Yeah, I should have fired up Halo 2 while I was waiting for Bungie to fix the glitch that kept this beta from lighting up for Crackdown users. It was kind of naive of me to think I would still own when it had been more than a year since I had donned that Spartan armor, and rushed for the sword niche. First surprise, no sword niche, at least not yet anyway. In fact, aside from the double needler dominating in close quarters, the weapons are far more balanced right out of the gate than either of the previous two games ever were.
You begin with a battle rifle and a handful of grenades, both requiring more precision aiming than in the past, with the generous auto-aim and blast radius being toned down for the better. Now the last FPS I've been playing was Unreal Championship 2, so jumping into Halo 3 felt a bit like jumping into a vat of thick, transparent syrup. The Chief moves slow and steady, which can be a bit annoying with how vast these new maps are, but that's all part of the continued balance, and it's not like there aren't fast travel options available. No more teleporter. It's all about the mancannon, launching your Spartan into the wild blue, able to snipe and be sniped by anyone below. Or taking the weaponless Mongoose for a spin... actually that seems pretty useless.
Got owned eight ways from Sunday in the Rumble Pit, so stuck mostly to team-based challenges. VIP is one of the new game types, where one player on either side gets a big bullseye painted on his back, with killing him being the only kills that count. He can't use the vehicles at all, but he gets an extra layer of armor to survive those sticky situations. This makes for a cool dynamic where your VIP is essentially your tank, but at the same time the last person you want to see fall, because then you'll be the VIP and bullet magnet for the enemy. Territories is also fun times, where five nodes are scattered across the map, which one team must defend and the others rush to conquer. Teamwork is essential here. Had one group that didn't talk at all and we got owned, while another team was rock and roll, so we completely dominated, not letting the others score a single point, while we made off with nine nodes (ten being the max). Team Slayer is what you expect, but with better weapon balance, and 1 Flag CTF still sucks (imo).
Pushing up on the d-pad to talk to your far off teammates is lame, but apparently part of keeping the network code smooth. The game itself is a steady 30FPS 99% of the time, but move sideways in certain areas, and it'll get choppy on you. The visuals are very Halo 2, but with higher resolution textures and HDR. There's more complex geometry going on in sections of the three preview maps, but there's a lot of barren spots too that could use a little scattered debris or something to dirty them up. Lighting is a little too all or nothing at this point, with dark areas especially feeling flat. The look on the whole is relatively amazing, and where there is detail it's there in spades, but don't expect a Gears of War level wow out of this beta. What's more important is the actual map design, and Bungie has always been a master here. The three maps have plenty of odds and ends for clever gamers to exploit.
The special items might be the biggest new addition. Everyone knows about the bubble shield by now, forming a spherical barrier that enemy fire can't pass through, either from the inside or out. I was able to hold onto a territory node solo against three reds in a warthog by bubbling up the node, though I died by screwing up a melee, which is your best better against the bubble. There's a portable jump platform, designed for base infiltration and death from above, as well as a mine that can trip you up. There's another nasty that will drain the shields of everyone in the area to leave them easy pickings for a hard attack. I kept hitting myself with it though. There are two new types of grenades apparently, but I haven't really noticed. Fire and forget those babies. I ain't got the time to bleed.
So when it's all said and done, it's the next evolution in Halo multiplayer, which is insanely fun when you get the right group of people together, and it's already dominating Xbox Live, and will be the number one played game the day after its final release. Everything people loved about the previous one has been tweaked and improved, with the new additions blending in seamlessly. Now you'll even be able to brag in pride, able to save videos of your matches, and spam your friend list endlessly to goad people into watching them. A million gamers are going to be hurting when they finally pull the plug on this beta.
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