Video by IGN. Used under Fair Use.
So at Halo Fest last week 343 Industries lifted the curtain on Halo 5’s multiplayer and the Internet raised a collective eyebrow. Or at least, that’s what I did. The Internet both spewed vitriolic hate at anyone who would listen, and triumphantly proclaimed the indisputable awesomeness of the upcoming game. But that’s what the Internet always does when faced with something new, so I like to think that public opinion is usually more in the middle ground. The extremists’ opinions are heard the loudest, but deep down everyone is excited and a little wary.
Us fans all love Halo, but we’re worried about what it’s growing into. After all, its parents went through a divorce, it just hit its teenage years, and now it’s having a bit of an identity crisis. After spending its early years as the cool kid that everyone else wanted to be like, Halo has had a hard time adjusting to sharing the spotlight. It’s dressing up like other games, wearing superfluous accessories, saying to anyone who will listen, “Look at me! I’m still cool! I’m still hip! Look at how modern I am! Don’t you still love me like you used to?” “Yes, Halo. We do love you. We’ve been saying for years that we love you. We just want you to be you again.”
It seems this message has finally started to sink in. Halo 5 has shown up at the schoolyard with its old style and its old toys placed front and center, but unfortunately it still brought along some new things it got from the other kids, and I’m not convinced that tossing all of it into the sandbox is going to work.
On the positive side, Halo 5 has gotten over a lot of the blatant Call of Duty envy exhibited by Halo 4. Custom loadouts, ordnance drops, random weapon distribution, and scope kick have all been cast aside in favor of classic Halo design. All players spawn with the same starting weapons, weapons are placed on the map, power weapons respawn in the same place on the map at regular intervals, and you are forced out of your scope when shot. It’s nice to see Halo once again showing off the features that it made it great in the first place instead of blatantly mimicking the other kids on the block.
When the more modern Call of Duty usurped Halo’s position as the most popular guy around, Halo’s response was to remake itself into something resembling Call of Duty, but in so doing it became something it’s not, and it drove away the people who still liked it. Halo 5 looks like it has learned from this mistake. Instead of trying to be modern by imitating what others are doing, it’s looking inward and trying to modernize itself. It has returned to its original design formula, but it has added three new features to make itself distinct: Sprint, Spartan Abilities, and Aiming Down Sights. I have different opinions about each of these, so let’s look at them one at a time.
I like how Sprint works in Halo 5. Unlike in other shooters (and previous Halo games), Sprint is now saddled with a handicap: your shields do not recharge while sprinting. This is a gigantic change that introduces a risk vs. reward element that the mechanic has never had before. Running around as fast as possible now makes you very easy to kill, meaning that judicious use of the ability will become a skill players can cultivate. Anything that makes Halo more skill oriented fits wonderfully into its classic design and is therefore a good thing.
I’m not sure how I feel about Spartan Abilities because they represent a bit of conundrum at this time. On the positive side, they have replaced Armor Abilities (which never worked particularly well in Halo), but on the negative side, we don’t really know how they’re different from their predecessors. Sure, we can see in the video that Spartan Abilities are more subtle – they include things like dodging and ledge grabbing instead of invisibility or invincibility – but I’m less concerned about what they do and more concerned about how they are distributed. If we can only choose one Spartan Ability at a time, then they will mess up the game just as much as Armor Abilities did. Each player running around with a different ace in the hole destroyed game balance and clashed with Halo’s design. But if Spartan Abilities are a set of new built-in skills which every player has, then I think Halo 5 has taken a step in the right direction. This would make them an organic part of the game instead of a feature tacked onto an existing formula. I sincerely hope that they work like this, because if they don’t, then they are just Armor Abilities with a new name.
Aiming Down Sights is clearly Halo 5’s biggest change, and once again, I have mixed feelings. One of the core design pillars of Halo is the ability to maintain perfect accuracy while moving at normal speed, and ADS is literally the exact opposite of that. It forces you to sacrifice movement speed for weapon accuracy. At least, that’s how it normally works, but in Halo 5 ADS appears to be a 100% aesthetic change. 343 have simply replaced zooming in with ADS. Mechanically, the game remains identical to the way it has always been. I find that a little comforting, but it nonetheless begs the question: if ADS doesn’t change anything, why was it added at all? Why not just keep the same system we’ve had for the past 14 years?
The only answer I can provide is that ADS just looks more modern. All the other shooters from Call of Duty, to Titanfall, to Destiny use ADS, so now Halo wants to look like it’s doing it too. Despite all the steps it has taken towards being itself again, it still can’t entirely shake the compulsion to keep up with everyone else – to try to look cool. Still, I suppose I should be thankful that the game on the whole looks so promising. In fact, I’d say there’s only one thing about it that I downright hate: the way Spartans act.
The Spartans in Halo 5 behave like arrogant thugs. Just look at that vignette at the end of the match when Red Team won. The Spartans are strutting about, arms spread wide like a high-school jock fresh off the field. They pump their fists, slap hands, and do their best to act cool. Spartans don’t behave like that. Spartans are about nobility and heroism. They do what they do because it needs to be done, not to stroke their own egos. They don’t act like anything. They are Spartans. Halo 5’s Spartans don’t embody this spirit. In fact, they’re a bit like the franchise as a whole.
Halo never needed to act like it was cool. Halo was cool. Spartans didn’t have to act like they were badass. Spartans were badass. In the past there was no need for false bravado, but now there is. Now Halo has to convince everyone that it still has it. Now it throws a full scale pep rally for itself so it can saunter on stage, arms spread wide, and act like it’s still on top. Maybe it does look like its old self, but there’s a shift in soul, a loss of that intrinsic aura that made Halo so great, and its Spartans reflect that change. Master Chief was always the soldier we needed him to be, but can Halo 5 be the game we need it to be?