SAN FRANCISCO—Microsoft and Bungie offered game journalists in New York City and San Francisco the chance to play “Halo 3” before the Public Beta goes live next week. There are already thousands of Bungie Friends and Family members online fragging one another, so there was plenty of competition out there when I got my first hands-on experience with the next gen “Halo.” From the amazing visuals to the dynamic sound, every aspect of the new “Halo 3” lives up to the hype—even at this early stage. It certainly looks like “Halo 3” will follow “Gears of War,” which last year impressed even the most difficult critics with awesome new gameplay and an epic story line.
Bungie walked us through the three Beta levels of the game. There’s the snow-swept Snowbound, which is a map made for six to eight players that features mountains and a fortress. This map was recommended for Slayer and Free-for-All matches. High Ground is a Zanzibar-style map that features a beach front and a base. One team comes in from the ocean on offense and the other team protects the base on defense. There are multiple ways through into the base for tactical options. Valhalla is a larger level along the lines of Blood Gulch. This map features two bases and is perfect for the full 16 online player option.
From the very first glimpse of “Halo 3,” it’s evident what Bungie’s been able to do with Xbox 360. As players walk through the snow, not only are footprints left behind, but the actual particles of snow can be seen moving around. When vehicles like the new Mongoose, an ATV device, tear through the sandy beach, tracks are left behind. Perhaps the most impressive effect in the game was the new water, which looks and behaves just like the real thing. Bullets splash when they hit the water and any players shot and killed in a stream or ocean will float away.
It’s not just the great graphics that scream next gen. Bungie said a lot of work has been spent on utilizing the surround sound of Xbox 360. Watching the demo with the full 5.1 speaker system installed was truly a joy to hear. Everything from gun shots to reloading to the new forcefield doors’ hum to the roar of the Warthog’s engine came through in lifelike fidelity.
The heart of “Halo” has always been online multiplayer. And to win at this, Bungie has offered a lot of new weapons and gadgets that add a whole new dimension of tactics to the battlefield. Many of these new weapons are refined versions of past guns that now work better. And some of these gadgets wouldn’t have been possible on the original Xbox.
Some of the weapons that stood out were the new Missile Pod, which locks onto a target and can take down any vehicle (flying or ground-based) instantly. The Spartan laser, once powered up after a few seconds, can take out a Banshee or Warthog with one well-placed target. Players have a choice with gun turrets now. They can either use them stationary, as was the case in the first two games, or they can pick them up and lug them around. The down side is they’re heavy, the upside is those 200 rounds a minute they shred enemies with. In addition to plasma and frag grenades, players now have spike grenades for tunnel fights. These grenades send out ricocheting needles that kill everything in sight.
There are also returning weapons to the game that have a whole new feel. The assault rifle is now more robust and worth holding onto. The shotgun is still lethal at close range. Sniper rifles have never been more accurate. And plasma pistols can now stall vehicles with an EMP charge for a few seconds. One thing worth noting with next gen is that the detail of each player is now to a point where you actually see which weapon your opponent is carrying on his back—this takes away the surprise of the first two games as to which weapon you might be shot with.
Adding what Bungie is calling a fourth dimension to gameplay are the new equipment that litters the battlefield. Trip mines can be placed to take out vehicles or soldiers. Portable grab lifts can get you over any wall with a quick gush of streaming air. An energy drainer can stop a vehicle or drain a shield. And bubble shields protect you from incoming fire for short periods of time, although you can’t shoot out through them, either.
All of these factors, and more that Bungie hasn’t revealed yet, have really improved the frenetic pace of the gameplay. There’s now a lot more thinking that can go into the game. And Bungie has spent time ensuring that weapons are balanced now for a more even gaming experience.
Next gen also has opened up the ability to record every feat in the online game. In addition to being able to go back and watch kills and other heroics in replay mode, gamers can post these clips online and share them with friends. I’m sure this will have a huge impact on the number of YouTube.com posts in the coming months.
While the wait until this fall isn’t getting any shorter, this Beta of “Halo 3” does give fans plenty to sink their teeth into as an appetizer. It’s certainly looking like the next generation of “Halo” has plenty of improvements that will keep fans happy through the summer months.