The console multiplayer is a delicate ecosystem. A successful lifecycle requires a precise ratio of the elements, forming a unique experience to give it momentum, otherwise it’s likely to become tedious and extinct. Map layout and navigation, loadouts, objectives, vehicles, connection speed and, of course, matchmaking are all integral. So how does a studio continue a franchise that pioneered the experience on console and step into the arena with their updated wares?
With Halo 5: Guardians set for release next year, 343 Industries’ focus for multiplayer is on the addition of Spartan abilities, with a 4v4 Arena beta (although Halo 5 will have other MP experiences) already announced for December 29 to allow them to gauge feedback on these additions and set up the best experience possible.
Abilities are available from the outset and require no unlocking. Therefore, XP unlocks appearance upgrades in the form of armour, helmets and visors. There will be, however, Competitive Skill Rating integrated into the game in a seven tier system, with the top 200 players worldwide achieving Pro status.
These abilities essentially fall into mobility aids and thruster utility. The first set enhances movement of Spartans in various ways around the map and the second utilises the thrusters on a Spartans suit and essentially replace and armour abilities. Each will offer a reward but will often come with a cost, or at least a risk factor.
Starting with Unlimited Sprint, an attractive opportunity in the already fast paced MP arena, Spartans can enter a sprint (not instant though) and high-tail it around a map non-stop, or until forced to stop, if desired. The catch here is that shields will not recharge while doing this, making a player vulnerable. When caught in action or needing to escape it’s obviously worth keeping an eye on shield levels as chances to sprint and withstand damage will greatly rely on a balance here.
Linked features to sprint are the Charge and Slide abilities. The first is activated with melee while engaged in sprint. On contact this pops an opponent’s shields completely and is an instant kill when executed from behind. Both Unlimited Sprint and Charge require some acclimatisation in practice as it’s just as easy for an opponent to land a melee, or Charge for that matter, or sniper hit and then back them up with some follow up shots and it’s lights out for the less tactical.
The Slide offers another choice in exit strategies, triggered while in sprint and hitting the crouch button. The benefits are obvious although it comes in particularly handy in a new mode being introduced called Breakout. Round based, the first team to kill every opposing team member wins the round and then whichever team wins five rounds takes the game. No respawning within a round and hence getting to cover quickly is crucial.
Execution from behind returns and, as far as I could tell, the risk here is the time of the animation that follows, cool as it may be. In one of the round based game modes, in the final moments, I hit melee on a target for the final kill only for it enter the animation giving the other team, and the kid on the console next to me, time to get the final kill, thus winning the round.
The first to bring the thrusters into the mix in their basic form is the Evade manoeuvre, a quick boost in any direction, presenting a dodge option. Allowing players to tweak moves in battle as it is or tagged onto a jump or Clamber ability to tweak combat when it’s getting heated. Any direction, any time, all of the time.
To encourage players into situations on a map, the new Weapon Pad system calls out incoming power weapons locations and time left till their arrival, aimed at getting teams scrambling and converging on a drop pad and battling it out for what’s on offer.
Map layout and navigating can make a world of difference in a multiplayer shooter, especially in arena. Recognising that, the Clamber ability has been added to the skillset. With the simple second tap of the jump button on contact with a ledge Spartans heave up and can be on their way. And it made a huge difference, whether landing short to a platform off a jump or just wanting to take a different path, Clamber made it possible maintain the flow of movement without any hindrance. To compliment this, Halo 5 map designs all include clamber routes, streamlining vertical access to higher levels and contributing significantly to the flow within each.
Once at higher levels, another thruster ability can be brought into play. The Ground pound which needs to be triggered from a certain altitude and won’t activate simply by jumping from ground level. Launching off a platform of adequate height then holding the crouch button starts charging an attack on a Spartan beneath. Once charged it can be unleashed, smashing the target below and eliminating them. Of course, you’re a sitting duck while the attack is charging, not mention the enemy is warned when this is happening, so it’s a hard one to pull off and timing is imperative.
Smart scope connects a Spartan’s visor to their weapon. It snaps on and and will highlight a target but continues to allow thrusts and previously mentioned movements. With Smart scope though comes descope, being hit by fire sending the view back to hip fire. The relevance here being a sniper or power weapon user can be forced to re-evaluate their tactics when fired upon.
Capping off the abilities is the third of the thruster utilisation called Stabiliser, an action that creates offensive opportunities from above. By jumping then entering Smart Scope players can hover above for a few seconds and get critical shots on a target but, of course, at the cost of hovering in the air and becoming a target oneself. In isolation it does offer some other options in timing a descent or redirection mid air with other thruster abilities.
Spartan Chatter within games sprays constant audio feedback on game progress and is a simulation of the way teams would talk to each other in game, done by having the Spartans on each team talking to each other. This chatter announces the status of other teammates, weapon pick ups and kills and also opposing team information such as location and where they’re heading. This not only creates atmosphere but also is incredibly helpful in maintaining awareness and gives players that team experience which is often not there when dropping into games casually.
A majority of the preview was team Slayer but we were shown a significant amount of previously mentioned Breakout, although only on the one map. This Breakout mode changed all the players style significantly, forcing them into cover and calculating attack and defence much more.
The maps previewed were generally mirrored layouts with a slight variation but essentially balanced routes, cover and platforms. Truth is and updated midship style map where Crossfire, used in Breakout mode is a bright, Tron-esque training facility. The industrial style Empire provided the most opportunity to utilise all the new abilities though, with more platforms and routes to navigate.
Maintaining a solid balance in gameplay the whole time, and given this was only a glimpse of the abilities, it’s exciting to consider the possibilities in chaining them all together but also the full scope of the game to come.