

I won’t make fun of you if you did, too. I promise.

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Along with all these gameplay tweaks, the graphics in Reach are much better than Halo 3‘s. Although there are still some aliasing problems, it looks like everything is rendering at a much higher resolution – perhaps even actual 720p! That’d be a shocker. Textures are much crisper, and the landscapes and walls make great use of parallax mapping to give everything extra depth. It’s still decidedly Halo – everything is rather garish and somewhat cartoony – but it’s lightyears ahead of Bungie’s other 360 efforts.

This beta gives us a chance to experience the new ranking system as well, or at least get a taste of it. Similar to Starcraft II, Reach has a numerical score calculator that takes wins, losses, and other factors into account and matches you with similar players in ranked matches. Good performance will also earn you credits, which are for buying new helmets and other cosmetic goodies for your character. We’ll see how this ranking system plays out over the course of the beta.

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For the lucky few (actually well over 800,000 last time I checked) who are in the beta, the upcoming weeks should be fairly exciting. Playing a new Halo early, wielding new weapons (plasma repeaters for life!), finding glitches (Stockpile matches currently display the wrong team icons over each base sometimes) and zipping around on jetpacks is barrels of fun. Now we just need a vehicle map to test out.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

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