Bungie says it's never been a follower, preferring instead to forge its own way. So when Reach doesn't follow the typical class-based shooter template for its multiplayer, it's no great surprise.
"We certainly aren’t blind to what’s going on in the community and what’s going on in the market," says Reach executive producer Joseph Tung when asked about his series being eclipsed in Xbox Live popularity by Call of Duty. "At the same time we absolutely do not look at that game and go, well, what do we need to do to be like that game."
Instead, Tung says the bar to which Bungie hold themselves comes from their previous games: "We’re really quite self-critical internally. It’s much less about, hey, we need to have these ten features because title X has these features; it’s much more about do we really think the game is fun yet? Are we going to be proud of this game? Are we going to enjoy playing this game? Honestly those are the questions that drive Bungie internally."
Tung was the multiplayer producer on Halo 3. So when it came time to raise that bar for Reach's multiplayer, the broad goal was to keep everything that works - the "Halo magic" to use Tung's phrase - and then push it as far as possible without it breaking.
"It’s a balancing act," says Tung. "You know, you decrement the number of bullets in the assault rifle by one and there’s one player out there who thought that that was the most important thing about the assault rifle. So it’s always a real challenge for us, and I think that this time around we’ve pushed it pretty far."
Along with customisable load-outs, the new Spartans versus Elites mode in Invasion, and all the ways you can tweak your Firefight experience, one of the biggest changes to Halo multiplayer comes with the armour abilities. These are reusable items, equipped whenever you respawn, that allow you to turn invisible, boost your shield and heal, fly with a jet pack and even create a decoy hologram of yourself, amongst other abilities.
Just don't call them classes.
"Choice is one of those things [the team believes is core and sacred]to Halo multiplayer," says Tung. "We don’t want to lock you into the sniper for the entire round if you don’t want to play as the sniper for the entire round.
"We wanted to make [armour abilities]more meaningful and make it a choice that you stick with and has more long-term impact, as opposed to Halo 3 where you used the equipment and it was gone. At the same time, we didn’t want to make a class-based game. So in Reach you have the ability to switch between load-outs once you die."
In a nutshell, the armour abilities don't define your role, but instead they supplement it and expand the palette of options the player has at any one moment.
"Certainly there are guys at Bungie who the armour abilities do give an opportunity to play a different role in a multiplayer game than they’ve been able to do in the past," says Tung. "Because they’re not the best sniper, they’re not the best headshot guy with the DMR, but now they can pick the load-out with drop shield and they can sort of function as a medic for the team. We saw that happening a lot in the studio. It’s more of a lightweight role that still allows you to change if you want, or to adapt to certain situations - you know, in a particular CTF map, you might start out wanting the jet pack and then on defence you might want to switch to armour lock, for example."
My experience with Reach's multiplayer suggests this is absolutely true. Being naturally inclined towards stealth play, I frequently opted for the active camo armour ability that turns you practically invisible while motionless. Useful for a sniper, you might think, but also remarkably effective when lurking in a thoroughfare ready for a melee attack. It's great for sneaking into the enemy's base undetected, yet at the same time highly useful when defending your own base - the enemy thinks he's got your flag all to himself until you deliver a headshot while stealthed.
With Halo Reach due next month, and hopefully many of you having had time with the beta a couple of months back, what are you most looking forward to with Reach's multiplayer? Do you think Bungie is on the right track?