Halo 3 Legendary Map Pack Preview

There's something special about Bungie's press demonstration get-togethers. It's a magic formula that mixes sleep deprivation, pizza, and sixteen journalists, resulting in the most raucous bunch of unruly bastards you've ever heard. It's a spectacle of such magnitude that it was almost difficult to pay attention to the content on display, rather than my esteemed colleagues calling me "bitch" while smearing my head into the pavement.

But ghastly failures aside, I did manage to walk away from the slaughter with a fair idea of what to expect when the Halo 3 Legendary map pack goes live next week. Three new maps—two remakes, one brand new—might not be the weightiest offering of downloadable content yet seen on the Xbox Live Marketplace, but should prove a worthwhile addition to the burgeoning roster of Halo 3's multiplayer offerings.

I'm a latter-day convert into the console FPS crowd. As such, I never experienced Lockout, a fan-favorite Halo 2 multiplayer map, prior to its leap to the latest entry in the Halo series. If I had, I'm sure I'd remark just how similar the map plays to its original counterpart, as many others in the room had during our one-flag and team slayer matches.

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Prior to kicking off the round, the design team reminded us that consistency with the original map was absolutely key in the creation of Blackout—aesthetic differences aside, it was important that the map played exactly like Lockout. To that end, weapon availability and gametype-specific features like flags, hill locations and territory markers are all as they were in Lockout.

"It's like coming back to an old pair of pants," said Bungie multiplayer designer Lars Bakken.

Situated as a UNSC Antarctic research facility, the level is built around stations interconnected with bridges, and towers surrounded with ramps for quick ascents. First time Lockout/Blackout players like yours truly might be a little confused at first. While the level is very logically oriented, close quarters and tight turns can get a little hairy, particularly in the heat of a fight. However, once you get your bearings, the map takes on a feel not unlike Guardian, featuring lots of alcoves and inner areas complemented by high-rise sniping positions and other locales from which you can rain fiery death upon your enemies.

I had the most fun when playing the map in a tiered fashion, working up a vertical path to gain advantage over my foes. As you might suspect, the best firing points on the map are themselves extremely vulnerable; popping your head out on the sniper tower is a quick route to a quick death. Players with itchy trigger fingers who play fast and on the move will appreciate the labyrinthine layout of Blackout and the tactical possibilities it offers.

The map is quite versatile in its support of different game types, and serves well for anywhere from six-player slayer to 12-player king of the hill. The chaos does get a bit out of hand with larger rosters, but never so much that an effective game can't be had. Fans of the old will likely be satisfied with Blackout, and virgin Lockout players will likely dig it too.

Oh, and before I forget: The truly insane can also spawn a Ghost or Mongoose on the map in Forge, which is about as bonkers as it sounds.

Ghost Town
Ghost Town is Bungie's new kid on the block in the Legendary pack, the only original offering among the three maps. Cast as an abandoned, decaying water facility, Ghost Town has as many nooks and crannies as you'd expect, offering loads of good ambush spots and intriguing arrangements best suited for objective gametypes.

The developers explained that though the map went through a long cycle of refinement and balancing, the core layout and structure of Ghost Town remained largely the same since its earliest version. Prior to arranging weapons and equipment, designers worked on assembling the level's basic geometry, playtesting a barebones version of the level to ensure a quality flow of combat throughout.

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"It's a medium-sized, asymmetric map, some Lockout, some Sanctuary," explained Bakken. "Internally we were calling it the Counter-Strike map for a long time, mostly because of the choke points and the sight lines. It plays really differently from the other maps we've had."

The description serves for a couple of reasons. Ghost Town is a loosely rectangular map centered around the aforementioned aging structure, with strategic points situated at either end. In single map CTF, it does feel a lot like Valve's Counter-Strike in that the push towards victory is a linear one, with defenses getting heftier as you move forward.

Turn the page for more on Ghost Town and Avalanche. _PAGE_BREAK_

The myriad firing positions both below and on the catwalks above make for interesting options. A good example was a capture point on the north western corner of the map, huddled in an alcove with more than four direct lines of sight, which became the last stronghold for the opposing team in a round of the Territories mode. With proper coordination, Ghost Town allows for pretty spectacular firefights--and unlike other scenarios, it's actually possible to hold out.

Meanwhile, the map's jungle fauna, rocky terrain and crumbling surroundings keep repeat play fresh—checking your corners isn't as simple as it is in, say, Epitaph, and a good team will always find new and interesting ways to kill you. The map is large enough to maintain tension, but not so large that you can't make the distance in time. Great for One Bomb, One Flag and Territories.

Having whipped the attending journalists into a bloodlust, Bungie moved us onto the third and final map demonstrated that day, a throwback to the days of Halo yore.

Once again, it's important to note that I wasn't really part of the living room revolution of the original Halo's heyday, and as such have little experience with Sidewinder. But from what I've seen on Google image search, it's gone through a huge visual makeover, appearing now with a much grander skybox and more detailed terrain features than was seen in its predecessor.

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For those similarly uninitiated players, Avalanche is a horseshoe-shaped snowy valley with two bases situated on either end, separated from one another by high cliffs. Two access points connect the bases, one on the far south end accessible to the larger vehicles, and an infantry passage for quick trips. Those access points are themselves connected by a cavern, making swift defensive runs a breeze.

Being a sucker for large-scale battles--something Avalanche does particularly well--this was my favorite map of the day.

Though the map works okay in straight deathmatch modes, Avalanche's size simply screams objective gametypes, and includes some tweaks to make things interesting. One-sided objective games are outfitted with asymmetrical vehicle setups, UNSC on offense and Covenant on defense. The vehicles respawn fairly quickly after being destroyed, and the persistent presence of armored transport and assault vehicles keep the fights brisk.

Going in I was a smidge concerned that I'd spend a lot of time running from A to B, but the battles graciously played out much quicker than I had expected. Unlike similarly huge maps, Avalanche plays lightning quick.

Players familiar with Sidewinder will notice the addition of new mancannon placements at key points in the map. Of particular note are those structures placed just in front of and just inside the two bases, making fast entries and exits critical to success.

The developers made sure to point out that not only could infantry launch themselves into the gaping maw of the enemy base, but infantry loaded onto a Mongoose or Warthog as well. This tidbit of information gave rise to some of the most comical—and effective—tactics in the following matches.

The order of the day in Avalanche is battlefield management—knowing where your enemies are and making good use of your available arsenal. While the level is indeed massive, skirmishes tend to localize in and around choke points, such as the quick cavern route and base entrances. The inclusion of the Hornet and Banshee tends to discourage stragglers on the level's outlying areas, promoting more direct routes and swift transport as better means of keeping yourself alive.

Fans of Sidewinder will undoubtedly welcome the return of the map in Avalanche, and new players will also appreciate an alternative to Valhalla for large-scale warfare. Featuring a not-quite-linear layout, Avalanche supports an array of different play styles, ensuring a lengthy shelf-life—definitely my favorite pick among the three.

Bang For Your Buck
Recommending a map pack, like any other expansion, more or less depends on how much you play the original game. If you were never enraptured by Halo 3's multiplayer, it's doubtful that these maps are going to change your mind.

But those fans who live and die by their rankings, who still play on a nightly basis, will definitely appreciate the mileage. The experiences available in the three maps are very distinct from one another, and should make for some compelling battles as players discover their quirks and nuances. More maps mean more variety, and that's something the Legendary pack definitely offers.

The Halo 3 Legendary Map Pack will be released as an Xbox Live Marketplace download on April 15, selling at the price of 800 Microsoft Points ($10).