Hello! Like a lot of concerned citizens, for the past few weeks I've been very worried about jetpacks. How worried? Well, if I was writing about it in a text, I would write, "I'm *very worried* about all these jetpacks. (LOL)."
I don't mean I've been fretting about jetpacks because of their awful carbon footprint, or that I've been panicking over whether or not they'll spoil the nation's youth with idleness. No, I've been worrying about something far more serious: I've been worrying about how they're going to fit into Halo.
I've been worrying that they'll bust multiplayer right open, turning matches into nasty little bee storms filled with buzzing annoyances, that they'll break the game's tight convergence of weapons, environments and tactics, and that, really, they're only there as a gimmick to tempt people back from Modern Warfare 2.
I shouldn't have worried. A chance to play Reach's forthcoming multiplayer beta reveals that jetpacks in Halo are brilliant. They're not something to fear, they're something to arrange a national holiday around. They're seamlessly integrated (a squeeze of the left bumper is all it takes to shove you into the air, and you can control your pitch rather beautifully with little taps), the recharge time seems fair, and you don't even have to fret about being swamped by them: plenty of the people I play against choose to ignore jetpacks entirely in favour of different perks.
Most importantly, though, jetpacks really fit in. Spartans have always been a bit like superheroes, and so the sight of one dropping down out of the clouds to land on a nearby ledge only heightens existing similarities between the Man of Steel and the Men of MJOLNIR.
Halo already has a long tradition of fairly airy multiplayer maps, too, which means the skymindedness you get from having a rocket on your back as well as on your arm has merely opened up the design even further. Outdoors environments are now filled with unobtrusive little ledges to flit yourself up towards, while indoor spaces now have lofty atriums to blast around in, and corridors to bring you back down to earth again.
Because you won't always have a jetpack with you, they haven't been allowed to take over the maps. At the very least, however, they'll give you a reason to play some of them in dramatically different ways.
But enough about jetpacks (a line you only ever get to write in a select handful of situations). Jetpacks are just a single piece of a far more significant change. While the multiplayer beta has a handful of new maps, weapons, and game types for you to enjoy, the biggest difference is the addition of loadouts.
Loadouts work pretty well too. As expected, they're weapon sets that you can choose to start each respawn with - although, this being Halo, you can still expect to find other weapons scattered around the map. Composed of a primary and secondary weapon, they also have a third slot for armour abilities.
These seem to be a refinement of Halo 3's equipment system: they're a reusable skill, mapped to the left bumper, with a bit of a cooldown to manage. Jetpacks are an armour ability, for example, and other ones that might pop up include a sprint, a kind of shield overcharge that comes with a ground-punching animation that either looks cool or faintly silly depending on what side of 16 you find yourself on, and active camo.
In game types in which you find yourself playing as Elites, you may see an additional option to perform a quick barrel roll, covering a lot of extra ground very swiftly, but be warned - it comes with the distinct possibility that you'll cartwheel yourself over a cliff.
Loadouts are customisable much of the time, but specific modes will limit your choices in entertaining fashion. Bungie has recently announced four new game types you can look forward to in the beta: the most complex of them is Invasion, and loadouts are central to its appeal.
Invasion is something of an experiment for Halo: a large-scale Battlefield-type mode that can only play out on specific maps, which divides players into two teams of four - the defenders playing as Spartans, while the attackers are dropped into the big metal shoes of the Elites.
It's a round-based game that has multiple stages, each with their own objectives. For the first stage, Elites have to overrun the Spartans' higher ground and capture a series of areas. This opens up a larger portion of the map, unlocking vehicles in the process and providing Elites a handful of new capture points to tackle. If the Spartans fail to defend those, Elites can then collect a data core from the Spartan base, and try and get it to an extraction point to win the round.
Beta players will be doing all this on Boneyard, a truly colossal map built from two large arenas broken up with warrenous military installations. It's brilliant fun, particularly if you're attacking, but even if you get stuck on the Spartan side, there's a real thrill to be had as you stand at your starting position and watch Elites rushing towards you from below.
Each stage of the game has its own pace, from the frantic firefights that break out around the first capture points to the more drawn-out vehicle battles that erupt around the second, and the final race to get the core to the waiting Phantom steals all the best bits of American Football in a mad touchdown dash across dangerously open ground.
It's a lovely piece of design. Attackers are suddenly forced to defend a single, fiercely vulnerable player, and the whole thing is given an extra kick by the fact that, at each stage of the game, the loadout options open up significantly. If Spartans play badly enough and lose the first capture points, for example, their choice of just two equipment sets will be doubled. There's a bittersweet feeling as you find yourself reaching the good stuff because it invariably means your team is taking a kicking.
Invasion is definitely the most involved and elaborate of the new modes, and it's the one that Bungie seems most proud of, but you'll also be getting a chance to try out Generator Defence, Stockpile and Headhunter too.
Generator Defence is essentially a streamlined approach to one of Invasion's first stages, with three Spartans going up against three Elites in a fight to destroy one of three generators. Stockpile, meanwhile, is an exploded take on CTF: a party game in which teams race around the map collecting neutral flags and transporting them back to active capture points.
The twist is that these points will only register scores at specific intervals, meaning that you can have a pile of flags - a stockpile, if you will - in your capture point for ages, but it's worth nothing if they've all been raided by the time the buzzer goes off. Expect bitterness, the end of friendships, and lots of complex blackboard diagrams as players learn how to divide up teams efficiently between flag-grabbers and base defenders with this one.
For my money, though, Headhunter is the sharpest of the new games if you're after stupid knockabout entertainment. Working best in smaller maps and played as a free-for-all, points are earned not for killing opponents but for collecting their skulls - skulls which pop out of their collapsing bodies like toast from a particularly cheery toaster - and then returning them to scoring zones which regularly shift positions around the map.
You can carry as many skulls as you want to before dropping them off, and they don't affect your movement or weapons abilities in the slightest. What they do affect, however, is your visibility, as a huge luminous marker listing just how much swag you're carrying appears over your head, allowing rivals to spot you through walls and move in for the kill.
It's a concept that ensures the best players are always in the hottest of spots, and allows for a kind of clown-in-the-wake-of-a-dying-gazelle scramble as the weaker kids wait for the big-shots to kill each other before sneaking in for the skulls that have then bounced all over the floor.
Frantic and charmingly mindless (no pun intended - oh, who am I kidding?), it's a nice reminder that, while Halo's single-player campaign increasingly descends into grandiose flummery, somewhere a tiny part of the game will always be American Gladiators.
Beyond the game modes and the new loadouts, the latest maps are a nice bunch. Besides Invasion's Boneyard, there's Swordbase, a chic scribble of sterile corridors giving way to a multi-level atrium with an incredibly ugly piece of corporate artwork in the middle. (A first for Halo? There's probably a Starbucks tucked in there as well.)
Then there's Overlook, which, due to the vagaries of game voting, I, uh, overlooked, and Powerhouse, a great party game map split between a cluster of indoor chambers and a snug nest of outdoor courtyards surrounded by bleached orange rock.
Desert terrain and epic skybox aside, it looks so much like you've been dumped into a 1960s university campus that you'll half expect to see Malcolm Bradbury pottering around wondering where he left his favourite jumper. More importantly, it's perfect for staging ambushes - and even better for being on the receiving end of one. Sorry, Malcolm.
New weapons round out the package, the best of which, for my money, is the Designated Marksman Rifle, a retooled Assault Rifle that fires in bursts of just one bullet, but has a Magnum's force over much greater range, and the Needle Rifle, which spits out those familiar disco crystals at a far more stately pace, but feels a lot more satisfying with it.
As for the others - a new grenade launcher, a plasma repeater and a new Covenant sniper gun - I was only on the receiving end, if I'm being honest.
It's hard to get an idea of how the revamped reward system will work from just a few hours' play - you earn credits to improve your rank, giving you access to better customisation stuff, and there's an armoury to open up and commendations to take into account too, making it sound like a bit of a clutter - but it's safe to assume at this point that Bungie knows what it's up to, and the new Carnage Report screen that greets you at the end of each battle is already a joyous mini-wonder of whirling stat counters, medal tables and other breakdowns.
What is clear, however, is that, even seen through the lens of a multiplayer beta, Reach already feels like a significant new instalment in the series. The engine's noticeably beefed up, for instance, with nicer textures, after-effects like motion blur and beautiful, airy lighting.
There's also a heft and weight and seriousness of intent to the way the developer has revamped both the game types and infrastructure, with an active roster that makes it easier to find any friends who are playing Reach, and improved social settings that allow you to mute everybody really, really quickly, so that you can stick Mantovani on the Victrola, brush the dust off your velvet jacket, and snipe Elites with little obvious intrusion from the outside world, perhaps while your intimate friend whips up a nice White Russian.
All change and no change: the game's been refined, but the core is intact. Halo's always been a safe bet in multiplayer, obviously, but it's just as obvious that recent years have seen smart rivals put a few dents in its bright green armour.
Bungie's certainly hoping to learn quite a bit from this beta, then, but there are lessons there for players too - and the biggest of them might just be that, unwelcome as it is, real competition has been good for this particular series.
The Halo: Reach beta is available to people who own Halo 3: ODST and launches on 3rd May. The full game is due out in the autumn.