Hands-on with Halo 5‘s Massive New Multiplayer Mode
Going to EGX is both an exciting and daunting proposition. On one hand, it’s a great opportunity for a regular punter like myself to be able to get hands-on access to the brand new shiny games shown off earlier at E3 and Gamescom. On the other, because you’re attending as Joe Public, what sounds like a fun-filled day of non-stop gaming action on paper is actually more like an eternity of queuing, pocketed by evanescent moments of virtual escapism. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an exciting place to be, but boy is it exhausting on the pins.
Aside from the expected physical aches and pains, operating as an individual blogger at an enormous expo like this can also be quite a mental strain as well. From the second you set foot inside, it’s easy to quickly feel way out of your depth; everywhere you look there are these big professional teams of hip, young trendy YouTube personalities going about with their own personal harem of cameramen, boom-wielding sound engineers and lighting technicians that document every second of their time there. It’s a bit intimidating to say the least, particularly when all you’ve got for company during your hours of queuing are a notebook, camera and a half-eaten tuna sandwich – oh joy.
However, such is the life of a solitary blogger, and despite this whingey and pessimistic pre-amble, I actually had a very enjoyable few days of checking out all that’s new and exciting in the gaming realm. EGX 2015 was held at Birmingham’s NEC as opposed to last year’s venue London’s Earls Court (which sadly is due to be demolished like a set piece in a Call of Duty campaign), and although the NEC itself felt like a rather bland backdrop for a video game convention, the important thing is that a lot of the games on show were well worth the long queues to play.
One such game that is very worthy of your attention if you like sci-fi first-person shooters is 343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians. My verdict? To paraphrase the all-consuming Gravemind, “There is much talk, and I have listened, through rock and metal and time. Now I shall talk, and you shall listen”. In other words, get a cup of tea, get comfortable, and I shall regale ye rotten with my thoughts on Halo 5‘s multiplayer.
Or to cut a long story short, yeah it’s pretty good (does the Ocelot gun gesture).
The Art of War…Zone
Like many other Xbox owners around the world, my fetish for seeing men and women in bulky combat armour clank into each other on virtual battlefields only intensifies with each new release in the Halo series. So, to indulge my insatiable desire for steamy power armour on flesh action, I headed straight to the big green Microsoft stand after getting my entry wristband to join the already massive queue for their marquee title.
Three hours of queuing (and heavy excited breathing) later (all the while enduring the dopey antics of some of the most punchable dudebros I’ve ever come across), I was finally able to pick up a controller and get stuck in to a 20-25 minute Warzone match on the ‘Escape from A.R.C.’ map. Before we get into the nitty-gritty details however, let’s back up for a second and go over the basics.
As already indicated by the title of this post, the mode 343 had on offer for the Halo-hungry hordes attending EGX was Warzone. This is the new large-scale competitive multiplayer mode debuting with Halo 5 which pits two teams of twelve players in a head to head (or more appropriately, helmet to helmet) battle of attrition, but with the added twist of also fighting off malicious mobs of AI attackers. 343 have playfully dubbed the mode as ‘Player Vs. Player Vs. Everything’.
Warzone is basically a riff on the familiar Big Team Battle mode from the previous Halos mixed with the point capturing of Halo 4’s Dominion and some choice MOBA elements that put an interesting new spin on the series’ traditional multiplayer formula. If the use of the word MOBA makes your stomach churn in panic, don’t worry – Warzone’s objectives are simple. The first team to 1000 points wins; points are earned for killing enemy players, killing enemy AI characters and capturing and holding target zones on the map.
See, nice and easy right? Having said that, there is a very cool twist to Warzone, and it’s here that the MOBA influence comes into play (Don’t panic, this is straightforward too, I promise). If one team simultaneously controls all the zones on a map, then the opposing team’s power core will be exposed back at their base, leaving it wide open for an attack. If the power core is destroyed with, say, a cheeky proton torpedo or two (read: plasma grenades), then that counts as an instant win for the attacking team, irrelevant of the current points total – yippie-ki-yay motherfucker indeed. It takes a lot of hard work and close co-ordination with your teammates to pull off a successful core detonation, but the sweet reward of a decisive on-the-spot victory makes all those gallons of blood, sweat and tears worth it.
The culmination of all these different gameplay ideas working together results in a multiplayer mode that feels consistently exhilarating, regardless of whether you’re trouncing the opposition, or being completely dominated. There’s always hope of a last-minute comeback victory for the losers, but also the ever-present danger of defeat for the winners at any moment, which serves to keep both teams on their toes right to the very last second of the match.
Okay, so that’s the theory of Warzone out of the way – let’s crack on with the practical.
At the start of a Warzone match, both teams have to first clear out the pesky AI Forerunner squatters that have taken up residence in their respective bases. With the stern yet dulcet tones of Jennifer Hale’s Sarah Palmer in my headphones, my Red team chums and I drop into our base via Pelican dropship and prepare to fuck up some ferrous Forerunner ass.
These starting enemies mainly comprise the canine-like Forerunner Crawlers first introduced in Halo 4, but there were a few of the new Armiger enemy types amongst their number too. Sadly I completely missed this early engagement with the Armigers as I had to readjust my settings to invert my aiming and look controls, so I can’t really say much about how these new enemies operate as they were all wiped out by the time I properly joined the fray. From what I could see though, the Armigers appear to operate as a sort of much-needed intermediary enemy in the Forerunner ranks – stronger than the Crawlers, but weaker than the Knights.
With our base secured and free from enslaved human robots, the next few minutes see our team slowly wander out into the map to butt heads with Blue team and try to capture zones along the way. It’s all pretty low-key stuff at this early stage in the game; snipers volley short-range pistol shots at each other across the glinting metal rooftops, run-and-gun attackers clutch assault rifles and zig-zag across the dusty open ground from cover to cover, and explosive indoor corridor jousts flare up wherever the two sides meet.
It’s at this point that Halo 5‘s Spartan abilities really come into play and give you some interesting new map traversal options to experiment with. In particular, the new Spartan Boost ability that transforms what previously would otherwise be a rather dull and tired part of the Halo multiplayer experience – commuting across the large distances on foot to get to the action – into a high-speed adrenaline rush. Take a running leap off a platform and hit your thrusters mid-air and your Spartan is temporarily soaring through the air round the map like a bird. An ungraceful man-sized metallic bird with an assault rifle in its hands (or should that be talons?), but a bird nonetheless. Used in conjunction with the also new wall-clambering ability and the capability to indefinitely sprint (finally), it’s easy to achieve moments of kinetic (no, not that kinetic) grace as you swoop and soar your way across the map’s sandy orange dunes.
As both teams settle into the to-and-fro rhythm of capturing and defending zones, the interior spaces of these structures inexorably play host to the most intense firefights of the match. It’s here where the true benefits of the Spartan abilities come to the fore, as players clash in a crackling blur of extinguished shields and smoky thruster trails, a lightning-fast ballet of quick fingers and even quicker wits. The ability to hover mid-air, clamber up ledges and deal out deadly ground pounds give players access to a whole new vertical library of punishment, transforming a basic indoor scrap into a ridiculously exciting pressure cooker of claustrophobic indoor chaos.
In particular, mastering the nuances of the Boost ability in a close-quarters combat situation proves essential to survival. Learning when to rocket forwards to rapidly close distances and deal out crunching melee hits, or backdash with a reverse boost to escape a hail of bullets or the thundering blast of a grenade are vital manoeuvres to commit to muscle memory. With regard to the latter point, it’s hard to get an accurate feel of just how Halo 5‘s pineapples are balanced in this current pre-release build of the game, but they seem to pack a bigger wallop compared to the frag grenades of old, presumably as a means to compensate for players’ increased manoeuvrability.
Interestingly, as a final point on the zone capturing, whenever you move in to capture an enemy-controlled structure, a small readout on the HUD appears to let you know how many enemies are still occupying the building. This small detail is fantastic, as it helps you to quickly make important snap decisions; is it better to fall back and get reinforcements, or keep pressing on and find where that last dirty little cloaked camper is and rip out his thro…ahem, sorry about that, got a bit carried away there (deep breaths).
Where the Wild Things Aren’t
One of the slight disappointments with Warzone is that despite the mode’s inclusion of AI enemies, the truth is that there really aren’t an awful lot of them to go around. In addition to the handful of standard enemies occupying the bases at the start of the match, there’s a few straggling outliers huddled near each of the zones, and…that’s about it. Whether the AI population is an ongoing balance issue that’s still being tweaked, or whether it’s simply the case that the Escape from A.R.C. map simply doesn’t have many standard AI enemies to hunt, I’m not sure. Perhaps I just went in with my expectations set too high, expecting to see swarms of enemies rushing both teams in numbers comparable to Halo: ODST‘s excellent Firefight mode, but thankfully it’s not a big deal. The exciting part of Warzone is, of course, taking the fight to the enemy human players à la Big Team Battle.
However, what the AI troops lack in number, they more than makes up for in might. As both teams are racking up kills and holding down zones, Palmer occasionally pipes up to announce that Covenant and Forerunner boss enemies have spawned into the map. Simply put, these things are fucking beasts. These bosses are essentially souped-up versions of the standard Covenant Elites and Forerunner Knights found in the campaign, but don’t let their appearances fool you. Though they might look like the typical enemies you’d encounter in a Halo campaign, they have significantly better shielding and health to draw on, and can pack a much heftier wallop compared to their story-based counterparts. I repeatedly tried to take down a big Elite commander lurking in an out of the way construction tunnel by myself, but after being melted one too many times by its plasma rifle, I quickly decided to focus my efforts on helping my team hold down zones instead. Teamwork is essential to taking these big baddies down, but for those who enjoy a bit of bounty hunting, there’s a hefty jackpot of bonus points to bag for felling these fierce foes.
Check Yourself Before You REQ Yourself
To even think about tackling the enemy AI bosses, you’re going to need some serious firepower, and this is where 343 have decided to mix things up a little. Warzone differs from the rest of Halo 5‘s multiplayer in that it utilises the new REQ system as the primary means for players to get their hands on better gear.
Unfamiliar with it? Let me bring you up to speed. REQ is a vehicle and weapon requisition (get it?) system that 343 have designed specially for Warzone as a sort of middle ground between traditional first-come first-served weapon and vehicle distribution of the older titles, and Halo 4‘s controversial loadout system. Players earn energy points in Warzone by killing enemy players, AI troopers, capturing and holding bases etc. which they can then cash in at REQ terminals in their base to get a shiny new weapon or vehicle to kick ass with. Each item you can order belongs to a specific tier, and these tiers gradually unlock over time according to their energy requirement; basic items with a low energy requirement (such as pistols and rifles) will unlock sooner, while the power weapons and big vehicles will unlock later on in the match. It’s a clever and elegant way of allowing the player to pick the weapons they want, whilst still keeping the competitive playing field fair for everyone else.
Come to think of it, why am I trying to explain the ins and outs of the REQ system, when I could have the sage-like Mister Chief do a much better job of it for me:
It’s a difficult equilibrium to achieve, but I think on the whole 343 have got the balance between player choice and competitive fairness pretty spot on (though I still have some major concerns, but I’ll get to these later). A lot of Halo traditionalists disliked 343’s first foray into personalised weapon distribution in Halo 4, as they felt it negatively impacted the classic map and power weapon struggles they adored in the older games. Others disagreed, and enjoyed the more flexible approach to basic weapon acquisition, seeing it (alongside the inclusion of a standardised sprint function) as a progressive and considerate step in contemporising the Halo franchise to its industry peers and bringing it up to speed with the expectations of the modern FPS player.
As one of the minority of players of Halo 4 who actually appreciated the ability to spawn in with your preferred low-tier weapon of choice ready to go in your hexagon-riddled gauntlets, I think the REQ system will satisfy both schools of Halo thought. The timed unlock tiers of the arsenal mean that players can’t just instantly spawn in with top-tier armaments and wipe the floor with everyone else, and the energy requirements encourage players to think wisely about their purchases. Should you cash out on a Covenant Carbine, or save your energy and splash out on a Spartan Laser a few spawns later on? Go for a Gungoose early on, or splurge on a Scorpion tank further down the line? The choice is up to you (and the contents of your sizzling green energy wallet).
Unfortunately though, as my Warzone match progressed and piles of dead Spartans started to pile up in crumpled heaps around the map, it gradually became apparent that hardly any players were making use of the REQ system. This was probably due to the clownish oafs Microsoft employed to man the Halo booth being more interested in dancing to the tunes thumping out of the nearby Rockband 4 stand than, you know, actually telling people how to play their fucking game, but hey, that’s just my guess. For whatever reason, a lot of the players I encountered didn’t seem to know how to get hold of a new gun or vehicle – either that or they were perfectly content to just go running out into the map with nothing but the standard issue assault rifle and pistol combo. This was a shame, and as a result the match I played didn’t really have the same level of intensity and pandemonium that the pre-release trailers have hyped up to the max. I’m sure when the final game comes out and people are familiar with the new systems that things will quickly start to feel more jam-packed and manic, but my first Warzone match definitely felt weirdly quiet at times.
Fortunately for me then, the noticeable lack of other vehicles and power weapons on the field meant that when I took to the skies in a Forerunner Phaeton I met very little anti-air resistance (cue Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, and pull on a pair of tinted aviators).
Phaenting the Town Orange
Being a long-time Halo wheelman, I knew instantly from the second I picked up the greasy display controller that I wanted to get behind the controls of Halo 5‘s coolest new vehicle ASAP. I made sure to frugally hold back enough energy points for one so I could deploy this new toy as soon as the time-restriction passed, and it was certainly well worth the wait.
Allow me to indulge in my obsession for this beauty. The Forerunner Phaeton is a beastly aircraft, and the first vehicle we’ve seen from the Didact’s Forerunner faction; it’s an angular gunmetal grey aircraft that combines the shape of a Harrier Jump Jet with the sleek contours of stealth bomber. It also has a lot of orange paint on it, because you know…Forerunners and stuff.
Mechanically speaking, it’s an interesting vehicle to get to grips with. Unlike its Human and Covenant peers, the Phaeton feels designed first and foremost for defence over offence. It manoeuvres and hovers in a similar fashion to the Hornet, though it’s increased size means that it handles more like a floating gun platform than nippy attack chopper, swapping speed for increased durability. It comes equipped with a beefy futuristic chaingun, which spits out a hail of hard light bullets at your target, which quickly turn enemy Spartans into fizzing puddles of Tango. These bullets are powerful, yes, but they’re also quite slow moving (compared to the fire rate of a Banshee’s primary projectiles for example), so learning to lead your shots just slightly in front of your target is essential to land hits.
The most unique feature of this flying Forerunner craft though has to be its ability to phase in and out of the air, meaning you can essentially juke out of the way of incoming projectiles. While I couldn’t figure out how to activate the dodge ability myself in this match, it’s definitely going to be a vital thing to be able to pull off in the heat of combat.
I spent the entirety of my time in the craft punching sizzling orange holes in ground-based infantry targets, so I didn’t get to see how the Phaeton holds up in an aerial dog fight, but I imagine the trick to taking on airborne vehicles will be to stand your ground and let your attacker come to you rather than give pursuit. While the Banshee and Hornet can probably outrun the Phaeton in terms of raw speed, the Phaeton’s phase ability gives it an unparalleled flexibility at short-distances; continually warping out of range of your attacker’s guns will be highly irritating, and also give you extra time to rake nasty orange bullet scars across their hull.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and ultimately my airborne killing spree was cut short when I was rudely blown out of the sky by a particularly determined rooftop defender. It was time to get back to the fray on foot for the final few minutes of the match, but my next thought was, to quote the mighty 117 himself, “I need a weapon”. Again. Although I’d been regularly plucking out basic ranged weapons throughout the course of the match, I didn’t really have a full perusal of all the goodies on offer until I’d had my fun with the Phaeton.
Warzone’s arsenal consists largely of Halo 4‘s returning armoury (sadly minus the sticky detonator) along with a few new additions such as the Hydra, a homing RPG weapon that debuted in the previous Arena multiplayer Beta. Though my natural tendency was to stick to familiar favourites when ordering weapons (nothing comes close to speed, accuracy and satisfying thunk-thunk-thunks of the Covenant Carbine at mid-range sniping in my opinion), I did make an effort to sample some of the new tools on offer. One such newbie is the Covenant Plasma Caster; this is a purple crossbow-like contraption first showcased in the Gamescom campaign demo which has both rapid fire and charge-shot capabilities. It basically functions as a sort of hybrid between the Concussion Rifle of and Reach‘s Plasma Launcher – I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to use, but sadly, due to a deadly mixture of impatience and unfamiliarity on my part, I couldn’t really get it to work for me in the short time the weapon was in my grasp.
The final few minutes of the game were a busy blur of running between bases, capping fools and dodging those fearsome AI bosses. Though we had a solid lead points-wise, our team still had a bit of a shock when all of the zones bases were suddenly under blue control, and we had to quickly scramble to capture at least one back to shut them out of our core. We managed it by the skin of our teeth, and before long we had all three zones under our control – touché Blue team. I’d just leapt into the bulky cockpit of a Mantis and was thudding my way across the map to launch everything I had at their exposed core when Red team won with a 1000 point total anyway. Sighing with contented relief, I turned my Mantis towards the sun and thudded into the distance as the monitors faded to black. Mission complete.
Oh, Just One More Thing…
Yes I’m doing a Columbo here, and yes I know this piece is really dragging on by this point now, but this last bit is important, trust me. Remember how I alluded to some concerns about the REQ a few paragraphs ago? Despite the delightfully daft attempts of Frank O’Connor’s scribbled Spartan to harbour goodwill towards this new system, having tried REQ out first-hand, I’m still uneasy about how the system will work in the final game. Specifically, I’m apprehensive about how it’ll impact on one of the key aspects of Halo multiplayer – vehicle and power weapon acquisition.
You see unlike the build of the game I got to try, when the finished thing hits store shelves and the Xbone marketplace later this month, the REQ system will have an secondary layer of virtual currency added to it – REQ cards (Mister Chief outlines how they work in the video I posted earlier, but for the benefit of doubt I’ll explain them again here). REQ cards are digital trading cards that players will use as a secondary payment system (on top of the energy level costs) to acquire power weapons and vehicles in Warzone matches. In other words, in order to call in a specific power weapon/vehicle in the retail version of Halo 5‘s Warzone mode, three conditions have to be met:
- The player has the sufficient level of energy required to spawn in their chosen power weapon/vehicle.
- The REQ system has time-unlocked the tier that the player’s chosen power weapon/vehicle belongs to.
- The player owns the corresponding REQ card for that power weapon/vehicle.
Upon first glance, these conditions seem pretty fair and straightforward. However, there’s a catch. A couple of catches actually. As an old-school Halo wheelman, the initial worry I have with this system is that unlike the game’s basic weapon cards (which I believe are classed as permanent, unlimited unlocks once earned), Halo 5‘s power weapon and vehicle cards are categorised in the REQ system as single use cards. This means that whenever you order up your chosen vehicle/power weapon of choice, it costs you a card each and every time you want to spawn that item into a match. To put it another way, no card = no vehicle/power weapon. Out of Warthog cards? Sorry Spartan, you’ll have to hoof it on foot. The much bigger worry I have is the fact that packs of REQ cards will be available for players to buy with real world money as microtransactions. Want that Rocket Launcher soldier? Drop and give me twenty…pence.
Yup, we’re finally at the point ladies and gents – the mighty triple-A Halo series is soliciting microtransactions in addition to asking for your £60 upfront. Before you roll your eyes, no, I don’t think microtransactions are an inherently evil concept. Like additional DLC content, microtransactions can be well designed and fairly implemented in a game, usually offering purely cosmetic items for sale, or they are implemented in such a way that they don’t negatively impact the core gameplay experience of you or other players. Free-to-play games like Killer Instinct and Planetside 2 are excellent examples of games that positively use microtransactions in non-invasive ways, and most importantly, they don’t reward the players that do spend their money with unfair advantages over those who don’t.
Microtransactions absolutely have no place in a boxed £60 retail game like Halo though, and their inclusion is just unacceptable in my opinion. We’ll have to see exactly how these REQ cards work in the finished product of course, but from everything 343 has told us so far, it looks like the microtransactions are purely there to act as a tertiary barrier to encourage players to open their digital wallets.
To momentarily play devil’s advocate on 343’s behalf, players are said to be able to earn REQ cards for doing pretty much anything in Halo 5‘s multiplayer modes. Although we haven’t been given any solid info on frequency and drop rates for these cards, for all intents and purposes it sounds like players will be earning them at a steady rate, so I’m pretty confident that they won’t be given out quite as randomly and inconsistently as the engram rewards that the infamously tight-fisted Cryptarch in Destiny doles out (the smug blue-faced cunt). But the fact remains that although 343 have said that players will be continually earning plenty of cards for everything they do in Halo 5, these cards are an intrinsically unreliable resource by design. You won’t be able to 100% guarantee that you’ll have the capability to spawn in a Mongoose for that vital last minute rush on the enemy’s core unless you’ve paid cold hard cash for it.
Not getting the sniper rifle or Wraith you wanted exactly when you wanted it in the previous Halos wasn’t a big deal, as all the weapons and vehicles spawned into the map at once and were available on a first-come first-served basis. Missed out on getting a Banshee? No worries, just keep playing and it’ll respawn back in later. Conversely, Halo 5‘s REQ cards turn the process of getting into vehicles and getting power weapons into a random lucky-dip bag, unless you spend extra money. Why make a system that’s deliberately built to be unreliable in one area otherwise? If players can order up basic weapons at any point without requiring additional consumable cards (providing they meet the energy and time requirements) why can’t we do the same with the vehicles and power weapons?
It just feels completely unnecessary and tacky. In the Warzone match I played, vehicles and power weapons were already rationed out fairly to players with the energy cost and staggered time-based unlock requirements of the REQ system. These are more than adequate safeguards already in place to stop people abusing the system, and it simply looks like the REQ cards have simply been introduced to add another level of unnecessary complexity to the system, and a means of nickel-and-diming desperate players for extra cash. I’ll happily have my concerns proven overly-cynical, ill-founded and wrong – nay, fuck it, I’ll go one further and say I desperately hope I’m proven wrong – but until we get the finished thing in our hands, I’m definitely more than a bit worried.
Anyway, I’m just chuntering at this point, so I’ll climb off my soapbox for now and call it a day. Warzone is very cool, I had a lot fun with it, and I’m looking forward to vegging out playing more when Halo 5 drops at the end of the month. See you on the battlefield Spartan…or something like that, yeah? Oh, you’ve gone. Sadface.