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Published on January 22nd, 2015 | by Chris Scott

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Combat Evolved Again: Halo 5 Multiplayer Beta Impressions

A lot of criticism has been rightfully lobbed at 343 Industries over their handling of the Master Chief Collection on Xbox One. Even now, while working close to optimally, the package is something of a mess. But let’s be fair, in a day and age where too many companies release betas that are no more than marketing demos weeks before their retail release (I’m looking at you right now Evolve), 343 Industries deserves some credit after running a three week multiplayer beta for Halo 5: Guardians.

Halo 5 isn’t expected to release on Xbox One until Holiday of 2015, most likely in November, so a beta 10+ months out from release is something of an anomaly on the console front recently. But there is good cause for this beta to take place so far out from release because Halo 5 looks to shake the foundations of the series multiplayer to its core. During the three week span that 343i had the beta running, I played roughly 50 matches, developing some opinions on the direction the series is heading.

While most people know me as a huge fan of the Halo series, surprisingly I haven’t been on board since the beginning. My start with Halo multiplayer didn’t start until 2007 with the Halo 3 multiplayer beta and didn’t take hold fully until the retail game released that September. I don’t have the strong affinity for Halo: Combat Evolved’s overpowered magnum handgun and I loathe the SMG and Battle Rifle in Halo 2. My favorite Halo multiplayer is Reach, I don’t hate loadouts or special abilities, and I like being able to sprint. I tell you this so that you have a basis for my likes and dislikes of the beta and also as an easy out for those of you that think Bungie and 343i ruined Halo after Halo 2.

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On its surface Halo 5 looks like every other Halo game. It features two teams (red vs. blue) battling it out on smartly designed maps that focus on controlling locations via power weapons. But once I sat down to play it, I was shocked at just how different the game feels. Following directly from last year’s sea change in first person shooters, Halo 5 is a mobility focused game. And it plays fast, not as fast as something like Call of Duty but faster and more mobile than any Halo that has come before it. There is continuous sprint which also enables sliding, boosters that enable you to dash offensively or defensively, the ability to hover for a short period, and the ability to clamber up walls. All of this speeds up the game and opens up the maps in a way that Halo hasn’t necessarily ever been before. And the maps are expertly designed to take advantage of these changes.

I appreciate the push towards a more mobile Halo title. It’s a smart evolution that keeps it competitive with the likes of Call of Duty, Destiny, and Titanfall. But one change I’m not to keen on is the addition of Smart Scope or aiming down the sights (ADS). ADS has been a staple in most first person shooters for years now with Halo being the most notable holdout. It never felt necessary to me for ADS to be something in Halo and now that it is in the game, I kind of think it doesn’t work. ADS in Halo 5 works as expected and going into ADS gives a more accurate look at your target, although it doesn’t necessarily benefit with increased accuracy over standard aiming. My problem lies, not with it being there, but with the way I’ve been conditioned to play games with ADS. Using ADS in Call of Duty, Titanfall, or Destiny means that I am more accurately hitting my opponents and using it is a necessity. ADS in Halo 5 doesn’t give you this benefit, thus it is not needed, but that conditioning of needing to use it is there and it becomes a hindrance to my play as I found myself dropping into ADS in encounters and losing because of it. It’s not Halo 5’s fault that it is there but it is a change I didn’t adjust to during the entire run of the beta and I’m not a fan.

The other changes are mostly good though. The game, even in this early state, looks fantastic, and it is shaping up to be one of the best looking games early in this generation. And the audio cues for weapon spawns and teammate callouts for awareness info, like “Sniper in blue base”, are beneficial editions that help newcomers and veterans act tactically as a team. Knowing when the heavy weapons are going to drop, gives both teams a heads up as to where the next major encounter will take place, it just makes good sense. And the new ground pound maneuver, a skill attack I never got the hang of but was on the opposite end of more than a few times, is a great new addition to the Spartan arsenal. The one thing I really didn’t like was the Bro-ish ending of matches, which display the winning team arrogantly posing and high fiving in a “Yeah, what’s up bro.” kind of way. I get it Halo has always kind of been a bro game but this level of push towards that culture is a bit off-putting.

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While the gameplay changes are the ones with the biggest impact on the overall experience. The next biggest effect is the new maps that are going to be included with Halo 5 and the beta gave us a good look at eight different maps. Truth and Regret are a pair of maps modeled after Halo 2’s midship level. Empire and Eden take place in an industrial area and are altered layouts of each other. And Pegasus and Orion take place in a mountainous area that reminds me of a Forge map. All the maps are well designed with excellent placements for the power weapons. These areas are highly vulnerable to attacks and create great arenas for battle to take place in over those weapons. While I liked the map layouts of Halo 4, these designs and layouts remind me of my favorite Halo 3 and Reach maps as they all feature a strong reliance on power weapons and map control.

But Chris, you said there were eight maps. I did, didn’t I? The other two maps on display, Crossfire and Trench, take place in the Breakout Arena. Breakout is a new game mode that is reminiscent of Call of Duty’s Search and Destroy mode or Gears of War’s Warzone mode. Teams of four battle each other in the arena and each player only gets one life per round, with matches taking place in a best of nine series. It’s a tense, awesome experience that rewards smart teamwork and tactical play. Hearing the announcer state that you are the last man standing in a three on one encounter is terrifying but nothing in the beta was sweeter than winning a round of Breakout.

In addition to Breakout, the beta featured classic Team Slayer and another new mode called Stronghold. Sadly I didn’t get to play a ton of Stronghold and what I did play didn’t really impress me. Stronghold seems to be a variation on a Control point type game mode but to score points teams need to hold at least two of the points. Maybe it was the teams I was on but no one seemed to really get what they were supposed to be doing and everyone was just trying to play it like regular Team Slayer.

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Eight maps to show off is a lot, more than some games even ship with, but I am hoping that due to the nature of these maps being so similar to each other in many respects that this is just a small sampling of what we get in the full game. I am also hoping that the final product has a better matchmaking system that actually matches you up with people of the same skill level, for some reason I was getting matched up with level 15 and 17’s in the Gold Division when I was under level ten and in the Silver tier. This resulted in a lot of lopsided wins and losses, which isn’t fun on either side. The best Halo games are when matches are close and this is only done through proper skill based matchmaking. But then again, this is just a beta so things can and should change.

All in all though, the Halo 5: Guardians beta has me excited. I don’t like certain things for sure, but the foundation for an evolutionary Halo game seems strong. Paired with a polished campaign, Halo 5: Guardians could be one of the best games of the year and it is certainly my most anticipated title at this point for 2015.

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