The Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta begins in earnest next Monday, but this past weekend, members of the Xbox One dashboard preview were allowed a short peek past the curtain. We got to take a look at the content that will make up the first week of the three-week test: 4v4 arena multiplayer on two maps, Empire and Truth. Empire is a small, asymmetric map set either on Earth or a human-controlled colony, while Truth, a remake of Halo 2 classic Midship, offers a little more room to manoeuver.
What everyone really wants to know about however is how the game plays. Well, it plays like Halo. To anyone not particularly interested in Microsoft’s premier FPS series, that might seem like an obvious descriptor, but Halo fans will be sceptical after 343’s first turn at bat, 2012’s Halo 4, experimented with a few things – like loadouts and killstreak perks – from other shooters, in the process tarnishing that Halo feel that fans expect. Here, there’s no need to worry. Everyone starts with the same guns – the classic MA5 assault rifle and another take on the series’ iconic magnum – and other weapons are back on the maps as pickups, where they belong. Ordnance drops? They’re gone too. It’s pure arena slayer – fair starts for all, and map knowledge and control is paramount.
There are also no armour abilities – selectable, rechargeable power-ups introduced by Bungie in Reach and inherited by 343 in Halo 4 – which means you’ll no longer be facing off against an entire team of Armour Lock spammers. What replaces them in Halo 5: Guardians are Spartan Abilties, base skills that every player has access to right from the start. These are mainly abilities that enable you to get around the environment more fluidly, and I’ll talk about each in turn, starting with my favourite, the thruster pack.
This should be immediately recognisable to anyone who played Halo 4, as it’s essentially that game’s thruster pack armour ability, except made actually useful. It’s no longer a canned animation that takes you out into third person, and you can use it in mid-air without losing momentum. For the uninitiated, it does exactly what it says on the tin and gives you a short, sharp boost in whichever direction you’re moving. You can use it to back up or close distance quickly, or speed-strafe out of the way of an incoming sniper round perhaps. That may sound overpowered, but it’s balanced quite nicely.
First, remember that everyone can do it, which means they can match you move for move if so inclined, and if you’re trying to use it to get out of danger, you’d best have somewhere to go – boosting in a direction in the middle of an open room is likely just going to prolong the inevitable. Secondly, it requires a short cooldown, so don’t think you’ll be boosting all over the maps; if you’re going to use your thrusters to burst into an area, you need to have a plan, because you can’t just immediately fly back out if things get hairy.
I mentioned that you can use the thruster pack in mid-air, and this will ideally be combined with a bit of sprint momentum to move across the maps more quickly. Add to this another new skill, the ability to mantle up to higher ledges by holding the jump button – so long as you can physically reach them – and the result is a pleasing degree of extra mobility in what has always been a relatively mobile series. These two things in particular – thruster and clamber – feel like a very natural fit for the Halo formula; we’ve long been used to clambering all over the furniture in this series via skill jumps and the like, and these added extras slot in perfectly, allowing players to maximise the verticality that has always been a part of Halo multiplayer.
There are also a few other things your increased mobility allows you to do, such as a thruster-enabled shoulder charge melee attack that can quickly close distance and catch you unaware, and you can now slide by crouching during a sprint. Holding crouch when in the air also stabilises you, slowing your descent and maybe allowing you to fire off a killing blow if you’re chasing a weakened opponent. There’s also the Ground Pound ability, which allows you to get the drop on an unsuspecting enemy at the expense of hanging in the air for several seconds to charge it up. In a small arena game, it seems borderline suicidal, but I imagine it’ll come into its own on larger maps – it seems custom made for BTB, where you’ll have much more space to move around and catch opponents unaware.
Sprint has also seen some balancing. A lot of players hated the unlimited sprint in Halo 4, feeling that it served to stretch maps out and give people an easy way out of fights they probably shouldn’t have engaged in in the first place, and 343 have made a decent attempt to answer that criticism, too. You can sprint indefinitely if you wish, but your shields won’t recharge while you do, meaning that using it to get out of trouble carries a risk as you greatly lengthen the amount of time you remain vulnerable. Stop sprinting, and your shields will begin to refill. It’s a small yet smart way to allow faster movement while keeping it in check.
Focusing on Halo 2: Anniversary‘s more arena-based maps seems to have sharpened 343’s vision for Halo 5: Guardian‘s multiplayer, and it’s obvious that the team are aiming for the competitive circuit, at least where arena is concerned. Team mates automatically call out enemy positions, thrown grenades and power weapon respawns, which means it’s not absolutely necessary to be communicating with your team – a useful addition for a player like me that tends to play Halo multiplayer alone. Prior to playing, I imagined I’d find this off-putting, but in practice it gives me a greater awareness of the battlefield and allows me to be a more productive member of the team, even while playing solo.
Power weapon placements are also marked on your HUD, so everyone always knows where they are and when they’ll be back. This may seem somewhat antithetical to the accepted way of playing Halo – that is, to learn the maps through play – but it helps to keep everyone on an even keel, meaning your skill with weapons, grenades, melee and movement is what counts most.
I do have a couple of complaints, however, and the main one is that automatic weapons seem quite overpowered in this build. It feels like they’ve had a substantial boost to both accuracy and range and my immediate gut feeling is that they need a bit of nerfing. If 343 wanted to make automatics viable (which seems to be the case, given that every game in the early access period was AR starts), they’ve certainly done that. But when an SMG beats out a battle rifle at mid-range – which happened to me on Truth – then they might have gone a touch too far. I wouldn’t like to see them completely neutered however, as it it’s quite nice to actually be effective with the trusty old MA5. A bit more fall-off in effective range will surely help.
My other complaint concerns something that had me very worried when the first glimpses of Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer appeared online, yet as it turns out, it’s a very small objection. It’s to do with the game’s new scope animation, which looks for all the world to be Call of Duty-style ‘aim down sights’. ‘ADS’ is something I am resolutely against seeing in Halo, and it’s probably the one thing the player-base can agree on. Thankfully, it’s pretty much just a cosmetic change, and serves the same mechanical purpose as scope zoom did in the previous games; movement remains unrestricted, meaning we can still strafe and jump unhindered as before, and de-scoping also makes a return, dropping you out of zoom should you take a hit. Just as important as freedom of movement is the fact that there’s no penalty to hip fire to force you into scope in order to be effective – precision weapons are as accurate as they always were, and scoping just gives you a bit of zoom. Many, including myself, had worried that the new mechanic would make the game feel too much like other shooters on the market, but in practice that just isn’t the case. It’s really just a new animation for a signature Halo mechanic, and the combat loop is still unmistakably Halo.
The only real difference with scoped weapons is the addition of extra screen furniture in the form of a physical scope, rather than the full-screen zoom we had before, and it’s this I take issue with. It’s not too bad with the Battle Rifle, as there isn’t much to get in the way, but when you zoom the DMR, the scope takes up quite a chunk of your field of vision, obscuring a decent amount of the scenery around what you’re scoping on. It clouds your peripheral vision more than ever before, even if it doesn’t particularly affect the way the game plays.
In the grand scheme of things though, and taking into account that this is a beta of a game a year out from release, these are both relatively minor issues considering how much the game feels like Halo to me. It feels like what Halo 4‘s multiplayer should have been, and I get the feeling that working on the more arena-focused Halo 2 for the recent Anniversary remaster has allowed 343 to remember Halo‘s core strengths – that is movement, teamwork and map control, along with the holy trinity of guns, grenades and melee. It’s maybe a touch faster, a bit more mobile, but, so far at least, Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer is Halo through and through. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the beta brings when it goes live on December 29th. Until then, you can enjoy 18 minutes of gameplay captured on my Xbox One.