So, the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta is now open to all - well, all the people who bought Halo 3: ODST anyway - and now that the obligatory first-day rush has finished pounding the servers into digital paste, we're starting to get a clearer picture of how this tactical new twist on a classic multiplayer formula is going to work.
It's tougher, that much is clear. Shield damage no longer translates into physical damage, so taking down other players requires headshot expertise. You can get away with a few lucky kills by blasting away, but if you're used to using a spray-and-pray technique for most of your multiplayer scalps, you're going to struggle.
It's also a game with a unique sense of balance. With pre-defined loadouts rather than rigid character classes, the different skillsets are, at first glance, not balanced at all. Elites in particular are absolute monsters; larger, faster and more powerful than the Spartans in almost every respect.
This isn't a game where each class has its own counter-agent that smoothes out its battlefield efficiency. There's no rock, paper, scissors formula to deadling with each threat, as there are abilities available here that should be game-breaking, yet somehow they're not. We'll chalk it up to Bungie's expertise in this sort of thing, offering up cool toys but restricting their use to certain maps and modes so as not to skew the playing field.
All the armour abilities are mapped to the left bumper, with a quick tap or a prolonged press producing different effects. Now they're in active service, we can see how players are making use of them.
We'll start with Jetpack because, well, that's what everybody is doing. It's a jetpack. In a Halo game. Why wouldn't you want to take it for a spin before doing anything else? It works very well, too. Control is intuitive, and it only takes a few rounds to become adept enough at flight to be dropping in on flags or snipers with lethal precision.
For the first day of beta play, however, the ground was thick with the bodies of enthusiastic n00bs who had jumped straight in, hit the bumper and flew up into the sky like dim-witted pheasants - right into the sights of a more experienced player, calmly clipping their wings and chalking up lots of lovely XP points as they tumble back to terra firma.
It's the same problem that blights planes and helicopters in Battlefield. People want to fly, and leave themselves stupidly open to attack in their eagerness to soar. Still: jetpacks. Fun.
Sprint is almost the exact opposite - an ability that barely feels like an ability at all, given that it's usually a basic requirement of the FPS genre. That's not to say it's not useful though, and as players come to grips with the way these abilities can overlap and complement each other we're starting to see the sprinters come into their own.
It's an ability usually mapped to one of the more straight forward combat classes, such as Pro or Grenadier, so for rushing an enemy position and creating a distraction it's immediately clear how to make basic use of it.
In the flag-capturing modes, it's also instinctively useful, allowing players to dart into dangerous territory or draw enemies away without losing shields. Sprint definitely seems to be working best when players operate in teams. A guy who can run fast isn't much use on his own, but pair him up with someone rocking the other abilities and it can become a vital tactical tool.
Active Camo, for example, makes for a great partner skill to someone using Sprint. While they're dashing about, attracting enemy fire, you can go all Predator, disappear behind a wobbly transparent haze and get things done. You're not completely invisible, but in the thick of the action it's easy to go undetected if you skulk about rather than stroll around in plain sight.
Once you figure out the bottlenecks in the maps, it's also very handy for lurking in dark corners with a plasma sword. There's a thin passageway in Sword Base with just enough room to loiter that will certainly become a Camo player's dream. Even if an enemy spots you, the cloaking effect is such that it generally buys you a few moments' grace while your target works out if you're friendly or not.
Active Camo is also an ability that comes with more stringent limitations. While you get a generous amount of time to ply your secretive trade, it's slow to recharge and screws your radar while activated. It works best when you hold back until the last moment, activating it just before you encounter enemies rather than roaming around cloaked, hoping to stumble on the perfect kill.
Snipers will obviously get a lot of mileage out of it as well. Combine a cunning elevated position with one of the fearsome new long range weapons like the focus rifle and you can inflict terrible casualties before the enemy even pinpoint you.
Then there's Armour Lock, perhaps the ability with the most long-term potential. Essentially the tank of Reach's fluid class system, it offers complete invulnerability at the cost of all your movement.
You can shrug off anything - including a direct hit from one of the game's vehicles - but once you return to normal you'll have attracted all sorts of attention and no doubt be in the crosshairs of multiple enemies. To begin with, many players seemed completely at a loss as to what to do with such a useful-yet-useless skill, but now we're seeing teams figuring out tactical advantages.
It's obviously handy for modes where defence is required, offering fortification options on the fly, especially when you have three or four Armour Lock players alternating their impenetrable stasis. Use it in conjunction with the new Spartan grenade launcher, seeding the ground in front of a capture point with primed explosives, then let them detonate as you shrug off the blast for an especially effective way of keeping the wolves from the door.
Alternatively, since the armour customisation in Reach makes it impossible to tell which ability a player is using from one spawn to the next, it can make for a fun surprise should you jog around a corner into an enemy. They open fire, you turn invincible, and meanwhile one of your team-mates creeps up and executes the sucker from behind.
Finally, there's the Covenant Elites, as if they needed any more help. They get their own exclusive ability in Evade, which does pretty much what it sounds like: makes them a right pain in the arse to hit.
Equally handy for dodging incoming fire or taking the upper hand in a melee confrontation, it's similar to Sprint in the sense that it doesn't have any immediately cool impact, but once you've gone toe-to-toe with a player who has mastered the duck and roll you'll see how it completes the frankly terrifying arsenal that Elites bring to the game. Resilient, fast, and now difficult to hit as well - it's a killer combination for players willing to put in the hours to master the manoeuvres.
These abilities are all mixed and matched with weapons old and new to create a buffet of loadouts tweaked for each map and mode. Operators head into the fray with Armour Lock, plus shotgun, pistol and frag grenades. Stalkers arm up with Active-Camo, assault rifle, pistol and frags. Elite Gladiators rock Evade with plasma sword, plasma repeater and a pair of sticky grenades. Others, like the Spartan Marksman and Elite Assassin, are only available in Invasion mode. Part of the fun is just browsing the modes and seeing what each combination brings to the table.
Internet forums are already throbbing with arguments about which ability is best, which new weapon will become the default choice for most players and which loadout will dominate the maps. Such speculation seems to suggest that, a few tightening tweaks aside, Bungie is set to deliver another deceptively rich multiplayer experience, with enough immediacy to woo the casual crowd but layers of depth that reward the long term player.
The Halo: Reach multiplayer beta is available now to Halo 3: ODST owners. The full game is due out this autumn.