For those of you that haven’t been living under a rock with your fingers in your ears for the past few months, you’d be aware that the public beta for the jewel in the Microsoft crown, Halo 3, was scheduled for release on 16th May. Many gamers waited with baited breath and if the uproar resulting from a one day delay in the beta’s release didn’t outline the importance of Halo 3, then I suggest you stop reading right now and save yourself a few minutes.
As most of you will know, the only way for the majority of Xbox 360 owners to play the Halo 3 beta is through the download page in Crackdown. Once you’ve waited patiently you can now access the beta anytime you want, as long as it’s loaded through Crackdown (to stop people from returning the game straight after). The main menu is very simplistic and the adrenaline will begin to pump as that iconic theme tune begins to ring through your speakers. And after a kind ‘Love, Bungie’ message from the load screen, you’re ready to embark on your epic journey.
What most people are going to ask is how good does Halo 3 look? And it’s safe to say that it’s a stark improvement over Halo 2. The levels (which I’ll talk about in more detail later) are highly detailed. Character models are solid and it’s not as if you’ll be paying too much attention to that. Vehicles are far more realistic; when you crash you feel and see the impact it’s had on your vehicle. This isn’t even taking into consideration that what we’re playing is merely a beta build of a game that’s surely going to look better come release day. In fact, I’d be quite happy with the game looking like it does now if it meant that it ran as smoothly as it does online.
Halo 3’s basic controls are identical to Halo 2. If the Halo hype train didn’t take you in then chances are this beta won’t convert you. There have been slight changes to the controls; LB is now used to cycle through your grenades while RB is for reloading, using fixed gun turrets (which can now be taken of the ground putting the player in a 3rd person perspective compromising agility for sheer power) and also getting in an out of vehicles. With those functions going over to RB, the X button implements the biggest gameplay change. Scattered throughout the three maps there are special ‘power ups’ that can shift a game to the advantage of a team with just a press of the X button. There’s a trip mine which works just like you’d expect and it’s mainly used if you’re about to be flattened by a vehicle or for more strategic purposes such as placing it near flags or points of importance. Another special item and probably the best of the bunch is the bubble shield. When thrown on the floor it creates a protective force field (which looks fantastic) that protects players inside it from enemy attacks. It doesn’t however stop enemies moving inside or throwing a grenade in to the bubble shield, which gives it great balance.
Weapons have a more ‘meaty’ feel to them. When you fire an SMG, you can feel the kickback and each bullet really looks like it’s doing damage. The shotgun is absolutely devastating from close range and the Spartan Laser is lethal in the wrong hands. Grenades are also very dangerous in the hands of a skilled player.
The beta gives you two types of game modes to play through. The first is ‘Ranked Playlists’ that includes rumble pit, team slayer and team skirmish. This mode is for the more competitive players that want to increase their rank and it all goes towards the players overall stats. The second is ‘Social Players’ which as the name suggests, is a more laid back mode consisting of rumble training and big team battle training, here you can even invite a friend to play with you as a guest.
The matchmaking in Halo 3 from experience is very poor. It takes an absolute age to find a game and when you look over and see that there are over 30,000 players online, it makes you wonder why it’s taking so long to find just 7 players. Hopefully Bungie will rectify this in time for the game’s full release and if the reports of over 4 million pre-orders for Halo 3 in America are true then you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a match. The wait is certainly worth it however; battles are frantic and even in death you’re flung right back into the action within seconds to keep everything flowing nicely. I doubt you’d even notice that there aren’t that many players playing (up to 12 players).
There are three maps in the beta and each person will have their own favourites for different reasons. The first map is called ‘Valhalla’ and is the largest of the three. There are two large bases at the opposite ends of the maps, making it perfect for team based games such as capture the flag and oddball. Each base has three ‘man cannons’ which does exactly what it says on the tin, launching the player high into the air. This is a great addition considering the size of the map and trying to go up one of these with a Mongoose or Warthog makes for extremely comical results. The level is graphically stunning, the water effects are some of the best I’ve seen and the greenery is full of life. The second map is ‘Higher Ground’. It’s a lot more compact than Valhalla and makes for extremely chaotic matches, as the bulk of the conflict is concentrated towards the centre of the map. While it is a little small, this map is great for territories (those familiar with the Battlefield series will feel right at home here) and rumble matches. Last up we have ‘Snowbound’. There’s not much to report on other than it’s the worst map of the three and is seemingly there for players to test out the new veto system which allows players to change a map and game mode if a majority feels it isn’t too their liking.
Another potentially brilliant addition is the ability to record your matches. If there’s a headshot you’re unashamedly proud of or a hilarious moment that couldn’t be fully appreciated without been seen first hand, then you can send it to friends and let them relive your greatest Halo 3 moments.
From what I’ve played, the Halo 3 beta is an extremely solid online experience and when played with a decent group of players delivers some of the best online moments you’ll have on Xbox Live. You have to assume that Bungie will take notice of feedback on their official forums and that the game is only going to get better and if that’s the case Xbox 360 owners have a lot to look forward to. With the recent announcement of a September 25th release for everyone apart from Europe, who only have to wait a day later, we won’t have long to wait for what is set to be one of the console’s defining experiences.