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Controller Freak

Chad Sapieha leads you deep into the world of games, covering gaming trends

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A screenshot from Halo: Reach. (Microsoft)
A screenshot from Halo: Reach. (Microsoft)

Hands-on with the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta Add to ...

Last week Xbox Canada had journalists gather in a downtown Toronto office building to try the multiplayer experience in Halo: Reach, the game that will surely be Microsoft's most profitable exclusive for the Xbox 360 this fall. I participated.

The most striking element I found in my preview of Bungie's final Halo game is a new feature called "loadouts;" character configurations comprised not only of various weapons packs but also different kinds of advantageous equipment and abilities.

The new jetpack, for example, allows players to shoot up into the air and hover for a bit. Another ability called "armour lock"-initiated in dramatic style by having your soldier take a knee and put fist to ground-will make your Spartan impervious for a few seconds before releasing an EMP blast that wipes out the shields of nearby enemies. There's also a new sprinting ability that I found very useful for getting to-and, if necessary, away from-the action in a hurry.

I didn't play long enough to get a feel for how these abilities affect balance, or how truly useful they are, but there were a few speedy learners in the group who used the jetpacks to take to the air and rain death from above on rookies who had no idea what hit them. I imagine that advantages like this won't be as great once players become accustomed to looking to the sky for danger.

I was only able to try three different play modes (the event was packed, and, sadly, we had to take turns playing), and they were carryovers from previous Halo games: juggernaut, capture-the-flag, and slayer. I didn't see anything unusual about them.

However, I did watch some of my fellow journalists play a new mode called "headhunter" that has players collecting skulls from downed opponents and depositing them in a special area for points. If you die while holding skulls your killer can scavenge them. It looked fun. I could see the stress in my fellow reporters' faces when they had half a dozen skulls and were frantically looking for a place to score.

A few other things to report:

- Health packs have returned. If your blue life meter is running low you'll want to find one so you can return to fighting shape before engaging anyone else.

- All of the weapons have been redesigned in one way or another, but the only meaningfully new hardware my Spartan laid hands on was the grenade launcher. It allows players to either pump out explosives one after another or take the time to control when they detonate by holding and releasing the trigger.

- You can play as a Covenant Elite (one of Halo's most recognizable aliens), though we weren't given the opportunity. Apparently, they'll have slightly different abilities than human Spartans, but I'm not sure what they'll be.

- Players now earn points in combat that they can spend on armour upgrades. However, for better or worse, these upgrades are for aesthetic purposes only and won't affect a player's performance. It doesn't seem like it will be the sort of deep rewards system seen in games like those in the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises.

- The two maps I tried, Powerhouse and Swordbase, seemed to have benefited from Bungie's internal balancing processes. Powerhouse has one team starting at the top of a hill in a base and the other at the bottom outside, but neither seemed to have an advantage. Swordbase, meanwhile, is an indoors level with a series of stacked rooms separated by a narrow atrium.

- Everything looks quite nice. Definitely a step up in terms of details and effects from Halo 3 and its pseudo-sequel, ODST. That said, it's doesn't really look like a "next-generation" game, as Bungie Creative Director Marcus Lehto told me it would at X10 earlier this year.

That's about all I know about Halo: Reach's multiplayer. And you won't have to long to wait before forging your own opinions: the multiplayer beta is slated to go live on May 3rd. Just pop in a copy of Halo 3: ODST into your Xbox 360, select Halo: Reach Multiplayer Beta from the menu, and away you go.

You did buy ODST, didn't you?

Follow me on Twitter: @ chadsapieha

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