Here is the Halo 5: Beta in one single encounter.
I’m in Eden, one of Halo 5’s new maps. I am in the process of finding my feet; in the process of understanding its layout; in the process of rediscovering Halo, essentially; in the process of adapting to the newness of its controls. Also in the process of unlearning those bog standard console FPS controls we’ve all grown accustomed to across the course of the last generation.
All of a sudden: a red man appears. I am a blue man therefore I must shoot. This is my predestined function for this second and for all of time. This means war.
I fire off a couple of shots which land, but my opponent -- the man in red -- darts off and escapes. For a second I give chase but then, a second man in red. I can only assume he is red because he is shooting at me from behind and my controller is rumbling. I have to respond quickly or die.
I dash laterally -- a new tool in the Halo arsenal -- immediately placing myself outside of my opponent’s reticule. From experience I know he will require a precious second to re-calibrate his aim. I take advantage. I sprint towards an elevated window. In any other Halo game that window would be out of reach but I jump regardless. As I approach the ledge I tap the jump button again, clambering through the window to relative safety.
But in Halo escaping is only half the battle.
I turn a corner, figuratively and literally. Surprise. I am now face to face with the man I was previously chasing. A man with his shields half down in no fit state to fire back. I pop him twice with the Battle Rifle and he goes down. Success. I sprint down the corridor from whence he came.
Surprise #2: the man who shot me in the back. Red man the second. Because he was chasing me, I’ve circled behind him. Now he is the one at a disadvantage. Before he even realises I’ve shot him twice. In this situation I'm aware of a few things. I'm aware the Battle Rifle kills in four shots. I'm aware that I’m still one shot down. I know he’ll turn and face me, instead of doing what I did – the smart thing – which is to dash/sprint/run in the opposite direction and take refuge in some dusty corner.
Instead, as predicted, he spins. I shoot him a third time in the body. I now have an easy head shot. He’s facing me. He’s giving me the target I need.
He dashes into a strafe. Dammit. My shot goes wayward.
He puts two into my guts. I am now one shot from death.
I dash backwards. Bad call. My opponent won’t need to change his aim to put me away. I should have strafed goddammit. Bugger bugger bugger. He can’t miss.
Incredibly he misses.
A window of opportunity. I take my time. I get my aim right. I take the final shot. He crumples. The hair on my forearms stand on end.
“XBOX RECORD THAT.”
I’ve never said “Xbox record that” before and to my absolute surprise -- for the first time since I plugged in my Xbox One -- Kinect actually understands a single word I am saying and ‘records that’. For a split second I feel as though I am the master of my domain. I am in control of a machine that is seamlessly responding perfectly to my every command. Kinect, of all things, is responding to my commands.
Is this real life?
Maybe it’s just the heady cocktail of nostalgia, fandom and the shock of the new talking but, even in these early stages, it feels as though 343 Industries has gotten something spectacularly correct with Halo 5’s multiplayer.
Here is what 343 Industries has gotten right.
343 Industries has – first and foremost – absolutely understood that Halo’s point of difference over every other shooter on the console landscape is its ability to grant the player a second chance. In Call of Duty or Battlefield if you are spotted before you have time to react you are, generally speaking, toast. In Halo, when done right, players generally have the opportunity to react, out-think or out-skill their opponent and survive successfully.
So it’s telling that the inclusions 343 has made to Halo 5’s multiplayer are concerned with the art of evasion. Halo 5 has controversially added a default sprint to the game, which plenty of purists hate, but I actually found myself enjoying. This makes escaping a little easier, but sacrifices your ability to counter attack -- as it should.
But the new ‘dash’ button is where Halo 5 truly comes alive. ‘Dash’ basically allows players to move rapidly in any direction at almost any moment (there’s a timer on it, which means players can’t spam).
It is glorious.
It’s glorious because it provides another avenue to make encounters dramatic. It provides another avenue for the skilled player to evade and counter-attack. It does all these things without feeling unbalanced. It enables players to traverse multiplayer maps with increased purpose. It opens up different shortcuts. It helps players discover exciting new ways to move and fight. To begin with I often forgot that dash even existed; after a handful of games I began to find new and innovative ways to exploit it to my advantage. Ultimately, Halo 5’s ‘dash’ adds a fresh new layer to the cat and mouse combat of Halo 5. For that I am thankful.
I am certain that, at some point, we’ll see the ‘other’ Halo -- the Big Team Battle Halo, the Halo that has players wandering across massive maps, fighting over tanks, warthogs and ghosts and whatnot -- but for now it’s evident that 343 Industries has placed a huge premium on catering to the tight knit, competitive 4v4 Team Slayer/Objective crowd. I’d much prefer that Halo finds its own niche and -- in this current climate -- I suspect that a well-made arena shooter might be that niche.
Halo 5 is, essentially, a game made by competitive players for competitive players. 343 Industries hired a number of ex-Halo pros during the making of Halo 5 and it shows. The map design benefits most from this renewed focus: every map I’ve played so far seems to fall into the ‘deceptively simple, endlessly exploitable’ box. Additions like the dash feel less like gimmicky add-ons for the sake of it and more like a seamless attempt to evolve how the game is played at a fundamental level.
And it all works, which is remarkable at this early stage in development.
I’m certain there will be complaints. I’m equally certain these compaints will be valid. Things like weapon balance, speed balance, the minutiae of how the game works will no doubt be discussed endlessly for the duration of the beta and beyond -– but that’s what betas are for. It’s near impossible to get these things 100% correct from the get-go.
For now the foundation is absolutely there. This is Halo stripped back to its fundamentals and rebuilt from the ground up in a sensible, innovative fashion. It is lean, clean and punches with remarkable power and precision. It feels suspiciously like a Halo designed specifically for me, tailored to my own wants and needs -- which I love, obviously. After the debacle that was Halo 4’s multiplayer, I’m flabbergasted at the changes made and how effective they are. I’m amazed that it managed to transform my hard-edge cynicism into a gooey optimism.
It’s been years since I’ve been able to type these words with any kind of sincerity, but Halo has somehow managed to captivate me again. I can’t wait to play more. And that's the truth.