Halo 3 Beta Impressions

Well, well, well…after four hours of downloading (on T1 nonetheless…grrr), one hour of fooling around with clearing updates and re-updating and everything else, plus the amount of time and hassle it was waiting for a fix to come out for Crackdown beta keys, I finally got to play Halo 3 beta. Despite feeling like I went through a meat grinder and got spit out onto a bed this morning from the late night of gameplay I had, it’s time to take a closer look at the beta, what it offers, and more importantly, what it spells for the September 25th release of what will likely be the biggest game event in the world: the release of Bungie’s latest “masterpiece”, Halo 3.  

Now, for those who have picked to continue reading, this means you are fit into one of three groups of people: people who like Halo and aren’t playing the beta; people who hate Halo and want to see if I bad-mouth it; and people who are playing the beta and want to know if I’ve dealt with some of the same things as you. With that said, the Halo 3 multiplayer beta has initially proven one major point to me: it’s Halo. I know that sounds like a simple statement, but it’s rather complex to explain, because while there is still that familiar feeling of home in the gameplay…it also happens to be part of the problem.


halo3c_1.jpgObviously, with the game showing up on the Xbox 360, graphics are going to be one of the first things that people will notice about Halo 3. I will be the first to admit that the game has some next-gen gleam to its presentation. Individual blades of grass sway with the wind, trees show motion with their branches, and there are even some damn nice particle effects from the guns, ground, and anything that goes “boom”. Nonetheless, while things look to be in place, it just doesn’t feel new. The textures go pretty deep, but not nearly as deep as something like Gears of War or even the PS3 shooter Resistance. Even Lost Planet has a glossier sheen to it. I do realize this is beta, but when your game has been announced for a release date three months after the multiplayer beta is over…we might as well consider this near-finished-product. In short…it looks better…but not as good as you had hoped.


mainmenuscreen_1.jpgWhen you first get the beta installed and start it up, you are introduced with a basic option screen that says “Play the Beta”, “View a Film”, and “Quit to Dashboard”. After you choose to play the beta, you’ll be in the lobby area. As of now in the beta, your options are rather limited. You can choose to switch between the matchmaking lobby or the theatre lobby (which I’ll explain later), as well as move between the different playlist options. In the ranked playlist, there are choices of either going 1v1 against everyone in the match, teaming up for a team Slayer match, or playing on the more objective-based team setups like CTF or Territories. All the match types are essentially unchanged from the past Halo franchises, so you won’t have to ask what you need to do. The biggest difference you’ll find in choosing the options is how long the matchmaking process can take, but also how well it works. Getting into a match for me usually took about a 5-15 minute wait time to search for players in my rank range, and the matches were generally just about as long. Here is where we have to start getting into the specifics of what is going on.


experiencerating_1.jpgThe ranking system in Halo 3, as well as the options to check out other players’ rankings and service records, is one of the bigger add-ins to the multiplayer game. You’ll be able to find out all kinds of vital statistics from both just looking at the character’s info before a match as well as scoping out what he did to everyone after the match. This includes their actual rank (private, sergeant, etc.), the number of ranked, social, and custom matches they’ve played, any awards they’ve gained, and you can even look at their gamer cards through the game to see what achievements they’ve unlocked and such. While the ranking system will tell you a lot of things, what it won’t tell you is EXACTLY where he was sniping you from during the majority of the match. That’s when you need to take a look at the replay.


201019_1.jpgSomething new to the Halo franchise is the theatre lobby, a place where you can go and look at full matches to learn new strats, talk smack with your friends, or find out if someone was cheating. The two ways to watch these “films” is by either saving the match replay after your match is over by going to the option menu and choosing to save it, or you can just choose to view your last played round. From here, you’ll get to view the movie with your buddies, flipping through the different characters to see what happened during the match. However, here’s the problem: Bungie has limited the playback options “severely” (their words, not mine), so you can’t rewind, pause, change camera angles, or anything. All you see is a literal exact duplicate of each person’s perspective views and that’s it. While it’s a neat feature, you just don’t get the whole idea of why it’s there without all the replay options. Still, another new feature allows you to take your saved films and share them with friends or everyone by adding them to your “file share” space. For the beta, everyone is given 25MB worth of saved space, and a full-length match takes up about 6MB total. Again, while it’s cool, you don’t get the option to “snip a clip” from the film, so you don’t get the full benefit of what it’s for. Still, saving a few films and watching them again made things much cooler for me and my girlfriend while we were trash talking each other AFTER the match.


humanweapons_1.jpgIn the armory department, many of your favorite weapons have made a return appearance. In many ways, though, the Halo 3 feels like a big reunion of compare and contrast. You get the return of the assault rifle from the first Halo as your starting default weapon, while the battle rifle from Halo 2 is still present. You get the SMG’s, but you can also check out the new Spikers, which is essentially a nailgun the size of a pistol with full auto fire. There are still sniper rifles and plasma rifles and plasma pistols and…well, you get the point. The newest additions that will keep your crippled are the Spartan lasers, spike grenades, and the new-to-the-franchise “third pickups”. With the Spartan laser, you get a weapon as large as a rocket launcher, but instead takes three seconds to charge up and shoots a one-shot-kill laser at your enemy. It also hits with deadly accuracy. Spike grenades look like old WWII German “potato mashers” that Mick Foley and Terry Funk got ahold of, embedded spikes into the end, and gave the ability to be thrown and stick in the ground before exploding. The biggest edition, and possibly the most fun, is the “third pickups”. Basically, aside from guns and grenades, you can pick up a third item that falls under the category of many interesting tools to give you a quick advantage on the battlefield. The list is as follows:

  • Grav Lift – allows you to boost high into the air (much like the lift on the Lockout map in Halo 2
  • Bubble Shield – deploys a bubbled shield onto the ground that prevents any fire from coming in…as well as go out. Watch out for melee attackers.
  • Power Drain – places an energy aura on the ground that takes away nearby enemy’s health
  • Trip Mine – throws a…well…trip mine onto the ground, hidden, until someone passes over it…then KABOOM
  • While all these new weapons and pickups are cool, we only get to check out one new vehicle in the beta: the missing-from-Halo-2-and-shown-in-the-collector’s-DVD Mongoose. This two-seater ATV version of a Warthog has no turret, but it does allow you to sit two people on it, firing whatever weapons they have equipped (well, the passenger at least), and get across the battlefield in a very quick minute. The only weapon I haven’t seen available on the Mongoose: a broken-down sentry turret, which you can use in a Jesse-Ventura-death-from-Predator-inspired chain gun way with an over-the-shoulder third-person view ala Resident Evil 4. Needless to say…it’s friggin’ sweet…but not that powerful. Actually, the balance of the weapons is another issue you’ll find.


    untitled_1.JPGNow, I know that this is B-E-T-A…which means that gameplay and balance is something that we as the “beta testers” must give feedback on. Where it stands right now, there are some major weapon balance issues. For instance, why is the Covenant Carbine so powerful now, while the battle rifle and assault rifle are so weak? Why are the Spikers so much more powerful with an SMG/Spiker combo rather than 2 Spikers? Why are the sniper rifles so fidgety? Aside from the weapon balancing issues that are so apparent, the maps available (High Ground, Snowbound, and Valhalla) all feel like they were designed great, with asymmetry and offense/defense play being the main focus. While this is cool…the defense has a LOT of advantages over the offense in the form of more weapons in their respective base area, as well as turrets and strategic hiding spots. The offense…well, they get man-cannoned right into a sniper that’s camping the jump point and shotguns waiting for them around the corner. It, again, feels a little unbalanced in terms of gameplay, but it’s something that can always get fixed.


    One of my biggest complaints about the beta: the over-playing of the Shoddy Snipers match type. Essentially, this match type involves only two weapons – shotguns and sniper rifles. It’s one of the most boring and un-fun match types available…and it’s the match type you are more than likely going to get set up with. Moreover, no one ever wants to veto the stupid thing!!! Oh…yeah, you can veto any map you want by pushing X before the match starts, and if a majority rules, then the map and type changes…but you don’t get a veto the second time around.

    Another problem I’m having is that the Valhalla map uses the new man-cannon, but it happens to make you completely vulnerable…and it’s virtually the only way to get anywhere on the map without walking for hours and losing the time limit match you are playing! Bungie needs to add a protective shield to whoever jumps from the man-cannon and lands…not something that makes a person invincible, but at least something to protect from the sniping campers one-shotting you.

    The last big problem I can really point out is just what I said before: it feels like Halo. While it means that I’m familiar with everything in the game, it also means that I don’t feel like there is a ton of stuff that’s “new” to the franchise. Sure, the graphics are prettier, but only by shaders and general pixel count…not in terms of texture and quality of bump mapping. The character models are sharp, but not much more than Halo 2 offered up. The maps are too wide open…where are the Lockouts and the Foundations and the Hang ‘Em Highs? The asymmetry of the maps is a welcome change, but it’s still nice to get some maps where my SMGs actually make a difference…where I won’t find a single sniper rifle on the damn map! The matchmaking on Xbox Live does match me up with people of my skill level…although it can take 15 minutes and even then, there’s a chance the game will freeze if someone drops out (but at least I can mute the trash-talkers). The only new things, like the “third pickups” and the Mongoose and removable turrets, all feel so secondary in nature.


    At this point, I can say that it’s Halo and it plays like it. While the beta is meant to just be a teaser and a way of testing connections and such, there is still a lot of work that Bungie needs to do in the next three months to really make this feel like a product that can last for a couple of years like Halo 2 has done. People will buy Halo 3 regardless of what I or most others say, but the fact that I’m already bored with it after its first day of release just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not truly impressed, and that’s what it comes down to. It doesn’t give me enough new stuff to really matter, but it does give me enough old stuff to keep me familiar. I don’t know how to describe it, but I know that Bungie will have to do some more polishing (plenty of jaggies in the beta graphics, and that’s at full resolution) as well as more balancing (Covenant Carbines should NOT be that powerful). We’ll see how things progress over the course of the beta testing, but in all honesty…I wish they would’ve given us a local 4-player options in the thing.

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