There are very few certainties in this universe — death, taxes, and that "Halo 3" will sell a bazillion copies when it launches on Sept. 25.
However, the legions that subscribe to the "Halo" hero Master Chief's cult of personality need not wait to get a taste of the first Xbox 360 installment of the multimillion-selling action franchise. Developer Bungie, owned by Microsoft, rolled out a three-level multiplayer demo of "Halo 3" last week for a test that is equal parts fan service and free focus-group testing. Every movement and every shot fired will be recorded for scrutiny as the company enters the final stretch of development. Expectations are sky-high, but it would take a major snafu to disappoint the millions of "Halo" devotees.
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Judging from the initial response to the demo — called a beta test — on Bungie's Web site, the sneak peek is a resounding success. Grousing is far outweighed by praise, although at this point, Bungie is truly preaching to the converted. Beta invites weren't randomly assigned, after all. To qualify for the "Halo 3" beta, hopefuls entered an e-mail contest, scoped a viral campaign, or purchased a specially marked copy of "Crackdown," a comically over-the-top action game.
"Crackdown" was a minor critical hit, but the game's impressive sales figures (approximately 900,000) were no doubt boosted by the inclusion of the "Halo 3" beta. Gamers that tried to enter the beta via "Crackdown," though, were treated to a nasty surprise last Wednesday when they were unable to download the demo while other beta players enjoyed rousing sessions of digital gunplay.
Bungie's message boards were an inferno of impassioned freak-outs, but the crisis was averted that evening when the "Crackdown" bug was fixed and downloads began. To read the message boards now, all is forgiven. Master Chief is truly the Dr. Phil of rampaging gamers.
Bungie must inch across a precarious tightrope for "Halo 3." The shooter's mechanics are so beloved — over 5 million gamers have played around 700 million online games of "Halo 2" — that Bungie risks upsetting the fanbase by making too many changes. However, there is an equal danger in playing it too safe and not delivering a new enough experience to justify buying an Xbox 360 for "Halo 3."
Some fans are already using the derisive term "Halo 2.5" for the beta, saying that it seems too similar to the second game in both the visual and game play departments. But is such dismissal unfair when the previously developed formula is a success responsible for selling more than 9 million copies of "Halo 2" worldwide?
The "Halo 3" beta gives gamers the first crack at some new (or upgraded) weapons and gear that could help avoid that "Halo 2.5" moniker. The additions are a mixed bag, but that's what this beta is for — to try new ideas out and see how the community responds.
The laser is just too powerful and its aiming is too loose. You can take down a player just by shooting a hand or foot. However, the laser is expertly suited to destroying an enemy rampaging across the Snowbound map on a Ghost (an alien hovercraft).
The Bubble Shield, an item that envelops you in a transparent sphere, is intriguing. When used properly, it's a real gas — such as deploying it just in time to bounce a grenade right back at the thrower. The humorously named Man Cannon is a map feature that launches players high into the air. It's a fun way to cross the Valhalla map (the best of the three maps offered in the beta), but it also leaves you wide open to any player gifted with the sniper rifle, another weapon that is just a little too powerful.
The game's new vehicle, the all-wheel Mongoose, is good for speedy travel over distances, but the lack of a weapon leaves the user too vulnerable. At full speed, the Mongoose should also be able to splatter rival players if its at full-speed on the moment of impact.
Where's the Energy Sword?
Missing from the "Halo 3" beta is one of the most controversial weapons from the previous title: the Energy Sword. In the hands of a skilled player, the crackling sword was a one-hit death machine that unbalanced a match within seconds. Bungie has not said if the sword has booked a return engagement, but losing it permanently would be a good way to keep scores from becoming lopsided to the point of spoiling the fun.
The beta includes samples from several game modes, such as the free-for-all Slayer and a variant on schoolyard keep-away called Oddball. (Instead of a ball, though, the "it" player lugs a skull.)
VIP is a new game mode that anoints one player on each team the titular VIP. The only way a team can score is to eliminate the other team's VIP. This is fun on the Highground and Snowbound maps, thanks to some close-quarters locations where you can set up competent defenses. Hopefully, some issues with multiplayer will be tuned as a result of the beta, such as the opaqueness of the border around the contested territory in King of the Hill. Right now, it's just too hard to see opponents streaming into the zone thanks to the brightly pulsing walls.
Quit dwelling on graphics, people
Too many gamers are dwelling on the "Halo 3" beta's graphics. Yes, they are not as phenomenal as the crumbling vistas of the current-gen benchmark, "Gears of War." At points, the beta really does just look like a higher resolution take on "Halo 2" — which is still an impressive game — but complaints are premature and unwarranted. At least, they are at this point.
The final two months of a game's development cycle are often the most critical, as this is the point in the process where a lot of elements truly gel — visual upgrades. Even if the graphics are significantly improved for the final release, a steady frame-rate that ensures smooth game play is far more important that the polygon count of a player model or the texture on a rock. And, so far, that's something this beta delivers.
Lambs to the slaughter?
"Halo 3" handles pretty much exactly like "Halo 2," though, and this gives returning players an immediate advantage over newcomers. One of the most frustrating elements of "Halo 2" was how quickly the multiplayer universe became stratified — after only a few weeks of release, it just wasn't fun to play against gamers that obviously had several hours a day to devote to mastering the Master Chief. By the end of the second day of the "Halo 3" beta, this buzz-killing nuisance was already starting to show. Imagine how frustrating it could be for players that get "Halo 3" next March, a full six months after the launch? Lambs to the slaughter.
Fortunately, the final "Halo 3" should offer a working filter that funnels you into matches with players of a comparable skill level (this feature is hit-and-miss on the beta), but still, there's just no way for things to slow down enough to accommodate a beginner. Taking cover has never been a big part of "Halo" (unlike "Gears of War" or "Rainbow Six Vegas," where using cover smartly is the only way to survive), but it would have been a good way for new players wade into the shallow end of the blood pool.
The "Halo 3" beta runs now until June 10, thanks to a four-day extension to make up for the "Crackdown" inconvenience. This gives players ample time to check out the new maps and weapons and then offer feedback on Bungie's Web site.
This beta program is a landmark for console gaming, where gamers are typically only given occasional access to neatly packaged demos. Not only do fans get a chance to influence the development of one of their favorite franchises, but the willingness to have beta programs for gamers serves to build a tremendous amount of goodwill for the Xbox 360 itself.
And going into what should be a cutthroat holiday season in the video game industry, a little goodwill certainly can't hurt.