It's not every day that players have the opportunity to peek at the next "Halo" game five months early, but with the wide release of the "Halo: Reach" beta, Microsoft and Bungie have given fans just that. The multiplayer-only beta drops Monday (May 3), timed for "late morning" on the west coast, for those who purchased "Halo 3: ODST," and can be accessed by choosing the "Play the Beta" option in that game's main menu.
The "Halo: Reach" beta highlights some of the dramatic changes that the developer, Bungie, has made to the franchise. Prime among these changes are load-outs and armor abilities. Depending on the game mode, players will be able to choose which weapon and ability they spawn with. This grants players the gift of flight with a jet pack or added stealth with invisibility. These types of powers used to be limited to in-game pick-ups, but now everyone has them right from the start of the game, and it really makes a big impact on how the match will play out.
Another change to the "Halo" formula is the addition of a complete character customization system. At the end of a match, players will earn credits which can be spent to unlock specific pieces of armor.
Different armor has no impact on your gameplay abilities, but it does give players a new way to customize their soldiers and set themselves apart from other Spartans. Interestingly, the customizations you make in multiplayer can also be seen in the single-player game (though that element isn't included in the beta).
Currently the beta rotates between two maps, but a third map will be added in the next week or so. There are a wide range of modes to test out, including two new ones: Stockpile and Headhunter. Stockpile has teams fighting for control over a series of flags placed around the map, while Headhunter is a free-for-all, "American Gladiators"-style battle for points. Two more modes, Invasion and Generator Defense, will be added later on in the beta and will include Spartan vs. Elite battles.
Having spent a number of hours with the beta so far, it's clear that Bungie was more than willing to make drastic changes to the "Halo" formula to ensure that the game remained fresh and relevant. "Halo: Reach" isn't a vast departure for the franchise, but it's definitely an important step forward, especially given that it'll be the last "Halo" game developed by Bungie, which just signed a 10-year publishing agreement with Activision.
For ongoing coverage of the "Halo: Reach" beta, head over to Multiplayer.MTV.com.