The Halo 5 multiplayer beta is in full swing on Xbox One. As a fan of the series since 2001, I have to say that it makes an interesting first impression.
Right from the off, it's clear that 343 Industries are dead-set on cornering the Esport market in terms of the 4v4 arena gametype. Spartans now cockily swagger into the maps like quarterbacks or WWE wrestlers, with matches portrayed as if they're bona fide sports broadcasts rather than training simulations. It's a weird shift in tone for a series rooted in hard Sci-Fi, and frankly, I'm not sure whether I like it.
What I do like, however, is that Halo 5 feels like Halo... only much, much faster.
Be in no doubt, Halo 5 is still very much a Halo game; perhaps a little like a supercharged version of Halo 2. Two teams of four scrabble to secure power weapons to dominate their opponents, skilfully pushing the advantage thanks to recharging shields and health before falling back to lick their wounds. Familiar weapons like the Assault Rifle, DMR, Battle Rifle, SMG, Sniper Rifle and Magnum all feel familiar, robust and powerful, dominating their specific ranges, firing in their own unique cadence and issuing a snarling report thanks to the franchise's trademark superb sound design. This time, though, you'll need to source new kit on the fly thanks to the absence of Halo 4's custom loadouts.
The maps, too, feel reassuringly Halo, one a remake of Halo 2's hectic Midship level with a large open central atrium surrounded by flank-worthy antechambers, the other a compact military facility with shorter sight lines and numerous opportunities to steal a march on your foes. There's also a lot of bloom, as per usual.
However, as mentioned, the experience now feels significantly faster; more nervy, muscular and slippery than its forebears. Partly this is down to the visuals, with a solid 60fps frame rate lending the action a beefy surge of adrenaline, but the gameplay has changed in some interesting ways. Kill time has been brought right down, as shields drop faster and stay down longer than before (the addition of a dedicated health bar thankfully lets you keep a close eye on your regenerating HP, one of the smallest yet most welcome changes since the franchise abandoned health packs after Combat Evolved), while your weapons feel even more deadly at longer ranges. Melee, pleasingly, now feels even more brutal with a satisfying 'thwack' every time a punch hits home.
Though still not as fast as many FPS protagonists, Spartans can freely sprint and charge at a decent clip, just fast enough to quickly engage after a respawn yet slow enough to have to skilfully fight your way out of a losing battle rather than just running away. The net result is that Halo 5 feels pacier and and more urgent than its more considered predecessors.
And then we have the thrusters.
Titanfall has ushered in a new age of manoeuvrable and vertical shooters, and its impact can be clearly felt here. Spartans can now access a powerful dash move that can add extra oomph to a jump or trigger a useful slide that's perfect for evading grenades or breaking sniper sight lines. Even more dramatically, you can now hover for a short period by aiming in mid-air, or even ground-pound an unwary opponent below. A lengthy cooldown timer stops this skill from dominating the experience and keeps the gameplay grounded, but personally, it still feels slightly clunky and limited for what's been marketed as some sort of 'game-changing' mechanic.
There's potential here, but 343 will have to find a balance between making thrusters relevant and powerful without completely changing the feel of the game. That's what a beta's for, I guess.
What is more of a game-changing mechanic, mind you, is Smart-Scoping. Or Smart-Linking, depending on your preference. Halo long resisted the urge to lock step with the Aim Down Sights Brigade and has found a nifty compromise that satisfies our uncontrollable urge to pump the left trigger without fully embracing ADS wholesale. Holding the LT increases zoom and tightens your field of view, bringing up your weapon to fill more of the screen in the process.
You'll get a better view of whatever you're pointing at, able to look through the weapon's integrated scope or bringing up a handy holographic augmented reality reticle if the gun isn't equipped with one.
Scope-less weapons handle much the same whether you're Smart Scoping or not, while scoped guns differ in terms of accuracy and grouping as per usual. This means that deciding whether to use it comes down to your engagement range and personal preference, while the lack of radar and being 'de-scoped' by any incoming fire balances the ability nicely. It's a surprisingly excellent and lightly-implemented mechanic that feels second-nature after a handful of matches; there if you want to sight on a distant enemy, or freely ignored if you prefer squeezing off perfectly-timed magnum blasts from the hip.
This being a beta, there's plenty of time and plenty of work left to go. Hitboxes might need a little tweaking, while the matchmaking occasionally hangs after finding seven players in a sadly all-too-familiar throwback to the Master Chief Collection. I hope that experience gained during the beta will help factor into future MCC patches, perhaps naively. An annoying 'flinch' mechanic is being removed as a matter of course, while 343 apparently plans to assess the bro-tactular Esports tone and find a happy medium. While they're at it, they may need need to nerf the Plasma Sword, since your newfound freedom of movement and increased speed turns the highly contested power weapon into an invincible dervish of pure destruction.
And, of course, the small-team Esports-centric slippery arena deathmatch isn't why many people play Halo these days. The franchise gradually evolved into a crazy physics-driven vehicular madhouse, and we hope that the big team gametypes don't suffer from a lack of attention. What's here, however, is a lot of fun and impressively robust for an early beta test.
Except that it isn't a test. 343 recently revealed the Halo 5 pre-order tiers, allowing gamers to spend up to $249.99 on a silly special edition with a statue that hasn't even been designed yet.
This was not a classy move. It's annoying that what should feel like a technical test is now even more of a barefaced marketing exercise than it already was, but there's more at stake here.
Considering that the Master Chief Collection released broken, 343 aren't in a position to ask for our money up-front. They need to earn it this time. They need to produce and polish a sensational game that works, then prove that it does to the press and YouTubers before you part with a single penny. What I'm saying, dear reader, is that your money is the only way you can really make a difference when it comes to showing companies that you won't stand for another mess -- and that you can be a huge fan of a franchise without blindly throwing money at it.
Halo 5 feels like Halo, only slicker, more vertical and more brutal. There's much to be excited about, but for now, let 343 put their money where there mouth is before you do the same.
If you purchased Halo: The Master Chief Collection, you can download and play the Halo 5: Guardians Multiplayer Beta until January 18th. Let us know what you make of it!