Back in May the Halo: Reach Beta enjoyed a concise and healthy life. Over a million eager players amassed a collective, and frankly ludicrous, 30 years worth of play in the first 24 hours alone. Not bad for a demo comprised of 4 game types played on a trio of maps. In anticipation of the concluding chapter in the Halo saga, we offer a belated look at what the Reach beta had to offer.
Reach’s is, of course, the first competitive multiplayer game to emerge from Bungie’s studio since September 2007 and, as anyone who hasn’t just awoken from a three year coma will know, during the between years Infinity Ward thieved Halo’s thunder rather convincingly. So, does Reach have what it takes to seize back the throne?
It takes a few games to adjust to the changes made from Halo 3, but you won’t want to go back. Reach is going to feel familiar to long-term fans, at least at first, but beneath the veil of familiar features lies something quite different to the Halo that has undergone few alterations during its short life.
Reach is a game of skill and teamwork first and foremost, where proficient players can rule with an iron fist but teamwork always prevails. Modern Warfare’s lone wolf-friendly style of gameplay is a crash course in tragedy in the altogether more colourful world of Reach and players living in the shadow of Rambo will quickly be put in their place.
The revised shield and health system allows you to soak up a large amount of damage – so long as your opponent isn’t aiming at your head. That’s where the skill factor comes into play. This is a game where shooting rivals in the face is paramount to success, that or assassinating them (assassinations can be carried out with their own third person cinematic perspective for a heightened killing frenzy but you risk being mobbed in the process).
And so new weapons are tailored to suit those playing the marksman. The DRM, replacement for the Battle Rifle, is lethal, pinpoint accurate, and capable of small genocide in a matter of seconds. The SMG is thankfully truanting this time around with no immediate replacement while the assault rifle, despite a fetching makeover, is futile in the deathly eyes of the DRM or, in fact, almost any other gun; a hose pipe with no killing edge.
But that’s not to say players lacking the time, will or patience to get a firm grip on the more proficient weaponry are left out in the cold and inclusions like the ever-emphatic needler, rocket launcher and hulking plasma rifle ensure there is a sweet mix between precision and spray and pray weaponry.
Of the two playlists included in the beta, the first, titled Arena, is dedicated to games of 4 vs. 4 slayer while the second – Standard – houses free for all, invasion and grab bag – Bungie’s umbrella for all objective based games (flag, oddball etc).
Invasion is the new game type: a 6 vs. 6 game of either Invasion Slayer or the preferred objective game-type wherein one team plays as Elites and the other Spartans. The Elites attempt to take a series of strongholds from the Spartans, who have to defend them. If the Elites take a checkpoint more of the map opens up and new weapons and vehicles become available for use.
The Elites, who now tower over the Spartans, have their own unique perk – a rolling dodge which makes them a pain to kill but also allows them to cover the distance between them and an enemy in a split second. This is especially useful on Boneyard, which as well as being colossal in size is the only map available to play Invasion on, because the elites begin the game with a suicidal 200 meter dart into safety.
Hands down, Invasion is a riot, sure to be a favourite in the full multiplayer game. If the Elites manage to capture both checkpoints within the time limit Christmas Morning Mode (note: not actually called this) is initiated as tanks, wraiths, warthogs, banshees and ghosts roll out into play and sniper rifles, rocket launchers, swords and spartan lasers are all showered down to make these final five minutes or so an absolute blast. Literally.
There are a multitude of new weapons in Reach, the best of those on display has to be the Elite’s answer to the Spartan laser. A crazy half-breed grenade launcher/laser type doomsday device, the player charges the massive shoulder-mounted cannon, unleashing up to four homing plasma grenades on their victim. Besides being a rather effective means of chargrilling vehicles it means the elites are no longer left to suffer because “tank beats everything”. Just as well because the Scorpion is deadlier than ever.
Should the Elites capture all the checkpoints the Invasion finale is spent squabbling over a tiny core that the Elites are supposed to transport a short distance from the final checkpoint. This beautiful frenzied soup of a denouement also brings with it more classes unavailable from the start (and with them bigger and better guns). The Elites have some wonderful monikers, Champion Gladiator is a personal favourite but top honors go to the Royal Zealot, which frankly has to be the best loadout title ever.
Invasion is a fantastic addition to the already expansive church of game modes surviving the shift from Halo 3 to Reach. And of course, there will be facility to create your own variations so expect to see some inventive modified versions of Invasion further down the line.
Invasion aside it’s the perks, which threatened to tear down the frail balancing act Bungie have always preserved, that give Reach its endearing edge. They can’t be customized, instead coming as preset classes that vary depending on the game type.
The jetpack, which has dominated gameplay footage for the last few weeks, is by far the least pragmatic – leaving users open to an adept sniper or animated pack of players to take aim at – it’s risqué but like all the perks has its benefits. It can be used to get the drop on snipers, reach hidden areas or, in an objective game like capture the flag, for last-ditch attempts to save a flag from capture. Also, it’s a jetpack so it’s the immediate go-to perk for everyone who doesn’t eat Corn Flakes for breakfast or buy their jeans from Asda.
But it’s probably the least useful of the perks and its appearance waned as the beta aged.
Sprint, a feature still not a part of Halo’s core build up, is less thrilling by nature but comes into its own used in tandem with allies utilising other perks. Players caught behind enemy lines can dash back into the safe embrace of their buddies and it’s useful for grabbing flags in a dash. It’s also handy for dodging grenades, which are infinitely more effective than they’ve ever been before.
Playing as the Guard is kind of comparable to how playing as a mutated iron-hedgehog would probably be. Simple in concept, tap LB (the button for all perks) and enter your own private bubble shield. It’s a safe haven as long as you have someone nearby to wrap your battle up for you. Otherwise the lightning blue bubble is quite an attention grabber; a magnet for grenades and iron-sights all waiting for the cowering player to leave the safety of the shield.
The final class is the Stalker, which is twice as brilliant as it sounds. Essentially converting your spartan into a Predator, you’re free to run around cloaked in the familiar hazy almost-transparency that has masqueraded as invisibility since Combat Evolved. You are never totally invisible but in the heat of battle it’s usually enough to outwit less attentive players. Bewildering to me, I rarely found other players sneaking about the map but I managed to rack up enough cracking scores to convince me it was probably the best of the bunch. And there’s nothing quite as funny as camping with a hammer ready to splatter the first person to unwittingly bound around the corner.
To prevent abuse, the Stalker’s invisibility has a prolonged recharge time compared to the other classes and while it’s active will send all radars in the Stalker’s vicinity haywire including their own. It’s a calling card for watchful players and a hindrance to the Stalker but a fair one considering its effectiveness.
Reach isn’t always as immediately satisfying as calling in an AC-130 and racking up a dozen or so kills or defusing a bomb with seconds to spare in Search and Destroy. Halo never has been. But it only takes a handful of games to start appreciating the depth and versatility of just a few of the game modes that should be available later in the year.
It’s been a long wait but as September 14th grows tantalisingly closer, fans of the franchise should be very enthusiastic at the prospect of one final jaunt in the Halo universe.
Halo: Reach is out September 14th exclusively on Xbox 360.