True Tales of the Halo 3 Beta Party

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There’s always something a little surreal in the way Microsoft handles previews of its Halo franchise. The Halo 3 event this past Friday was typical: instead of, say, staging a demo at a conference room at a hotel, they rented out a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, complete with a doorman outside. You go inside. It’s dark. The whole interior has been set up with large, expensive-looking TVs hooked up to XBox 360’s running beta versions of the Halo 3 multiplayer. The bar is free — confused bartenders man it gamely, though almost no one is drinking. Women in slinky dresses offer you hors d’oeuvres. It’s like you died and went to fanboy heaven.

I’m not an especially assiduous student of multiplayer Halo — I’ve spent a lot more time on the single-player version — but here are a few scattered impressions of the game. (For a more thorough, detail-oriented rundown visit pretty much anywhere — IGN, say.)

It’s purty. It’s great to see a new Halo on a next-gen system. Duh. They were showing of an arctic level that was particularly lovely — some insanely detailed, photorealistic frozen snow textures. It was very Hoth. And I’m sure the single player will be even more spectacular. It’s one of the hallmarks of the Halo franchise, this tension between the extreme brutality of the action and the lyrical prettiness of the landscapes and environments all around it, and the extra horsepower of the 360 only makes the contrast more striking.

There’s a lot of new hardware. For example: spiky brute grenades that stick in things, and people, on contact (there’s a great sound effect when you manage to smack a person with a spiky grenade). There’s also the much-buzzed-about Spartan laser, which is devastatingly damaging but has to charge for a few seconds before it fires, which takes a lot of getting used to — the people I was aiming the Spartan laser at tended to use those few seconds to kill me. And now you can detach a gun emplacement from its mount, pick it up, and carry it around like a chain gun, though it’s so heavy it slows you down (they’ve done a good job with the Spartan-carrying-heavy-gun animation — he looks slightly pissed off at how heavy it is.) There are more, plus a ton of new gadgets, like a portable gravity lift; and the smaller, sportier, bouncier version off the Warthog, the Mongoose; and the Bubble Shield, an instant hemispherical weapons-proof force field.

It’s complicated. That kind of follows from the above. There are a lot of factors in play in Halo 3 multiplayer, which is a challenge for the creators, who have to balance them all, and also for the players, who have to master them all. It makes for a rich experience, but the learning curve is steep. I hope that doesn’t have the effect of widening the already-wide gap between hardcore and casual players. Especially because…

I suck at Halo 3 multiplayer. Yeah, I racked up my share of kills, but that was mostly against the other media in the room — in any roomful of journalists you can always count on their being a few n00bs around to beat up on. (Because my aim is lousy, I relied on a lot of melee fighting, plus short-range kills with the shotgun. I still have a lot of old Quake reflexes kicking around in my brain.) But players coming in from elsewhere in the world — our sessions were open to the at-large Halo 3 Beta — pretty much had their way with me.

Then again, they probably didn’t have an open bar to contend with.