Hands-on with Halo 5’s thruster packs, the Ground Pound and Smart Scope. But is it still the Halo multiplayer we know and love?
“While it follows the tradition of iteration over revolution, on this evidence Halo 5 may introduce some of the most significant changes yet”
Let’s start with what you really care about: the Halo 5: Guardians beta, access to which comes bundled with the upcoming Master Chief Collection, will run for three weeks between December 29
and January 18. At a preview event in London recently, 343 Industries revealed some of what will be available, namely a pair of small Arena maps and a new round-based mode called Breakout (more on that later). That’s what you’ll be playing in the first week. 343 says that the subsequent weeks will be ‘interactive’, allowing fans to vote on which new maps and modes will be playable. Back in August we were promised seven maps for the beta, so presumably those will populate the ballot.
The Halo series has never been overhauled or rebooted. Every instalment has tweaked the multiplayer formula in often imperceptible ways to sharpen the core gameplay that, as the anticipation for the Master Chief Collection proves, is widely considered the best in the genre. I spent around ninety minutes playing the first week’s worth of beta content and, while it follows the tradition of iteration over revolution, on this evidence Halo 5 may introduce some of the most significant changes yet.
Perhaps this is because Halo 5 is the first in the series to run at 60fps, something 343 insists necessitated a massive shift in development. “It’s a fundamental decision that alters everything that we do in designing the game,” says executive producer Josh Holmes. “We’ve gone and re-architected the engine from the ground up, we’ve built all of the gameplay systems around 60fps.”
343’s stated goal with Halo 5 is to make it a competitive, eSports-style game. “The goal from the beginning has been to offer an even playing field where all players have a consistent set of abilities,” explains Holmes. This is a reaction to some of the criticism of Halo 4’s multiplayer that made it arguably the least popular in series history. “I think in Halo 4, with the armour ability system, with loadouts, you never knew what you were facing on the battlefield. That added a degree of randomness into the play experience, and I think to have a great competitive experience you need to have predictability and consistency. So that’s been a goal for us.”
Consistency comes in the form of every player having the same new abilities from the beginning. Many of these revolve around the greatly enhanced thruster pack attached to every player’s back. At its most basic this grants you a short burst of speed to dash forward into action, strafe out of trouble, or jump to a higher position. It’s not as generous as, say, Titanfall’s free-running jetpacks, instead equipping you for quick adjustments that broaden your options in a firefight.
The thrusters also open up a range of new attack options. “The goal was to make sure [the thrusters] are integrated into all the other mechanics,” says creative director Tim Longo. “It wasn’t necessarily about length of time but when and how you use it, and how it combines with throwing a grenade or using melee. It’s about that Halo dance.”
“We’ve gone and re-architected the engine from the ground up, we’ve built all of the gameplay systems around 60fps” – Josh Holmes, 343 exec producer
So, at full sprint speed you can slide into cover or hit the melee button to activate Spartan Charge, a battering ram assault that breaks an opponent’s shield or, if landed from behind, outright kills them. You can now pull yourself up onto high ledges, allowing for unorthodox map navigation and greater verticality that paves the way for Halo 5’s most outrageous new attack: the Ground Pound. Jumping into the air above an enemy and holding the crouch button sees you freeze and charge your thrusters to unleash a devastating aerial slam. It takes around a second and a half to charge, so it’s both immensely difficult and satisfying to pull off successfully.
These additions meant that every match was, quite simply, tremendous fun. You’re more manoeuvrable than ever before, and the new ways in which you can be attacked ensure you utilise all your abilities to keep moving. While sharing these new abilities brings consistency, they make each encounter feel gloriously unique and unpredictable, as every player has so many options at their fingertips. This was reinforced by the small maps we played that put a strong focus on vertical movement and irregular navigation.
Empire is set at the top of a skyscraper, with various layers to clamber up and over, meaning I was never quite sure where I might be attacked from. During one match a player began to charge a Ground Pound over an opponent sneaking across the bottom floor. Before he could execute it another player who had climbed even higher smashed them out of the sky with their own Ground Pound.
The other map, a tight interior space based on Halo 2’s Midship, was a little less remarkable, but nevertheless provided ample room to test the Spartan’s new toys. Some of the new attacks are extremely powerful, but this seemed ably mitigated by the skill required to pull them off.
There’s still more to talk about. Halo 5 comes the closest in the series’ history to featuring a traditional aim-down-sights in the form of Smart Scope. Holding down the left trigger zooms in on your crosshair and displays extra info like ammo and range. “It’s an evolution of the Smartlink system that’s always been a part of the Spartan’s suit from Halo 1,” says Holmes. “What’s really important when you’re in Smart Scope is that you still have full freedom of movement. Halo is a run and gun game and we want players to be able to move and have that freedom.”
The niftiest feature of Smart Scope is how, if activated mid-jump, you’ll hover to aim in mid-air. It’s another unconventional attack option, as well as a sly means of avoiding grenades, but can also make you a sitting duck. Many fans will be pleased to see the return of de-scoping in Halo 5, any hit instantly knocking you out of Smart Scope.
“Every change felt like it had enhanced and complimented what makes Halo great: slick gunplay, intense showdowns, rapid pace, and a focus on reactions and skill.”
Another consideration in the heat of battle is that shields are now directly linked to sprinting. Every player has unlimited sprint, but your shield will not recharge while doing so. This forces you into some quick strategic decisions about the value of holding your ground over fleeing. “Part of the objective there was making sure players couldn’t simply disengage from battle and negate all the action that had taken place and avoid conflict resolution,” explains Longo. “So by linking sprint with shields it creates that compelling decision on the battlefield.”
Although I was able to sprint away from a losing fight, it usually meant encountering another opponent while my shield was still depleted, encouraging me instead to use the new tools at my disposal to find a way to win or hunker down long enough to replenish my shield.
I’m aware that by essentially listing the gameplay additions like this makes them sound more drastic than they are. What was most remarkable was how, within fifteen minutes or so of picking up the pad, each new ability felt like it had always been there. I’m altogether terrible at Halo, but was soon thrusting out of danger, clambering to higher ground to launch an ambush, and Smart Scoping like it was second nature. Every change felt like it had enhanced and complimented what makes Halo great: slick gunplay, intense showdowns, rapid pace, and a focus on reactions and skill.
After my time with the Halo 5 beta I played a few assorted rounds of The Master Chief Collection and begrudged not being able to thrust, clamber, and slide.
The other mode that will feature in the first week of the beta is Breakout, a team round-based mode where each player has a single life per round, the last team with Spartans standing claiming victory. The idea is to encourage teamwork and communication, as eliminated players spectate and shout information. This wasn’t suited to the press event environment, but online with friends the low cover and tight lines of the Crossfire map could make for some tense exchanges, as every death instantly felt more meaningful and keeping your friends alive is more important than ever.
2014 has been rich with sci-fi first-person shooters, but 343 says it hasn’t felt the pressure. “Our influence is Halo,” Longo tells me firmly. “The changes we’ve made are all about enhancing the rhythm of combat and the back and forth that you see in Halo gameplay.” It feels like the team has succeeded admirably.
It’s time to get excited about the Chief all over again.
Disclosure: Dave played the Halo 5 beta at a press event in London held by Microsoft and 343 Industries.