The Halo 3 Beta

Thanks to a PC-centric (and console averse) friend who attended one of the two Halo 3 launch events this past weekend, I ended up with an early Halo 3 Beta access key for my Xbox 360. The public Beta kicks off tomorrow morning for people who purchased a special version of Crackdown.

The kids and I have now spent a few hours with Halo 3, to mixed reviews. The Beta of Halo 3, which consists of a 941MB download, only features three levels (but so far we’ve only managed to play two of them – no idea what the third level looks like), and is only playable via Xbox Live – you need an Xbox Live Gold account to use it.

It’s also possible to play split-screen with a second local player in one of the training modes offered through the Xbox Live set-up. Playing with more than two local players in an on-line game is not enabled.

The Xbox Live live lobby set-up is a bit tedious, as you spend precious minutes waiting to fill out a roster of six players, although if six players are not found after some time, the game will start with less. We also found that a number of times the screen would blank out during play, and then inform us that the system was uploading (not sure what it was uploading), and after about a minute game play would resume – it appears this happened when existing players dropped out, so perhaps it was a swap to a new server to continue the match. The other thing was that on-line game response was all over the board for us – mind you, we’re down in the Caribbean, and have a not insubstantial delay (80-100ms) for data traffic to most U.S. servers – but in some sessions things were responsive, while in others it felt like we were in a small time shift. In the “slow” games it was well nigh impossible to beat down an opponent unless you struck before you reached them, which in turn assumed they were not also moving. Very frustrating.

Halo 3’s graphics are a definite improvement over those of Halo and Halo 2 played on an Xbox 360, but that’s no surprise considering the game is designed for the Xbox 360’s graphics engine, which is a real improvement over that of the original Xbox. However, the graphics are not nearly as good as I had imagined them, perhaps being jaded by things like Gears of War. The other odd thing is that although I have my Xbox 360 set up for 1920×1080 resolution, Halo 3 plays at a reduced horizontal resolution (closer to a 4:3 aspect ratio than the 16:9 my display is configured for), resulting in a lot of visual real estate that is not even put to use. I hope the released version of the game will allow for proper wide screen aspect ratios.

Controls are a bit different too, in that the Right Button on the Xbox 360 controller is what is now used to pick up weapons, ride vehicles, and reload (for Halo 2 it was the X button). The X button now allows you to drop and deploy special objects you pick up along the way, such as the bubble shield (protects you from attack outside the shield but opponents can still walk through the shield and nail you), a gravity lift (emits a blue anti-grav beam you can ride up one “level” of height – can also be used to upset vehicles when they drive over it), and an energy drain bomb. You can only carry one special object at any one time.

Weapons have changed a bit too, with the addition of a red laser gun, and the ability to remove a mounted machine gun from its post and walk around with it – albeit much more slowly. Existing weapons also respond a bit differently in terms of power and control.

Having played mostly Halo 2 in the last 18 months on the Xbox 360, I was not able to draw real comparisons to the original Halo, but my 10 year old son claims (and this appears to be backed up by comments in other media sources) that Halo 3 is more similar to the original Halo than Halo 2. He wasn’t able to quantify his observation. As he put it, “it just is”.

The Halo 3 Beta has been mostly enjoyable so far, but it seems to me that the folks at Bungie still have a ways to go to make game play smoother and more engrossing. But that’s what a Beta test period is all about – get the software tested, get bugs and usability feedback, and hopefully release an improved product. I personally am looking forward to the campaign mode and hope it is better than that in Halo 2, which was disappointingly short and simple compared to the original Halo. We’ll see later this year what Bungie actually delivers.