Halo 5: Guardians, double jump

Plenty has changed for FPS multiplayer in 2014, the ancient grudge match between pistol, rifle, shotgun and sniper rifle augmented by taller, more tiered arenas, new methods of traversal, and an array of special powers. Even the pantheon of videogame guns has admitted new members and attachments, the likes of Titanfall strapping the Triple Threat and Arc Cannon to its titular mechs, and Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare upgrading sights and grenades to tag enemies in lurid red.  Halo 5: Guardians , meanwhile, elides the series’ time-worn arsenal with a suite of fluid locomotion tricks, while simultaneously also reverting the missteps of Halo 4’s multiplayer.

There is much that’s familiar, then, but there’s much still to draw from a template that once defined the peak of the multiplayer console shooter. The infamous pistol, for instance, remains a joy to use. Wrapped in a vastly more elaborate model, it’s as murderous as ever against unshielded targets, a useful tool to finish opponents whether you switch to it after emptying a rifle into a player’s shield during a close-up scrap or take an opportunistic potshot across a map.

The Assault Rifle is once again a smart warm up option, wearing the target down as you hop over return fire, but no match at mid range for the Battle Rifle’s three round bursts best aimed at an opponent’s torso, so that the recoil jolts the final shot up to the head. And frag grenades are still comically oversized rubber pineapples that will strip away a shield if you can gauge the physics just right and second-guess your victim’s evasive patterns.

The rhythms these weapons create are buttressed by a familiar selection of modes and metagame elements, some of which even predate Xbox 360. What’s more, 343 has retreated from Halo 4’s flirtations with unlockable abilities and perks. Progression is now entirely cosmetic, with prematch tactical customisation in the modes we’ve sampled limited to a choice of generic loadouts. More exotic weapons and power-ups such as Active Camo and the Overshield are found on the map, though drop-off points are highlighted by introductory cinematics and players are notified 30 seconds in advance of spawns.

As likely to please longterm fans is the confirmation that hipfire carries no penalty in Halo 5  and that descoping is back. It’s doubly relevant now that all weapons support a Smart Scope mode, which generated much consternation when gameplay footage was leaked, though it’s little more than a glorified visor zoom that doesn’t affect your mobility, unlike aiming down sights in COD. As such, old habits soon reassert themselves during rounds of Slayer on Truth, a reworking of Halo 2 ’s Midship, players circling the central platforms with one eye glued on the minimap and ears pricked for the glutinous smack of a plasma grenade finding its mark.

If the gunplay hews close to old patterns, then, the same cannot be said for the Spartans’ expanded moveset, though the playing field is level for all. One of this  series’ strengths has always been the thrill of escaping a firefight, manoeuvring behind cover by instinct until the frantic distress calls of a punctured shield elapse, and Halo 5 unfolds at an even more frantic pace than usual thanks to 343’s introduction of so-called Spartan Abilities, which provoke immediate comparison with Advanced Warfare.
“The abilities add flavour; they add layers to the experience, but they’re not required”
The least intriguing but most significant is unlimited sprinting, which 343 co-founder Frank O’Connor insists isn't the get out of jail free card it is in other shooters: while sprinting, your shield doesn't recharge, so headlong flight is only worthwhile if it takes you somewhere safe. Sprinting also fills a power bar that can be converted into a slide move or a charging melee strike, the latter of which kills instantly if delivered from behind.

There’s an intentional double jump that, in concert with the ability to grab ledges, makes it easier to move to a map’s upper levels at pace, and you can also hover in midair by squeezing the left trigger, while jet dodges allow for snappy manoeuvring during duels. Most controversially of all, you can hold crouch while jumping to line up a ground pound, which is deadly to anything directly beneath it and inflicts modest splash damage. It encapsulates the tweaks at Halo 5’s heart, being a means of quick traversal that doubles as a devastating offensive move, but it’s by no means unstoppable miss and the fuss of your arrival should ensure swift retribution.

The studio is conscious that such tweaks may horrify returning fans, and is quick to assert that the new abilities merely build on what already works for the franchise. “The goal was to integrate the mobility into the map design, so you have a lot more control and freedom,” says creative director Tim Longo , a recent Microsoft Studios hire and veteran of Star Wars: Republic Commando . “And then the offensive abilities, like Spartan charge and ground pound, are for fantasy fulfilment as well as being good finishers.”

The designers have been careful not to overwrite Halo’s feel, Longo says. “We had various ideas early in development, and the ones that made it were those that gelled with the [established mechanics]. We didn't want to inundate players with too many things, but rather give them depth. So you say, ‘Oh, I’ll try this one this time, and maybe in the next game I’ll do it more’.”

Studio head Josh Holmes is equally quick to assuage fears: “The abilities add flavour; they add layers to the experience, but they’re not required, so you can start playing the game as you’ve always played  Halo .”

It will be many months before such claims can be verified, but our close-fought battles on the beta’s three launch-day maps do hit plenty of familiar notes. None of the abilities seem to dominate: to counter the risk of aerial ambushes, say, there’s a short wind-up on the ground pound that leaves you vulnerable for a crucial second, plus a dynamic chatter system to alert you to the threats around you. Both prove invaluable on Empire, a new rooftop map that overlooks a raging urban insurrection, and whose ramps, pipes and platforms create plenty of opportunities for dive-bombing Spartans. The comparatively level Crossfire pays the new moves less mind, and old-fashioned close-quarters battles soon erupt inside the fortresses to either flank.

If the Spartan Abilities feel unobtrusive at this stage, however, that could reflect the beta’s focus on four-on-four duelling, and that  Halo  has always been an agile shooter. More heavily populated spats may be more chaotic, and 343 has plenty to prove on this count: as accomplished as Halo 4’s on-foot gunplay was, it couldn’t touch Bungie’s work for larger-scale battles and vehicular warfare. Still, there’s lots of time to introduce and perfect such modes before Halo 5’s expected release window of autumn 2015.

How sporting
Microsoft is pushing eSports in a big way with Halo: Xbox Live’s Halo Channel serves, among other things, as a platform for Twitch streams and stat tracking. It also wants eSports to be friendlier, an agenda reflected in Halo 5’s multiplayer interface.

Competitive Skill Ratings are now visible on the front-end, and the top two of the game’s seven ranking tiers are Pro and Semi-pro, the idea being that “you don’t have to be a pro to feel like a pro”, according to creative director Tim Longo.

A less cosmetic touch is the addition of a Spectator mode for every multiplayer match, so that new players can learn from watching the best.

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