The loadouts have names like Operator, Airborne, Grenadier, indicating their main weapon and a unique battlefield talent. I suggest that Bungie's bringing a touch of class-based combat to Halo, and the designer winces, then chooses his words.
"I don't want to call it class-based, but we do want people to be able to fill a role," Luke Smith, a multiplayer designer (who, incidentally, once worked for Kotaku), said at Bungie's preview of the Halo: Reach multiplayer last week.
Halo: Reach will emphasise or condition team play, support, tactics in other, more subtle ways, but armour abilities and their accompanying weapon loadouts are the most conspicuous means through which you can be a unique contributor in a team game. They didn't grow out of a class-based design ethic, Smith says, but emerged from the equipment system of Halo 3, where players could avail themselves of a variety of tools but had no idea what their adversary was packing.
"It was hard to get a read on the others in the game, is this guy going to throw a bubble shield, does he have deployable cover or a power drain, that kind of thing," Smith said. "We came up with this as a way to alleviate that tension while keeping the flavour that having different equipment adds."
Running around on the various maps, I wasn't that aware of my teammates' or adversaries' talents unless I saw them trundling a sword or taking off on a jetpack. I'm also not the most accomplished Halo performer. My focus was instead on what this stuff did for me, and then how I could contribute based off of that. And I felt like I hit on it in a game of team Headhunter on the Swordbase map, where everyone had grabbed jetpacks to exploit the tall vertical spaces. I opted for the super shield supplied by Armor Lock and then found the sniper rifle's spawn point, a combination that resulted in my performance of the afternoon by far, and what felt like an eternity of gameplay without a respawn. And, I might add, my team won, although I wasn't the one hustling skulls back to the collection point.
"So much of what made Halo so good is procuring the correct weapon for the moment," Smith said. That now extends to defensive and support traits, via the armour abilities. "Me, I'll usually take sprint first, because I want to acquire a specific weapon the fastest and go from there. If everyone takes armour lock, for example, then suddenly sprint becomes more powerful." And vice versa.
One quickly acquires an awareness of how these loadouts benefit him on the map. There's still a question of how to condition players to use these talents for a team objective, beyond the default behaviour of blasting everyone or saving your own skin and that taking care of most of the game's outcome.
That's where the credit system comes in, the currency reward for winning, with which you can buy armour customisations and other cosmetic upgrades. Yes, racking up kills, double kills, kill streaks and such merit badges are going to boost that cash pile. But the system's also going to reward support behaviour - driving a vehicle while a teammate gets a kill from the turret, that sort of thing.
This wasn't revealed without some scepticism from the players who have, after all, built up their own orthodoxy about winning behaviour in multiplayer and what matters most. "There's always questions from the community," Smith said. "There was some reward that we'd do too much rewarding - like rewarding you for picking up a flag. Well, we're not going to do that because then it's all about killing a guy with the flag and picking that up (rather than stockpiling your own)."
Once the beta gets underway, Smith says the team's multiplayer team's responsibilities will shift to figuring out what to reward in the game's challenges - daily goals served four times a week, and one larger weekly goal. Obviously, kill totals will figure into this, but so will victories and assists, and possibly using specific weapons and attacks. "We want people to know that there are credit incentives for exploring the gaming environment," Smith said, getting out of comfort zones created by preferred tactics or weapons and experimenting with other tools and loadouts and the playing styles they support.
"We're going to be coming up with buckets of important actions that are always about moving the game forward, in a positive way," Smith said.