Halo 3 Beta - Hands On

[[Halo 3: Graphics Evolved]]

The Halo games have been the FPS darlings of the console world since 2001 and the debut of Halo: Combat Evolved. PC gamers have been slower to take to it (come on, it's just an FPS), but with Halo 2 finally out on PC this month, the hype will be up for the release of Halo 3. Not that the franchise needs any help: according to surveys, Halo 2 is the most popular game played on Xbox Live with over 700 million hours logged. Bungie's long-awaited Halo 3 hits shelves on September 25, 2007 (26th, if you're in Europe). Those who purchased Realtime Worlds' Crackdown can already sink their teeth into the multiplayer Beta through June 10, thanks to a magnanimous extension, a Bungie peace offering, following the download debacle that caused precious gaming hours to be lost. Though still a ways off and carefully guarded by Microsoft Game Studios, we bring to you a preview of Master Chief's next (and maybe last) big adventure.

Halo 3 picks up where Halo 2 left off, with Cortana in the clutches of Gravemind, the Flood's collective intelligence and Master Chief stowed away on a Forerunner ship carrying a Covenant Prophet to Earth. The Elites have left the Covenant and joined forces with humanity; and with all remaining Halos throughout the galaxy armed and on stand-by-to-fire, utter hell is set to break loose. Further tidbits hint at an artifact called The Ark, which is crucial to activating the Halos' firing sequence and possible epic conflict between the ousted Elites and the Brutes to rival the civil war fought in Halo 2.

If none of that made sense, you've got three months to do your homework. But fear not; the primary pull of Halo 3 is not the campaign mode. Despite updated graphics, new weapons, and the possible conclusion to a relatively compelling plot being heavily touted pluses, it's the multiplayer that will make or break Halo 3.


Two major updates to the way we play Halo have been introduced in Halo 3; A.I. and multiplayer mechanics.

A common Halo 2 gripe of many gamers (and developers) is the under-developed A.I. of the Brutes, rivals to the Elites. For "rivals," these Wampa-looking creatures are actually quite dull and uninteresting as enemies. They have limited animations and repetitive attack patterns that didn't seem like worthy opposition to the likes of Master Chief and the Arbiter. To rectify this design flaw, and update the A.I. and group structure of the Covenant, Halo 3 designers, animators, programmers, and artists have re-imagined the Brute class of Covenant warriors into a dynamic and complex adversary and thrown in some nifty updates to enemy A.I.
We want to make [the Brutes] very brutal and pragmatic warriors, says Technical Lead Christ Butcher in a recent interview. To achieve this goal, old animations were tossed out and unique animations were crafted using animation reference routines performed by the animators themselves. The end result is pre-release game footage that carries a lot more weight than Halo games of days gone by. When a Brute hits a Marine, it actually looks like the Marine took a beating. And when the Brute hits Master Chief, it's bound to be ten times the challenge that a Brute horde added up to in Halo 2.

The general enemy A.I. has been updated to go with the Brute re-vamp; the developers put serious thought in how the Covenant reacts to Brutes and how Brutes react to their fellow Covenant. Behaviors are coordinated and checked against other NPCs so that no two enemies will repeat the same gesture at the same time without obvious purpose. Flocking and mobbing mentalities have also been programmed, which lends credence to the rumor that NPC birds will appear in Halo3 for grousing. At time of press, no such rumors have been confirmed.

But enough talk about birds and Brutes. What counts here is the update to the way we play multiplayer. Thanks to these changes and innovations, Halo 3 may well open up a whole new audience for the game online, as most of the mechanics were added or changed to shelter noob gamers from lousy conduct on Xbox Live. For example, Halo 3 brings us the handy instant-mute button. True, it's not Microsoft's job to police every single potty mouth and punk, but with Halo 3's pre-mapped mute button, players can immediately silence trash-talkers in-game instead of having to back out to the dashboard to find and block the offending gamertag (alas, no anti-corpse-humping button has been announced).
From the Beta, we've seen the new scoring, ranking, and matching mechanics, courtesy of a customized version of Xbox 360's TrueSkill system. Thanks to the matching mechanic, a level 1-ranked player won't be trapped with all level 15s in Rocket Tag, and a level 11 player doesn't have to settle for level 5 teammates in capture the flag. Call signs have also been put into play, making it easier to identify enemies and allies (and not have to utter aloud ridiculous gamer tags on team chat) during team matches and there are now three areas of armor color to designate instead of just two.

The U.I. has also been redesigned to make it easier to create custom multiplayer games. Hosts can advertise their game on Xbox Live Public and players can veto maps before beginning matches. And with the "saved film" feature added, gamers can go back and view some of the finest multiplayer moments saved on the hard drive (these will be game data files as opposed to video files, so they should be relatively small). Saved film also promises to have zoom, slow motion playback, and multi-perspective viewing available, though we haven't seen all of this in the Beta.
While not entirely revolutionary, it's worth mentioning the graphics updates to Halo 3. Everything has a higher display resolution, immediately apparent in the first person view. Textures sizes have been increased, a higher polygon count has rounded out jagged edges (particularly noticeable when equipping the Needler), and the HUD is distorted to look like it appears inside of a helmet, rather than flattened out as it has been in Halo and Halo 2. New weapons and vehicles seen in the Beta are well-designed and colorful with detailed shading, and the three maps we've seen so far (Snowbound,
Valhalla and Highground) in the Beta look pretty decent as well.

Having mentioned the positive changes in Halo graphics we have to say that visually the game is disappointing. We are assured by Bungie that the visual polish missing from the beta will make all the difference but it is evident that Halo 3 will not challenge Gears of War in terms of visual quality, although we have to add that pushing for visuals could have adverse effects when gameplay depends on the smooth overall operation of the game. Judging by the vast number of complaints by beta players about how the game looks, we have to think that Halo 3 may have been the victim of its own hype. For all intents and purposes the beta is a visually impressive title that relies, heavily, on gameplay for its appeal. This, we are promised, will improve by the time the final version of the game is released but we expected a true epic, a monstrous effort that would conclude the Halo saga in style; well Halo 3 is not about that. Halo 3 does not plot to steal the graphics crown from Gears of War, its intention is more subtle and possibly more visionary; introduce subtle changes in gameplay that will enhance player/environment interaction and lead to increased immersion in the game-world.

So how does Bungie plan to achieve such lofty goals and how well has it implemented such changes in the Halo 3 Beta? Read on to find out…

[[Gameplay (Multiplayer Beta)]]

We can't speak to the quality of campaign mode yet, but we can talk about the multiplayer Beta, having spent a ridiculous amount of time playing it. Technically, the Beta serves the dual function of being a Halo 3 demo (minus the locked specs*); showcasing the new weapons and features to a mass audience as opposed to a carefully selected cross-section.
*Microsoft Game Studios is quick to remind players that because this is a Beta and not a demo, graphics and calibrations are still works in progress and not meant to be judged as the final product.

Unfinished or not, we have to say we liked what we saw. New weapons such as the Brute Shot and the Spike Grenade bring a whole new level of destruction to death matches and hint at a well-rounded campaign arsenal to come. New vehicles such as the Mongoose also make tantalizing appearances and offer hours of crash-course delight. But the stars of multiplayer have to be the tripmine, the man-cannon, and the bubble shield. The tripmine offers players a good way to get revenge from beyond the grave, as well as a method for shaking Warthogs and Ghosts trying to run you down. The man-cannon is a well-developed replacement to the teleporter from Halo of yore; letting players remain in the game (and remain targets) while covering great distances on the map. A similar effect can be achieved with a drop item (the portable reverse-gravitational lift) which is also available in the multiplayer Beta and allows players to scale impossibly high walls. Last, but by no means least, the bubble shield is a godsend when entering an enclosed space with an attacker coming up on you from behind.

The various weapons in Halo 3 present the first evidence that Bungie has given subtle gameplay changes, a great deal of thought. The weapon balancing in the beta is unique and achieves a great deal, the player never feels naked as the assault rifle, your default weapon, is quite good at short to medium distances. A quick upgrade however, is advisable as weapons such as the needler, the sniper rifle, the carbine, the rocket launcher (slow loading though it is), the missile battery and the Spartan Laser offer much more power. Grenades have also improved, becoming more potent tools in the hands of skilled players, especially in close to medium range combat. Vehicles also display the same amount of concept care, the mongoose will help you easily traverse the large maps while warthogs will create memorable moments of map terror for your enemies.

Further tools, such as the portable gravity lift, the man cannon and the bubble shield grenade greatly enhance gameplay adding to the frantic mayhem that takes place in maps. At times it feels as if some tone-deaf philharmonic is reaching a crescendo under the watchful conduction of Bungie.

The subtle changes by Bungie do not stop at weapon balancing however, increased player interaction with the environment comes from improved physics. Walking on snow, in the snow bound map, will leave a clear set of tracks on the ground while a grenade falling on the ground will sink and have its potency affected. The introduction of natural rag-doll physics and the improvements in the behavior of water are also gentle changes which contribute to making a Halo 3 beta map a much more immersive experience.

We have to also mention that part of the overall effect of the game on the player is achieved through the excellent use of sound. Weapons fire will echo in the distance, should the warring factions be around rocks or hills, while the same sound will reach the player muffled in snowy terrain. Explosions and other sound effects are also affected by their environment, further adding to the immersive experience.

Despite these nifty new additions (and the re-introduction of the assault rifle), the thing to remember is that Halo 3 multiplayer is essentially Halo 2 multiplayer only bigger, louder, and ultimately better. Anything and everything can happen, says designer David Candland. And how! Just for fun, if you have the Beta, trying sniping someone launching out of a man-cannon. It's too fun for words.

The design of level maps is also an impressive update to Halo's multiplayer experience. Distances between spawn points, flags, weapons, and items are spaced carefully throughout the map so no one area has an unrivaled advantage. Landmarks are carefully designed and integrated into the Beta maps, making navigation more intuitive and less map-reliant. Though the pace of multiplayer hasn't dropped, obstacles like the wall in Highground add a new degree of difficulty to multiplayer that requires strategy in addition to run-and-gun goodness. A.I. gunners also make appearances throughout the Beta, rounding out the difficulty of maps in key locations.

[[Bottom Line]]

The interesting dilemma raised by the Halo 3 beta has to do with the game's right to call itself Halo 3, does it bring enough improvements and additions to justify its title or is it a simple case of a Halo 2.5?

Answering that is a very subjective experience as different players will appreciate different aspects of the game. Having tried the beta we can only say that the improvements introduced definitely make the multiplayer modes great fun. Bungie has a recipe for engaging multiplayer and it has now, officially, improved upon it. The vast number of memorable moments, craftily generated by the attention to MP design, is astounding and the movie feature is bound to become a must have addition for future games.

Now, are these changes adequate to warrant a 3 next to the Halo title? We cannot say; we cannot however, forget that Halo 3 still has an epic and complex tale to tell. We cannot judge the game until we experience the single-player campaign. There is a lot of promise for what SP will hold for Halo fans and it would be unfair to jump to any rush conclusions; especially when knowing that Bungie is bound to have kept a few aces up its sleeve.

If you like Halo, even a little and you also love online gaming, there is no reason not to get Halo 3; not even when considering the steep USD 59.99 price tag for the Standard edition. Serious gamers might even consider shelling out USD 69.99 for the Limited edition or - shock - even USD 129.99 for the Legendary edition with it's little replica Spartan helmet. Microsoft has spared no expense for Halo 3's marketing campaign, so expect all sorts of peripherals to bombard you come September-including a Halo 3 Zune loaded with exclusive content.

And if you didn't like Halo or Halo 2, or are a complete Gears of War multiplayer snob, chances are Halo 3 will feel like a step backwards (no cover button), and you can skip Bungie's newest masterpiece. But then again, you just might... be missing out.

+Good graphics
+Updated multiplayer mechanics
+Man-cannons and other new weapons and items
+Involved central plot

-Assault rifle is still sub-par
-Mute button toggle is awkward
-Takes forever to get into a game, long loading times (Beta-specific)
-Graphics seem outdated and out-classed by other FPS games

Wait and See
+/-Where is this plot going?

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