Thoughts on the ‘Halo 3′ multiplayer beta

I came, I saw … and I got owned.

My experience with the invitation-only multiplayer beta for “Halo 3″ ended up being a lot more than a fact-finding mission – it also became a quick refresher course on both gaming culture as well as the roles of “taste” and “style” in online play.

If you’re new to gaming and don’t quite know what a beta is, think of it as a rough draft or VERY early tour of a game.

You get the basic foundation of the gameplay, as well as an idea of what the game is going to offer in terms of features and visuals. Stuff like glitches, bugs are expected, since the game is nowhere near finished yet.

“Halo” is one of console gaming’s most popular franchises, mostly because it gave many console players a chance to go online and blast each other for hours. It gave many gamers that vintage online action experience that PC users had already been enjoying for years.

Tons of hype and fanfare followed the first two “Halo” games, which will make “Halo 3″ probably the most anticipated game of the year, at least in the eyes of the mainstream. If you see throngs of gamers in stores on Sept. 25, you’ll know why – that’s when “Halo 3″ is supposed to come out for the Xbox 360.

The beta doesn’t give you the option to shoot computer AI opponents for practice – you get tossed right into the fire against other people, so you learn on the job.

One nice feature was “matchmaking,” where the game attempts to find other players that either match or come close to your skill level. If you’re in a “rumble pit” match (free-for-all deathmatch), this is an effort to ensure you don’t get stuck with a bunch of ringers. In team competition, the matchmaking tries to make sure you and your buddies don’t get put up against some all-star team. Sometimes it worked … and sometimes it didn’t.

In terms of playing, “Halo” vets will feel right at home with the controls – not much has changed. It took me a while to get used to holding two weapons at the same time (dual-wielding), as well as getting used to the run-and-gun, breakneck pace of the matches. It also took me a while to get used to jumping again, as well as using a very useful “Halo” tool – the melee attack.

It took me a few games before I started notching a few kills, simply because my “Rainbow Six Vegas” instincts kept kicking in and getting me annihilated. Unlike “R6,” there’s no button-press cover system in “Halo,” nor do enemies die after taking just a few bullets. For a few seconds, I forgot that “Halo” players have a rechargeable personal shield.

One thing I wanted to check out were the new weapons and gadgets. One fun item I got to use was the “bubble shield,” which you may have seen in the “Halo 3″ trailer a while back.

After you snatch one, press the X button to lay it down and form a protective energy dome around you that blocks practically anything.

It’s only temporary, but I’ve already seen a few expert players use it in a lot of creative ways. I once saw one player set up a shield and trap another player inside … with just a grenade to keep him company. I call this the “phone booth of death” technique, and I hope to pull it off at least ONCE before I die.

Another new weapon I stumbled upon was the Spartan Laser. If you’ve played “Gears of War” and have seen the Hammer of Dawn, think of the Spartan as its horizontal cousin.

While the Hammer rains down an energy beam from the sky, you can actually point the Spartan like a rifle and unleash its death-dealing payload on anyone (or anything) that gets caught in front of it.

I felt the power of the Spartan Laser firsthand – I saw a flicker of red light near my feet, and then witnessed a fearsome beam carve a smoky trail right in front of me. The guy didn’t miss the second time. Oddly enough, his gamertag was something like “ChuckNorris.” I learned a very fast lesson then: Run away from lasers … especially if Chuck Norris is pulling the trigger.

The beta featured three maps, two of which I really liked. The first one was “Snowbound,” where you do a lot of fighting in fresh powder as well as a network of underground tunnels and small bases.

The other map I liked was “Valhalla,” which featured what a lot of people are calling the “man cannon.” It’s essentially an energy platform that literally shoots you into the air and across the map (hence the term). It adds a little bit of limited aerial combat to the experience, and you can actually use it to launch you AND a vehicle into the fray. It’s awesome.

I also discovered the ability to detach heavy machine-gun turrets and carry them around, like Jesse Ventura’s character in “Predator.” It slows you down, but say good-bye to anyone who’s in your sights when you pull the trigger. The same goes for the portable missile pod.

In terms of overall visuals, the game looks like it’s going to be in the good-to-very-good range. The textures and detail on the weapons looked very good, and there were some cool visual effects when bullets hit the water.

However, if the game were released right now, I’d still put the glitzy shine of “Rainbow Six Vegas” and the decimated beauty of “Gears” ahead of it. I just need to see more, and there’s plenty of reason to believe the finished product could be something special.

There’s still a lot more stuff to discuss, such as the ability to “record” your match and watch it over again, kind of like the way pro athletes study film to scout an opponent. There’s also more weapons and various match modes (all rocket launchers, all sniper rifles, etc.) But sadly, there’s not enough space.

I had fun with the “Halo 3″ beta, and I’m probably going to be playing it until it ends on June 6. Whether it’ll be enough for me until Sept. 25 – time will tell.