Halo 3 is here, the wait is over, and everything is OK. First and foremost, it feels like Halo, which in the end is the most important thing. It is immediately apparent that this hugely anticipated sequel is no revolution or reinvention of Halo's core formula. That of course, is the only thing developer Bungie could have done, considering the fevered dedication of the series' army of fans, and the perpetual critical acclaim previous Halo titles have enjoyed.
In fact, Halo 3 initially appears to be in many ways so similar to its predecessors, that from a distance through tired eyes you could even mistake it for Halo 2, or even the original release. Everything in the levels available to play from the angular grey fortresses through to the cheerily green vegetation and shore side location screams classic Halo level design. Seeing the frenzied, twitchy gunplay and character movement as you watch a multiplayer game is just like seeing any great Halo match from the first two games.
But step a little closer, open those sleepy eyes, and you'll notice that while not enormously different from Halo 2, there is certainly a next generation flare to the visuals that definitely supersedes the previous game's graphics. In seeing something so familiar that also so looks so fresh, you can't help sensing that this is Halo 2's 2007 edition, and though there is certainly plenty new on offer, when you get to grips with the multiplayer gameplay your suspicions are in part confirmed.
Within moments of picking up a controller at the crowded press event, where an unusually large number of unusually eager journalists where actually early, it was easy to click straight back into the Halo multiplayer mindset. As fingers darted effortlessly across controls, and yelps of delight and dismay quickly filled the air, it was instantly apparent how readily and subconsciously everybody got to grips with the adapted, but familiar control system. It was almost as if they were playing a game they had been sitting in front of for years, which of course, in many ways, they had.
'The first time I attempted to slot a new cartridge of ammunition into a gun I accidentally dispensed an Energy Drainer...'
When I finally got my hands on a controller, stubbornly ignoring the eager and baited breath of those desperate to jump into my seat, it did become apparent that there are a fair few changes. Some, like the cosmetically reworked HUD, felt little more than cursory, while others were thrilling and fantastic.
Stumbling on the quad bike-sized Warthog for example, felt like uncovering some Mayan gold for the first time, while others, like the delicately reworked classic weapons, gave you the sense that Bungie had somehow tapped into your thoughts and demands at every moment you'd spent playing the first two games.
The changes that are most immediately obvious, however, are the aforementioned new additions to the control scheme. The most significant are the adaptations to the function of the X button, which previously served to reload your weapons. The first time I attempted to slot a new cartridge of ammunition into a gun I accidentally dispensed an Energy Drainer, a fiercely powerful mine type device that in no way helped with the fire fight I was in, but introduced me to a great new tactical toy for the Halo universe. X also serves to activate the new Bubble Shield, a portable Hover Lift, and the Claymore-inspired Trip Mine.
Consequently, reloading has been shifted to the shoulder bumpers, meaning that you can replenish both single and double weapons with a quick tap of either. The new scheme definitely works well as it is, and there seems little reason for any further changes with regard to button functions.
From my entire time on the game, the only let down was the rag-doll effect that has always followed any death in the first two Halo games. Though once an impressive technical feature that warranted an extra bullet point on the back of game boxes, against the backdrop of the next-gen visuals, and compared to character physics in Halo 3's contemporaries, the loose limbed bodies flung from explosions did look rather dated and out of place. Of course, as the game makes clear through a permanently on-screen piece of text, this is just the Beta, so who knows what changes will be made before Halo 3 goes on sale.
Any sequel of a great game is charged with walking a delicate balancing act between giving the fans what they have come to expect, whilst offering them enough new to justify their purchase. When that sequel is one of the most over hyped follow-ups to one of the most popular games of all time, the pressure on the developers is immense. Of course, if anyone can handle that pressure then Bungie can, but exactly how successful their handling of one of the next-generation's first truly massive releases will only become apparent when the final game is released, and both multiplayer and single-player are tested thoroughly. Until then all that can be done is to play and enjoy the beta, then wait, and anticipate what already appears to be an absolute must-have game.