Microsoft showed off the much-anticipated Halo 3 multiplayer beta in London this evening. The beta will be opened to a much larger audience later this month to let fans test the game, but this was the media's opportunity to check out the game ahead of time. The reaction thus far? Halo 3 looks and plays like a much-prettier version of Halo 2, and that's sure to please the game's millions of fans worldwide.
Six high-definition Samsung televisions were lined up and running the beta that will go on general release next Wednesday, and the Xbox 360 consoles were connected to each other via Xbox Live. The collected media were invited to enter the killing fields, and because it was the first time that one of the year's most anticipated games has been widely shown outside of the Bungie and Halo offices, there was no shortage of volunteers.
The first thing that strikes you about the Halo 3 beta is just how polished it feels. It's not like the beta is a hint of things to come and that you have to brush aside bugs, long loading times, and a number of other issues to enjoy the game--the beta runs at a solid frame rate, is graphically impressive, and feels well on its way to being the code that fans have every right to expect from the finished game. The player models in the beta are the same blue and red Master Chief variants that will be familiar to Halo players, albeit with new bells and whistles. The models themselves now feature rag-doll physics, meaning that dead bodies will bend and buckle according to the environment around them. When you're alive and you look down, you can now see your legs.
There are three levels in the beta: Snowbound, High Ground, and Valhalla. While the beta is limited to these levels, there are a number of gameplay modes. Rumble pit is the typical slayer, or deathmatch, mode, where it's every player for himself. Team slayer lets you team up with a maximum of three others to battle against another team of up to four. Team skirmish is an objective-based mode that can feature single-flag capture-the-flag, territories, and more. And then there's big team battle, which takes place only on the largest map in the beta, Valhalla. That's because Valhalla is the only one that can accommodate the 12 to 16 players in big team battle.
The matchmaking and party functionality in Halo 2 have been improved in Halo 3, but the one thing that remains the same is the ease of getting into a game. Halo 3 will sort through the games taking place and assign you and your opponents based on connection speed, preferences, and more. As before, there is a playlist of different games that Halo 3 cycles through, to provide a huge variety of different gameplay experiences. One match featured nothing but rocket launchers on the Snowbound map, which resulted in the predictable amount of chaos as players blew one another up. One of the nice new additions to matchmaking is the ability to "party up" at the end of the match. Let's say you meet some cool new teammates during a match. Using "party up," they can join your party (or you can join theirs), so the good times can keep on going. There's also an ability for the majority of players to "veto" a map or a game mode if they don't like it.
There are a variety of weapons, new and familiar, available in the beta to try--the trusty assault rifle, the brute shot, new spike grenades, the Spartan laser, machine gun turrets, missile pods, and more. We've noticed that returning weapons such as the needler and the brute shot have been tweaked for balance purposes. They now seem a bit more powerful.
We saw only a couple of the vehicles that will ship in the final game. The first was the familiar Covenant Ghost, the one-man (or one-alien) hover vehicle. And then there's the new Mongoose, the human two-man all-terrain vehicle that doesn't pack any weaponry but can transport you across the battlefield in a hurry. And while the Mongoose lacks weapons, the passenger is free to use whatever weapons he's carrying.
The controls should seem immediately familiar to any Halo fan, but there is a key difference. The right bumper on the gamepad is now used to mount and dismount vehicles, a necessary change because the X button is now reserved to deploy equipment, such as the shield grenade. Equipment is a brand-new addition to Halo 3 and adds a layer of depth and strategy to multiplayer games. There's the bubble shield, the portable grav lift, the trip mine, and the energy drainer. Another key change is that when you're not next to a vehicle, the left and right bumpers allow for the independent reloading of any weapons that you're holding in your hands. This lets you reload one weapon in your hands while you're firing with another, which will be incredibly valuable in a desperate fight.
Visually, the Halo 3 beta looks impressive. Yes, it looks like a higher-resolution version of Halo 2, but the textures and details are razor sharp, and there's a lush quality to the world that wasn't there before. You'll run through fields of flowers or your body will float in a tranquil pond. The high dynamic range lighting in the game also provides a realistic look to the lighting and the world. Meanwhile, there's a smoothness and fluidity to everything now that makes battles fun to watch.
Finally, the fun doesn't end when you stop playing. The beta does include the ability to film all your games. After the match is complete, you can save the film and watch it later or upload it to share with others. However, for the beta the saved film functionality is limited to first-person-only playback. In the final game, players will have full control over the camera, including fast-forward, reverse, pause, and slow-motion controls.
The Halo 3 beta is pretty impressive in terms of content, and Halo fans everywhere will surely put the beta through its paces when it's released next week. But the news for now is that everything looks great, and we can't wait for the hordes of players to arrive so we can get some big battles going.