We spent all Friday exploring the new Halo: Reach beta; check out our first five hours with the hotly anticipated game.

Bungie and Microsoft supplied Game Informer with a number of early codes for the new multiplayer beta. If you haven't yet been lucky enough to get one of the codes we've been giving out over Twitter (@gameinformer), you may have to wait until the formal beta launch next week. In the meantime, I'll be playing the game for the next several hours to fill you in on what you can expect out of the new multiplayer features.

UPDATE 1, 0:20:

After a big gigabyte download, the beta lands in my game library, and I'm off to the races. Before diving into the action, I head into Settings and get my avatar ready to go.

It's clear from the start that Reach offers a dramatically expanded approach to visual customization, but the beta only has some of those options integrated. The beta Armory includes the option to change your helmet, left shoulder, right shoulder, and chest piece, along with the expected variations on emblem and colors. I make a couple tweaks to my helmet, but there's not much else I can do at this point – most of the armor changes requires credits to purchase. Being an untested private, there's not much wealth to spread around.

The menu also allows you to explore the File Browser for interesting screenshots and videos, along with a history of my online sessions. Nothing's in my history right now, so it's off to Matchmaking.

Once I head in, I can select what Playlist I'd like to jump into. I leave the setting on the default Grab Bag, so I can see all the available modes.  It looks like there's about 2,500 people online at this point – you think that's likely to grow next week?

I'm itching to play my first match, but I hop into Social Settings first, and I'm pleased by what I find. This features filters for matching you with like-minded players. These include player chat (chatty, quiet), motivation (winning, good time), teamwork (lone wolf, team player), and tone (polite, rowdy). As an experiment, I put on the polite filter, just to see how much I can cut down on the racial slurs and trash talking. We'll see how that goes.

Enough of this setup nonsense. I'm off to my first match. Expect more updates soon.

UPDATE 2, 0:45:

Victory! I'm moving up in the world. My first game was a team-based Oddball on the new map called Sword Base. Prior to the match, players had the option to vote on the map and game type between several options, and Oddball won out.

There was a lot of running around and scrambling for the Skull. For new players, Oddball focuses on holding the skull for the longest period of time. A good team will defend their ball carrier as they either move around the match, or find a defensible spot and hold it against the opposition.

Unfortunately, most everyone on both my team and the other don't know what they're doing quite yet. Including me. The addition of armor abilities dramatically changes the nature of the game, and I saw more than a couple players randomly rocketing around the map on their jet packs. It's been a while since I I threw down in an honest-to-goodness Halo match, so I spend the first half of the match getting my feel for the controls back.

I have no idea which armor ability I lean towards at this point.

Despite my stumbling, I manage to get my hands on the skull several times during the match, and help to hold off the enemy while my teammates hold it. A particularly furious firefight ensued in an upper corner of the map with only two entrances – an open door and a gravity lift near the back of the room. The ball changed hands there half a dozen times before the match ended, but we managed to come out on top.

Post-game wrap-up awarded me a bunch of credits, based on my performance. I got credits based on commendations, for winning, and for some other reasons I couldn't immediately identify. More on that later. For now, I'm heading off to another match.

UPDATE 3 1:30:

A few more matches under my belt now. Rank advancement rolls across the bottom of my screen as I finish each match. I'm a "Private" to start out, but with hard work and determination, I'm pretty sure a few more matches will award me the lofty title of "Private Grade 1". I'm moving up in the world.

I miss my Halo 3 rank...

Best match so far was a King of the Hill session. I was lucky, and managed to get dropped into a team of cool guys who were pretty communicative, and so we were able to hold the hill as it moved around the board.I traveled with the team through the next couple matches.

I'm warming up to the Stalker loadout, particularly for objective based maps. That sets me up with the active camouflage armor ability after a respawn, which pays dividends when trying to hold a static location like in CTF or King. More than once, I crouched down in our King of the Hill match right outside the hill while a teammate stayed inside to maintain control.

As soon as an enemy team member came in gunning for my buddy, I'd appear from behind and take him out. Good times.

I'm also getting a feel for the new weapons. I think people will be pleased by the newly re-empowered pistol. Feels great as the standard secondary. Sounds great, too. Beyond that, one of the biggest changes I'm noticing in these early matches is a shift with the frag grenades – way less bouncy than they used to be. A couple teammates have voiced complaints, but I'm tentatively pretty enthusiastic about the shift. It's a little easier to target with the frags, and they just feel like they have more weight to them now.

Next match looks like something new: Elite Slayer. More on that in a bit, once the match is over.

UPDATE 4 1:30:

I have discovered the glory that is the Needle Rifle. What a great weapon. Big kick. Explosive results. Think the Needler, but it takes fewer hits to get a super combine.

Crap. Match is still running. Totally just got wasted while typing. More in a few.