Halo 3 First to Play Preview

"125 million!" an audience member shouts confidently. He's just correctly answered one of five Halo trivia questions, this one concerning Halo 2's launch-day revenues.The booming voice of the emcee confirms the response, and fires back with another question for the audience at large: "Is Halo 3 gonna break that record? Make some noise!" The crowd of 200-something erupts, seemingly indicating that these hardcore Halo fans not only want to play Halo 3, they want Microsoft and Bungie to make loads and loads of cash.

It was all fairly surreal, sitting in San Francisco's Metreon IMAX theater among the throng of Halo 3 fanatics last night at one of two Halo 3 First to Play events. The Pontiac-sponsored hype-cooker gave a couple hundred Halo 3 fans a first look at the campaign and creative Forge mode, as well as some hands-on time in an 8-person, 6-minute slayer match--with one ballsy player's tea-bagging exploits fully IMAXed and surround sounded for others to watch and inevitably offer the Halo-trademarked brand of nonconstructive criticism.

A few more trivia questions and a couple make-some-noise requests later, the emcee revealed everyone who answered a question correctly would receive a new Halo 3 edition Xbox 360. And apparently someone was getting a new car? The emcee was stoking the flames of an already unfathomable concentration of marketing hype within this group of die-hard fans, 90% of whom had already preordered the game. It was the combined "they-could-give-us-fucking-anything-right now" fervor of an Oprah audience with the near-rapturous congregation of a mega-church, greeting the emcee's pastor-like affirmations of Halo 3's sovereignty with "fuck yeahs" rather than "amens." And it made the Halo 3 tagline of "Believe" all the more fitting--a few devoted faithful made a pilgrimage from cities as far as Atlanta to see the game.

After the warmup, Bungie's multiplayer producer Joseph Tung and youthful multiplayer designer Lars Bakken took over, playing through the campaign's third mission in two-player co-op. The two Warthogged through the level on the iconic Halo vehicle, gloriously smashing into Jackals and even larger Brutes along the way. The pair also showed off the pure testosterone of the Brute Chopper, an oversized single-wheeled mechanical fury. It all looked like fun, but it still all looked like Halo, which is why the most interesting part of the demonstration came after the campaign.

Upon finishing the mission, Bakken went into the Save Films feature, which sports a lobby just like the multiplayer modes for getting together and sharing gameplay movies. The level Bakken and Tung had played was automatically recorded as a video, and Bakken demonstrated the feature's various enhancements. Most impressive was the ability to detach the camera from your character and move it anywhere through the level--either during playback or while the movie is paused for a Matrix-like 360-degree freeze frame effect. Bakken detached the camera and moved it ahead of the rambling Warthog in cinematic fashion, freezing and rotating at pivotal moments--like the metal-meets-exoskeleton collision from a pair of Jackals being simultaneously gunned down and rammed by the Bungie duo.

Bakken actually took a snapshot of the unfortunate aliens' deaths with one button press, uploading it to his Bungie.net account in 1080p. Halo 3 players will get 25MB of storage on Bungie's servers for free, which should be enough for all kinds of files unless players focus on storing mainly videos and images. "Your average 10-minute game is probably going to be about 8 megs, so it's not bad at all," Bakken told me later. "If you take a clip of that, it's not going to be nearly as big. It could be like 500K or something like that." Of course, the Bungie.net servers are only for sharing, and players can store almost as many full videos as they want on their hard drives.

The video feature seemed extremely customizable and will certainly offer ridiculous possibilities to creative types for machinima purposes, but isn't really an extension of the gameplay--which is where the Forge mode fits in. Bakken showed a bit of this in-game creative tool for customizing maps and inventing everything from new gametypes to custom weapons. You can actually play this mode like a multiplayer match, as you have full control over your character--or you can detach and fly around as a monitor, though you're still destructible in this form. You can place new objects or move existing ones into a map with ease, and Bakken proceeded to set up a stack of 20 volatile fusion coils and smack them with the powerful gravity hammer, launching his dead Spartan avatar upward.

Go to the next page for more on Forge mode and multiplayer insights from Bungie multiplayer guru Lars Bakken.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Most of what Bakken did during the demonstration was actually just futzing with the system--relenting to audience requests for needless flamethrowers and dropping a monstrous Wraith tank on top of Tung. So after the demo, I had to ask what he expected most Halo 3 players would do with the tools. "I'm not sure," he told me frankly. "I'm not quite sure what people are going to do. It's extremely open ended."

Regardless, the main draw will be the ability to create and share custom gametypes online, even with custom maps and custom weapons. The creative possibilities are literally insane. "Even internally in the office we've already had people come up with gametypes. These guys that were playing it the other day came up with a way to play baseball," Bakken said. "People have hammers, low gravity, and everyone else has rockets. Basically the pitcher uses the rocket launcher to try to fire at the batter and he tries to hit it away with the gravity hammer." Unlike the saved videos, Bakken said game variants like these as well as custom maps usually take up less than 100KB, making them prime for sharing on Bungie.net.

When the multiplayer session started, the audience quickly turned from an enraptured horde to Xbox Live made manifest--"Tea-bag that man! Ah, he did it all slow so his ass was right there." This face of online gaming--"Owned!"-- combined with the gameplay of an incredible multiplayer experience--"Garbage!"--on the largest video game screen I've ever seen--"You play like my sister!"--showcased most of what I love and hate about video games in one place. After waiting my place in the queue for a few hours--for some reason I was number 484, much higher than the number in attendance--I finally got to play my six minutes of multiplayer in the IMAX theater. Though I wasn't playing on the actual monster screen and could only hear the IMAX player's sound, I certainly had fun.

I wasn't surprised that I couldn't really pick up much about what had changed between the final version of the game and the beta. So I asked. "The single biggest thing was the fact that--and people figured this out pretty quickly--that the carbine was just a little bit more powerful than we wanted it to be," Bakken told me. "So we toned it down a little bit and actually brought the battle rifle up a little bit, so those two are really close in terms of power and lethality now." The fact that the largest change is essentially a tweak someone like myself would never recognize in-game says something about the science Bungie has taken into making the multiplayer as balanced as possible. Bakken said there were "thousands" of other tweaks made as well, but I'm sure they're also of the level of minutiae that's unnoticeable to me.

Bakken said he expected the gameplay in the beta to be more tactical than what he witnessed, with the introduction of the equipment class of items. But he said this will probably come in time after gamers get more acquainted with the new features, with better players having more than jump-sniping or twitch skills. "There's really cool things that happen when equipment interacts," Bakken said. "You'll see someone throw down a bubble shield and you can't fire at them then, but then you see someone else take a power drainer and throw it into the bubble shield. And the guy's screwed then, so he has to come out of his bubble shield."

I left the event pretty late in the night, ushered out with the remaining lobby players by the event staff. Walking past the new car sitting outside for some lucky gamer made it all the more clear how simultaneously absurd and astonishing this level of anticipation is for a video game. But what I saw of the Forge, and what I can't even imagine will grow from this unfathomably large community, actually make this hype relatively merited. For gamers participating in Thursday's First to Play event in New York, Bakken said Tung would be in attendance, most likely accompanied by Bungie community dude Luke Smith. A tip for participants: brush up on your knowledge of Bungie's past financial achievements. And prepare to receive the largest tea-bag from a d-bag ever shown on a screen.