Hands-on: Halo: Reach Multiplayer Beta

Compared to the clamor and congestion of downtown Seattle, Bungie's Kirkland offices are peaceful and serene. There's little outside distraction and certainly no incessant honking. It's a beautiful day. No one would ever guess that, in two unadorned conference rooms on the third floor, people are blowing each other up. Well, maybe they noticed the Battle Rifle in the lobby.

Bungie invited media to its offices for a Halo: Reach mulitplayer beta preview last week, introducing us to four new game types, Generator Defense, Headhunter, Stockplile and Invasion. I filled six hours with as many frags as my controller could possibly deliver and it simply wasn't enough. Reach's new team-driven game types are addictive and ambitious, focused on objective-based progression and strategic action.
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Generator Defense

My first taste of Halo: Reach was in a game type called Generator Defense. Designed for 3-on-3 matches of Spartans-vs-Elites, Generator Defense underscores Bungie's new focus on objective-based gameplay. The Elites must destroy three generators located inside a base before time runs out, while the Spartans defend them. The Spartans can set a protective lock on each generator, making it invulnerable for 30 seconds while they push back the Elite threat. Once the lock fades, a siren alerts the Elites to the exposed weakness and the lock can't be set again for 5–7 seconds. Once the round ends, players switch species, so if you started as a Spartan on defense you become an Elite readying for assault.

Unlike the opposing sides of team-based objective modes featured in most shooters, the differences between Spartans and Elites run deeper than mere appearances. "We really wanted to push them into their own separate areas," multiplayer designer Lars Bakken explained. Elites are larger, faster and have more health than their Spartan opponents. Elites also regenerate health, while Spartans have to use health packs scattered throughout the maps.

I found the Elites' physical superiority was well-balanced against the Spartans' defensive capabilities in the Generator Defense game type. The game map, Overlook, positions the Spartans with plenty of opportunities to stop an Elite attack -- if they're coordinated. A perfectly timed lock of the generators can save the Spartans, but the map itself offers plenty of cover for a stealthy approach by the Elites. In multiple matches, the round came down to a spectacular, intimate battle focused around a single remaining generator.


Further dividing the two sides and supporting a deeper strategy element at play are Reach's new Armor Abilities -- re-usable powers that give players unique tactical advantages. A Spartan can select Sprint, drastically increasing his movement speed for a short burst at the cost of weapon readiness, while an Elite can access Evade, allowing it to tumble through and dodge many attacks. Both sides can also select Active Camoflague, the Jet Pack, or the Armor Lock ability, which is a charged shield that grants temporary, immobile invulnerability for a few life-saving seconds.

The Armor Abilities are tied to specific player Load Outs, available each time you spawn into a match. Load Outs also determine your two starting weapons and grenades, creating a class-like play structure. Predetermined sets of Load Outs are tied to each map and game type combination, as configured by the playlist designers, though Bungie says that player-created Load Outs will be a feature of custom games.
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Headhunter

Next in the beta preview, multiplayer designer Derek Carroll introduced Headhunter, one of two new "party mode" game types in Reach that can be played in both Free For All and Team modes. Players collect skulls like gruesome footballs and take them to scoring goals that change locations throughout the match. Each skull deposited nets one point -- kills don't count toward winning -- and skulls can be scored in batches. Hoarding skulls can be dangerous, however. As Carroll explained, "When you get skulls in your inventory, you get a nav point showing everybody in the game how many skulls you have and how much you're worth."

Saving up skulls in Headhunter becomes a gamble: Can I make it to the goal before someone caps me and ganks my ill-gotten booty? The tension is ratcheted up with an this all-or-nothing shortcut to victory. Score ten skulls in one goal and you automatically win the game -- a feat designer Luke Smith dubbed "Skullamanjaro." There were howls of anguish throughout both conference rooms every time a player with nine skulls died, his hopes of a quick victory dashed and his ghoulish prizes lost.


I first played Headhunter on Swordbase, a four-story map with walkways connecting the opposing sides' spawn points and plenty of ledges from which to rain down fire onto exposed enemies. Bungie revealed that the map was first designed as a multiplayer arena, and then integrated into Reach's story Campaign. Swordbase features multiple Man Cannons to quickly move players to higher positions, but the Jet Pack ability can also be key to navigating the area.

It may seem alien to strap a rocket onto a Spartan, but in practice the Jet Pack is invaluable. My play style changed as I sailed effortlessly across runways searching for action. I became more aggressive, and with an eye on the pack's rapidly declining fuel meter, I glided down behind an enemy for a surprise kill. Then, I blasted upwards to quickly gain the high ground on another. Eventually my soaring feats gave way to easy target practice for more skilled opponents, and I was blown out of the sky -- several times.

Headhunter plays as a fast, explosive experience, particularly in the tight, confined areas of Swordbase. Weapons are strategically placed along the map's corridors, like the new Designated Marksman Rifle, a replacement for the Battle Rifle, which requires precise timing for its single-shot bursts. The payoff, I found, is when you land a gratifying headshot dead on. Equally satisfying, are the new Assassination kills. By holding the trigger and timing a sneaky melee strike just right, you can initiate a devastating kill animation depending on your angle of attack, making for a gloat-worthy finishing move.

Editor's note: Joystiq contributor Xav de Matos, who previewed the beta at a separate event, found that the Assassination animations were quite long and could be subject to the type of issue that plagued Gears of War multiplayer, whereby an opposing player could line up to kill you while you were in the middle of performing the chainsawing animation. Xav doubts Assassinations will be a staple of "elite" competitive play, considering the length of the animations and that the standard behind-the-back melee strike still counts as a quick instant kill.
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Stockpile

The third map included in the beta, Powerhouse, is tailored for 4-on-4 matches. Powerhouse looked to me to be the most graphically stunning map, complete with dam and running water, and Carroll used it to introduce Stockpile, another new party mode game type. A Capture The Flag variant, Stockpile features four neutral flags placed in strategic locations.

Players grab these flags and take them to their team's goal, where each flag must sit for up to one minute before finally counting as a score. Opponents can raid your stockpile of flags, requiring a coordinated defense against plunderers. New weapons like the Covenant Focus Rifle are essential for providing ranged fire support. It was quite a surprise when an opponent's rifle beam smacked me as I charged toward his goal -- at range, it was hard to tell where the defender was and by the time I did, I was already fragged by the beam's devastating blast. Carroll lovingly referred to Stockpile as, "CTF on crack," adding, "There's a nice ebb and flow. Every 60 seconds, there's an, 'Oh, shit, gotta get the flags!' moment."

I relied heavily on the Sprint ability during Stockpile matches, moving quickly to a flag point before anyone else could get there. Other players used Active Camo to sneak into goal areas and rob their opponents of flags right before they were set to score -- a strategy which elicited cries of "Dick move!" Stockpile succeeds in speeding up the pace of traditional CTF, and I found the defensive mechanics extremely rewarding. Using the Spartan's new grenade launcher, and its delayed-detonation alt-firing mode, I set traps for unsuspecting thieves, blowing them sky high before they could steal my flag.
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Invasion

The final game mode included in the Reach beta is easily Bungie's most ambitious, pitting six Spartans against six Elites in a multi-stage battle. "In Invasion, there are three tiers," community director Brian Jarrard said. "The first tier has a basic set of Load Outs, the second tier has more and the third tier goes crazy. As the game progresses, you see more and more cool stuff."

Invasion also introduces two-man fireteams. This pairing is critical, since the only included Invasion map in the beta, Boneyard, is huge. Spawning on the opposite side of the map from the action will kill both your team's momentum and your fun. Your teammate is your salvation. "As you play the game and you die, you'll hit the D-pad to change your spawn location," Jarrard explained. "And one of those locations is going to be your buddy. So if he's out of combat or not catching a grenade, you can spawn-in beside him."


Invasion features multiple objectives depending on the current stage of the match. Elites need to capture territories to unlock tiers two and three, then escape with a power core to win. Spartans are tasked with defending each objective. Load Outs offer increasingly destructive weapons as the tiers unlock -- energy pistols give way to Needle Rifles, the Covenant equivalent of the Marksman Rifle. Vehicles are unlocked in tier three, as well, opening up the gameplay to maximum chaos. In the beta, Invasion on Boneyard is the only game type and map to feature vehicles.

Invasion's scaling rewards mean that gameplay can ramp up into truly amazing firefights. By tier three, the Spartans are using Scorpion tanks to try to hold back the Elites, and Elites are fighting back with Wraiths and Banshees to clear a path to their goal. The sheer size of Boneyard can lead to significant downtime, however. For example, you can't spawn on a fireteam-mate that's engaged in battle. I often found that I was forced to respawn far from the battle and hoof it back there -- what's an MMO corpse run doing in my Halo multiplayer match?

Invasion's staged-based progression can also create lulls. Spartans will quickly become bored, say, if the Elites are stuck on the first tier due to poor planning and execution. Compared to the finely crafted and intimate experience of Generator Defense, Invasion is simply disappointing. Hopefully, Bungie can make use of the beta to make significant tweaks to this game type for the final version of Reach.
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Clearly, Bungie will use the Reach multiplayer beta as a testing ground for the new dimensions of gameplay. The studio is enlarging the scope of Halo multiplayer, seemingly setting its sights on the team-based shooters that dominate today's online play. The essential "Haloness" is ever present in Reach, but the new Load Outs and Armor Abilities, plus the credit-based customization system that will play a bigger role in the final game, suggest that Bungie is looking to expand the engagement of its community into areas new to Halo. Still, there are growing pains to get through, and I'm interested to see how Bungie works out these issues throughout the beta.

The Halo: Reach multiplayer beta launches May 3 and will be accessible through the Halo 3: ODST game disc.


Cory Banks is a freelance games writer and co-host of the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.