In some ways, I feel bad for 343. As with Halo 4, they have a very difficult job in front of them in crafting the multiplayer in Halo 5. The Halo franchise has such a large and rabid fan following that any major changes are likely to agitate their core audience, yet if they don’t also make it feel like a fresh experience, the rest of the industry will likely chastise them for delivering just another version of the same game. I recently logged some time in the Halo 5: Guardians beta, and I walked away thinking that 343 might just be up to the task of toeing the line between traditional and progressive Halo multiplayer design.
For starters, this is by far the fastest Halo multiplayer I’ve laid hands on. The extra speed is produced both by a quicker standard movement and the unlimited sprint that some fans have been reluctant to adapt to. We saw sprint for the first time in Halo 4 and after listening to the community talk about how many players were using it to run away from fights rather than run into them, 343 compromised by leaving sprint intact with Halo 5, but making it so that your shields don’t recharge while you’re running.
Another thing that both speeds the game up and adds another layer of finesse is the Spartan Dash and slide. Similar to the exo-suits in Call of Duty, the Spartan Dash allows you to quickly dash in any direction to avoid enemy fire, surprise players as they as they enter a room, and even cause damage to other Spartans by dashing directly into them. The slide simply allows you to slide along the ground while sprinting at full speed, which I found to be useful in a variety of scenarios. 343 didn’t go the route of the double jump this time but since the Spartans already jump higher than characters in most games, that was probably the right decision.
Once you master the movement of your character, it’s all about being able to stay with your target and bring down their shields. This isn’t like the modern military shooter where just a few shots will kill you but your shields do drop faster than in any Halo game prior to now, so positioning and accurate shooting are really important. This is another area where the game breaks from the traditional Halo feel, because I rarely had the chance to turn a firefight around if I didn’t get the drop on my opponent. At the same time, the quicker shield reduction (and quicker recharge) feels pretty good with the increased movement speed and additional abilities, so it all kind of evened out.
Speaking of abilities, a change that will likely please the traditional Halo crowd is that the Spartan abilities seen in a few previous games aren’t coming to Halo 5. There’s no bubble shield, no health-regen deployments, and no shield drainers. It’s just you, your weapons, and the new dash and slide abilities that everyone else also has at their disposal. This removes a bit of strategy from each encounter, but it also keeps the game level and ensures you won’t be walking into any ambushes that center around variables that are impossible to be aware of. So long as you keep an eye on your radar and know the status of each power weapon, it’s much easier to know that you’re picking a fair fight than it was in the few previous games.
That’s not to say that every encounter you have will be fair. The Slayer variant still focuses on getting to the power weapons first and keeping them locked down. As with previous games, if your team is unable to stop your opponents from acquiring the heavy munitions, you can expect to die by a much more powerful weapon than what you’re carrying on a regular basis (see the video below for a good example of this). The spawn of these weapons are still consistent, but everyone knows when they will be available again via both a timer at its location and a voiceover that will remind you when one is about to become active again. This is a nice change and creates sudden and frenzied firefights at the weapon spawn locations, which used to only occur at the beginning of a match.
Another new tweak available in Halo 5 is the ability to zoom in with almost every weapon. They call this the ‘Spartan Scope’ and although you don’t aim directly down the sights with all of them, each one has its own version of ADS that allows for a better view of enemies and areas that are farther away. This came as a major concern for a lot of Halo fans as many of them prefer to fire from the hip, as is traditional in Halo.
To ensure everyone is happy, 343 made it so that there’s no accuracy advantage with using the zoom or ADS on standard weapons. In fact, I found that it’s best not to use it in mid-range and close fights because being shot breaks you out of the Spartan Scope and into your normal view, which can be disorientating. Since zooming in doesn’t statistically offer any advantage like it does in games like CoD, it’s probably best to rely on the normal reticle if you’re out in the open and know enemy bullets will be headed your way.
There were only a few maps available in Team Slayer in the beta but they all looked and flowed great during 4-on-4 play, and I could see no blatant hit detection issues and noticed only a small bit of lag from one player during my time with the game. The two other modes that came with the beta are Breakout, and Strongholds. The former is a round-based, no-respawn variant of Team Slayer, while Strongholds sees two teams of Spartans fighting to control two territories on the map to score points. Unfortunately, I was unable to play either of these modes, which brings me to my final thoughts on the beta and something I’m concerned about going forward.
I know this is just a beta but matchmaking continues to be an issue for 343. It’s been over two months since the Master Chief Collection launched, yet long waits to get into matches and heavily imbalanced games continue to plague that title. Those exact same issues are alive and well as we enter into the final week of the Halo 5 beta. So bad that after over 15 minutes of waiting, I had to quit and go back to Slayer after failing to be placed in either of the other game modes. And even though the Slayer variant found matches quicker, almost every game I was in either saw my team blow away our competition, or we lost terribly with only one or two games really being close to the end.
Having said all that, matchmaking is really the only concern I have going forward with Halo 5, rather than the new tweaks or the faster direction 343 is taking Halo. All the changes I noticed in the beta felt great and they’ve made some very smart decisions about how to move the game forward in a progressive manner without alienating fans. Yet all of that means nothing if they can’t support the game properly with faster matchmaking times and even lobbies. I sincerely hope that after the game comes out I can look back at the beta as exactly what it is, a beta, because the multiplayer itself sure feels like a winner when it’s allowed to shine past the network hassles.