With the release of Halo Wars right around the corner and Halo 3: ODST scheduled for release later this year, 2009 is shaping up to be a big year for Halo fans. Equally exciting for many Halo-philes is the looming release of the Mythic Map Pack, a group of three all-new Halo 3 multiplayer maps. We recently took a jaunt up to Bungie Studios in Kirkland, Washington and spent a day running and gunning our way around the new maps. Two of them provided exciting new battlegrounds for the game's frenetic action, whereas the third aims to capitalize on the creative power of Forge and the Halo 3 community. No matter whether you're up to date on the official Grifball rules or haven't touched Halo 3 in months, you'll want to hear what each of these new maps has in store.
The first map that we played was Assembly, a circular, open arena situated inside a massive Covenant structure. Assembly gets its name from the Scarab assembly line that passes overhead, and if you spend enough time gazing at the massive, intricate alien scenery, you're sure to see an unfinished hull on its way to get some legs. The structure is immersed in a vast pool of glowing goo, but try to investigate and you'll fall to your death. The map feels a bit like Midship (a Halo 2 map) turned inside out, though the level designers were quick to assure us that the Mythic map pack features no remakes.
Assembly is structured around a large central chamber in which you can find a needler, a mauler, active camo, and the gravity hammer. The glowing tube that houses the active camo will deflect projectiles, but it functions less as a safe haven than as a deterrent to shooting through the central chamber. The chamber has two floors, and four elevated walkways radiate out from the chamber to the rim of the arena. These walkways provide good opportunities to traverse the map quickly and rain down bullets and grenades on ground-floor opponents. At the same time, elevated enemies are more exposed, and players on the ground have a wealth of cover to keep them protected. It's easy to jump between these levels, making for dynamic firefights in which players snake their way up, around, and under in pursuit of a kill.
Plenty of equipment, weapons, and grenades can be found in this area, but the deadlier elements are located on the periphery. Brute shots and the plasma pistol/magnum combo can be found adjacent to the two bases that sit on opposite sides of the map. Each base has two interior levels that you can negotiate via ramps and a gravity lift. The most explosive weapon on the map, the rocket launcher, is perched atop a tower that sits on the rim of the map, between the two bases. Accessible by gravity lift or a sneakier side ramp, the rocket platform is quite exposed, so you'll have to decide if it's worth the risk. Assembly's circular layout and small size make it a great choice for frantic Free for Alls and Team Slayer matches. Objective-based variants such as Oddball and Capture the Flag will also make for some fierce action, reminiscent of the Warlock map from Halo 2.
For the next map, Bungie ditched the purple curves of the Covenant for the gray corridors of humanity. Orbital is set on the Quito Space Tether, and you'll notice similarities to the Cairo Station level from the Halo 2 campaign. Long corridors crowded with crates are the primary battlefields, but the two bases offer cramped multilevel arenas for intense showdowns. The corridor combat makes Orbital reminiscent of Halo: CE's Longest map, but the layout is a bit more complex. Orbital is essentially two long, U-shaped corridors placed on top of one another and then slightly offset. There are bases at either end of the U's, and teams can see one another through windows, giving a possible advantage to the team on the upper level who can easily scout their opponent's base.
The base areas also have large blast doors that can close, offering a nice strategic twist to the proceedings, and a pair of Mongooses let skilled drivers traverse the small map in seconds. However, abundant crates and tight corners aren't the only obstacles, given that you'll have to mind the large pit at the curve of the U-shaped corridors. The rocket launcher and sniper rifle assure that this area will be hotly contested, making the seemingly small pit more of a hazard. The small, asymmetrical layout makes Orbital ideally suited for tactical Team Slayer battles and One Flag CTF matches. The cluttered, surprisingly detailed hallways ensure that though victory won't be easily won, you can at least learn a bit about famous human engineers while you play.
The third and final map, Sandbox, is in a class by itself. Whereas Orbital and Assembly are focused on fast-paced action, Sandbox fancies itself the ultimate Forge playground. When Foundry was released as part of the Heroic Map Pack, its Forge friendliness spawned a huge community outpouring of map designs, game variants, and downright wackiness. Building on the success of its conceptual predecessor, the Sandbox map offers three unique arenas to play with, each with different characteristics to cater to the Forge-happy community.
The first is a flat, open area surrounded by banked sand dunes and situated inside of a massive, sandy bowl. Ringing the bowl are massive monoliths that will blast you to smithereens if you venture too far into the sand, and their black masses stand in stark contrast to the smoldering sunset on the horizon. It's a beautiful, otherworldly place that suits its malleable nature. In the tiled ground-floor area, there are a number of massive blocks arranged in symmetrical patterns. Two bases at either end house the two teams, and the area feels uniquely suited for vehicle play. The default deployment features two Mongooses, a Warthog, and a Brute Chopper, but other vehicles can easily be included through Forge.
This open area features a central obelisk that holds more than the Overshield perched atop of it; it's also the gateway to the large, underground vault. Removing a key stone in Forge will let you fly down a tunnel to a wide-open arena custom-made for Grifball, a popular variant of Assault that plays a bit like rugby with gravity hammers. The high ceilings and ample floor space are perfect for crafting unique Grifball courts, but even the empty arena makes for some great matches.
The last area of Sandbox is a vast, open grid that sits in the sky above the dunes and vehicles of the ground level. Accessed via teleporter in Forge, the skybox is a blank slate just waiting for Forge enthusiasts. It is much larger than even the expansive space below, and considering that falling from a structure here will kill you, it offers Forgers a unique mapmaking opportunity. Anything from Mongoose obstacle courses to remakes of old levels to entirely new creations is possible here.
The three areas of Sandbox each offer unique creation opportunities, and new Forge items such as a golf set complete with club, ball, and hole are just the icing on the cake. There is incredible potential for new game and map variants, and Bungie is planning on promoting the best ones so that everyone can enjoy the fruits of Halo 3's vibrant community.
The Mythic Map Pack will be available to folks who purchase a Limited Edition copy of Halo Wars (out March 3rd in the US). Everyone else will have to wait until the pack hits Xbox Live Marketplace for 800 points sometime this spring.