After our practice, we start playing seriously. Here, we get our first taste of one of the brand new game modes: Stockpile. It's best described as capture the flags, with an emphasis on the plural. The match begins with neutral flags spawned around the map, and two active capture points - one for each team. The idea is to capture a flag, then drop it off in your capture point. The interesting thing is zones only register scores at specific intervals. Our games ended up being frantic to-and fro-affairs in which both teams tried desperately to steal flags from capture zones before they registered them. It's fun - the kind of fun Halo has on tap.
Now, Covy Slayer on new map Swordbase. This traditional Covenant team based deathmatch proves instantly gratifying: Swordbase, a sci-fi human interior, is a small, multi-tiered map designed for chaos and well suited to running and gunning lone wolves. With an anti-grav lift on the lower level, we spend a lot of time bouncing up and down as if on some magical trampoline, sniping enemies with the lovely Plasma Repeater - the Covenant's answer to the UNSC Assault Rifle. Awesome.
Swordbase also properly introduces us to Reach's Elites, new and improved following an absence from Halo 3: ODST. The Elites, this time around, are more than just re-skinned Spartans. They play differently. Very differently. They're tough to take down, for example, have different assassination animations, start with different weapons, and have different armour abilities. Elites can't Sprint; instead, they can Evade, aka do that annoying barrel roll they're fond of when under the governance of the AI. Elites regenerate health over time, whereas Spartans must use health packs to recover life. And, of course, there's nothing cooler than an Elite using the Active Camo armour ability. Stab.
As you'd expect, there are concerns around balance. Does the Elite's tougher skin make it better than the Spartan? Is Evade better than Sprint? At the moment it's hard to tell, although the consensus among journalists is that Evade doesn't feel particularly useful. Only time, and the multiplayer beta, will tell.
Then, on to the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta's creme de la creme. Invasion, a 12-player, two team assault or defence of a base, is the most interesting of the new game modes we play. One team of Elites assaults a base defended by a team of Spartans on a map custom made for this game mode: Boneyard. Boneyard, a sprawling map packed with refineries, bulkheads, a junk yard, a loading bay, multi-tiered bases and towering cranes, is huge. Perfect, really, for what it was created for: objective-based vehicular chaos.
At first, though, it's weapons only, and that's because Invasion is a three-phase match that revolves around unlocking new abilities as objectives are completed. It begins with an assault on the Spartan high ground by the Elites. It's easy to get sniped if you attack from the front, so it's best to try to sneak in via stairs set on the sides - the Active Camo armour ability is particularly useful here. One of two clearly defined objectives needs to be captured to trigger phase two and force the Spartans to fall back to a previously locked out area and defend three new capture points. It's at this point that vehicles are unlocked, as well as new load outs and the new armour abilities they bring. Capture one objective and the data core presents itself. The idea is to steal the core, like you would a flag, and bring it to a waiting Phantom. Here things get proper mental as the really powerful vehicles, including the Scorpion tank (in which I manage an uninterrupted 15-kill streak), unlock. If the Spartans keep the core from going walkies, they win. If they don't, they lose. Then the teams switch, and it starts all over again.
Invasion's great. It's easy to understand, objectives are clearly marked, and Boneyard is wonderfully designed for the act. Respawning works like MAG's respawning should have; you have the chance to change your load out, and pick your spawn point (including spawning right next to your buddy - the teams are divided up into pairs of players), but you never feel like you're waiting too long. It's easy to see Invasion proving hugely popular during the beta. Matches fly by and neither assaulting nor defending seems easier. Assaulting is more fun, of course, but then it always is, isn't it?