Everyone knew he was coming back. From Xbox One’s announcement, it was always just a matter of time before the Chief crashed through the atmosphere and reminded us all just what a real FPS looks like. The focus of Halo 5: Guardians is exactly that, and with it a beautiful surprise that every long-term fan has been dreaming of. This is a game built from the ground-up to return Halo multiplayer to its first principles, and to the forefront of competitive shooters. “From the day we started working on this game,” says executive producer Josh Holmes, “competitive has been the core of the experience.”
OXM spent a day playing the Halo 5 multiplayer beta, which will be launched on 29 December and run until 18 January, and in the opening presentation Holmes and creative director Tim Longo ruined our carefully prepared questions. Almost every single aspect of Halo 4 that troubled fans is gone. Halo 5 runs on dedicated servers, there are no more Ordnance drops, armour abilities are out, loadouts are gone, flinching has flinched, fixed weapon spawns are back, hello to a sexy 60FPS and – sweet Cortana! – the whole thing’s built around a skill-based ranking system.
We’ve got the skinny on all of it, but the first and most obvious question is why? After all, in an industry built on constant forward momentum it’s unusual to see such a high-profile FPS hark back to classic multiplayer roots – and, perhaps, something of an admission that Halo 4 just had too much stuff going on. “A big part of it is just putting all players on an equal footing,” says Holmes. “Making sure there’s an equal playing field. Tim [Longo]’s been very passionate about making sure every player has the same set of abilities that they can employ and use as tools on the battlefield.”
“Yeah, we’ve been really focused on keeping the skill gap pure, so it’s learning about how to use all these toys,” says Longo. “We kind of talk about it like peeling an onion’s layers over time, so you might take a chance and start trying to learn how to use ground pound, then you go on to add this and you add that. But everyone has that suite of abilities and then it’s just how you use it to increase your skills. That kind of return to form is the whole point of arena multiplayer.”
We’ve much more from Holmes and Longo, but first let’s get to the juicy details and… ground pound? It’s-a me, Master Chief? Perish the thought. Halo 4 was great, but it added a huge amount to multiplayer in the form of loadouts and armour abilities, which Halo 5 deals with by giving everything to everybody – up to a point. The Spartans you’ll control in multiplayer have new Mjolnir armour suits that incorporate tweaked versions of the very best abilities from earlier Halos, but activate depending on what you’re doing.
So for example if you’re in a firefight and push the analogue stick in a direction plus B, you’ll activate a thruster-powered evasive dodge – which can also be triggered in midair to squeeze out a little more distance.
If you’re sprinting forwards and press melee, you’ll perform the ‘Spartan charge’ – a forward shoulder-ram that we used on more than one occasion to send enemies flying over the side of levels. Zoom in on your target while jumping and thrusters will automatically activate to give your Spartan a little more hangtime – which balances the powerful surprise factor by also making you something of a sitting duck.
Then there’s that ground pound. Halo 5’s most obviously delicious new ability, this is activated when you’re in the air and click in on the right stick, which brings up a large red targeting reticule on the floor below and sets off a warning audio cue (which can be heard by other players). Release the right stick, or charge it to the max, and your Spartan zooms down from above like death itself, landing fist-down with a spine-shattering oomph that obliterates anything in the way. It’s high risk and high reward, but the sheer damage and the small-but-devastating impact makes it an irresistible new toy to play with.
This isn’t it by a battle rifle long shot. Halo 5 gives you many new options in combat, but it also makes Spartans much more manoeuvrable in general and balances these increased abilities out with tactical downsides. Infinite sprint is now the default for all players, but sprinting now stops the shield from recharging – so if someone’s losing a fight and high-tails it, you can chase them down in the knowledge they’ve sacrificed their shield timer. The recharge time on shields also feels quicker than in Halo 4 (although Holmes claimed he couldn’t exactly remember if this was true, thanks to it changing so much over development). If you’re sprinting and click the right stick, you go into a slide and stop in a crouched position – useful for both entering combat and dashing into cover.
By far the biggest change is the addition of clambering – if a Spartan’s jumping for a ledge, you can now press jump a second time to grab on and climb up in double-time. This is not new to the FPS genre but it is new to Halo, and the implications for map design are enormous. The most obvious impact is in packed arenas, which are filled with platforms alongside and within the more normal thoroughfares. One of the maps we played was a new version of Halo 2’s Midship, now called Truth, and the ramps at either side lend themselves wonderfully well to this new style of movement. The change to Halo’s feel isn’t as fundamental as you’d think it might be, because what clambering does is simply get you somewhere quicker and with fewer of those awful failed jumps where your stomach hits the platform edge.
So why did 343 move away from customisable armour abilities towards a one-Spartan-to-rule-them-all design? “We decided to really focus the abilities around what it means to be a Spartan,” says Holmes. “That’s the inspiration, thinking about what it would be like to be this super-powerful walking tank on the battlefield with all of this tech at your disposal. So some of those are abilities you’ve seen in Halo 4, like thrusters, but from that kind of ‘Spartan fantasy’ we’re creating a single cohesive set of abilities.”
Saying ‘what does it mean to be a Spartan?’ is a good tagline, of course, but what does it actually mean in the context of designing a competitive multiplayer experience? What comes first : the cool move or the cool design idea? Holmes responds with a question. “So you remember how the Chief in Halo 3 kind of slams down? I mean, man, I wish I could do something like that, come flying down from space and ‘wham!’ in the middle of a match.” So do we, Josh (and a few of you lot, too).
“Really, it’s about delivering those big moments but in a balanced way,” adds Longo. “So something like ground pound is hard to execute, but if you get it there’s a big payoff. You just expect Spartans to be able to do some really cool stuff, so you wanna deliver that but then balance it for multiplayer.”
The Halo 5 beta will have seven maps in total, though at this early stage we were only able to play the life out of three. The first is instantly familiar: Halo 2’s classic Midship, a symmetrical, purple-hued interior with ‘bases’ at opposite ends, a giant light-bridge across the centre, and curved walkways around each edge – here, it’s been renamed Truth and the main addition is clamber points dotted at convenient points around that make it easier to get where you’re going faster.
The most important thing about Halo 5 is that it simply feels great to move – the new traversal options give you a wider range of approaches to any part of the level, and using them requires no real adjustment or, after a minute or two, even conscious thought. It’s like you’ve always been able to clamber, and going back to Halo 4 afterwards felt weirdly restrictive. What’s really nice about Halo 5 is that it keeps the faster pace of Halo 4, but strips back all of the extraneous elements to focus exclusively on evenly matched Spartans battling over control points and power weapons.
In fact, if there’s one thing that stands out – apart from the fact the animations, textures and incidental level details add up to an amazing-looking game – it’s that the multiplayer maps seem to have found that rhythm from the earlier games, where timed weapon and vehicle spawns would see enemy teams converge and duke it out. Power weapons spawn at regular intervals, which is communicated both with an icon on the HUD and in-game chatter that tells you when the spawn is getting close – the latter part of a new automatic VO system that communicates enemy positions within teams without players needing to talk.
“I think map control is so important to map flow, particularly in a competitive experience, and so having those power positions on the map that you have to fight over just creates a really good flow within the combat,” says Holmes. “The other thing we wanted to focus on within the map design is the Spartan abilities, for example locations where different abilities are more useful – so there are clamber routes as well as elevated positions where you might want to line up a ground pound. The flipside is that if you’re below that spot, you know through experience that you may be vulnerable to an enemy above you. We’re really focusing on those elements of map design.”
Halo 4’s Ordnance drops and loadouts had moved away from this idea of the map guiding player movement, so while there were still choke points and the like there was no impulse to make cross-map trips to pick up a newly spawning sniper rifle. “We want everything to be intentional for the player,” says Longo. “So when you go for a certain spot on the map, there’s an intention to do that rather than there being a random quality. Everything’s been thought through about how these maps flow, so when a weapon position is chosen the players know where that is, when it’s coming and that enemy players are going to be hitting it at around the same time.” And there’s no randomisation of power weapons? “Yep, no randomisation.”
Hold us close, Chief, because this is everything we’ve dreamed of. The second map available, Empire, is set atop a skyscraper under siege – which is why you can Spartan charge your enemies off the sides for kicks. Overall the map is slightly bigger than Truth but it’s also a much more enclosed space – all corridors, pillars, doorways and elevation spots. On Truth the power weapon was the sword right in the middle, but here two sniper rifles spawn at opposite ends of the map at exactly the same time – which in our games led to either a giant bunfight over one of the spots, or both teams separating briefly, securing their sniper, and then going back on the hunt.
OXM’s skills were as sharp as ever, so our very first game saw a spectacular kill frenzy with the sword – important not because it shows we’re awesome, but because it shows how much muscle memory was working right from the get-go. Halo 5 adds so many improvements, particularly when it comes to manoeuvring around levels, that the most surprising thing is it feels like a Halo game at the core. Particularly notable is the return of mid- to long-range BR and DMR battles and a fresh emphasis on the assault rifle as the starting weapon, but other minor tweaks like increased grenade damage and a reduced time before shield recharging feel like a return to classic principles. In other words, that incredible Halo 2 and 3 feel.
“Halo 2 is kind of a defining multiplayer experience on console and, for me, one of the defining arena shooters of all time,” says Holmes. “So to be able to bring that back and have the classic roots coming through in this experience is awesome.”
A theme of our time with Holmes and Longo, however, is that this arena mode is just one part – albeit clearly a very important one – of where 343 wants to take the game. “Right now what we’re showing is just the arena portion,” says Holmes. “We have a much larger experience for multiplayer which we’ll talk about closer to launch, but for now it’s all about 4v4 arena.”
To us, this suggests something like a split between an Infinity Slayer mode, as in Halo 4, where you get all of the toys to play with, and then a much more focused competitive multiplayer component designed around balance and a level playing field. “I think that’s the cool thing about having the arena mode dedicated to the competitive experience,” says Longo. “Because we can actually decide what weapons are used and then be very focused about it. But arena is the tip of the iceberg, so there’ll be other modes with more weapons. We can be really specific – that’s the beauty of arena – and it’s not meshed-together as it has been in the past, where you end up with a kind of half-and-half.”
Which leads to the biggest question of all, for nerdy Halo junkies like OXM anyway – is skill-based ranking in matchmaking back? Is it ever. “We have two systems,” says Longo. “We have levelling up for things like the armour unlocks and cosmetic things in the arena mode, and then CSR [Competitive Skill Rating] is there for your skill. And that can go up and down based on your performance, so that’s designed to show what your ‘real’ skill level is – so you can attain iron, bronze, silver, gold, onyx, semi-pro and pro. You move up and down that chain.”
The ‘pro’ ranking, in particular, will individually rank the top 200 players in the world – surely a dream for every serious Halo player (were it so easy). Though it never seemed this way at the time, with hindsight you can look back on Halo 4 and see it as something of an experimental entry in the series – testing out new elements both in-game and structurally, while adapting the best of the competition. For many players it worked, and for some (including us) it moved a little too far from that classic Halo formula.
OXM went to play Halo 5 with a bunch of questions based around the elements of Halo 4 that the fans were most vocal about disliking. In the first ten minutes, each one of those questions was answered by the game itself – every element that players found problematic in Halo 4 has been addressed and either rolled back or improved upon. Halo 5 certainly shows that 343 Industries is listening to fans. More than anything else, it shows that the core multiplayer experience of Halo is absolutely classic – and coming back with a vengeance.