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Exclusive Interview On The Halo: Reach Sandbox

by Matt Miller on Mar 31, 2010 at 01:15 PM

As the Halo Reach beta sneaks ever closer, we corner the guys at Bungie on what to expect in terms of weapons, vehicles, assassinations, and armor abilities.

May 3rd is a big day for Halo fans. The Reach beta kicks off, and anyone who picked up Halo 3: ODST is eligible to participate. Bungie has remained silent on many of the multiplayer features, but sandbox design lead Sage Merrill, sandbox designer Josh Hamrick, and community manager Brian Jarrard deliver a wealth of new information about the game in this exclusive Q&A.

Read on to learn about all the new weapons, assassinations, vehicles, and armor abilities – the biggest change to the core combat experience. In addition check out our media gallery that showcases all the new features. Enjoy!

How many of the weapons, armor abilities, levels, and other features will be available to play in the upcoming public beta, in comparison with the final retail build several months later?

JARRARD: The public beta is going to include a huge chunk of Reach sandbox goodness. I think players will actually be surprised at how much is there, but in order to maintain the core game experience and get useful feedback, we needed to include a well-rounded offering. Suffice it to say there will still be surprises waiting in the final game this fall.

We hear there are some new weapons that will be available during the beta. Can you walk us through those?

MERRILL: One new weapon we’ve yet to really talk about is the focus rifle. This is the Covenant really long-range “reach out and burn your face off” sniper-slot weapon. We didn’t want to make just another sniper rifle, but we did want to fulfill that type of role so we made the focus rifle that utilizes a slightly different, “tracking” skillset. It’s not an instant kill weapon, it does significant damage, but you need to hold it on your opponent for approximately one and a half seconds to kill them. It’s more about long range suppression than instant death, but it still falls into the category of pseudo “power weapon” so it won’t be all over the map or included in load-outs.

HAMRICK: The focus rifle is probably the most frightening weapon to be attacked with in the entire game. It’s definitely the one I’ll be watching closest in the beta and we’re still tuning it.

MERRILL: The plasma launcher is the Covenant’s answer to the rocket launcher and Spartan laser all rolled into one. It’s primarily designed as an anti-vehicle weapon but it’s still quite effective against infantry. It charges then fires up to four super-heated plasma rounds that all track against bipeds and vehicles. It’s not actually firing plasma grenades, but the rounds do have a similar delay time from when they stick to the target and eventually explode. There’s a delay that leads to some really spectacular chain-reactions as well as quite a few “from the grave” medals.

HAMRICK: My favorite part of the plasma launcher is the delayed explosion for each round and the resulting chain reaction.

The new grenade launcher

MERRILL: Another new weapon in Reach is the grenade launcher, aka “the pro pipe.” This was primarily designed to fill a similar role to the plasma pistol and give the Spartans an EMP-capable weapon. It has two modes of fire – manual and auto. If you pull the trigger and release it, a single round will fire and detonate upon hitting a target. If you keep the trigger held, the player can choose when they want the grenade to detonate. You can essentially leave a cooked grenade on the ground around a corner as a trap and detonate it from a distance or have it explode in mid-air to take down a flying opponent.

HAMRICK: It’s important to note that we definitely do not view the grenade launcher as a “power-weapon” like the rocket launcher or sniper rifle. We want this to be something that can be included in load-outs; it’s more akin to the shotgun in that regard.

The plasma repeater is the standard issue weapon for Elites

HAMRICK: Another new weapon in the beta is the plasma repeater. It’s basically the Elite answer to the assault rifle.

MERRILL: We needed a good equivalent to the AR that we could include in multiplayer but not have it break the campaign. We needed to leave the plasma rifle as fairly weak with slower projectiles in single-player to fight against but we also needed something similar, but better, for the Elites to wield in multiplayer. It is their “jack of all trades, master of none” mid-range weapon. The main defining aspect is that it’s heat-based.

HAMRICK: Your rate of fire for the plasma repeater is tied to its heat. It won’t outright overheat like the plasma rifle does but as it heats up the rate of fire will slow. You can manually vent it, all or partially, and your rate of fire will increase accordingly.  You can also still melee or throw a grenade while you’re venting.

MERRILL: One side effect of the overheating is that as the rate of fire slows, the accuracy actually increases.

JARRARD: I’ll just add that there are of course some other weapons but depending on how much you’ve already been following Reach, they may not be truly “new.” The designated marksman rifle (DMR) will be the go-to weapon of choice for medium to long-range engagements. The DMR rewards accuracy and is particularly lethal in the hands of a skilled marksman.

The Covenant also have a new mid to long range weapon, the needle rifle. This weapon can best be described as a needler mixed with a carbine. Like the DMR, it also excels at headshots and rewards a steady hand but you can also trigger a super-combine when enough needles are stuck in a target.

Can you tell us something about the returning weapons? Which old favorites will we be seeing again? Any notable absences?

MERRILL: Well there’s the notable absence of the battle rifle. The DMR is definitely intended to replace the BR. We didn’t want to create another “one gun to rule them all” which is what the battle rifle had become. We want to push the player to a particular play style based on distance and which weapon is being used. We’ve turned the skill requirements up in a lot of ways and the DMR is going to require a bit more precision (and less luck on account of a burst-fire spread) than the BR did.

In general we’ve tried to refine the sandbox, focusing on specific roles and range filled by the weapons that are left so each has a purpose. As a result, the SMG is also gone. There are already superior weapons in that range and the SMG is just a s------- version of the assault rifle. And without dual wielding, the SMG has even less of a purpose.

Every returning weapon will feel a little different. The entire damage model for the Spartan has changed so every weapon has shifted some to account for that.

One of the biggest changes is how the shield barrier and transition state is being handled. Previously you could get a headshot through shields – if your opponent had 10 points of shields and you did 15 points of damage, the remaining 5 points would bleed over to the head. That is no longer the case in Reach.

HAMRICK: If the shields haven’t popped, you won’t be getting headshots or melee kills. You’ll have to pop the shields first; it reads a lot better, certainly as we juggle the health and shield differences in Elites and Spartans in multiplayer. This is true for all weapons except the sniper rifle.

MERRILL: The Spartan laser is back and is basically unchanged.

HAMRICK:  The shotgun is also back. The biggest change in Reach is that it will now only fire inside the crosshair – previously it would sometimes fire out of the reticule. The projectiles are a bit tighter grouped now, doing a bit more damage and making you have to aim a little bit more, but the range is also just slightly increased.

JARRARD: There will be plenty more staples making their way back to Reach as well, all rebuilt from the ground up and looking better than ever. The plasma pistol now has a slight area-of-effect EMP blast when an overcharged blast hits. It can hit multiple targets (including yourself if you’re not careful). The magnum is back and it packs a punch, especially when you can land headshots. This is going to be an old friend in Reach, the effective secondary weapon you’re happy to have in your back pocket. You’ll also see needlers, sniper rifles, the gravity hammer, energy swords, rocket launchers and assault rifles.

The beta won't include any new vehicles, but will show off revamped versions of old favorites

How about vehicles? What is the mix of old and new vehicles that people will get to experience in the beta?

JARRARD: All the vehicles in the beta are technically “new” since everything has been rebuilt from the ground up for Reach. But if you mean truly new as in never-before-seen, well, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until the Fall to get in the seat of the Falcon or some of our other top secret vehicles we’ve yet to show.

The multiplayer beta will include revamped versions of Halo classics - the Warthog, Scorpion, Wraith, Ghost and Banshee.  They look better than ever but functionally they haven’t been changed.

What’s your favorite of the vehicle options this time around?

MERRILL: Something that hasn’t been revealed yet.

HAMRICK: Yeah, same here. Sorry!

Are there any maps or modes in the beta that are especially tailored to vehicle play?

JARRARD: There are indeed, but those specifics are outside the realm of what we’re talking about today. In our recently released trailer you can definitely see some vehicles being used on a large map and what appears to be a specific gametype.

Can you explain the concept of a “load-out” in Halo: Reach? How much flexibility will players have to dictate their own load-out before a match begins?

JARRARD: Load-outs let players pick from a set of weapons and armor abilities, suited to their play style, which they’ll get access to when they spawn. For example, the “Airborne” load-out includes the jetpack, assault rifle, and magnum. The available load-out options will vary depending on which gametype is being played. In matchmaking this is something Bungie will configure but in custom games, players will be able to define their own load-out options.  Things get very interesting in team games as players coordinate their load-outs and respective strategies while their opponents counter with their own tactics.

MERRILL: Think about load-outs as kind of a “dynamic class” system. We liked some of the elements you get with a class, but we’re not changing your base model or locking you into that choice. You drop in with your preferred play style, but if you decide your chosen load-out isn’t working, the next time you spawn you can select something different.

HAMRICK: That’s the nice thing because it happens a lot – as a match progresses, you and your team will shift to different load-outs and so will your opponents.

Will all the weapons and armor abilities be unlocked for players from the start, or is there some process to unlock them?

JARRARD: Nothing needs to be unlocked or “earned.” All the weapons and abilities in the game will be available from the outset but not all will be included in every campaign mission or multiplayer gametype. There will be plenty of items to unlock in the armory to customize your Spartan but they are strictly visual upgrades.

Assassinations add insult to injury

Armor Lock is a newly announced ability reminiscent of the old bubble shield

How many armor abilities will players be able to utilize during the beta? Can you tell us something about each of them?

HAMRICK: An ability that we haven’t talked about yet is Armor Lock. It’s kind of a throwback to the old school bubble shield but you always have it on your person and it’s intended to keep you safe. It’s kind of like a block. If your opponent closes on you with a shotgun or is about to land a melee blow or run you over with a vehicle, you can engage Armor Lock and become temporarily invulnerable. You can’t move, aim, or shoot. You’re stuck there, but you can’t be killed. You can do that up to three times on one charge or you can do one sustained lock for a few seconds.

There is also a knockback and EMP blast component. The longer you hold your Armor Lock, the more pronounced the effect will be. There are three different tiers – if it’s just a short lock, I’ll get a small knockback and a tiny bit of EMP up to the max level, which is a much larger knockback and EMP blast. It’s really intended to say, “hey, you better not mess with me, I’m extremely dangerous even though I’m trapped in here!” It’s particularly effective against vehicles as well. Also, if you’re stuck with a plasma grenade or have needles in you, they’ll be knocked off when you engage Armor Lock.

Jetpacks are awesome

JARRARD: You’ll also be able to test drive the jetpack in the public beta. This works exactly like you’d expect it to – fire your thrusters in bursts or a sustained burn to fly through the air until your energy is depleted. Sprint will grant Spartans a temporary speed boost, allowing them to quickly get out of danger or quickly close on an opponent to land the killing blow. Elite’s will have access to Evade, which employs their trademark roll to get out of trouble or get the drop on an adversary. One cool side effect of Evade is that you’ll shed a lock-on when it’s active.

HAMRICK: Active Camo is another one and we’ve made a few changes to it recently and we’re happy with where it’s at now. The faster you move while Active Camo is engaged, the faster your energy drains. Holding still and crouch walking will allow you to stay invisible longer. Likewise the more you move, the less pronounced the invisibility effect is. It will also jam nearby motion trackers while it’s active so your opponents know that someone is invisible nearby.

In your experience playing the new game, how do armor abilities change the flow of a battle? Is there any single armor ability that really changes the feel of a fight?

MERRILL: All of the abilities really change the feel of a fight! Some have different impacts depending on the situation you’re going into. This is one of the reasons load-outs are interesting because you can switch it up. As the game changes, you can change your ability accordingly. Currently there is no one thing that everyone is taking. It ebbs and flows a lot over the course of a match.

HAMRICK: Yeah I can use Sprint and a sword to come at you like a freight train or I could use Sprint to run away from you when you’re coming at me with a sword.

MERRILL: And then I would use Armor Lock on him as he’s about to hit me with the sword and stun him and then come out and unload my shotgun.

Only Elites will have access to the Evade armor ability. (click the picture for a larger version)

When you head into combat, which armor ability do you equip?

MERRILL: It really depends on the situation. Right now I’m using a lot of Armor Lock because it’s the one we’re still tuning and it’s the most complicated.  It started as a really simple concept of allowing you to block a grenade and stay alive for a few seconds until your teammates arrived. Based on game behaviors we’ve had to add more nuances (along with animations and effects) to counter people just waiting and killing you when it runs out. Now we have this blast that pushes people away when you come out and we’re trying to keep the user alive.

HAMRICK: It’s hard to pick just one. Sprint is really freaking good if you know how to use it. Evade can be amazing if you know how to use it. Active Camo is really cool as well and we’ve made a lot of changes to it.

When we did our cover story on Halo: Reach a few months ago, you told us about the concept of assassinations. How do these special kills feature into the sandbox gameplay we’ll be seeing in the public beta?

HAMRICK: You’ll definitely see them in the beta.

MERRILL: They’re basically “corpse humping 2.0.” There’s no real gameplay reason other than embarrassment to your opponent to use them.  There will be a variety of assassinations in the beta and they’re all contextual depending on where they’re triggered (back, side, in the air, etc...). We’ll also have different assassinations for Spartans and Elites.

What is going to surprise gamers the most when they get their hands on the public beta in a few weeks?

JARRARD: I think people will be surprised at just how much of the sandbox is being packed into the Beta, how many features are included and how fun and polished the experience is. It’s definitely still a beta and some rough edges are to be expected, but after playing internally here I’m pretty blown away by how much work the team has put into making this a solid, fun experience that surpasses a lot of finished games.

MERRILL: Reach still plays like Halo, but armor abilities change the game so much. People will be surprised how much they miss them when the beta ends and they go back to Halo 3 and you can’t Sprint or jetpack or Armor Lock. They’ll be surprised at how well the abilities work in combat. We’re pretty happy about the results there.

HAMRICK: I totally agree – to me it’s awesome how much it still feels like Halo but at the same time it plays completely different, yet it doesn’t. It feels right, these changes are massive and impactful, but don’t make the game feel totally different.

MERRILL: That’s an oxymoron.

HAMRICK: Yeah, it is.

Check out Bungie’s website over the coming weeks as the development team rolls out new details. To learn more about the Halo franchise and peruse the most comprehensive information on the game, explore our Halo: Reach hub.