Xbox 360 Preview

Halo: Reach

For the stars

There was an abundance of speculation when details of Halo: Reach started to weave across the information superhighway, with one of the more common thoughts being the belief Bungie were going to shake up the formula with the addition of class-based combat. They have, sort of.

There's new bits and bobs, naturally, including some large-scale objective modes, an obligatory set of new weapons and a greater focus on customisation, but upon entering your first game it's immediately noticeable how everything looks, feels, sounds and plays like Halo.

This is because, no matter which way you try and cut it, Reach is very much a traditional Halo game, complete with a bevy of Spartans decked out in impossibly colourful, shiny armour and doing big floaty jumps and going bloop boop boop boop bloop boop etc.

Halo's always been about heavy guitar riffs, with Reach no exception in this regard. And the multiplayer is also pretty popular, too. While the single-player campaign is off dealing with boring old things like human genocide and the destruction of an entire planet, over in multiplayer we're still gurning away whilst teabagging the corpses of our fallen foes. It's going to take more than a swish of Listerine to get the taste of that out of your mouth, blue team.

There are four maps included in the Beta, with two - Powerhouse and Swordbase - available for any of the traditional gametypes and two - Overlook and Boneyard - for the larger objective-based scenario modes.

All four manage to feel like traditional Halo maps, with the indoor bits often featuring an abundance of man cannons and the outdoorsy bits serving as wide-open sniper arenas. In classic Bungie tradition, each map seems draw its inspiration from a previous Halo map - Powerhouse felt more than a little similar to Halo 3's High Ground, for instance.

Returning modes include, somewhat expectedly, Slayer, Team Slayer and 1 Flag CTF. Slotting nicely into the rotation is Headhunter, my personal favourite of the new modes, which plays a lot like a wackier version of Oddball. The objective is to hoover up as many skulls as you can, with one dropping out of every killed player, and to deposit them in a marked zone that refuses to stay in one place. It's made a bit more difficult by the fact everyone holding one or more skulls is lit up on everyone else's screen, turning the whole affair into a manic scramble with the same kind of demented random element that's made Mario Kart such an enduring party title for over a decade.

Oh, and the skulls are now on fire, adding a wholly unnecessary but entirely enjoyable bit of visual flourish to the proceedings. It also makes them look like the decapitated head of Ghost Rider.

Another new mode is Stockpile, which drops a bounty of neutral flags into each level and makes the red and blue team scurry about trying to take as many of them back to a designed zone which only capture the flags once every sixty seconds. It's a bit more skill-based than Headhunter but manages to evoke similar feelings of mad panic.

The biggest new mode on offer, in terms of both scope and map size, is Invasion, which puts six teams of two into two groups - Spartans and Elites. The Elites, and their quadruple-hinged jaws, must systematically capture points across Boneyard, eventually dragging a chuffing massive generator all the way back to a Phantom to win the game. The Spartans try and stop them, with both teams getting access to bigger vehicles and more explosive weaponry as the game progresses.

One of the cleverer bits of Invasion is how the capture zones are all very svelte and compact: if a gaggle of Elites bunch up in one they'll capture the points faster, but a couple of grenades will give a crafty Spartan the easiest killstreak of their military career.

Popping everyone into teams of two gives each player a buddy, sidekick or rival (delete as applicable) and allows for mobile respawning, a la Battlefield: Bad Company, which adds plenty of additional layers of tactical consideration into both attacking and defending teams - it's often quite a good idea to drop out of combat and hide in a nice quiet spot for a few seconds for your partner to spawn on you.

The difference between Spartans and Elites is more than cosmetic. Elites are much faster, spawn with their ubiquitous energy weapons and can select loadouts that give them the ability to do that annoying weaving dodge thing from Halo's old single-player campaigns. Spartans, on the other hand, get UNSC weaponry and shiny visors.

Selectable loadouts exist across all modes, and are a bit like Call of Duty's Custom Classes only without the option to modify them outside of custom games. They determine your starting weapons and your additional armour abilities, such as being able to sprint (self-explanatory) or use a jetpack, which is useful to get a height advantage but a bit too slow to be used in combat. Other armour abilities include Active Camo, which returns from previous Halo games and a temporarily impenetrable shield that also doubles as a cheeky EMP blast with the Armour Lock ability.

The final new mode is Generator Defence, a 3v3 mode on Overlook that pits Spartans against Elites, having the latter trying to destroy three generators within a time limit. Those handy with their arithmetic will have already spotted the mode is half the size of Invasion, so matches are played on smaller maps and are tighter, more intimate affairs with an even greater focus on solid teamwork.

As it is also entirely obligatory for a modern online FPS to have some kind of persistent unlock system, Reach uses XP to signify rank and as an in-game currency, allowing players to save up and eventually go shopping for new bits of armour. There are also long and short-term challenges for players, which I presume will offer up some kind of tiny image emblem, and possibly an achievement, when obtained.

Weaponry has been modified, with the ever-famous Battle Rifle being retired (or just not existing yet, as Reach slots into the Halo saga as a prequel), though the new Designated Marksman Rifle does its best to park in the vacant space. There's also a fancy Needler Rifle, which combines the Covenant's purple exploding shards with the ability to be fired across long distances, as well as a tweaked Plasma Rifle and a new UNSC Grenade Launcher that can cook its shots. And the Magnum - it's not a Halo game without the ridiculously powerful Magnum, after all.

It's all tied together with the promise of a vastly improved (although Halo 3's is still one of the most accomplished on Xbox Live three years after launch) matchmaking system, notably sporting the option to join friends' games automatically when a slot opens. There's also the option to define your social settings, giving you the option to choose between categories such as 'rowdy' and 'polite' - although it's unclear how Bungie are going to filter out the inevitable masses of players who nip into 'polite' channels and start cussing like sailors.

So far, so Halo. But familiarity, and accessibility, has always been one of its strongest suits. It's always been gaming's comfortable pair of shoes; the pair that always feels supremely comfortable and oddly empowering, despite the fact your Mum tells you they're tatty and you should throw them out. There's a lot to like, and a few things that could be a little better, but Halo: Reach throws just enough novelty and refinement into Bungie's familiar mix to coax a warm, fuzzy feeling of something both reassuringly old and excitingly new.

The Halo: Reach beta is available through the 'Extras' menu on Halo 3: ODST starting May 3.