NEW YORK — On Wednesday, more than a million Xbox 360 owners will be able to download and play an advance version of the system’s biggest game of 2007, “Halo 3.” Last Friday, a select few hundred were allowed to walk into a Manhattan nightclub and play it then and there.
Reporters and press people were there, athletes and celebrities made the guest list for a “Halo 3″ free-for-all at the Blvd club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The eight-hour event started at 3 p.m. in the darkened club. There were couches and “Halo 3″ signs. There was a miniature Master Chief helmet in one glass display case and some Xbox 360s painted by Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson in others. More importantly, there were flat-screen TVs running the multiplayer-only “Halo 3″ beta and employees from the game’s development studio, Bungie, on hand to explain the three-week public trial of the game — and to inform MTV News of the three things that everyone who plays the beta must do in it.
In a back room — which black-clad servers carrying cheese balls and mini-burgers said they weren’t allowed to enter — Bungie’s head writer Frank O’Connor gave quick five-minute demonstrations of the demo’s special features. With headset in place and 360 controller in hand, he stood in front of a massive high-definition TV and virtually harnessed some of the series’ new weapons. Ambling his Spartan soldier through a forested multiplayer map, O’Connor hurled adhesive “Brute spike grenades” and hoisted the vehicle-destroying “missile pod,” which is among a class of new heavy weapons that, in a franchise first, switches the game’s default first-person perspective to a behind-the-back camera view.
As O’Connor locked leaping enemies in his sights he mentioned that the beta was a work in progress, a stress test for Bungie’s ambitious online networking plans. “Try to break the game,” he urged attendees. “We want to see what happens.”
The beta consists of three levels: the sun-beaten wasteland of Snowbound, the waterfall and forest area Valhalla and a compact military-base setting called High Ground. (See clips of “Halo 3″ game play on all three levels right here.) Maps are littered with weapons and the new X-button-triggered “Halo” equipment devices. Equipment includes “trip mines,” which are best dropped behind a player when an enemy Warthog jeep is in pursuit, and the “bubble shield,” which players can sprout around themselves to produce a short-lasting translucent stationary spherical safety barrier that weapons can’t fire into or out of. Multiplayer modes in the beta include “slayer” death matches, a team-based capture-the-flag game of seizing enemy territory with each team taking turns on offense, and a “VIP” mode that encourages each team to take out a starred member on the other team. The beta supports up to 16 players online.
The game looked similar enough to “Halo 2″ to prompt someone to ask O’Connor if the beta’s graphics were final. “The graphics are going to improve,” he said, “but honestly, this is pretty representative of how multiplayer is going to look.” He suggested people look at “Halo 3″ and “Halo 2″ side by side to see a dramatic difference, but he acknowledged that the new game wasn’t going to have some of the wild graphical effects seen in other leading-edge video games. “We still try to keep the ‘Halo’ aesthetic,” he said. “There’s not much point in us filling the battlefield with smoke or grit or grime. ‘Halo’ is a very tactical shooter and people like to see where they’re shooting.”
Some differences between the “Halo” titles of old and the new game were subtle. O’Connor sat with MTV News to point a few out. Characters don’t just move more slowly when they wield the biggest guns, they also slow down when they run or drive through water. And that water, like the stuff in the real world, floats objects. O’Connor said that on the Valhalla map, he has occasionally had just the right weapon float downstream to him at just the right time.
Another deft addition may prove to be a new mid-match mute function. The Bungie developers know that as popular as their games are, many players are frustrated with the behavior of gamers they encounter over Xbox Live (see “Despite Death Threats, ‘Halo 3′ Developer Keeps Secrets Close To The Chest” ).