If you thought that with the release of Halo 3 Microsoft and Bungie were done separating you from your money this year, you're in for a bit of a surprise on December 11. That's when both companies will release the Heroic downloadable content pack for Halo 3, a collection of three new maps that will cost 800 Microsoft points on Xbox Live Marketplace, or about $10. These new maps aim to flesh out Halo 3's highly popular multiplayer gameplay even further, offering an intense new large-scale battlefield, a deeply modifiable small-scale arena, and a beautiful new outdoor map reminiscent of the popular level Blood Gulch. All three levels are a blast, too, as we had a chance recently to travel up to Bungie's offices and try them out ourselves.
The idea of downloadable content for Halo isn't new; Bungie and MS released similar map packs for Halo 2. In keeping with the tradition established by those map packs, Bungie will eventually release this new Halo 3 map pack for free sometime next year. However, if you want to play them before then, you'll have to pony up. We'll start with Standoff, a gorgeous new midsized map set on the open African plain. From the first moment you see it, you realize just how different it looks from almost every map seen to date, as there's nothing to obstruct the view for miles in any direction. It feels as if it's set under a huge sky, with a setting sun that makes for beautiful lighting effects. The surrounding countryside isn't empty and barren, either, as there are satellite relay stations dominating the horizon. Watch closely and you'll notice that they actually move. Another nice touch is the blinking warning lights on each of the dishes.
Standoff takes place on a UNSC missile base, with two bases facing each other. This map is reminiscent of the levels Valhalla and Blood Gulch thanks to its relatively large outdoor setting and almost perfectly symmetrical nature. It's a fairly wide open space, which would make it perfect for sniping save for one critical feature: Bungie has purposely omitted the sniper rifle on this level. Standoff is designed for intense infantry and vehicle combat with assault and battle rifles, shotguns, and grenades. Each base is equipped with a single Warthog and a handful of Mongooses. A single Spartan Laser lies in the middle between the two bases, while each base also has a rocket launcher located on the outside. These are the primary anti-vehicle weapons for infantry. There's plenty of room to maneuver vehicles, but the middle of the map separating the bases has plenty of large rocks to shield infantry from getting run over.
On objective-based games such as capture the flag and assault, the flag or bomb drop-off spot is located near the primary entrance of each base. However, getting to it is difficult, thanks to the layout of each base. There are actually two front entrances, which makes any direct assault difficult because attackers are funneled into the front of the base. There, they can easily be chewed up by defenders, vehicles, and the machine gun turret located atop each base. There's a back entrance to each base, and the easiest way to get to it is to drive behind the base and jump out. The downside to the back entrance is that you've got to battle your way through narrow corridors to get to the objective. There is an optional side entrance that makes things a lot easier, provided someone on your team can hit the switch inside the base that opens the door to it. Once the side entrance is open, it gives you an easier path to the objective, and gives the defenders yet another opening to worry about.
Standoff is suitable for all the major game types. We played slayer, team slayer, capture the flag, assault, and infection and all of them felt natural on the map. While it's a midsized map, it's still a lot of fun with 16 players; the action is chaotic and fun with a full set. With that said, it's too large for a very small-scale game of something like three-versus-three.
The next map is Foundry, and it's unique among all Halo 3 maps in that it was designed specifically for the Forge, the real-time object editor that lets you modify maps on the fly. Foundry is a relatively small-scale map designed for small three-on-three and four-on-four action. In its default state, it's laid out for a very wild, close-quarters combat experience. Imagine an industrial warehouse filled with giant crates and fenced off in certain locations. We played team slayer, slayer, and territories matches on this level. While it's primarily an infantry level, there is a single Ghost that can absolutely wreak havoc in the hands of the right player. Sure, there are plenty of weapons, like a rocket launcher and sticky grenades to take the Ghost out, but we were still steamrollered more times than we could count by that thing. This is also a very tight level, with narrow corridors on the ground level and plenty of verticality if you get atop some of the crates. Someone with the rocket launcher on a high perch can have a field day.
The special thing about Foundry is that by using the Forge editor, it can be quickly and easily modified in many ways. Strip out all the objects and suddenly you have an empty industrial warehouse, and the possibilities after that are almost endless. The DLC will include some crazy new Forge items as well. One example that Bungie made up for our demonstration was an indoor soccer match, but with a gigantic soccer ball the size of the Master Chief, and the ball is "kicked" using gravity hammers.
The third and last map is by far the largest. It's called Rat's Nest, and it's supposed to help fill out the rotation of Big Team Battle maps. The inspiration for Rat's Nest is Crow's Nest, the single-player level early in the game that's set in a mostly underground UNSC base. Even though it's a large-scale map with plenty of vehicles, it's all set indoors. There are two bases relatively close to each other, but the direct route between them is a small warren of rooms. Meanwhile, a track encircles the entire level, and each base starts out with a couple of Warthogs and Mongooses. The track also cuts through the very middle of the level, separating the bases. There's a catch, though: One side of the map is higher than the other. Depending on which way you drive through the middle, you'll hit a wall or a ledge. You drive off the ledge, but if you try to go the other direction you hit the wall and it's a dead end, literally and probably figuratively, because you've driven into a narrow alley where infantry can pummel you from every angle. If you drive off the ledge, though, you've got to be careful of your speed, because you're in danger of flying off another ledge. That's because the level is built into the side of a cliff, and one side of the map is open to the sky.
The narrowness of the track and the other drivable parts of the level makes Rat's Nest perfect for vehicular carnage. It's like a demolition derby at times, with vehicles slamming into one another. Infantry in the open stand a good chance of getting run down. However, there are plenty of places where the vehicles can't go, like the warren of rooms in the middle. Infantry can also hide atop a large pipe hanging from the ceiling. The middle of the map is also a perfect kill zone, as a gun turret is positioned to sweep the area with fire. A lot of the best goodies, like bubble shields, are also located in the middle, tempting you to venture out in the open for them. We played slayer, team slayer, capture the flag, and infection on this map. Infection was really a blast, thanks to the many hiding places. The gun turret in the middle is on a balcony, making it perfect for a last stand. Or, you can jump in a Mongoose and try to outrun the zombies.
We expect that the new maps will be received warmly. After all, they offer up even more Halo 3 multiplayer action, and that can hardly be called a bad thing. It will certainly be nice to have some more variety in terms of large-scale maps with the addition of Rat's Nest, and Standoff has the potential of being a big fan favorite as well. Finally, Foundry will be fun for small-unit action or for goofing around with the Forge editor. They're all great maps, and they each feel fresh and unique. They'll be made available for purchase and download next week.