By Chris Matel

A major player in videogame development, Bungie can now boast they share real estate space with franchised giants in other industries at their new headquarters in the heart of Bellevue, Washington. With 24-Hour Fitness and Gene Juarez just steps away from their front entrance, Bungie's renovation of a vacated movie theater isn't the home where Master Chief was conceived, but it's where their mission of world dominance fastidiously continues as they work on their unannounced, Activision-published project.

Our recent trip to the new digs was an occasion to re-visit Reach territory, however. A giant mural adorning the outer facade of the complex denoting the studio's location welcomed a small group of writers to a day focused on the game's upcoming downloadable content, the Noble map pack. Without much fanfare or setup the team on hand gave brief introductions, showed off the pack's trailer, and shuffled us along into an adjacent room. This was a multi-hour session dedicated to actually throwing down the gauntlet on Anchor 9, Tempest and Breakpoint—not talking about doing so.

October and November have seen their usual deluge of releases, so even with Reach's launch just last September, as 16 controllers sat in 16 hands, it was time to buff out any Halo rust with eight-person free-for-all Slayer and Headhunter games in Anchor 9. Set aboard an UNSC cruiser's repair dock far above Reach's atmosphere, Anchor 9 caters to smaller-sized matches. Conceivably single-flag gameplay would be fitting in this symmetrical cargo bay where two bi-level team bases sit on either side of a dock with a semi-partition. In our games, kill zones were mainly open-area contests, but close-quarter, roundabout skirmishes meandered towards each base's staircases.

The action was quick and frenetic, a couple of passageways belied reprieves from the action, but that's what you want and expect in smaller game types. This focus on fragging one another was easily put on hold once players stepped outside of the bay's force field, which divides the expected gravity and rattle of assault rifle fire from the relative weightlessness and softened acoustics in the vacuum of space. Spawning on gangways outside of the cruiser shows off the artistic detail Rob Adams, environment art lead, says has been created from a Bungie afforded with more time and dedicated staff on their hands. From these vantages, Reach crests behind another pair of UNSC warships while embattled Banshees leave a glowing trail as they wisp around in the far distance. It's a beautiful sight of detailed art design and lighting bloom, one that's hard to leave as you pick up a rocket launcher and slowly vault back inside raining hellfire.

After each group of eight had proved their mettle amongst themselves, it was time to bring everyone together for larger showdowns in the pack's main Forge setting, Tempest. Set on Halo terra, Tempest is reminiscent of Halo 3's Valhalla map, not only because of its verdant landscape, but the multiple man-cannons as well. A rocky template carves an S-shaped valley between two opposing Forerunner structures leaving navigation with a Mongoose or Warthog best done by seasoned drivers. To one side of the death valley runs a clear stream of wide enough birth to sneak through in single-bomb Assault games; on the other, a beach is obstructed only by a downed Pelican, it's shadow concealing a sniper rifle.

Capture-the-flag games proved the most interesting on Tempest thanks to its medium size and challenging terrain. Hidden cave passages allowed for quiet insertion while one of two man-cannons at each base either shot you straight down the middle of the map or towards the beach and stream. As the main Forge offering, there's room to play with full of color and familiar architecture, though, in considering its Forge utility, a glistening seascape is understandably not as rich as Anchor 9's backdrop.

After securing some flags and planting a few bombs, we ended the day taking up arms on the snowy cliffs of Breakpoint. Reach introduced Halo players to progressive objective-based multiplayer gameplay with its Invasion variant, and Breakpoint is the next map in such a vein. As a larger arena it marries both art and level design together in an oblonged ring composition, bisected by an impassible hill and bottomless ravine. Free-range flying and tank vehicles can duel on the open end of the cliff while infantry and anti-personnel vehicles race through the tunnel on the other side. From their starting position, foot soldiers have the option of cutting through the mountainside to secure a power core within a two-level structure via a man-made hallway.

Attackers are first charged with overriding controls to gain access to the entire map, but this can prove difficult for uncoordinated teams without cover to protect their advances. Things get harder once their goal is accomplished, however, since it'll take blowing up one of two doors of the two-story structure to make a run at the power core. Finally, it requires surviving a volley of open-field pot-shots to secure the objective. Breakpoint necessitates a concerted attacking team effort just to advance through Invasion games, but playthroughs will bring you from a nondescript starting point with an overhanging Forerunner ceiling to an assault on a grand superstructure.

Set to release at the end of November on the 30th, according to Adams, the Noble map pack is the result of a Bungie team able to playtest and tweak its contents everyday for 4-to-5 months. A veritable laundry list of development methods separates the Noble pack's iterative process from the content launched on the disc, but with more help and time dedicated to the DLC, it appears Reach fans will have a strong jump-start to the holiday season with some beautiful additions to the game's core hoppers.             

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