If there is any lingering doubt about the sheer magnitude of Halo, it is eradicated in an instant. Here we are, in a plush West End hotel, with Channel 5's The Gadget Show presenter Jason Bradbury as host, to get a hands on preview of a multiplayer beta. A multiplayer beta. If this were any other game you'd think, "whatever". But then this is not any other game. This is Halo.
More specifically, Halo: Reach, the next Halo game from Bungie. And we're hugely excited, not just because we know full well that multiplayer is what's best about Halo, but because Halo's multiplayer is one of the best things about gaming. Despite Modern Warfare's huge popularity, Halo 3's multiplayer, both competitive and cooperative, continues its impressive run near the top of the most played Xbox LIVE games charts. Put simply, Halo's multiplayer is fantastic, and as our trembling hands navigate Reach's menu screen for the first time, we dribble at the prospect that in only a few seconds we'll be playing what will undoubtedly be the best Halo multiplayer experience ever created.
Why? Iteration. With each iteration, Halo's multiplayer gets better. Halo's multiplayer was great; Halo 2's multiplayer was brilliant (and important); Halo 3's multiplayer was masterful, and Halo 3: ODST's multiplayer was, well, pretty much the same, but it had Firefight, making it ever so slightly better. It follows, then, that Halo: Reach's multiplayer will be jaw-droppingly, ball-bustingly awesome.
And so it proves, in a reassuring fashion. Our play test only sees three game modes across three maps, but what fun! We begin with eight-player Oddball on Powerhouse, a new map that supports all available party types. We take the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the new controls and new mechanics. The big two: grenades and shooty shooty bang bang, are still on the left and right triggers respectively, of course. But the new persistent, re-usable armour abilities are default mapped to LB, and the classic Halo melee, or the new third-person assassinations if you're in the right place, are now default mapped to RB.
At the beginning of a match, and indeed when you die during one, you can select your load out. Load outs only represent the armour ability and weapon set the player chooses to start with in a multiplayer match, so while we at first think of Modern Warfare, the comparison quickly becomes irrelevant; load outs aren’t player created but pre-determined by the gametype, map, and other factors. The load out governs your armor ability, starting weapon, secondary weapon, and grenade cache. That's it. You may wish to start with the Jet Pack (yes, there are jet packs in Halo!), or perhaps Sprint, or, if you're feeling like turtling, Armour Lock. The choice is yours, and it's a strategic one.
Here's how they work: displayed on the bottom left of the screen is a small icon representing the equipped armour ability. Around it is a circle that evaporates as you use the ability. Take the Spartan-only ability Sprint, for example. As you hold down LB, you gain a short burst of speed. Once depleted, there is a short recharge before you can sprint again (true of all armour abilities), thus limiting its use.
The important thing to note is that all five (that we know of) armour abilities are useful. Balance is key, and initially it appears as if the Jet Pack is overpowered because everyone and their dog uses it straight away (mid-air assassinations are a beautiful thing). But soon things settle down, and we experiment with others. Sprint, for example, is hugely useful, because it allows you to race from objective to objective in the blink of an eye. Armour Lock, which allows the player to create a temporary personal invulnerable shield that deflects rockets, Gravity Hammer blows and even vehicles, is also great, particularly when you're defending an objective. Even better, when the armour lock dissipates, it releases an EMP field that disables enemy shield and vehicles nearby. Take that suckers.