Halo: Reach Multiplayer Preview: A New Game, But Not Unfamiliar

In 10 days, Halo: Reach gets its multiplayer beta - and consider that last word. With four different game types, new abilities and weapons, this isn't some preview of the rest of a new game. It is a new game.

Yes, the Halo: Reach beta will deliver another four maps and the standard game modes, and familiar gameplay expected of a multiplayer heavyweight by its enormous player base. Yes, there are new things such as a loadout system, defensive armor abilities, and tuned weapons. But those features aren't even half the equation. Integrated with the new game types, the strategy they require, and the rebalance of players' physical traits, the picture emerges of Halo: Reach as earning its claim to be a completely different experience.

Kotaku spent about four hours playing Reach multiplayer at a hands-on preview event Bungie hosted at its offices in Washington state last week. We covered a ton of territory in that span. Following is our breakdown of what you can expect on May 3, when those who have Halo 3: ODST can join the Reach open beta.

Halo: Reach Multiplayer Preview: A New Game, But Not Unfamiliar

Combat

The adversarial balance is one of the more palpable differences in this game's fundamental play, and that doesn't mean in weaponry. The Sangheili Elites are bigger, faster, and tougher toe-to-toe. They have stronger shields and their health recharges without the need for health packs. In Reach, gameplay as an Elite enhances the species' physicality, and not just from a size perspective. You're also faster. The slowest elite's standard jog is about as fast as a Spartan sprinting. Footsoldiers get a rolling evade ability that should become second nature to you when grenades are on the deck. The assassin and gladiator loadouts (one delivers active camo, the other a sword) also play perfectly to this type. Elites are quite clearly better at individual combat.

Spartans are the teamwork unit. They are more accurate shots with more precise weapons, no small consideration given the enlarged hit boxes covering the Elites. While the Magnum's now a five-shot kill, switching to it in close quarters - with considerate shots - will still take down a brute more efficiently than unloading a clip from a combat rifle. (There is no dual-wield, however). Though I have no empirical evidence, headshots felt more common, Spartan-on-Elite. I know this not so much from firsthand experience as I do from being dispatched myself. The bottom line is, even with the tuned physical differences, you can't just stand there and press buttons. These influence the tone of battle, they don't determine it.

That gets to a second fact of life in this multiplayer: Evading, a tactic that gets an assist from the new Armor Abilities. What's the first thing you do when you pop around the corner and spot a Red (or Blue) who's just as surprised? A few quick rounds and a grenade, right? Then lean on the left stick and get the hell out of the blast, if you can. Evasive Armor Abilities - sprint for Spartans, evade for Elites, and the jetpacks for both (in the right environment) - are going to get you out of harm's way much faster. Their intent dawned on me after about three matches; everyone was dropping grenades to clear the area and then seek cover. But instinctively sprinting or evading into your foe's direction not only gets you clear, it can set up melee much better. It's not foolproof against grenade spam, but the movement-based armor abilities are not there just to get you around the map faster.

Armor Abilities are chosen before you spawn and are hard-paired with certain weapons - Assault Rifle with the jetpack, for example, sprint with the Dedicated Marksman Rifle. So it's not a true loadout customization. But it allows Halo: Reach a kind of quasi class-based combat whose restrictions you can puncture if you happen across a different weapon in the wild. This is where your own resourcefulness and map knowledge is key. A jetpack trooper who picks up a sniper rifle or grenade launcher is going to cause a lot of problems when he gets up to a perch. Jetpacks will take some getting used to - both in terms of your trajectory (I kept coming up short) and sticking the landing, because you will take falling damage if the pack cuts out too high.

Halo: Reach Multiplayer Preview: A New Game, But Not Unfamiliar

Armor Lock is a timed invulnerability mode that needs your teammates to be useful. They replace bubble shields, and root you to the ground while it's active. But Armor Lock means total immunity - to both melee and vehicle attacks, assuming you spot one coming. It takes minutely longer to activate than an evade ability, so it's not so great as a one-off shield in case of grenade. But in capture-the-flag or any teamwork game where some guy's gotta put his neck on the block, that guy needs to have Armor Lock as a last resort. In Slayer, it's a last resort that depends on reinforcements arriving. Armor lock's one positive is an EMP burst whose strength is commensurate with the time the shield is engaged, but in the frenzy I never really considered this effect enough to help me take back the initiative.

Another feature plainly included to condition player behavior and cut down on button spam are the assassination animations. Melee, like grenades, is a reflexive attack. Everyone goes to it at a certain range. There's still a straight slashing/beatdown attack. But planning your move - especially taking advantage of the blind corners on a map - and holding the melee button triggers the a third-person animation, which will be specific to player and foe involved. As a victim of it many times, it's utterly humiliating. You're just helpless, watching this play out. Carrying one out, though, is a delight, and unlike teabagging, is actually productive

With respect to weapons, there is a Covenant plasma grenade launcher and a nasty proton-pack beam weapon thingy (the Focus Rifle), but in my time I stuck with mostly conventional firepower. One item I really encourage you to try, however, is the new Spartan grenade launcher. It's a base weapon if you choose the grenadier loadout, which not many in my group went for when it was available. The launcher features two modes, a dumb fire that's useful for stuffing someone with a faceful of shrapnel if you're caught by surprise and can't switch over to your combat rifle (the grenadier's standard secondary). Its real magic lies in the new manual detonation, which is handled by holding down the right trigger after you fire. Holding it cooks the grenade - I got the impression it was indefinite. Releasing it detonates the sucker. While it takes a few rounds to get used to that kind of handling, if you're in a midrange sniping position it can really do some damage, above or below a target. The satisfaction of plopping one perfectly on the head (or at the feet) of an unsuspecting adversary was second only to an assassination.

Halo: Reach Multiplayer Preview: A New Game, But Not Unfamiliar

Maps and Game Types

We saw four maps: Overlook, Swordbase, Powerhouse and Boneyard. All of these maps are taken from the singleplayer campaign. Overlook is dedicated to a specific new game type, Generator Defense. Boneyard is likewise meant for a new game, Invasion, but it can also host a Slayer variant. Swordbase and Powerhouse are more general purpose areas, Swordbase is a multileveled interior map with a tall atrium that lent itself to jetpacking, and perches for sniping. Powerhouse is as its name implies, a hydroelectric power station split by a canal, offering a mix of interiors and exteriors (including some nasty-looking restrooms.) We played SWAT and a new game called Headhunter on Swordbase, and a "capture-the-flag-on-crack" variant called Stockpile on Powerhouse. We also saw a slightly tweaked version of Juggernaut on Powerhouse.

Overlook's a bit larger than Powerhouse and its game, Generator Defense, was my favorite of the types we played. It pairs teams of three, Spartans and Elites, with the sides switching after the first match. Spartans are tasked with preserving three generators; Elites have to rush up a hill and destroy them. At the beginning of each match a weapons drop randomly spawns either a sniper, rocket launcher, or Spartan laser; the drops are evenly distributed throughout the map. On overlook, two generators are located outside, and a third inside a "barn" structure (which is also where Spartans may spawn). There's a quick way inside the barn, up a ramp and through a hatch, but it's a blind choke point, perfect for assassinations.

Generators cause damage when they explode, so keep that in mind if one's smoldering and you, as a Spartan, rush in to "lock it down." That's sort of like armor lock for the generator (accomplished by holding the X button near it) and makes it invulnerable for 30 seconds, with a five-second cooldown before it can be activated again. On the whole, Generator Defense provided a solid mix of objective-based combat with pure shootouts, drawing Elites into the open for plenty of revenge opportunities.

Boneyard is Reach's largest map and will remind players of Sandtrap from Halo 3 in terms of scale. Its game, Invasion, is a tiered event contested by three two-man fireteams on each side. This allows you to spawn on your buddy's location, assuming he is not in the middle of combat. So you need him to get out of harm's way as soon as a message pops up that you're trying to spawn on his position. Teammates who don't know each other or don't communicate well will probably give up and choose to spawn from a standard point. I was more likely to spawn with my teammate if I happened to catch him in a peaceful moment, and I didn't make much of an effort to get out of the action when I got the notice. But at least you won't spawn in the middle of a crossfire and get shot up immediately.

Invasion is another Elite-assault game type, conducted at a teardown facility for UNSC spacecraft. Elites must first breach the facility (dropping shields at its outer perimeter), spring a data core from its shielded location, and drag it back to a waiting spacecraft, with each episode timed. Each tier features increasingly robust loadout choices. This is the only map with vehicles, and a Spartan spawn point is inside a bay with Warthogs ready to go. The data core the Elites must steal is carried like a heavy support weapon, so that player is slow and exposed. My teams had the least success at this, on either side. There is an Invasion/Slayer gametype that opens up this map to a 6-on-6 shootout. You still have the three fireteams and can spawn on your teammate, but the goal is just to rack up kills.

Halo: Reach Multiplayer Preview: A New Game, But Not Unfamiliar

Headhunter is a collection game waged as a free-for-all or among teams of Spartans only. We played this (and fan favorite SWAT) on Swordbase When you kill an opponent, a flaming skull drops from his body. Your goal is to pick up skulls and return them to a collection point. A total of 25 wins the match, but a single player returning 10 at once is an instant victory. Of course, everyone has a number over their head, representing the skulls they're carrying, and 10 delivers a VIP icon so everyone knows to start gunning for that guy. If you die carrying skulls, you lose your own plus however many you were carrying, so there was a lot of that poaching going on. One of our group was shot trying to smuggle nine back to a collection point and it looked like a gumball machine exploded.

Stockpile is another Spartan-only collection game, with a twist. In addition to picking up multiple flags and returning them to a collection point, they'll be scored for your team only during certain intervals. Whatever's in your stockpile at that time counts, so it allows for the raiding (and defense) of stockpiles before that scoring timer goes off. Armor lock was most useful as a flagbearer, and supporting your teammates is more important to this game than others.

Regarding Juggernaut's changes, a player now gets a 10 second invulnerability period when he first becomes juggernaut. This solves the instant-kill problem of Juggernaut under Halo 3 The juggernaut also has a quadrupled overshield and is faster than the rest of the Spartans. His only weapon is a hammer (which is still a ton of fun). Games are scored by kills, but the stats page at the end notes the time each player spent as Juggernaut under the delightful "JUG TIME" heading.

Halo: Reach Multiplayer Preview: A New Game, But Not Unfamiliar

Customization and et cetera

Everything you do in multiplayer will earn you credits that you can spend on a variety of cosmetic armor changes - for Spartans only, however. These include helmets, armor plating, etc. They will, however, be carried over to your appearance in the singleplayer campaign. (Singleplayer will also reward you with credits.) We didn't see too much of what the store had to offer because our credits were capped and we were unable to buy anything. But note that when the multiplayer beta begins, any credits you earn during that will not be carried over to the full game. So don't save up expecting to start on day one with bad-ass gear. We didn't see these, but Bungie will also be rolling in weekly and daily challenges that deliver a hefty credit bonus, too, for things like kill and victory totals.

The game types covered above are just the new ones. Old standbys like King of the Hill and one-flag Capture the Flag will still be part of the beta. It won't all be available on the first day, though, and Bungie hadn't finalized its playlist schedule as of last week.

Finally, what we played was all done via system link, so we didn't see how the matchmaking will work in the public beta. That will include a set of social toggles to pair you with players more your type (competitive, chatty, etc.) There's also going to be a voting mechanic that's been discussed before, which replaces the old veto and allows everyone to see all four options on the menu, rather than voting against one scenario without knowing the alternatives. And although it will not be a part of the public beta, the Forge map-modding toolset will be present in the final release. We saw it listed in the multiplayer menu. Bungie said it would have been too much trouble to strip it out of the build we were playing just to keep it a secret, so there you go.

If you bought ODST or held on to it just to get in the beta, what you get on May 3 should justify those decisions. You're getting four new ways to play a new Halo, and the game's new traits add plenty of spice to tried-and-true matches. We were running around mostly experimenting with armor abilities, maps and gametypes, without benefit of any fundamental strategy or body of knowledge of how to apply our new talents. In plenty of circumstances Halo: Reach will feel like something new. But not unfamiliar.