The free, online beta test for “Halo: Reach” is finally under way, and it reminds us once again that nobody knows how to hype its games better than Bungie Studios and Microsoft. “Halo: Reach” isn’t due out until the fall, yet it’s all Xbox 360-owning first-person shooter fans have been talking about since late last week, when the test opened for several thousand journalists, Microsoft employees, friends and lucky fans.

This screenshot isn't from multiplayer action, but it's what's available, so here ya go.

Starting Monday, the beta became available to anyone who has a copy of last year’s “Halo 3: ODST,” or upward of a million folks. (If you have “ODST,” just fire up the game as you normally would, and an option to play the beta will appear in the game’s menu.) As seems to be typical for large-scale rollouts, the first day of testing was not without a few bumps. But that’s why they call it a beta.

I got access a few days early, and was curious as to whether playing the game a few days before it opened to the public would spare me from interacting with the foul-mouthed, hate speech-spewing adolescents who dominate the lobbies of nearly every popular online shooter. The short answer? No. Though I only had time for a few matches, I ran into the classic “Guy Who Mocks Players’ Accents” archetype in only my second game, and had to send negative feedback and mute him.

This guy managed to find his way into my multiplayer lobby despite the game’s social settings, which allow you to specify things like whether you want to play with a “chatty” or “quiet” group, whether your motivation is “winning” or “good time,” or whether you prefer a “rowdy” or “polite” crowd. I went with “chatty,” “good time” and “polite,” but it didn’t keep out MitchHeartsCatz. It’s possible that this feature wasn’t working as designed because of the limited number of players at 3 a.m. on a random night before the beta opened to the public, but I’m hoping this gets ironed out and is working smoothly when the game releases.

I’ve largely stopped playing first-person shooters with people who aren’t real-life friends, or demonstrably mature folks I’ve met in various Internet forums or playing other genres of games that tend to attract fewer morons. If it actually works, the social settings feature is a godsend. Hopefully it’ll accomplish what Microsoft apparently set out to do with the Xbox 360’s “gamer zones,” which let you specify which type of player you are. The feature’s been in the console since launch but seems to make zero difference in determining who you’re matched up with.

As for the quality of the beta, I was pleased that game developers still manage to occasionally come up with new multiplayer gametypes that aren’t thinly disguised variants off the same modes we’ve been playing for a decade or more. “Headhunter” has you collecting skulls that your opponents drop once you kill them, then bringing them back to a constantly shifting, designated area to score points. The couple of times I managed to take out a skilled opponent and see about a dozen skulls go flying everywhere was particularly rewarding, even if I proved maddeningly incapable of carrying them all back to the goal.


Even though “Halo: Reach” isn’t due out for a few months, and Bungie staff will be tied up making downloadable content for the game for some time after that, we got a glimpse of the studio’s future last week when it signed a massive, 10-year contract with Activision for its still-unannounced next game.

Bungie, which negotiated its independence from corporate parent Microsoft after the launch of “Halo 3,” will remain independent and largely be able to set its own budget, with Activision footing most of the bill. In turn, Activision gets exclusive rights to publish any titles in what the two companies are clearly viewing as a new, multigame franchise. Oh, and they’ll be multiplatform games, which means that owners of Microsoft, Sony’s and potentially Nintendo’s game consoles will be able to play games from the studio that’s been making Xbox and Xbox 360 exclusives for the past decade.

What’s more, Bungie is apparently free to work on other games, and seek out publishing deals for those titles, though it sounds like the developer imagines this new property as being something that’ll take up most of its resources and time, once it moves beyond releasing “Halo: Reach.”