Condemned. Highlands. Unearthed. These are the names of the three maps that comprise the Defiant Map Pack, the second serving of downloadable content for Halo: Reach. Arriving March 15, Defiant features the first downloadable Firefight map along with an orbital combat arena and a vast training facility set in the wooded highlands of Reach, all for 800 Microsoft points ($10). At the Microsoft February Games Showcase, we spent some time talking with Frank O'Connor from 343 Industries about the new maps and then grabbed a controller to test them out for ourselves. Read on for more on the vehicular combat, low-gravity shootouts, and stunning vistas that the Defiant Map Pack aims to deliver.
The first map we tried was Unearthed. This Firefight map takes place at the site of a mine and refinery on the surface of Reach. The dusty ground and metallic industrial structures were a bit reminiscent of the Holdout map, but that map's tumultuous clouds are a far cry from Unearthed's blue skies. Though it is also poised on a hillside, Unearthed has a lot more open, flat ground than Holdout. Two-story structures jut out of the mountainside, forming a network of walkways and garages that extend out to a much taller building that towers over the lowland area. Crisscrossing the entire map are tire tracks that point to Unearthed's focus on vehicles. Human players can find a Warthog armed with a missile launcher turret that, according to O'Connor, acts as a real force multiplier for the Spartans. We found those words rang true time and time again as we used the emergency brake to slide through crowds of Grunts while our gunner rained fiery vengeance down on the evading Elites. The Covenant brought its own vehicles into the fray before too long, challenging us to navigate in and around the structures to dodge enemy fire and better position ourselves for an assault. Those who like their Firefight matches fast and vehicle friendly should get excited for Unearthed, as should anyone else looking for a new battleground on which to fight the Covenant.
For those who prefer to focus on competitive multiplayer, the Defiant Map Pack has two offerings in store. With only eight stations set up at the event, we were only able to play the smaller of the two, Condemned. Set on a UNSC space station in orbit above Reach, Condemned hosts matches for six to 12 players (primarily Team Slayer, Team Objective, and Free-for-All) and is reminiscent of the Anchor 9 map that came with the Noble Map Pack. Aside from the obvious architectural similarities, both involve a low-gravity area where players can duke it out while floating whimsically through the air. Yet while Anchor 9's low-G area was outside the ship and presented the peril of flying off into space, Condemned's low-G area is located right at the heart of the map, a tall multistory chamber with some sort of turbine located in the center. Players can enter this area from multiple points on two different floors, and the ramps and walkways surrounding the turbine can help you get around faster or evade an enemy's bullets. Jetpackers beware: If you fly too vigorously, you'll zoom up into the domed ceiling area. With no place to hide and not much gravity to pull you down, it's like shooting astronaut fish in a space barrel (OK, maybe some phrases weren't meant for the future).
The rest of Condemned is a warren of interweaving decks, corridors, and platforms that seem like some of the most intriguing new battle spaces we've seen for Reach. It will likely take players a while to get the lay of the land, though it's definitely worth seeking out the ship's windows. As glimpsed in the trailer below, there is a fierce battle playing out between the UNSC and Covenant ships. Even more chilling is the view of the planet's surface, which radiates with horrific fires caused by relentless Covenant bombardment. O'Connor told us that the map earned its name by actually being condemned--so damaged in battle that it will eventually crash to the planet's surface. "This won't happen during gameplay," noted O'Connor, citing the separation between the campaign narrative and the multiplayer component that has long been Halo policy. However, 343 Industries (and codevelopers Certain Affinity) wanted to imbue each map with some of the dramatic scope of Halo: Reach.
The third multiplayer map strives to accomplish this as well. Back on the surface of Reach, Covenant ships loom alarmingly close in the turbulent skies, blasting the planet mercilessly. Set in a remote training facility, Highlands is the third and largest of the maps, accommodating eight to 16 players for matches of Big Team Battle, Team Slayer, and Team Objective. The hilly terrain and rocky outcroppings will be familiar to anyone who has spent some time in Forge World, but the large fir trees and military installations look to give this map a feel all its own. With vehicles zooming over the ground and filling the skies, the canyonlike spaces on Highlands are reminiscent of your first steps on Halo in Halo: CE, according to O'Connor. While the appeal of big team clashes is obvious, O'Connor and another 343 Industries employee mentioned a few custom games that folks had been enjoying in the studio. One type favored dramatic hunts (one-on-one matches in the cavernous levels with infinite radar enabled), while the other favored the manic mayhem of a world with adjustable rules ("Hamster Crack" - 300 percent speed, low gravity, and Gravity Hammers).
The three maps offer distinctly different flavors of combat, and while they may have similarities to previous arenas, we found that the two maps we played still created that electric air of excitement that the best Halo maps have the power to create. Though it seems that Highlands might be big enough, no one mentioned the Invasion game types during our interview and demo, meaning that fans of Invasion will likely be kept waiting. Firefight fanatics won't, however, and anyone else looking for new places to flex their armor abilities need look no further than the Defiant Map Pack, due out March 15 on Xbox Live Marketplace.