MJOLNIR: A Review of the Halo 5 Multiplayer Updates

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In 2012, 343 Industries released their first entry in the Halo series built from the ground up. Hot on the footsteps of Bungie's nine-year run with the fiery sci-fi FPS, 343 made the multiplayer for Halo 4 a hybrid of the series's existing play and the progression and customisation mechanics popularised by Call of Duty. No one could say Halo 4 wasn't as professionally-produced as any of Bungie's shooters, but by playing copycat to their most fearsome competitor in the genre, 343 made Halo a game that stood out that bit less. Halo 5 felt like a direct response to the derivativeness of 4, seeking purity in its multiplayer mechanics. Providing a refreshing change from other blockbuster shooters at the time, Halo 5 disinfected the series of its perks and loadouts, and ensured that in every match, players had equal abilities and equal access to every weapon on the field. 343 even revamped some of the guns introduced in 4 with unique firing patterns, knocked the pacing of matches up a notch, and added new movement abilities which pushed players to think more about their positioning relative to opponents. The core play of the series was the best it had been since Halo 3 in 2007, but the moulds 343 poured that core play into left something to be desired.

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The matchmaking system often threw players of wildly different skill levels into the same buckets, and Halo 5 somehow had fewer features than Halo 3 did despite coming out seven years later. Additionally, vehicles were absent from all areas of the game except Warzone mode, and even there, jumping into a Warthog or Scorpion required burning a one-time use card only dropped from lootcrates. The good news is that since launch 343 have released eight free updates for the game, constituting one of the most ambitious overhauls of a console shooter I've ever seen. We're not going to discuss the matchmaking system here as its complicated enough to merit its own write-up, but we are going to be putting Arena, Warzone, and other features under the microscope to see what 343 have fixed in the past three years and what they haven't.

Non-Gameplay Modes

Starting with something they haven't fixed, let's talk about Halo 5's Theater mode: the game's built-in suite for capturing clips and screenshots. Halo 3, 4, and Reach allowed you to skip to any point in a playback of a match and start and stop recording whenever you liked. But in Halo 5, you have to scrub through to the rough part of the game you want to record, wait for the highlight you want to capture to occur, open the Xbox menu, and then hit "Record that". There isn't even a timeline to display how far along in the video you are. Theater can only ever render a 30-second clip, nothing over or under, and you usually need to edit that clip down which requires downloading a separate app onto the Xbox One and trimming your footage in there. You get the sense that Theater will forever exist this way because Microsoft doesn't want a camera mode in Halo 5 that clashes with their own capture tools on the Xbox One, even if it could be superior to those tools.

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The new Forge mode, however, is formidable opposition to the level-editing contraptions in other video games. The most powerful building blocks in Forge are the blank geometric shapes which leave most player-created levels looking like something from an early alpha of a game before all the models and textures have been added, but players can now bind any set of objects into a group. Once grouped, the game treats the cluster of objects as a single unit meaning you can now develop new items for Forge when you're unhappy with existing ones, and you can move larger structures like fortresses and concourses across the map without having to shift them piece by piece. You can then share groups of objects online meaning that if you want to whip up a Halo map, you no longer need minutes to painstakingly construct basic architectural features from scratch, you can just download them from other users.

There are also over 1,700 base objects to integrate into maps, including light sources, kill volumes, particle effects, and switches which can activate mechanisms in the level. If that's not enough, you can change the colour schemes of any of the objects or choose from a few different textures for each of them, allowing them to sink into the aesthetics of the environment, and even if the manmade objects can appear a little bland, you can, at last, make organic-looking terrain by clipping together islands, hills, and other natural formations. The controls for this version of Forge are unintuitive; for example, A and Y raise and lower the camera, but this is only because 343 have had to work out how to fit a lot of functionality onto a controller with limited buttons. And yes, it's never going to be as good as a level editor on a PC, but 343 have also released a version of this editor for the PC which even lets you play custom Halo games on your desktop computer. In addition to being a hefty world-building tool, I can't emphasise enough how bananas it is to see a version of the Halo 5 executable running on Windows.

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If you're looking for some proofs-of-concept, some of my favourite community creations include a mode in which one team play as spatulas and try to flip a team full of pancakes out of a frying pan and another where a single player uses a giant in-game D-Pad to unleash a horror monster on everyone else. The thumbnail-based menus in the Halo 5 content browser also make it easier to see at a glance what you're downloading than the list-based menus from Halo 4 did.

Lootboxes

One reason we need to scrutinise games' business models carefully is that the problems these models create tend to be permanent. If a studio misjudges something in a game's play and that gets in the way of our fun, they can apply a patch, but if their monetisation scheme gets in the way of our fun, it's probably intentional, in an effort to get us to spend more cash to turn on the anti-boredom filters. If an aspect of the design is deliberate and profitable then however much it ruins the experience, it's unlikely to be patched. Exhibit A: The lootbox system in Halo 5's Warzone mode.

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This lootbox business model creates a paradox where the developers will balance weapons down to the tiniest difference in variables but will, in certain modes, let you call in a mech you bought with real money to win. Although, it is also worth keeping in mind that with enough play you can unlock lootboxes without spending a penny, instead, buying them with REQ Points. It takes me roughly 10-11 Arena matches to scrape together the RP to buy a Gold Pack, the highest grade of lootbox. The game also does throw some free items and REQ boosts your way if you log in and win specific modes each day, but many boosts are unreliable or aren't nearly as generous as they sound. Because it's so hard to predict the outcome of a match before you've sized up its participants, cards like Gambit: Medal Count or Mission: Victory are coin flips, and even a Rare Arena RP Boost will only give you 500 REQ Points. That's pretty useless when I get around 900 RP from a single match. Some boosts are even designed to be gambles.

Warzone

I mentioned in my initial review of Halo 5 that sometimes in Warzone you'll have to guard a base against intruders and that can lead to minutes of uneventful play, but what's become apparent over time is that this problem is related to the REQ system and lootboxes. The most invigorating play in Warzone has you breaking away from the safety of your capture points and storming enemy bases, but you need to armour yourself with power-ups, vehicles, or devastating weapons to do that which means spending REQ cards. It's not just a pay-to-win mode; it's a pay-to-enjoy mode. You can also see that runaway victories are attainable for any team willing to throw REQ cards at a battle. Getting a power weapon or vehicle makes it easier to rack up kills which unlocks higher levels of weapons and vehicles which let you kill more Spartans, and so on. That being said, there is a silver lining to the REQ system: In a typical match, there's only one of each power weapon or vehicle on a map and taking it deprives the rest of your team of it. But in Warzone, everyone has a private inventory of items and can call in a Banshee or a Rocket Launcher without stealing it away from other players. That alone doesn't make this mode worth playing, but combined with the Warzone Firefight gametype added post-launch, it gets there.

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It took a little time for the difficulty of Warzone Firefight's Player vs. AI match-ups to smooth out. The problem when they launched was not just that they were gruellingly hard but also that some "final rounds" were objectively tougher than others. When Warden Eternal is the most resilient enemy in the game, a round that pits you against three Wardens is harder than a round that pits you against three of anything else. Many final bosses would also spawn inside buildings which made them awkward and tricky to defeat using the bulky endgame vehicles. The game hasn't stopped spawning bosses indoors, and as in regular Warzone, you can lose this mode for no other reason than your teammates not burning enough REQ cards, but with players generally calling in more vehicles these days, I find myself winning nine out of ten Firefight matches on Heroic difficulty. Unlike in standard Warzone, no one can ever call in a power item in a way that throws a wrench in your works either; if someone spawns a Wraith, your reaction is never an exhausted groan, it's "Oh good, a Wraith is here to help".

There was an old issue involving the interface in Firefight hanging when you were trying to breeze through it, but that's now fixed, although I have two remaining complaints about the menus. One of them is that they use outlines of weapons and vehicles to represent those tools and it's often hard to immediately spot the item you want just based on its outline. The other is that you can't favourite weapons which would be useful when sometimes I have to scroll past seven Battle Rifles to click on the type of BR that will help me. The scoring is also a little wonky: Only players who recently got a hit in on an enemy will be credited with the takedown when that enemy is killed. Picture this: You deplete most of a boss's health bar but then die, and while you're waiting to respawn, your teammates get the last few shots on it. They're awarded the takedown and a few thousand points, and you get nothing. This happens a lot.

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But whatever complaints I may have, Firefight is better now than its ever been. The Firefight Matchmaking in Halo Reach made it easier to get a game together and made sure that matches couldn't drag on for hours. Warzone Firefight in Halo 5 provides similarly brief games with allies that are a button press away, but through the REQ system also makes sure that there's a variety to the game that prevents it dragging. It's not twenty minutes of spraying Battle Rifle rounds at any enemy you see; you start off with your standard weapons and then get to use more impactful weapons and vehicles as they unlock. Over the course of the game's updates, Warzone has also received five free maps, the worst of which is Temple because its undulating hills can make it impossible to see where new Covenant and Prometheans have spawned in. But the best of them is Skirmish at Darkstar which is oddly picturesque with its sheet white snow and twisting steel beams.

Arena

When I first got my hands on Halo 5, the gametype I was most impressed with was Strongholds, a capture-the-points mode in which three bases are spread across a map, and a team can only score by simultaneously controlling two of them. Unless I'm mistaken, 343 made it so that Strongholds became a more common fixture of Arena a little while after release and it was the right call because this mode provides so many tactical options. When you're controlling two points, there's a risk/reward scenario where you must decide whether you will push for the third. If you can pull it off, your score will increase faster, and your opponents will have to retake more zones to score, but you risk leaving one of your currently held territories vulnerable. Four players and three territories force you to have at least one point with just a single Spartan on it, which also means that losing teams are always in with a fighting chance of taking a base.

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A typical scenario is both teams holding the outermost points on the map but breaking their backs vying for control of the central location, then one team realising that the other has left their side point unprotected and capturing it. The mode far surpasses King of the Hill, Halo's classic capture-the-points gametype. While King of the Hill had teams focusing all their firepower on one spot, players must now answer questions about when and where to spread that firepower. This question has so many answers because, as we've discovered over time, any position in Halo 5 can be assailed from multiple directions; this is a more camping-proof experience than any Halo before. Take this example of the blue base from the map Truth, a remake of Halo 2's Midship:

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Players may exit the base through the front exit, and that exit also provides an opening that opponents can shoot into from across the map. Ramps on either side of the base offer the most direct entryways, while a player may also enter or exit by clambering onto the platform in the front right of the module or clambering up through the hole in the back. A grav lift can also rocket a player up into the area from below.

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It may seem unfair to ask a four-person team to defend a base this open while also running offensive operations on the map, but line-of-sight rules and the unique movement mechanics of Halo 5 create some helpful trade-offs. Firing right through the port in the front of the base is usually not enough to kill an opponent without some support from your team because opposing Spartans can quickly take cover. The side ramps allow a direct route into the base which gives you a sustained capacity to fire on your opponents, but they're also the sections opposing players are most likely to have an eye on. The platform in the front right might let you get a drop on your opponents, but it can be hard to tell from a distance if someone is hiding in there and you do have to clamber up to it which leaves you unable to fire for a second. You get a similar trade-off trying to climb into the base from below. Then there's the grav lift which will let you ambush enemies and fly into the centre of the area without having to stop to clamber, but you won't be able to control your flight path into the air, and other players can easily predict your arc.

There aren't just many entrances into any area of the map but also many ways to enter an area, and each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The multiple advantages mean there's always another strategy you can try to break a stalemate, while the disadvantages mean there's always another way opponents can counter your attempts to converge on them. I've provided a couple more examples below of how open map design and the "clamber" mechanics introduced in Halo 5 lead to rich tactical possibilities:

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The only element of Arena which clashes with its design philosophy is the Overshield, one of Halo's oldest items, but one I'd argue that it's time to retire from ranked play. The other weapons and even the other power-up, Active Camo, demand you handle them with at least a little skill to receive their benefits. Sprint about the place with Active Camo and you'll nullify its invisibility effect; try to use a Rocket Launcher at short range and you'll kill yourself. But the Overshield gives you two energy shields with no inherent downside and will forgive any mistake; any Spartan wielding it can display poor accuracy, little spatial awareness, or lacking strategic thinking and still score a kill because it will soak up clips full of bullets. Unlike most power weapons, the locations of the Overshield and Active Camo are also not marked on the map, nor is it announced when they respawn, meaning they're often awarded randomly to whoever stumbles across them rather than to the players who win a tug of war over them. Some of the lesser power weapons also don't receive a spawn marker.

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However, while we're used to griping about games and feeling like the developer isn't listening, 343 have collaborated with the community to ensure weapons award kills only to sure-sighted players with an understanding of which gun to use when. Among other changes, the Assault Rifle, Frag Grenade, Grenade Launcher, SMG, Carbine, Beam Rifle, and Fuel Rod Cannon now require more accuracy to use. The Battle Rifle is better tuned to be used as a mid-range weapon while the DMR is more vicious as a long-range weapon and less useful as a short-range one. The Rail Gun takes longer to charge but lets you hold its charge for twice the time, the Energy Sword no longer provides an increase to movement speed, and Splinter Grenades can no longer be tossed out in a panic for a cheap one-hit kill.

In coordinating teams around these weapons, the automated player barks have proved invaluable. We know that the squad that talks amongst themselves outstrip the squad that doesn't, but communication and Xbox LIVE are not good bedfellows. Few people have microphones, trying to talk and play at the same time can be stressful, and verbal harassment remains rampant. So it's nice to have the player characters themselves taking over that role, automatically telling you when they pick up power weapons, when an enemy who could do a lot of damage is getting close, and when you've accidentally fired on them.

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Halo 5 also has a thick layer of visual feedback on your performance. Larger medal icons appear at the bottom of the screen, and your assists and kills are highlighted in the match log on the left of the HUD, making it so you can keep track of your accomplishments without having your vision obscured. The "Perfect Kill" medal also provides some welcome analysis of and reward for accurate shooting, dropping whenever you kill someone with a precision weapon (e.g. A Magnum or a DMR) only using headshots. Halo Waypoint still carries a full game history and breakdown of your weapon use, medals, and commendations to nerd out over post-game. But as was the case at launch, the commendation system can't sate the appetite of the hungriest of players.

You can complete all tiers of most commendations soon after starting your multiplayer career. Many of them require you to perform a certain type of kill only 210 times to complete all five tiers; this applies, for example, to the perfect kills commendation, the CQC kills commendation, and the headshot kills commendation. I'm nowhere near an expert at the game, but after over 920 Arena games, I have over 470 perfect kills, over 1,700 CQC kills, and 3,500 headshot kills. Anyone with interest in the multiplayer beyond its first couple of months passed these finishing lines aeons ago. The issue extends to the Warzone commendations; beating all tiers of "Grunt Slayer" requires killing 210 Grunts, and after 200 matches, I've killed over 1,500; the "Crawler Slayer" commendation asks for the heads of 210 Crawlers when I've taken out more than 2,500. And after clearing a commendation tier, the best you can hope is that it will pay out a nominally useful REQ pack and 1000 XP, but I find individual matches yield over 3000 XP, so that's chump change. Keep in mind, nothing in this system disturbs the matches themselves, but it would be nice to have more long-term goals to aim at and juicier rewards when we meet those goals. My desire for this is especially strong because Halo has been trying to get commendations right since Halo Reach in 2010 and because Halo 5 is intended to stand up to years of play.

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I would emphasise that mistakes like those in the commendation system are the exception rather than the rule. 343 have otherwise gone above and beyond in ensuring that Halo 5 is an enduring experience. They got their priorities correct in adding Big Team Battle as part of the game's first content update. It may not host clashes on the scale of Warzone, but it is a way to be able to drive Ghosts, Scorpions, Warthogs, and much more without ever burning a REQ card. It's the division of the playlists into social and ranked blocks that has allowed for the introduction of more playful and theatrical modes such as Big Team Battle and Fiesta without corrupting the stats of "serious" Halo. The developers have also added seven new maps to Arena, completely free. You won't find all of them in rotation in Team Arena, but they're all out there in some form. My personal favourite is Riptide, if only for its beauty. In it, rolling dunes invade a glistening human machine facility painted with oranges and aquas. It's like an abandoned, HD incarnation of one of the levels from Brink.

343 have also revived the Oddball and Assault modes of Halos past. Only Oddball has remained part of ranked play, with Assault being pushed out to reside in the social playlists, but that's no monumental loss as Assault is a cross between Capture the Flag and Oddball anyway. A small detail that makes a big difference is that the Oddball is no longer a one-hit kill weapon meaning that the ball holder must be more diligently defended. Players quickly came to understand that sometimes it's dropping the ball to fend off attackers which lets you score more points in the end. For a while, this balance of new maps, game modes, and weapon tuning meant Arena was practically perfect, but more recently 343 have dropped a fly into that ointment.

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As of the start of the July-August 2018 season, the developers rewrote the Team Arena playlist so that players don't spawn with an Assault Rifle, can't Spartan Charge, can't Ground Pound, and can't use their radars to pick up a player unless that enemy is firing. They presumably flipped this switch so that ranked players rely more on their pistol and their aim, awarding accurate headshotting above all else, but there are so many "Boom headshot" shooters already, and the features 343 removed are what made Halo more textured than most other FPSs. Loading in with an Assault Rifle and a Magnum made it so that firing felt more varied and players were rewarded for using the right tool at the right range. The motion tracker made it so that you were less likely to die because you happened to end up in front of an opposing player by dumb luck. The Ground Pound and Spartan Charge were unique attacks with a lot of oomph that allowed smart players a way to simultaneously bridge gaps to enemies and do damage. Now all of that is in the bin. There are still playlists with all the original Halo 5 features, but they don't have all the traditional Halo gametypes. The closest to the "core" experience you can get is the Slayer hoppers, and I'm dumbfounded that there's no button in Halo 5 which just gives you the Halo experience.

Conclusion

While it was never appropriate for Halo 5 to have launched with the drought of content and features it did, 343 have made a lack of maps and modes the last complaint anyone could have about this game. I'd say that, matchmaking aside, if the studio could purge the non-cosmetic microtransactions from the title and give us a playlist that provides the essential Halo experience, it would be bowling me over every time I play. However, not only are the lootboxes not going to be removed, but the microtransactions are likely why Halo 5's extra content exists in the first place. Because there are paid items in the game, we know that the "free" updates aren't really free; the community has collectively funded them. So if you want to assess the final state of Halo 5's modes, you have to weigh up whether Forge, Firefight, the twelve new maps, the new gametypes, and everything else are worth having a mode or two where player-purchased items are the ringleaders. From my perspective, it's a fair trade, although I'm also someone who plays enough Halo that I get regular card packs without opening my wallet. Whether you think it's worth it will likely be down to how much you value what's in those REQ packs and how much time you want to dedicate to the multiplayer.

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You could argue that Halo's old DLC model was more reasonable to the consumer. In instalments past, players who wanted to stack extra content on top of their £40/$60 purchase could buy map packs, and people who didn't want to weren't burdened with any additional work or costs. Now, even if you don't want the extra content, you're still paying for it through microtransactions, grinding for lootboxes, or by knowing you'll fall behind in Warzone. However, you can avoid Warzone and still play a Halo that has more stuffed into it than any previous. Additionally, distributing maps to the whole community has kept populations on those maps high when in previous entries, player numbers were often so low for each map pack that you'd end up exclusively squaring off against the same people or not being able to find a match. In Halo 5's business model the whole community is unified. Unified under this farce where someone can buy thirty-four REQ packs and decimate your team in Warzone, but also unified under the gorgeous maps, flexible play options, and trailblazing creation kits that have been added to this experience. All told, Halo 5 has been an enormous success. Thanks for reading.

Notes

1. Credit for the Nuketown Forge map goes to RPGALLAGHER.

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