This is the big one, folks. For gamers, the Halo franchise is like Windows Vista, the Godfather movies, and the Kennedy assassination all rolled up into one: Endlessly fascinating to fans of these games, Halo 3 is the latest and, some say, last entry in the vaunted Halo series, and it's coming out on September 25, 2007. But this week, we got the next best thing: A semi-public beta of three Halo 3 multiplayer maps. These maps showcase new graphics capabilities, weapons, and other game features, and they're only available for a short time. Depending on your take on this beta, your reaction is either a very muted, "well, that looks an awful lot like Halo 2 to me" or a decidedly less muted, "OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD!!!" Frankly, it's really just somewhere between those two extremes, but far more positive than negative.

What's going on?

Not clear on the Halo 3 multiplayer beta? Here's the scoop. Some months ago, Microsoft announced that it would be launching a semi-public beta test for three Halo 3 multiplayer maps on May 16, 2007. This would mark the first time that non-Microsofties could play the beta out on the public Xbox Live network. Now closed to the public, there were three ways to get into the beta: You could know someone on the Xbox team at Microsoft and snag an invite. You could logon to the Bungie Web site on a specific date and sign up for the beta, hoping you'd be one of the lucky few randomly selected to join. Or, you could buy a specially-marked copy of Crackdown (see my review) for $60; these copies of the game include a link to the beta in their menus.

I tried the second approach, and after failing at that, I bought Crackdown. Frankly, I didn't expect much from the game, but was pleasantly surprised. (In fact, Crackdown is a fantastic game, which makes me wonder why they didn't tie the Halo 3 multiplayer beta to a weaker title.)

On May 16, 2007, eager Crackdown owners booted up the game and waited for the "Download Halo 3 Beta" link to appear on the game's menu. They waited. And waited. They complained in forums and other online feedback sites. And finally, the word from Bungie came down from on high: There was a screwup, and Halo 3 wouldn't be made available to Crackdown owners until the next day, May 17.

Frankly, that was just fine with me. I was in Los Angeles last week for WinHEC 2007 (see my show report and photo gallery) through last Thursday anyway, and thus wouldn't be able to check out Halo 3 until Thursday night at the earliest. And sure enough, after a long day of flying, I kissed my wife and kids, raced into my office, and booted up Crackdown. I clicked the "Download Halo 3 Beta" link and waited. And waited. And waited. The thing is, there were about a million people trying to access this beta that day. And Microsoft's servers just couldn't keep up. Despondent, I went to bed.

The next morning, however, I met with immediate success. The beta downloaded and is now playable. (Irritatingly, I must boot into Crackdown to access it, however. I don't see the link from within the Xbox 360 Dashboard, which would be much quicker and more convenient.) No matter. I have the Halo 3 multiplayer beta. I've been playing it for three days straight. This is what I've discovered.

What you get

The Halo 3 multiplayer beta consists of three levels, Valhalla, High Ground, and Snowbound, which I'll discuss in more detail below. Game play, the graphics and sound, and the selection of weapons, is instantly recognizable as being, well, Halo. This is both good and bad. For those hoping for a stunning, photorealistic version of Halo, I'm sorry, but while the graphics are certainly nice, they're more like Halo 2.5 than Halo HD. The levels are bright and detailed, the weapons are curiously three-dimensional, and yes, everything has a healthy new sheen to it. But when all is said and done, the Halo 3 multiplayer beta just looks like Halo 2 on a really nice HD set.

Put another way, however, Halo 3 moves seamlessly into the Halo universe. This game is clearly Halo, and not a Halo branded version of Quake, DOOM, Call of Duty or any other game that may or may not actually provide a better online experience. No, this is Halo country here, folks. Love it or not, Halo 3 respects what it means to be Halo. From the opening strains of the music to the fonts and graphical style, to the weapons (new and old) and vehicles, it's immediately apparent that you're in Halo.

Frankly, Halo and Halo 2 were never about the visuals, not really. No, these games succeeded on a number of levels, and if I had to try and summarize it succinctly, I'd say that the Halo titles are a big deal because they deliver full, immersive experiences. Ultimately, this was what made the end of Halo 2 so disappointing: Not only was there no sense of closure, but there was no indication that you had reached the end. We'll need to see how Bungie resolves the single player issues in Halo 3, but for now, what we've got is these three new levels. And, if I could be a fan boy for a second here, have I mentioned... OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD.

We have three new Halo levels. No. We have three new Halo 3 levels.

Thank you, Bungie. Thank you so much.

The Halo 3 multiplayer beta shows that Bungie still understands multiplayer. We can (and do) quibble about the quality of the graphics, yes, but when it comes time to put Xbox 360 controller in hand and do battle with the forces of evil (that's all you other guys out there, incidentally), the Halo 3 multiplayer beta delivers in spades. All three levels are excellent. Two are arguably among my favorite multiplayer levels of all time, though it's obviously a bit early to be handing out awards yet. And then there are new weapons. New vehicles. And new gadgets you can employ. There are missing features, of course. (For example, you can't get hurt no matter how far you fall.) It's all goodness, really. Let's get going, so I can get back to the game.

The levels

As noted above, the Halo 3 multiplayer beta consists of three levels, Valhalla, High Ground, and Snowbound. Each is unique from the other, and each is particularly well suited to certain game types. Here's what you can expect from these wonderful new additions to Halo multiplayer lore.

Valhalla

My favorite of the three new maps, Valhalla offers stunning, rocky terrain with a river and some handy sniping points. It's a large level, too, with opposing bases on either end, some interesting caves, a mounted gun, and that river, which you can wade through. Overall, Valhalla is the biggest and most wide open of the levels, and I think that's what I love about it so much.

It also features one of Halo 3's most eagerly-awaited new features, the man cannon, which is used to safely catapult your onscreen character deep into the map. (You can even launch small vehicles with it, which is frankly classic.) Be careful, however, as launched players are easy prey for experienced snipers.

High Ground

Another excellent map, High Ground is completely unsymmetrical and is clearly designed for invasion-type matches where one team trudges up from the beach and the other defends the base. The possibilities here are quite varied, thanks to the seemingly endless supply of nooks and crannies in the base and around the rocks leading up from the shore. In front of the base's main gate is an obvious point for all-out fighting and King of the Hill-type matches. Frantic fun all around.

Snowbound

My least favorite new level, Snowbound takes place in an open, mostly symmetrical ice field that is particularly well suited for freestyle deathmatch. There are two bases, curiously located quite close to each other in the center of this smallish map. But most of the rest of the map is open and exposed, and the stark snow effects give it an interesting feeling of isolation.

And that's what I like most about snowbound: The snowy environment isn't just for looks. Instead, the environment affects game play in very real ways. Throw a grenade into the snow and it will sink rather than bounce further. When you walk across the snow, you leave tracks. And the open nature of the level gives the sound effects an open, atmospheric touch. You really feel like you're outside.

I wrote that Snowbound is my least favorite of the Halo 3 maps, and this is true. But it's still a great level, and an excellent deathmatch setting. Put simply, there are no truly uninteresting levels in the beta.

The weapons

New weapons abound. The laser needs to be charged, which can be scary in melee, but it's stunningly effective at dispatching enemies near and far. Valhalla features a missile pack. There are spike grenades that stick to walls and other objects, and of course the bubble grenade seen in the preview movie that protects you from various guns and missiles. Note, however, that anyone can simply walk into the protective bubble and pummel you from close range.

While you can use mounted turrets and Gatling guns as expected, you can also take these large guns from their stands and use them as heavy but mobile weapons. That's neat, though they seem to do too little damage.

The default weapon on all three levels is the almost-completely-useless assault rifle. For the most part, however, you'll recognize all your old favorites from previous Halo games, albeit it in nicer-looking guise. But the one weapon I miss the most from Halo 2 is the energy sword. I'm sure it will be in the full game.

The gadgets

So there are new mines and bombs and stuff, but some of the neatest new features in the Halo 3 multiplayer beta almost defy categorization. There's the new man cannon, of course, which is great fun. There's also a new gadget called the portable grav lift that's like a personal elevator: Drop it, jump on, and you'll catapult straight up. It's an awesome way to avoid an oncoming vehicle that's gunning for you.

In addition to these fun new gadgets, the Halo 3 multiplayer beta includes at least one new vehicle, a small ATV that appears in High Ground. It's weaponless, but it allows you to move very quickly from one end of the level to the other and get in on the action. Just don't get sniped as you drive by the base.

The interface

Given the limited nature of the beta, there's not much to the Halo 3 UI yet. You get a main screen for choosing between various lobbies, including Matchmaking (where you find others to play with) and Theater, where you can view game play videos you or your friends have saved.

There's a Network option that let's you jump between three network modes, though only Xbox Live is currently supported. (Other modes include System Link and Local, the latter of which is split screen.)

The Playlist option is where you'll have some control over the game type you're about to play. You can choose between Ranked and Social (player) playlists. While there are no Achievements in the Halo 3 multiplayer beta, you will still get more "credit" (and thus a higher "rank") by playing in Ranked matches. On the other hand, if you want to split the screen with a guest, you're stuck with Social matches only. In Ranked mode, you can choose between three basic game types, Rumble Pit (free for all, up to 8 players), Team Slayer (team deathmatch with 3-4 players on each team), and Team Skirmish (objective type games like CTF, One Flag CTF, One Bomb, and so forth). Social mode includes two basic game types: Rumble Training (free for all, up to 6 players) and Team Training (team deathmatch with 3-4 players per team; can include objective type games).

Once you've picked a game type, you can select Matchmaking and Halo 3 will attempt to place you in a game. In a nice touch, the number of gamers online is always visible on the bottom of the screen (I've seen it get as high as 88,000), and this number will change based on which game type you've chosen.

Once matchmaking has found a suitable crowd of opponents, the game will countdown to launching a particular level and game type. Here, briefly, everyone has the chance to veto the pre-set choice. If over 50 percent of the players opt to veto the game, the system will choose a new level and game type, but this time you're stuck with what the game supplies.

You can also go into a Profile screen and view your gaming statistics as well as modify your controller, voice, appearance, and service tag settings. A service tag is a three digit prefix that clans and other teams can use to identify each other easily online. (Rainbow Six uses a similar system.)

Overall, the Halo 3 UI is minimalistic, but then that's understandable given how little of the game we're playing right now.

Final thoughts

Well, I realize I'm getting caught up in the euphoria that is Halo 3, but so be it. The Halo 3 multiplayer beta is simply fantastic and one of the best multiplayer experiences I've had anywhere. That said, it's not perfect: Contrary to the stunning but short preview movies Microsoft previously foisted on us, the game itself is not particularly impressive looking, and it's certainly not going to give Gears of War a run for its money (visually, that is). If there's a serious problem with the multiplayer beta, it's that we can only play the game temporarily: The beta is set to end June 10. I better keep going then. Highly recommended.