Halo: Reach Beta Impressions

Okay, Bungie, I’m liking what I’m seeing. The Reach beta hasn’t been live for very long, and I’ve only squeezed off 3-4 hours on it, but already I’m feeling good about where it’s going. Many of you are probably playing it as well, so let’s compare notes, Dear Reader. It’s brass tacks time. It’s not perfect, but there’s more than enough to warrant my significant interest and cautious optimism. Could it be that the awful, sour taste of ODST could finally be a thing of the past?

The New Classes. So most of us probably think of "Reach" as "Halo" plus "Tribes," or just "Halo" plus a class loadout system. Technically accurate, although I will confess mild alarm at how little this new dynamic has really changed the basic structure of the experience. I get why Bungie is gun shy about fixing what isn’t broken, but it’s also amusing that every time they introduce some radical new element to one of their games, they temper it until it has no teeth. I think they’re still annoyed at how double-wielding ran rampant in "Halo 2," and now they’re overcompensating. You know what? Maybe it’s even the right thing to do, but some small part of me still wishes they’d really rock their own boat once in a while. I keep hoping they’ll unbutton their collective shirt collar and go wild with this baby before they give her up forever. Maybe Microsoft wouldn’t care for that as much.

My point here is, don’t get all worked up about the new class system. Yes, it is there, but it comes off like a streamlined version of the X button pick-ups everyone hated and avoided in "Halo 3." The classes all use the same weaponry, which is a bizarre move to me; if you’re gonna go to the trouble of implementing this mechanic, why half-way it like this? Different weapons for different classes is just basic, it’s 101, without it you’ve got a glorified power-up system. Also, the classes all look incredibly similar, which is irritating on a more superficial level, but it doesn’t make it less valid. Why don’t you make them look different? That’s what’s fun about these things! I guess they thought it was more imporant to let us "customize" our Spartan in the main menu. But let’s be honest…who do you know who actually devotes serious time to that? The options are incredibly rigid, whatever drastic changes are available serve only to make you look ridiculous. Tweaking my Spartan’s shoulder pads from a set of six predetermined shapes has just never captured my imagination or made him feel like mine. It’s also possible that Bungie didn’t really think of "Reach" as a class-based shooter, but if they didn’t, then I’m disappointed. I wanted them to really mix it up, it would suck if they were noncommittal about this.

But complaining aside, there are seriously good things about these new classes. For one, all of the new powers are cool and useful. When you first boot it up, you can’t believe they’re going to let you do any of these things…except the sprinting, that one’s pretty unremarkable. The other classes, by contrast, can cloak, become invincible, and use a jet pack that launches them in the air! All of them are a lot of fun, have tangible strategic advantages, and yet balance into the final product nicely. Cloak is a real winner; I know Bungie has been trying to make that ability balance just so for a few games now, and at long last its evolved into perfect form. At the moment, the ability to armor lock (squat on the ground and become invincible for a time) is the only one that is maybe a little too big for its britches. It could just be me, but I won a few victories with it that felt undeserved. The Rocketeer pack (ha!) is amusing, and lots of people use it, but I’d sooner paint a giant target on my forehead. I’m not worried about balance, though, because something in human nature simply cannot resist flying. People like to fly.

Weapons Overhaul. I’m really pleased with the direction the new weapons are going. Every single one of them has been revamped and updated, they all look sexy and exotic, and I’ve only encountered one that I thought was marginally unhelpful. I read somewhere that there are more polygons in one of these new guns than there were in an entire Marine from "Halo 3," and I believe it. They are seriously sweet looking, and an absolute blast to use. My only gripe in the weapons department is that grenades are now overpowered and annoying again. Honest to God, I hate grenades, can’t we just get rid of them forever? Am I the only one?

The gravity hammer is now a god-killing machine that jumps you ten feet towards your enemy with a single swing, and the energy sword is a limp rag. I’m hoping I just got a glitched one or something, but I hit this dude right on the nose and he brushed it off. It was the lowest feeling of my entire life, and that is in no way an exaggeration. Also, duel wielding is gone forever, and I say good riddance. I used it a lot and I had no problem with it, but I’d be hard pressed to actually pine for it now that it doesn’t exist. And whatever value it had wasn’t worth getting stuck with only one of a weapon that was meant to be doubled up. There’s nothing like firing a single SMG at some dude who has a rocket launcher. "Reach" never leaves you feeling ripped off when you grab a weapon off the ground.

And the shotgun. They finally nailed the shotgun. This thing shoots to kill. I don’t know why shotguns have always struggled to have a place in the "Halo" weapons locker, but now at long last they feel like a part of the family. Also there’s a gun that fires sticky grenades. Let me repeat that again: there’s a gun. That fires. Sticky. Grenades.

Onward and Upward. These are preliminary observations, of course, because we haven’t even tried out "Invasion Mode" yet, which I must admit I’m very excited about. I imagine that, like the new class system, it’s going to end up letting me down by not being different enough from what has come before, but oh well. I pine for a "Halo" game that plays out more like a "Battlefield" or "Star Wars: Battlefront" experience, and I admit I’m kind of amazed no one has tried it yet, but oh well.

Overall it seems like "Reach" is an attempt to back off the competition aspect of "Halo" and play up a more compulsively fun experience. I am all for that. The hardcores can have their ranked deathmatches, but let those of us with lives who are just trying to unwind play some epic space battles without having to feel like crap the whole time. The ranking system has gone a little softer, and seems modeled heavily on COD4′s example: instead of negatively reinforcing, they just positively reinforce in tiered increments. I know it’s got to be hard for Bungie to swallow humble pie and imitate their opponents, but it’s good that they did it. God knows, Infinity Ward is ripping off Bungie just by making a shooter on a console, so their place should be secure.

I’m excited to see what else they have coming for us. If things continue this way, "Halo: Reach" will prove to be a sequel that is actually worth the full ticket price, unlike its degenerate cousin "ODST." There’s enough new blood pumping in this thing to justify its existence. It suffers from a mild feeling of sameness, and I do wish they had really gone for something radical as their last hurrah, but it cannot be denied that "Reach" is a bold and confident move towards making the definitive "Halo" experience, full stop.