First impressions? Familiarity. Well, that and the fact that at 900MB it takes a while to download. When it's finished downloading and you first pick up your pad to play the Halo 3 beta, your first thoughts will probably be that the game looks, and feels, like Halo 2 (and, come to that, the original Halo). The maps feature a visually similar mix of arctic wastes and red sandstone gulches. Your initial payload is the same assault rifle that served so well in the first game. The controls are only subtly different. And the range of play modes is pretty similar to Halo 2. Clearly then, this is another case of combat evolved. That's no bad thing, of course. Indeed it has one key advantage, which is that the first two Halo games were brilliant, especially in multiplayer, and if it ain't broke don't fix it. But it does mean that it takes a while before the various new additions begin to make themselves felt.
Initially, then, you'll probably start playing this like a conventional game of Halo multiplayer. I certainly did, and a load of other players on the beta test clearly did, and the game certainly supports that. If you were to run the game right next to Halo 2 you'd no doubt spot the differences pretty quickly, but your gut reaction will probably be that, in terms of the quality and style of the graphics, it looks the same. Even the HUD, though revised, isn't really meaningfully different. Various play modes make a return, from the ubiquitous Slayer through the likes of Oddball and Crazy King. And the Assault Rifle feels just like it ever has. Picking up the first new weapon - the Brute Spiker, it fires different bullets, but it's difficult to tell what they do. So yeah, familiarity then.
But Bungie has packed a bunch of new stuff in here. While they're only subtly different, the controls, for example, allow you to independently reload dual wielded weapons (by pressing either bumper), and after a bit more time with it, that Brute Spiker starts to feel pretty effective up close. The Brute Spike Grenade is a new type of grenade, that's almost like a cross between the Frag and Plasma: it sticks in your opponent, but it also has a pretty devastating blast radius. Or there's the Machinegun Turret, which you can literally rip from the ground (by pressing B - or you could just shoot it out of the ground and then pick it up). It takes a while to get going, but eventually proves very powerful. Similarly, the Missile Pod was originally designed to be mounted on a vehicle or in the ground so it too slows you down, but it also allows you to lock on to enemies. And while there's only one new vehicle, the two-man Mongoose is focused on fast transport so it proves pretty useful while playing capture the flag.
Of course the most obvious new addition is the new equipment items, accessed by pressing X: There's the Bubble Shield (which you'll have already seen), the Portable Grav Lift (which you can use to access high areas), the Trip Mine (which does what it says on the tin), and the Energy Drainer (which is a bit like a devastatingly lethal bomb).
At first, it doesn't feel like any of these new additions drastically alters the Halo formula. But after a while, you'll notice the more canny players starting to do things a bit differently. They start using these new tools that Bungie has given them in ways that aren't too obvious from the start. And that's when it starts to get a bit more interesting. Because these new tools have been very subtly designed and the effect they have on the game balance is very nuanced.
Take the Spartan Laser, for example. It's a huge weapon, and a hugely powerful variation on the classic railgun. But it takes a while to wind up. That's a pretty big disadvantage. Or take, as another example, the Bubble Shield. It's also pretty powerful. It stops any incoming fire. But it's also beset by the pretty significant disadvantage that enemies can just wander in and shoot you. It means you can't just use it like a shield. Or rather you can, but you have to use it at the right time, or in the right place. Which also means that it can be used in novel ways. Maybe you could use it to set up an ambush, waiting until your unwitting target wanders in before chucking loads of grenades and then retreating the small distance to safety. Or you could use it in combination with the Spartan Laser, waiting while it winds up before venturing out. Or whatever. I don't know. Maybe, even the people at Bungie don't even know. That's why they're beta testing the thing. To see what happens when people start using the Grav Lift as an offensive weapon, for example (it's especially useful if you let it off under an enemy vehicle). So even though some of the new stuff might feel a bit underwhelming (like the Spike Grenades, for example), who's to know what new and devious uses they'll be put to by creative players in coming weeks, or how they'll affect that delicate Halo balance in the long-term.
But the beta test isn't just to try out new weapons or vehicles. Halo 3 also makes a host of improvements in terms of online functionality. The most noticeable of these is Saved Films, a feature that allows you to save movies of your multiplayer bouts. It's cool enough in the beta, which allows you to relive memorable (and not so memorable) moments from your own perspective, but the finished game promises to let you view the action from any angle (and if you've got a rubbish telly you can even watch your replays with better playback quality on a friend's). You simply choose to save your movie after your game finishes by pressing X, and you can share it with others by saving it to a dedicated space on Bungie's servers. Which means all of my friends can watch me, and several other Spartans standing round a skull trying to work out how to pick it up during a game of oddball (no doubt a better writer than I might even compare it to the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes are confronted by superior technology, and use that as some sort of apposite metaphor for the game. Me, I can't think of any way to do that).
The matchmaking process has also been tweaked: you just pick a playlist (which is basically a list of preferences) and then wait for a game - but you can Veto a game or map if you don't like it. You can also Party Up with players you enjoy playing with after a game finishes (although you can't Party Up with the opposition after ranked games). And there's better skill matching, apparently, because the game registers how much you've played a particular game mode, and also how good you are at that game mode (although this clearly isn't working, to judge by my own miserable performances).
So it's familiar but different. Of course, Microsoft is keen to stress that the singleplayer game will look and play very differently. There's only three maps in the beta, for example, and there will be more weapons, vehicles and game modes in the finished game. And no doubt the single-player environments will be much more richly detailed and more differentiated from the last two games than multiplayer maps. In any case, Eurogamer will be sending you more despatches from the beta frontline in a little while, because we're far from having exhausted the possibilities (partly because it's not possible to create your own games or play offline in the beta). If you're lucky enough to be in possession of a beta key you'll be able to check out the new features for yourself from next Wednesday (May 16), and it runs until June 6. In the meantime combat is evolving in new and interesting ways.
Head over to Eurogamers to see what people are saying in the Halo Appreciation Group.