Bungie gambles slightly with its tried-and-true formula, but has worked in a kill switch in case fans think it sucks.
Chalk this one up in the "it seemed like a good idea at the time" column. Of course I was curious about the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta. Who wouldn't be? Halo is one of the biggest gaming franchises of all time, and the IP that transferred FPS to console dominance.
But now I have to review the flippin' thing, and face all the rabid fanboys who will not accept any criticisms of the product. The interesting thing for me is that I believe that these rabid fanboys are going to be the ones shrieking loudest at the subtle changes to the controls for this pre-Master Chief prequel.
That's right: Bungie changed something. A few things, in fact.
The changes seem minor -- moving the melee attack to the right bumper instead of the B button but for a franchise that owes its success partially to the ability for experienced players to pick up a new game and be instantly awesome at it, it's a risk, and I applaud them for that. If they'd done these sorts of thoughtful re-thinks on Halo 3, it might not have been quite the creative disappointment that it was.
Of course, if you really hate the new button configuration, you can change it, despite it making more sense once you spend five minutes getting used to it. The reconfiguration means that all the attacks are on the bumpers and triggers, while all the inventory management is on the buttons. It's actually quite elegant, but I know that that teabagparty members will loathe any changes whatsoever.
Psyche, goons! There's more!
There is now a system of four character classes, all with different special abilities it's something like the Star Wars: Battlefronts system. This lessens the mad dash to the ammo drops at the beginning of the multiplayer rounds, but it will involve experimentation to see what class suits an individual's play style, again, diminishing that "instantly awesome" gameplay for those who have been playing Halo since the age of twelve.
Xbox product manager Jeff Rivait said that Microsoft wants Halo: Reach to be the "definitive" Halo experience. Fat chance, since it's the fifth game, counting the ODST expansion, and ignoring Halo Wars. That being said, there's a lot to like about what Bungie is doing with this new title. I always found the bubble shields horrendously useless, so I was happy to hear that they're gone. I like the idea of customizable armor, taking a cue from World of Warcraft in that the appearance of your multiplayer character brings with it inherent bragging rights, based on the gear you're sporting.
I was less happy with the new multiplayer modes they unveiled. Stockpile mode is a new version of capture the flag that, like the name implies, requires players to stockpile flags at various drop points only it's extremely hard to figure out what the hell you're doing off the top. After a few rounds I still didn't feel like I knew what the hell was going on. Headhunter mode was more fun, although it involves a whole lot of dying. It's all over the internet by now, but for those too lazy to google search, Headhunter mode involves collecting flaming skulls that drop when other Spartans die, and running them to rotating drop zones. It sounds easy, but it's not. I was impressed by the level of strategy required to do well on this mode. It's not as simple as just camping out in a choke point and milking a sploit in the reticule tracking speed. Yeah I just called you out, douchebags who do that on Xbox Live!
While we're on the subject of douchebags, it's time to get to what's really important while playing Halo multiplayer: how you can act like a flaming asshole for hilarity with your friends. On this count, Bungie definitely understands its fanbase. While I saw numerous ways that the new multiplayer conditions, and the complex, multi-level maps, could be exploited for screwing around while your buddy records it, Halo: Reach's matchmaking system has been refined so that if you want to avoid the shenanigans of idiotic 14 year-olds, it's easier to do so. There is an active roster, right on the matchmaking screen, so you can see which of your friends are online more easily. And the veto function has been replaced by a much less annoying majority rules system. Also, matchmaking is refined by what play style you enjoy, as well as experience. While this isn't foolproof, it's better than what we've been stuck with up until this point.
That being said, come May 3rd, the beta will be active playtest research, and things could still change for the final product. I guess Bungee understands the risk they're taking with any change to their seemingly unstoppable cash cow, and they're trying to find a happy medium between creative fulfillment and keeping their idiot hardcore fanbase happy. So they'll be data mining the crap out of the beta, and also paying attention to anecdotal feedback from players.
To participate in the beta, you need to own a copy of Halo: ODST. Hey! The expansion is finally useful for something other than confusing me with its nonsensical story! Come May 3rd, pop in your ODST campaign disc and go to the extras menu to access the Halo: Reach beta.
Halo: Reach is scheduled to ship sometime in fall, 2010