Released this month was the beta for Halo Reach, Bungie's last game in the Halo franchise; and all people with a copy of Halo ODST were invited to jump in the beta (in a matter very similar to Crackdown and the Halo 3 beta three years ago).
I think it goes without saying that I, of course, jumped in.
It definitely feels like Halo. The look, the sounds, the weapons, they are all very at home in the Halo universe. But there are a lot of differences, too, that make it new and exciting.
Visually, I'd say Reach is "grittier" than the other Halo games. It is set immediately before the events of Halo 1, and it's made to look older and less polished than the games set in a later time. (Whether that "makes sense", considering Reach fell in a very short time before Halo 1's opening, is I'm sure a matter of debate.) Spartan armor is mottled and scuffed instead of smooth and shiny, and even the medals that appear on-screen have a dirty, textured look to them.
The "equipment" feature from Halo 3 has evolved into "armor abilities". Instead of picking up a piece of equipment, you spawn with a certain ability as part of your "loadout" (which is a combination of your armor ability — constant until you die — and your starting weapons — which can be replaced with what you find on the battlefield). You may choose a loadout with Sprint, Armor Lock, Jetpack, or Cloak. (Elites, in the game types where you can play them, have a Roll/Evade ability in place of the Sprint, and they have no Armor Lock.)
The loadout feature is nice, in that it gives you the option to tailor your abilities to your playing style. Also, since you can choose a new loadout every time you spawn, you're not locked into something for the entire game — you can switch abilities between deaths depending on how the enemy is reacting or how the game is playing. (In traditional capture-the-flag games, I was partial to using Cloak to get in or guard the flag, and then switching to Sprint once the flag was in motion.)
Also new are assassinations. When you come up behind someone, you can tap your melee button for an instant kill. That's not new. But if you hold the button down, you will perform an assassination move that lets your opponent know they've been owned, with a knife in the back, or a neck-breaking head twist, or a pound to the ground. That's new. They don't seem like much, but they add a lot to the game, especially when you sprint up behind the enemy flag carrier, jump up behind him, and do a two-fisted pummel to smash him into the ground inches before the score point to save the game. The only danger is, during the assassination animation, you are vulnerable, and someone can kill you to save their teammate. Or, someone can kill your victim and steal your kill (you are awarded with an "assist", for holding them still, I suppose). The beta did seem overly sensitive in turning quick-touch kills into animated assassinations, which resulted in a few vulnerable deaths in close quarter intense firefights; that may have been intentional, to show off and test the assassination code.
One of the interesting problems in making a prequel game is adding new elements to make the game interesting, but without adding things that make the past seem better than the future and leave you wondering, "What happened to R2-D2's thrusters?" I don't know if they've succeeded here or not. It could be argued that these armor abilities were only in development on Reach and were therefore lost when the planet fell. Maybe the campaign will address this, or maybe it'll just sweep it under the rug. While it may not be important to Reach's game play, it will have an effect on the overall Halo universe; and for a company that has dedicated much into the building of this universe's story, it will be important, especially to maintain the immersion. I suppose we'll see how it plays out when the game launches.
In all, I'm excited for the new Halo. It's different enough from Halo 3 to be new, but enough of the same to be worth playing. My preorder is in for the retail release, which, I'm sure by no coincidence, has been announced for exactly 117 days after the end of the beta.